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A Visit to the Exchange Hotel Civil War Hospital Museum in Gordonsville

Michael J. Varhola, author of Ghosthunting Virginia, thinks there is something strange going on at the Exchange Hotel Civil War Hospital Museum in Gordonsville. Here is his report!

My interaction with museum staff when I visited the site in May 2008 with my father, mother, and wife left me inclined to believe that there was a reasonable chance the site was, indeed, haunted. But when I heard the irregular, garbled sounds that obscured my one-hour taped interview with curator Robert Kocovsky, I joined the ranks of definite believers.

This did not make me in any way unique, of course. The Exchange Hotel has for some time run ghost tours of the property for those with a casual interest in the subject, and it has made provisions for ghosthunters and others with a stronger interest to conduct investigations overnight in the building. From what I understand, they are rarely disappointed.

Exchange Hotel Civil War Hospital Museum

A new era began for Gordonsville on January 1, 1840, when it became a stop on the Louisa Railroad—renamed the Virginia Central 10 years later—allowing passengers to travel to and from the town and goods to be shipped from the farms and plantations of the surrounding area. Its first depot was opened in 1854, at the south end of Main Street, when the Orange and Alexandria Railroad extended its tracks from Orange to Gordonsville to connect with the existing line (a second depot was built in 1870 and its last one in 1904).

People coming into or departing from the depot frequented the nearby tavern run by Richard F. Omohundro, who did a brisk business in food and drink. When this establishment was razed by fire in 1859, Omohundro immediately built a beautiful new hotel, complete with high-ceilinged parlors and a grand veranda, on its ashes.

The elegant, three-story Exchange Hotel combined elements of Georgian architecture in the main section of the brick building and Italianate architecture in its exterior features, both styles popular in the pre-war years. Other features included a restaurant on its lower level, spacious public rooms, a central hall with a wide staircase and handsome balustrade, and central halls running through each of the upper floors. It quickly became a popular and inviting spot for travelers.

When the Civil War began in 1861, towns like Gordonsville and the railroads that ran through them became critical strategic assets to the Confederate government. Railroads had never been used in warfare before but were to play a large role in the conflict that would eventually become referred to as “the first railroad war.”

In March 1862, the Confederate military authorities took over the Exchange Hotel and established it as the headquarters of the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital, which provided medical care to tens of thousands of Northern and Southern troops over the following four years. Wounded soldiers from battle- fields that included Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, Trevilian Station, and the Wilderness were brought into town by rail, unloaded, and moved directly into the sprawling hospital compound that grew up around the former hotel.

In an era when men died of injury and disease in droves—about twice as many as those slain in combat—the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital was the exception to the rule, with a markedly lower death rate compared to most other contemporary medical facilities. Of the approximately 70,000 men treated at the hospital, only somewhat more than 700 died at the site, a much smaller proportion than what was typical for the conflict. The deceased were buried on the hospital grounds initially and then later exhumed and moved to the nearby Maplewood Cemetery. (According to Kocovsky, the spirits of some of the buried soldiers apparently remained behind, and the area where the cemetery was located has been the site of ghostly phenomena.)

The director of the hospital was Dr. B.M. Lebby, who oversaw its operations through October 1865. Although pro-Confederate and a native of South Carolina, Lebby had received his medical training in the North and was both compassionate and proficient. The relatively low death rate at the hospital (a mere 26 Union soldiers) can be attributed to his humanity and skill as a physician and administrator.

After the war, the site served newly freed slaves as a Freedman’s Bureau Hospital for several years before eventually reverting to use once again as a hotel. In 1971, Historic Gordonsville Inc., acquired the property, restored it, and converted it into a Civil War medical museum.

Today, the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel contains exhibits on the history of Gordonsville, the hotel, and its transformation into a receiving hospital, the only one still standing in Virginia. It includes an impressive collection of artifacts relating to medical care during the war, including surgical instruments; pharmaceutical bottles and containers; medical knapsacks and panniers; stretchers and litters; prosthetic devices; and even dental tools.

It is also home, Kocovsky said, to at least 11 ghosts that he and the staff have identified! The museum makes no secret of this presence and touts it both in its published materials and highly popular ghost tours.

“It isn’t necessary for our guides to purposefully frighten you, as our ‘permanent residents’ often make their presence known,” the tour description reads. “There have been numerous reports of apparitions, as well as the many unexplained sounds described by past visitors.”

While not all the ghosts have been identified by name or connected with specific historical figures known to have been associated with the Exchange Hotel, quite a few have, in part through the help of ghosthunters and psychic researchers who have visited the site.

One such ghost is Annie Smith, a black woman and the hotel’s former cook, who has been spotted numerous times in the windows of and around the outbuilding used as a summer kitchen where she worked. Another is Mrs. Leevy, the wife of one of the doctors assigned to the hospital, who went mad during her stay at the site. And yet another is the aptly named George Plant, the facility’s gravedigger, who has been known to waken reenactors camping out on the grounds surrounding the hotel. A number of nameless ghosts, believed to be those of Civil War soldiers who died at the hospital, quite possibly in agonizing surgical procedures or of one of the diseases that claimed so many lives, are also among those that haunt the site.

Kocovsky also told me about a dark, shadowy, and hostile ghost—whose name is yet unknown—who has frightened a number of people over the years, including, on one occasion, some police officers who were checking to make sure the building was properly locked up.

Other ghostly incidents people have reported at the museum include sightings of a spectral woman sitting as if upon a chair, even though one was not there, and photographs that have picked up a number of anomalies, including spirit orbs.

Despite the vast number of incidents that have occurred at the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel, it is, unfortunately, a bit much to expect that one should experience anything similar during any particular visit (especially a first one, it would seem). Indeed, the museum itself echoes this sentiment in its materials: “As it is impossible to predict when these ‘permanent residents’ will make their presence known, we urge you to visit often.”

Good advice indeed. Because if the strange, incomprehensible sounds—voices?—on the tape I walked away with is any indication, then the museum is well worth further investigation.

The Ghosts Are Very Comfortable at the Inn at Duck Creeke

Ghosthunting Southern New England

Andrew Lake, author of Ghosthunting Southern New England, explores the haunted Inn at Duck Creeke, one of Wellfleet’s unspoiled landmarks. Located on Main Street, the inn was originally built in 1810 as a home for a sea captain and his family.

The Inn at Duck Creeke is actually made up of four separate buildings. Along with the Captain’s House, there are three other buildings that occupy the five wooded acres. They are named The Saltworks House, The Tavern, and Carriage House. The tavern building is referred to as “The Hodge Podge” because it is made up of sections of homes from the seventeenth and eigh- teenth centuries. This uniquely styled building houses both the Sweet Seasons and The Duck Creeke Tavern restaurants.

The Duck Creeke Tavern is the oldest existing tavern in Wellfleet. The current owners of the inn are Bob Morrill and Judy Pihl. Bob and Judy first became associated with the inn in the mid-1970s when they were leasing the Sweet Seasons restaurant. In 1980, they bought the inn. Shortly after Bob and Judy had settled into the property, the ghosts made their presence known to them.

