The Joy of Secs—New Southern Spirit Library Acquisitions

And by “secs” I’m referring to second hand books, what did you think I meant?

Southern Spirit Guide spent yesterday traipsing around North Georgia, particularly through the old train tunnel at Tunnel Mountain, which I will feature shortly, but also through one of my favorite used books stores, McKAY USED BOOKS (7734 Lee Highway), just over the state line in Chattanooga, Tennessee. McKay Used Books, with locations in Knoxville and Nashville as well, is a feast for bibliophiles. It is literally a warehouse of used books, CDs, DVDs with a huge range of topics including an excellent selection of books on ghosts.

To my knowledge, McKay is not haunted, though there is an old Confederate Cemetery next door, but, they have a fine array of books on ghosts and hauntings. I arrived with my Southern Spirit Library inventory in one hand and my debit card in the other. Within 15 minutes, I had 24 new additions to my library, all relating to the South in some shape or form. Really, this collection is remarkable as it spans the South from Baltimore to Key West with a number of books on the Southern Appalachians. If you find yourself looking for haunted places in Chattanooga (or Knoxville or Nashville), you may want to swing by the McKay location to peruse their ghost books, I know I left a few things on their shelves.

Of course, there’s a reason why this entry is so named. Last night I traveled back to Atlanta and stayed with friends. We went out and I was left with little time to really look through my new purchases. I was scheduled to work today, so I hustled back to LaGrange this morning to work. Since Sundays are slow I took my box of books in with me to look through when I had little to do. There is so much on and under the counters in the drug store where I work that I left the box sitting on the counter in the consultation booth while I helped customers.

One of my coworkers is a ghost hunter and enthusiast, so I invited her to look through the books with me. She pulled out a small, gray book, Ghosts Around the House by Susy Smith (World Publishing, 1970) and began flipping through it. The book opened to a section of photographs, the first featuring a picture of the Audubon House in Key West and I noticed there were two items stuck in the book. They were both old, black and white photos, the first of which had something that was very white. I picked up the photos and quickly realized I was looking at a nude female on all fours. The second photograph showed the same female, in an outdoor setting, smilingly reclining nude. Amateur pornography! Hardly what I expected to find in an innocent book on haunted houses! My coworker and I began laughing hysterically and she, of course, had to share it with the rest of the employees in the store who all find it amusing. I placed the photos back in the book and buried it under a few other books.

Later this afternoon one of elderly regular customers sauntered in. This Sunday school teacher is certainly the epitome of the proper and very religious Southern woman. I had just left the store to make a delivery when this customer entered and while she was being helped, she waited in the consultation booth. Since, as luck may have it, righteousness and curiosity are two traits that don’t quite cancel each other out, she began perusing my box of ghost books and naughtiness, quickly stumbling onto the pictures in question. The suddenly stricken matron asked a coworker if she knew there was “filth” in the box. The coworker replied that we had just discovered the photos and would be disposing of them in short order.

I returned to the store to find the usually chatty matron to be rather cool. Now I know she was suspecting that I was a pervert. I’ll happily add that to my list of descriptives: paranormal researcher and writer, actor, musician, bibliophile, pervert… I think it fits rather nicely.

Ok, in order to pull this blog entry out of the gutter, I’ll breakdown the latest library acquisitions:

John Kachuba’s Ghosthunters: On the Trail of Mediums, Dowsers, Spirit Seekers, and other Investigators of America’s Paranormal World seems like an interesting exploration for someone like me who, as of yet, has not actually investigated ghosts in a physical sense.

Two books about Tennessee’s most famous paranormal episode, the Bell Witch: Charles Bailey Bell and Harriet Parks Miller’s The Bell Witch of Tennessee (1972 reproduction of the original published in 1934) and The Infamous Bell Witch of Tennessee by Charles Edwin Price.

Two books on Civil War ghosts: Christopher K. Coleman’s Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and Nancy Roberts’ Civil War Ghosts and Legends.

Five “anthology” type books covering American ghosts: James Reynolds’ Ghosts in American Houses, Hans Holzer’s More Where the Ghosts Are: The Ultimate Guide to Haunted Houses, Charles A. Columbe’s Haunted Places in America, Nancy Roberts’ Animal Ghost Stories, and the previously mentioned book with additional naughtiness.

Two books on Civil War ghosts: Christopher K. Coleman’s Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and Nancy Roberts’ Civil War Ghosts and Legends.

Three anthologies about the South: S. E. Schlosser’s Spooky South: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore, Edrick Thay’s Ghost Stories of the Old South and Randy Russell and Janet Barnett’s Ghost Dogs of the South.

Five state and regional related books: Tally Johnson’s Ghosts of the South Carolina Midlands; Nancy Roberts’ North Carolina Ghosts and Legends; James V. Burchill, Linda J. Crider and Peggy Kendrick’s The Cold, Cold Hand: Stories of Ghosts and Haunts from the Appalachian Foothills and an earlier book by the same group with Marcia Wright Bonner, Ghosts and Haunts from the Appalachian Foothills; and Randy Russell and Janet Barnett’s The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee.

Finally six local books: Taylor’s The Ghosts of Williamsburg, Vol. II, Maggie Carter-de Vries’ Ghosts of Amelia [Amelia Island, Florida] & Other Tales, Suzy Cain and Dianne Jacoby’s A Ghostly Experience: Tales of St. Augustine, Florida, Melissa Rowell and Amy Lynwander’s Baltimore Harbor Haunts: True Ghost Stories and two books by David L. Sloan on Key West, Florida: Haunted Key West and Ghosts of Key West.

I’ll keep the naughtiness in its original spot in the book.

The Audubon House with naughtiness, in situ. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The Haunted Red Stick—Baton Rouge, Louisiana

While I’ve been spending time working on a revision of my entry on Columbus, Mississippi, I decided to take a break and write a little something about another city. The basis of this came from a single 2009 article from The Daily Reveille, the student newspaper of Louisiana State University. Other than that article, and a few scattered references, there’s not much on the ghosts of Baton Rouge.

