Wearing a teal 1850s day dress and a black riding bonnet, Katie Compton-Boyd stands in front of the Northrop Mall antiques store on East Moore Street in Southport. Holding a
Wearing a teal 1850s day dress and a black riding bonnet, Katie Compton-Boyd stands in front of the Northrop Mall antiques store on East Moore Street in Southport. Holding a candle-lit lantern and a black lace hand fan, she tells the rapt audience that surrounds her the ghost story of whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking Samuel Northrop.
The local businessman became a partner in the mercantile business in the early 1900s and later met his untimely demise on the second floor. “Ever since then, he’s not gotten used to this not being his property,” Compton-Boyd says, adding that it’s not uncommon to smell the acrid scent of cigar smoke while rummaging through the antiques.
The location is the first stop on Old South Tour Company’s walking ghost tour of historic Southport, which Compton-Boyd has been leading since 2003. Beginning at the Whittler’s Bench at Southport Waterfront Park, she takes her audience to seven supposedly haunted stops, including Franklin Square and the Old Brunswick County Jail, regaling them with local ghost lore before finishing back at the park near the Southport Pier.
Compton-Boyd founded the company during her junior year at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The history major was commuting to school from her hometown — she’d lived in Southport since the seventh grade — and needed a way to pay for the speeding tickets that she was racking up. She’d been working at the Trolly Stop hot dog joint since high school but was tired of smelling like hot dogs.
One night, she had a dream about giving a tour. The next day, she wrote a list of all of the stops. She already knew the lore — she’d been interested in history and the macabre since childhood. And with years of experience in community theater, she knew how to engage an audience: project from the diaphragm, make eye contact, never turn your back to the group. Twenty years in, the tour is so popular that some people return every year, and some who first came as children now bring their own kids.
When she’s not leading tours, Compton-Boyd zips around town in a golf cart outfitted to look like a Ford Roadster, with the 1775 Bladen-Brunswick flag flying from the back. She often stops to chat with pedestrians and owners of local businesses.
As she drives, she points out Lantana’s Gallery & Fine Gifts, the shop next door to Trolly Stop. She drives past the farmers market. She tells the story of the town’s 800-year-old Indian Trail Tree, which marked the path that the Cape Fear Indians took to their fishing spots. She’s eager to share local stories of the non-ghost variety, like how a South Florida transplant who felt that the town didn’t have enough palm trees loaded up a tractor-trailer full of them and went around offering to plant them in locals’ yards. “People are a little quirky here,” she says. “We attract a lot of people who are delightfully eccentric.”
When she reaches the Old Smithville Burying Ground — dating back to at least 1792, the year that Smithville (now Southport) was founded — she gets excited about the artistic engravings on the tombstones. “You can walk around there, and there’s an entire language of the dead,” she says. Laurels signifying life eternal or victory over death. Lambs for children. A rose with a broken stem for a woman who died young — a life ended while in full bloom. The burying ground is another spot on her tours, where she tells the story of a ghoulish woman with long, dark hair who sometimes appears in photos taken at the site.
As Compton-Boyd walks from stop to stop, her long skirt billows behind her. Her costumes are nearly historically accurate — she opts for modern zippers over the many buttons that would make getting into character more laborious. Her 12-year-old son, William, helps out on the tours to earn part of his allowance, but he refuses to wear historical garb, despite the temptation of higher pay. He’s been coming along since before he was born. When William was a baby, Compton-Boyd would dress him in an antique christening gown and cart him along in a wicker pram. Tourists would get a scare when they abruptly realized that he wasn’t a prop. As a small child, he would walk along while holding onto his mom’s skirts.
The tours have empowered Compton-Boyd: Early on, they helped her finish and pay for college. Later, they allowed her to support herself and William when her first marriage ended, giving her the independence that her grandmother had instilled in her as a child. “My grandmother kept telling me, ‘You have to have things that people can’t take away from you,’” she says. Eventually, they brought her together with her second husband. (He kept showing up until she went out with him.) It’s for reasons like these that she describes the business as “deeply personal” to her.
It’s also personal because of her love for her hometown. She knows that when people have a good experience on her tour, they might come back to visit Southport again, and the money they spend in town will help support her neighbors’ businesses. They’re also going to care more about the town. “I want them to walk away feeling more intimately acquainted with Southport,” she says, “like they are part of our tapestry — they’re woven into that fabric now, too.”
And, maybe, she wants them to be just a little bit spooked.
Old South Tour Company ghost tours are offered every Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Whittler’s Bench at Southport Waterfront Park. Walk-ups are welcome. For more information, call (910) 713-2072 or visit oldsouthtourcompany.com.print it