Shirley Plantation

by Stacey Graham (

Gracing the southern Virginian colony and commanding a view of the James River, Shirley Plantation began building in 1723 by Edward Hill III for his daughter, Elizabeth.  Hill’s sister, Martha, had left for England to study, leaving behind an unsigned portrait of herself.  A strong mouth and deep eyes dominated the painting, almost daring one to ignore its presence in the room.  Martha later married an Englishman, Hugh Griffith, and remained in England.  Though the portrait is known by the family as “Aunt Pratt,” no one seems to know the source of the name Pratt.

In 1858, long after Martha’s death, the family noticed the painting rocking violently against the wall above the mantel in a third story bedroom.  Moving the noisy portrait to the attic only intensified its turbulent actions.  Knocking was heard around the house and word got out that the plantation was infected with a rather boisterous picture.  The Civil War soon surrounded the plantation and the residents of Shirley were caught up in the turmoil of having their home turned into a field hospital as General McClellan transported over 8,000 injured and dying men out of Virginia.  With their access to the James River close by, injured men were transferred onto Union ships and the dead were buried in the family cemetery.  There is no mention of Pratt’s activity during this time, they probably had more pressing matters to worry about.

After peace ensued, the portrait was taken out of storage in the attic and placed on the first floor in a place of honor for the old gal.  Though happy for a while, it soon began its rocking and the hunt was on for someplace that the picture would remain quiet.  Finally placing the picture in Martha’s second floor bedroom, it remained relatively quiet for the next few years.  

In 1974, the Virginia Travel Council loaned the portrait with other items associated with psychic phenomena to an exhibit at Rockefeller Plaza in New York.  Once placed in a display window, the picture began to rock so vigorously that the seal of Virginia, which was placed beside it, began to swing from side to side in front of spectators.  Aunt Pratt made her national television debut on NBC-TV as a reporter on his way to lunch stopped by to see what all the ruckus was about and caught the rocking on tape.  It caused such a disturbance that it was removed from the exhibit and crated up.  The night shift reported hearing crying and rocking in the storage room.  One morning it was found on the floor outside the storage locker, some thought she was making a break for the exit…

After being returned to Virginia, the portrait was taken to Linden Galleries in Richmond, Virginia to help repair the damage to the frame.  While there, workers would tell of bells ringing, though there were no bells on the property.  The portrait was finally placed back at Shirley Plantation and is seemingly happy in it’s second floor bedroom.  Tours are available of the mansion though you may have to pay more to see the rocking…  ;)

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