Rose Hall is the most famous manor (in Europe, you would call it a castle) in Jamaica. It was built in 1770, cost thirty thousand pounds – an incredible amount at the time! – and was considered the most beautiful residence on the island.
Rose Hall was damaged during the slave revolt in 1831, to the point that it remained uninhabited from then on. In the 1960s, when it was on the brink of falling into ruin, an American billionaire purchased it along with the land of its former plantation. On it was built a luxury hotel, which we were invited to visit. As for the manor itself, it was restored with the utmost care before being opened to the public.
Elsa Turner was no longer listening to the woman who served as their guide. She was observing the landscape from one of the windows in the large parlour where they stood. The slope at the top of which the manor stood descended gently to the ocean that shimmered in the sunlight. The palm trees swayed harmoniously in the light breeze. The lush vegetation painted the earth a raw green that contrasted with the deep blue sky. A more pleasant, splendid sight could not have been imagined. Everything about that morning summoned a holiday mood. And yet, Elsa was ill at ease.
Jamaica was by far the most beautiful of the Caribbean islands. Elsa Turner had dreamt of going there for years. Admittedly, she possessed a particular sensitivity; she was, after all, the most famous clairvoyant in London. Her “clients” had to wait at least six months to get an appointment! Seductive and always dressed in the latest fashions, she was of all the social evenings. Seeing her sip her glass of champagne, laughing, and sometimes flirting, no one could have guessed she possessed such a gift for prediction.
They arrived at a large bedroom, obviously that of the masters of the house, fitted with an imposing gilded four-poster bed and a magnificent view of the ocean and the coast. Elsa looked out the window again.
“Since I stepped foot in this house,” she murmured to herself, “I’ve had a curious foreboding. It’s still very confusing. I keep catching glimpses of too many images, too fast…dreadful ones. I’m having a hard time understanding them.”
With the outgoing nature that was her trademark, Elsa had already chatted with the employees of Moon Point. Learning that she wanted to visit Rose Hall, they all, without exception, grimaced at the idea. And they did not need to be asked to tell her all they had heard since their tender childhood. Bit by bit, she reconstructed the history from which the manor’s dubious reputation arose.
Since Rose Hall Manor was abandoned, nearly two centuries ago, it had remained untouched; no one would have dared to venture there at night. Even vandals had spared it! Some claimed to have heard screams coming from the place while passing on the nearby road around midnight. One of the few guards that watched over it decades later fell down the stairs leading to the cellar and broke their neck. In short, Rose Hall’s reputation had done more to preserve it than any other protection system could…up until the resort purchased what was left of it.
The restoration works had barely begun when mysterious phenomena arose. The labourers complained their tools were constantly displaced, or even worse, hidden, only to reappear later in inaccessible places. Others swore they heard a voice calling out to them with their given name, without ever discovering whose voice it was. Some of the parquet floors that were newly laid were found the following day with stains that looked like blood. Soon enough, it became impossible to hire labourers in Jamaica…they had to be sought out on neighbouring islands.
The hotel opened nonetheless. As soon as it did, it was the customers’ turn to witness curious phenomena. Some said they heard footsteps run across the ground floor lobby. One group of vacationers, while visiting the old plantation, was terrorized by moans coming from the cells that were used to imprison slaves long ago. Several members of another group maintain they were shocked to hear the heartbreaking cries of a child.
Less frightening but just as disturbing were the sounds of “ghosts” enjoying themselves while playing invisible instruments in the ballroom. Others, more mischievous ghosts, regularly cut the electricity. Several tourists wrote to the hotel management, saying they had taken photos of the hotel’s interiors that, once developed, showed imprecise silhouettes, shapes difficult to describe but clearly standing in the way of their lens and the décor.
In short, Elsa knew all about the rumours surrounding this famous estate, though she had not imagined they had any connection with reality. Now, in the room where they stood, she inadvertently walked right into the unspeakable.
“A woman must have died here at dawn, as I could see a grey glow, that of the wee hours of the morning, coming through the windows. I start to see this woman. In fact, she isn’t dead. She’s not as beautiful as has been said. She is approaching her fifties, has abundant black hair and extraordinarily bright blue eyes. She stares hard at me because she wants me to admit something. I’m here! She tells me she has paid far too hefty a price to rule over this mansion. She comes back to it so that no one will ever live here after her. She also says she feels no remorse.”
“But that’s Annie Palmer!,” exclaimed Mrs Whitekar, who, before their trip, had read all about Jamaica, guides but also collections of legends and ancient memoirs.
“Who’s Annie Palmer?” asked her husband, who preferred leaving his wife to her reading while he concentrated on his televised baseball matches.
“Annie Palmer is the most scandalous and hated character in Jamaican history,” the guide answered.
She knew that she had captivated her audience with this declaration.
“Annie Mae Patterson was young and supposedly – despite what Madam said (pointing out Elsa) – incredibly beautiful. She spent part of her childhood in Haiti where her wet-nurse, who would later become her governess, taught her voodoo. She managed to bewitch the wealthiest plantation owner in Jamaica, John Palmer, and forced him to marry her.
“However, soon after, he died bizarrely. Two husbands followed, both very rich, both dying soon after marrying, also under inexplicable circumstances. It’s said all three are buried beneath the towering palm trees you see down there on the beach. Here’s a bizarre detail: even during the worst storms, that particular area has never been affected. It’s as if the weather conspired with Annie Palmer to spare the spot where she hid the bodies of her husbands, taken too soon to a better place! Thus the legends surrounding this illustrious woman abound, still the talk of the whole island two centuries after her death.
Entirely obsessed with this image that only she could perceive, Elsa took over, “I see this woman. I see her growing up in an environment completely different from the one we are in now. She was a widow twice over already by the time she met the owner of the property. I see him walking through the house with a conquering air. This man is not at all what we think. His wife did not bewitch him despite her immense powers of seduction. He was a cruel man, violent, envious, mean, and always furious at everything and everyone. His wife, he hated her. He married her just to hate her better. He loved to hate!”
The guide looked at her with increasing amazement. Suddenly, she went to lock the bedroom door.
“This way, we won’t be disturbed. Too bad for the tourists!” she exclaimed.
The sun still flowed into the room, but strangely enough, the light seemed less bright, as though a filter was limiting its brilliance.
“She’s examining me,” Elsa continued, “with her amused and provocative look. She’s beautiful, but I’m telling you, much less so than her reputation has us expect. She’s petite, dainty. As a child, she was smaller than the others. I see her during her childhood: she’s running in the countryside. I see prairies, tree hedges, groves, stone bridges crossing over streams, a rather European landscape. She’s running, she’s playing, but she is almost always alone.
“She has grown up now: she must be fourteen, fifteen years old. The atmosphere has changed: the environment is similar to this one, palm trees, tropical forests. Black men work the fields, and a black woman who loves her very much is taking care of her. She does a little bit of magic, like everyone else here, but nothing extraordinary.
“She engages in all sorts of incantations and makes offerings to the gods. And she initiates her. They go to the forest to leave fruits and flowers. The black woman is chanting, I hear her even now, for the little one to attain glory and wealth. This glory, this wealth, the little one wants at any cost.
“I see next to her first one man, and then a second one. I can barely distinguish their faces, but they are, without a doubt, white men. The first one stands next to her and then disappears. The second one arrives, still in this landscape of palm trees, of vegetation, of the rumbling ocean, and he too disappears. However, they had money, and their clothes were elegant and neat. She is adorned with jewellery; she has chosen a necklace of gold and rubies that must be worth a small fortune. She is alone again, but not for long.
“I see beside her the man I observed earlier in the mirror. He is old, tall, and he is the master of this house. He is rich, very rich; his properties are vast; hundreds of slaves work for him. In the beginning, they led a wonderful life, and they were the most opulent plantation owners, the most prominent on the island. They host all of white society. The house resounds with the music of the balls, hundreds of candles lit on its chandeliers. Servants dressed in livery circulated, offering guests alcoholic beverages. We raise our glasses, we dance, there is joy.
“But very quickly, the ill-tempered nature of the master of the house resurfaces: he is drinking. And when he drinks, he becomes ferocious. He mistreats his slaves and insults guests. The clashes, the scenes multiply in these elegant halls filled with people. He staggers, shouts, punches, beats his wife. She falls to the ground but not for an instant is she afraid! There she lays on the floor at his feet. He staggers again, his mouth distorted by rage, he screams and looks at her with hatred, yet a hatred less powerful, less relentless than the hate with which she stares at him. This woman’s eyes scare me.
“Now, I see beside her another man, who, though younger than her husband, looks a lot like him. He must be the son from his first marriage…She gazes at him lovingly; they walk together beneath the trees; they kiss passionately and become lovers. She smiles…She gets her revenge on her husband by sleeping with his son. But a black man approaches her. He isn’t a slave; he is too well dressed to be. He must be some kind of foreman or steward. He whispers something in her ear…and there again is that look of excruciating hate; she has just found out that her stepson, her lover, has another mistress, a slave, a black woman!
“She gives the steward his orders. I can hear howls of pain; it’s the young woman, the stepson’s mistress being tortured. My God, what suffering! What cruelty! Yet she watches on with contentment. She is pleased while the young slave agonizes. The cries become weaker and weaker…such horror! I can see the stepson, the lover, running; he is fleeing the property, embarking on a ship that will take him to Europe, never to return. But she, from now on, has learned how to inflict suffering. For no apparent reason, she has slaves arrested, even for made-up transgressions. She has them whipped, has them tortured, and derives total satisfaction from them that turns into desire.
“And so, she noticed a slave taller and more handsome than the others. She had him come to her room while her husband toured the plantation to inspect the work. She and the slave made savage love to each other. She was at the height of ecstasy. They saw each other every day. One day, her husband returned earlier than usual and surprised them in bed. Since he hadn’t been drinking, his rage remained emotionless.