The name, Baton Rouge, “red stick” in French, refers to a red cypress pole festooned with bloody animals that French explorer Sieur d’Iberville, the founder of the Louisiana colony, encountered in the area. It was placed there to mark the boundary between the hunting grounds of the Houma and the Bayou Goula peoples of the region. Research and archaeological evidence reveal that the area now occupied by Baton Rouge has been inhabited since roughly 8000 BCE. These indigenous peoples have left the area dotted with mounds and other landmarks.

The city was incorporated in 1817 and made state capital in 1849. Architect James Dakin departed from the usual designs for state capitols which paid homage to the U.S. Capitol  building in Washington and designed the building in a Neo-Gothic style complete with turrets, towers and crenellations. The site chosen for this grand castle, overlooking the Mississippi River, is believed to be the location of the red stick that Sieur d’Iberville named the city for.

Since its construction, the OLD LOUISIANA STATE CAPITOL BUILDING (100 North Boulevard), has had a busy and somewhat tragic history. During the Union occupation of the city, the building was used as a prison and a garrison for African-American troops. The building caught fire twice and by the end of the war was left a hulking, gutted ruin. The building was restored in 1882 and at this time much of the building’s noted stained glass was added. The legislature used the building until 1932 when a new, modern, art deco styled state capitol was opened. The building underwent full restoration in the 1990s and is now open as a museum of political history.

Old State Capitol, 2009, by Avazina. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is one particularly enduring legend about this Gothic edifice involves a late legislator. Pierre Couvillion, a representative of Avoyelles Parish had a heart attack amid a passionate debate. Though he was buried near his home in Marksville, he spirit may still reside within the halls and chambers of the old building. Staff members and visitors have reported odd occurrences. One security guard watched as movement detectors were set off through a series of rooms while nothing was seen on the video.

Two organizations investigated the building in 2009 and uncovered much evidence. Louisiana Spirits Paranormal Investigations picked up a number of interesting EVPs including someone singing the old song, “You Are My Sunshine.” Everyday Paranormal, in their investigation had a few encounters in the basement of the building, the area used as a prison during the Union occupation. It seems that there are many spirits within the crenellated walls of the Old Capitol.

Many spirits, of the ghostly and liquor kind reside in an old bar on the waterfront. The building that now houses THE SPANISH MOON (1109 Highland Road) served as a temporary morgue for victims of the flooding that ravaged the area in the early 20th century. The spirit of a young girl who legend holds was trampled by horses in the building may also reside within the creepy structure.

Another spirit among spirits may be found at WILLIE’S ON THE RIVER (140 Main Street), so named for its resident spirit. Legend holds that Willie was crushed by a falling wall here sometime in the 19th century. Staff members have reported that the spirit is fond of billiards and balls were seen moving by themselves.

Also on the riverfront is the U.S.S. KIDD VETERANS MEMORIAL (305 River Road South), a ship named as a memorial to Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, the highest-ranking officer to die during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. This memorial ship now serves as a memorial to Louisiana’s World War II veterans.

U.S.S. Kidd, 2013, by Niagara, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This Fletcher-class destroyer saw a great deal of action in the Pacific during World War II and the Korean War as well as serving admirably during the Cold War. It was during service in the campaign for Okinawa that the ship was struck by a kamikaze resulting in the deaths of 38 and 55 wounded. It is perhaps this single event that has left a spiritual impression on the now museum ship. Visitors have encountered various apparitions onboard including the images of a single arm or leg moving as if still attached to a human being.

Along the famous River Road which stretches from New Orleans to Baton Rouge that is lined with many historical and haunted plantations are the ruins of THE COTTAGE PLANTATION (River Road at Duncan Point) just south of the city. Though now reduced to ruined columns forlornly sitting in a private field by the roadside, these ruins were once part of a grand plantation home until a lightning strike and fire reduced it to rubble in 1960. Legend speaks of a man seen wandering the ruins who is believed to be the specter of Angus Holt who served as a personal secretary to Frederick Conrad. Conrad owned the plantation during the Civil War and died before war’s end. Holt returned to run the plantation until his death in 1880. His spirit still lingers to check on the ruins of the mighty manse.

This handful of spirits is most likely just the beginning of the mélange of spirits still dancing about The Red Stick.

Sources

  • Baton Rouge,Louisiana. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 9 November 2011.
  • Duvernay, Adam. “Several Baton Rouge sites said to be haunted.” The Daily Reveille. 27 October 2009.
  • Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2007.
  • Louisiana Spirits Paranormal Investigations. Old State Capitol, Baton Rouge, LA. Accessed 11 November 2011.
  • Old Louisiana State Capitol. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 9 November 2011.
  • Southeastern Students. “Old State Capitol Still Occupied by Former Ghosts.” com. 29 October 2009.
  • USS Kidd (DD-661)Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 14 2011.

Roadway Revenant—WV Route 901

West Virginia Route 901
Near Spring Mills Plantation
Berkeley County, West Virginia

In the recent past a couple was driving Route 901 near Spring Mills Plantation late one evening in October. Near Harlan Run the couple entered a bank of fog and the interior of the car became quite cold. The fog began to take on a greenish hue and suddenly, the car came to a stop; the engine went dead and the headlights shut off. The couple was left in cold, silent darkness.

From out of the darkness the couple was stunned to see the form of a bedraggled Confederate soldier appear. He held his back as if he’d been wounded and he appeared to notice the couple as he neared the front of their car. With a thump he laid his hands on the hood and peered pleadingly before collapsing leaving bloody handprints on the car. The husband opened his door and walked to the front of the car to help the pathetic figure who now lay prone in the roadway. When he reached out to the poor soldier the figure disappeared along with the bloody handprints. The couple quickly left vowing never to drive that stretch of road in the dark.

Spring Mills Historic District near the roadway where the spirit of a soldier has been seen. Photo 2013, by Dgaviria. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

So far I’ve found this story repeated, with some different details, in two sources. There also seems to be some argument as to the exact location of this incident. Walter Gavenda and Michael T. Shoemaker in their 2001 A Guide to Haunted West Virginia provide the most exact location, on Route 901 just over Harlan Run near Spring Mills Plantation. Patty A. Wilson’s 2007 Haunted West Virginia places the story on Route 11, which is described as the “Highway of Bones” due to the many deaths along its run during the Civil War. Gavenda and Shoemaker also state that a noted West Virginia folklorist has recorded a handful of similar stories from this location. This area was certainly the scene of activity during the Civil War.

