CHARLESTON’S LITTLE WOMEN

BY SUSAN MILLAR WILLIAMS

Six stair-step sisters, born two years apart—Alice, Fay, Beatrice, Carlotta, Belle and Laura Witte—were the envy of Charleston. They lived in the antebellum mansion that is now the centerpiece of Ashley Hall School, and their bank president father firmly believed that they should have “whatever they cried for,” from jars of rock candy on long strings to twin doll houses large enough for small children to crawl inside.

Born in the Kingdom of Hanover, Charles Otto Witte married late to a woman 23 years his junior. By the time his girls came along, starting in 1866, he was well able to indulge them. Otto made his living managing money, and he was very good at it. But his great passion was gardening. Every day he came home for Charleston’s traditional “three o’clock dinner,” served by a trained staff on heavy linens and fine china. Then he took a handful of fruit and retreated to his garden, where greenhouses shared space with the charming shell-encrusted aviary that still dominates the grounds.

Birds strutted and flitted everywhere: pheasants, ducks and bantams outdoors, and cockatoos, macaws, lovebirds and finches in a structure heated by a special stove and tended by a man named Phillipe. Otto’s fountain was always stocked with turtles and baby alligators. There were dogs and ponies and kittens for the girls, pet monkeys and even a baby bear for whom Otto commissioned a grotto. Another special enclosure was constructed to house a colony of prairie dogs, reinforced deep below the surface so they could not burrow out. By the end of the 1880s, Otto’s garden was so stunning that pictures of it were featured in local guidebooks and carriages filled with gawking strangers often drove through the grounds. Hoping that his daughters would come to share his enthusiasm for plants, Otto had six flowerbeds laid out, one for each. But the youngest, Laura, later confessed that the lesson did not take. The girls sometimes picked the flowers but were bored by planning and maintenance.

The girls did love their garden playhouse, which was fitted out with child-size furniture and a real working stove. One of their favorite activities was to clean the house from top to bottom, a task that must have seemed exotic to girls who never did housework in real life. Sometimes one of the servants would come out and cook a meal on the tiny stove.

Otto wanted to protect his girls from everything he considered vulgar. He refused to let them have their ears “bored,” even though pierced ears were the norm for well-to-do Charleston girls. He was horrified to discover them selling and trading toys among themselves, just as they had no doubt seen him doing with his many properties. Though their mother died when Laura was only 13, the girls remembered their young lives as happy and secure.

The Witte girls did well for themselves. Beatrice went off to attend the Women’s Annex of Harvard (later called Radcliffe College), married two Ravenels in succession and became an accomplished modernist poet. Alice, too, had literary ambitions, though her work was more conventional. She married Earle Sloan, the South Carolina state geologist. Fay married William Watts Ball, editor of both the Columbia State and the Charleston News and Courier. Belle wed Julian Mitchell, one of Charleston’s preeminent attorneys, and Carlotta married the man who would write the United States Coast Guard’s service anthem. But it was Laura, the wife of Thomas R. Waring, editor of the Charleston Evening Post, who wrote The Way It Was in Charleston, the most delicious memoir of a Charleston childhood ever to see print.

Susan Millar Williams is the author, with Stephen G. Hoffius, of Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow.