Way Back Wednesday: Philadelphia Alley

Way Back Wednesday

Photo: Google Maps

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- Nestled between Church St and State St sits Philadelphia Alley, a one-block long, hidden gem in the heart of Downtown Charleston. Despite being small enough to often be overlooked, this alleyway provides a glimpse into the earliest days of Charleston’s history.

While much of the history behind Philadelphia Alley has been lost or forgotten, there is some information known about its creation and local folklore about its deadly purpose.

According to Charleston County Public Library, Philadelphia Alley’s beginnings date back to 1766 when an American Scot named Francis Kinloch purchased the land, widened, and nicknamed it “Kinloch’s Court.” The strip of land, adjacent to his home, connected Queen St and Cumberland St. Then came the fire of 1796 which swept through this part of Charleston and consumed all of Kinloch’s Court.

A few years later, in 1801, the current owner of the property Dr. Alexander Baron sold the undesirable property to William Johnson Sr and William Johnson Jr. The two Johnsons rebuilt rental tenements of the former property of Kinloch. But another fire, this time in 1810, wiped away all that was left of Kinloch’s Court. As word spread north about the fire, Philadelphia residents gathered together to raise funds to aid the struggling city of Charleston. As a thank you for their generosity, Johnson renamed the alley to “Philadelphia Alley” in 1811.

That is all that is “officially” known about Philadelphia Alley, but popular local folklore insists this passageway has a darker side.

Nicknamed “Dueler’s Alley,” many locals believe this was the place where Charleston gentlemen came to settle their disputes in a time when that meant 20 paces and loaded pistols.

One of the most famous stories about “Dueler’s Alley” involves a doctor named Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd, also known as the “whistling doctor.”

The story goes like this:

Joseph Brown Ladd was born in 1764 in Rhode Island and against his father’s wishes pursued poetry writing. In his poems, he often referred to an orphaned heiress he had fallen in love with named Amanda. He became an apprentice under Dr. Isaac Senter and moved to Charleston with the help of General Nathaniel Greene in 1783. Upon his arrival, he naively asked a few men for directions to a nearby inn, and instead they pointed him in the direction of a tavern known for its unruly clientele. Overhearing the attempted con, Ralph Isaacs stepped in to help Ladd and the two became friends.

Ladd was able to establish himself as a prominent doctor in Charleston, beloved by many because of his jolly demeanor. As his popularity rose, so did Isaacs’ resentment. He claimed Ladd simply had no more time for him because he was “too important.” The friction between the two men came to a head in 1786 when Isaacs penned a letter publicly slandering Ladd that said “I dare affirm that the event of a little time will convince the world that the self-created doctor is as blasted a scoundrel as ever disgraced humanity.”

Ladd was faced with defending his name and honor and pressure from outsiders convinced Ladd to challenge Isaacs to a duel. The men met at “Dueler’s Alley” and as Ladd turned around after 21 paces, he intentionally fired wide of his target. But Issacs’ didn’t. Ladd was struck by the bullet and 10 days later succumbed to his injuries. He was 22 at the time.

Now, many people report hearing faint whistling as they pass by the alley or the unexplained sound of gunshots.

“Dueler’s Alley” has become a popular spot on Charleston ghost tours.

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