Tag Archives: Michael J. Varhola

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.

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.

The Story of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney

In today’s post, Michael J. Varhola, coauthor of Ghosthunting Maryland, shares with us the story of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney.

Coast Cutter TaneyInnumerable vessels have passed through Baltimore harbor over the more than three centuries that the city has served as one of the most important ports in North America. Some of these have come to stay for good and, like historic buildings, have been restored and made ready for visitors at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Also like historic buildings, a great many of them—all storied vessels and in several cases veterans of combat in foreign seas or other harrowing action—have ghost stories associated with them. And many of them, even those that are not “officially” occupied by ghosts, participate in “haunted ship” events around Halloween.

Launched in 1936, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney is notable as being the last ship afloat that fought at Pearl Harbor during the surprise Japanese attack on Hawaii in 1941. That alone would warrant it having a few ghosts aboard, but its period of active service continued for many more years, and the vessel was not decommissioned until 1986. USCGC Taney also served as a command ship at the Battle of Okinawa and as a fleet escort in the Atlantic and Mediterranean during World War II, interdicted enemy supplies during the Vietnam War, patrolled in support of drug interdiction and fisheries protection, and joined in the search for lost aviator Amelia Earhart.

In chatting with people who work around the Inner Harbor, we learned that after USS Constellation, USCGC Taney is the local vessel with the greatest reputation for being haunted. Many staff of the vessel and visitors alike—especially those participating in overnight programs—have reported constantly  catching movement out of the corners of their eyes when aboard and seeing spectral forms gliding across its decks and past its open hatchways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Druid Ridge Cemetery Maryland

Druid Ridge Cemetery and the Ghost of Marburg Monument

Druid Ridge CemeteryPeople have reported experiencing various paranormal phenomena— including sensing a spiritual presence, seeing apparitions, and capturing mists and orbs in photographs—at Druid Ridge Cemetery. One of the monuments often mentioned is the Marburg family mausoleum, in front of which is a bronze figure of Icarus.

The base of this statue is fitted with a plaque dedicating it to Theodore Marburg Jr. and mentioning his service with the British Royal Flying Corps during World War I. The plaque also includes some rather strange verbiage about the need for an American presence in Europe. It also indicates that Theodore was born in 1893 and died in 1922, begging the question of how he might have died not during the war but four years after it ended.

A brief review of Theodore’s life during and after the war would certainly suggest he was an almost classically tormented soul, and it was not hard to believe he might haunt the final resting place of his remains. When the Great War began, Theodore was a student at Oxford  in England; in an effort to help stop the German advance across Europe, he joined the British Royal Flying Corps—despite the fact that Americans were prohibited from serving in foreign military organizations and that his father was a career diplomat and a friend of former President William Howard Taft.

In 1916, Theodore’s plane crashed during a frontline mission and, as a result of the injuries he sustained, he had to have his left leg amputated. During his convalescence, he met and married a Belgian baroness who was a divorcée, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, and had a background that was, suffice it to say, a bit questionable.

Not much about the couple’s life together is known, but two years later, when Theodore became a partner in a cattle ranch in New Mexico, the baroness refused to go with him. In an exception to the norms of the era, he claimed abandonment and they were divorced shortly thereafter.

marburg-monumentIn early January 1922, Theodore was married again, this time to a woman 10 years his junior. She was not with him at his ranch, either, when he put an automatic pistol to his head seven weeks later and shot himself. It took him a week to die, during which the doctors had to remove his eyes. His wife arrived from Baltimore after he had expired.

There is a lot that is not known about the mounting tragedies that afflicted Theodore in life, but it is not too hard to imagine that his tormented spirit might still linger on our own sphere after his earthly troubles had been brought to an end. But, as it turns out, a number of the other Marburgs have weird stories, as well, and it is easy to conceive of any number of them lingering on as ghosts.

These include Theodore Marburg Sr., a man who cultivated a reputation as a peacemaker but urged the United States to enter World War I, and his sister, an increasingly desperate spinster who at one point unsuccessfully offered a European tour guide $200,000 to marry her (he declined, opting for her niece instead). Any of them—maybe all of them—might be among the spirits that continue to linger among the sepulchres and monuments of Druid Ridge Cemetery.

For more haunted tales, check out Ghosthunting Maryland by Michael J. Varhola.

Photo Credits
Druid Ridge Cemetery, Clotho Statue: By Coolcatevan9 (Own work) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marburg Monument: Michael J. Varhola

Haunted Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill and the Black Cat

DC Capitol LRNumerous ghost stories have been associated with the Capitol building itself over the years and it is widely believed, by those inclined to believe such things, to be haunted. Indeed, if conflict, strong emotions, and unresolved issues are among the basis for ghostly phenomena, then it certainly makes sense that it would be.  Phenomena people have reported over the years have included seeing figures animate and move about in Statuary Hall; a variety of ghosts – including people purported to have been killed in the building and the ubiquitous Civil War soldiers – throughout the building, especially the Rotunda; and a black cat that is supposed to appear in the basement just before a national disaster occurs (e.g., the 1929 stock market crash, the 1963 Kennedy assassination).

Library of Congress InsideAnother reputedly haunted site on Capitol Hill is the Library of Congress. Paranormal phenomena that have been reported in its labyrinthine stacks over the years have included inexplicable banging sounds and heavy exhibit cases moving on their own.  One specific story, supposedly corroborated by library staff, involves a police officer who helps people lost in the stacks find their way out and then, before disapering, tells them he was killed several years before.

Washington D.C. America’s Greatest Haunted City

An overview of haunted sites in the nation’s capital reveals it to be a city rife with ghosts and places where inexplicable events have been known to occur.  In fact, if you search long enough, you will discover that practically the whole city is haunted, and that the unresolved business of more than two centuries has bound within it an uncanny number o ghosts.

In his book Ghosthunting Virginia, Michael J. Varhola explores the scariest spots in the Old Dominion. The book dedicates an entire chapter to Washington D.C. and the  many haunted places in our nation’s capital.

Photo credits:
The Library of Congress courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia