Haunted? Believe it or not–Florida

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.

I was drawn to this mysterious, castle-like building that houses the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. Photo Michael Rivera, 2016, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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 Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium, Panama City Beach, 2008. Photo by Joseph Kiernan, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Sources

  • 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.

“Dude, Scary Lady!”—New Bern, North Carolina

The British do love their ghosts. A few grainy seconds of Snapchat video that may show a ghost at New Bern, North Carolina’s Tryon Palace, has been making waves in Britain and here, “across the pond.” Articles in the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, both British newspapers known for their snarky and sensational, tabloidesque reporting, discuss the “chilling” video. Two visitors from Goldsboro, NC were touring the palace with their cellphone capturing everything on video. In one of the building’s parlors, the camera scans over a doorway that is first seen empty. As the camera scans back over the same doorway, a woman in period clothing is seen walking past. The video is captioned, “Dude Scary Lady.”

The woman appears for about a second as she walks quickly past the doorway holding a basket, or perhaps, a hat to her side. The figure reminds me of the servant girl that French painter Jean-Etienne Liotard painted in his circa 1745 painting, The Chocolate Girl. Could these two young visitors have captured the image of a ghost?

Jean-Etienne Liotard’s 1745 painting of a servant girl with a cup of chocolate. The “scary lady” in the Tryon Palace video is similarly dressed.

Tryon Palace is a reconstruction of North Carolina’s colonial capitol and governor’s residence. It was constructed overlooking the Trent River just before it meets the Neuse River which quickly spills into Pamlico Sound. From this powerful vantage point, the Royal Governor could reign over his colonial subjects in this wild, new land. Royal Governor William Tryon hired English architect, John Hawk, to design a graceful and substantial public palace fitting for the King’s representative in the colony. This handsome Georgian palace was constructed over about three years, from 1767-1770, much to the chagrin of the locals who bore the costs of the building through increased taxation.

Construction caused considerable discord among the citizenry, particularly the farmers in the western Piedmont region. Angered by corrupt and greedy tax collectors, these harried farmers, frontiersmen, and landowners rose against the royal government officials in what is now called the War of Regulation. Fought between 1765 and 1771, this series of backcountry skirmishes led to an actual battle fought at Great Alamance Creek in May 1771, one of the many blights on the King’s name leading to the American Revolution.

Tryon Palace, 2017, by Smallbones. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Governor Tryon only occupied the completed palace for about a year before being reassigned as governor of the colony of New York. Governor James Hassell occupied the royal capitol followed by Josiah Martin who fled on the eve of the Revolution. After rebels seized the building, it served as the governmental seat of North Carolina until Raleigh was established as the state capital in 1792. Afterward, the building was infrequently used for other functions including a boarding house, school, and Masonic lodge. In February 1798, hay stored in the basement caught fire and destroyed the main building.

Interest in reconstructing the palace surfaced almost a hundred years later and was discussed until the mid-20th century when money was finally raised to rebuild it. Building on the original foundations, the structure arose through the 1950s. The palace now serves as a focal point for history in this most historic of North Carolina cities. Today, costumed interpreters guide visitors through the recreated rooms and moments of daily life from the colonial period.

Despite my years of collecting ghostlore from throughout the South—including numerous stories from New Bern—I have yet to encounter stories from Tryon Palace. Of course, that doesn’t mean there are not stories, just that they don’t appear in any of the material I have. According to the articles from the British papers, there are tales of a young servant girl dying in the 1798 fire who may remain in residence in the reconstruction. This is not unheard of as there are stories of ghosts from the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia, the history of which parallels the history of Tryon Palace—it was destroyed by fire during the American Revolution and subsequently recreated for Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s.

As for the video that recently surfaced, there is nothing to indicate that the “scary lady” is a spirit. With the number of costumed interpreters roaming through the palace, the figure in the video is most likely one of them. Having served as a costumed interpreter, I have been asked several times if I was a ghost. While we can sometimes be a bit scary, we’re still perfectly alive, thank you very much!

Sources

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Of Werewolves and White Screamers—Dickson County, Tennessee

Sometimes aimless searching online produces serendipitous results. Thus, this was the case when I stumbled upon a mention of a place called “Werewolf Springs.” Reporter Josh Arntz of the Dickson Herald wrote a fabulous article about the legend of Werewolf Springs in 2011. He has since done some excellent reporting on several haunted locations within Dickson County. What’s interesting about this legend, is the possible connection with the more well-known story of the White Bluff Screamer located roughly 5 miles away in the same county.

