Photo of a Ghost

I recently reprocessed the Louis Round Wilson Photograph Collection, which contains lots and lots of fascinating portraits from the late 19th-early 20th centuries (tintypes, ambrotypes, cabinet cards, and even a cyanotype). Among these treasures, I found one portrait that — much like the subject’s ears — really stuck out.

Ghost Elliott

On the back of this card-mounted photo is written: “Ghost Elliott, buried near Grifton, NC. A noted NC teacher and presumably an ‘infidel.’ He influenced Uncle Needham Herring of Wilson, Mrs. Cusight’s (?) brother.”

The photographer’s stamp on the front reads (I’m nearly certain) “C. Q. Brown’s Art Studio.” A look at Stephen Massengill’s Photographers in North Carolina reveals a C. O. Brown Art Studio in Mount Olive (in the book’s index, but when you go to the actual page it says “G. O. Brown”). The Mount Olive location seems probable, given its proximity to Grifton . . . so I’m guessing Massengill’s guide is in error on this one and that it should in fact be C. Q. Brown.

My curiosity piqued, I began madly Googling, but could find surprisingly little about this “noted North Carolina teacher” and “infidel.” In James Sprunt’s Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, 1660-1916 (p. 94, under “Public Buildings in Wilmington”), I found the following tidbit:

“The Innes Academy, later known as the Old Academy Building, was a great brick structure, the first floor of which was used as a theatre and the second as a schoolroom. In the latter, Ghost Elliott, a famous teacher in the early days, at one time taught.”

Then, in an e-book titled “Biennial report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of North Carolina, for the scholastic years … [serial] (Volume 1896/97-1897/98),” under Sampson County, I hit the jackpot.

(The text below is cleaned up to correct OCR errors, but a few bloopers remain. Emphasis added).

“There was a school of some note at a place called the Kornegay House, in the eastern part of the county, not far from the site of Duplin’s old courthouse, about 1830, Dr. Fields being Principal.

It was superseded by Spring Vale Academy, not far from its site, which was a very flourishing institution, to the outbreak of the war, the pupils averaging about 80, sometimes reaching 100, from Sampson, Duplin, Wayne and Bladen. The teachers, successively, were Joseph S. Rhodes, George W. Johnson, Angus C. McNeill, Miss Bizzell, John G. Elliott, Solomon J. Faison.

Of these, John G. Elliott deserves special notice. He was at the University with James K. Polk, and walked fifty miles to the University in 1847 in order to greet him. He was a good classical scholar, eccentric in manner, devoted to his calling as a teacher and extremely charitable in giving tuition; high-principled, but agreeing with no one in religious views. He was a philanthropist-teacher. His personal appearance was peculiar. He was so thin and cadaverous that from his youth he was known as ‘Ghost Elliott,’ and, falling into the humor, he added “G.” (for ghost) to his Christian name. Rev. Dr. C. F. Deems describes him as he appeared in 1855: ‘Small, thin, washed out by multitudinous ablutions, built after the architectural design of an interrogation mark, with a disproportionately large head, the white hair on which was cropped to a length measured exactly the thickness of the comb, he was a man whose appearance attracted attention everywhere. In some departments he was very learned, and his [___] acquirements dominated his eccentricities and won for him the respect of a large class of citizens.’ I add that he was accustomed to ride intellectual hobbies. I remember him at the University Commencement of 1847, when President Polk and a brilliant collection of visitors were on the Plill [?], he would talk of nothing else than Greek adverbs and prepositions.”

So I ask you, readers, why has someone so “famous,” “noted” and influential in his time, and obviously such an unusual character, become somewhat of an historical “ghost”? Is there some cache of knowledge/information about John Ghost Elliott out there that I didn’t find?

-Elizabeth Hull

6 thoughts on “Photo of a Ghost”

  1. Many amazements, not the least of which is to find in the “Biennial report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction…” such a brilliantly observed sketch of J. Ghost’s appearance….
    “Built after the architectural design of an interrogation mark”? Wow!

  2. I have been researching this man for the last four years and can tell you all about him, if you’ll contact me. I even have a photograph of his headstone.

  3. In the late 1790s, two schoolteachers from Lebanon, CT, moved to North Carolina to find jobs. John Eliot and Joseph Eliot, brothers, were both graduates of Yale. John settled in Duplin County and found Green Academy and Joe settled in Lenoir where he started Spring Hill Academy. John married, not sure if his wife was a Cogdell or Slocumb, and they lived in the Smith’s Chapel community of Wayne County, which is near where Wayne, Sampson, and Duplin counties intersect.

