Encounters at the Exchange Hotel–Virginia

Exchange Hotel
400 South Main Street
Gordonsville, Virginia

As I’m researching and beginning to write about Southern ghosts, I’ll be highlighting places that appear on my radar due to recent news articles. The Exchange Hotel is one of those places. An article appeared in a recent edition of C-ville, a Charlottesville, Virginia news and arts weekly and I immediately became interested in seeing what I could find on this place.

God bless the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for placing the state’s numerous (over 2,700 statewide) National Register of Historic Places forms online! It makes historical research on this location much easier. If available, these forms can present a fairly accurate history of a location. Unfortunately, outside of Virginia, the National Park Service (NPS), the keepers of the National Register, has only made select forms available online.  Among those forms currently available are all forms for National Historic Landmarks (NHLs). NHLs are those places deemed by the NPS to be of national significance and inclusion as an NHL includes automatic listing on the National Register. The editors of Wikipedia have also deemed National Register properties to be notable enough to create separate articles on each which can be quite helpful and often provides information not found on the nomination form, though many places do not yet have articles.

Exchange Hotel, 2008, by Rutke421. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some places appear to be positively crawling with ghosts and the Exchange Hotel seems to be one of those places. According to the C-ville article, the hotel has been investigated some 20 times, though it doesn’t specify who performed all of those investigations. However, it appears that investigations have yielded a huge amount of evidence, including EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena), photographs, video and recorded personal experiences.

It’s no surprise that the Exchange Hotel has ghosts. The three-story, late Greek Revival structure was built in 1860 to replace a tavern that had been built on the site in 1840. The site was at the intersection of two major railways, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) and the Alexandria and Orange (A & O) Railroads and is near the Gordonsville Depot which was built around the same time as the original tavern (the depot is apparently also haunted and has been investigated by the Shenandoah Valley Paranormal Society). The hotel opened in a period of mounting hostility that would eventually lead to the first shots of the Civil War in April of 1861. By June 1862, the hotel was serving as part of the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital, a massive operation that, by war’s end, would treat some 70,000 soldiers, mostly Confederate, but including some Union soldiers as well. These soldiers would pour in from many of the nearby Virginia battlefields including Cedar Mountain, Chancellorsville, Brandy Station and the Wilderness. Obviously, many died, though I haven’t encountered an exact number, but it is known that just over 700 of those were buried on the hotel property.

Following the sadness of its days as a hospital, the building served as an office for the Freedman’s Bureau, a government agency that provided aid to freed slaves and war refugees between 1865 and 1872. The hotel was soon returned to its original function as a luxurious railroad hotel offering the best of Southern hospitality. The hospitality of the hotel was so well-known that humorist George W. Bagby dubbed Gordonsville “the chicken-leg centre of the universe.” This fine reputation was enjoyed until the hotel closed in the 1940s. The building served as a private residence and later was divided into apartments before being acquired by Historic Gordonsville, Inc. which restored the hotel as a museum.

So far, nothing in my research has indicated when people in the Exchange Hotel began experiencing spectral phenomena. I would speculate that the phenomena began shortly after the building’s usage as a hospital, though I don’t have any evidence of that. Many buildings throughout the South were commandeered for use as hospitals throughout the war and many of those remaining are often considered haunted; witness Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee. This house served as a hospital during and for many months after the Battle of Franklin in 1864 and the activity in the house is at a high enough level that a book has been written specifically about it.

As one might expect of a location with such a varied and bloody past, there are apparently numerous spirits haunting the hotel. Among those spirits are a young African-American male who possibly hanged himself in the kitchen building, a former cook, one the Quartermasters who was in charge of the hotel during the war as well as a female who was possibly his companion and, according to a longtime museum volunteer, the wraith of Major Cornelius Boyle who was the post commander. These spirits and, quite possibly, a host of others have caused a high level of paranormal activity including disembodied voices, apparitions, shadow figures, items being misplaced and witnesses being physically touched.