The area around Harlan Run is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Spring Mills Historic District. This district is comprised of seven different structures including a late 18th century mill, a few houses, Falling Waters Presbyterian Church and its cemetery. Together these buildings remain as an example of a small rural hamlet in the early 19th century. Indeed, they may have also played a part in the conflicts in the region during the Civil War.

According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the historic district, the area did not see any actual fighting, though it may have been used frequently for encampments with the nearby Dr. Hammond House serving as headquarters for a few generals on both sides. Still, this does not explain the frightening apparition in the road, but it does make for a wonderful story. Nor is this the first roadside revenant in the region. These type stories are found associated with many of West Virginia’s winding mountain roads and extending throughout the rural South.

Sources

  • Gavenda, Walter and Michael T. Shoemaker. A Guide to Haunted West Virginia. Glen Ferris, WV: Peter’s Creek Publishing, 2001.
  • Taylor, David L. National Register of Historic Places form for the Spring Mills Historic District. October 2003.
  • Wilson, Patty A. Haunted West Virginia: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Mountain State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007.

“Layers on the dark history cake”—Charleston’s Old City Jail

Old City Jail
21 Magazine Street
Charleston, South Carolina

N.B. This article was edited and revised 30 June 2019.

See my photographs and a review of my tour of the Old City Jail here.

Zak Bagans of the Travel Channel’s paranormal show, Ghost Adventures, described the history of the South’s most genteel port city, Charleston, as “just layers and layers on the dark history cake.” It’s certainly an interesting analogy, though I must confess that I often find Mr. Bagans’ antics annoying. In fact, I have been known to refer to his team’s techniques as the “ADHD method of ghost hunting.” However, I am excited to see they are investigating Charleston’s Old City Jail.

ghosts Old City Jail Charleston South Carolina haunted
The Old City Jail. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Back in July, my love affair with Charleston was rekindled when I spent nearly a week there. I spent my days wandering the streets making a pilgrimage to sites that I’ve spent years reading about, including the Old City Jail. The building is a massive, looming structure that seems to glower down upon anyone passing along Magazine Street. If a building could threaten someone, this building would threaten a horrible, miserable death. Staring up at the crenellated turrets, decaying bricks, windows like empty eye sockets, and the massive and thick brick walls, it’s hard to imagine this place could not be haunted. The memory of it sends a chill up my spine.

For 137 years, 1802 to 1939, this hulking castle groaned with the cries of prisoners. The property upon which the building was constructed had originally been set aside for public use in 1680, and contained, at various times, a hospital, and a poor house. For many years, a workhouse for slaves called the Sugar House stood next to the hulking jail.

Slaves found “wandering” the streets were held in the Sugar House until their owners bailed them out. While locked away here, slaves would be forced to work on a treadmill to grind corn for use in the jail. This constantly turning treadmill often injured and maimed the slaves, and at times their bodies or body parts would end up in the ground corn.

The jail itself was just as harsh with inmates locked away in large, group cells, instead of individual cells. The most dangerous prisoners, or those that were possible escape risks, were chained to the floor. Men and women were not separated, and all had to live in filth where vermin, infection, and disease were rampant.

ghosts Old City Jail Charleston South Carolina haunted
The Robert Mills addition to the Old City Jail. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Among the many unfortunate souls who passed through the building’s Gothic portal was the legendary couple, John and Lavinia Fisher, who lived their last days in the moldy, dark halls of this place. Their ghastly tale involved them murdering guests of the inn that they ran just outside town. While this legend is the focal point of many tour guides’ tales, A recent book has freed the couple from the shackles of their legendary crimes. Bruce Orr, a former Charleston homicide detective, explored the legend of the couple, their crimes, and their supposedly defiant ends discovering that all but the most basic facts were just myth. In fact, there is nothing to even corroborate that the spirits within the jail are even the revenants of the Fishers.

The harsh conditions led to the building of a new jail in the late 1930s. In recent years, a group led by the American School of Building Arts has been working to restore the crumbling castle on Magazine Street. Ghost tours now bring tourists through the damp halls that still echo with spirits.

Among the activity that Mr. Bagans and his crew might encounter inside the old jail are spirit voices, apparitions, and even physical contact. Staff and visitors have had numerous experiences. One of the more intriguing episodes was recorded in a 2002 article in the Charleston Post & Courier: a worker leaving the building late one evening felt that he wasn’t alone. This was confirmed when his flashlight beam picked up a grayish, gaunt man standing to the right of the exit door. He stared at the man for a moment and when he moved towards the man he disappeared, only to reappear on the left side of the door. The figure then vanished and the worker fled. Yet another layer in the cake of history…

Sources

  • ABC News 4. “’Ghost Adventures’ heads to spooky Charleston scene.” 19 October 2011.
  • Barbour, Clay. “Eerie, dark history haunts Old City Jail.” The Post & Courier. 27 October 2002.
  • Behre, Robert. “Old City Jail now a national treasure.” The Post & Courier. 28 May 1999.
  • National Park Service. “Old Jail.” Charleston’s Historic, Religious and Community Buildings. Accessed 7 August 2011.
  • Orr, Bruce. Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.

“In the valley of love and delight”—the Simple Spirits of Pleasant Hill

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
3501 Lexington Road
Harrodsburg, Kentucky

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free,
‘Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn, ‘twill be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right.
–“Simple Gifts,” 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett

Two restored buildings on a quiet winter afternoon. Photo by Local Louisville. Licensed with Creative Commons.

The members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing are simply known as Shakers. It is a name that refers to their worship services that would include a form of spiritual cleansing by literally and symbolically shaking. This religious order appeared in eighteenth century England from among charismatic Christians reacting against the staid religious atmosphere at that time. The order spread across the Atlantic Ocean and communities appeared on the American landscape, a place where different religious creeds were tolerated.

A dormitory-like bedroom. Photo by Tom Allen, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The religious beliefs of the Shakers required them to create separate communities based upon their beliefs rather than living amongst other creeds in urban areas. Their beliefs dictated a simplicity, austerity and efficiency in their ordered lives. Celibacy was a covenant maintained by all. The Shakers only added to their ranks by inducting believers, though they also purchased slaves which they freed and they adopted orphaned children. The communities were organized into “families” which lived in large dormitory-like structures. The lives of the Shakers were spent joyfully producing things which would build the wealth of the community as a whole.

