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Andrew Rivett via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

8 Haunted Places and the Ghost Stories Behind Them

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.   


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.


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.


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.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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Bess Lovejoy
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.


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