It was December 1980—the couple’s first winter on the property. They were living in The Saltworks House, which is located about 100 feet from the back of the Captain’s House. Bob and Judy were getting ready to prepare their first lobster dinner in their “new” home. Judy needed a large pot to cook the lobsters in, so she sent Bob to retrieve one from the kitchen of the Sweet Seasons restaurant. It was a cold, dark night as he walked up the lane, flashlight in hand, and entered the kitchen from the back of the restaurant. Bob recalls, “I was walking through the kitchen and a large, metal, one-gallon measuring can flew off the shelf. It didn’t fall on the floor; it flew all the way across the kitchen in front of me and then rolled another 20 feet. I grabbed the pot and went back home to Judy and said, ‘That’s the last time I’ll go in there after dark, alone!’”

The ghost of Eulalia, wife of Joe Price, may have been responsible for that flying piece of kitchenware. People who remember Eulalia say she was a serious, hardworking woman. She managed the hospitality side of the inn’s business and was responsible for booking all the entertainment. Mrs. Price was from New York and had a background in the theater. Well into the early 1970s, she wore long, old-fashioned dresses that were starched and ironed to perfection. A woman who worked for Mrs. Price told Judy Phil that Eulalia was the kind of manager who would line her staff up for inspection and count the number of peas on the plates. “She was a strong character. This was her place; this still is her place,” says Judy.

Inn at Duck Creeke

Mrs. Price is believed to be the woman in white who has been seen at the restaurant and its kitchen. Judy saw her ghost one afternoon in the lobby area of the restaurant. She says, “I just happened to be walking through the kitchen, looking out towards the lobby and something caught my eye. I took two steps back. I then watched a very diminutive woman float from one side, with the sun behind her, cross the lobby and back again, and then disappear. It was three-dimensional; you could almost see through it, and it was female.” Judy finishes by saying, “It was a very interesting moment.”

At the other end of the “Hodge Podge” is The Duck Creeke Tavern. Even though these two restaurants are attached, there seems to be a different group of ghosts in The Tavern Room. Over the years, Bob has learned of three deaths that occurred on the property. Two of those deaths happened inside the Tavern Room. Years ago, when the tavern was called The Chart Room, a husband-and-wife musical act used to play there regularly. One night while they were performing, the wife died on stage. The late singer’s husband would come to the Tavern Room in his later years and just sit and watch the stage. He would never order anything to eat or drink; he wouldn’t even ask for a glass of water. Judy used to wonder if maybe he could see his wife on the stage. A female ghost has been seen around the Tavern Room, and most feel that it is her spirit.

Musicians have reported hearing a woman singing while they were performing. One night when a piano player was on stage, Bob noticed that he was moving his head around and swatting at the air with his right hand. When he took a short break, Bob asked him why he was jerking his head and wav- ing his hand around. He looked at Bob very seriously and said, “Because she was pulling my hair!”

Oddly enough, the woman’s death isn’t the only one to have played out on the tavern’s stage. A piano player also passed away suddenly while performing. If this pianist is haunting the stage, he might be responsible for the microphones and amplifiers being turned off while musicians are playing.

The third death known to have taken place on the property was first reported to Bob and Judy by one of their former waiters, a young Irishman named Eugene, who was a “sensitive” who could feel and see things that others could not. One vision in particular that he told his employers about was seeing a man hanging himself from a large locust tree in back of the tavern. Bob had cut the locust tree down 10 years before this young man had started working for them. In June of 2010, an old man stopped by the Tavern Room and while reminiscing about the summers he had spent in Wellfleet as a boy, he mentioned that his college roommate’s father had hanged himself from a tree on the property. Bob and Judy said they had never doubted Eugene, especially when he told them that their inn was haunted by many ghosts.

The Saltworks House is the oldest building on the property. It was built in the early 1700s and was originally located by the harbor. The house is named for the grinding stones that were taken from an old salt mill and used to make its front walk and steps. The couple no longer lives in the house; it now contains five small guest rooms. During the years they did live there, Judy said she would sometimes hear the sound of someone walking around, softly, upstairs. On more than a few occasions she heard what sounded like beads from a broken necklace bouncing across the floor, but she could never find the source.

One season, some guests who were staying on the ground floor of the Saltworks House complained about the patter of little feet in the room above theirs. Another time, a couple had commented on hearing a baby crying in one of the upstairs rooms. A check of the inn’s register and a quick word with the staff confirmed that there were no infants or children staying in the Saltworks House when these sounds were heard.

The Captain’s House has at least three ghosts, and they seem to be the friendliest of all the phantoms. Bob and Judy are pretty sure they are the wife and two daughters of the sea captain who lived in the house. As far as anyone knows, the two daughters were seen only once, but are often heard moving about on the second floor. The Captain’s wife is reported to appear as a beau- tiful woman in white and also appears to be a kind soul. In the early 1980s, a female guest awoke with a scream when she found a strange woman in her room. This woman glided across the bedroom, through the furniture and up to the guest. She then placed her hand on the frightened woman’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right.” The guest was able to go back to sleep, but she checked out in the morning.

About a year after that incident, the inn got a phone call from a couple who recently had stayed in The Captain’s House with their 4-year-old daughter. They wanted to know the identity of the woman whom their child kept talking about. The young girl told her parents that a nice lady, dressed in white, had talked to her in their room. This woman wanted to make sure the little girl was taking her medicine. The couple couldn’t understand this because their daughter was not on any medication. The bemused innkeepers told the couple about the other guest’s encounter and left it at that. As Judy says, “Our ghosts seem very comfortable here, and we are comfortable
with them.”

For more haunted stories from Southern New England, check out Andrew Lake’s book Ghosthunting Southern New England.

Gadsby’s Tavern and Museum—A Quintessential Alexandria Watering Hole

Michael J. Varhola, author of Ghosthunting Virginia, visits Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria. Established around 1785, Gadsby’s Tavern has been a quintessential Alexandria watering hole throughout most of U.S. history. And, as with most places of a certain age, it has a number of ghost stories and is a stop on local ghost tours.

In the early years of the republic, however, especially prior to the founding of the capitol city, Alexandria was a vibrant port city, and Gadsby’s Tavern played host to many of the most important people in the country. George Washington celebrated his birthday at the tavern in 1797 and 1798; Thomas Jefferson held his inaugural banquet there in 1801; and the tavern served as a hub of political, business, and social interaction for many years.

Gadsby's Tavern

Gadsby’s Tavern consists of two separate buildings and two separate establishments. One is a museum, located in an older, two-story building, and the other is a restaurant, located on the ground floor of a three-story expansion to the original structure built in 1792 (then dubbed the City Tavern and Hotel).

A number of stories about incorporeal spirits, rather than the liquid ones it has traditionally served, have developed about Gadsby’s Tavern, and I had heard a number of them over the years. The most famous involves a beautiful young woman who died at the establishment nearly 200 years ago and whose specter is sometimes purportedly still seen there.

As a common version of the story goes, the young woman and her husband arrived at the port of Alexandria in October 1816 from points unknown. She was very ill and was taken to Gadsby’s Tavern, where she received treatment from a doctor and a number of nurses. Despite their best efforts, however, she died on October 14. For reasons still unknown, her husband made everyone they had dealt with swear that they would never reveal her identity; he had her buried in nearby St. Paul’s Cemetery beneath a nameless tombstone, and, soon after, he disappeared without paying any of his bills, including $1,500 for the stone.

Since then, visitors have reported seeing the ghost of the “female stranger” standing near her headstone, wandering the halls of Gadsby’s Tavern, or peering out its windows while holding a candle (and, possibly, awaiting the return of her apparently deadbeat husband). Explanations for who she is have included the ward of an aging English aristocrat who was accidentally slain by her lover, with whom she fled to America; the daughter of Aaron Burr, who gunned down Alexander Hamilton in a duel; and an orphan, separated from her three siblings at a young age, who inadvertently married her brother. Die nameless and leave bills behind and, specifics aside, the stories about you are pretty sure to be sordid.