It appears that information on the hotel’s haunting has yet to be published aside from scattered ghost hunt reports and the C-ville article. Though, it does appear that the site is receiving attention from the local ghost hunting community, even appearing in a TV show produced by Research Investigators of the Paranormal or R.I.P., a team out of Richmond, Virginia (see the trailer for the show here).  Two other teams, SSPI (lead by Mark Higgins and the subject of the article) and the Shenandoah Valley Paranormal Society, teamed up for two joint investigations of the premises. All three teams were able to collect a good deal of evidence ranging from EVPs to video. Numerous photographs also had anomalies including dark shadows, the de rigueur orb photographs (which are often easy to discount) and a few with some possible human forms. One of the more interesting videos shows a door that just been closed opening by itself while another video captures an odd light in one of the bedrooms.  Both investigations by SSPI and the Shenandoah Valley Paranormal Society were concluded with the finding that the Exchange Hotel is haunted.

Certainly, this is a location that is brimming with history and important simply from a historical standpoint. It also appears that with the high amounts of paranormal activity occurring in these locations, this place may also end up being important in a paranormal sense. As always, I would welcome any input readers have on this location.

The Exchange Hotel is open to the public as a Civil War museum. Please see the museum’s website (http://www.hgiexchange.org/) for further information. The museum also hosts occasional ghost walks.

Sources

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A Mississippi Dante

Noxubee County Library
103 East King Street
Macon, Mississippi

Revised 28 December 2017.

Jefferson Street, Macon, Mississippi, probably just after the turn of the 20th century. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Forrest Lamar Cooper
Postcard Collection.

Sitting in a jail cell in the newly opened Noxubee County Jail in 1907, Si Connor was visited by Jesus. “Jesus have been here since I been in jail and have taken me to hell and showed me everything there, and what sort of place it is,” he told a reporter a couple weeks before his execution. Connor was shown a “big fire” with a “man toting water to the folks in the fire.”

“Hell,” continued the inmate, “is a right big place. Yassah, I spec it is as big as Macon, maybe bigger.” In preserving the African-American man’s dialect, the unnamed reporter from the Macon Beacon showed no compassion for the man’s vision, based on race and class. Interestingly, Connor points out that the fire contained both whites and blacks.

Connor’s next vision took him to the gallows that had been erected for his own state-sponsored demise. The sheriff put the noose around his neck and a pair of angels appeared and told him, “Si, don’t you be skeered or shamed or nothing for you is a child of God.” The angels flew him to heaven where he was greeted by his grandmother, sister, and “my little baby.” “I saw lots of Noxubee county folks up there. Yassah, white people too.” Continuing in his vision, Connor replies, “Jesus Christ told me to tall all the people down here to believe in him and He would save them.”

The reporter notes that “the condemned man tells all this with earnestness and sincerity, but with the same silly smile he wore when on the witness stand telling of killing his wife with an ax.” The jailer is quoted saying that Mr. Connor “has no dread of death, saying he wants to stay here as long as he can but is ready to go and doubtless he is. As a horrible example to a portion of his race, he will prove a failure.”

Allow me to round out the scene with a bit of local history. In 1830, sixty Choctaw leaders met with government agents at a place with the marvelous name of Dancing Rabbit Creek. There the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed on the 27th of September ceding some 11 million acres of Choctaw land east of the Mississippi River to white settlers in exchange for some 15 million acres in Oklahoma.

The ceded land became a huge swath of what is now the state of Mississippi and a small portion of western Alabama. In 1833, the portion of the ceded lands around Dancing Rabbit Creek was established as Noxubee County, so named for the Noxubee River; meaning “stinking water” in the Choctaw language. Near the center of the county, on the Noxubee River, the town of Macon was established as the county seat. The town prospered and, according to the 1938 WPA guide to Mississippi, “the big white- columned homes are the remaining evidence.”

As Sherman burned the state capital, Jackson, during the Civil War, the state government moved to Macon temporarily, setting up business at the Calhoun Institute, one of a handful of schools in and around Macon. Two sessions of the state legislature met in these school buildings while one of them, as well as many of Macon’s church buildings, were commandeered for hospitals.

