The Whistling Doctor
The Thomas Rose House, 59 Church Street, and
Philadelphia Alley, near 20 Queen Street
In the middle of Charleston’s most historic area, a beautiful yet modest home sits, giving no clue from its seemingly innocuous exterior of the violence which will forever stain its name. If the stories are to be believed, and those supernatural tales go back well over two hundred years, then the Thomas Rose House is regularly visited by the crackling anguish of a friendship gone terribly wrong. This story of an affection which ended in brutal violence is so notorious (and the tragedy so complete) that the occurrences in 1786 have forever altered Charleston’s paranormal landscape, and not only at the Thomas Rose House. There is another location, more than a quarter of a mile distant, which also feels echoes of that fateful moment.
Built in 1735, the home is indicative of the type of construction which was prominent in the city at that time period: modest two-and-a-half story brick dwellings with slate roofs (the piazza on the left-hand side was added much later, in the 19th century, when that architectural feature became fashionable). The Thomas Rose House came into existence when the city was still very young—a blushing fifty-five years old—which was a time when the City Fathers finally began thinking of Charles Town not as an armed fortress but a proper city. The defensive walls which protected the city were still largely in place when this house was constructed, as evidenced by Herman Moll’s 1733 map of the area. It is difficult, if one walks the upscale area today, to get a sense of what the area would have looked like back at the time of the house’s construction. This house, built at the original Charles Town lot number 61, replaced a more modest dwelling at the same location, so this was still a working class neighborhood for Charleston’s new merchant class. A likely reason for this upgrade in living quarters was that Charleston’s economy experienced a huge surge in the 1730’s, based mostly on rice and indigo production.
While the house will forever bear his name, it does not appear that Thomas Rose ever lived at 59 Church Street. He sold the house almost immediately upon completion to the Savage family, who owned it for the next ninety years. A little less than fifty years into the Savage’s ownership, it became an upscale boarding house run by two sisters of the family.
One autumn day in 1783, Doctor Joseph Ladd arrived at the Thomas Rose House, fresh in from Rhode Island, with his newly-made Charlestonian acquaintance Ralph Isaacs graciously showing him the way. No one at that point knew of the trouble and heartache this chance meeting would later entail: almost three years later to the day, Isaacs would wind up killing his new friend, Dr. Ladd.
Love, Money, Scandal
Joseph Brown Ladd was a magnet for undeserved drama and heartache. It started early for him: his father William, a strict disciplinarian, worked the rocky Rhode Island soil on his farm, and did not understand his intellectually brilliant son. According to an 1832 biography (by Elizabeth Ladd Haskins and W.B. Chittenden) called The Literary Remains of Joseph Brown Ladd, despite having little access to formal schooling he immersed himself in academic pursuits, teaching himself mathematics, fluent Latin, and memorizing large passages of the Bible.
His father did not support his quest for knowledge, claiming it interfered with the work on the farm. Young Joseph had an unconscious habit of whistling, which meant that his father could always locate him even if he was not performing his chores. The son was adamantly fixed in his cerebral pursuits, however. From The Literary Remains: “He made no secret of his unconquerable aversion to the drudgery of agriculture, and had recourse to various stratagems to escape from it when compelled to labor by parental authority. On one occasion, he fitted up a study in a thicket of alder-bushes, in an inclosure through which he had to pass to his employment, in a manner so ingenious as to elude discovery for many months.” When his secret study-hall was discovered, he was rebuked severely by his father, to which he replied, “My head, sir, and not my hands, must support me.”
Disgusted at what he perceived as his son’s laziness, William sent him to work at the age of fourteen at a mercantile business, a placement that was an almost immediate failure. Young Joseph then went to work at a print shop, which was a slightly better fit for the boy, but he was fired after a customer paid him to write a satirical (and scandalous) poem about a local doctor. The enraged doctor dragged him back to his parents, who in a fit of desperation, asked the boy if there was any profession he would like to try. He immediately chose medicine, so William arranged for his errant son to apprentice with another doctor in nearby Newport named Isaac Senter, who was by all accounts a brilliant surgeon. Joseph, finally in his element, entered the medical field “as though sitting down to a banquet with an appetite sharpened by long fasting.” Doctor Senter found him to be a veritable sponge for medical instruction, possessing a keen mind and skilled hands. His thirst for learning expanded to chemistry, languages, philosophy, physics, and the Classics.