Other ghost stories associated with the tavern are fairly typical of those associated with haunted sites in general and include candles or lanterns that appear to be burning, but, upon examination, have not been recently lit.

Glancing at the upper-story windows of the buildings as I approached them, I did not see anything out of the ordinary. The first thing I learned upon being greeted inside the entrance to the restaurant by a distinguished-looking older gentleman is that it’s no longer a tradition to drop in for just a cold one at the tavern—the norm being to partake of a meal as well—and that I would be better served for those purposes at a nearby Irish pub (of course!). Upon seeing my disappointment, however, he graciously relented, showed me to a two-person table in the dining room, and asked his waiter to bring me a beer.

“Are you the manager?” I asked him.

“Sometimes,” he replied somewhat cagily (demonstrating a dry sense of humor that was revealed when I eventually obtained his business card and read upon it the title “General Manager”), and he introduced himself as Paul Carbé. I introduced myself and briefly explained my interest in his establishment.

“Oh, you want the museum next door,” he said, crushing any hopes I might have of encountering spectral spoor at his establishment. I decided to enjoy my Gadsby’s ale and the ambience of the place, which included waitstaff dressed in garb reminiscent of the Colonial era, pewter place settings on the tables, and dark wood paneling that, in some cases, dates to 1792.

“That’s original,” Carbé said, indicating the wooden fireplace mantel in the first of several tidbits of information that he congenially bestowed upon me on his way back and forth from the back of the restaurant to the front, where he dutifully greeted everyone who came through the door. Eventually, however, he decided to bestow something more substantial upon me.

“Come with me,” he said, and led me to the back of the restaurant and into its kitchen. There, he proceeded to tell me about three strange episodes that some would take for evidence of a ghostly presence—all of which had occurred in the previous month!

In the first, he said, one of his waitresses walked into the kitchen and asked if anyone knew where beverage napkins were. As if in response, a package of beverage napkins pitched off a nearby shelf and landed on the counter next to the stunned young woman.

The second incident took place in a dining room that had been set up for a dinner party. With no apparent cause or prompting from anyone, a spoon from one of the place settings slid off the table and clattered onto the floor.

And, in the third incident, three or four of the waitstaff were working in the tavern after it had closed when they all distinctly heard a candle in the main dining room—where none of them were—being blown out.

As is the case with most ostensibly haunted sites, none of these incidents necessarily mean anything in and of themselves. Even when they are considered as elements in an ongoing pattern of similar incidents, they prove nothing. But they do reinforce to those willing to acknowledge them that there is more in this world than can easily be explained by most philosophies, to paraphrase a famous playwright.

That was what I thought to myself, in any event, as I finished up my pint of ale and snapped a few more pictures of the tavern. Collecting my things, I thanked Mr. Carbé for his helpfulness and stepped outside into a late afternoon that had turned from gloom to drizzle.

Turning back toward Gadsby’s Tavern as I walked away, I looked up at some of the upper-story windows, hoping I might catch a glimpse of the ghost of the “female stranger.” But I did not prolong my gaze. After all, if you stare at something long enough, you can end up seeing just about anything, whether it is really there or not.

Full Moon Highlights the Ghosts of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Paranormal researchers have to be ready for any- thing and everything when ghosthunting. They often deal with weather issues, equipment failures, and physical challenges as they’re tromping through dense woods and other rough terrain.

Walking through the battleship USS North Carolina is a bit of a maze, and it’s hard work climbing up and down the iron ladders that are euphemistically called “stairs.” As I was moving through the ship, it was readily apparent that trying to bring a film crew on board to run cables throughout the ship would be quite a task. Shows like Ghost Hunters have an established crew that sets up the monitors, cameras, and equipment, hoping to catch paranormal activity on film. They’ve visited the USS North Carolina, and I can imagine how hard the TV crew had to work in order to prepare for that investigation.

After the USS North Carolina tour, I headed out to see the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. If you’ve ever been to North Carolina, you’ll recognize it as the state symbol, painted in a signature swirl of black and white. It’s quite spectacular to see firsthand. Some people describe it as the biggest barber pole they have ever seen.

I like the swirl-style painting of the lighthouse. It’s one of those things that I call a happy accident. The lighthouse was supposed to have been painted in a diamond pattern, but the engineer was confused by the plans and he designed the spiral instead, making the lighthouse very distinctive. The lighthouse was built to warn sailors of the Diamond Shoals, which are sandbars that shift often and can extend more than 14 feet outward from the shore at Cape Hatteras. In addition, it is in this area of the Atlantic that the Gulf Stream collides with the colder Labrador current. Often, the end result of the collision between the warm Gulf current and the cold Labrador current is the creation of powerful ocean storms and high sea swells. These sandbars and tricky currents have sunk many ships and given North Carolina the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

When you arrive at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the first thought that hits you is how tall it is and how small you feel standing next to it. The second thought is that you want to climb it! It’s there, it must be climbed, and the view from the top is a must-see.

The lighthouse has 248 iron stairs arranged in a spiral. Climbing to the top of the lighthouse is equivalent to climbing a 12-story building. It’s noisy, as many people are climbing to the top with you. Their shoes clang on the iron steps, there’s no air-conditioning, and it gets pretty hot and sticky fast. There are a couple of windows in the lighthouse, but for the most part, the lighting is dim. As you continue the climb, you encounter people coming back down, and there’s a bit of a tussle, as there is only a handrail on one side to hold onto. You become very friendly with strangers as you negotiate to allow them to pass by you. Luckily, there is a landing every 31 steps to stop and wait when large groups are coming down.

I visited during the day to see the lighthouse, and I have plans to return again this summer when a full-moon climbing tour is offered. This is a must-do, as the view from the top is spectacular. I look forward to seeing it on a moonlit night.
In 1999, the lighthouse was moved from its original location. Wow! Can you imagine the engineering feat it took to move a lighthouse? Erosion from the waves and shifting sands threatened to destroy the lighthouse in its former location, and the decision had to be made to either attempt to move the lighthouse to safety or to watch it disappear as the sand shifted and the ocean claimed it as its own. The lighthouse, along with the keeper’s house, was moved to a new location 2,900 feet away. This process took a painstakingly slow 23 days to complete.

Given that the lighthouse has been the guardian to the Graveyard of the Atlantic, it’s no surprise to find that it’s also extremely haunted.

One haunting tale is the story of the Carroll A. Deering, a sailing ship that was returning from Barbados on its way to Hampton Roads, Virginia. On January 31, 1921, the Carroll A. Deering was found run aground on the Diamond Shoals off the coast of Cape Hatteras. The ship was a five-masted schooner built in 1919 in Bath, Maine. The Coast Guard was called, and guardsmen sailed out to inspect the ship, which was found empty with the exception of several very hungry cats. The investigation found that a dinner had recently been prepared and the dishes were still on the table. The ship was in good order, but the lifeboats were missing.

What would cause the captain and crew to abandon the ship in such a hurry when the ship was in good working order? Why would they leave their cats behind? The research indicates that the crew left in a panic, as if they were afraid of something on the boat. Along with their dinner, they left a perfectly good boat in running order. They didn’t even stop to lower the sails on the boat. There had to have been something extreme to cause a captain and his crew to leave a ship in that condition, especially when they were facing freezing cold weather and high sea swells in January on the Atlantic Ocean.

