Tag Archives: 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