Gray Man of Pawley's Island

Pawley’s Islanders know when they see the Gray Man, it’s a curse and a blessing.

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It wasn’t raining. Not yet.

But the sea air smelled electric, alive. The wind was rising, just like the weatherman said it would. But just then it blew gently, like the cheerful breeze from a box fan. 

The man looked out over the sea and sky, now painted together in a dull, limitless void. He knew somewhere out there just miles from where he stood, a deadly storm spun like a top. It had bands of wind that cut like chainsaws and rain enough to bury cities. It was the size of South Carolina. And it was flying straight at him at nearly 100 miles an hour. 

It’d been all over the radio. Government folks telling him and everyone else on the island to leave. It was mandatory. And he was going to go. But he stalled. He looked one more time from the ocean back to his house. He wondered if it’d be the last time he’d ever see that view from that porch.

Maybe he frowned a little and looked down for a moment, resigning himself to some bitter reality he’d better start getting used to. But he looked once more to the sea. 

This time he spotted something out among the dunes. Was it gray? He wasn’t sure. But there it was, from out of nowhere and completely out of place on the threatened shore of the empty beach.

But that storm was coming. And maybe a moment was all the man had to spare, all the time he had to look at the thing and make the strange piece fit in the puzzle.

So, he moved on to more tangible matters, shuttering the windows and moving those things he could not replace into the car. As bad as he hated to, he had to leave. 

As he drove away, maybe he stole one last glance at his beloved home in his rear view mirror. Maybe his thoughts returned, again, to that gray figure on the beach. 

But there were potent and powerful worries aplenty. So, maybe the image of the gray figure was pushed back behind thoughts of his insurancepolicy, or whether or not he’d be able to find a gas station or a place to stay as he evacuated. 

But that gray figure would later rise like a beacon in the man’s mind. What it foretold was miraculous and as far as the man was concerned, a miracle had indeed occurred. 

When the man returned home, he became part of a legend. One that had been told since there were only 24 stars on the American flag. And fresh tales of this legend arrived even this year. 

You see, when a hurricane threatens South Carolina, residents of Pawley’s Island keep watch for one man. 

No, they’re not waiting to see the governor on television. They’re not listening for the latest from a trusted weatherman. 

The man they’re looking for is barely a man at all. To some he’s looked like a man. To one, he looked like her lost lover. To others, the man is only a shadow, a shade, a vague form on the dunes that leaves them wondering, Did I see what I just saw? And sometimes, only later, they’ll have to tell themselves, yes, that’s what I saw and it’s who I thought it was. 

Because when those on Pawley’s Island see this man, they know bad news is on the way. They know a hurricane is coming. But, if you’ve seen the Gray Man, you’re home will likely be spared from devastation. That’s how the story goes anyway.

Why? No one knows. But the tale is locked in Lowcountry lore. Some have tried to explain that it’s that romantic silver lining to tragedy that Southerners are always looking for. But events surrounding stories of the Gray Man have been a reality on Pawley’s Island for generations. And, yes, it happened this very year.

I had this story written and recorded months ago. But it had to change. There was news about the Gray Man. But more than that, Hurricane Florence ripped through North Carolina and South Carolina in September, claiming the lives of 51 people. 51. 

A month later, Hurricane Michael hit them again. As of now, Michael has killed six people and officials say that number is bound to rise. So, my original version of this story sobered up quickly.   

The Gray Man legend is amazing. And I’m going to tell it to you. But please do not forget that hurricanes are deadly, gut-wrenching, and real-life tragedies.    

The folks of North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia need your help. There are tons of funds and nonprofits out there you can support like the American Red Cross and United Way. But my charities of choice on this are Operation BBQ Relief and the Foundation for the Carolinas. 

My name is Toby Sells. Let’s load up and head out to the beautiful and sometimes haunted beaches of Pawley’s Island, South Carolina. We’re going to meet the mysterious Gray Man today on Haint Blues.