Inside a dwelling. Photo by Tim Brown Architects. Licensed under Creative Commons.

In all things, simplicity was the rule. In Shaker design an economy of line was practiced. Everything was produced with utilitarian function in mind and most adornment was considered wasteful. They saw that making something well was an act of prayer and devotion to the Creator. Even within their music, Shakers only rarely used harmony. They preferred a pure melodic line uncluttered by anything else. The music does however display a joy and ecstasy that is surprising. These songs reflect joy, happiness and could often inspire dancing.

While the numbers of Shakers diminished in the late nineteenth century, at least one community, Sabbathday Lake in Maine, remains. Other Shaker villages, like Pleasant Hill, Kentucky have been preserved as living history museums.

The spiral staircase in the Trustees’ House. Photo by Tom Allen, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The community at Pleasant Hill was founded by three missionaries and at its height supported some 500 souls. It is noted that the products of Pleasant Hill were so well made that they often sold for a third more than other products. The village became well known for its hardy livestock and its engineering accomplishments. The converts began to dwindle towards the end of the century and the village was dissolved in 1910. Renewed interest in Shaker life and the village led to preservation efforts that have preserved the village for modern visitors. Visitors may also stay overnight within these historic structures, as well.

Sweet spirits do surround us now
I feel them gathering near.
I can perceive their lowly bow
And hear their heavenly cheer.
–“Celestial Choir,” Anonymous

In Shaker belief, souls remain earthbound until the judgment. Therefore, it’s no surprise to find that the spirits of Shakertown remain. Throughout the village of some 30 restored structures, visitors and staff see plainly clothed Shakers apparently going about their daily business. They have been seen walking through the streets, sitting at looms and occasionally waking overnight guests. Often they may be mistaken for re-enactors, but witnesses soon find that re-enactors were not present in that particular building. 

A re-enactor recreates a Shaker dance for visitors in the meeting house. Photo by David Jones. Licensed under Creative Commons.

In the 1820 meeting house, the sounds of singing, stomping and clapping have been heard. Thomas Freese, a re-enactor and Shaker singer who wrote a book on the Shaker ghosts of Pleasant Hill had an odd experience in the meeting house. He had gone there with another staff member and while she was upstairs he began vocalizing. As he sang a form appeared on a nearby bench and began to take human shape. Chilled, he left the building. Later, he discovered that the particular vocalization he was doing was used to call meetings.

Throughout Pleasant Hill staff and visitors alike have experienced the quiet simple spirits of the Shakers. One of the more extraordinary experiences happened to a woman staying in one of the restored buildings. Early in the morning she was awakened by a knock at the door. She heard a key turn and a woman in Shaker dress opened the door. She was carrying towels and set them down and slipped out of the room. The woman discovered that a towel she had used to clean her makeup off had been replaced by a clean towel. When she inquired with the staff she was told that the staff does not wear Shaker clothing. She also reported that it sounded that the dryer had been running all night. In Pleasant Hill, the Shakers still bow and bend in the spirit world with quiet simplicity.

Sing on, dance on, followers of Emmanuel!
Sing on, dance on, ye followers of the Lamb!
–“Brethren Ain’t You Happy?” Anonymous 

A street through Pleasant Hill. Photo by Sarah Elizabeth Simpson. Licensed under Creative Commons. 

Sources

  • Freese, Thomas. “Shaker Ghost Stories.” Fantasma: Kentucky’s Magazine of the Paranormal. Fall 2006.
  • Freese, Thomas. Shaker Ghost Stories from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2005.
  • Morton, W. Brown, III. National Register of Historic Place nomination form for Shakertown at Pleasant Hill Historic District.
  • Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 20 October 2011.
  • Shakers. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 20 October 2011.

Die Deutschen in Amerika—Two German Homes in Maryland

Prior to the 19th century, Germany did not exist as a unified nation but rather as a confederation of nation states ruled by a panoply of aristocrats. There had been tension between many of these groups for centuries, but none more contentious than after Martin Luther stirred the religious pot in 1517 setting the stage for the Reformation. As a result, through part of the 17th century the Thirty Years War ravaged central Europe wreaking havoc throughout.

Exhausted with political, religious and economic strife, Germans turned their eyes towards the seemingly bountiful wilds of North America. The English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia had included a German in 1607 and he was followed by a group of German craftsmen the next year. Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, travelled through the German states and the Netherlands proclaiming the gospel of his colony. Germans began to flood the colony of Pennsylvania towards the end of the century and they also began to trickle from there into other parts of the east coast. Western Maryland, that part of the state west of the Chesapeake Bay, saw part of this influx of Germans, particularly in Frederick and Washington counties.

In 1739, German immigrant Jonathan Hager purchased 200 acres within the Cumberland Valley and named it Hager’s Fancy. Some years later, he established Elizabethtown on a nearby tract of land which he named for his wife. On the other side of South Mountain, which, at this point, forms the southern side of the valley, the town of Frederick was founded by a land speculator in 1745. This land was settled by German immigrants, among them, Josef Bruner, who purchased a portion of land from Daniel Dulaney, the land speculator, in 1746. Both Jonathan Hager and Josef Bruner would build large, German-style stone houses which remain as monuments to the Manifest Destiny that brought them to this New World.

Hager House
110 Key Street
Hagerstown

Jonathan Hager, a native of Westphalia, arrived in Philadelphia in 1736. He moved into Western Maryland, an area that was sparsely settled, three years later settling on 200 acres. He built a crude cabin which was quickly replaced by yet another cabin most likely while constructing the stone house that still stands. Interestingly, this home is built over springs. It is supposed that this protected the family’s water supply in the event of attack by natives.

Hager House, 2008, by Acroterion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The house remained with Hager for seven years until he sold it to another German immigrant, Jacob Rohrer, who is believed to have enlarged the house from one and a half stories to two and a half stories. Meanwhile, Hager acquired a larger tract of land and built a fine log home there. Hager continued to purchase land and in 1762 he founded Elizabethtown. The town’s name was later changed to Hagerstown in his honor.

