Saturday, February 27, 2010

Harpers Ferry Phantoms

John Brown's Fort photograph by Joy Schoenberger

Harpers Ferry is a well-known town of 300 souls located in Jefferson County, West Virginia. It's situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers where the states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet.

It's famous for John Brown's raid, and indeed has a spook or two left over from that day, but its haunted history begins, well, at its beginning.

In 1750, town namesake Robert Harper was given a grant for 125 acres at the present location of the town. In 1761, he established a ferry across the Potomac, making the town a starting point for settlers moving into the Shenandoah Valley and westward bound.

He and his bride, Rachel, began building the Harper House, today the oldest surviving structure in Harpers Ferry and operated by the National Park Service.

Now ol' Bob made quite a haul ferrying folk back and forth, but he had a problem figuring out where he could safely stash his gold. He went to a tried and true method to safeguard his wealth - Harper instructed Rachel to bury all of their gold and not breath a word about its location.

Harper wasn't in great health, and passed over to the other side. Rachel met with a sudden, accidental death while completing work on the House, and guess what: no one knew where the Harper fortune was.

Starting in the 1800s, it was claimed that the Harper House was haunted. Hey, it still has that rep today. Visitors report that they've seen an old woman dressed in 18th century finery staring from an upper-floor window, fixated on the old Harper Garden. It's said to be Rachel, still watching over the family strongbox through the decades.

In 1798, soldiers were stationed just above Harpers Ferry, positioned there during a cold war tiff with the French. As it never developed into a shooting war, the bored troopers would parade nightly through the town, led by a fife and drum corp.

Still, many of them died there, victims of a cholera epidemic, and are buried at nearby Camp Hill. And if you listen closely, it's said that one can hear them parading down the street to this day, marching to the music of fifes and drums.

The next spirit to roam the area is that of Jenny, a famed apparition among West Virginia's railroaders. In the 1830s, Jenny, who lived near the tracks, brushed too close to the hearth in her house, and caught her dress afire.

Panicked, she ran into the night to try to put out the fire, but in her blind rush, Jenny dashed right in front of an oncoming train. The engine snuffed out the fire; it also snuffed out Jenny.

Her ghost still haunts the old Armory Yards. Sometimes in the night, one can hear train whistles blow and the screech of brakes pressing against the tracks. Engineers swear that they saw a flaming figure and felt a bump when they reached her, but when they check, no one's there. It's just Jenny, reliving her past.

Now we get to John Brown. Some tales say that he still spooks the area with his black dog, walking down the street. In fact, he even agreed to be photographed by people that believed he was a reenactor. But when they developed the film, his image was gone.

But maybe the best known phantom is one of the slaves who accompanied him on the raid, Dangerfield Newby. He was killed by the locals when a shot struck him in the neck. His body was mutilated, and then left in an alley for the pigs to feast upon.

To this day that lane bears the name of "Hog Alley." And he's still in town. It's claimed that a middle-aged black man with a slouch hat and a jagged scar across his throat still walks the streets of Harper Ferry; it's thought to be the shadow of Newby.

The Civil War was quite traumatic for Harpers Ferry (it was part of Virginia until the war's end), which was captured and recaptured eight times between 1861 and 1865.

Because of the town's strategic location on the railroad and at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, both Union and Confederate troops moved through the burg frequently, and the battle of Harpers Ferry was fought from September 13-15, 1862, a prelude to Antietam.

And that's how St. Peter's Catholic Church got to join the list of haunted locales in Harpers Ferry. St Peters was the only church in Harpers Ferry to survive the Civil War in one piece (it was said that the pastor would raise a British Union Jack over the holy house during combat to indicate neutrality; he's probably lucky both sides didn't use it for target practice), and often served as a hospital.

One of the soldiers being treated there was said to have muttered "Thank God, I'm saved," as the docs looked him over. He was wrong, at least in the corporal sense; he died. Now people report that some nights they will see a golden aura glow near the church doors and hear a weak voice whispering, "Thank God I'm saved."

The other apparitions aren't war-related; no one seems to know what their cause may be. One is the vision of a priest, so realistic that church visitors speak to him. The padre walks from the rectory without a word, and then passes through the walls of the church.

Another eerie occurrence is the sound of a baby crying, which can be heard on the front steps. Again, there's no historical reference for this event.

While not exactly ghostly, it's been reported that one can catch sight of an orange glow in the night skies from Maryland Heights. That scene is said to be a replay of the final act of a hungry troop of young Civil War soldiers. They were unable to light a fire to cook their evening meal, and decided to prime the flames with an artillery shell, blowing themselves and their chow to high heaven.

Another area to keep a paranormal eye on is the "Haunted Cottage," a home that John Wilkes Booth rented in 1859 when he attended John Brown's hanging. It's on its way to becoming a ghost museum, and so far has just been the object of electronic glitches, often a sign of spooky activity - or bad wiring.

