Ghosts and Smoke:  Berry Residence Hall, College of Charleston

Posted by junketseo in Charleston Ghost Tours
Ghosts and Smoke:  Berry Residence Hall, College of Charleston - Photo

Among the most haunted spots in one of America’s most haunted cities is the College of Charleston’s Joe E. Berry Hall, claimed to be a hub of paranormal activity. The Berry Residence Hall on the college campus has a long and frightful history. It was built on the first public American orphanage site, the Charleston Orphan House.

For over two hundred years, a building has been here, housing children and occasionally catching fire for one reason or another. From an orphanage to a dormitory, through plagues, wars, and flames, this site has seen death like few others.  It is believed that mischievous spirits now haunt the building and its dwellers. Students report childlike ghosts running up and down the hallways and playing games, seemingly unaware that they died decades ago.

The deaths of countless children, taken long before their time, paint the history of Berry Hall. Those boys and girls cling to the living world, completely denying their reality. While today’s students move on, they remain trapped in the same place, staying the same age forever.


The Charleston Orphan House


The orphanage was established on October 18th, 1794, for young children affected by the Revolutionary War. For nearly a century, The Charleston Orphan House operated as an orphanage and a school. Knowing that many parents could not afford to feed their children, much less educate them, the COH did these things. Children attending this Charleston institution were taught trades and guided on how best to contribute to society. Over the years, the COH became well-known and equally well-respected.

When the Civil War came to South Carolina, the children were moved to a former seminary school for safety while the home was temporarily used as a hospital. Once the war was over, the building became overcrowded with wayward children. Despite the war, the resilient staff and board at the location never closed its doors.

In 1918, the orphanage was again forced to endure hardship when the Spanish Flu pandemic devastated the home. Healthy children spent their days outside playing, away from the infected kids. One day, a group of orphans picked up some oily rags from the courtyard and began playing with them. They allegedly “ somehow” caught fire; consequently, the building was also set ablaze. The Fire Department arrived in time to save the building. Unfortunately, rescuers were not in time to save four souls who died due to smoke inhalation.

The city rebuilt the orphanage after the fire and remained there for thirty-three more years. In 1951, the orphanage was moved to another part of the state, and the building became a Sears department store. Thousands of souls were lost at this place, and many spirits still haunt the grounds.


Berry Hall


In 1988, the Sears store was torn down, and a new residence hall for the College of Charleston was built where the old children’s home once stood. In 1991, the building suffered from false fire alarms, and authorities never identified the culprit. From the first day the dorm was opened, students said they heard children laughing and playing marbles well into the night. Despite searching floor by floor for children, none were discovered. The eeriest experience reported was the sound of little girls singing “ Ring around the rosy” in the courtyard, not far from where the 1918 fire started.

In 2011, the building underwent renovations, and residents were outraged by the construction work, which prevented them from studying and sleeping. The frequent and unexplained fire alarms disrupted daily campus life. The dorm’s fire alarm system would go off at random times and intervals. Construction work was completed in late October, but fire alarms continued to go off without cause in the middle of the night. It wasn’t until February 2012 that a “ faulty wiring ” issue was corrected, ending the nightmarish scenario for residents.

While the new building hasn’t seen any significant fires so far, in addition to false alarms, there was a small fire as recently as 2019. The Fire Department was alerted to black smoke billowing from the roof in March that year. Residents evacuated as authorities investigated the scene. Firefighters entered the building and quickly discovered an exhaust fan in flames on the top floor. They extinguished the blaze before it could spread to the building.

While there were no injuries, there is no solid explanation for the fire. According to the fire department, the cause of the fire is believed to be an electrical failure from the exhaust fan, but there are no specifics yet. Some speculation suggests that the ghosts of the children who caused the fire in 1918 are still determined to burn the place down, while the spirits of those who didn’t make it out have become obsessed with repeatedly warning others of fire.


Haunted Charleston


For those who believe in other-worldly events, the more death a specific place sees, the more potential spirits remain; it’s simple arithmetic. With Charleston being a premiere ghost hunter destination, it’s no surprise Berry Hall is thought to be haunted. However, the single-minded obsession with fire that seems to drive these particular ghosts is one of the most unique hauntings on record. The ghosts of Berry Hall are as mysterious as they are mischievous.

How did the oily rags catch on fire in the first place? If they are setting off the fire alarms, why? Are their two opposing groups of ghosts fighting over the fate of this historically macabre place? CofC alum Ed Macy co-wrote the book  Haunted Charleston: Stories from the College of Charleston, The Citadel and the Holy City.

Macy interviewed roughly 40 Berry Hall residents (mostly female) who have not only been awakened by the alarm and the singing but have seen old-fashioned cursive writing on their bathroom mirror like something out of a Stephen King novel. While the answers to these and other questions may go unanswered indefinitely, those who endeavor to understand the supernatural have a keen eye on Berry Hall. The ghost-hunting community watches as the revolving door of student residents desperately hopes that Berry Hall has seen its last fire.

Keep reading our blog to uncover more haunted tales of Charleston, and be sure to book a ghost tour with Charleston Terrors to see the haunted locations of Charleston in person!