Andrew Rivett via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Andrew Rivett via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

8 Haunted Places and the Ghost Stories Behind Them

Andrew Rivett via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Andrew Rivett via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

You probably don't live that far from a place ghosts are said to roam. Maybe you don’t think about it until Halloween rolls around, when everyone seems to be ready with a scary story. But some of those ghost sightings may be tied to horrible events from the past—knowing the history of a place sets one up to see and hear things that might otherwise be ignored. And whether or not you believe in ghosts, the stories behind the legends can be seriously disturbing.

1. GIBRALTAR POINT LIGHTHOUSE // TORONTO, ONTARIO

The lighthouse at Gibraltar Point is one of the oldest buildings in Toronto. Originally erected around 1808, it was the scene of a mysterious death in 1815. John Paul Rademuller, sometimes spelled Radan Muller, was the first lighthouse keeper, and supposedly sold beer (possibly bootleg beer) on the side. The story goes that two or three soldiers approached Rademuller for beer, but after some kind of dispute, they hacked him to pieces with an axe, then buried the body parts. Documentation on the crime is sparse and contradictory, and no convictions were ever reached. The lighthouse is no longer in service, but people sometimes report seeing its light on. Some also hear eerie moaning sounds near the site. The sound is said to be the ghost of Rademuller, still waiting for justice.

2. THE GREENBRIER GHOST // GREENBRIER COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA 

Elva Zona Heaster Shue was found dead in 1897. Her husband, Erasmus (also known as Edward) Trout Shue, dressed her for burial before the doctor arrived to determine the cause of death. Erasmus wailed and moaned and would not leave his wife's corpse until she was buried. The doctor gave her a cursory look, and wrote down first that she had died of an "everlasting faint" (he later changed the cause of death to "childbirth"). But Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster, had her suspicions. She testified that Zona's ghost visited her over a period of four nights and described how Erasmus had killed her.

Heaster took her story to local prosecutor John Alfred Preston and convinced him to reopen the case. Based on the visitation, the body was exhumed, and Zona's neck was found to be broken; her windpipe was also crushed. It was enough for a jury to convict Erasmus. He spent the next three years at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, where he died in 1900. Locals hope the ghost of Zona Heaster Shue can now rest in peace, but the ghost of her killer is one of many who supposedly haunt the erstwhile penitentiary.

3. THE WHITE DOE // ROANOKE ISLAND, NORTH CAROLINA

If you were in eastern North Carolina and saw a white deer, would you think of it as a rare animal or would you see it as a ghost? It might depend on whether you know the story of the ghost of Virginia Dare.

Virginia Dare was a real person, a member of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. She was the first English child born in the New World, shortly after her parents settled on Roanoke Island in 1587. Her grandfather, John White, left for England to bring back supplies and reinforcements, but by the time he returned in 1590, the colonists had disappeared. Their fate has remained a mystery for hundreds of years; many have assumed they were either killed by local native groups or moved with them to a more suitable home. Recent evidence points to the colony moving inland.

But all we have left of Virginia Dare are tales. The legend is that Dare grew up among the Croatan tribe and was turned into a white deer by a jealous shaman suitor. Another suitor tried to reverse the spell, but the doe was killed by the arrow of a local hunter. Her ghost is said to appear as a white doe roaming the Outer Banks to this day.

4. THE BELL WITCH // ADAMS, TENNESSEE

John Bell and his family lived on a roughly 300-acre farm near Adams, Tennessee. In 1817, the family began to experience frightening manifestations, ranging from strange noises to children being beaten in their sleep. They later heard the voice of an old woman, singing, quoting scripture, and eventually talking to the family.

The “witch,” who some believe was a deceased neighbor named Kate Batts, hated John Bell and constantly tormented him. When his daughter Betsy became engaged to Joshua Gardner, the witch expressed her disapproval and hounded the couple until Betsy broke off the relationship in 1821. Betsy had reason to be scared. Just a few months before, her father John had died. A vial of poison was found near his body, and the voice of the witch took credit for his death. The voice even supposedly laughed all the way through John Bell’s funeral.

Today you can visit a recreation of the family’s home and a nearby cave, and take part in an expanded Halloween schedule of activities there. The property and the cave are said to be haunted still, as many visitors report strange phenomena.