“Everyone who goes to Pawley’s Island and stays for any length of time is bound, sooner or later, to hear something about the “Gray Man.” If heard from an old timer, the story may be anything from a mere name to a mysterious tale or experience.”

That is the beginning of “The Return of the Gray Man,” a book written by Julian Stevenson Bolick and published in 1961. The book captures some of Lowcountry’s greatest Gray Man stories and it does it with amazing sources. But if you plan to pick it up, know that it plainly shows its age with plenty of ugly and oh-so-casual racism. 

Some of the stories in the book are the earliest ever recorded about the Gray Man. They go back to at least 1822, during the John Quincy Adams administration . But Gray Man stories have continued well past Bollick’s book, right up to and through the digital age.

For example, in August 2018, a story in the Myrtle Beach Sun News recalled the Gray Man legend and called him a “watchful, dead friend” to Pawley’s Island. This was months before Hurricane Florence began churning in the South Atlantic. It goes to show how strong the legend remains there. And, as the storm approached, dozens of Gray Man stories and sightings popped up on Twitter and Facebook. 

Pawley’s Island is about 3 miles long and about a quarter of a mile wide. It’s a  barrier island, separated from the mainland by the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic Ocean. The town sits on South Carolina’s coast about 70 miles north of Charleston and 25 miles south of Myrtle Beach. It’s on the south end of a string of beach resorts called the Grand Strand.

Drive along sandy Myrtle Avenue and you’ll find historic beach homes and a marsh that seems to stretch on forever. Visitors call the town beautiful, the pace slow, the beaches uncrowned, and the overall mood, they say, is tranquil.

Last time the government sent folks to check, they found 107 souls that call Pawley’s Island their home. It’s mainly residential with some retsaurstn, shops and a few hotels. Leisure is the town’s major industry. And, if it has one, I’d say history is its major export.

And one bit of the island’s history has risen above the rest and carried on through the ages. The funny part is no one can agree on the exact story. It’s a ghost story, after all. 

Saltwater sprayed the young man’s face as he spurred his horse across the Island’s soggy sand at low tide. He looked over his shoulder to see his enslaved servant riding up behind him.

The young man had arrived at Pawley’s Island only a few hours before. He dutifully paid respects to his family, and then he lit out. 

The man was about his business. He’d been abroad for two years and, back on Pawley’s Island, he’d left the woman he loved. Having been away so long and now being so close, the man wanted to see his lover as quickly as he could. He had a question to ask. THE question.

With all of those forces at work, it’s understandable that the young man got risky. Well, maybe even a little foolhardy. 

Here’s how Bollick told it in his book: 

“The master took a short cut through a marshy area without giving it much thought. To his horror, the horse lunged forward and he was thrown! Terrified and frantic, he realized they were in quick sand. 

He was sinking and powerless! The poor animal’s eyes rolled wildly as it screamed and fought to free itself, but with each movement it sank deeper into the mire.

The man shouted for his servant, who was there in an instant, untying his bridle as he came. He tried several times to throw the reins to his master but it was too short! 

Realizing this, he ran into the woods in hopes of finding a pole or a sapling that would be long enough. He could find nothing!”

Waiting for the young man to arrive, his lover had the house made up for a royal visit. Flowers were brought in from the gardens, filling the house with the sweet smells of gardenias and camellias. She’d had his favorite meals prepared, all of his favorite meals, as the story goes. I imagine her standing on the second-story balcony, hands on the rails in her most beautiful gown, staring hopefully down the sandy dirt road through a tunnel of live oaks just waiting for her man to arrive.

But, as the story goes, she was left waiting. The servant rode as fast as he could to the young woman’s house. But before help could get back to the young man, he died. 

For days after, the young woman was stricken with grief and took to walking alone on the beach. The sea mist mingled with her tears as waves crashed on the shore and gulls cawed impolitely at one another.

