Dock Street Theatre

Dock Street Theatre

Dock Street Theatre is in the French Quarter of downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

The building that houses the Dock Street Theatre today was the site of the Planter’s Hotel in the 1800s. The theater opened there in the 1930s after the city authorities restored the building following years of abandonment.

Paranormal enthusiasts believe that the ghosts of people who worked, visited, lived, or died in the building since the 1800s haunt it.

Among the spirits that allegedly haunt Dock Street Theatre is the ghost of Junius Brutus Booth, the father of John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s killer.


The theatre in Dock Street

The original Dock Street Theatre opened in Charleston (then Charles Towne) in 1736 at the intersection of Church Street and Dock Street (now known as Queen Street).

An advertisement published in the South Carolina Gazette (1732–1775) on January 24, 1736, said the new theater would open on Dock Street on February 12 (1736). It added that the operators would stage a performance of George Farquhar’s raunchy comedy, The Recruiting Officer (scpictureproject.org).

The theater was never officially known as the Dock Street Theatre. The newspaper ad referred to it as “the new theater in Dock Street.” Another ad published a few months later in May called it the “theatre in Queen Street” after city authorities changed the street name.

Mr. Charles Shepheard

Sources don’t provide information about the proprietors of the “new theatre in Dock Street,” but some speculated that a resident named Mr. Charles Shepheard likely owned or operated the theatre.

However, it is possible that it was a joint initiative by some theater-loving residents of Charleston. For instance, we know that another person, a dancer named Henry Holt, was also involved in managing it.

We also know that Mr. Shepheard owned a hall known as the Court Room. The Court Room was part of his tavern at 46 Broad Street.  The provincial government rented the Court Room hall for meetings until 1738.

Shepheard also staged plays at the Court Room until the theater in Dock Street opened in 1736. For instance, an ad published in a January 1735 edition of the South Carolina Gazette announced that the staging of a tragic play (The Orphan) would occur at the Court Room on January 24 (scpictureproject.org).

Dock Street Theatre: America’s first?

Some historians claim that the “new theater on Dock Street” was the first building in the United States built exclusively for staging theatrical performances. However, other sources noted that another theater in Williamsburg predated the one on Dock Street by at least two decades (Wilmeth and Bigsby, 1998 via scriptureproject.org).

A fire outbreak

Mr. Henry Holt posted an advert offering the theater in Dock Street for sale in the May 1736 edition of the South Carolina Gazette.

Although no known records confirm it, some historians believe that the theater stopped operating by 1738 and that a fire outbreak in 1740 that gutted many buildings in the French Quarter also likely destroyed the theater. But other historians pointed out that ads published in the Gazette in the mid-1740s announcing events at the “theater in Queen Street” suggested the fire might have spared the theater.

However, the proprietors might also have rebuilt the theater by the mid-1740s after the fire destroyed it in 1740.

Planters Hotel, 1809

By the early 1800s, a new building had replaced the original one that housed the now-defunct “theater in Queen Street.”  The new structure was grander and incorporated adjacent structures.

A couple, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Calder, opened the Planter’s Hotel at the new building in 1809. They presumably named it after their wealthy planter patrons.

Planter’s Hotel was originally at the intersection of Meeting and Queen Streets, where Mills House Charleston Hotel stands today. It relocated to the former site of the “theater in Queen Street” (at the intersection of Church and Queen Streets) in 1809.

John Wilkes Booth’s father

The Planter’s Hotel was a hub of social life in Charleston in the early 1800s. Notable Americans who stayed there included John Wilkes Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, an actor. He reportedly came to Charleston in 1838 for a performance at the New Charleston Theater. 

Legend claims that while staying at the Planter’s Hotel, Booth had an altercation with his manager, Mr. Flyn, and attempted to kill him in his hotel room.

Downturn and Restoration after the Great Depression

The Planter’s Hotel changed hands multiple times in the 1800s. By the mid 1800s, the onwer was John O’Hanlon. In 1855, Mr. J.W. Gamble bought the property from O’Hanlon and renamed it Calder Inn.

It closed during the Civil War years but reopened briefly afterward. It experienced another downturn, and by the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, the building had become abandoned and derelict.

A group of residents started advocating for preserving the property as a historic site. Under Mayor Burnet Maybank, the city acquired the property, and work began in 1935 to restore it under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The Dock Street Theatre opened in 1937

What residents know today as the Dock Street Theatre — named after the old 1736 theater — opened at the former Planter’s Hotel site in 1937 with a staging of The Recruiting Officer to commemorate the old theater.

The Dock Street Theatre has since remained a popular venue for theater performances. It closed in 2007 to undergo renovation and reopened in March 2010.


Dock Street Theatre ghosts

Folklore alleges that many ghosts haunt Dock Street Theatre.

The ghosts of long-dead people who frequented the famous Planter’s Hotel in its heydays allegedly still hang around the building, apparently trying to relive the old times.

Residents reported seeing shadowy figures skulking in the building. They speculated that the apparitions might be the ghosts of wealthy planters and other elite patrons of Planter’s Hotel whose spirits relish the experiences of their lifetime.

People also speculate that the ghosts hanging around the theater stage might be long-dead actors who once performed there. Other ghosts might be people who came to the theater to watch the plays.

Junius Brutus Booth’s ghost

Legend has it that one of the ghosts that regularly haunt the Dock Street Theatre is the actor Junius Brutus Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s father. Brutus stayed as a guest at the Planter’s Hotel when he came to the city to participate in a play staged at a nearby theater.

According to paranormal researchers, ghosts sometimes haunt the places where significant or memorable events occurred in their lifetime, even if they did not die there. Thus, some locals speculated that Booth’s ghost haunts the hotel because of the incident in which he reportedly attempted to murder his manager, Mr. Flynn.

Nettie’s ghost

According to locals, the ghost of a young woman named Nettie Dickerson, a resident of Charleston in the mid-1800s, also haunts the Dock Street Theatre building.

Nettie was allegedly a street walker who lurked around, looking out for wealthy male clients to hook up with.

She was a 25-year-old country girl when she arrived in Charleston. She took up a clerical job at the local church. But her dream was to find a wealthy partner who would marry her.

However, Nettie soon realized that age was not on her side. By the standards of her time, Nettie, at 25, was past her prime. She also suffered the disadvantage of humble origins. She was a country girl with a poor background who lacked the education and culture wealthy suitors wanted in prospective wives.

Nettie committed suicide

After waiting in vain and realizing that age and social status were not in her favor, Nettie gave up on hopes of marrying well. In despair, she started working as an escort hoping the profession might help her find a wealthy man interested in having her as a mistress.

According to one version of the legend, after many years of fruitlessly waiting for a man to come along, she finally gave up all hopes and committed suicide.

Her spirit still lingers around her old lifetime haunts, unable to come to terms with her failure to entrap a wealthy man. People reported seeing her apparition in a bright red dress wandering around the theater.

Got something to say about this case? Leave a comment or get in touch if you have new information or media you think we should add.



Top image courtesy of Brian Stansberry used under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0.

Other Name/s N/A
Address 135 Church St, Charleston, SC 29401
Location ,
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In the media



The Cambridge History of American Theatre (Volume 1) by by Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby (1998)

https://www.scpictureproject.org/charleston-county/dock-street-theatre.html, “Dock Street Theatre,” accessed on April 23, 2023.

http://www.halseymap.com/flash/window.asp?HMID=14#:~:text=Ellington.,a%20new%20Dock%20Street%20Theatre., “30. Dock Street Theater, 1736,” accessed on April 23, 2023.

https://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:86096?tify={%22view%22:%22info%22}, “Dock Street Theatre. Opened in 1736. Charleston, S.C.,” accessed on April 23, 2023.

https://ghostcitytours.com/charleston/haunted-places/dock-street-theatre/, “Ghosts of the Dock Street Theatre,” accessed on April 23, 2023.

https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/legacies/loc.afc.afc-legacies.200003498/, “The Dock Street Theater,” accessed on April 23, 2023.

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