5. THE MERCER-WILLIAMS HOUSE // SAVANNAH, GEORGIA 

In 1860, construction began on a fine Savannah home for General Hugh W. Mercer. Due to the Civil War, construction wasn’t completed until 1868, by which time it had a different owner. About a century later, in 1969, the house was purchased by antiques dealer Jim Williams—a preservationist who restored quite a few Savannah buildings to their original glory.

Williams hired the much-younger Danny Hansford as an assistant, and the two also had an intimate relationship. On May 2, 1981, Williams shot and killed Hansford. He was tried for the crime four times; the question was whether he had shot Hansford in a premeditated murder or in self-defense. In the fourth trial, he was acquitted. Less than a year later, Williams himself died of pneumonia and heart failure, allegedly falling dead in the exact spot where Hansford died in his home nine years earlier. The killing was the subject of the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the 1997 movie of the same name. The house, which is said to be haunted by the ghosts of both men, is now a museum operated by Williams’s sister.   

6. THE HAUNTED RAILROAD TUNNEL // MOONVILLE, OHIO

Moonville, Ohio, was once a thriving mining town with a population that peaked at about 100 people, but the last residents left in 1947. Nearby is a railroad tunnel that is purported to be haunted by one—or many more—of the people who have died there.

The most famous ghost is a railroad brakeman who had too much to drink and fell from a train in March 1859. His leg was so badly mangled that he supposedly bled to death before it could be amputated. Three other railroad brakemen are said to have died in the area. Several accounts exist of people who see the ghost of a brakeman near the tunnel, swinging a light in an attempt to stop the train.

Engineer Frank Lawhead’s train collided with another train near the tunnel in 1880. Fireman Charles Krick also died in the accident, which was caused by a dispatcher’s mistake. Since then, there have been reports of ghostly figures frightening engineers along the tracks.

Some have seen a ghost described as an older woman. There were three women who died while crossing railroad tracks in the Moonville area—one each in 1873, 1890, and 1892. A 10-year-old girl was killed while crossing a trestle as recently as 1986, the last railroad death in Moonville. Some maintain the female ghost is a woman who died along the tracks in 1905.

Other deaths include several people who hitched a free ride on the outside of a train (which barely fit through the tunnel) and a few who were walking along or even sleeping on the tracks. Railroad workers occasionally see a semi-transparent man being hit, and sometimes they hear screams, but no solid body is hit during those events.

7. MERCY BROWN // EXETER, RHODE ISLAND

Chestnut Hill Baptist Church Cemetery in Exeter, Rhode Island, is reported to be haunted by a vampire named Mercy Lena Brown. She was preceded in death by her mother and sister, victims of tuberculosis, and Mercy would often visit their graves. In January 1892, 19-year-old Mercy herself fell to tuberculosis and was interred with her family members. Her brother Edwin also fell ill with tuberculosis. Soon, townspeople suggested the cause of the family's tragedies was the restless dead. A group of local men dug up the graves of Mercy, her mother, and her sister on March 17, 1892. Only Mercy, who died in January, was free of decomposition. This led villagers to believe she was a vampire. The villagers cut out Mercy's heart, burned it, mixed the ashes with water, and gave the concoction to the ailing Edwin. He nevertheless died a couple of months later. The story of Mercy Brown was an inspiration for elements in several novels, including Bram Stoker's Dracula.

8. NELL CROPSEY // ELIZABETH CITY, NORTH CAROLINA 

In 1901, 19-year-old Nell Cropsey disappeared from her home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Her boyfriend of three years, Jim Wilcox, was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and murder. He was at the Cropsey house that night, and the family said the two had argued.

More than a month later, Cropsey’s body was found in the Pasquotank River. But she didn’t drown—the coroner’s report said the cause of death was head trauma that had occurred before she was dumped in the river. Wilcox was convicted of her murder and sentenced to 30 years, but pardoned in 1918. Wilcox allegedly told the entire story to a newspaper editor in 1932 for a book about the case. But Wilcox committed suicide shortly afterward, and the newspaper editor died in an auto accident just a couple of weeks later. People have seen the ghost of Nell Cropsey in the house ever since, appearing as a pale figure that never speaks. There have also been reports of lights going on and off, doors slamming, and a cold breeze blowing without explanation. The home is still inhabited, and the residents live in relative peace with the ghost. After all, it was her home before it was theirs.

Are ghosts haunting a site near you? Part two of this list is coming next week.

