Tag Archives: Michael Varhola

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.

Spotlight on Ghosts: The Marburg Monument

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

marburg-monumentThe base of this statue is fitted with a plaque dedicating it to Theodore Marburg Jr., which mentions his service with the British Royal Flying Corps during World War I and 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 a mere four years after it ended.

Investigation after our return from the site revealed the strange, convoluted, almost gothic history of the Marburg family in general and the macabre events surrounding the death of Theodore in particular. 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, and in the furor to 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 while flying 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 divorcee and the mother of a 3-year-old girl. The baroness also 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.

In early January 1922, Theodore was married again, this time to a woman 10 years his junior. She was not with him at his ranch 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 were 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 sepulchers and monuments of Druid Ridge Cemetery.

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

The Ghost of Edgar Allan Poe

PoeHouse-BaltimoreLocated just eight blocks from where Edgar Allan Poe is buried at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground is, ironically, one of the many houses the author lived in over the course of his life. It was not, however, his home at the time he died in Baltimore in 1849 at the age of forty, as many people assume—possibly because of all the paranormal phenomena that have occurred at the site.

The author dwelled in this small, unassuming brick townhouse for just a couple of years, from March 1831 to October 1833, with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her children, Henry and Virginia (whom he married in 1835, when she was thirteen and he was twenty-seven).

His stay there followed his discharge from the United States Military Academy at West Point and preceded his move to Richmond, Virginia, to work as a staff writer and critic for the Southern Literary Messenger, a periodical devoted largely to fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and reviews. While living in the Baltimore home, the author lived and wrote—possibly creating as many as a dozen published stories and poems—in a little top-floor room with a pitched ceiling.

In the early 1930s, the city of Baltimore planned to demolish the house as part of an urban clear-cutting campaign and to extend the almost tastelessly named “Poe Homes” housing project onto the site. The Edgar Allan Poe Society managed to obtain the property and opened it to the public in 1949.

Exhibits at the little museum include a lock of Poe’s hair; some china that once belonged to his guardian, John Allan; a reproduction of the portrait Poe painted of Virginia after she died in 1847;  a reprint of the 1849 obituary from the October 24, 1849 edition of the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper; and Poe’s original announcement  about the creation of The Stylus, a literary magazine that never got off the ground.

Strange phenomena people have reported at the site include the sensation of someone tapping them on the shoulders, mysterious muttering voices, lights moving around in the house when no one was in it, inexplicable cold spots, windows flying open or slamming shut—and, in at least one case, a window falling out of its frame and smashing onto the floor.

Some people have, predictably, also claimed to see the ghost of Poe in this house—and perhaps part of his spirit does remain behind there residually, or visits periodically during its rounds to the many other sites where people have seen it. What even more people have claimed to see or otherwise sense, however, is a specter that many have described as a heavyset, middle-aged woman. Who she might be, however—and whether or not she has any connection to Poe—remains unclear, and further investigation would seem to be in order.

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

Copyrights: By Midnightdreary (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sleepy Hollow Southern Style

Berry Hill Road – Sleepy Hollow Southern Style
A story by Michael Varhola

Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power … The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country. – Washington Irving, ”The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Sleepy Hollow Southern Style
Ghosthunting Virginia

Berry Hill Road and the area through which it wends are creepy under the best of circumstances, and it is easy to see how someone visiting them in darkness might conclude they are haunted. In addition, the stretch of country road and the rural thoroughfares branching off it are also home to a number of other reputed paranormal phenomena.

This road does, in fact, have a widespread reputation for weirdness in the Danville area, as my wife, Diane, and I discovered while ghosthunting there the week between Christmas and New Year in 2007. We had gone in search of ghosts associated with the wreck of the Old 97, a train that had derailed in 1903, but nearly everyone we talked to dismissed it and directed us instead to Berry Hill Road.

It was an unseasonably bright, sunny, and warm afternoon as my wife and I headed east on Riverside Drive out of Danville, following the directions we had been given by various people. We had, in fact, spent part of the previous evening drinking martinis with Colie Walker, night manager for the restaurant at the hotel where we had stayed the night, and he had given us an earful about the place. His stories included accounts of ghostly little girls jumping rope near the willow tree under which their bodies were buried; a span dubbed “Satan’s Bridge” where the spectral form of a young man who supposedly hanged himself there has reportedly been seen; a stretch of highway in front of a witch’s house on which cars will roll uphill rather than down; and the slaughtered carcasses of animals hung from trees. It is also reputedly an active stomping ground for the Ku Klux Klan. In short, Sleepy Hollow, Southern style.

Just a few miles past the line for Pittsylvania County, we came to the intersection with Berry Hill Road and turned left. From where it begins at Riverside Drive, Berry Hill Road twists about seven-and-a-half-miles, generally heading southwest, until reaching the North Carolina state line, where its name changes to T. Clarence Stone Highway. In its relatively short stretch through Virginia, however, the road has a markedly distinct character, which became obvious to us almost immediately.

Near its start, a number of other roads lead off in either direction from Berry Hill Road: those to the north generally past older, modest, relatively small houses, and those to the south past larger, more affluent homes and farms. Soon after passing these, however, the road begins to run through dense woodland punctuated by miles-long stretches of devastated-looking blight, mostly on the south side of the road. Periodically, tucked back in the wood line, we could see abandoned, vegetation-choked farmsteads and rutted dirt roads (that probably don’t appear on any maps) twist away into the forest. Many were blocked by makeshift gates emblazoned with signs warning visitors away. To say that the area felt ominous and unwelcoming would be an understatement.