Upon further investigation, the Coast Guard found that all of the anchors were missing from the ship, along with some papers and personal belongings of the captain and crew. The vessel remained stuck on the shoals until it was towed away in March. What remained of the ship was blown up with dynamite. I found that fact surprising: Why would evidence of an unsolved mystery be deliberately destroyed? In addition, why wouldn’t any part of the ship be salvaged for future use elsewhere?

Reports state that in April of the same year, a North Carolina resident found a bottle washed up on shore with a note inside stating that the captain and crew had been captured by pirates. The letter was later determined to be a hoax.

The following month, the wife of the ship’s captain visited Washington and asked then–Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to investigate what had happened to her husband and his crew. He agreed to look into the matter after his research showed that nine other ships had also disappeared in the same area. The FBI was sent to investigate the matter in July 1921. The investigators returned with reports stating theories of foul play, including attacks by pirates, attacks by rumrunners, and the possibility of mutiny.

The theory of mutiny was tossed aside. The seas are so rough in that part of the Atlantic in January that it would be a suicide mission by the crew and the worst timing on their part. The ship was only a day or two away from reaching Virginia, where it was scheduled to dock. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s highly unlikely that a crew would have picked this vantage point where so many ships are known to wreck. In addition, a mutinous crew would have tossed the captain overboard and most likely would have continued on with the ship, sailing to a port in another country.

Foul play with pirates or rumrunners also seemed unlikely, as there were no dead bodies left on the ship, as well as no signs of struggle or blood. The ship’s log, the lifeboats, and the navigation equipment were missing and never found. Although there was a detailed investigation, all of the leads turned up empty. To this day, the mystery continues.

After the ship ran aground, witnesses in the area began reporting hearing people screaming for help near the shore. The reports state that when witnesses hear the screaming, they go to investigate, but no one is ever seen. Some of these reports say that several people have heard a man scream over and over that a monster is coming for him.

Some locals think that a ghost appeared on the ship, perhaps one of the pirates from the many sunken ships that lay below the ocean near Cape Hatteras. Perhaps these pirate ghosts boarded the ship as the crew prepared their dinner and scared them out of their minds, to the point that they jumped into the lifeboats and abandoned ship, leaving everything behind. In their fear and perhaps demise, it appears that they now have joined the ghosts and walk the beaches beside them.

The most famous ghost on Cape Hatteras is the Gray Man ghost. He appears to people to warn them when a hurricane or severe storm is heading toward the island. Some say that he is a sailor who drowned during a storm and now warns others of impending storms. Others say that he was in love with a local girl and in his haste to get back to her took a shortcut with his traveling companions through a swampy area and drowned in quicksand.

The legend states that the local woman was devastated upon hearing the news of his death. Each night for weeks she walked the beach in sorrow and grief. One night as she walked along the beach, he appeared to her as the Gray Man ghost and told her that she needed to leave immediately because a hurricane was coming. She ran home and told her family, who believed her, and they left immediately and went inland.

The next morning a hurricane hit the island and destroyed many of the homes there, but her home was spared. The legend states that if the Gray Man appears to you and you heed his advice to leave, then your house will be spared by the storm. Reports continue to be shared by locals who say they have seen the man appear before them out of thin air. He warns them of an approaching storm and then quickly disappears.

Other reports include seeing a strange-colored brown pelican in a ghostly form that appears to warn locals about incoming storms. Some say that the phantom bird may be a companion of the Gray Man.

There are also reports of a dark lady of Spanish descent, dressed all in black, who walks along the shore by the lighthouse. Her clothes are wet and hang on her body. By most accounts, it appears that she drowned in a shipwreck. Most reports state that she is angry and is looking for something that she never finds. At times it appears that she screams and wails like a banshee. Perhaps she’s searching for a lost treasure or her jewels that were lost at sea. She is often seen on full-moon nights, and I imagine that the view from the top of the lighthouse might provide a vantage point to search the surrounding shore for ghosts walking along the beach.

Shadow people are also reported appearing in the vicinity of the lighthouse and inside on the stairs of the lighthouse. Some paranormal researchers think shadow people may be a specific type of ghost, while others surmise that they are malicious entities traveling from the various supernatural realms into the earth plane.

Shadow people are not considered to be friendly, and when they are seen, they often do not have faces. They appear in a human shape but are not completely formed. The two most popular theories about the shadow people fall into two camps: One is that the shadow people are thought-forms, which are created when deep trauma has occurred in the area and the emotional intensity is so strong that it gives life to a thought form, a tulpa, which then haunts the area.

The other theory is that they are not from this world but are attracted to areas where negative experiences have caused a great amount of trauma and pain. They enter the earth plane to feed on the energy of this trauma and the energy from grieving victims. For this reason, shadow people are often seen in cemeteries.

Given the hundreds of shipwrecks around Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Diamond Shoals and the ghosts who walk the beach, many of whom still lay in their physical form under the sea in sunken ships, the entire area is a restless place and ripe for paranormal activity.

In addition, there are many reports of unmarked graves in the area around the lighthouse, leading to the potential for other undocumented ghosts, as well. While walking around the lighthouse and the shore, you can feel the sadness in the air. You don’t earn the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic without having more than a few ghosts around with unfinished business, some looking for their treasure, some trying to escape what horrified them, and others, like the Gray Man, trying to protect the local residents from further harm.

For more haunted stories, check out Kala Ambrose’s book Ghosthunting North Carolina.

Is Fort Fisher Haunted by Ghosts?

Kala Ambrose, author of Ghosthunting North Carolina, felt the ghosts of both Union and Confederate soldiers who never left the battle when she visited Fort Fisher, one of the largest forts built of earth and sand.

Fort Fisher is located near the Cape Fear River and is one of the largest forts built in the South. The entrance to the fort is imposing, and the giant oaks surrounding the fort stand as guardians with deep, sorrowful stories to tell. The construction of the fort is interesting; rather than being built of brick and mortar, it was made with earth and sand in order to absorb the shock waves from explosions.Fort Fisher

The fort’s ramparts were built to be 32-feet high and were connected by underground passages and a telegraph system. More than 1,000 men worked to build the fort; upon its completion, 22 guns faced the ocean and another 25 guns covered the approach by land.

In 1864, Wilmington was the last major seaport to remain open during the Civil War to receive goods smuggled in from blockade-runners, the others having been blockaded or occupied by Federal forces. Norfolk, Virginia, fell in May of 1862, and the supply line in Wilmington was the last one standing to deliver necessities to Robert E. Lee’s men in Virginia and other troops farther inland. The only reason that the port of Wilmington was still open was due to the protection provided by Fort Fisher.

On Christmas Eve 1864, Union troops and ships attacked Fort Fisher and bombarded the fort through Christmas Day. The troops then retreated after two unsuccessful days of fighting. Union forces returned in January of 1865, when they bombed the fort from tactical areas both on land and by sea for almost three days. At the end of these three days, more than 3,300 Union soldiers attacked the fort. With these large numbers, they were able to take the fort by nightfall.

When Fort Fisher fell to Union troops, it was one of the final nails in the coffin of the Confederate army. They evacuated the area, and the port of Wilmington was no longer able to receive smuggled goods. With supplies cut off, the War Between the States soon ended.