The gray mist rose off the surf and, through the haze, she could just make out the figure of a man. Was he gray, she wondered, and focused he eyes.

Instinctively, she began moving toward the figure. Now she was sure he was a man, dressed in all gray. Moving even closer, she allowed herself to dream the man resembled someone she knew. Squinting hard into the mist, she swore the man was her lost lover. At ten feet, she was sure. Her lover had miraculously returned and he was standing right there in front of her on Pawley’s Island. 

Her lover — or, whoever the figure was — never spoke, never moved toward her. She reached out to embrace him but held nothing but sea air and mist. The man in gray disappeared.

That night the woman dreamed. It was a dream she’d had before, in fact. In it, her lost lover had returned to her. 

“He was standing on a high dune, calling for her to come to him. But she couldn’t. She was in a boat with no oars or a paddle.” A storm roiled off in the distance and she slipped further and further into its black heart. He called to her but she could not respond, not with all her strength. Instead, her boat carried her further into the dark waters.

This was the story she told her father that next morning. The night before, she’d told of him of seeing the man in gray on the beach and that she thought it was her lost love. The father tried to calm her but couldn’t. That very next day, the father moved his family from the “Island house” back to the plantation house farther inland. 

The day after that, a hurricane lashed Pawley’s Island. This was 1822, they didn’t name hurricanes back then but that didn’t make them any less brutal. The storm leveled Pawley’s Island. Bolick wrote that “people saw lights still burning in houses as they were swept to sea. The loud helpless cries of the inhabitants rang above the furious howling of the winds.” 

Thanks to the young woman’s troubling vision on the beach that day and her troubling dream that night, the family moved inland. And we're saved from that terrible storm of 1822. The woman believed that her lover, in the form of the gray man she saw on the beach, came back from the grave to warn her of the gathering storm. 

Since that big, unnamed storm, Pawley’s Island has been battered by five hurricanes that I could find. And the man in gray, the Gray Man, has been seen before most of them. 

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel had flattened Haiti and locked the South Carolina coast in its sights. 

Hazel ripped through Pawley’s Island. Houses were pulled from their pilings, and pushed like toy blocks down the beach. Sailboats were washed together and laid in piles like so many socks waiting to be matched and folded. Homes and lives were scattered up and down the coast. After the sea retreated, Pawley’s Island was awash in despair and worry. 

From start to finish, Hazel killed nearly 500 people from Haiti to Toronto. The storm was so deadly, the weather service retired the name Hazel for hurricanes.   

That brings us back to the man from the top of the show, the one who thought he saw something gray on the beach before he evacuated. 

When he returned to the island after Hazel, he found his home intact. More than intact, actually. Everything was just as he’d left it. In fact, the beach towels hanging from the handrails outside had not been moved by winds strong enough to level the rest of the town.

What had only been a tingle in the man’s mind became a fact to him in that moment. He had seen the Gray Man and he had spared the man’s family and home.

Flash forward to 1989, Hurricane Hugo had blasted the Caribbean and was tearing an angry streak straight to Pawley’s Island. Thousands fled only to come home and find that Hugo, had laid chaos upon the peaceful island. Where was the Gray Man, they wondered?

When Jim and Clara Moore returned, they probably found the streets clogged with beach chairs, refrigerators, framed family photos, insulation, and more. But the biggest surprised waited for them at their house. 

“I didn’t think much about it until the article came out in the paper,” Clara told Unsolved Mysteries in 1989. She was referring to a story headlined, “The Gray Man fails to appear.” “Then we talked about, well, we had seen him.”

Clara said all of this in that beautiful South Carolina accent, sweet enough to turn vinegar into honeydew vine water.

Two days before Hugo hit, Bob and Clara were taking their afternoon stroll along the beach. No one was out, except one man. 

“He was coming directly towards us,” Bob said on Unsolved Mysteries. “When I got within speaking distance, I thought, well, you always speak to people whether you know them or not. So, I raised my hand to say hi or beautiful evening or beautiful night or whatever.”

