Written by: Bre Smith
For some locals, the mention of Alice the Witch elicits a shiver as they recall a ghostly tale passed down around the dinner table, bonfire or playground. For decades, stories have swirled, claiming the spirit of Alice Penny Taylor rises from the grave to haunt the city of Zachary. In other tales, her voice is heard ringing through the cemetery as she roams, calling to her loved ones from the afterlife. The grave of Alice Penny Taylor, posthumously known as “Alice the Witch,” has captivated the interest of forensic pathologists, ghost hunters and locals alike.
In the 1990s, renowned forensic pathologist Mary Manhein and her team at the LSU FACES Lab began studying Alice Penny Taylor. Their work transformed the story told about her from a spooky legend into a stark reminder that we are all human, and the stories we tell about others carry heavy weight. Questions remain unanswered, or up for speculation, surrounding her life. Was her husband related to President Zachary Taylor? The answer isn’t clear. Was she an old witch? No.
Despite the work of Manhein, some still claim to have seen the ghost of Alice roaming the grounds of the small Zachary cemetery where she rests. After all, humans have loved stories of witches and ghouls for millennia.
Who is Alice Penny Taylor?
Alice Penny Taylor was born in 1859, amid the Civil War and Yellow Fever epidemic. She stood about 5’2 and was 19 years old when she died. Her hair was chopped at the shoulders, likely just before or after her death — a sign she may have had a fever shortly before her death, according to Manhein. She is buried at a historical cemetery in Zachary.
During her life, Zachary’s primary economic driver was agriculture and dairying. She was the wife of Isaac Taylor, who may or may not have been the nephew of U.S. President Zachary Taylor. Isaac and Zachary Taylor’s familial ties are not a far stretch, but records have never confirmed the speculations. President Zachary Taylor was a planter and slaveholder with a large plantation in Baton Rouge when he became a politician. His daughter, Sarah Knox “Knoxie” Taylor, married Jefferson Davis in 1835. The couple lived in St. Francisville, where she died at 21 of malaria just three months into their marriage.
Alice’s husband, Isaac, owned about 300 acres on Ashland Plantation, deep in the bayou, in an area called Devil’s Swamp. Some ascribe the relation between Zachary and Isaac Taylor to proximity and circumstance. Others require more evidence. These facts have little bearing on the remainder of Alice Penny Taylor’s story, but they are worth noting. “I think the most poignant thing about Alice was that she may have died during childbirth,” said Manhein. “However, I am not certain that was ever confirmed.”
Why a Witch?
Alice Penny Taylor became locally posthumously famous in the 1950s and ‘60s. One morning, the cemetery keeper noticed that the large marble slab covering her tomb was removed, and whatever unknown force moved it, also placed her remains on the ground. In an attempt to “hold her spirit in,” or keep the anonymous force out, large iron bars were placed on top of the marble – to no avail. At least one other time, and according to some sources, two more times, the marble covering was removed from her grave, with her remains placed just outside. These occurrences led to the lore of “Alice the Witch” – the legend of an old witch who escaped her grave in the small, historical cemetery to haunt the city.
During the ‘50s, the population of Zachary doubled from 1,542 to 3,268 residents, while remaining a primarily rural farming town. Popular places to hang out included football games, cow pastures and, you guessed it, graveyards. Alice Penny Taylor’s grave was, at the time, the only one above-ground grave in the cemetery. Her raised crypt stood out, both physically and because it was unusual for the time. It is a reflection of European tradition and was not necessary like in other parts of water-logged Louisiana. Her ornate tomb both relished in the tradition of her family and spoke to the great loss felt at her passing.
The legend of Alice the Witchresurfaced again in the ‘90s, when, once again, her remains were removed from her grave by an unknown force. This time, Wayne Rogillo of the cemetery maintenance board, reached out to Manhein and the FACES Lab for help finding answers. “We were asked if we wanted to examine her before the cemetery board took considerable care to seal her vault,” recalls Manhein.
The paranormal tale of Alice the Witch dissolved as Manhein and her team at the FACES Lab focused on retelling Alice’s story with facts. Manhein devoted a chapter to the Alice Penny Taylor case in her book, “The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist.” Thanks to Manhein’s dedication, Alice Penny Taylor has a new, better story, much less spooky than the legend.
There is incredible power in the stories we tell. Stories about fellow humans reach our souls in a way only art can, with the ability to vilify or humanize. For decades, Alice Penny Taylor was vilified as an old witch who arose from her grave to haunt the city of Zachary. Through history and science, her story has transformed into a reminder to seek the humanity in the people we choose to share stories about. It’s unclear why Alice’s grave was disturbed for the first time in the ‘50s. For Manhein, it’s a clear case of grave desecration, likely by a group of teenagers who used the cemetery as a nighttime hangout. “She was simply a young woman who died in the prime of her life and who receives undue and disrespectful attention caused by vandalism of her grave,” concluded Manhein. “Graves should never be vandalized.”
Another unknown force, speculated by some to be the owner of a guilty conscience, regularly leaves flowers at the grave of Alice Penny Taylor. There is still speculation surrounding certain details of Alice Penny Taylor’s life, and ghost hunters still visit her grave. Southern Sinister Paranormal published a YouTube video of a visit to her grave in 2021. One user commented: “I lived in the trailer park next to it down the road. Her grave is now in the front, I grew up with her stories. She’s real.” But for Manhein and many others, the case of Alice Penny Taylor is closed. “I do not believe Alice roams the grounds at night,” said Manhein. “Some people just love a good ghost story and will often exploit it.”
Today, the grave of Alice Penny Taylor is entombed in concrete, a sure way to keep anonymous forces out — or in. Visitors have adorned her large concrete grave with a wreath, crystals, rocks and coins, a sign of respect.