14 Haunting Facts About the Winchester Mystery House

Despite the Winchester Mystery House's cheerful appearance, this massive California mansion's history is edged with tragedy, mystery ... and maybe some ghosts. Naturally, it has inspired a chilling horror movie, Winchester, which opens in theaters today. But before you go to the movie theater, wander through the curious past of one of America's most infamous homes.

1. THE WINCHESTER HOUSE IS NAMED FOR ITS MISTRESS.

Sarah Lockwood Winchester—the wife of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, whose family created the Winchester rifle that was heralded as "the gun that won the west”—designed and oversaw the construction of the sprawling Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion that bears her name. Construction on the 24,000-square-foot home, which is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California, began in 1886.

2. MANY BELIEVE SARAH BUILT WINCHESTER HOUSE OUT OF FEAR.

Overcome with grief in the wake of her husband's death from tuberculosis in 1881, folklore states that Sarah sought out a spiritualist who could commune with the dead. While she was presumably looking for solace or closure, she was instead given a chilling warning.

Through the medium, William told his widow that their tragedies (the couple had only one child, a daughter named Annie, who died at six weeks old) were a result of the blood money the family had made off of the Winchester rifles. He warned that vengeful ghosts would seek her out. In order to protect herself, William said that Sarah must "build a home for [herself] and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon."

Sarah was advised to leave their home in New Haven, Connecticut, behind, and move west, where she was to build a grand home for the spirits. There was just one catch: construction on the house could never stop. "If you continue building, you will live,” the medium warned Sarah. “Stop and you will die."

3. THE HOUSE WAS UNDER CONSTANT CONSTRUCTION FOR 38 YEARS.

Sarah Winchester's bedroom, on the second floor of Winchester House
Sarah Winchester's bedroom

In 1886, Sarah purchased an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California, and began building. She employed a crew of carpenters, who split shifts so construction could go on day and night, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 38 years. The work only stopped on September 5, 1922, because the octogenarian mastermind behind the home died of heart failure in her sleep. It's said that upon hearing the news of Sarah's death, the carpenters quit so abruptly they left half-hammered nails protruding from walls.

4. THE HOUSE IS FULL OF ARCHITECTURAL ODDITIES.

Sarah issued many bizarre demands to her builders, including the building of trap doors, secret passages, a skylight in the floor, spider web windows, and staircases that led to nowhere. There are also doors that open to blank walls, and a dangerous door on the second floor that opens out into nothing—save for an alarming drop to the yard far below.

5. AN EARTHQUAKE ONCE RATTLED THE HOUSE AND TRAPPED SARAH.

In 1906, the great San Francisco Earthquake caused three floors of the then seven-story house to cave in. A 1900 postcard of the place shows a tower that was later toppled by the natural disaster. That tower—plus several other rooms destroyed in the disaster—were never rebuilt, but cordoned off. As for Sarah, she was safe but stuck in the Daisy Bedroom, named for the floral motif in its windows. She had to be dug out by her staff, as its entrance was blocked off by rubble.

6. THE HOUSE WAS DESIGNED LIKE A LABYRINTH.

Some say the labyrinth layout was meant to confuse the ghosts, allowing Sarah some peace and a means to escape them. She was the sole architect of this extraordinary home, and no master building plan has ever been uncovered. So Sarah may be the only person who ever truly knew all of its secrets. When movers were called in after her death, one lamented its labyrinthine design that includes many winding hallways. One mover told American Weekly the Winchester House was a place "where downstairs leads neither to the cellar nor upstairs to the roof."

7. SOME SAY THE SYMBOLS IN THE HOUSE POINT NOT TO GHOSTS, BUT FRANCIS BACON.

An alternate theory on the Winchester House's perplexing design declares that Sarah was creating a puzzle full of encryptions inspired by the work of English philosopher Francis Bacon. There's speculation that clues to the house's true meaning are hidden in the ballroom, the Shakespeare windows, and the iron gates. This theory suggests that Sarah was a member of a mystic society like the Rosicrucians, or a secret society like the Freemasons—or possibly both.

8. THERE ARE OTHER THEORIES, INCLUDING THAT SARAH WAS "CRAZY."

Others speculate Sarah was coping with her grief with a flurry of activity, or that she was simply "crazy." However, Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehme paints a happier picture, imagining that the continual renovations reminded Sarah of the good times when she and William built their New Haven home together.