The home remained in Rohrer’s family until it was sold to the Hammond family in 1814. It remained with them through most of the 19th century until 1890. After that, it went through a series of owners until it was purchased by the Washington County Historical Society in 1944. Speculation among the staff working in the house lays the blame for most of the spiritual activity on the Hammonds. Research has uncovered that at one point in the mid-19th century, the Hammonds lost all of their children in quick succession during a six-month period, quite possibly due to an epidemic.

According to the site facilitator, “there are stories for each room in the Hager House from the attic to the basement.” The staff also states that at least 13 deaths have been recording within the 22” thick stone walls of this house. Among the numerous accounts of possibly supernatural phenomena are the appearances of two specters, one a man in 19th century attire seen on the porch and a woman in Victorian style dress seen in the upper hallway. Accompanying these apparitions are many odd sounds including screams heard in the basement, laughter, footsteps and phantom smells including perfume and tobacco.

Jonathan Hager’s town became a successful crossroads town. The town’s proximity to important cities such as Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh brought national events to the front stoop of many Hagerstown citizens. Among these events, the Civil War brought a plethora of battles to the pastoral farmlands of the area including one of the bloodiest battles, Antietam which is just south of the city. This crossroads effect also brought success to the nearby town of Frederick.

Schifferstadt Architectural Museum
1110 Rosemont Avenue
Frederick

Around the time of the French and Indian War, a couple years after British General Braddock had marched through the area on his way to Fort Duquesne in what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his troops would be repulsed by the French, Josef Bruner decided to replace the family’s modest wood home with a substantial stone structure. The farm had been named for Josef’s hometown in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany and Josef’s son, Elias, owned the farm at the time and really could be credited with one of the finest examples of German Colonial architecture in the country. The house that the Bruners built has come down to the present with alterations, but many of the original features have remained including wood cabinets around the fireplaces, a squirrel-tail bake oven, arched windows, a winder staircase and a vaulted cellar.

Schifferstadt, 2008, by Acroterion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The home passed through many hands until the early 1970s when the suggestion was made to tear down the now ramshackle old house and replace it with a modern gas station. The owner, upset by this prospect, sold Schifferstadt to the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation to preserve. With its wealth of architectural features, the home made an ideal architectural museum and work was performed to restore the home and provide visitors a glimpse into the lives of the town’s original German settlers. Docents provide tours and lessons into historic daily life, but they’ve also encountered some of the original inhabitants themselves.

The first reports from staff members working in the house concerned hearing voices in the house when they were alone. Another reported hearing a door slam in the house after she had just checked all the doors. She quickly left but when she checked the next morning, all the doors were as she left them. Footsteps have been heard on the winder staircase. At some point in the early 80s, staff members heard hammering and other construction sounds with voices speaking German.

Over the years, reports have built up and include apparitions such as the man who walked into the gift shop and dematerialized in front of a staff member or the little boy who has been spotted in the attic. Investigators have spent time in the house and have been rewarded with EVPs including direct answers to questions and some replies in German. The Mason Dixon Paranormal Society investigated in 2008 and captured enough evidence to deem the house as actually being haunted.

Investigator Michael Varhola who, with his father, authored Ghosthunting Maryland, toured the house and documented much of the evidence. He explains that two of the more active spirits in the home have been identified by psychics as a young woman, Wilhelmina, and a young boy, Christian. Wilhelmina was a young midwife who died in the kitchen when her clothing caught fire. One staff member was physically hugged by a spirit in the kitchen, quite possibly that of Wilhelmina. The young boy, Christian, may possibly be three-year-old Christian Bruner who died of a fever in the house. He’s possibly the young boy seen occasionally hiding in the shadows of the attic. He may also be the little boy that children in the neighborhood have spent time playing with.

If, while visiting Schifferstadt, you feel a calm touch in the kitchen or see a slight spirit in the attic shadows, they’re only the kindly spirits of colonial Germans curious about the inhabitants of the country they helped create.

Sources

  • Frederick, Maryland. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 14 October 2011.
  • Gallucci, Gina. “Schifferstadt’s spirits.” Frederick News-Post. 28 October 2007.
  • German American. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 27 September 2011.
  • The Hager House.” The City of Hagerstown. Accessed 14 October 2011.
  • Hager House (Hagerstown, Maryland). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 14 October 2011.
  • Hagerstown, Maryland. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 14 October 2011.
  • Hill, Ann and Pamela James. National Register of Historic Places nominationform for Hager House. August 1973.
  • Julius, Erin. “Other specters said to haunt area.” Herald-Mail. 28 October 2007.
  • Leese, Jennifer. “Hager House Offers Haunted Ghost Tours.” Picket News. No Date.
  • Mullen, Katherine. “Ghost tours tell tales of Frederick’s ghostly past.” net. 24 July 2008.
  • Negas, Kristina. “Museum recordings provide haunting evidence.” Frederick News-Post. 27 November 2008.
  • Negas, Kristina. “Team looks for haunting evidence.” Frederick News-Post. 4 November 2008.
  • Rivoire, J. Richard. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for Schifferstadt. 25 August 1973.
  • Schifferstadt (Frederick, Maryland). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 16 October 2011.
  • Schifferstadt General Information. Frederick County Landmarks Foundation. Accessed 16 October 2011.
  • Varhola, Michael J. and Michael H. Varhola. Ghosthunting Maryland. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2009.
  • Weinberg, Alyce T. Spirits of Frederick. Braddock Heights, MD: Alyce T. and Aldan T. Weinberg, 1992.
  • Widener, Christina. “Mystery Lives Here: Local Ghost Stories.” Hagerstown Magazine. September/October 2006.

“That divine rendezvous”—the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables

N.B. This article has been revised and edited 24 September 2019.

Dear, when in your arms I creep,
That divine rendezvous,
Don’t wake me if I’m asleep,
Let me dream that it’s true.
–“How Long Has This Been Going On?” (1928) by George and Ira Gershwin

Biltmore Hotel
1200 Anastasia Avenue
Coral Gables, Florida

When grandmama whose age is eighty
In nightclub’s gettin’ matey
With gigolos,
Anything goes!
–“Anything Goes” from the musical, Anything Goes (1934) by Cole Porter

N.B. Thank you for taking time to read through this experimental entry. I have a great love for music of the 1920s and 1930s and decided to see how much they could contribute to the narrative of this entry.

