The story of Alice Riley, first woman accused of murder in colonial Georgia, is many tour guides’ favorite. There is pathos, drama, mystery, maybe a love affair, the accusation of witchcraft and of course, the murder itself.
Alice Riley was a young indentured servant from Ireland. The young woman had arrived in colonial Georgia in January, 1734. How young she was is a matter of debate. Tradition has it that she was 17, but many people think it was possible that she could have been as young as 14-15. It is likely that Alice herself was not entirely certain of her age.
She was assigned to the household of a man called William Wise. William had a bit of a bad reputation. He had apparently brought his very own prostitute to Georgia, passing her off as his daughter. Because of his scandalous behavior, he had been exiled to the other side of the river.
Alice Riley, and a second indentured servant, Richard White, were sent there to assist William Wise.Two months later William Wise was dead in his bath water and Alice and Richard were notably absent. William had been strangled and drowned.
The two fugitives were captured, accused and convicted though both professed their innocence. There was a great deal of prejudice in the colony against anyone of the Catholic faith, which Alice and Richard were, so likely most of the colonists were easily convinced. Forensic investigation was not even thought about at the time.
The dislike of Catholics and the shocking nature of the crime, likely committed by a woman, lead to murmurs of witchcraft.
Richard, after escaping the ramshackle jail once, was executed but Alice’s execution was delayed by the fact that she was pregnant. The father of her child is a matter for much conjecture.
Perhaps Richard was the father. He and Alice did run away together. They were two Catholics in a town that was hostile to their religion.
Some believe that William Wise may have raped Alice, impregnating her. Conditions for indentured servants were often brutal and harsh. William had wallowed in the arms of a child prostitute on the ship from England. He had been isolated from the town of Savannah because he was looked at as dissolute.
A third theory is that Alice conceived the child while imprisoned. Which would implicate a bailiff.
Ultimately, no matter who the father was, Alice gave birth to a son and was shortly afterward, executed for William Wise’s murder. Though not before cursing the city of Savannah!
Alice Riley had been imprisoned in the jail, which was on Wright Square of today. She was tried and executed on Wright Square and likely buried in the original graveyard, just south of Wright Square. It’s no surprise that her unhappy ghost is often seen wandering the Square.
Some believe that Alice is seeking the child she had ripped from her arms, others believe that Alice is seeking vengeance for her execution and the abuse she suffered during her brief stay in Georgia. One way or another, Alice is the oldest known ghost in Savannah. She has been here since 1735.
I would love to hear your theories and commentary. Who do you believe was the father of Alice’s child? Do you believe that Alice was guilty, an accomplice or truly innocent, a victim of circumstance?
Have you experienced something haunting in Savannah’s Wright Square? Please let us know.