The only thing his books and already-formidable intellect did not prepare him for was love. Nineteen year old Joseph fell madly in love with a young woman named Amanda, whom he described as being “lovely to soul and to eye.” She was an orphan, but was from a wealthy family. Her money was held in trust for her by mercenary relatives, who would lose control of the rather sizeable fortune Amanda was due to inherit if she were to marry. Despite the couple’s strong feelings for each other, their chances at love were thrown very much into question through a series of vicious rumors spread by these same relatives, some of whom were attorneys. They did not hesitate to ruin her happiness to serve their own selfish interests, and Amanda strongly suspected that they wished to keep her inheritance for themselves. These (unnamed) lies about Joseph’s background and intentions made marriage impossible in that small community, and Ladd had no money of his own. So Joseph Ladd and Dr. Senter decided that he should go south, at the urging of a mutual acquaintance, former Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene. The plan was that Joseph would travel south to Charleston as soon as he became a doctor, and secure a practice there in order to repair his damaged reputation. He would send for Amanda once he had established his practice and saved enough money for their wedding. Even if her relatives stole the money held for her in trust, the two would still be together. Amanda and the newly-minted doctor were secretly engaged, and Joseph, now twenty, went south in 1783 to seek his destiny.
Doctor Ladd arrived in Charleston, and immediately trouble found him. At the docks he happened to naively ask the wrong person where he should stay. An extremely nefarious individual offered to lead him to an area of town that was by reputation quite dangerous and seedy, where he would almost certainly be robbed. Another man standing nearby, hearing the very bad advice the young doctor was receiving, stepped in. “By all means, take this worthless oaf’s advice, if you’d fancy to be robbed of your valuables. You’d likely get your throat cut just for straying into the area of town he is directing you towards.” When the first man protested, still hoping that his prey would not get away so easily, the second man brandished his cane and gave the would-be robber a few good lashes. The man ran away in terror, leaving the two of them alone.
“My name is Ralph Isaacs,” he said, grinning warmly. “I would be happy to show you to a nice boarding house run by two respectable ladies, one that’s fit for a proper gentleman such as yourself.” Joseph must have felt that he had found a friend for life.
Indeed, the two men became inseparable for a time, with the older Isaacs serving as tour guide and entertaining provocateur to the good doctor’s ‘straight man.’ A man of strong opinions, Isaacs was willing to argue just about anything, whether it be a new piece of local legislation or a restaurant’s bill, with equal conviction. Some people in Charleston, especially those in the upper echelons of society, found Ralph Isaacs too coarse and opinionated for their tastes. He also had the reputation of drinking too much. Dr. Ladd was loyal to his new friend, however, reasoning that the man had saved him some rough treatment when he arrived in town. Joseph, with the help of his landladies, the two Savage sisters, and his letter of introduction by war hero Nathanael Greene, very quickly established a successful medical practice, and was noticed as a rapidly rising star in Charleston’s social scene. The good doctor’s habit of whistling while he worked proved to be an endearing quality for the Charleston elite, and even earned him the nickname ‘The Whistling Doctor.’ The Savage sisters also loved the whistling, believing that it brightened up the mood in their home.
Doctor Ladd remained constant to his beloved Amanda, writing her love letter after love letter. She especially enjoyed his poetry (he often referred to himself in these poems as ‘Arouet,’ which was the real name of his idol, French essayist and philosopher Voltaire). As much as he liked his newfound popularity, his idea of a perfect evening would be to never leave his room at the boarding House on Church Street, writing words to his beloved, and then later falling asleep while reading books on philosophy or medicine. He cared little for the social engagements and party invites which flooded in, only entertaining notions of expanding his practice to the point that he could send for Amanda. They were only a means to an end, he confided one evening to his best friend on earth, Ralph Isaacs.
Ralph teasingly chided his doctor-friend’s jam-packed social schedule, but also pointed out that he himself had not been invited to these same parties. Shouldn’t he be more grateful? Joseph, not picking up on the subtlety of what Isaacs was really saying, complained openly of the constraints of his time and the exhaustion he felt attending endless social galas. All he wanted, he asserted, was enough money. Which, he didn’t feel he needed to add, would secure him the hand of his lady love, Amanda. Ralph Isaacs’ gaze at Joseph, his younger, infinitely more popular and accomplished friend, hardened for a long moment before finally looking away.
