Haunted History of John R. Drish House in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

The history of Dr. John R. Drish House, or simply Drish House, dates back to 1837 when it was built at the center of a 450-acre plantation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Drish was a physician from Virginia and had settled down in Tuscaloosa in 1822, becoming one of the town’s earliest settler. Apart from his job as a physician, Drish was a prominent homebuilder Tuscaloosa, hiring many slave artisans for the plasterwork projects in town. In 1835, Drish married a wealthy widow, Sarah Owen Mckinney.

Completed in 1837, the house featured a two-story high Doric porticoes (porch) to the front and rear, with pilasters on all four sides of the building. The Greek Revival-style home underwent a massive remodelling during the 1940s and 50s, adding a distinct Italianate style to the building. A brick tower was added to the front while the columns were changed to the Ionic order. Brackets were also added to the overhangs while cast iron side porches were added to the sides.

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Drish House in 1905 | Image credits: Alabama Pioneers

After the death of John Drish and Sarah Drish in 1867 and 1884 respectively, the mansion changed hands several times until it was purchased by Tuscaloosa Board of Education. From 1906 to 1925, Drish House operated as Jemison School. It was later sold to Charles Turner’s Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company as a parts warehouse. Over the years, most of the building’s elaborate facade had been eroded. The side porches were also removed to make way for space.

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Drish House as Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company | Image credits: Walker Evans

In 1940, the historic building was purchased by the Southside Baptist Church for a mere sum of $4,000, the equivalent of $79,000 in 2021. A sanctuary and Sunday school building was added on the sides of the main house. When the church became defunct in 1995, attempts were made to demolition the building for new developments. This prompted Heritage Commission of Tuscaloosa County to take over Drish Mansion in hopes for restoring it one day.

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Drish House after a demolition of the addition on the building’s eastern front | Image credits: Alabama Architecture, University of Alabama

Although spared from demolition, the abandoned building languished unmaintained for over a decade. In 2006, an evaluation by the Alabama Historical Commission determined that it was in a state of disrepair, prompting the committee to add the building to the “Places in Peril” listing. Ownership of the property was transferred to Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society in 2007. Over the next few years, the not-for-profit group worked to stablize the structure and renovate the interior. In 2012, Nika McCool of Past Horizons LLC purchased the historic mansion and continued on the restoration project.

Today, the restored Drish House, a listee on the National Register of Historic Places since 2015, operates as an event venue, hosting numerous social affairs from weddings to musical performances. However, it has also gained a notorious reputation as one of the most haunted sites in Tuscaloosa.

Ghosts at Drish House

Over the years, numerous paranormal events have occurred in the mansion. Former and current owners of Drish House believe that the spirits of its original occupants have never left.

After the death of Dr. John Drish, servant claimed to have heard a disembodied cry and sounds of someone tumbling down the stairs. While most historical records noted that John Drish had fell down the stairs and passed away in an accident, some believe that he had leaped off the second floor balcony in a bizarre suicide.

Many also say that Sarah Drish haunts the mansion, hoping that someone would fulfil her dying wish of having the same candles that burned at John Drish’s funeral be burned at her wake. While the candles burnt at John Drish’s funeral were kept, they were never found until months after Sarah Drish’s death.

Soapy Jones, a current employee at Drish House, reported hearing the voice of a young lady running down the stairs. She is believed to be Katherine, daughter of the Drish family. Legend says that her father had gotten rid of her lover and married her to a local business magnate. After their short-lived marriage, Katherine returned to the Drish House where she was locked in her bedroom.

Death Lights in the Tower

In 1969, author Kathryn Tucker Windham published a book titled 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, detailing thirteen ghost stories that have happened in Alabama. While the thirteen stories, which included the Ghost of the Angry Architect, The Face in the Courthouse Window, The Return of the Ruined Banker, and The Dancing Spirit at the Wall, were all sourced from popular folklore, Jeffrey was a personal encounter that Windham had faced in her family home in Selma. The spirit of Jeffrey supposedly manifested during a Ouija board session and was captured on camera during the night.

The book’s second chapter “Death Lights in the Tower” talks about a mysterious phantom fire that occured on Drish House tower after the passing of Sarah Drish in 1884. The chapter recounts the story of a local who spotted a fire burning in the front tower and reported it to the local fire station. Yet, when the firefighters arrived, there was no evidence of fire.

“According to tales about her home, it is her frustrated ghost who returns to alarm the neighborhood by burning candles in the tower, candles which she wanted to be burned around her coffin at her death.”

– 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey

Over the next few years, the phantom fires appeared repeatedly, only to extinguish on its own. Many believe that it was the spirit of Sarah Drish playing a prank on unsuspecting locals, while others believe that it may have been the works of a runaway slave who was burned to death on the tower.

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