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Biltmore Hotel by Milan Boers, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The cover of Leslie Rule’s Coast to Coast Ghosts, a marvelous collection of ghost stories from across America, features a lovely and haunting black and white photo of a colonnaded balcony. A door is open and the wind is pulling the sheer, white curtains outward. This photograph of a balcony at the Biltmore Hotel was shown by Rule to a psychic who exclaimed, “There has been a lot of raunchy activity here! A couple was murdered here. They were having an affair and were shot by the woman’s husband.” The psychic continued saying that the woman was naked except for her jewelry.

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Photo by eflon, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

In the mornin’, in the evenin’,
Ain’t we got fun?

Night or daytime, it’s all playtime,
Ain’t we got fun?
Hot or cold days, any old days,
Ain’t we got fun?
–“Ain’t We Got Fun?” (1921) by Richard A Whiting, Raymond B. Egan, and Gus Kahn

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Photo by eflon, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The Biltmore Hotel, in picturesquely named Coral Gables, was built as a beacon for fun and sumptuous pleasure at the height of the Roaring Twenties. With its Mediterranean Revival tower modeled on the Giralda Tower on Seville, Spain’s cathedral it featured the largest swimming pool in the world, containing 1,250,000 gallons of water, where synchronized swimmers and alligator wrestlers entertained guests. Johnny Weismuller, who would go on to portray Tarzan on the silver screen, taught and showed off his aquatic prowess in the gigantic pool. Luminaries gathered in the hotel’s ballrooms where they enjoyed top tier entertainment and even illegal gambling under the watchful eyes of gangsters Al Capone and Thomas “Fatty” Walsh. Popular bands of the era pumped out popular tunes with upbeat tempos, catchy lyrics, and jaunty tunes while couples danced foxtrots, the Charleston, tangos, and the Black Bottom under blazing chandeliers or glowing stars.

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Photo by Averette, 2007. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Stars fade but I linger on, dear…
–“Dream a Little Dream of Me” (1931) by Fabian Andre, Wilbur Schwandt and
Gus Kahn

The hotel’s beauty began to fade when the United States War Department commandeered the hotel in 1942 for use as a convalescent hospital. Hotel rooms became rooms for patients and offices for doctors while public spaces became surgical suites. The floors were covered with linoleum, original furnishings were thrown out or painted over, windows were sealed with concrete, while the interior was painted a dismal, antiseptic green. Following the end of World War II, the hotel became an Army General Hospital and was later taken over by the Veterans Administration. Despite its utilitarian garb and atmosphere, the hospital attracted popular entertainers who performed for the patients. During its tenure as a VA hospital, the University of Miami established its medical school in the building. The grand hotel served as a hospital until 1968 when it was abandoned.

Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely nights
Dreaming of a song.
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you.
–“Stardust” (1927) by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish

The now crumbling hotel sat abandoned while the City of Coral Gables attempted to save it as a historic structure. The city finally succeeded in 1973, but the building continued to sit empty while the city decided how best to utilize it. While empty, the building was used as a backdrop for the horror film, Shock Waves and can be seen briefly in the trailer. It also attracted attention for odd activity. In fact, Dennis William Hauck’s Haunted Places: the National Directory, states that, “Townspeople congregated on the golf course to observe the strange lights and eerie sounds coming from the empty building at night.”

The song is ended
But the melody lingers on
You and the song are gone
But the melody lingers on.
–“The Song is Ended” (1927) by Irving Berlin and Beda Loehner

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Photo by tabitum, 2008. Licensed under Creative Commons.

While the locals who observed the activity in the abandoned building would often hear lingering melodies, that’s only part of the activity they witnessed. Greg Jenkins in his masterful three-volume series, Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore, notes the witnesses as seeing windows opening and closing, figures within the building, and crashing sounds. The activity was so pronounced that in the summer of 1979 a team of policemen stormed the building in search of drug dealers and other malcontents believed to be hiding within. Their search turned up no one. When the humans failed to find anyone, a pair of police dogs was brought in only to have them flee after just five minutes, tails between their legs. After restoration began in the early 1980s, the activity increased.

Looking everywhere,
Haven’t found him yet.
–“Someone to Watch Over Me” (1926) by George and Ira Gershwin

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Photo by Marc Kevin Hall, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

A team of psychics and investigators visited the empty hulk in 1978. The psychics picked up on many energies throughout the building especially on the 13th floor and around the elevators. A recording device that was running during the investigation picked up a loud tapping that was not noticed by anyone present. Many of the psychics remarked that that floor possibly contained hundreds of spirits. Another group investigating in 1979 recorded the sounds of heavy breathing and a sigh. Could this be related to a tragedy from the hotel’s early years?

We lived our little drama…
–“Stars Fell on Alabama” (1934) by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish

O, show us the way to the next whiskey bar.
O, don’t ask why.
–“Alabama Song” (1930) by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht

In the late 1920s, a local gambler, Edward Wilson, rented out the suite on the 13th and 14th floors of the hotel and opened a speakeasy, This was a place where wealthy locals could drink and gamble away from the eyes of the law. Wilson became acquainted with New York mobster Thomas “Fatty” Walsh and his friend, Arthur Clark. Both had left the city to avoid an investigation in the death of an associate.

One evening in March of 1929, Wilson and Walsh began to argue in the speakeasy with nearly a hundred patrons in black-tie. Wilson pulled a gun and shot Walsh to death. When Clark rushed to his friend’s side, he was wounded. Police rushed to the hotel but it took some time to reach the murder scene. Once there, the room had been “cleaned” of any evidence of a speakeasy. Modern researchers believe the lack of police records on this event to be evidence of a police cover-up.

Now that I have found you,
I must hang around you.
Though you may refuse me…
–“He Loves and She Loves” (1927) by George and Ira Gershwin

One popular tale about the suite on the 13th and 14th floor involves the private elevator leading to it. A young couple exploring the hotel somehow stumbled into the private elevator and was whisked to the dark, uninhabited suite though guests must have a key to operate the elevator. The young woman stepped off and the doors quickly shut behind her, leaving her husband wildly punching buttons as the elevator quickly descended to the lobby. The husband found a bellhop who used his passkey to get them back up to the empty suite. There they found the man’s wife standing in the dark, scared and befuddled. 