After the battle was over, Union troops occupied Fort Fisher, using it to hold Confederate prisoners and to serve as a base of operations. On January 16, 1865, the fort’s main magazine mysteriously exploded, killing more than 200 Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners. Shortly after this time, ghost stories began to be reported.

One of the ghosts reported to haunt Fort Fisher is Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, also known as Rebel Rose. Rose was considered to be one of the most important female spies of the Civil War. Born in Maryland to a slave-owning family, Rose grew up a socialite in Washington, D.C. Among her close friends were John Calhoun, James Buchanan, and Dolley Madison. Rose married Robert Greenhow, and they traveled to San Francisco during the gold rush, where Robert died in a tragic accident. Rose returned to Washington and was known for her social skills and her love affairs with prominent men. This led to the large amount of information she received regarding Union plans for the Civil War.

One of her greatest accomplishments as a spy was delivering a coded message to General Beauregard that enabled him to win the First Battle of Bull Run. She was eventually captured and imprisoned, along with her 8-year-old daughter. This backfired for the Union as a public relations campaign, as Rose became a martyr for the Confederate cause. Even while imprisoned, though, she managed to continue to run a spy ring, sneaking out messages in secret places, including tying notes inside the buns of other women’s hair.

In 1862, she stood trial for espionage and gave a passionate speech in which she asked the court questions such as this: “If Mr. Lincoln’s friends pass along such important informa- tion to her on such a frequent basis, shouldn’t they be looked into as well for espionage?” The Union judge, knowing that she was already being covered heavily in the press for her bravery and imprisonment with her young daughter, decided it would be best to release her with the decree that she must return to the South and never return to the North again. When she was released, she exited the prison draped in a Confederate flag.

At that point, she traveled to Europe to campaign for assistance to the Confederacy as a diplomatic emissary of Jefferson Davis. It was during this time that she wrote her book, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which was a bestseller. She also met with Queen Victoria and Napoleon III during her time in Europe.

During her return from Europe, Rose was aboard a blockade runner that ran aground off the coast of North Carolina near Fort Fisher during a fierce storm. The legend states that Rose asked to be placed in a rowboat so she could leave the ship and reach the shore before nearby Union ships captured the damaged blockade runner boat.

The rowboat carrying Rose overturned in the strong waves, and Rose drowned. She was reportedly carrying several thousand dollars worth of gold from the proceeds she earned by selling her book in Europe. The gold was sewn into her clothing, and the weight of it pulled her under in the stormy seas. It was also reported that she was carrying several bags with secret messages from Europe that would have benefited the Confederate Army.

Legend states that a soldier found her body washed up on shore and that he stole the gold from the bags sewn to her clothing. Rose was buried with full military honors in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, North Carolina. The legend also reports that the thief who stole the gold from Rose’s body felt so guilty that he later returned the money to her estate.

Rose’s ghost is most often reported not at the cemetery but rather near the shore heading toward Fort Fisher. It appears that she is still trying to complete her mission and deliver the messages from Europe to the Confederate army.

During my time at Fort Fisher, I checked out the fiber-optic battle map, which uses sound effects and flashing lights to give a sense of what the battle felt like during this time. The flashes portray the charged energy experienced by Union and Confederate soldiers during this siege. While this portrayal brings home how intensely the fort was attacked, I had the most eerie feelings when walking alone around the fort. Certain areas were so still and empty. Yet, as I walked farther around the various sections of the fort, there were old sounds that began to rise from the building, including whispers coming from around corners, the sound of shuffling feet perhaps from imprisoned soldiers, and the sound of heavy boots pacing back and forth from a soldier on guard duty.

Fort Fisher was called back into action during World War II, when it was used as a training site for anti-aircraft artillerymen. As the war raged on, German U-boats were reported off the coast of North Carolina and were responsible for sinking several American ships. There is also a legend that German sailors from a submarine were caught near Fort Fisher on their way to plant dynamite and blow up the channel that allowed naval ships to move throughout the area near the port of Wilmington. The rough and ready battle feeling in this area still permeates the land. Many ghost sightings are reported of soldiers pacing around the fort at night, and shots are heard in the distance.

During my tour of the fort in broad daylight, I was surrounded by tourists and families exploring the area. Even with so many living people around, I could feel the ghosts of both Union and Confederate soldiers who never left the battle. I wanted to stay overnight at Fort Fisher, but that is not permitted. Should anyone be left there alone on a moonlit night, I believe that the ghosts of Fort Fisher would certainly pay a visit to anyone trespassing in their fort.

Cathedral Park in Portland Haunted by Stories of Ghostly Screams

Donna Stewart, author of Ghosthunting Oregon, researched the paranormal activity at Cathedral Park. Here is her report.

Today, Cathedral Park in north Portland provides a breathtaking view of the towering St. Johns Bridge, nature, and the east shore of the Willamette River. Families often picnic there on sunny afternoons, the occasional wedding is held beneath the statuesque bridge, and the smell of trees and wildflowers adds to the picture-perfect location. You could spend hours there, taking pictures and contemplating how little the scene has changed since the construction of the bridge in 1931. But times have changed, and most of the people who walked through Cathedral Park have faded into the past and are all but forgotten. All, perhaps, except for 15-year-old Thelma Taylor, who also thought the park was beautiful—until August 5, 1949. Since that date, the park has been haunted by stories of ghostly screams and shadowy figures.

Thelma was a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in Portland in the late 1940s. Thelma was not an unattractive girl but was teased in school for being skinny, among other things, and she did not have many friends. One can see Thelma sitting slightly away from the rest of her class at the end of the bottom row of her elementary school graduation picture, as if she did not belong with the rest of the children. That feeling of not quite fitting in followed Thelma throughout her short life, even as she grew into a beautiful young woman with dark hair and a brilliant, contagious smile.

Thelma was devoted to her family and did what she could to help them financially during her months away from school. In the summer of 1949, she took a job picking beans at a farm in nearby Hillsboro. She would rouse herself early in the morning and make her way to Cathedral Park, where a bus would stop to pick up those willing to spend the day working on the farm and then drop them back at the same spot late in the afternoon or early evening. But on August 5, Thelma never made it onto that bus.

There are many versions of what happened that morning, and it takes some time and research to separate truth from exaggeration. I have sifted through the myths and the ghost stories, and what follows is the truth as it appears in documents and legal records. But I must warn you that the facts are sometimes more frightening that the ghost stories. We can alter tales to fit our needs and situations, but the truth never changes.

Despite her best intentions, Thelma Taylor did not make it onto the bus that humid summer morning in 1949, and it departed without her because she was nowhere to be seen. She had been approached by a 22-year-old ex-convict named Morris Leland. To this day, no one knows what Leland said or did to entice Thelma into following him away from the bus stop to the banks of the Willamette River beneath the St. Johns Bridge; it is one of the few questions that Morris Leland did not answer in the months and years to come. We know that Leland made sexual advances toward Thelma and that she vehemently refused them. And here is where the fine line between fact and fiction gets muddied. . . .

Thelma was not raped. Morris Leland’s own words were, “I got scared because she was a good girl and would make trouble with the police.” The rape scenario is what most people read about on ghost hunter websites, but the fact is that it simply did not happen. And it is important to me that we allow Thelma to maintain that small bit of her dignity.

