For close to one year, ending just this past May, The Post and Courier’s food section weekly featured the stories of restaurant ghosts, found lurking in local buildings that don’t normally betray their food-and-beverage pasts. These hidden histories of area addresses, presented under the heading of “Site Unseen,” together revealed the ways in which dining is knitted into Charleston’s culture and physical landscape.
But hauntings work the other way, too. Just as clothing stores and barber shops are home to the specters of forgotten luncheonettes and seafood shacks, downtown restaurants bear mystic traces of the events that long ago unfolded beneath their roofs, and the people involved in them.
Here, a few vanished moments to consider when you next order an okonomiyaki or lemon poppy seed muffin. Happy Halloween.
547 King Street
Then: Jacob Needle’s residence (1932)
By all surviving accounts, Jacob Needle was an upstanding citizen.
Needle was a tailor, which seems like an unbelievable coincidence, but in fact wasn’t coincidental at all. Needle’s father immigrated to New York City from Pila, a potato-growing town that now belongs to Poland. Since Harris Needle was also a tailor (and later, first baseman for Charleston’s amateur Manhattan Base Ball Club), it seems likely he chose his English surname for promotional purposes.
Among the clothes that Needle produced was a controversial line of underwear. In 1905, The J.A. Scriven Company took the 35-year-old Needle and nine fellow Charleston merchants to court for making and selling “drawers (with) a salmon-colored strip extending from the waistband to the ankles.” The pink strip was the red sole of its day, rendering Scriven underpants as instantly recognizable as Christian Louboutin shoes. A circuit court judge sided with Scriven, ordering the Charleston tailors to knock off the knockoffs.
It wasn’t Needle’s first brush with the law. Although he was a highly regarded businessman who would go on to serve as his synagogue’s treasurer for 25 years, Needle in 1902 was charged with assault and battery.
According to The Evening Post, two young boys alleged that Needle had pushed them during Yom Kippur services. Needle didn’t deny it: He explained he wanted “to make the boys keep quiet while in the synagogue” on the solemnest day of the year. Apparently the magistrate was sympathetic, since Needle walked free.
He died in 1932.
544 King Street
Now: The Ordinary
Then: The shell of a failed bank, Peoples State Bank of South Carolina (1932)
Speaking of mischievous boys, just a few months after Needle’s funeral was held at his home, three preteens were arrested in connection with the robbery of a bank across the street.
Because the bank had gone under on Jan. 2, 1932, taking about 12,000 local accounts with it, there was no money in the building: The Peoples State Bank of South Carolina was one of 7,000 banks forced to close during the Great Depression. So the boys were reduced to stealing unused stationery. Police launched an investigation after finding the loot in a nearby vacant building. It’s unclear what happened to the suspects after they were turned over to juvenile authorities.
199 St. Philip St.
Now: Brown’s Court Bakery
Then: George Ramsey’s residence (1947)
Public opinion in 1947 strongly favored the citizen shrimper, who was increasingly contending with more competition from out-of-state fleets. The News and Courier was among the many local entities outraged by the ways in which shrimp boats from off were skirting the law.
“Why does nobody go to jail for robbing the people of South Carolina of their natural foodstuffs?” the paper asked in 1946. “The shrimp trawling situation smells fishier every day. Somewhere in it there must be a scandal.”
Unlike fleet operators, the paper elaborated the following year, independent operators weren’t apt to drag destructive trawls through fragile sounds, or litter the water with unwanted fish carcasses. “The independent operator is a householder in the community from which he fishes. His interest is not in getting wealthy overnight, nor in stripping the waters of fish and then moving to greener pastures.”
The editors might have had in mind a man such as George Ramsey, a Charleston shrimper and active member of the black freemasonry movement.
A generation or so earlier, African-American fishermen’s boats were a defining feature of the local waterfront, with the “Mosquito Fleet” numbering as many as 70 craft. By 1947, though, the fleet was down to about 10. “The men have gone also,” The Evening Post noted. “Of the hundreds that seined and fished a livelihood from the water, only a handful remains. The others have died or are beached by lack of boats and material. Still others have wandered off to other occupations.”
