It’s one of the few memories from my family’s visit to St. Augustine in 1987. My parents had taken the whole family to Jacksonville, Florida for the Ramses II exhibit and we decided to spend a day in St. Augustine as well. The mix of ancient buildings and gardens along with the mysterious tourist attractions was intoxicating to my ten-year-old self.
After exploring the battlements of the Castillo de San Marco, I was drawn to the castle a short walk down the street. The brochure—that I had undoubtedly picked up at the visitor’s center—promised dazzling things inside the RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT MUSEUM (19 San Marcos Avenue) and I begged to go inside. My parents allowed me to go into the lobby and I was greeted by a water spout seemingly suspended in mid-air with water pouring out of it. Running out the door again, I whined even more, though my parents held firm and wouldn’t let me explore the museum.
Instead, we went to see the Fountain of Youth where I distinctly remember being disappointed that the water—which Ponce de Leon had supposedly searched for—was poured from a Tupperware container into paper Dixie cups. And even worse, it didn’t even taste special. Perhaps my disenchantment stems from not being allowed to view the mysteries of the Ripley’s Museum? Regardless, I fell in love with St. Augustine that day.
Had I known about the ghosts that reside inside the museum, I would have begged even more. My interest in ghosts was burgeoning at the time, and I would have been thrilled to meet the spectral resident of the museum.
Florida has four Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums and thanks to a recent article in the Northwest Florida Daily News regarding the Panama City Beach location; I now know that three of the four—the third location is Key West—have paranormal activity.
Of the three haunted locations, the St. Augustine museum is the oldest and the most historically significant. The museum occupies an enormous Moorish-style castle built as a private winter escape in 1887 by businessman William G. Warden. A business partner to John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler, two of the most influential businessmen of the day, Warden served as a senior executive for Standard Oil. Notably, Henry Flagler is credited with establishing Florida as a vacation destination. Warden contracted the noted New York City architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings to realize his Moorish fantasy.
Warden Castle, as it was called, was occupied by the Warden family until the late 1930s. Pulitzer Prize-winning Florida novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband purchased the property in 1941 and remodeled it into a hotel. Tragedy visited the concrete castle early on the morning of April 23, 1944. What is believed to have been a carelessly dropped cigarette ignited a fire on the third and fourth floors. Two female guests died in the fire and the St. Augustine Record notes that both were seen standing and screaming for help from the windows of their rooms before they succumbed to smoke inhalation.
During the decade that the castle welcomed guests, cartoonist and traveler Robert Ripley visited and was intrigued by the castle. He realized that the dazzling Moorish castle would provide an apropos backdrop for his collection of wonders.
Ripley inquired of the Rawlings and her husband if the castle might be for sale, but they turned down his offer. Seeking an appropriate monument to Ripley after his death, his estate purchased the building after his death in 1949. In 1950, the first Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum (or Odditoriums, as they are often billed) opened its doors to the curious public. According to Wikipedia, there are 32 museums worldwide since 2010.
Certainly, it can be expected that Ripley’s collection—which includes shrunken heads, objects of religious devotion, and shamanistic items—is replete with spirit energy and attachments, but it seems that the spirit of one of the women who died in the fire is quite active. A St. Augustine Record article from 1998 provides several reports of museum staff seeing a woman standing in one of the windows. One employee stated, “She was just standing in the window on the third floor, looking out. I thought it was a maintenance man, but then I realized there was no one in the building.” Another chimed in with her own encounter, “I was driving to work early in the morning. I was at the stop light (at Castillo and San Marco) and saw her at the penthouse window.” The penthouse window is on the fourth floor and once looked out of the room where one of the women died.
Two weeks previous to the article, yet another staff member saw a figure at the fourth floor window, this time, though he was able to make out some detail. “She had medium length hair and was wearing a robe or gown, but it was too dark to see her clearly. It was definitely feminine, though.”
More recently, author Dave Lapham explored the paranormal side of the museum in several of his book. He writes in his 2010 book, Ghosthunting Florida, that he had investigated the museum previously with a sensitive friend who picked up on the spirit of a female who had suffocated and died of smoke inhalation. According to many staff members that Lapham spoke with, the activity at the museum has continued unabated with some of them having a wide variety of sometimes frightening experiences. A few have felt someone pulling or playing with their hair while one tour guide had the feeling of someone clutching her by the throat rendering her unable to speak. When she was finally able to talk, she could only utter a few phrases in French. She retired the very next day.
Since uncovering the haunted nature of the building, the museum has begun haunted tours that lead visitors through the museum to point out spots associated with paranormal activity. The Key West RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT ODDITORIUM (108 Duval Street) also has a resident spirit that can get physical. In a 2014 Key West Citizen article, the general manager reported that he had been shoved by the unseen entity. This location is not the first haunted location on Key West that the museum has occupied. For a few years in the 1990s, the museum occupied the old Strand Theatre at 527 Duval Street. The theatre still stands, though it has now been ignominiously converted into a Walgreen’s Pharmacy.
According to author Leslie Rule, the Strand Theatre was the residence of a young boy’s spirit. The child was the son the theatre’s projectionist who had gone to work with his father on a July day in 1934. When the projector caught fire, the child was trapped behind a wall of flame and perished. Still mourning his son’s death, the father is believed to have returned to the building after his own death.
The Odditorium’s current location has a little girl’s spirit that is joined by spirits related to some of the objects in the museum’s collection and the museum offers overnight paranormal lockdowns to allow the public to meet these spirits. Perhaps the recently opened Panama City Beach location (9907 Front Beach Road) might also begin offering similar public tours now that a recent investigation has provided evidence of paranormal activity in this museum.
The museum opened in 2006 in a building that is built to resemble the foundered stern of an ocean liner. In March, Two Crows Paranormal was called to the museum to investigate paranormal activity that had been witnessed by guests and staff. A host of odd sounds, disembodied footsteps, and even full apparitions had been witnessed in the building. The most striking piece of evidence involved a tribal African executioner’s table. Investigators using a Structured Light Sensor (SLS) camera detected a figure near the table. The figure appeared to kneel next to the table and its head disappeared.
The SLS camera is one of the newest tools in the paranormal investigator’s toolbox. The technology was initially in the Xbox Kinect gaming system to allow players to interact with the console through physical gestures. Recently, it was discovered that the system sometimes picks up beings that are not visible and the technology has been used in ghost-hunting to detect spirits. While I cannot vouch for the validity of using the camera, the results are still quite fascinating.
One of the other interesting bits of evidence captured came when the team was using a voice box near the figure of an African god. When one of the investigators set the voice box down near the figure, a voice came through the box saying, “get ready, Spinks” (one of the investigators was Dave Spinks) and “behold.” Moments later, the voice box stopped working and did not work for a few weeks after the investigation. If the figure was able to render the voice box inoperable, I wonder what effect it might have on living humans. Visit these museums to see if you believe they are haunted or not.
- Cox, Dale. “Historic Warden Castle – St. Augustine, Florida.” com. Accessed 27 July 2017.
- Dion, Eryn. “Paranormal team uncovers evidence of ghosts at PC museum.” Northwest Florida Daily News. 10 July 2017.
- Grogan, Mike. “The spirit of Ripley’s past reappears.” Augustine Record. 22 August 1998.
- Lapham, Dave. Ancient City Hauntings. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2004.
- Lapham, Dave. Ghosthunting Florida. Cincinnati: Clerisy Press, 2010
- Miles, Mandy. “Believe it or not.” Key West Citizen. 21 December 2014.
- Rule, Leslie. Coast to Coast Ghosts. Kansas City: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2001.