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Photo by eflon, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

You must realize
When your heart’s on fire
Smoke gets in your eyes…

Now, laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide.
–“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from the operetta, Roberta (1933) by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach

The young woman stated that when the doors closed behind her, she began walking through the silent suite calling, “Hello?” She heard the sound of distant conversation and occasionally people laughing. The sounds of things hitting the floor echoed from around her but nothing was out of place when she turned. She also remarked that there was the strong smell of cigar smoke with her throughout this experience. The elevator is still said to rise up to the suite on its own accord on a regular basis. This luxury suite (I checked the price and it’s around $1800 a night) is often used by celebrities, and President Bill Clinton stayed here in 1994. A number of sources note that he had troubled getting TV reception for a ball game he wanted to watch. His aides were unable to find a reason why the TV would not work properly.

It was just one of those nights,
Just one of those fabulous flights,
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,
It was just one of those things.
–“Just One of Those Things” (1935) by Cole Porter

The apparition of a lady in white is also a part of the hotel’s folklore. According to legend, a couple was staying in the hotel with their young and very curious son. The child somehow made its way onto one of the hotel’s elaborate balconies and the child’s mother, fearing disaster, ran towards him. Unfortunately, she lost her balance reaching for her son and her body hurled over the railing towards certain death. Her spirit has been seen silently racing towards the balcony and at other times walking through nearby guest rooms. 

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Photo by Milan Boers, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

There were chills up my spine
And some thrills I can’t define.
–“How Long Has This Been Going On?” (1928) by George and Ira Gershwin

There’s so much more still going on in the Biltmore Hotel. Numerous apparitions, often seen momentarily and disappearing, have been reported including a dancing couple in period attire, World War II era soldiers, and a man playing the piano in a top hat. The hotel actually employs a storyteller to keep up with the hotel’s histories: recorded, legendary, and paranormal. Perhaps the spirits have finally found their own, sumptuous heaven.

Biltmore Hotel Coral Gables Florida ghosts haunted
Photo by Ebyabe, 2011, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Heaven, I’m in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
–“Cheek to Cheek” (1935) by Irving Berlin

Sources

  • Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 11 October 2011.
  • Hauck, Dennis William. Haunted Places: the National Directory. NYC: Penguin, 2002.
  • Jenkins, Greg. Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore: Vol. 1 South and Central Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2005.
  • Lapham, Dave. Ghosthunting Florida. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2010.
  • Moore, Joyce Elson. Haunt Hunter’s Guide to Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1998.
  • Preira, Matt. “Spooky Hotel: Biltmore Hotel Haunted by Gangsters and WWII Soldiers.” Miami New Times. 6 October 2011.
  • Rennella, Cecilia and Carolyn Pitts. National Historic Landmark Nomination form for Miami-Biltmore Hotel and Country Club. 8 December 1994.
  • Rule, Leslie. Coast to Coast Ghosts: True Stories of Hauntings Across America. Kansas City: MO: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2001.

Book Heaven—Trans Allegheny Books

N.B. This article was edited and revised 6 April 2019.

Trans Allegheny Books
725 Green Street
Parkersburg, West Virginia

Parkersburg Carnegie Library, formerly Trans Allegheny Books, 2010. Photo by Richie Diesterheft, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Trans Allegheny Books truly sounds like heaven. A two-story former library, the building was crammed with some 500,000 volumes of used books with particular concentration on books relating to West Virginia and Appalachia. Until it closed just about this time last year, it was the largest bookstore in the state and a veritable tourist attraction in the region. Unfortunately, it was not to last.

The store was opened by Joe Sakach, a businessman with a passion for books and history, in the mid-1980s. The store flourished in the edifice on Green Street until the death of Mr. Sakach in April of last year. Upon his death the store was closed until his estate was settled by his children. They decided to sell the institution and a huge three-day sale was held in October, the store’s last dying breath.

The store is now a ghost along with the apparitions that lurked around its shelves while in operation. According to Theresa Racer in her marvelous blog on the ghosts of the Tri-State area (West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky), Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State, there are four distinct human and possibly three feline apparitions experienced within the century-old building. A small girl has been seen sitting on the magnificent iron stairs in the center of the building who sometimes may trip up patrons. A dapperly dressed man has been seen on the second floor and he may possibly be the same man seen browsing through the world history section. A female spirit may be that of a local newspaper reporter who was violently stabbed to death but who now returns to a place that she considered a second home.

The bookstore is home to living cats but possibly three feline apparitions have also been seen. All of these spirits may be the origins of other paranormal activity including disembodied footsteps, flickering lights, shadow figures and books that move from their shelves.

After its original function as a Carnegie Library, the building’s use as a bookstore is certainly the most appropriate use for the Neo-classical structure. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who built magnificent libraries throughout the nation, presented Parkersburg with a gift of $34,000 to build a library. It opened in 1905 and served the area until 1975. The building was used briefly as a restaurant but that was unsuccessful. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and it appears it is currently unused.

A story from WCHS ABC 8 in Charleston, West Virginia, provides a marvelous glimpse inside the bookstore.

Sources

  • Carnegie Library (Parkersburg, West Virginia)Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 3 October 2011.
  • Kurtz, David. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for Carnegie Library. 20 August 1979.
  • Mancini, Jess. “Trans Allegheny Books closing.” The Marietta Times. 6 October 2010.
  • Murphy, Jody. “Trans Allegheny Books continues to be closed.” Parkersburg News and Sentinel. 20 June 2010.
  • Racer, Theresa. “Trans-Allegheny Bookstore, Parkersburg.” Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State. 23 May 2011.

Kickin’ it with the Katherines—the Roswell Ghost Tour, Roswell, Georgia

Katherines (with a “K”), and I suppose Catherines, figure heavily in the Roswell, Georgia Ghost Tour. I recall at least three stories, among many, where the name came up. A friend of mine set up a private tour and our group of thirteen set out on what would become a three hour tour, a three hour tour. The weather did not start getting rough and was absolutely lovely; a cool, autumn evening with the slightest of nips in the air. As a private tour, our guide, Jonathan Crooks, departed from the usual script and provided us with literally masses of information including personal experiences he has had.

