The stately old manor known today as the Sword Gates House was built in 1776 as a school for the daughters of the upper-class families of Charleston. For fifty years, the school was bordered only by a hedge and a wooden gate. The strict headmistress, Madame Talvande, was convinced that her school was amply fortified to prevent her girls from absconding during the night. In 1828, however, the pampered, headstrong daughter of a wealthy planter destroyed Madama Talvande’s confidence in the school’s security system and in her own ability to protect her students.
Fifteen-year-old Maria Whately, who was born to a life of privilege on Pine Baron Plantation on Edisto Island. This strikingly beautiful girl had already caught the eye of a number of smitten young men when she met George Morris and immediately fell in love. Maria’s father, Colonel Whately, disapproved of the match. While it was true that Morris made a good living, his earnings did not come close to matching the annual income of one of the wealthiest families in Charleston. And, to make matters worse, he was from New York, an outsider. Morris, on the other hand, was determined to make Maria his wife. Colonel Whately tried to discourage Morris from courting his daughter by convincing all of his friends on Edisto Island to close their doors to him. Undeterred, Morris pitched a tent a short distance from Pine Baron Plantation and continued to see Maria.
The Whatelys had intended to educate Maria at home. However, Maria’s stubborn refusal to stop seeing George Morris compelled her parents to send their daughter to Madame Talvande’s girls’ school at 39 Legare Street, where young women were taught to be young ladies. Maria obeyed her parents and went to Madame Talvande’s school, but she was miserable without George. Her situation would have been intolerable if George had not promised to marry her as soon as possible. After a few seemingly endless months, she received a message from George that they would be married on March 8. George’s friend, Mrs. Blank, would arrange for Maria’s arrival at St. Michael’s Church. That night, George huddled in the cold and damp, anxiously awaiting the arrival of his beloved. Finally, a carriage pulled up at the church. Inside the carriage were Mrs. Blank, Maria, and a bridesmaid, Sarah Seabrook. After the minister, Mr. Dalcho, pronounced the couple man and wife, Mrs. Blank told Maria that she had to return to school that night but that she could leave the next morning for her honeymoon.
After the carriage dropped Maria off at the school, the young bride tried to sneak through the front door, but her foot slipped on the wet pavement, and she fell in the mud. When the woman in charge of the girls’ dormitory, Miss Halburn, saw Maria standing on the front stoop in her muddy wet dress, she was so afraid that the girl would catch cold that she neglected to ask her where she had been. Maria went directly to her room and packed her trousseau. The next morning, George Morris appeared at the front door of the school and told the housekeeper that he had come to pick up Mrs. Morris. Madame Talvande stepped in front of the housekeeper and informed him that there was no Mrs. Morris in her school. The tittering of the girls standing behind her suggested to Madame Talvande that there might be a Mrs. Morris among them. She then told Mr. Morris that she would look into the matter and shut the door. She then ordered all of the students and staff to parade into the front lawn. Standing ram-rod straight, she asked if a Mrs. Morris was present. After a few moments, Maria took a few hesitating steps forward and curtsied in front of the head mistress. With her eyes cast to the ground, Maria admitted that she had married George Morris the night before at St. Michael’s Church. Madame Talvande was speech for a few seconds. Then she flew into a rage, berating Maria, Miss Halburn, and all of the other members of the staff. As soon as Madame Talvande;’s back was turned, he took Maria by the arm and whisked her away in his carriage.
Marian and George had, by all accounts, a happy life following her escape from Madame Talvande’s school. Her father eventually forgave his errant daughter and saw to it that she was well-provided for. The same cannot be said for Madame Talvande, however. Concerned that the reputation of her school would suffer from the bad publicity, she had a high wall constructed around the garden. The wall had wooden gates until Madame Talvande purchased a pair of elaborate wrought-iron gates for the entranceway of her school in 1838. For the next eleven years, there were no elopements from her school, but the trust that the parents had in her to protect their daughters gradually eroded. The school closed in 1849 and became a private residence.
For years, subsequent owners of the old school have seen the rueful ghost of the headmistress. They have said that her ghost enters the north bedroom upstairs and vanished after a few seconds. Sometimes, as the doorknob to the stateroom slowly turns, nothing but a cool breeze of air entered the room. Sometimes, she appears as a full-body apparition in the stateroom, dressed in the severe fashions of the early 19th century. Her eyes scan the room, looking for miscreant girls. Her ghost has also been seen on the top floor piazza, gazing over the grounds of the former campus.
Since the closing of Madame Talvande’s school for girls, The Sword Gates House has served as a private residence and a bed and breakfast. The only constant inside the house seems to be vigilant spirit of the former headmistress, who continues to make sure that none of her charges run away, as Maria Whaley did long ago. This writer might have captured evidence of Madame Talvande’s eternal presence on the property when I stopped by the house in 2002 for a few quick photographs. The Sword Gates were locked, so I stuck my camera through the grillwork and snapped several pictures of the house itself. Just before I climbed back in my car, I also took a couple of pictures of the gates themselves. When I received my prints from the developer a couple of weeks later, I was shocked to a swirling mist surrounding the gates in one of the two photographs I took of the Sword Gates. I visited the house in late July, so the temperatures were far too high for my breath to have turned to vapor. I do not smoke, and no one else was around at the time when I took the pictures. As I stared at the photograph, I had the uneasy feeling that the spirit of Madame Talvande will never be at rest as long as the former girls’ school is still standing.