Leland held Thelma near the riverbank throughout the night, well hidden in an area of thick underbrush. But when morning came and Thelma could hear the workers switching cars on a nearby railroad track, her first instinct was to scream for help. It was then, to avoid detection and certain arrest, that Leland struck Thelma in the head repeatedly with a steel bar. And then, to make sure she could not possibly scream for help again, he stabbed her, silencing her forever on that bank nearly eight blocks from Cathedral Park.

Six days later, the Thursday, August 11, edition of the Reading Eagle, a Portland newspaper, reported that Morris Leland was arrested by Sergeant Vern Nicholson on suspicion of driving a stolen car and immediately blurted out a confession to the murder that police did not even suspect at the time.

The police knew that Thelma Taylor, a 15-year-old farm worker, had been reported missing the previous Saturday by her parents when she did not return home. But there had been no evidence, no hint that she could have met with such a horrible demise.

Morris Leland’s trial began on October 4, 1950, and he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. But after a 4-month trial, Leland was found guilty of the murder and, on February 7, 1951, was sentenced to death. Morris Leland was led to the gas chamber where his sentence was carried out in January 1953.

To those who know the story of Thelma Taylor, the Cathedral Park area is a place where innocence lived and died, where an evil man claimed a life and spent his last days of freedom.

I have visited Cathedral Park on many occasions. During the day it is a beautiful area, surrounded by trees, the sound of the Willamette River, children laughing, and couples walking their dogs. If you stop to ask people if they know of Thelma Taylor, most locals tell you yes, and even many visitors know her story. And it is easy to talk about during the daytime. But when darkness falls, the feeling in the park changes. Perhaps this is because I know about Thelma. Or, perhaps, the stories of spectral screams and ghostly shadows hold some truth to them.

Over the decades, many people have reported hearing a young girl’s voice calling, “Help! Somebody help me, please!” Cathedral Park is a hangout after dark for the younger genera- tion who want to party, have a few beers, and the like, so many of those stories must be questioned, if only because alcohol is involved. But it is not only inebriated young people who have reported the ghostly voices and apparitions that they say dart quickly around the place.

Many paranormal researchers say that the area surrounding Cathedral Park has been primed for a haunting, and the flowing water of the river and the limestone blocks used to build St. Johns Bridge all are associated with a “residual haunting.” Residual haunting is a new term made popular by paranormal television for an old parapsychological theory proposed in the 1970s called the Stone Tape theory. This theory speculates that inanimate materials, such as stone, can absorb energy from the living, much as a tape recorder absorbs the voice of the living, especially during episodes of high tension, anxiety, and fear. Once this energy is stored, it can also be released, resulting in the display, or replay, of the recorded events.

“We have to postulate that some very emotional scene has somehow become registered on the environment, almost like a sort of psychic video has been created,” late Scottish paranormal researcher Archie Roy was quoted as saying about Stone Tape theory in the 2011 book Ghosts by Malcolm Day. “Someone who comes along who is sensitive enough acts as a sort of psychic video player and will actually play that ‘tape’ and see the figures or perhaps even hear the voices.”

Leland threw the steel pipe and the knife into the river, hoping that the current would carry them far away; he wiped his fingerprints from Thelma’s lunch pail, gathered his cigarette butts, and buried Thelma in a shallow grave underneath a pile of driftwood on the riverbank.

Color photos of Cathedral Park courtesy of Bill Reynolds from Lake Oswego, Oregon (Cathedral Park Portland Oregon) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mission San Antonio de Valero, AKA The Alamo

Michael O. Varhola, author of Ghosthunting San Antonio, Austin, and Texas Hill Country,  takes us on a visit to Mission San Antonio de Valero, know to most of us as The Alamo.

In 1718, after Mission San Francisco de Solano in the Rio Grande Valley became unviable because so many of its resident Coahuiltecan Indians had left it, Father Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares relocated it to a spot near the headwaters of the San Antonio River. He had passed through the area a decade earlier and been impressed with its suitability for a religious community. He named the new mission in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua and San Antonio de Valero, the Spanish viceroy who had approved his plan.The Alamo

Location of the mission changed several times for the first few years until 1724, when the present site was chosen, and the foundation of its stone church was laid 20 years later, in 1744. It eventually included a walled compound containing the church, a convento where the clergymen lived, and a number of adobe buildings.

While the Alamo is almost synonymous with the battle that bears its name, it was by no means the first time the mission or its residents were exposed to violence or dangers. On June 30, 1745, for example, Apaches attacked the nearby civil town of San Fernando. One hundred mission converts from the Alamo sallied out and, reinforced by European arms and tactics, helped drive them off.

Mission San Antonio de Valero was the first of the local missions to be secularized and was taken over by Spanish authorities in 1793. They established the first hospital in Texas in it. Its central location and infrastructure also made it ideal for use as a barracks and, by 1803, a company of 100 heavily armed cavalrymen, along with their families, had moved into it. They remained there for 32 years, battling Indians, the military adventurers known as filibusters, and revolutionaries. When Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821, they shifted their allegiance to the new nation. And when they skirmished with Anglo-American revolutionaries near the town of Gonzales on October 2, 1835, the Texas Revolution began.

Texian forces counterattacked toward the end of that month and laid siege to San Antonio. Then, on December 5th, they attacked the town directly and, after fighting the Mexican troops toe-to-toe in brutal street fighting for five days, forced the military authorities to surrender. Thus it was that the Texians took control of the city. When General Antonio López de Santa Anna arrived at the head of a Mexican army on February 23, 1836, the Texians withdrew to the east bank of the San Antonio River and occupied the Alamo. Santa Anna raised the red flag of no quarter over San Fernando church, and a siege of the mission began.

On March 6th, Santa Anna launched his final attack on the Alamo and, after a fierce 90-minute battle, captured it and slew all 189 of its defenders, at a cost of about 600 killed and wounded among his own men. Commanders William Barret Travis, James Bowie, and David Crockett were among those who fell in battle. Santa Anna ordered all the bodies burned on at least two common pyres and left to smolder for days (although that of one defender, Tejano Gregorio Esparza, whose brother was one of the Mexican officers, received a proper burial).

AlamoSix weeks later, on April 21st, Texian forces led by Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna and the Mexican army in the Battle of San Jacinto, about 200 miles to the east. The following month, the Mexican garrison in San Antonio was ordered to destroy the Alamo and then withdraw. They did manage to tear down some of the outer walls, and their commander, Juan José Andrade, sent a detachment of men to blow up the church where the defenders had made their final stand. These men were reportedly prevented from doing so, however, by a party of what they identified as diablos. They were described by paranormal researcher Docia Schultz Williams in her book Spirits of San Antonio and South Texas as “six ghostly forms standing in a semicircle holding swords, not of steel but of fire, blocking their entry to the building.”

“They were terrified and fearful of the consequences if they should destroy the building, they reported back to their commander,” Williams continues. “It is said General Andrade went himself to the place and was also confronted by the same figures. And so it was that the building was left intact as the Mexican army marched out of San Antonio.”

Apparitions were reported again at the site in 1871—which at that point was being used as a police station—when the city tore down part of the surviving mission complex, a pair of rooms that had been located to either side of the main gate in the south wall. Guests at the Menger Hotel across the street were among those who claimed to see spectral soldiers marching along the perimeter of the old mission compound as if trying to defend it from further desecration.

Many people, too, have striven to protect the legacy of the Alamo. In the 1930s, as the centennial of the Battle of the Alamo approached, the entire complex was renovated, expanded, and converted into a parklike memorial, and a Centennial Museum was built behind the church (and currently serves as the gift shop for the site). Then, in 1968, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas opened a new museum in the convento, or “long barrack,” finally putting the oldest building on the mission grounds back into use.