"I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," Boehme told the Los Angeles Times. She also suspects that Sarah was just an ardent—albeit eccentric—philanthropist who used her family fortune to purposefully employ the San Jose community. "She had a social conscience and she did try to give back," Boehme offered, noting the hospital Sarah built in her husband's name. "This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all."

9. ONCE IN WINCHESTER HOUSE, SARAH WAS RECLUSIVE, BUT NOT ALONE.

There is only one known photo of the widow Winchester, which was taken surreptitiously. Though she was reclusive, she was never alone. She had 18 servants, 18 gardeners, and the ever-present construction team working on the grounds. Every morning, Sarah met with the foreman to discuss the always-evolving building plans. And it's said that each night, she visited the Séance Room to speak with the spirits, who weighed in on plans for the house's unusual design.

10. THE HOUSE WAS AS OPULENT AS IT WAS ODD.

The home boasts 950 doors, 10,000 windows, 40 stairways, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, six kitchens, plus a trio of elevators, and once-groundbreaking elements like wool insulation, carbide gaslights, electricity, and an indoor shower, complete with a sewage drainage system.

11. NO ONE IS SURE HOW MANY ROOMS THE HOUSE HELD.

Following Sarah's death, Winchester House was converted into a tourist attraction. But when trying to get a room count, the new owners kept coming up with different numbers. After five years of renovations, they estimated the number of rooms to be about 160, which is the number most often quoted today.

12. SARAH HAD AN OBSESSION WITH THE NUMBER 13.

Among the secrets Sarah took to her grave was why she insisted that so many things relate to the number 13. The Winchester House has many 13-paned windows and 13-paneled ceilings, as well as 13-step stairways. Even her will had 13 parts, and she signed it 13 times. But the pièce de résistance might be the house's 13th bathroom, which contains 13 windows of its own.

13. IT’S A NATIONAL LANDMARK.

The Winchester Mystery House earned landmark status on August 7, 1974. The fascinating mansion is still owned by the family (families?) who purchased it from the Winchester estate in 1922 for $150,000—however, their identity is another Winchester House mystery. But thanks to them, tourists can now explore 110 of the 160-some rooms Sarah dreamed up. The Winchester Mystery House even boasts special tours on Halloween and Fridays the 13th.

14. IT’S REGULARLY CITED AS ONE OF THE MOST HAUNTED PLACES IN AMERICA.

To this day, Winchester House is a destination for believers who hope to have a paranormal encounter of their own. A popular spot for such activity is the corridors of the third floor, where tour guides have claimed to hear footsteps and disembodied voices whisper their names.

In a Reddit AMA, a Winchester House tour guide confirmed that the house’s third floor—only a portion of which is accessible during house tours—is definitely the spookiest part of the house, “because that's where the servants lived, so there's been a lot of reported activity there. Also, when you are on that floor you can never really hear any of the other tours, so you feel pretty isolated.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
6 Historical Methods for Contacting the Dead (and Their Drawbacks)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

'Tis the season for getting in touch with the spirit realm. (This applies no matter what month we're in right now; 'tis always high time to get your séance on.) But there are several different ways you can go about it. Do you Ouija? Should you go wandering around a haunted house? No, you should probably pick up the psychic telephone.

Lapham's Quarterly helpfully charted out some of historical ways you could (supposedly) go about contacting the dead, from Chinese Fuji writing—a method that's kind of like a Ouija board, but using a stylus to make letters in sand instead of a board—to past-life regression via hypnosis. The chart lays out how each ghost-whispering concept works, and its theoretical drawbacks. Because there are always drawbacks.

Transfiguration, for instance, lets you see a spirit's face through the body of a medium, but that's a whole lot of hard work for your medium. You can listen for electronic voice phenomena via a recorder, but you have to buy the recorder first. F. R. Melton's 1921 invention, the balloon-powered psychic telephone, was a great option—except when his son George wasn't around to work it. And past-life regression, as you might imagine, holds “potential for new levels of self-hatred." No one wants to find out that their past self was a total jerk.

There are plenty of scientific and cultural explanations for seeing ghosts that don't involve the actual spirits of the dead returning to the Earthly plane, but if you're into the history of the occult, this is a great primer on spirit-conjuring traditions.

[h/t Lapham's Quarterly]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios