That very day, the family was preparing for a dinner party. They had left briefly to pick up the mail, only to return to find the house ablaze. An investigation uncovered the fact that a worker, who had been hired to make repairs on the observatory, had carelessly tossed a cigarette into a pile of sawdust. Within minutes, the mansion was burning out of control, from the top down. Though family and friends did what they could to control the flames, it was too late. Other than a few pieces of china, nothing was saved. A local newspaper reported on February 21, 1890:
The palatial dwelling on Windsor plantation, near Bethel Church in the southwestern part of the county, burned to the ground last Monday. The fire was discovered about noon, but, it could not be checked, and in a few hours this splendid country site was in ruins. Most of the contents were also destroyed. These included not only a great deal of elegant furniture, but many costly heirlooms and much other household property of value, such as jewelry, silver plate, a large library, etc. This residence, probably the most magnificent in the state, was erected by Mr. Smith Daniell shortly before the war. It was a brick structure, comprising 25 rooms and was completed, we believe, in 1859. The building cost $140,000 and furniture $35,000 additional, bringing the total cost to $175,000. We regret to learn that neither upon it, nor its contents, was there any insurance.
Catherine Daniell then moved to a nearby plantation called Retreat, where she lived for the remainder of her life.
Through the decades, thousands have driven a winding road from Port Gibson, Mississippi, to see the stately columns, which are all that remain of Windsor, one of the most magnificent homes in the antebellum South. How it actually appeared before being destroyed by fire in 1890 was a mystery (and possibly part of its attraction), until a drawing was discovered 130 years later in the diary of a Civil War officer, showing the Claiborne County home in its heyday. The diary and drawing belonged to Lieutenant Henry Otis Dwight, a Union officer who served with the 20th Ohio Infantry during the Civil War and was discovered in the Ohio State Archives in Columbus, Ohio.
Though other artists have sketched pictures of the house, they were done from oral descriptions. Dwight’s drawing is the first found that was done by someone who actually saw the home. The sketch bears the words, “May 1st 1863. Residence Near Bruinsburg Miss.”, in what is believed to be Dwight’s own handwriting.
The only remnants today are 23 haunting columns, portions of the balustrade, a few pieces of china, and a set of the wrought-iron stairs. The flight of stairs and part of the balustrade are now used at Alcorn State University’s chapel down the road. The numerous out buildings have long disappeared, and over the many decades, the nearly 3,000 acres of cotton fields that were tended by slaves and sharecroppers have been replaced with hundreds of trees, heavy brush, and lost to soil erosion.
The property remained in the family until 1974 when descendants of Smith Coffee Daniell, donated it to the state of Mississippi for historic preservation. Hollywood has also made the pilgrimage to these enigmatic ruins, in two films — Raintree County in 1957 and Ghosts of Mississippi in 1996.
It comes as no surprise that these silent standing obelisks have long evoked numerous legends. Like so many other places of the antebellum South, legends and tales abound about the ruins. Visitors to the ruins of this once elegant mansion often agree. Standing within the midst of these massive columns, imagining the size of the mansion, appreciating the detail in the elegant columns, and knowing the both the luxurious life and following turmoil that the family went through, vivid images almost come to life.
One of the ghosts that is said to still linger here is the Union soldier who was killed in the doorway of the mansion during the Civil War. According to visitor reports, his faded image has been seen walking up the old iron staircase that no longer exists. Others have reported hearing the sounds of laughter and music coming from this once magnificent mansion, as if there is still an elegant soirée going on. Another ghostly figure of a man has also been seen walking the grounds. Dressed in clothing of the period, might this be Smith Coffee Daniel II, himself — who never got the opportunity to enjoy his beautiful home? Some visitors have reported that his image appears to be so real, that they have approached this spirit to talk to him. However, as they got closer, the man simply fades away.
Paranormal investigators, who have visited this historic property agree with the visitors. These “ghost hunters” have report seeing the same spirits, have captured the sounds of revelry coming from a plantation party on EVP’s (Electronic Voice Phenomena). Others have also said that they have been poked by unseen hands and heard disembodied voices.