Spirits in Virginia
Spirited Virginia Vacations Produce Hauntingly Beautiful Memories
For a truly spirited fall vacation, consider a trip to Virginia's haunted places that are so inviting some souls never leave.
Be ye fond of phantoms or excited by apparitions, ye are in the right place in the Old Dominion, which may be our most haunted state, according to a Williamsburg author who has written more than a dozen books about the subject.
“I'm not the only one to claim that,” says L. B. Taylor Jr., the preeminent authority on Virginia's ghosts. “But it appears that's true due to the long history of the state and the fact that there has been so much trauma and tragedy here, with the Indian conflicts, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
“Couple that with the abundance of old, historic houses here and you have an explanation for all the paranormal activity,” he said. “Ghosts seem to hang around old houses.”
Taylor has compiled reports of ghouls in places open to anyone who craves the ambiance of a tourist spot said to be haunted by spirits both ordinary and famous.
Guides to ghosts
One way to rub elbows with apparitions is to take an organized tour.
Leesburg Ghost Tours bills itself as “the only ghost tour in America led by a paranormal investigator.” Tours leave Friday and Saturday nights from April through November. The tour's Web site says guides “discuss in a scientific way the existence of paranormal phenomena” and warns, “young children do not find this interesting and are sometimes frightened by our stories.”
So many spirits reside in Virginia's first capital city that Taylor needed an entire book, “The Ghosts of Williamsburg,” to chronicle them. A guided tour through the town's colonial section is based on that work. One stop is the home of Peyton Randolph, where a female apparition has been seen, apparently as a guest in an upstairs bedroom. “She appears very agitated, like she's trying to warn people of something,” said Taylor. The tour runs nightly.
Another tour based on Taylor's work highlights ghosts of Yorktown, the site of Cornwallis' surrender. A bus will take you past Revolutionary War hotspots where wraiths of long-dead soldiers are said to dwell. Then, a candlelight walk leads past haunted 18th-century houses and taverns. Included is a stop at the home of Revolutionary War general Thomas Nelson, where the ghost of a British soldier killed there allegedly resides. Taylor said Nelson advised George Washington to fire cannons into his own house. Tours run nightly from June through August, then on Saturdays in September and October.
Ghost tours of Old Town Alexandria are available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from March through November. They start at Ramsay House, home to the Alexandria's visitors' center and itself said to be haunted by the ghost of the town's founder.
On Virginia's Eastern Shore, a walking tour of Cape Charles and its Victorian homes includes tales of The Phantom Schoolmistress and The Ghost of the Old Lamplighter. Tours are held between Father's Day and Labor Day.
In Lexington, home to Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, ghost tours leave the visitors'center and wind through backstreets and alleyways by candlelight in search of the dearly departed. Tours run from Memorial Day through October.
Haunted hotels, specters of the stage
Apparitions have apparently appeared at several Virginia accommodations.
The best-known is The Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon, a popular hotel due to its Four Diamond rating from the American Automobile Association. Pete Sheffey, a bellman for 51 years, says he's seen ghosts there about 30 times. “I've been touched, pushed and everything,” he said.
Sheffey can spin detailed tales of the supernatural off the top of his head. “It's an amazing place,” Sheffy said of the hotel. “It's an awful lot of fun.”
One of the stories says an apparitional horse roams the lawn looking for its rider, a slain Union officer. Another speaks of a Confederate spy's bloodstains that always reappear where he died, showing through even after new carpet is laid.
Then there's the spirit of room 403.
Her name is Beth. She is, in one version, searching for her dead lover, a Yankee officer. In Sheffey's version, she is pining for the Confederate spy and died from a broken heart a year after his death.
Across the street is the Barter Theatre, which is home to two spirits. One is said to be the founder, Robert Porterfield, who brought unemployed actors from New York to start the theater during the Great Depression. Although Porterfield died in 1971, actors have claimed to see him in the audience. Another spirit, alleged to be malevolent, has been said to chase actors from dressing rooms.