Most histories of the area seem to stop just after the turmoil of the Civil War, so one might be tempted to assume that the town returned to being a sleepy hamlet. Judging from the population numbers in the 1938 WPA guide (2,198 people) and the numbers provided by Wikipedia (2,461 people in the 2000 census), it seems that little has changed throughout the bulk of the twentieth century.

The original Noxubee County Jail was constructed in Macon in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. Around the time the new jail was constructed, the old jail was described by a local attorney and state representative as being, “no jail at all.” Unfortunately for the local citizenry, the old jail was regularly the scene of prisoners simply removing bricks from the masonry walls to escape.

The Old Noxubee County Jail and current library, 2009. Photo by Jimmy Emerson, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hailed for its luxurious appointments, the new jail offered “steam heat, electric lights, hot and cold baths and ‘saw and file-proof cells,” which “will minister to [the prisoners’] comfort and pleasure their sense of the magnificent.” The new facility was constructed by the Pauly Jail Company, a company out of St. Louis that has been constructing correctional facilities since 1856. Quite a number of the historic (and haunted) jails remaining throughout the South were constructed by this company.

Recognizing the need for a modern facility, a new jail was constructed in 1978. The historic importance of the old jail was noted and the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places the same year it closed. In 1983, the building was renovated for use as a public library all the while maintaining some of the inner workings of the original building including bars and unused gallows.

About two weeks after Connor reported his description of the inferno to the Macon Beacon, gallows were erected for him across the street from the jail. During the days leading up to Connor’s hanging, he was allowed to preach to crowds of African-Americans that gathered below his window. On Friday, September 26th, 1907, before a crowd that had gathered to witness “the deep damnation of his taking off,” Connor left this world.

Connor walked, dressed almost entirely in black, resolutely to the scaffold and spoke in a strong voice before the noose placed over his neck and the trap sprung. The paper describes the scene with a sense of wonderment. “There were curious ejaculations as to the expressions of wonder at the nerve he exhibited in the face of horrible death, and there were—from the emotional members of his own race—exclamations of admiration for his courage and his religious faith that braved the terrors of the unknown future.”

According to Alan Brown, inmates of the jail reported that Connor continued to make appearances within the building and that his spirit still abides in the library that once held him. Perhaps this Mississippi Dante is still trying to save the living souls of Noxubee County.

Sources

  • Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
  • Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State. New York: Viking Press, 1938.
  • “The Hanging.” Macon Beacon. 28 September 1907.
  • Macon, Mississippi. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 11 August 2010.
  • Newsome, Paul & William C. Allen. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for the Old Noxubee County Jail.  28 September 1978.
  • “A Noxubee Dante.” Macon Beacon. 14 September 1907.
  • “Noxubee’s New Jail.” Macon Beacon. 11 May 1907.
  • Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi: Comprising Sketches of Counties, Towns, Events, Institutions and Persons Arranged in Cyclopedic Form, Vol. II, L-Z. Atlanta: Southern Historical Publishing Association, 1907.
  • Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 11 August 2010.

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Spirits of Spring Villa

Spring Villa
1474 Spring Villa Road
(Lee County Road 148)
Opelika, Alabama

Stairs and staircases figure into numerous ghost stories. One reason, certainly, must be that stairs are dangerous and can be the cause of dangerous accidents; perhaps even serving as the modus operandi in a murder. I prefer to imagine that ghosts are just trying to find the most dramatic way to enter. Regardless, stairs appear regularly in stories and even have figured into two of the more famous ghost photographs: the photograph of the “Brown Lady” of Raynham Hall and the Tulip Staircase photo from Greenwich, England’s Queen’s House. So, it’s no surprise that the story from the next Southern location involves a staircase as well.

