Friday, August 26, 2016


Strange Tales of Pennsylvania Folk Magic & Murder

Strange things were afoot in Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century. A brutal murder in 1928 began a “hex scare” in the region, turning the authorities and the general public against what had always been seen as a common custom – the folk magic practice of “powwowing.” Prior to the bloody crime, the belief in and practice of folk magic was seen as nothing more than a quaint holdover from less sophisticated times. After the murder, though, it became a threat. Practitioners were no longer seen as backward or ignorant; now they were dangerous. The folk medicine that had been used for centuries was now a false treatment that kept people from getting the real medical care they needed. There was little room for superstition and hex doctors in the modern world. To city folk, it seemed impossible to believe that anyone still believed in magic in the modern world of the 1920s, but among the back roads, farms, and hollows of rural Pennsylvania, magic was alive and well.

Pennsylvania hex magic dated back to the earliest days of the colony, linked largely to the Pennsylvania German (or Dutch, as they are often called) immigrants and their descendants. The German settlers held strongly to elements of their culture, and blended customs of the Old and the New World to form a distinct identity. Even their language became a unique dialect. Though there were a great many different religious denominations among the German settlers, there was a common tradition of folk magic that was practiced by all, with the exception of the “Plain Dutch,” such as the Amish, who rejected the practice. For large numbers of these Germans, the belief in folk magic was entwined with their Christian beliefs.

At one end of the folk magic scale was “powwowing,” which had nothing to do with the Native American ceremonial practice of the same name. Powwowers performed magical-religious folk healing and drew their healing power from God. Generally, Powwowers provided cures and relief from illnesses, protection from evil, and the removal of hexes and curses. They also located lost objects, animals and people, foretold the future, and provided good luck charms. To carry out their practices, they used charms, amulets, incantations, prayers, and rituals. It was generally believed that anyone could powwow, but members of certain families were especially adept at it. These families passed the traditions down from generation to generation.

At the other end of the scale was “hexerei” or witchcraft. Practitioners of black magic drew their power from the Devil or other ungodly sources. The witch harassed neighbors and committed criminal acts with supernatural powers. Sometimes witches were called hex doctors. The term “hex doctor” can be confusing because it can imply many things. At times, the term was applied to powwowers who were also knowledgeable in the ways of hexerei and were skilled at battling witches and removing curses. These hex doctors fell into a sort of gray area between a witch and a powwower. Sometimes they cast hexes for a price or out of revenge. It was not uncommon for someone to seek out one hex doctor to remove the curse of another. For many Pennsylvania Dutch, and certainly for outsiders, powwowers and witches could not easily be placed into categories. There were many who labeled the use of any folk magic as witchcraft that was strictly forbidden by their religious beliefs.

Powwowers and hex doctors often worked against one another, with the common person caught in the middle. It was in this setting that folk magic flourished for more than two centuries.

Witches targeted their victims in many ways. Since hexerei was based around a farming society, many of the witch’s attacks were directed at animals and crops. They were often blamed when cows did not produce milk, when seemingly healthy animals mysteriously died, or when crops failed. When witches went after humans, they used a variety of torments. They were commonly suspected of causing illnesses, especially conditions that lingered and caused a person to waste away over time. A witch could also use spells to launch invisible attacks, causing seizures or fits, the sensation of being pricked or stabbed, or the feeling of being choked or strangled. Witches could also cause a run of bad luck for any individual that they attacked. The witch could even appear in the form of an animal, like a black cat, so that they could move about undetected and harass their victims. Needless to say, just about any type of misfortune could be blamed on a witch.

In addition to spoken words, the written word was also used for magic. Written amulets and charms were common, and many Pennsylvania Germans carried them on their person. Amulets usually included a written version of a protective charm and perhaps verses from the Bible. The paper they were written on was usually folded into triangles. If not carried personally, such amulets might be hung in a house or barn.

Ritualized objects were also used. These objects were actually mundane items, but they often acquired a special purpose. Sometimes the objects would be used as a surrogate for the afflicted or for the disease itself. Much of German folk magic depends on the principles of contagion and transference. Basically, the idea is that the evil or the disease is contagious, and can be transferred away from the afflicted person and into an object. The object could then be disposed of in a prescribed manner to keep the contagion from spreading. Traditionally, this kind of magic is known as sympathetic magic – and it often worked, as long as the person afflicted truly believed that it would.

