Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Governor’s ghost gains ghoulish grip

Gov. Daniel G. Fowle, the first N.C. governor to occupy the Executive Mansion and the first to die under its roof. It’s said his spirit still floats about the house.
Gov. Daniel G. Fowle, the first N.C. governor to occupy the Executive Mansion and the first to die under its roof. It’s said his spirit still floats about the house. N.C. Archives

In April of 1891, Gov. Daniel G. Fowle complained of sudden indigestion, a fierce malady that sent the stout and mustachioed statesman to his custom-made bed.

He rested there until shortly before midnight, when he frantically pressed the electric button to summon his family – once, twice and then a third time.

“I feel faint,” he gasped, head dropping fatally to his pillow.

News of the governor’s death spread quickly across Raleigh, reaching the Capital Club at 1 a.m., where it cast a gloom over the merriment of the Domino Ball. “The notes of the music were hushed,” the N&O reported, “and the revelers with awe-stricken faces stopped their gayeties.”

But Fowle’s spirit never truly shook free of Raleigh, nor the Executive Mansion he was the first to occupy, nor the ornate wooden bed he had specially fashioned for his stockinged feet. His ghost has menaced at least two governors since he expired in that place of power, a political haunt who died with his work unfinished.

“There’s a knock at the mansion and it isn’t at the front door,” wrote Gov. Bob Scott in 1970. “It’s not the water pipes, either. While I don’t believe in ghosts, someone speculated that it just might be Governor Fowle on the prowl.”

Fowle came from little Washington, where he swam, fished and sailed in the Pamlico River. A rugged scholar, he graduated from Princeton with a knack for speechmaking and debate. The future beckoned in Raleigh, where he opened a law office that garnered $64 in its first year – a minuscule sum even for 1854.

He rose to the top of Democratic Party circles and won the governor’s chair in 1888, pledging to regulate the railroads and pitching the idea for a women’s school that became UNC-Greensboro. Midway through his term, Fowle moved his family into the new Victorian mansion fronting on Blount Street, which he would occupy only four months.

On the day of his deadly stomach ache, members of the council of state paused their discussion on a question of law until Fowle could recuperate and join them the following morning. Shocked by his death at age 60, doctors guessed at neuralgia or apoplexy, and Raleigh ushered him to Oakwood Cemetery, thinking his soul to be at rest.

But it wasn’t.

Eight decades later, he rattled another governor. Scott, though a Democrat, had dared move the bed where Fowle choked out his final breath.

“Gov. Scott had very particular tastes and wanted something more modern,” wrote Patty Wilson in “Haunted North Carolina.”

Scott’s details of the haunting appeared thus in the N&O’s pages:

“One evening, Mrs. Scott and I were in the bedroom reading, and we heard this strange knocking. It seemed to be coming from the wall near where the headboard of Gov. Fowle’s bed had stood. The knocking had a rather unusual cadence, like bouncing tennis balls from a high distance.

“After the first knock, there was a pause of several seconds,” he continued. “Then there was a second knock and a pause, then the third knock. Finally the pauses at the end were almost negligible. We, of course, do not believe in ghosts. However the knocking does occur, and it is usually about the same time every night.”

Scott declined to redecorate according to the ghost’s wishes, Wilson wrote. But the bed found its way back to the executive bedroom in succeeding administrations. But in 1993, Gov. Jim Hunt told a Durham radio station that Fowle’s phantom had returned.

“We have a ghost in the governor’s mansion,” he said. “It’s the ghost of a previous governor who died in his bed. And I sleep in that bed.”

Asked whether he had seen the ghost, Hunt replied, “No, but I’ve heard him. I’m trying to establish contact with this ghost. I haven’t done that yet.”

I sent a note to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office asking if Fowle’s spirit endures, and if the haunted bed is still in use. I haven’t gotten a response. Perhaps the governor is too spooked to respond, fearing to anger the ghost any further. Whatever the case this Halloween, I wish him an untroubled sleep.