The haunted staircase at Spring Villa during renovation in 1934. Photo by W. N. Manning for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

With a name meaning “big swamp” in the language of the Muskogee Indians who once lived in the area, Opelika is a town in east central Alabama adjoining the city of Auburn. The area was sparsely settled until 1848 when the building of the Montgomery & West Point (Georgia) Railroad opened up the area to further development. A stop on this railroad line, just south of Opelika was Yongesboro, a stop that bore the name of William Penn C. Yonge.

It is likely that the summer camp held for many years, starting in the 1930s, in Spring Villa Park created the story about Mr. Yonge being killed on the staircase of his home by a vengeful (vengeance is another item that figures into many ghost stories) slave. It was this murder that of course led to his ghost haunting the house and the grounds. Just like the myth of the Ezekiel Harris House in Augusta, history and legend don’t match up.

Spring Villa, 2010, by Lewis O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.

William Penn C. Yonge (no source has yet provided his full name) was, according to Horace King’s biographers, from Marianne, Florida and had returned to the South after going to California for the Gold Rush. He married, Mary, the oldest daughter of John Godwin, a Columbus, Georgia builder. Godwin had moved from South Carolina to Columbus, located just 30 miles southeast of Opelika, with Horace King to build a bridge across the Chattahoochee River, the river divides Georgia from Alabama from Columbus south to Florida. Quite possibly, money that Yonge had earned in the Gold Rush provided the capital for him to build a house as well as going into business. Yonge, with two other investors created the Chewacla Lime Company in 1851 and it was around this time that he also built Spring Villa. It’s important to note the area’s geology includes large amounts of limestone as well as quartz, both of which are believed to provide energy to spirits.

Horace King, John Godwin’s building companion, is a fairly important name in the South. An African-American, King distinguished himself as an important architect and builder, especially of bridges. King constructed massive town lattice truss bridges over most major rivers throughout the Deep South. At the time of the building of Spring Villa, King was a freedman, but as a slave, Godwin had been his master. Though records do not exist, it is quite possible that King was both the designer and builder of Spring Villa with some aid from the owner’s father-in-law, John Godwin.

The house is designed in the Carpenter or Vernacular Gothic Style. This style, which became popular in America in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, adapted the lines and elements of Gothic architecture, usually rendered in stone, in wood. The façade of Spring Villa, identical on both sides of the house, sports three steeply pitched gables decorated with wooden millwork and topped with a decorative finial. The center gable is taller and is situated over a door with the two on either side being smaller and situated over windows. All three gables also feature latticework balconies that may perhaps be a nod to Kings use of lattice in bridges. The interior is quite simple and features two floors with a living and dining room divided by a hall on the first floor. The second floor has two bedrooms with a hall and a small miscellaneous room between them. The halls are connected by a narrow circular staircase, the staircase that was supposedly the scene of a murder.

The house is described as having initially been a showplace with gardens and lakes where the Yonge’s held lavish parties and events. Following the death of her husband, Mary Godwin Yonge sold the entire 455 acre plantation to the Chewacla Lime Works (the name for the company changed slightly) and later the estate passed into the hands of the Renfro family. The Renfro’s sold the property to the City of Opelika to use as a water supply. The house was restored by the Lee County Civil Works Administration in 1934 and a matching kitchen added perpendicular to the back of the house. The grounds were developed to accommodate a summer camp, the same camp that likely created the legend. The grounds were then turned into a city park and remain so to this day.

The legend of Spring Villa states that William Penn C. Yonge was a cruel slave-owner and one of his slaves, with revenge in his heart, hid in a niche on the stairs and stabbed his master to death on the thirteenth stair. Of course, there are some major issues with this. William Penn C. Yonge died in 1879 and was buried in a small cemetery near the house. That presents a problem if a slave murdered him as slavery had been abolished in 1865, 14 years earlier. The second issue is that Mr. Yonge reportedly died of natural causes. Even though the legend is entirely derailed by history, that fact does not preclude the house from being haunted.