Safer occupations, in many cases: By the Evening Post’s accounting, 60 members of the Mosquito Fleet over the years had “gone down beneath the waters.” But Ramsey stuck with shrimping, and was aboard the Ja-Jo-Di on Oct. 3, 1947, when a strong northeastern wind blew across Capers Island and knocked the boat’s drain plug loose.
As the Ja-Jo-Di sank, its three crew members swam for shore. Two of the men made it; Ramsey’s body was found the next day in a Dewee’s Island marsh.
224 Rutledge Ave.
Now: Xiao Bao Biscuit
Then: Mary Semken’s residence (1929)
Long before a service station was built at the corner of Spring and Rutledge streets, the lot was home to Gevert Semken’s grocery. Semken and his wife, Mary, lived upstairs; downstairs, he sold baking powder, cocoa powder, hams, butter and James Island sweet potatoes. His customers were devastated when he died of paralysis in 1907.
“His store was a sort of headquarters for the farmers doing business up King Street and across the bridge,” The Evening Post wrote in its obituary for the 62-year-old grocer. “Honesty and uprightness were the favorite words of Gevert Semken.”
Mary Semken was still living on the property in 1929. On a cool and cloudy day in early October, she started dinner, setting a pot on the stove. But the jet wasn’t lit, and Semken was fatally overcome by gas fumes.
In the years after Semken’s death, other retailers tried running the store at 224 Rutledge St. But perhaps because of its proximity to the bridge, it was popular with thieves. A man in 1931 faced a life sentence for stealing mouth organs from the shop, while another man in 1938 made off with $37, which he spent on a suit, suspenders, shoes, hat and a ride to Hollywood. It was the second time he’d robbed the store.
Gulf Oil in 1941 received permission to demolish the building.
218 President St.
Then: Johnny Johnson’s residence (1937)
The Carl Hagenbeck and Great Wallace Circus had previously brought sea lions, The Great Wilno, lions and a wheeled soda pop factory to Charleston. But the 1937 show promised to be the biggest spectacle yet, starring 25 elephants, 57 clowns and movie cowboy Hoot Gibson, accompanied by his horse, Rowdy.
Johnny Johnson already had one ticket to the circus, which he earned by helping to put up the sideshow tent at Stoney Field. He wanted another, though, and told foreman Lucky Lloyd so.
At least according to Lloyd, Johnson protested when told he’d been given all of the tickets he was going to get. Lloyd wasn’t in the mood. He pointed a gun at Johnson and ordered him to go home. Instead, Johnson reached into his pocket, where Lloyd suspected he kept a knife. Lloyd shot the 26-year-old man in the chest, neck and head.
“Don’t kill me,” Johnson said, collapsing alongside a circus wagon. Lloyd fled the scene, darting through the circus tent and hiding in another wagon. Police found him napping.
“I figured they’d catch me,” Lloyd said. “That’s why I didn’t run away. If they hadn’t found me hiding, I’d have shoved off for Newberry, I reckon.”
Johnson survived his wounds.
340 King St.
Then: The Five Dollar Hat Shop (1923)
Hats in the 1920s were made from ostrich feathers, satin ribbons, woven straw, silk velvet and artificial flowers. And for the women who wore them, they could be downright crazy-making.
But milliner Edward L. Ayers thought he could at least simplify the hat-buying process. Taking a cue from the self-service cafes that became popular between the World Wars, he decided to let customers choose which hats to try on. An amazed correspondent from Dry Goods Economist magazine in 1919 traveled 300 miles to Greenville so he could witness it.
“From 500 to 600 ready-trimmed hats are on display,” he explained. “Each has a price card securely attached to the lining. The customer walks in, and with the aid of mirrors, decides on the hat she wants.”
Ayers was so successful that he opened a store in Charleston. Here, though, he tried a different shtick: At The Five Dollar Hat Shop, there was no need for price cards, since every hat cost $5.
Apparently Charlestonians were fond of the format. The following year, Ayers opened another store: The Three Dollar Hat Shop.