At the intersection with Oak Hill Road, we went north for awhile, and eventually came to a small country church, the first thing we had seen in several miles. We decided not to go any further at that point, and turned around. Approaching the intersection with Berry Hill Road again, we noticed at the side of the road the mangled carcass of a large animal, possibly a deer, with its exposed and bloody ribcage turned skyward.

Sleepy Hollow Southern Style
Rock with cross by the side of Berry Hill Road

We continued on Berry Hill Road, and soon after saw, at the left side of the road, a large rock painted with a white cross. Overhead, both in the air and perched on nearby utility poles and trees, an uncannily large number of vultures watched over the place and regarded us as we passed.

At the intersection with Stateline Bridge Road, just past a set of railroad tracks, we went south. We turned past a pickup truck stopped at the three-way stop that was turning onto Berry Hill Road, and I noticed the driver, a white guy with a mustache and baseball cap. As we moved down the road, I saw him make a U-turn and begin to follow us.

As we sped down the road, the creep in the pickup stayed behind us, and after about a mile we broke out of the wood line onto a low concrete span over a river. As we reached the other side of it, we passed a sign welcoming us to North Carolina, and the name of the road changed to Berry Hill Bridge Road. We went about another mile, until we reached an intersection near a farm where we could turn around, and as we did the pickup truck passed us and continued on its way.

Returning to the bridge from the other direction, I was stunned to see that it was completely covered with graffiti, something that while driving into the sun and keeping an eye on my rear-view mirror I had not noticed previously. Colie Walker had described “Satan’s Bridge” as being tagged (an urbanized term for “painted” that, when I explained it to my wife, both baffled and annoyed her). Its location corresponded exactly with the directions Walker had given us, and so it seemed we had found the cursed bridge.

Driving back across to the Virginia side, we went a few hundred yards to a spot where the road widened adequately for me to safely turn off and start to get my equipment ready for a walk back to the bridge. “I’m just going to wait in the car,” my wife said as I started to get out of the vehicle, repeating a mantra that for her was as automatic and unanalyzed as “bless you” would have been in response to a sneeze. The creep with the pickup was on the other side of the river and I would see if he was coming back, so I didn’t argue with her.

Heading toward the bridge along the left side of the road, I could see that the nearby woods were choked and tangled with heavy vine growth and had an almost quintessentially haunted look. I also had a growing sense of unease, and as I came nearer to the bridge I became increasingly aware of a sound like a howling wind, somewhere in the distance, that became more and more audible as I neared the span.

Walking out onto the sunlit bridge, I could hear a low, shrieking noise somewhere in the distance, like a wind ripping through the woods around me. Glancing at the wood line on either side of the river, I could see that it was perfectly still and could not feel so much as a light breeze. It sent a chill up my spine. It would have scared the hell out of me and made me feel like I was standing on the threshold to the netherworld if I’d been there at night, possibly alone, or under the influence.

I quickly walked to the far end of the bridge and, with the light at my back, got some photos. Most of the graffiti I passed seemed to be of the “X loves Y” and “Class of Z” variety, but there were a few pentagrams and devilish epithets mixed in with it. I also saw burnt-down candle stubs lying among the detritus of broken beer bottles on either side of the bridge. No one passed by during my time there, and I was completely alone as I looked down into the swirling ochre water of the Dan River and contemplated where the young man would have hanged himself if such an incident really had occurred here. The low, concrete bridge didn’t look like it would be very convenient for that purpose—and his dangling specter would not have been visible by anyone on or at either end of it—and I wondered if he might not have used one of the trees in the surrounding vine-choked forest. It would have been, in any event, a morose and dismal place to die.

Sleepy Hollow Southern Style
Berry Hill Road

My need and desire to stay at the bridge sated, I trotted back toward the car and we resumed our exploration of the area. Turning back onto Berry Hill Road and continuing southwest on it, we soon reached the point where it crossed the North Carolina state line. Almost immediately afterward, we heard a shrieking exactly like that of a jet engine, pulled over to the side of the road, and looked up, expecting to see an aircraft passing overhead and the noise to fade. There was nothing above us, however, and the noise remained steady for awhile longer before fading away.

We could see that the land across the road was fenced off and make out a small cluster of pipes and utility infrastructure. While we could not see anything that could have been making the great noise we heard, and while no signs offered an explanation for them or the fenced-off area from which they emanated, it seemed pretty obvious that we had stumbled onto some sort of industrial test facility—and that it had accounted for the distant noises I had heard at Satan’s Bridge (a later perusal of maps and satellite imagery, however, did not reveal anything of that nature in that particular area). This new mystery being far beyond our purview, and with the sinister aspect of the neighborhood starting to weigh on us, we decided to leave it unexamined.

Heading back up Berry Hill Road toward where we had started, we made a few more exploratory stops before reaching the highway. We never did see the willow tree Walker had told us about, and we weren’t sure of the exact location to try putting our car in neutral to see whether it would roll uphill. We saw so many dilapidated antebellum houses that we could not be certain which one was reputed to be the lair of the witch. But a couple of hours on Berry Hill Road were enough to convince us that there is probably a good reason for its reputation in the local area – and that we did not want to be lingering on it after dark.

For more ghostly stories in Virginia check out Michael Varhola’s book Ghosthunting Virginia