Cover Story

Boo!

Virginia is Very Rich in Haunted Environs

Bacon's Castle, Virginia's oldest brick, house, at twilight. Photo courtesy of Chris Malpass Photography.

History-rich Virginia ranks at the top of the National Register of Haunted Locations’ “haunted places” list, with over 170 sites claiming ghostly happenings. History and reality TV ghost shows have boosted “ghost tourism” in the Commonwealth.

But Richmond-area author, actor and singer/songwriter Bill Kaffenberger, who with Gary D. Rhodes co-authored No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi (BearManor, 2012) and Bela Lugosi In Person (BearManor, 2015), says public fascination with ghosts is nothing new.

 “You’ve always had fascination with death and what’s beyond the grave. When Lugosi in his now-classic role in 1931’s Dracula [film] came along, there was a lot of thinking about the life beyond. He embodied a creature from beyond the grave. The battle between good and evil, life after death — that was really the basis for ghosts. That yearning to know what’s beyond the grave is still evident.”

Mark Cline, an artist who runs Enchanted Castle Studios in Natural Bridge, designs, sculpts and manufactures foam and fiberglass creations for roadside attractions and miniature golf courses. In 1996 he added “ghost host” to his resume when he began Haunting Tales, Lexington’s Ghost Tour.

“Ghosts sell,” Cline says. “I ask, how many of you believe in the possibility of ghosts? That broadens the spectrum.”

No matter your beliefs when it comes to ghosts, Virginia has a lot to experience. Here are four possibilities.

Haunting Tales, Lexington’s Ghost Tour

Founded in 1788, Lexington, home to Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, is a history-filled town. Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are buried here, and ghostly legends abound.

After taking a 1992 “Jack The Ripper Tour” while honeymooning with wife Sherry in London, Mark Cline began researching Lexington’s ghost-related lore. In 1996 his ghost tour began and now runs six nights a week, peaking during Halloween week when nearly 1,000 participate.

“We are not a Halloweenish, ‘haunted house’ tour, although we do visit houses that are haunted. It’s humor, illusions, education, mystery … and did I mention humor?” Cline says with a laugh.

Decked out in period clothing, Cline, author and illustrator of 2015’s The Lexington Ghost Tour, conducts 90 percent of the tours himself, explaining, “It’s hard to find the right people [to lead the tours]. It’s entertainment first, education second … you can entertain through education.”

His nighttime walking tours wind through Lexington streets and include a stop in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, the most popular stop on the tour. In his eerily illustrated book, Cline spins tour-based tales, including the story of Traveller’s ghost. Robert E. Lee died in 1870 after a massive stroke; his horse Traveller died a year later. According to Cline, Lee’s widow insisted she heard the nightly clatter of a horse’s hooves leading to Traveller’s stable and was convinced it was the horse’s ghost. She made sure there was always feed in the stall for the spirit to consume.

“Some people [told me] last night they weren’t going to do this [tour] because they thought it [would be] scary,” Cline says. “Most people tell me it was a lot more fun than they expected.”

Bacon’s Castle, Surry

The oldest brick house in Virginia (1665), Bacon’s Castle was the home of planter Arthur Allen and his family. Its 17th-century formal English gardens are the oldest in North America. In 1676 when followers of Nathaniel Bacon revolted against Governor William Berkeley in Bacon’s Rebellion, Bacon’s followers ousted the Allens and made the home their headquarters for four months.

“Bacon never occupied the house,” emphasizes Jennifer Hurst-Wender, director of museum operations and education for Preservation Virginia. The nonprofit acquired the 9,000-square-foot home in the 1970s and did extensive restoration before opening the site to the public in 1983.

She adds, “People remember Bacon’s Rebellion maybe as one line in school [history books] but the reality was complex. It has to do with Governor Berkeley and disputes with Virginia Indians, but in reality it was about a disenfranchised group of poor whites who used to be indentured [servants] and poor slaves who had bought their freedom. They were all loyalists [to England] — nobody thought they should start their own country. But in some ways [it was] a precursor to the American Revolution.”

Ghost lore has long surrounded Bacon’s Castle. Witnesses have described a red fireball originating in an adjacent church graveyard crossing a field and going into the home’s stair tower. Garden sightings of a Civil War soldier and stories about the home’s interior abound.

Three years ago the site began hosting “haunted events” and a tour called Spirited History. “Spirited History does a lot of site research, has tracked down family letters and focuses on the people who have lived here. CPRI (Center for Paranormal Research and Investigation) does Haunted Events; they try to find scientific proof [of ghosts],” Hurst-Wender says. “We’ve had a good response.”