If a bed-and-breakfast is more your style, head toward Urbanna and visit Hewick, a 326-year-old plantation house owned and run by 11th-generation descendants of its founder. Its charms include views of 66 picturesque acres on an offshoot of the Rappahannock River, homemade pecan coffee cake, a family cemetery, artifacts from an archaeological dig on site, and the unofficial title as the most haunted house in Virginia.
“I do believe in ghosts but I've never encountered one,” said Helen Nichols Murphy Battleson, the owner. However, Battleson says she often hears unexplained noises, and intermittently “we do smell the sweet smell of tobacco” in the house for no explainable reason.
Taylor, the chronicler of Virginia ghost stories, says no fewer than seven spirits are believed to haunt the mansion, including a “lady in pink” who appears only every seven years, and a big man dressed in black.
If you'd like to feast with a phantom or share your wine and spirits with a spirit, the Commonwealth boasts several haunted taverns.
Gadsby's Tavern and Museum in Alexandria is a functioning restaurant and a historical archive. Built circa 1785, the tavern's early customers included Thomas Jefferson. Some claim a specter of a young woman in 1800s clothing haunts it. For certain, period clothing is worn by servers. Candlelight tours of the museum are held Friday nights.
Miss Lucy is the resident ghoul of the Old Town Inn in Manassas. She's said to haunt room 52, but roams from rooms 50 through 54 and has been spotted in the tavern.
A ghostly couple is said to haunt the east side of the Cork Street Tavern in Winchester. That's the historic side of the building, constructed around 1830. They are thought responsible for the high number of people who have stumbled around table L-6, says Taylor.
Plantations with poltergeist
Many of Virginia's old plantations claim that a resident of the spirit world still walks the grounds.
For instance, the benevolent spirit of Evelyn Byrd is said to appear at Westover, one of the James River plantations in Charles City County. She fell in love with a man who drew her father's disapproval. That sent her into depression and she rejected other suitors. Those who claim to have seen her say she's a mournful spirit.
Nearby, the ghost of Aunt Pratt has definite ideas on where her portrait should hang at Shirley Plantation. Shirley is noted for its collection of family portraits. Aunt Pratt's picture was downstairs for a number of years, but when the owners decided to move it, her spirit objected. A “mighty disturbance” occurred, according to Taylor, mainly late at night as the sound of someone rocking in the attic. When the portrait was returned to its place, the noise ceased.
Sherwood Forest, another nearby plantation, boasts of the “Gray Lady,” who has been heard knocking in the Gray Room for more than 200 years. She is said to have been governess to a sick child whom she rocked to sleep there. Sherwood Forest was the home of President John Tyler.
Near Fredericksburg, the historic Chatham mansion is said to receive a spooky visitor at seven-year intervals. The story goes that George Washington was a guest the night an English girl tried to elope with her love, of whom the father disapproved. Washington allegedly caught wind of the plan and prevented it. The girl was returned to England and married another, but her deathbed vow was that her spirit would return to Chatham to walk her favorite path on the anniversary of her death.
Witnesses have reported seeing her on that path, now known as the Ghost Walk, every seven years since her death on June 21, 1790.
The spirit of Washington's brother-in-law is said to haunt the Georgian mansion Kenmore, also near Fredericksburg. Col. Fielding Lewis married Washington's sister and was one of Virginia's most successful planters, but lost his fortune in the Revolutionary War. Lewis is said to appear in his office, studying his financial records with a worried look. Government building ghouls
It's said ghosts inhabit the Virginia Capitol. In 1870, the floor of the gallery of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals collapsed. It was overloaded with people waiting to hear a ruling on a Richmond election. About 60 people died. Some claim their moans can still be heard in the building at night.
If you plan to visit haunted sites in Virginia, please note that you will also find an abundance of real people, all friendly and all ready to help make your visit so enjoyable you'll want to stay forever.
For more information on planning a visit, ghostly or other, to Virginia, visit the Virginia tourism website: www.virginia.org. Visitors who prefer to get a printed travel guide and state highway map can call 1-800-932-5827.