A Not So Colonial Haunting–Williamsburg, Virginia

Kimball Theatre
formerly the Williamsburg Theatre
428 West Duke of Gloucester Street
Williamsburg, Virginia

N.B. This article was updated and edited 17 February 2019.

Williamsburg is more reconstruction than restoration. The passage of time had taken its toll on the city when John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and W. A. R. Goodwin began their project to return part of the town to what it had been in the mid-18th century. Some buildings were long gone and had to be reconstructed, while others had modern additions that needed removal. Plus, there was a need to provide accommodations and conveniences that modern visitors would expect.

haunted Merchants Square Williamsburg Virginia Kimball Theatre ghosts Civil War
Merchant’s Square with the Kimball Theatre as the two-story brick building on the right. Photo 2008, by Ser Amantio di Nicolao. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Rockefeller envisioned Merchant’s Square as providing those modern shopping and entertainment conveniences while still maintaining a colonial atmosphere. Among the entertainment options was the Williamsburg Theatre which offered live performances and films in a graceful and air-conditioned Georgian structure.

The theatre opened in January of 1933, with a performance of George Farquhar’s Restoration Comedy, The Recruiting Officer. According to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, this play was the first play performed in British North America when it was produced in Williamsburg. Interestingly, this play was the first play performed in the haunted Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina, which is also a reconstruction for that matter. The Williamsburg Theatre was restored in 2000 and named for Bill and Gretchen Kimball, who sponsored the restoration.

As of 2017, the College of William & Mary has signed a lease to the Kimball as a production space for its Department of Theatre & Dance.

As one might expect, not all the spirits in Colonial Williamsburg are from the 18th century. As Virginia was at the heart of much of the fighting during the Civil War, that conflict has left a spiritual impression on the area. Legend holds that the spirit within the Kimball is a Union soldier.

The land now occupied by the Kimball Theatre was once the home of the Ware family. During the Civil War, the women of the family, as many did during the war, took in and nursed wounded soldiers. They took in a young Confederate soldier who had been wounded in the Battle of Williamsburg, though their care was in vain. The soldier passed away and the ladies took his body to the parlor to await removal.

After Union soldiers captured the town, they went house to house in search of Confederates hiding among the civilians. Upon reaching the Ware House, one soldier was shown to the parlor and the sheet covering the young soldier’s body pulled back. The young Union soldier was horrified to see the body of his own brother who with his different political biases had joined the Confederate army. Sadly, the young Union soldier was not long for this earth and was killed not long afterwards.

A blue-clad spirit, possibly that of the Union soldier, has been seen within the theatre. He appears to be frantically searching for something among the backstage rooms and then suddenly disappears.

Other, colonial spirits may be found in my “Haunts of Williamsburg” entry.

Sources

  • Behrend, Jackie Eileen. The Hauntings of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1998.
  • Chappell, Edward, Mary Harding Sadler and Llewellyn Jewell Hensley. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for Merchants Square and Resort Historic District. 28 February 2006.
  • Colonial Williamsburg. “Kimball Theatre.” Accessed 6 April 2013.

A Hanoverian Haunting

Hanover Tavern
13181 Hanover Courthouse Road
Hanover Courthouse, Virginia

For nearly three centuries, Hanover Tavern has served as a center of this small community just outside of Richmond. It’s not hard to imagine patrons, guests, slaves and proprietors telling stories and singing songs over pints of ale around the tavern’s fireplaces over the years. Appropriately, this amateur theatre in the building was elevated to a professional level when the Barksdale Theatre took over the building—ghosts and all—in 1953.

Taverns were a mainstay throughout Colonial America. They served as centers for the communities, gathering places for people from outlying plantations and farms, courthouses in rural areas, stage coach stops, post offices and stops along lonely roads providing a warm meal and bed. The tavern in Hanover was licensed in 1733 and, by the time it was sold a decade later, was the center of a 550 acre plantation. The tavern was owned by John and Eleanor Shelton in the mid-18th century, parents of Sarah Shelton who married a country lawyer named Patrick Henry. Henry, of course, would become one of the founding fathers of the nation. Incidentally, Scotchtown, the nearby plantation where Henry and Sarah settle with their family, is haunted by Sarah’s spirit.

Hanover Tavern, 2007 by BrandlandUSA. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides Patrick Henry, Hanover Tavern saw a great many important people pass through its corridors including George Washington, General Lord Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette and countless Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. In 1800, slaves here whispered of rebellion: an attempt by the slaves in this region to destroy Richmond, capture the governor and destroy slavery in Virginia, later known as Gabriel’s Rebellion. The rambling wooden building had nearly fallen into ruins when it was bought in the middle of the 20th century for use as a professional theatre.

Six professional actors from New York, two children and a dog created the professional Barksdale Theatre here. The basement was converted into a performance space while the main floor was used for serving dinner to the patrons. Here the theatre produced some of the first professional productions in the state of Virginia by many of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Edward Albee and Lorraine Hansberry. Defiantly thumbing their nose at the state’s Jim Crow laws, the theatre offered one of the first integrated public spaces in the region.

Unable to keep up with repairs on the theatre’s ancient structure, the building was sold to the Hanover Tavern Foundation, an organization charged with a mission to preserve and utilize the structure for historic and educational purposes while maintaining space for the theatre company’s performances. In order to accommodate a full restoration of the Hanover Tavern, the Barksdale Theatre moved to a new facility and created a new performing season at the Hanover Tavern in 2006. In 2012, the still vigorous theatre company merged with Theatre IV, a nationally recognized local children’s theatre company, to create the Virginia Repertory Company.

It has been reported that motorists driving past the darkened tavern at night have reported seeing a face peering at them from a third floor window. Perhaps this is the same spirit whom actors and servers have encountered wearing all black and crying in the tap room on the main floor. One former artistic director heard running footsteps in the empty building one evening. He was working in his third floor office when he heard footsteps in the hallway outside. As they passed his office, he saw nothing but heard the footsteps running down the hall, down the stairs, through the dining room then down the stairs again and through the tap room. While perplexing, the director said there was something child-like and playful about the experience. Remarkably, another actor had the vision of a collie in the dining room one evening; a collie was a part of the founding group of actors who founded the theatre.

Sources

  • Hanover Tavern Foundation. “Hanover Tavern Foundation History.” Accessed 4 April 2013.
  • Hanover Tavern Foundation. “Tavern History.” Accessed 4 April 2013.
  • Harding, Jayne. “Ghostly Events.” The Free Lance-Star. 27 October 2007.
  • Persinger, Mark. “The Haunts of Hanover Tavern.” Virginia Rep Blog. 25 October 2012.
  • Virginia Rep. “History of the Barksdale Theatre.” Accessed 4 April 2013.