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If ghosts are real, then Wake Forest’s most tragic might be 16-year-old Octavia Seawell.
Octavia lived in the big white house known as Oakforest Plantation just south of town. She was on the girls’ basketball team at Wake Forest High School, had a best friend named Cora, and spent class time doodling on the blank pages and margins of her textbooks.
But she didn’t know time was running short. It was 1932; the year Octavia died.
It began with a strep infection, the kind that causes a sore throat. But it wasn’t Octavia’s infection. It was her older sister, Ellen, who first became ill. Ellen was married and a mother of two young boys. She didn’t live at Oakforest. The family was very worried.
Although scientist Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin in 1928, the widespread medicinal use of antibiotics was still years away. Ellen’s strep infection worsened and turned into scarlet fever. The illness took over. Her fever raged, damaging tissue, shutting down organs. Despite the best therapies of the day, Ellen died. Her two young sons were sent to live with their grandparents and Octavia at Oakforest Plantation.
Ellen’s clothing was shipped back with her sons. People everywhere were struggling; America was in the depths of the Great Depression. To Octavia, this was a windfall. It’s clear from her drawings that she loved fashion. She was a lively, attractive, teenage girl. She began wearing her dead sister’s dresses, blouses, coats, and slacks.
Then the worst thing possible happened. Octavia also contracted scarlet fever. The stricken family believed she caught it from the clothes. They stood vigil at her bedside, powerless to stop the deadly infection. Several weeks after the passing of Ellen, Octavia also died. It was April 15, 1932; the group photograph of the WFHS boys’ and girls’ basketball teams for which she’d posed would appear in the yearbook after her death.
Octavia’s sickroom was quickly sanitized. The family, now grieving the sudden loss of two daughters, even changed the wallpaper. That’s how fearful they were. But no one else succumbed to the bacteria.
Whether Octavia haunts her childhood home isn’t exactly known. Relatives and visitors have seen other ghosts in the rambling stairways and halls of the house. It’s more than two centuries old, and perhaps contains generations of spirits. But if ghosts stay with us because it wasn’t their time, or they wanted more life, or haven’t realized they’ve gone… then Octavia may very well be among them.
Visit Oakforest Plantation and step into the library. You can almost feel she’s still there, sitting as she is in the foreground of this photograph, flipping and doodling in a favorite book.