The two began to spend less time together. Dr. Ladd’s increased social obligations and workload took a toll on their friendship, and Isaacs’ jealousy flared dangerously bright towards his seemingly ungrateful friend. Isaacs’ opinions grew unflinchingly sterner, especially where Doctor Ladd was concerned. Things grew worse, not better, when they attended the theatre together for a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The doctor had acquired two exceptional tickets through his connections with the Charleston elite, and hoped his gift would sooth his friend’s ever-darkening mood. When they arrived on the night of the performance however, the usher revealed that there had been a mix-up; the play had been over-sold, so only one of them would see the play from the rarefied air of the luxurious box-seats. Joseph was about to offer to take the less prestigious standing-room ticket in the pit below, but before he could, Ralph Isaacs flew into a rage. He was positive that this perceived slight was on purpose. “I showed up expecting actors only on the stage, not the orchestrations of an invented doctor! Go ahead, sit with your new cronies and guffaw at my expense. I shall attend the play with my own kind, the rabble and the peanut-chewers down below!” He stomped off, leaving a stunned and embarrassed Doctor Ladd wondering how his kind gift had gone so terribly wrong.
After the performance, the two met at the carriage. Isaacs was still incensed. Dr. Ladd attempted to turn the subject toward something lighter, such as the actor’s performances; surely Mr. Isaacs had enjoyed the performance of a local actress, who had played the role of Lady Anne. “Pure rubbish,” Ralph asserted. “I was much more interested in the theme of the piece. Or did you miss it, giggling up above me with your new benefactors? Well, let me enlighten you: the play details a scheming man, who rises to power through cunning and back-stabbing. It has a happy ending, however: he dies!” Ralph Isaacs stormed off angrily, preferring to walk alone in darkness. As bad as that was, the next day was worse. Isaacs had apparently gone to several drinking establishments favored by Doctor Ladd’s new friends and had made some extremely damaging statements about Joseph, calling him a social climber that cared only for money, a quack, and a turncoat friend. The terrible stories spread like wildfire. It seemed to Dr. Ladd that the awful events which had caused him to leave Rhode Island in disgrace were happening all over again in his new city.
When Isaacs’ smear campaign intensified, friends counseled Ladd that he must defend his honor. Remembering from his Newport days that a non-response did him no good (and in many ways seemed to confirm the rumors), Dr. Ladd finally printed a reply in the local newspaper, the Charleston Morning Post, to his former friend on October 12th, 1783, ending with the line: “I account it one of the misfortunes of my life that I ever became friends with such a man.”
Isaacs responded in print on the 16th with equal fury: “I dare affirm that the event of a little time will convince the world that the self-created doctor is as blasted a scoundrel as ever disgraced humanity.” He even insinuated that Doctor Ladd had become infatuated with the actress in the play! A Charleston News and Courier article published on June 7th, 1942 detailed the escalating trouble, stating: “…Dr. Ladd learned too late the unwisdom of bandying expletives and epithets with a street gamin… As was at the time inevitable, honor demanded satisfaction,” meaning settling the affair over smoking pistols.
In those days, dueling was not only accepted as a means of resolving disputes, it was somewhat expected in circumstances such as these. Dr. Ladd, had he allowed comments like these to pass without addressing them, would have suffered humiliation and lost business. Joseph, despite not inviting this trouble with Isaacs, could not simply ignore his former friend’s taunting, because to do so might disrupt his growing practice and thus ruin his dreamed-of future with Amanda. Locked into a certain narrow course of options by the very society whose business he was courting, he did the only thing he could to save his reputation: the Whistling Doctor challenged Ralph Isaacs to a duel. His former friend quickly accepted.
He spent a long, sleepless night before the duel writing a letter to Amanda. It contained a poem, which was later published in The Literary Remains:
Death, friendly death may soon relieve my pain.
Long, sure, he cannot be implored in vain.
Soon, the grim angel will restore my peace,
Soothe my hard fate, and bid my sorrows cease
And tear Amanda’s image from my breast.