But the man said nothing in return, a gesture clearly outside the Southern manners of Pawley’s Islanders. But what he did next, Bob called it “eerie.”

“Of course, I didn’t worry too much about it. I said, you know, I was just seeing things. But I’m sure that he was there and when I started to speak, he wasn’t there.”

Clara said, “I didn’t know it was Gray Man. I just thought it was someone on the beach until he disappeared. I can’t explain our good fortune other than the presence of the Gray Man, and the Lord, of course.”

Their good fortune? Everything at their house was just as they’d left it.

Nearly thirty years later, Hurricane Florence was growing in strength over the Atlantic and aimed its 350-mile span at the coast of North Carolina and South Carolina. The storm was so big that astronauts on the International Space Station had to use an extra wide angle lens just to get it all in one frame.

As Florence churned, so, too, did news reporters, trying to get the latest information on the evacuation orders, preparations, and more. And as they dug, some found the Gray Man story. 

The legend was retold in the digital pages of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Mother Jones, Yahoo News, and on national and local television reports. A few locals claimed on social media to have seen Gray Man.

By the time Florence made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, her winds were at 90 miles per hour. About 100 miles south, Pawley’s Island officials had prepared for the worst and all but three of the island residents had evacuated. When it was all over, the island was left largely untouched.

Was it the Gray Man? Had he really been seen? Yes, well, maybe.

About a month before the storm, a couple on vacation in nearby Horry County. One night the watched a ghostly gray figured walk down a pier toward their hotel.

They watched in amazement for awhile and then the man grabbed his phone and took a photo. It shows a man-sized shadow, a gray shadow with a rough outline of a head and shoulders, that cuts eerily against the black night.

The man would not claim the thing to be a ghost but he would not rule it out either. He said he didn’t what it was. But he knew what he saw.       

So, was this the Gray Man? Did he show up more than month early and a few miles from Pawley’s Island? He, or something very much like him, had been photographed just before a hurricane. 

Maybe. Maybe not. But the timing and the similarities are uncanny.

Theories abound as to the Gray Man’s identity. Was he that tragic lover who fell to his doom? Was he another lover lost at sea who returned only to find his beloved marrying his best friend? That story claims all three threw themselves into the Waccamaw River. Is it George Pawley, who once owned the Island? Is it a Civil War captain whose home has survived all the lashings Mother Nature has thrown at it?

That last one you can check out for yourself. The captain’s home is now called The Pelican Inn and you can stay there. Its website says the inn sits behind the highest dunes on the island and it’s protected by a grove of live oaks. All of that protected the Inn against Hazel and Hugo. Y’know, if that’s what you want to believe. 

If you want to see the Gray Man, head up Ocean Highway to “Downtown Pawleys Island.” There, you’ll find the Gray Man Gallery. Its the oldest art gallery on the island and has Gray Man prints galore.

In my research for this story, I found that Jim and Clara Moore, that amazingly sweet South Carolina couple on Unsolved Mysteries, passed away in the 2000s. I hope their descendants know how much that TV spot spoke to me as a kid. I wouldn’t be talking about Gray Man today without it. And I hope they know how much those two brought Pawley’s Island and Southern culture to the rest of the world.      

A huge thank you to Lynda and Kay Nance for sourcing a ton of Gray Man stories for me. Thank you thank you for the books and newspaper clippings and for your work to keep Gray Man and Lowcountry history alive. Another big thank you to David Preston, my best friend since Kindergarten, for some of the music you’ve heard in the show.

Thanks also to my buddy Ben Powers for some of the beautiful Haint Blues artwork and for helping me fine-tune the show.

Thanks, of course, to my wife and boys for your loving patience. 

Thanks to each and everyone of y’all for loading up and heading out with me today. I’m Toby Sells, holler back at me here soon for more Haint Blues.