Ranked among the top ghost tours in the nation, it’s not difficult to see why. This tour departs from the usual ghost stories and historic lectures regurgitated by bored guides in dreadful costumes with spooky voices. The guides here provide just enough history and tell only stories when they are related to documented paranormal activity at each location. The guide did not attempt to scare the group with gimmicks; the tales of activity did enough by themselves and a few times I had chills up my spine. Even more haunting, at each location, much of the discussed activity was fairly recent and included much that had taken place on previous tours.

The facade of Bulloch Hall. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.
The well behind Bulloch Hall that is a center for paranormal activity. According to the tour,
a young slave girl may have died here. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The tour met on the square and traveled first down Bulloch Avenue towards the fabled Bulloch Hall, a home that is both important historically and paranormally. The tour walked around the house with the guide pointing out a window where a number of odd photographs had been taken. Behind the house he pointed out a reconstructed slaves quarters and a well which both had paranormal activity connected with them. The tour continued up the street stopping in front of Mimosa Hall where phantom smells were discussed.

The park on Sloan Street where swings sometime swing on their own accord. The tour also pointed out that psychics have seen an African-American man join the tour at this point. One psychic claimed he said, “You white people are crazy!” Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

We crossed over the square again heading for the “other side of town.” Historically, the other side of the square consisted of the mill village. We walked along Sloan Street all the way to the Founders Cemetery which we visited in the dark. All along Sloan Street there were many reports of activity ranging from swings swinging by themselves in the park to the doors of mailboxes opening one by one up and down the street as a tour group passed by. Houses along the street, particularly the line of brick townhouses, known as The Old Bricks, are known for activity as well as the homes surrounding the cemetery which are most likely built on graves.

Looking towards the grave of Roswell King in the Founders Cemetery. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

As we crossed over the square and were waiting to cross busy Atlanta Street, three in our group saw a man standing on the corner opposite us across Sloan Street. One group member described him as a large man, possibly African-American, standing in front of the building with his back to the group. He was hunched over and standing very still. Interestingly, no one else noticed him. I’m sure I looked in the man’s direction and most likely would have noted someone standing there. The guide also saw the guy and said that he thought the man was wearing a blue Union Army-style jacket, though this immediate jump to a Civil War connection bothered me.

The back of the “Creepy House,” a location known for intense energy.
Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The tour wound past a law office haunted by a woman who was upset by “the fire in the walls,” known in modern terms as electricity. We were guided into the backyard of the “Creepy House,” an old home with a ghoulish reputation. According to our guide, psychic members of tour groups always sense a number of spirits here including a certain negative energy. It was also here that participants on previous tours have been attacked with one young girl feeling like she had been punched in the stomach and a woman being scratched on her back. Frankly, the house is very creepy, particularly at night. The tour ended at the square with a rundown of the hauntings of many of the buildings there.

Overall, the tour was astounding and incredibly informative. My one complaint was that it was too long, but then again, we had a private tour. The regular tour lasts two hours. The concentration on paranormal activity rather than history and stories, made the tour particularly interesting and his knowledge of and passion for the paranormal was particularly refreshing.

My thanks to my friend Chris who set this up and with his partner was a marvelous host for the evening. Also thanks to Ben who first suggested the tour and all the tour participants who made for a wonderful weekend.

Rhythm and Blues–Natchez, Mississippi

Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum
5 St. Catherine Street
Natchez, Mississippi

N.B. This entry was revised 24 February 2019.

Goodbye, Goodbye,
Fare you well, goodbye!
I’m just gonna let all you people know
What happened in that Natchez fire.
— Gene Gilmore, “The Natchez Fire,” one of a number of jazz and blues songs written to memorialize the fire. See the YouTube video for a recording of the song with photographs from the fire.

One of my favorite books as a kid was Jay Robert Nash’s Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times to the Present. Not only providing stories of hundreds of disasters, the book includes rare photographs from the scenes, including some that are quite graphic. One of those photographs I remember clearly is from the 1940 fire at the Rhythm Night Club in Natchez. The photograph shows bodies of many of the African-American club goers laid out. These nicely dressed people are covered with soot with some almost frozen in dance-like attitudes.

As I’m reading through my blogs tonight, I came across an entry from Natchez Ghosts: The Devil’s Punchbowl, the official blog of the Natchez Area Paranormal Society regarding this recently opened museum. The museum is located on the site of the night club and serves as a memorial to this fire that claimed around 207 lives (there are discrepancies in the actual number) and affected many more.

Headline from the 24 April 1940 Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville, Mississippi.

Occupying a ramshackle wood frame building, the Rhythm Night Club was a swinging place on the spring evening of April 23, 1940. Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians, a noted band from Chicago, was playing to a packed house of nearly 700. From the ceiling decorative Spanish moss had been hung. That moss that had been sprayed with a petroleum-based insecticide called Flit, in an attempt to kill the insects that lived within it.

Near the club’s front door, a fire broke out, quickly spreading through the highly-flammable moss. As patrons rushed to the windows and doors, they found most of them boarded up. Among those killed were Walter Barnes, the bandleader, and most of his band. While the fire destroyed so many lives, it did lead to some of the myriad fire regulations that save many lives today.

Opening last year, the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum seeks to tell the story of this tragedy as well as memorialize the site. The blog entry on Natchez Ghosts mentions that one of the founders has reported paranormal activity throughout the building. This activity includes the sounds of voices, music, and doors opening and closing. He has also found photographs apparently removed from the walls and then laid on the floor at interesting angles.

haunted Natchez Mississippi Rhythm Night Club fire memorial museum haunted
A riverside memorial plaque for the Rhythm Night Club fire. Photo 2015, by Bill Hathorn, courtesy of Wikipedia.

It should be noted that there are many sites throughout the South related to similar tragedies with paranormal activity such as places associated with the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, which burned in 1977; the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta in 1946 (the building is now home to the Ellis Hotel); and the site of the Cleveland School in Kershaw County, South Carolina, which burned in 1923.

The blog entry also mentions that the Natchez Area Paranormal Society (NAPS) is ramping up to investigate the location in the very near future. I look forward to seeing their evidence.

Update: It appears that the Natchez Paranormal Society is no longer active. Their blog is still up, but has not been updated since 2015.

Sources