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Despite “ghost sightings” and tales of ghosts floating above the battlefield, Ray Brown, chief of interpretation at Manassas National Battlefield Park, says, “There’s no enduring tradition of a specific ghost haunting the battlefield. In my 23 years here I have never encountered anything I could not explain.”

That said, he understands why ghost fascination endures when it comes to the 5,073-acre park, home to two of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. He ex-plains, “I think a lot of it has to do with people wanting to have a personal experience with the past. It also speaks to the power of place — places like battlefields have a certain ability to affect us.”

Over 500,000 people visit annually, and many are surprised to learn two major battles were fought on the same ground 13 months apart. Battle names (1st Bull Run/2nd Bull Run, First Manassas/Second Manassas) are used interchangeably; both battles were Confederate victories but the first battle, on July 21, 1861, was pivotal.

“It was the first major battle of the war. People had a certain innocence [about the war]. A few hundred spectators stopped about five miles away, where they could see the dust kicked up and hear battle sounds very clearly,” Brown says. “They [civilian spectators] got caught up in the rolling retreat [of Union forces] to Washington and realized war was not a summer frolic, [it] was deadly serious.”

Casualties (dead, wounded, missing, captured) were high: 3,000 Union, 2,000 Confederate in the first battle; 15,000 Union and 9,000 Confederate in the Aug. 28, 1862, battle.

Some media outlets report “ghost sightings” at the park’s unfinished railroad, with the lore that Robert E. Lee ordered the construction and that workers were massacred there. In reality, the railroad was a private venture that began in 1850 and was never finished due to cost issues. Brown confirms, “Lee had nothing to do with it. There were no massacres there, although that area did see extensive fighting in the second battle of Manassas.”

Manassas was a main focus of Confederate heritage groups in the 1920s and 1930s. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, who Brown says “faulted the federal government for ignoring Confederate history” regarding Civil War sites, purchased and ran the property as Manassas Confederate Battlefield Park. In 1940 the site became a national battlefield park.

Shirley Plantation, Charles City

Founded in 1613, Shirley is Virginia’s oldest plantation and distinctive: 11 generations of one family continue to own, operate and work Shirley Plantation.

Carved out of Virginia’s frontier, the 10,000-square-foot mansion’s construction began in 1723 and was completed in 1738. Originally the plantation encompassed 4,000 acres. Today there are 800 acres, including a mile of water frontage on the James River, 350 acres devoted to farming and eight brick outbuildings.

“Some of it is my family is just stubborn,” says Randy Carter, part of the 11th generation of Hill-Carter families owning Shirley, about keeping the plantation in family hands. “It was an unspoken rule, to keep the place, cherish it and try to keep it available to the public.”

He adds, “During the Great Depression, [the family] had to sell a painting of George Washington [to survive]; the painting is now in Colonial Williamsburg. Rockefeller wanted to buy the plantation; the family said no, but we’ll sell you the Peel portrait [of Washington] because he [the artist] is not a family member. Back in the 1930s the Peel portrait was sold by Marion Carter Oliver for about $40,000. Today it’s worth about $1.5 million.”

Shirley embraces its resident ghost, “Aunt Pratt” (Martha Hill Gifford), daughter of plantation founder Edward Hill. Her portrait hangs in a bedchamber, facing south toward the family cemetery. As early as 1858, family members noticed whenever the painting was moved from its bedroom spot the frame would begin shaking. Rocking sounds were heard until the portrait was returned to its normal place.

There is also lore regarding Civil War ghosts. Carter says plantation women fed several hundred wounded and dying Union troops during a Union retreat, leading to an order for troop sentries that saved the property from looting.

In October 2014 Shirley began partnering with nearby Berkeley and Edgewood Plantations for reservation-required “Haunting Tales and Tours.” Carter says, “The first one went really well. People like the bundled package. The tour emphasizes ghost stories and mourning rituals.”

For more information:

www.virginia.org/GhostlyHaunts

Haunting Tales, Lexington’s Ghost Tour

ghosttourlexingtonva.com • (540) 464-2250

Bacon’s Castle

465 Bacon’s Castle Trail, Surry, Va.

preservationvirginia.org/visit • (757) 357-5976

Shirley Plantation

501 Shirley Plantation Road, Charles City, Va.

www.shirleyplantation.com • (804) 829-5121

Manassas National Battlefield Park

6511 Sudley Road, Manassas, Va.

www.nps.gov/mana • (703) 361-1339

 

 

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