The Dickson County Courthouse in Charlotte, the oldest courthouse still in use in the state of Tennessee. Photo by Brian Stansberry, 2008, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dickson County retains its rural character despite being within (about 35 miles) listening distance of Nashville’s country music. Several sites within the county are the subject of ghost stories and legends including Montgomery Bell State Park (the location of Werewolf Springs), the small town of White Bluff (where the legend of the White Screamer may be found), and the Clement Railroad Hotel Museum in Dickson (the childhood home of Governor Frank Clement whose parents owned the hotel).

The legend of Werewolf Springs begins with a circus train passing through Dickson County in the late 1860s. The train derailed near the community of Burns, southeast of Dickson, and some of the animals escaped. Among the escapees were a pair of half-human, half-wolf creatures who were exhibited under the moniker, “The Wolfmen of Borneo.” Circus employees caught all the other escaped animals, though the wolfmen were nowhere to be found.

A couple of years later, two locals traveling on a nearby road—where modern State Route 47 now runs from Burns to White Bluff—found themselves being stalked by a large creature. The two men, a local landowner and a hired hand, attempted to outrun the creature, but it caught up with them, and the duo split up and fled into the forest.

The creature pursued the hired hand, and the landowner was shocked to hear the man’s screams and cries as he was presumably torn apart. The hired hand’s body was never located. A mob of locals, I imagine classically armed with pitchforks and torches, formed from nearby farms and towns to bring justice to this dreadful creature. Near the springs where the duo had encountered the beast, the mob led a live goat to a clearing where it was tied to bait the monster. Extinguishing their torches and lanterns, the posse waited with bated breath for the hungry creature to make its appearance.

The prowling creature eventually appeared. The group opened fire then quickly lit their torches and lanterns to see if they had bagged their quarry. The clearing was empty. The creature, goat, and two members of the posse had vanished into the thick night air. With terror, the group dispersed fearing to pursue the mysterious creature any further.

Later, a big game hunter attempted to kill the creature of Wolfman Springs. Setting himself up in a nearby cabin, he slept soundly the first two nights, but on the third night, he heard howling in the distance. A short time later, the frightened hunter began to hear the creature outside his cabin. When it appeared to pass by one of the windows, he aimed and fired. The gunshots only served to rile the creature’s wrath, and it broke down the door. The hunter fired all but two rounds at hairy bipedal, but it only seems to anger more with every shot. With only two rounds left in the chamber, dawn arrived, and the light from the rising sun caused the creature to flee into the shadows of the forest.

Replica of the cabin where the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was founded in Montgomery Bell State Park. Photo 2006, by Leylander, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just as the sun rose to banish this creature of the night, Arntz sheds some light on the legend and the history of the area. Wolfman Springs is actually Hall Springs which is located in one of the areas of MONTGOMERY BELL STATE PARK (1020 Jackson Hill Road, Burns) that is only accessible by a hike. The springs are named for the Hall family who had a homestead near the springs. The family’s home is long gone, but a small family cemetery remains nearby. A few weeks after the appearance of the Wolfman Springs article, Arntz followed up with an article about a descendant of the Hall family who grew up near the infamous springs. She denied that she ever heard anyone speak of a mysterious creature in the area.

The land that the state park now occupies was purchased by a National Park Service in 1935 to develop the Montgomery Bell National Recreation Demonstration Area. The park’s namesake is local manufacturing entrepreneur, Montgomery Bell, who was instrumental in building the local iron-smelting industry. Interestingly, even he has been pulled into the Wolfman legend. Some tellers of the story feature Mr. Bell as the local landowner, though this wouldn’t be possible as he passed away before the Civil War.

The railroad tracks where the train derailed still run their original course along the southern edge of the park. Evidently, there were several train derailments on this stretch of line, though none that specifically involved a circus train.

What is the origin of this odd story? I can attest that in my research in Southern ghost and folklore, stories involving these type of creatures appear less frequently than ghost stories. Among these stories are the tales of the Pig Woman in Cecil County and a goat-man creature in southern Maryland; the “Bunny Man” who supposedly haunts a bridge in Virginia; the infamous Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia; the Skunk Ape spotted in Florida; the Lizard-Man of South Carolina; Sasquatch activity that may be associated with the haunting of Spring Villa in Opelika, Alabama and throughout the nearby Tuskegee National Forest in Macon County; and the goat-man creature that has led, like a siren, a handful of young people to their deaths at Pope Lick Trestle in Kentucky. Among these stories, I only know of one other wolfman or werewolf-like creature, and that is a story from Talbot County, Georgia that Nancy Roberts documented in her 1997 opus, Georgia Ghosts.

Interestingly, just five miles from Montgomery Bell State Park and within the same county is the small town of White Bluff. For some time, stories have circulated regarding a creature or entity that is known to prowl the community emitting a terrifying scream. Known as the White Bluff Screamer, the explanations appear to fall into two camps: one believing that the screamer is a banshee while the other camp believes the screamer is a cryptid.

Alan Brown, one of the more venerable writers on Southern ghostlore, makes the argument for the banshee camp in his 2009 work, Haunted Tennessee. Relating the “standard version” of the story, he tells of a settler building a cabin in an isolated hollow near town. However, the man and his family were plagued by a high-pitched screaming that woke them every night. Determined to bring peace, the man took his rifle and hunting to pursue the source of the screams. As the man entered the forest, the screams began anew, and the dogs bounded towards them. Though a short time later the dogs returned frightened with their tails between their legs. The settler continued towards the wailing and climbed a hill to get a view of the surrounding landscape. Reaching the summit, the hunter’s ears were besieged with the screaming once again, though this time is seemed to come from the man’s cabin. He sprinted back to his home and discovered his family’s mangled remains.

The story is not really about a banshee as they are rarely known as malevolent spirits, mostly as heralds of death. A banshee would not typically use her wails to distract a man to kill his family. According to West Virginia writer Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her 2007 compendium, Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, a banshee (or Bean Shide in Gaelic, literally “woman of the fairies”) is “a female death omen spirit of Ireland and Scotland that attaches itself to families…and manifests to herald an approaching death in the family.” She continues, “the banshee most commonly is heard singing or crying, but is not seen.” Speaking with an Irish friend of mine, he noted that banshees are generally considered harbingers and occasionally provide protection to family members when traveling alone or at night. According to him, “the only legends of the banshee killing is if she is disturbed whilst combing her hair. She is reputed to throw her comb, piercing the heart and killing her victim.”

Guiley states that legends of banshees followed the Scots and Irish immigrants who settled throughout the South. One primary legend that appears in Southern folklore is the story of the Tarboro Banshee. Originating in the town of Tarboro, North Carolina on the banks of the Tar River, the story recalls the days during the American Revolution when a patriotic miller operated a grist mill on the banks of the river. Refusing to abandon his operation at the approach of the British, he was captured and drowned in the river, but not before warning his captors of a banshee that would avenge his death.

As the miller sank beneath the brackish water of the river, a wail arose from the watery grave. A feminine form began to take shape in the mist over the river while an agonizing cry was heard on the river banks. The beautiful maiden terrorized the British soldiers responsible for the miller’s death, eventually leading all to grisly deaths. Legend still speaks of the lovely creature appearing over the river waters still mourning the miller’s early departure from this world.

Returning to Middle Tennessee, I need to acknowledge the other camp of thought on the White Bluff Screamer, the camp that believes that the creature may be a cryptid and not a spirit. The authors of the 2011 Nashville Haunted Handbook remark that the creature is commonly heard and sometimes even seen. “Some who see the creature report that it is a white, misty apparition that flits through the woods quickly and ominously in the night…Others report that the source of the screams is an actual creature that resembles an alpaca [a domesticated relative of the llama]: a white furry beast that walks on all fours and stands about six feet tall with a face resembling a camel.” It should also be noted that alpacas can produce a high-pitched whine or scream when frightened.

Screaming is also a purported characteristic of the Sasquatch or Bigfoot. Some witnesses have been able to record the mysterious screaming that may be produced by a sasquatch. This leads me to believe that there may be a connection between this screaming creature and the Sasquatch, though the description that this creature is a quadruped rather than a biped puts that connection into jeopardy.

Returning to the creature that may haunt “Werewolf Springs,” in recent years screaming has been reported in the area. Josh Arntz in his Werewolf Springs article ends with a report from a local teacher who “heard ‘the most blood-curdling scream’ from a wild animal at 1 a.m.” near the park inn on Lake Acorn. The teacher also reported to have heard “plenty of eerie sounds while walking through the park’s woods at night.”

There are several creatures native to the area that can produce human-like screams in the night including fox and bobcat. Regardless of whether these stories contain any truth, they have left a marvelous mythological legacy on the landscape.

Sources

  • Arntz, Josh. “The half-wolf, half-man of Werewolf Springs.” Dickson Herald. 28 October 2011.
  • Arntz, Josh. “Hall Springs resident debunks werewolf myth.” Dickson Herald. 28 December 2011.
  • Brown, Alan. Haunted Tennessee: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Volunteer State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2009.
  • Corlew, Robert E. “Montgomery Bell.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. 25 December 2009.
  • Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, 3rd NYC: Checkmark Books, 2007.
  • Manley, Roger. Weird Tennessee. NYC: Sterling Publishing, 2010.
  • Morris, Jeff; Donna Marsh; and Garret Merk. Nashville Haunted Handbook. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2011.
  • Nichols, Ruth D. “Montgomery Bell State Park.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. 25 December 2009.