Since the powwowers and hex doctors depended on charms, formulas, and incantations that were passed down through their families, they often collected them into “recipe” books, which contained the collective knowledge of a family line of powwowers. By the middle 1800s, these homemade volumes were joined by published volumes that came into common usage. Folk healers had always invoked and used the Bible in their magic, but they increasingly supplemented their knowledge with sources published by other powwowers.

The most famous and widely read of these books was compiled by a powwower named John George Hohman in 1819. Hohman was a German immigrant who settled on a farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania. As a side business, he published broadsides and books about the occult and medicine aimed at the local German population. In time, he published the most widely read grimoire (book of magic) in America. The compilation of spells, charms, prayers, remedies and folk medicine was called Der lang verborgene Freund, or The Long Lost Friend. It was the first book of powwow magic to achieve wide circulation. It has been in print in either German or English continuously since 1820.

Aside from being a collection of charms and recipes, the book itself became a talisman. In what was an example of a resoundingly successful early marketing ploy, buyers of the book were told they would be protected from harm merely by carrying it. In the front of each edition was an inscription that read: “Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all enemies, visible and invisible; and whoever has this book with him cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drown in any water, nor burn up in any fire, not can any unjust sentence be passed upon him. So help me. +++”

The bulk of the book consisted of remedies and charms to cure common illnesses, fevers, burns, toothaches and other ailments. It also contained recipes for beer and molasses and even had a charm for catching fish. Many of the charms in the book were meant to provide protection from physical harm from weapons, fire, witches, and thieves. It also provided instructions on how to keep animals in a certain location, heal livestock and cattle, and even cure rabid animals. The Long Lost Friend soon became the primary reference for anyone attempting to understand the practice of powwow, and it gained a place of honor on almost every powwower’s and hex doctor’s shelf.

As an opposite number to the helpful charms of The Long Lost Friend was the far more dangerous book of witchcraft, The Sixth & Seventh Book of Moses. Drawn from the tradition of European grimoires and ceremonial magic, The Sixth & Seventh Book of Moses were purported to have been written by Moses himself, and allegedly contain secret knowledge that could not be included in the Bible. Described as two separate books, they are almost always published together in one volume, first appearing in Pennsylvania in 1849. The book soon gained an evil reputation among the German population and those who were familiar with its lore. It was associated with hexing because the text provided instructions on how to conjure and control spirits and demons. It also contained spells and incantations that were beneficial to the user, as well as spells that would duplicate some of the biblical plagues of Egypt, turn a staff into a serpent, and other miraculous happenings. Much of the volume is made up of reproduced symbols that were allegedly copied from old woodcuts. Some copies were printed, at least partially, with red ink. A few hand-copied editions were alleged to exist that had been written in blood.

Though hex doctors frequently acquired the book to enhance their reputations, merely owning the volume was believed to be dangerous, and if a hex doctor actually read it – that could be fatal. Reading the book was believed to attract the attention of the Devil or at the very least, cause the reader to become so obsessed with the book that they could do nothing but read it. The only way to break the obsession – should such a thing occur – was to read the entire book in reverse, starting at the end and working back to the beginning.

To modern readers, all of the stories and claims of spells, hexes, magic books, and incantations may sound rather silly, but rest assured, they were all common traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It might sound hard for us to believe today, but people at that time and place readily accepted such ideas. And that turned out to be the most crucial point of the “Rehmeyer” Hex Murder -- those involved truly believed in magic. They believed that it worked and could ruin their lives.

And they would do anything to try and stop that from happening.

The “Hex Murder,” the strange killing of Nelson Rehmeyer, captivated the people of the region and sold newspapers across the country. The story began with a young powwower named John Blymire, who was born in 1895 and learned the art of German folk magic at a young age. His family had been powwowers for at least three generations and probably longer. Although he did poorly in school, Blymire established a good reputation as a healer in York County. Starting at the age of seven, he began providing healing remedies and cures. Despite his early success, though, he began to believe that there was a shadow hanging over him.

One day, as he was leaving the cigar factory where he worked, an apparently rabid dog began running toward some of his fellow workers. Blymire approached the dog and spoke some words of a spell. The dog’s mouth allegedly stopped foaming and the animal became subdued. Blymire patted its head and the animal followed him excitedly for several blocks. The other workers were amazed at the dog’s apparent cure. But soon after, Blymire’s luck began to turn bad. He soon became ill and he started to believe that another practitioner of folk magic had placed a hex on him, possibly out of jealousy. He soon found himself unable to eat, sleep, or work his powwow magic. Blymire used several of his own magical charms to try and remove the hex, but he was unsuccessful. It was difficult to remove a hex if one did not know the identity of the witch who placed it.