Over the years visitors to Spring Villa have reported a variety of paranormal phenomena, though I have been unable to determine how long visitors have experienced anything unusual. Phenomena reported has included people seeing figures in the upper stories of the house and the 1934 addition, though currently the second floor of the addition cannot be reached without a ladder as the breezeway between the buildings has been torn down. Voices, music from a piano (the house is apparently not furnished) and the sound of footsteps have also been reported. Visitors also report feelings of unease and also feeling hands pushing them on the 13th step.

So far, I have not seen the story of Spring Villa in any books of ghost stories, though my library is lacking in books on Alabama. Online I have found reports of investigations by two Alabama based paranormal investigation organizations: the Alabama Paranormal Research Team and Southern Paranormal Research. Interestingly, the City of Opelika website for Spring Villa Park features a history written by Southern Paranormal Research that presents the legend of William Penn C. Yonge, usually governmental organizations shun ghost stories and legends about their properties.

The Alabama Paranormal Research Team has investigated the house on numerous occasions and it has included an investigation report on its website. One interesting account that they report involves a camp counselor called “Magic Mike” who reportedly witnessed a man playing the piano in the empty house. Mr. Harrellson, reportedly the director of Opelika Parks and Recreation, found the man sitting on the floor of the empty residence crying and shocked at the scene he had just witnessed. Unfortunately, the team fails to include a source for this story. The team also reports that one of their researchers located the details of the deaths of three young girls who drowned in a lake on the property, though again, no citation is given. The evidence that the group presents includes a few examples of EVP (electronic voice phenomena – when voices are picked up on recording devices, though not heard by those present at the time) and some interesting video.

Southern Paranormal Research, who investigated the house and grounds in 2008, presents a more complete report as well as some very compelling evidence. In their investigation of May 24th, investigators made some interesting discoveries in trying to debunk some of the phenomena. They explain that matrixing may be responsible for figures being seen in the upper stories. In other words, the minds of witnesses may simply be fooled by the odd interplay of light and architecture into seeing figures. The team also notes that sound carries very well throughout the house which might explain some of the sounds heard by witnesses. The remaining investigation appears to be mostly of the grounds where the team did have some odd experiences, hearing things in the woods and seeing a large, shadowy figure on the road. Some EVPs were also recorded that are rather interesting including a growl and laughter possibly from a child. The director’s final verdict suggests that further study is needed, though there is apparently a good deal of paranormal phenomena going on. The report for the team’s second investigation is incomplete, but does include an EVP of a man screaming that is rather haunting.

On a hot and muggy recent Sunday, I visited Spring Villa. After driving around and around and having to take a detour (part of Spring Villa Road is closed for repair), I finally discovered the park. My iPod seemed to pick up on the location and began playing a recording of the folk song, “Garry Owen,” which certainly set the mood. The park was almost spookily devoid of visitors or any other humans and seemed the proper setting for the opening of a horror film. Birds and bugs chirped and chortled as I approached the house. The house certainly appears to be haunted and the dreadful condition of the house only adds to the feeling. Paint is peeling, a few balconies are missing, one of the boards from a balcony hangs by a single nail, the windows of the main house appear to the covered with black plastic from the inside and the buildings appear to have not been well maintained since the 1934 restoration. As I approached one of the side chimneys to take a photograph, I was met with the titter of bats in the eaves. I immediately thought of a line from one of Horatio’s speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where he describes Rome just before the fall of Julius Caesar where “The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.” Perhaps the sheeted dead still squeak and gibber here just as the bats; it’s certainly not hard to imagine so.

Spring Villa Park is owned by the City of Opelika. The website for the park (http://www.opelika.org/Default.asp?ID=493) does not state if the house may be toured.

Sources

  • Alabama Paranormal Research Team. Investigation Report: Spring Villa Mansion, Opelika, AL. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
  • City of Opelika. Spring Villa. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
  • Lee County Heritage Book Committee. The Heritage of Lee County, Alabama. Clanton, AL: Heritage Publishing Company, 2000.
  • Lupold, John S. and Thomas L. French, Jr. Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
  • Southern Paranormal Research. Investigation Reports for Spring Villa, May 24, 2008 and September 20, 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2010.

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