The Alamo by night 
Copyright: By Danphotoman777 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Haunted Soldiers of Fort Macon

The War of 1812 prompted the United States to build a long line of forts along the East Coast for national security. Built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Fort Macon was designed to protect Beaufort Harbor, a deepwater ocean port. The fort is five-sided, built of brick and stone, and quite striking. Twenty-six vaulted rooms called casements make up the substantial fort, with walls that are almost 5 feet thick.

The fort became active in 1834; at the beginning of the Civil War, the Confederacy of North Carolina wrestled the port away from Union soldiers. The fort was recovered by Union soldiers in 1862 and served as a federal prison for both civil and military prisoners from 1867 to 1876. Fort Macon was officially closed in 1903. The state of North Carolina purchased the fort from the federal government in 1923 and turned it into a state park. It was reactivated for a brief period during World War II as a coastal defense base.

Visually appealing, the fort and surrounding park lie on one of North Carolina’s most beautiful barrier islands. The park is fully restored and open to the public. Besides the fort, there are areas for fishing and swimming, nature trails to hike, a refreshment stand, and beautiful scenery on land and sea to enjoy, which makes the fort and the park one of the most visited parks in the state, reportedly receiving more than 1 million visitors each year.

In 1862, Union forces attacked the fort, and even though the Confederate soldiers were completely surrounded, they refused to surrender. The fort was besieged by heavy gunfire for 11 hours straight, and cannon fire struck the fort more than 500 times. By the next day, the fort was under such strain that the commander, Colonel White, was forced to surrender. While the fort had been able to easily withstand gunfire, cannons quickly penetrated the barriers.

Some reports state that Civil War ghosts haunt the fort, including Confederate soldiers who keep watch for approaching Union soldiers. Others state that the ghosts are former prisoners. Witnesses report seeing soldiers strolling outside the fort and items moving within several rooms inside the fort. There are also sounds of footsteps, gunfire, and men speaking in low voices.

The fort is beautiful in its own way, and the five-sided shape is intriguing. Exhibits and displays include the fort’s powder magazines, counterfire rooms with cannons, and furnace and bake ovens. Some quarters have been restored to show how soldiers and officers lived there.

While touring Fort Macon, I didn’t experience any paranormal activity. It was a gorgeous day when we visited the area, and everyone there was enjoying the beautiful weather. Some of the techniques used in ghosthunting include checking for increased solar activity, which has been reported by many paranormal researchers to cause an increase in paranormal activity, as spirits need an energy source in order to appear. When the sun has a solar storm or is releasing solar flares, radioactive particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere, which charges the geomagnetic fields. Ghosts can then access this energy, which allows them to be more active on the earth plane. Moon phases have also been studied, and certain phases, including the full moon cycle, often produce more ghost sightings and paranormal activity.

During my visit, the geomagnetic field was quiet, and solar storms were low. I was also there during a low lunar cycle. I didn’t detect any paranormal activity to note other than the usual energy imprints I pick up any time I’m near a battlefield. This doesn’t mean that the fort is not haunted; it just means that I didn’t encounter any activity during my visit. As with any paranormal investigations, it often takes time and repeated visits to a location under the right conditions to find proof of ghostly activity. Locals and visitors continue to report ghostly experiences while visiting, and I hope to return again to investigate further.

Want more spooky stories of Ghoshunting in North Carolina? Check out Kala Ambrose’s book Ghosthunting North Carolina.

 

Spotlight On: Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum

Helen Pattskyn, author of Ghosthunting Michigan, tells us about the supposedly paranormal activity happening at Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

If people like Lynn from Main Street Antiques and Pat from the Battle Alley Arcade are right, then the more pieces of old furniture or old building materials you have around, the greater your chances are of having ghosts—assuming you believe in ghosts. Many of the other people I’ve spoken to in the course of writing this book have also said they have noticed how paranormal activity seemed to increase when they brought antiques into their businesses. So it stands to reason that a place like Dearborn’s Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, which is nothing but antiques and old homes, would be teeming with paranormal activity. And according to a lot of people, it is.

Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum is a legacy left to us by the museum’s namesake, automotive giant Henry Ford. Ford’s passion for preserving American history and culture led him to amass, preserve, and exhibit more than 90 acres’ worth of historically significant Americana, including large exhibits like Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop, in addition to several historic homes, including the Firestone Farm, which was originally constructed in 1828 in Columbiana, Ohio. Other permanent exhibits include John F. Kennedy’s presidential limousine, the chair Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in, and the bus made famous by Rosa Parks. The folks who run Greenfield Village are more interested in traditional history than in paranormal activity, but several places around the village are reputed to be haunted, including the Firestone Farm, the Dagget Farm, William Ford Barn, and the Wright Brothers’ home—at least according to former employees of the Village.

On the Firestone Farm, it is said that one can hear Sally Firestone walking around upstairs. Her bedroom is said to be particularly active; sometimes she can even be seen peering out the window.

Former employees have reported they would find the drapes pulled back and furniture out of place in the room. Equine specters are said to stamp their hooves in the William Ford Barn; in the Wright Brothers’ family home, people claim to have seen Katherine Wright, the famous pair’s younger sister. At the Dagget Farm, some people have claimed to catch a whiff of pipe smoke, particularly in the autumn months. Most of the Village’s supposedly paranormal activity happens at night, and management tends to be closed-mouthed about it. But if you ask around discreetly, you might be able to get some of the employees to tell you a ghost story or two.

More information on Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum is available  here.

Photo Credits
The Wright House: By Andrew Balet [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
The Thomas Edison Laboratoy: By Swampyank [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

 

Westminster Hall and Burying Ground the Final Resting Place of Edgar Allan Poe

More than one thousand souls, many of them luminaries from Baltimore’s storied past, lie buried within the brick walls of Westminster Burying Ground, and there is reason to think that the spirits of many of them haunt its grounds. For most people, however, the place is significant as the final resting place of writer Edgar Allan Poe—who, to his innumerable  other distinctions, can add being buried three times and having his final resting place marked at two different spots in the eighteenth-century graveyard.

When it was established in 1786 by a prominent local Presbyterian congregation, the burying ground lay to the west of the Baltimore city limits and was located there due to fears of contagion that were not completely unfounded.

“Four of the city’s earliest mayors, including the first, James Calhoun, are buried here, as are a number of generals of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, eighty lesser officers, and more than two hundred other veterans,” a pamphlet published by the Westminster Preservation Trust says. “Hollins, Gilmore, Stricker, Ramsay, Stirling, McDonogh, Calhoun, Bentalou, Sterrett . . . all share the distinction of having Baltimore streets named in their honor.”

A church was not originally built on the site and was not added until six decades after the first bodies were laid to rest there, both to meet the needs of the growing congregation and to help protect and maintain the burial ground. Completed in 1852, Westminster Presbyterian Church was a Gothic Revival structure that had a number of interesting architectural characteristics that make it exceptional if not unique.

Foremost among these is that the church was constructed on brick piers over many of the tombs, giving the impression that they are located in underground catacombs. Numerous large family sepulchers and individual grave markers, many of them crumbling, darkened with age, and ivy-covered, fill the walled  yard surrounding the building as well, creating a compact and somewhat confined little necropolis. While “Gothic Revival” will undoubtedly spring to mind for a small proportion of visitors, “Gothic Novel” will resonate for many more, and those are by no means the most interesting or eerie attributes of the place.

When Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849 at the age of just forty— under mysterious and somewhat suspicious circumstances that are disputed to this day—he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Poe family plot near the back of the Westminster Burying Ground. Today, a gravestone near a number of other Poe  graves—including that of his grandfather, General David Poe Sr. and his brother, Henry Leonard Poe—bears his name and is thought by many to be where he was buried prior to being relocated to the ground beneath the more impressive marker near the front of the graveyard.

“That is not his original burial place. He was actually moved twice,” Luann Marshall, tour director for the site, explained to me. Poe’s fame and the affection admirers of his work felt for him grew posthumously, and when these sentiments were matched with sufficient funds, a large monument to him was purchased. It was too large, however, to fit on the plot in which he was buried, and the author had to be disinterred and was reburied elsewhere in the family plot in April 1875.

“People would come in to pay their respects and would search for his gravesite but couldn’t find it, even after his fans went to all the trouble to put the monument on his grave,” Marshall told me. “So, in November of 1875, they purchased the plot just inside the cemetery gates from the family that owned it and moved him there so that people would be able to see him as they went by.” This monument, which cost six hundred dollars at the time, was paid for by Baltimore schoolchildren collecting “pennies for Poe,” and today it is customary for visitors to leave one cent coins on the white stone marker. Another interesting fact associated with this monument is that the inset bronze medallion bearing Poe’s likeness is a replacement for a marble original, which was stolen and eventually turned up in a flea market in Charleston, West Virginia, and was subsequently donated to the Poe House in Baltimore, where it is periodically on display.

A much smaller gravestone—bearing the image of a raven, which has become both the symbol of Poe and the city of his death—now marks the second spot where he was buried. One can only imagine that Poe would probably have profoundly  appreciated not just the fame his work eventually enjoyed but also the morbid details, so reminiscent of scenes from his own stories, associated with the disposition of his remains.

In the decades following the reburial of the churchyard’s most famous celebrity, the Westminster Presbyterian Church struggled to remain viable and, by the centennial of the new marker had, sadly, dwindled to almost nothing. In 1977, it was turned over to the Westminster Preservation Trust, a private, nonprofit group established under the leadership of the University of Maryland School of Law, and its days as a house of worship came to an end.

Today, the place is known as Westminster Hall, which has been fully restored by the trust and is now used for secular purposes that include tours of the “catacombs” and graveyard.

The most visited spots in the graveyard are, of course, the ones dedicated to Poe, which have virtually risen to the status  of pilgrimage sites. Associated observances include an annual birthday celebration at the hall hosted by the nearby Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum each January on the weekend closest to his birthday (an event that, in 2009, observed the two hundredth anniversary of the author’s birth). And, every year on January 19 since 1949, a mysterious individual has come to Poe’s grave, left three roses and a half-filled bottle of Martell cognac—believed to have been the author’s favorite drink—and made a toast to him (there is evidence that the original toaster died in 1998 and that the role was subsequently bestowed upon a successor). The roses are generally believed to represent Poe; his wife, Virginia; and his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm—all three of whom are buried in the churchyard. The toaster has sometimes also left notes, many of them cryptic and, in recent years, sometimes even controversial (e.g., an apparent dig at the French in 2004).

I visited Westminster Hall and Burying Ground for the first time in May 2009 with a dozen members of the Inspired Ghost Tracking paranormal group. The first thing that struck me upon entering the graveyard that damp, drizzly Saturday evening was how reminiscent it was of some of the above-ground cemeteries I had visited in Europe, notably Père Lachaise in Paris. True, it was not nearly as large as the Old World burial grounds of that ilk that I had visited (although it was, overall, much better maintained).

But the dark, moldering stone sepulchers and markers, all jammed together into a tiny, mazelike microcosm, created a minuscule world of the dead within a city of the living which, it seemed to me, could not help but be haunted.

We were not, suffice it to say, disappointed. Almost immediately upon arriving at Westminster Hall, Inspired Ghost Tracking group-organizer, Margaret Ehrlich, and two of her friends, Ross and Amy Twigg, heard organ music coming from the former church, which is the home of  a fully restored 1882 pipe organ. Upon revealing this, however, to Luann Marshall, the Westminster Hall representative overseeing our tour, they learned that the building was completely locked up and that no one was in it! This particular phenomena is, it turns out, one that is regularly reported at the site.

Over the next couple of hours, we collectively experienced a number of other phenomena of an apparently paranormal nature while exploring the site. These included detection of the presence of spirits by some of the sensitives in the group, the capturing of several very profound orbs by several members of the group, and one of Margaret’s assistants, Maria Blume, becoming overwhelmed by the spiritual energy in the catacombs and having to leave them.

I myself took a picture of one member, Wendy Super, and was stunned to see a large, substantial green orb appear in the image beside her! When I somewhat excitedly told her about this, she very calmly explained that she is a Reiki master who specializes in helping earthbound spirits cross over to the afterlife and that it is common for them to gravitate to her as someone who is able to help them.

A number of other members of the group reported similar experiences. “I kept feeling activity in that area; that is why we asked Ross to come over as well,” said Brenda, an Inspired Ghost Tracking member, of a particular section of the tombs beneath the former church and the photographs she and some of the others took there. “It looks like Ross and I were having an orb meeting.”

Luann Marshall, who has worked at the site for nearly three decades, told me a number of other incidents people have experienced at it over the years. She herself has on more than one occasion suddenly felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up and experienced a feeling akin to panic while in the covered crypt and dispelled it merely by stepping outside. And, she said,  during the filming of some footage at the site, the cameraman told her that he had felt someone touch him on the shoulder and whisper in his ear, “Go away!” There was, of course, no one visible around him, and he was understandably shaken by the experience.

We also learned a number of nonparanormal facts about the place that contributed to the macabre aura that surrounds it. One of the strangest involves the local water table, which rises dramatically during heavy rain. Historically, this would cause interred bodies—which in the past were frequently buried just two or three feet below ground—to rise to the surface and sometimes be carried by the flowing waters through the streets and into the nearby residential and commercial areas of the city.

This problem was addressed by placing heavy stone slabs on the ground over areas where bodies were buried. It could not remediate the situation in a crypt beneath the main part of the “catacombs,” however, where until even a few years ago the rising waters would lift a coffin that has since finally disintegrated.

On one occasion during a tour of the place, Luann Marshall told me, the floating casket kept banging against the walls of the crypt, much to the horrified delight of the middle school students witnessing it. Talk about a scene straight out of a Poe story! And just an hour before we had been irritated that it was raining at all, and now some of us were disappointed that it was not a significant enough downpour to create any similarly ghoulish effects.

The lack of such melodrama did not dampen our enthusiasm, however. Westminster Hall and its graveyard are, in short, incredibly fertile ground for paranormal investigators, history buffs, and fans of horror literature alike, and are much more accessible than many sites of similar age and significance.

Their atmosphere and history alone are enough to ensure a fruitful and enjoyable visit, and it is hard to envision a group  of ghosthunters who would not find the experience incredibly worthwhile. But it is an open question whether any spirits they encounter would include that of Poe or merely those of prominent Baltimoreans whose fame has been eclipsed by that of the city’s most renowned poet.

More haunted tales connected to Edgar Allen Poe are found in Ghosthunting Maryland by Michael Varhola.