The Tale of Charleston’s 1867 Mermaid Riot

Kiawah River’s salt marshes and estuaries are home to thousands of marine species. From microscopic insects to magnificent dolphins, it’s hard to know exactly what lies beneath the surface of our murky waters. While the Loch Ness Monster isn’t a likely resident, there is an infamous tale of another sea creature causing havoc in the Lowcountry’s waterways.  

The year was 1867. Charleston, blanketed by dark, swirling skies, was experiencing rainfall and storm conditions like never before. In addition to the threatening weather, a local entrepreneur had his own problems brewing. 

When Dr. William G. Trott opened his apothecary on Broad Street in downtown Charleston in the spring of 1867, he expected business to be booming. However, he quickly realized that his potential customers were receiving their medicinal treatments from a Gullah Geechee root doctor (think magic) and her herbal remedies, which were far cheaper than Dr. Trott’s services at the time. 

Faced with a dying business, Dr. Trott had to get creative – and fast! So, he hatched a plan to make his apothecary as enticing as the root doctor’s magical healing powers. He posted a sign in his shop window advertising a “free magic show,” and within days, Charleston locals were lining the street to see what he had in his store.  

Inside, Dr. Trott claimed, was a real mermaid whom he captured after she washed ashore amid the violent storms. He invited patrons into a dark room at the apothecary where he would reveal the mermaid tank just long enough for patrons to get a glance of her tail before quickly covering the tank again. Not only did many of the spectators believe they had seen a real mermaid, but many began to suspect that the mermaid was intentionally causing the devastating storms which wouldn’t stop until she was freed.  

After a particularly bad storm refused to let up, more than 500 people rioted the apothecary, demanding the mermaid be returned to the sea with the hopes that she would take the storm with her. Dr. Trott’s insistence that the entire thing was a hoax was all in vain as people rushed into the store, bringing in the surging floodwater with them. The building collapsed and many claim to have seen the mermaid being swept back out to sea. It’s said that the rain stopped within minutes of the riot, only to validate Dr. Trott’s mermaid spectacle.   

 So, what do you think – fact or fiction? Happy Spooky Season, y’all!