John Blymire

Then one night, as he lay in his bed trying to sleep, the answer came to him. Just as the clock struck midnight, an owl outside hooted seven times. It was then that the idea came to Blymire that he had been hexed by the spirit of his great-grandfather Jacob, who had been a powwower and the seventh son of a seventh son. Since he could not fight back against a spirit, he decided that he would move away from his ancestral home and the cemetery where his great-grandfather was buried, hopefully breaking the spell. It seemed to work, and soon Blymire’s luck began to improve – at least for a time.

In addition to his work as a folk healer, Blymire performed a variety of odd jobs. He soon met a young woman named Lily and they married. The couple had two children, but both died in infancy. The youngest only lived for three days. These tragic occurrences led Blymire to once again believe that he had been hexed. Unable to determine the source of the new hex, he turned to other powwowers for help. One of them was a man named Andrew Lenhart, who convinced him that the source of the hex was someone that he knew well.

Blymire became suspicious of everyone around him, even his wife. Lily had reason to fear for her safety because, in 1922, one of Lenhart’s other clients murdered her husband after receiving similar information. The client, Sallie Jane Heagy, shot her husband, Irving, in bed after Lenhart was hired to “drive the witches” from her home. Sallie did not believe the treatment worked and was in terrible physical pain. She finally snapped one day, killed her husband, and later committed suicide in jail.

After consulting lawyers, Lily was able to obtain a judge’s order to have Blymire committed to an insane asylum. The doctors determined that he was obsessed with hexes and magic and needed to go to the asylum for treatment. Soon after, Lily filed for divorce and it was granted. Blymire didn’t remain locked up for long. Forty-eight days after he was committed, he simply walked out the door one day and vanished. No one even bothered to look for him.

Blymire went back to work at the cigar factory in 1928. While he was there, he met two other people who also believed that they were suffering because of someone who had hexed them. One of them, 14-year-old John Curry, was trapped in an abusive household and felt that a malevolent force was causing the trouble at home. Another man who believed he had been hexed was a farmer named Milton Hess. Hess and his wife, Alice, had been successful and prosperous until 1926, when a series of unfortunate events began at their farm. Crops failed, cows stopped producing milk, and they lost a large amount of money. The entire family believed that they had been hexed by someone, but they didn’t know who it could be. The talk of hexes reinforced Blymire’s own belief in spells and he became terrified by the idea that someone was out to get him. He began to consult other powwowers again, attempting to track down the source of the lingering hex.

Blymire turned to a well-known powwower in the region named Nellie Noll, the so-called “River Witch of Marietta.” The elderly woman identified the source of Blymire’s hex as a member of the Rehmeyer family. When Blymire asked which of them had cursed him, she told him to hold out his hand. She placed a dollar bill on his palm and then removed it. When Blymire looked at his hand, an image appeared. It was the face of Nelson Rehmeyer, an old powwower whom Noll referred to as the “Witch of Rehmeyer’s Hollow.” Blymire had known Rehmeyer, a distant relative, since he was a small child. When Blymire had been five years old, he became seriously ill. His father and grandfather, unable to cure him, took the child to Rehmeyer, who healed him.

Unable to understand why Rehmeyer wished him harm, Blymire went to see Noll again. She confirmed that it was Rehmeyer who had hexed him, and added that he was also responsible for the curses on John Curry and Milton and Alice Hess. Blymire told the other two men what he had learned, and also revealed a solution for ending all of the hexes. Noll had stated that the men needed to take Rehmeyer’s copy of The Long Lost Friend and a lock of his hair and bury them six feet underground.

Blymire and Curry decided to go together to Rehmeyer’s Hollow and obtain the needed items. On November 26, they were driven by Hess’ oldest son, Clayton, to the Hollow. They stopped at the home of Rehmeyer’s former wife, Alice, who said that Nelson could be found at his own home, which was about a mile down the road (see photo at top of the story). The men went to Rehmeyer’s door, and Blymire asked to speak with him for a few minutes. He later said that the older man was much larger and “meaner-looking” than Blymire remembered. They went into the parlor, and Blymire asked him questions about The Long Lost Friend and other elements of powwowing – never mentioning, of course, the true reason why he and Curry had come. After talking for a while, the men realized that it was late, and Rehmeyer offered to let them sleep downstairs. They agreed and while Rehmeyer slept, they looked for his copy of the spell book, but were unable to find it. They debated on whether or not to try and obtain a lock of his hair, but finally decided that Rehmeyer was too big for them to hold down while they cut his hair. The pair left in the morning after agreeing that they needed more help.
Nelson Rehmeyer, the man that Blymire believed had “hexed” him.

Blymire told Milton Hess that he needed a member of his family to help them subdue Rehmeyer. Hess and his wife offered their 18-year-old son, Wilbert, as an assistant. The next evening, November 27, the three of them arrived at Rehmeyer’s house. He let them in and they went into the front room. Rehmeyer never got the chance to wonder why they had come back for another visit. When his back was turned, the men tackled him to the floor and attempted to tie his legs with a rope they had brought with them. The exact details of what happened next varied slightly depending on which man told the story, but during the struggle, Rehmeyer was beaten and strangled to death. It’s possible that Blymire intended to kill Rehmeyer once he reached the house that evening, but if he did, he did not reveal his plans to the other two men.

When they realized that Rehmeyer was dead, they took all of the money in the house, hoping to make it look like a robbery. They left behind the book and the lock of the old man’s hair. He was dead – the hex had been lifted, they thought.

But if that was true, Blymire’s luck certainly didn’t improve.

The three men doused the body with kerosene and lit it on fire, hoping the flames would spread throughout the house and burn it down. When they left, Rehmeyer’s body was engulfed in flames, but somehow, the fire mysteriously went out. Some believe that perhaps the hex doctor was not yet dead when he was set on fire and that he might have moved enough to extinguish the flames, but had been burned too badly to survive. Regardless of what happened, evidence of the crime was left behind.

Two days later, a neighbor discovered Rehmeyer’s body. The shocking crime stunned the community, but the terror and excitement that followed was nothing compared to the story that soon emerged. Alice Rehmeyer informed the police of Blymire and Curry’s visit, and they were soon picked up as suspects. As details of the events emerged, newspapers across the country covered the story of the “York Witchcraft Murder” with great interest. Every bizarre detail of Blymire’s hex-obsessed life was described for the public. When the men went to trial, there were daily reports of the proceedings. Hess received 10 years in prison, but Blymire and Curry ended up receiving life sentences for the murder. Both were eventually paroled and lived uneventful lives. Curry, the youngest, served in the military during World War II and became a talented artist.

The “Hex Murder” in York County received wide coverage, and while the local authorities did not launch any official assault on folk magic in the area, the press and authorities in other parts of the state eventually would. The sensationalistic newspaper coverage of the case brought intense scrutiny to folk practices, and they were labeled a form of witchcraft. The press maligned all practitioners of powwowing, even if they only practiced the most benign healing services. Lurid descriptions of magic and strange beliefs filled the newspapers and shocked Americans who were unaware that such things were still taking place in the twentieth century.

Law enforcement officials, doctors, and educators began working together to put an end to what they considered superstitious and dangerous practices. Many of them began attributing supernatural motivations to any strange new cases that they encountered. During the Rehmeyer murder trial, York County Coroner L.V. Zach claimed that the deaths of five children in the previous two years had been caused by powwowers. He said that the children’s parents took them to folk healers when they were sick, instead of real doctors and, as a result, they died. He did admit there had been no formal investigations of these cases, but that they were a matter of common knowledge. The New York Times featured the coroner’s (questionable) claims in an article under a dramatic headline that read, “Death of 5 Babies Laid to Witch Cult.” The newspaper quoted unnamed officials of the York County Medical Society, who said that the coroner’s count of deaths attributed to witchcraft was much too low.

Soon, any death that was even vaguely connected to a powwower – or rumored to have a connection – was labeled a “hex murder.” In March 1929, the body of Verna Delp, 21, was discovered in the woods at Catasuqua, near Allentown. On her body were three pieces of paper with magical charms written on them, supposedly to protect from murder and theft. A coroner’s report identified three poisons in her body, and it appeared that she had taken them voluntarily. The young woman’s adoptive father, August Derhammer, revealed to the police that he had recently learned that Verna was taking treatments from a powwower and that she had been planning to visit him on the day that she died. The powwower was identified as a man named Charles T. Belles, and he was arrested thanks to the fact that the police were sure they had another hex murder on their hands. At first, Belles denied treating Verna, but later admitted that he was treating her for eczema. He claimed to only be a faith healer, not a hex doctor. The authorities didn’t believe him, and even though they could find no evidence to link him to the crime, continued to hold him in jail. As the investigation continued, it was discovered that Verna was pregnant and she had not seen her boyfriend, a truck driver named Masters, for several months. She had not yet told her family of the situation and was possibly looking for a way to end the pregnancy. Even after this new information came to light, the police still believed that Belles was partially responsible for her death. The obsession with hexes and powwow distracted the police from other possibilities in the case, including a botched abortion attempt, suicide or murder by someone other than Belles. By April, they still had no evidence that Belles was involved with the murder, but he was charged anyway. He finally received a hearing in mid-April after lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus. He was released on $10,000 bail, and charges were eventually dropped. The murder of Verna Delp was never solved.

The press jumped on another case of “murder by powwow” in January 1930. Mrs. Harry McDonald, 34, a housewife from Reading, died after receiving severe burns in her home. She had apparently been given some sort of ointment from a hex doctor with instructions to rub it on her skin. At some point in the night, her body went up in flames when she got too close to her stove. She was seriously injured, and when her husband, who worked the night shift, found her in the morning, she was on the verge of death and could not be saved. The woman’s brother told reporters that he believed the lotion she was using was flammable and caught fire, killing his sister. He had no evidence of this, but the press latched onto this theory and kept the story alive with “occult” connections for weeks.

Another “hex panic” murder occurred on January 20, 1932, when the body of a Philadelphia man named Norman Bechtel, 31, was discovered in Germantown under a tree on a temporarily vacant estate. The accountant and Mennonite Church worker had nine stab wounds in and around his heart. Some of the wounds appeared to form the shape of a circle, and were delivered with such force that they not only penetrated his suit and overcoat, but his eyeglass case in his pocket, as well. A crescent-shaped cut was made on each side of his forehead and a vertical slash ran from his hairline to his nose. Two additional cuts ran off the vertical slash in the direction of the crescent cuts. All of Bechtel’s valuables had been taken and his car was later discovered six miles away. From the bloodstains in the automobile, it was clear that Bechtel had known his attacker well enough to let him or her into his car. The case gave all the appearances of a robbery gone bad – but then there were those pesky facial cuts, which detectives surmised might have special occult significance. When it was learned that Bechtel had grown up on a farm near Boyertown, where powwow was common, the police immediately started searching for evidence of another hex murder. Captain Harry Heanly, the chief investigator, had the victim’s apartment searched for any possible connection with folk magic, but all they found were Mennonite books and pamphlets. After following a few more leads, the police still had no answers, so the press began calling the “mystery” a “hex murder.”

Then in April 1937, William Jordan, 36, confessed that he and four others had killed Bechtel, who they had been attempting to blackmail. Most of the details of Jordan’s confession were not publicly released, as Bechtel had been involved in “several love affairs” and had a large life insurance policy. Needless to say, the case had nothing to do with magic.

If these cases had been the only ones tied to powwow, it’s likely that the hex scare would have died out sooner and the public would have lost interest. That was not mean to be, though, for another actual hex murder occurred in 1934, which sealed the fate of folk magic in the state for decades to come.

The last true hex murder in Pennsylvania occurred in Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, on Saturday, March 17, 1934. A shotgun blast ended the life of Mrs. Susan Mummey, 63, as it tore through her living room window while she was standing next to her adopted daughter. Mummey was attending to the injured foot of her boarder, Jacob Rice, who was seated in front of her. The oil lamp that her daughter was holding shattered as the shot tore through the window. Mummey was killed and the other two took cover, not knowing if more shots would follow. They waited all night in fear, thinking that an assassin was lurking outside. Finally, as morning approached, Rice decided to make the two-and-a-half-mile trip to Ringtown to report the crime.

Initially, the police thought the murder was the result of some backwoods feud that turned violent. But soon the case took a bizarre turn when Albert Shinsky, 24, confessed to the killing. He claimed that the killing had been self-defense, and that Mummey had placed a hex on him seven years earlier when he was working in a field across from the Mummey farm. There had been a dispute about the property lines and one day, Mrs. Mummey came over the fence and stared at him for a long time, he said. He claimed that he then felt cold perspiration come over him and his arms went limp. From that point on, he was unable to work – but that was just the beginning of the torture.

Shinsky claimed that whenever he saw a sharp object, it would change into the shape of a black cat with flaming eyes from which he could not look away. The cat also appeared to him sometimes when he was in bed at night. It would creep slowly across the room and jump onto the bed. The appearance of the cat made him so cold, he claimed, that he had to get up and run around the room in order to get warm again. He sought help from several powwowers, but nothing worked. His family thought that he was lying and was just too lazy to work, but Shinsky seemed to genuinely believe that he was hexed. Eventually, when he could take no more of the supernatural harassment, he killed Mummey. He told the police that the minute she died, he felt the curse lift from his shoulders.

Prosecutors wanted to give Shinsky the death penalty for the murder, and the press once again emphasized the danger of the strange beliefs and practice of folk magic. Over objections from the police and the prosecutor’s office, a commission of doctors ruled that Shinsky was insane, and he was sent to Fairview State Hospital. He remained in mental institutions for most of the rest of his life.

The case seemed to confirm in the public eye that the belief in witchcraft was some sort of threat to society. Practitioners of powwow still had a few defenders, though, and they retained plenty of clients, but the tide of public opinion had turned against them.

Thanks to the two murder cases – and the many suspected cases that were inflated by the newspapers – Pennsylvania’s school system declared war on the belief in hexes, especially in the rural areas where it seemed most prevalent. It was hoped that within several years, a new focus of modern medicine and science could erase the superstitions that seemed to plague the countryside. State authorities also launched a campaign against powwowers and hex doctors directly, arresting and prosecuting them for practicing medicine without a license. Combined with the sensational stories in the media, and the assault on folk magic in general, many of the remaining powwowers went underground. Except for the few who retained public storefronts, most of those who continued to practice avoided the public spotlight and downplayed their work to non-believers. They continued to provide services, however, to those who sought them out. As time went on, fewer members of the younger generations showed interest in learning about the old ways of healing and hexes, but the practice refused to die out completely. Many modern healers still exist today, and while they may not be linked to any kind of witchcraft, German folk magic remains alive and well – although believers in the craft today seem far less likely to be driven to murder.

Thursday, August 25, 2016



When it comes to the many haunts of New Orleans, ghost enthusiasts are quick to point to the infamous LaLaurie Mansion as the French Quarter’s most notorious haunted spot. But, as it is with so many lesser-known haunted houses across the country, there are other places in the Crescent City that have tales that are just as sinister – and spirits that are just as restless.

The Gardette-Le Prete Mansion, which has been dubbed the “Sultan’s Palace” over the years, is one of the French Quarter’s most imposing buildings and has long had a leading role among the city’s bloodiest mysteries and legends. It earned its horrific reputation as the scene of violent bloodshed, rape, and murder – tragedies that still linger behind as a haunting. 

A dentist named Dr. Joseph Coulon Gardette originally constructed the mansion at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine Street in the Vieux Carre. In 1825, it was the tallest house in the French Quarter, with basements that were further off the ground and ceilings that were higher than in any other private residence in the city. Four years after its completion, the house was sold to a wealthy Creole man named Jean Baptiste Le Prete. He made the house even more extravagant by adding the cast-iron grillwork to the balconies, which has become the mansion’s most distinguishing feature. With its top floor ballroom and spacious galleries, the house came to be regarded as one of the most luxurious mansions in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, it was the center of Creole culture in the French Quarter of the middle 1800s. 

Unfortunately, the wealth and power of many of the Creole families started to decline in the second half of the century, leading many to scandal and ruin. Le Prete was one of those who lost much of his fortune and he was forced to rent out his wonderful home in 1878.

His tenant was a mysterious Turk who claimed to be a deposed Sultan of some distant land. A short time before, a vessel of war had arrived in the New Orleans harbor at night. Men came and went from the ship on official business and finally, a wealthy Oriental man, dressed in a regal costume, came ashore and was received with great respect by city officials. Le Prete was called into a private conference and was asked if his property might be available for lease. He agreed to the generous terms offered, not realizing the danger he was bringing to the mansion.

According to what he could learn, the “Sultan” was a deposed ruler from a distant Asian country. It seemed that he had fled the land with his brother’s favorite wife. He had hidden away in Europe for a time and then had sailed for New Orleans. He had brought with him his entire entourage, including armed guards and a harem of women and young boys. They were of all ages and descriptions and rumors swirled about the Sultan’s unseemly desires. 

Le Prete had to take his wife and children, along with all of their belongings, and vacate the house completely. They went to live on their plantation while the Sultan went about transforming the house into an eastern pleasure palace. The Turk had transported with him a fortune in gold and established a line of credit at all of the banks. He used his wealth to begin work on the mansion. Soon, the floors were covered with carpets from Persia, soft couches were embroidered with colorful patterns, cushions were piled high in the corners, and carefully carved furniture, chairs, and chests were picked up from the docks. Soon, the move was complete and candles were lighted and braziers were heated to warms the rooms. The smell of heavy incense filled the air and passersby could hear the laughter of the women and their soft voices as they walked in the courtyard each day. Their foreign tongues tantalized the neighborhood men, as did the rustle of their rare silk garments.

And yet no one ever saw these beautiful women. Complete privacy was maintained at all times. The doors and windows were covered and blocked, the gated front portal was never opened and men patrolled the grounds with curved daggers in their belts. The iron gates around the property were chained and locked and the house became a virtual fortress.

Neighbors began to talk, their curiosity aroused by the strange and forbidding changes to the house. A few weeks before, the place had been open and filled with light but now was dark and menacing. They would not have much time to ponder these changes, though, for terrible and bloody events were soon to take place. 

A few months passed and one night, a terrible storm crashed over the city. Under the cover of darkness, an unfamiliar ship with a strange, crescent banner sailed into the harbor. In the morning, it was gone and it had taken the storm with it.

That morning, neighbors passing by the mansion noticed that trickles of blood were running out from under the iron gates. The authorities were summoned but could raise no one, so they forced open the doors and went inside. They found the gate to the courtyard standing wide open on its hinges and muddy footprints leading in and out of the house.  The people from the neighborhood soon found the first indication of the horror that awaited them in the bodies of a few servants had been slashed with swords and left for dead. They cautiously entered the house and found absolute carnage.

At some point in the night, a massacre had taken place. Blood splattered the floors and walls, headless bodies and amputated limbs were scattered about, and all of them had been butchered by sword or ax. No room was without a horrific scene. The bodies and limbs were scattered about, mutilated and burned in such a way that it was impossible to tell which body part belonged to what person. No exact count of the dead was ever determined.

And the horror didn't stop with murder. The beautiful harem girls, the Arab boys, the Sultan’s children and even the guards, were raped and subjected to vile sexual assaults. The scandal was so horrendous that the details of that night have still not been chronicled completely to this day.

The Sultan's mutilated body was found in the garden, where he had been buried alive. In his struggle to free himself from his earthen prison, he managed to partially tear himself from the grave, but it was not enough. He had choked to death on mouthfuls of pungent earth. Over his hasty grave, a marble tablet was placed, bearing an inscription in Arabic. It read: “The justice of heaven is satisfied, and the date tree shall grow on the traitor’s tomb.” It is said that a tall tree did indeed grow on this spot and was known locally as “the tree of death.”

While the tree has long ago perished, the legends of the house remain. The identity of the murderers was never discovered. Some say they were the members of some pirate's crew who had business with the mysterious Sultan and some say the crimes were the work of the Turk's own brother, seeking revenge for the theft of his wife and of the family wealth. 

No one will ever know for sure that night, but what soon became clear was that the Le Prete mansion was now haunted. For years after, the mansion rapidly declined and was almost a slum dwelling because the owners did little to maintain the place. It was rented out as apartments for a time during the great influx of Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. During this period of its worst decay, an Italian woman who lived there made a living washing clothes, which she then hung out to dry on the top gallery. One day, she fell over the ironwork to the pavement below and was instantly killed. She most likely leaned back too far while hanging the clothes on the line but other tenants in the building blamed the spirits for her death. She was pushed, they claimed.

In 1949, the building housed the New Orleans Academy of Art for a brief time but the whispers of ghosts and hauntings never really stopped. The stories said that strange sounds could often be heard there at night, like the soft piping of Oriental flutes and the pad of footsteps on the stairs. It was also believed that the faces of the women in the Sultan’s harem could sometimes be seen peering out of windows on the upper floors. Screams, moans and frantic running sounds were also commonly reported.

By the 1950s, the house was once again used as an apartment building. It was divided into nine units, several of which were two-storied. And still, the stories of ghosts continued. 

In a newspaper interview, one tenant of the house stated that she had been startled numerous times by a man in a garish Oriental costume. The tenant, Virgie “Gypsy” Posten, rented the downstairs front apartment. The place was rundown at the time but it was all that she could afford. “I didn’t know about the legend, or even that the place was supposed to be haunted,” recalled Posten, who later became a successful dancer, choreographer, and dance therapist with countless appearances all over the United States and abroad to her credit. “I was just starting out in my career and the cheap rent appealed to me.”