When deep oblivion wraps my mind in night,
When death’s dark shadows swim before my sight,
Will, then, Amanda? Ah, she will, I trust,
Pay the last tribute to my clay-cold dust.
Will, sighing, say there his last scene is o’er.
Who loved as mortal never loved before.
O’er my lone tomb oh, yield that sad relief,
Breathe that soft sigh and pour out all your grief,
Or, shed one tear in pity as you pass,
And just remember that your Arouet was.
Day of Destiny
Philadelphia Alley runs between Cumberland and Queen Streets, very close to Church Street. The location was formerly known as Cow Alley, but local residents renamed it after the city of Philadelphia sent assistance following a devastating fire. Regardless of the charitable renaming after the City of Brotherly Love, it had acquired a reputation since Colonial times for being an ideal spot where men could settle their differences. According to a January 7th, 1894 New York Times article, it was where Revolutionary War General William Moultrie “pinked his man” in a duel with swords, against an unnamed opponent. The number of duels actually fought in the Alley has no doubt been greatly exaggerated over time (and in fact most of the duels in Charleston were fought at other locations entirely, such as on present-day Line Street or near the old racetrack), but there were apparently enough combatants in the narrow lane over the years that the nickname ‘Dueler’s Alley’ stuck.
The two men met at dawn. A slight fog obscured the ground, adding surreality to the scene of former friends loading pistols to use against one another. Doctor Ladd, whistling lightly to calm his nerves, had the honor of the first shot. They paced off an appropriate distance, giving Joseph time to really think about his friendship with Isaacs. He began to have doubts about whether the duel would truly resolve anything. Wouldn’t they have been both better served if they had sat down over a coffee and hashed this disagreement out? When it was time to fire, he turned to see the form of Ralph Isaacs obscured slightly by the mist, and shuddered at thoughts of harming his friend. No, he decided, I am better than this. He discharged his gun straight up in the air, hoping this could end the troubles between them.
Isaacs, due to the fog, heard rather than saw Doctor Ladd fire. “Hah, you missed!” Ralph exclaimed, and aimed low at his target. Ralph squeezed the trigger. Joseph Ladd was hit in the knee by Isaacs’ pistol shot. He fell immediately, clutching at his shattered leg in agony. According to the aforementioned 1942 News and Courier article, “Isaacs escaped unhurt, and for three or four days lay hid in the thatched roof of Milligan’s Tavern, to escape the vengeance of the friends of Dr. Ladd.”
Doctor Ladd was carried back to his room at the Thomas Rose House. Doctors were at first hopeful of saving him, but he very quickly took a turn for the worse. The wound became infected, and he lapsed into a delirium fever as it turned gangrenous. Despite the fever dreams, he never stopped asking for his beloved Amanda, but due to the great distances involved it is doubtful she even knew of his injury before he died. He expired in very early November, 1786. The 1942 article goes on to note: “The unfortunate young physician-poet was buried in St. Michael’s churchyard; but the record of internments is lost, and no stone marks his resting-place. Somewhere within that acre of the dead his bones return to the dust from which they came, without a broken shard to record his passing.”
It is said that the spirit of Joseph Ladd, the Whistling Doctor, never left the home. During moments of great stress at 59 Church Street—they are few and far between, but all houses regardless of their history know conflict—the distinct sound of whistling has been reported on many occasions. Great storms, disagreements, and other moments of disquietude seem to produce this effect equally: any stressful situation causes this phenomenon. Perhaps this is the good doctor, ever mindful of the far-reaching effects that even the simplest conflicts can have, trying to sooth tempers before they boil over. The duelist has become peace-maker. His footsteps and whistling are frequently heard on the stairs, going up to his third-floor room, probably filled with thoughts of his dearest love Amanda, forever and ever.
People have also reported the sounds and sights of a duel in Philadelphia Alley. It is less clear if this is the psychic echo Dr. Ladd or Ralph Isaacs, or if these are other, anonymous spectral duelists, seemingly locked forever in a recurring affair of honor. The only thing we are certain of, really, is that the first shot is discharged into the air, but the second shot, sadly, finds its mark. More than one person, however, has reported hearing faint whistling in the moments before the duel commences.