    John had a son, also named John, born 1800. The son, John, graduated from UNC in 1822 and it is their that he was given the nickname of “Ghost”. Each class back then usually less than a dozen students. When I read that Ghost and James K. Polk were close friends and former roomates, I was stumped, as Polk finished in 1817. Then I learned that Ghost had started school in 1816 and attended for two years, then was home for two years, and returned to graduate in 1822.

    Regarding his noted trek to Chapel Hill in 1847, where then-president James K. Polk delivered the commencement address, I’ve heard one source that said their conversation was in Greek and another said Latin.

    Ghost Eliot taught at various private schools in the area, supported by affluent families to instruct their children. Besides Innes Academy in Wilmington, he also taught at Grove Academy in Kenansville and Spring Vale Academy, which was located between Clinton and Faison. He also taught at Smith’s Chapel Academy near his home. In addition, he would often go to live with families for months at the time to instruct their children.

    Even though he attended Smith’s Chapel church, he was widely considered an agnostic. Although he never married, he had a sister.

    He taught a variety of subjects, including mental arithmetic and elocution, which is the proper way to give a speech, using body gestures, hand movements, pitch of one’s voice, ect., in order to properly communicate one’s message.

    In the same community where he lived was the family of Bryan Whitfield Herring, and they resided on the family plantation, “Goshen”, built around 1835. There John G. Eliot would come and teach the Herring children. Years later, one of the Herring children Needham Bryan Herring, became a physician, and he wrote a book about Eliot and his experiences with him entitled “The Lantern of Diogenes”, sort of a play on words of the famed “Light of Diogenes” in which the search was for an honest, truthful man. I copied the book and it is not very good, but it can be found at the NC State Library.

    In the 1880s, one of those Herring children, Bettie Vaiden Herring Wright, married, had children, and lived in lower Sampson County. Because of the lack of schools and qualified teachers, she taught her own children at home, and soon the children of neighbors. Eventually she took in borders in what became known as “Mrs Wright’s Private School”. Later, one of her daughters, Penelope, married Louis Round Wilson, who became the Head Librarian at UNC for about fifty years, so there is a connection to whewre you work. Her youngest son, Robert, was the first president of ECU and served in that capacity for twenty-five years and died of a heart attack at school. Wright Auditorium, one of the older and more visible buildings on campus there, was named for him.

    I have been shown a place near where he lived that supposedly were he taught the local children, both white and black.

    I have found a slave narrative, written about 1936 through the Federal Writer’s Project, in which an interview was done with a slave by the name of John Elliott, aged 80. (It can be viewed at Here a former slave states that his mother was a runaway from VA, and John Eliot gave them food, shelter, and the means to look after themselves.

    At some time in the 1870s, Ghost went to live with a Smith family in lower Pitt County to teach their children. (Some of the Smith children later went on to become prominent and influential teachers in Pitt County.) In 1882 he was taken ill and stayed in the home of a local physician not far from the Smith family. (The physican lived a couple of miles east of Grifton and the Smiths a couple of milkes east of Ayden, but they’re close.) It was in the home of the physician that Ghost Eliot died and was buried in a field nearby. A white marble monument was erected that read: “John Eliot, born, Feb. 24, 1800, died Sept. 22, 1882. Was a schoolteacher for 52 years and educated many poor boys free of charge. The law of truth was in his mouth.”

    Later, the monument (but not his remains) was moved to St. John’s Episcopal Church east of Grifton, where it can still be found today.

    So you see, John “Ghost” Eliot had a tremendous impact on the education in this state that is still being felt today. I hope to nominate him for a NC Historic Highway marker within the next year of so.

  4. Wow, Joel, thanks so much! What a wealth of information, and what a fascinating life. It sounds like a marker would be well-deserved. “The law of truth was in his mouth.” Amazing. I hope you plan on publishing some of your research and will let us know if/when you do so.

    And thank you also for clarifying the connection between Eliot and Louis Round Wilson. In addition to the portrait of Eliot, the Wilson photo collection ( contains portraits of Betty Vaiden Wright, Penelope Wright Wilson, and an R. H. Wright who may be the Robert Wright you refer to (first president of ECU).


  5. I am writing an article for an encyclopedia of Florida governors to be published next year (2018). My subject is William Dunn Moseley (1795-1863), the state’s first governor, who was born in Lenoir County and moved to Florida in 1839. His early education was at Spring Hill Academy where Joseph Eliott taught him. Do you know anything of Joseph? He would have been a uncle of Ghost. I think he taught at Spring Hill for about twenty years. If the family came originally from Connecticut I think their politics was probably Federalist. Any evidence to support that?

    Thanks for any help!

    Francis R. Hodges
    Lakeland, FL
    (formerly of Mount Olive, NC)

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