(The stories are taken in the main from "A Ghostly Tour of Harpers Ferry" by Shirley Dougherty and are part of Harper Ferry's ghost tour.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Barnum's Cannibals

P.T. Barnum from Wikipedia

This isn't a ghost story, but it is one of the weirder tales to come out of the fair town of York, a textbook example of Phineas Taylor Barnum's ability to generate - some say fabricate - a story.

First, a bit of history. The York Judicial Center now stands on the site of the old Penn Hotel, which was razed for the Pennsylvania House Hotel.

PT Barnum stayed in the Pennsy House in 1872 during a stop of his "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome", the self proclaimed "Greatest Show on Earth". His act included 4 purported genuine Fijian cannibals, allegedly ransomed from the King of Fiji before they became the special of the day from his kitchen.

One of them, a dwarf, took ill. He died uttering "Fiji" as his last word, and was laid out in a hotel room. The man watching over his remains locked the door and left for half an hour. When he returned, the two remaining male cannibals were merrily nibbling away on the corpse while being scolded by the lone female, who apparently was Christian and had renounced her man-eating ways.

At least, that's what the York Daily reported. The town's other paper, the True Democrat, called the story whole bunkum. And we'll never know which was right; was it just a clash of cultures or another ink-grabbing hoax by the master?

What was left of the poor cannibal was buried in the local Potter's Field with 700 other unmarked, unclaimed, and unknown bodies. 25 years later, the bodies were disinterred, and people were eager to open the Fijian's coffin and see if he was intact or was indeed served up as his showmate's entree.

Alas, the coffin was empty! It seems a local doctor hired a professional ghoul to snatch the body, which he proudly exhibited in his office as a showpiece skeleton. And he never told anyone if the corpse had any bites out of it. So we'll never know if Barnum pulled another fast one or if the cannibals indeed enjoyed one final nostalgic midnight snack.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sagamore Hotel

sagamore hotel
Sagamore Hotel

In upstate New York, past Albany and hard on the Vermont border in the Adirondack Mountains, lies Bolton Landing. One of its' major draws is the Sagamore Hotel, located on a Lake George island and an elegant lodge that opened in 1883 and was restored in 1930 and 1985. And it hosts more than its paying guests.

If you're in the restaurant, keep an eye peeled for a couple that are dressed in nineteenth period outfits and stroll the eatery's lounge after coming down from the second floor.

They're supposed to be the shadows of a pair of original hotel regulars, circa 1880. Their behavior is a bit on the odd - and violent - side.

They argue, and the man throws the lady to the floor. She responds by grabbing at him before the pair fade into the carpet. Guess the honeymoon was over for that couple.

The dining area has also been frequented by the apparition of a tall woman with flowing blond hair, dressed in a white gown. She once visited the kitchen, said a few unintelligible words to the cook, and then walked through him before disappearing. Needless to say, the chef quit on the spot.

And she's not the only lady in white (unless the dining room ghost works the whole hotel.) There's another mysterious lady in white who enters the rooms, accompanied by chills. It's said that she rouses sleeping guests by peering into their faces and blowing her cold breath on their shut eyelids. Not too surprisingly, many guest have reported spending sleepless nights and the sense of being watched

You have to be vigilant on the elevator, too. There are tales of a chubby gent with an old-timey walrus mustache, dressed in a fine three-piece brown suit, sporting a gold watch fob, who's been known to take an eerie ride or two up and down the floors. It's said that he can be felt with not-so-subtle nudges before he materializes behind you - and when he leaves the car, he takes three steps and vanishes into thin air. The staff nicknamed him "Walter."

But all the spooks aren't relics of the good ol' days. There's the tale of a mischievous youth that dates back to the 1950's.

The imp was a ball boy on the golf course; he'd retrieve lost Titleists and sold them back to the pro. One day, a ball bounded over a roadway abutting the course, and the tyke sprinted after it. Unfortunately, he didn't look both ways, and was dispatched to the other side by a speeding car.

His spook now haunts the golf course and toys with the golfers. He steals golf balls hit into the rough, and can be heard laughing maniacally while players trudge through the rough in search of their wayward shots. When they finally give up, he returns the balls to them by tossing it at the hacker from behind a tree. Not much different from modern-day caddies, is he?

So if you hanker to play a Donald Ross golf course with a spook ball boy or spend a couple of nights in nineteenth century splendor with an unexpected guest or two, the Sagamore Hotel is the spot for you.

(Don't confuse this Sagamore with the old, also haunted Sagamore Hotel that was located in Pennsylvania's Armstrong county; it burned down in 2005)

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Antietam print by Thure de Thulstrup

The Rebs and Yankee forces clashed at Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. The Gray had just thumped the Blue at Manassas, and were launching their first invasion of the North. If successful, the Confederacy might have won the war.