“He kicked his wife out of the room and declared that she would never again step foot in this house: the hell with her! She grinned, and that grin would have made anyone tremble. I can just see him now, her husband, in his bed in the room we are in now, writhing in pain. He had been poisoned. She was there watching him suffer before her, sweating bullets, disintegrating… but she decided the end was not coming fast enough!
“She called the loyal slave and gave him an order: her husband would meet his end suffocated under the pillows. Her slave lover carried the corpse to not far from here, on the coast. I can hear the sound of the waves as he buried the husband.
“The following morning, it was the slave she attacked: he had, according to her, committed a grave mistake. She had him tied to a poll of torture and whipped. The improvised executioners got so tired they had to be continuously replaced. The murderous lover who had become her victim, did not utter a word; he did not denounce her. He collapsed, and he died. Thus, the only witness to her husband’s murder was removed.”
Exhausted, Elsa Parker shut her eyes. Short of breath, she travelled on paths where no one could reach her. But the mirror had not said it all, and she returned bewitched.
- Now beloved by all of Jamaica, this woman was the heiress to an immense fortune and the owner of the fabulous Rose Hall. She achieved glory and wealth just as she wanted, but she was alone. In the salons of Kingston, the capital, people whispered. She sent out invitations, organized sumptuous receptions, balls, and dinners, but no one came. Her reputation kept high society away from Rose Hall.
“I can see her on one of the house’s balconies; it is not the one-off of this room because it is situated at the back of the building. Her doorman is standing behind her. She gives her orders for the day and asks questions, keeping an eye on everything, but she is bored. She needed another slave to come into her bed at night, and again experience the burning passion and fury of the senses until she was bored again. A short week at the end of which her foreman would stab the lover that ceased to entertain her, and bury him in some lost corner of the forest. Soon after, the same scenario would start again: she always needed new bodies, new embraces. Everyone on the plantation knew what fate awaited the chosen one, and yet, none resisted, not one tried to flee!
“Although stories of her excess reached far beyond her estate, and the whole of Jamaica spoke of nothing else but this Messalina who thirsted for beautiful black men, her reputation served her well because no one dared to contest her power. She knew it. She had everything she wanted, yet she continued to hate. And as hate brings more hate, her slaves and servants loathed her. But no one protested.
“Until one day, as usual, she walked among her slaves and chose the ultimate. He wasn’t tall, but he was strikingly beautiful. She assigned him to her foreman. He obliged, hiding his panic as well as he could because the designated slave was his own daughter’s fiancé. I can see three of them, the foreman, his daughter, and the fiancé, plotting in the slave’s quarters. They decided that the fiancé would play along: he would become her lover, and when the woman indicated to the foreman that it was time to get rid of him, he would help him flee instead of killing him. Later on, they would find a way for his daughter to join him…
“That night, she lay on her bed, her long dark hair sprawled out around her on the lace pillows. The door opened, and the slave appeared and approached the bed. She threw herself at him. But he could not preform, for he was thinking of his fiancée. He tried gently to free himself, but she clung to him with such insistence that he was forced to push her away. She then took out the revolver she always had under the cushions, aimed, and shot him straight in his heart. Then she called the foreman. I can see him carrying the body of the man meant to be his son-in-law… I can see him with his daughter… The two of them in the moonlight, burying the young man in a corner of the park, sobbing.
“The next night, Annie Palmer slept soundly. She hadn’t had time to find another lover. Dawn was about to break for I can see the sky getting slightly brighter in the east. A storm was approaching. The wind howled outside, came in through the opened window, and blew the curtains up. I can see the door handle lower, and the door just barely open. The foreman came in. He advanced gingerly towards the bed and contemplated the sleeping woman for a moment. She seemed so confident, so vulnerable. He lunged at her, his hands wrapped around her throat, and he began to squeeze. Suddenly awake, she struggled. She searched for her revolver, but the foreman kept squeezing. She fell back, motionless. The foreman was so afraid of her that he squeezed even harder. She was dead long before he finally let go, but her eyes were still open. He didn’t dare to close them; he didn’t dare to touch her again. He went to the door and opened it all the way.
“The landing, the staircase, and the hall were filled with slaves who had mysteriously been alerted. The foreman gestures for them to approach, and they all silently invade the room, surround the bed and look at the dead woman, as though it were some sort of ritual. The foreman took a candle, lit it, and approached the lace sheets. The bed caught fire, burning the corpse in minutes. When the fire had made the body unrecognizable, the slaves put it out. And just as quietly as they had come, they left the room and when back to their homes.
“It was not until a few days later that the neighbours would learn of the tragedy. They took turns going to Rose Hall with their own slaves, discovering the charred remains of the woman in this room, and collecting them for burial. But it was a unanimous decision not to inter her remains at their parish cemetery at Saint James. The sins she had committed and the life she had led forbad her access to it. They dug an extremely deep hole into which the body was thrown, and covered it up with an enormous layer of mortar. Thus, the dead woman would not be able to leave her tomb to disturb the living…
“And yet, all those precautions were for nothing. Annie Palmer did manage to leave her tomb, because I can see her, right here in front of me, with that smirk, equally ironic and cruel…”