It instead became the bloodiest single day of conflict in American history, with 23,100 men wounded, missing, or dead after twelve hours of savage combat. Six generals died during the battle. The bloodbath ended up a draw, but strategically was a Union win, as the massive toll in men blunted the Confederate march on the North.

And like at Gettysburg, the imprint of the dead still remains.

The sunken road ("Bloody Lane") was one of the brutal actions played out that day. When the curtain closed on this battle, there were about 5,500 casualties. And some haven't left. Witnesses report hearing ghostly gunfire and the smelling spectral smoke and gunpowder. A visitor reportedly saw several men in Confederate uniforms walking down the road. He assumed they were re-enactors when they suddenly vanished before his eyes.

The most famous story of Antietam happened here. Schoolboys from Baltimore on a field trip heard strange noises that sounded like voices singing the noel "Deck the Halls" in a language they couldn't quite understand. But they could make out the "Fa-la-la-la-la".

The Union Irish Brigade had staged a charge there, and as they attacked the Confederate positions, they shouted their battle cry of Faugh-a-Balaugh ("Clear the Way"). It would sound like "Fah-ah-bah-lah." Was that the carol the kids heard?

General George McClellan used Phillip Pry's House as his headquarters during the battle. General Israel B. Richardson died there. The house, owned by the National Park Service and used for storage, isn’t open to visitors.

A woman saw a ghost of a female dressed in period clothing walk down the staircase, and workers saw the same apparition standing in an upper window in the room where Richardson died (a room, that due to construction work at the time, had no floor!). It’s thought that she’s the spook of his wife, Frances, who nursed him during his final hours.

Sounds of phantom footsteps that have been heard pacing on the staircase. A National Park Service worker claimed to see a blue lantern make its way down the old road, which now is in the middle of a field.

Another hot spot is the Rohrback (now called Burnside) Bridge where General Ambrose Burnside paid a bloody wage to cross. Many of his fallen soldiers were quickly buried in unmarked graves near the bridge because of the deadly accurate fire of the Georgia troops defending the span. Witnesses have seen blue balls of light wafting through the night mists and reported the rat-a-tat of a phantom drum beating out cadence before fading away.

Reb General Longstreet used the Piper House as his headquarters and its barn was used as a field hospital. There were so many troopers to treat that three soldiers actually died under the piano in the parlor.

People have heard mysterious sounds and have seen ghostly forms that appear and vanish, representing both armies. Strangely, the area of the house with the most tales is a section that was added on well after the battle, circa 1900. Guests tell of hearing muffled voices and odd sounds in a bedroom, and report a misty apparition which appears in a bathroom doorway.

Some think that the new wing of the house was built over the top of graves of those who died in the battle, disturbing the soldiers from their eternal rest and causing the hauntings.

Saint Paul Episcopal Church was used as a Confederate field hospital after the battle. Visitors have claimed they heard the screams of the dying and injured coming from inside of the building, and have seen lights flickering in its tower. Legend has it that the floorboards in the house are still stained with blood that can't be removed.

A pair of park rangers were doing their nightly rounds and were spooked by a blue translucent figure in the open doorway of Otto House, which was used as a hospital after the battle. The ghostly figure looked like a Southern belle in a hoop skirt standing in doorway of the house, gazing toward town.

The rangers flew away from the ghostly lady, and retold the story to their coworkers. They had identical tales. It seems as if the ghostly Southern belle has been a frequent visitor.

This house stands on a knoll along the Burnside Bridge Road and it overlooks the Sherrick Farm House, which also is home to reported spooky apparitions.

The Landon House, used as a field hospital during the fight, is best known in Civil War circles for hosting the Sabers and Roses Ball prior to the Battle of Antietam, a bit of civilized activity before the inhumanity began. It's known for ghostly barking from its cellar and the sighting of a Union ghost in the nearby woods.

But it was spooked out before the battle. Prior to the Civil War, the Landon House was the Shirley Academy for Women. A ghostly woman in white is rumored to occasionally look in on second-floor rooms. Local lore states that she’s looking for children to tuck in at night.

We'll close with a tale of a ghoul of the human variety who got his come-uppance from the other side. When the battle was raging, the Confederate Army didn't have time to bury their dead; they hired locals to see to the last detail.

One innkeeper, passed down in legend as a Mr. Wise, took the job to provide a proper burial for fifty soldiers. But instead of burying them, Wise dropped the dead soldiers into an abandoned well, some landing head down or upside down, hardly a fitting farewell for guys who had just made the ultimate sacrifice.

Wise received a shock when one of the dead appeared to him, said to be the shadow of Sergeant Jim Tabbs of Virginia. Tabbs told off Wise about the disrespect of the corpses, and a scared half-to-death Wise repositioned the bodies in the well. He was quickly found out by the authorities, and under their steely stare, buried all fifty in the ground.

The grounds have been operated by the National Park Service since 1890, and the park proper consists of the battlefield, a visitors’ center, a national military cemetery and the Pry House Field Hospital Museum.

And many of its combatants.