She soon learned that strange things were occurring in the building. One day, a man in garish Oriental robes suddenly appeared in her apartment. She vividly recalled the incident: “My two-room apartment had only one door, which opened into the main hall only a few yards from the foot of the enormous central staircase that wound its way up to the floors above. I always kept it locked, and even if whoever it was had had a key, I think I would have at least heard it turning in the lock. Yet there was nothing. Only silence. One minute he was there…the next he was gone! He didn’t seem hostile. He’d just stand there and look at me, but it was terribly eerie and nerve-wracking!”

Posten saw the man a second time a short time later. She woke up and he was standing at the end of her bed. “There was no sign of him when I turned on the lights and got up to check, but I abandoned everything there the next day and went to stay temporarily with a girlfriend until I could find another place to live,” she said.

A few days later, she had her last and most terrifying experience. She and her girlfriend stopped by the apartment to get some of her things, which she had left there until she could move out. She remembered what happened next: “We were standing in the dimly lit hallway in the empty house, as I locked the door, when we suddenly heard a blood-curdling scream come out of the inky blackness somewhere at the top of the staircase just a few feet from us! It was petrifying - a long shrill scream that ended in a horrible gurgle! We ran as if the devil himself were after us to the street door. For a moment we even got wedged in the doorway, as both of us tried to get out at the same time! We laugh about it today but it was pretty frightening at that moment! The very next day I got my things out of there.”

In 1966, the house was purchased by Jean Damico, her husband Frank, and a partner, Anthony Vesich, Jr. The house was in bad shape and desperately needed repairs. They decided to restore the place and turn it into luxury apartments. Soon after, neighbors began to tell Jean about the house’s bizarre history and the bloody incidents that had taken place there. Jean Damico recalled, “People would look a little curiously at us whenever they knew we were the owners. Some even told me how they used to cross the street and pass it on the other side.” However, she dismissed the stories as nothing more than supernatural gossip until she experienced something for herself. 

One night, while trying to sleep, Jean sensed a presence in the room with her. She looked up and saw a man standing at the end of the bed. “Thinking my eyes were playing tricks on me, I closed them for a moment and then opened them again to refocus, but the figure was still there,” she said. “When the form suddenly seemed to move toward my side of the bed, I panicked and turned on the light on my night table. Imagine my surprise when there was no one there! My husband laughed at me when I told him, but I know I saw somebody!”

Even today, the "Sultan’s Palace" remains a curious and intriguing mystery of New Orleans and the French Quarter. We may never know all of the secrets this old mansion still hides. What curious tales they might tell if only these crumbling walls could talk.  

Thursday, August 18, 2016


America’s Not-So Famous Haunted Houses

Supernatural literature is filled with accounts from some of the “Most Haunted Houses in America.” Time and again, we have seen the lists of places that every ghost enthusiast is supposed to visit – the Lemp Mansion, Winchester Mansion, Whaley House, Myrtles Plantation, and the list goes on. But what about those houses that are not so widely-known? Perhaps they are only local haunts, or places that are off-the-beaten-path, but many of them are just as haunted – or even more so – than the American haunts that have become so famous. What follows is a look at just a few of the lesser-known haunted houses that dot the American landscape. There will definitely be more to come, so if the reader has a location that they would like to see featured, let us know, and we’ll include some of them in a future list!


Looking out over the Monongahela River in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, is Nemacolin Castle, which was once a famous site on the old National Road. The three-story mansion, with is ramparts and turret, actually pre-dates the town and was built on the site of Fort Burd, a garrison from the days of the French and Indian War. The Castle was built by Jacob Bowman, a local businessman, who owned a nail factory and a paper mill, and was later a postmaster, justice of the peace, and bank president in Brownsville. As his wealth grew, so did his family. After he fathered nine children with his wife, Isabella, he decided to build the mansion, which was completed in the early 1800s. In the years that followed, the house was not only a family home, but also a stop on the Underground Railroad. It remained in the Bowman family until it was eventually donated to the local historical society, which maintains it today. 

Over the last few decades, the house has gained a reputation as one of the most haunted spots in Southwest Pennsylvania. Staff members and visitors to the Castle have reported strange happenings, from heavy, disembodied footsteps to slamming doors, the erratic behavior of lights, and full-bodied apparitions. The ghost of a little girl, who is normally seen in the middle part of the house, has been reported at least a dozen times over the past decade. Others have sighted a small boy, a stern-looking older woman, a ghostly little dog, and even an older man who is believed to be Jacob Bowman himself. 


The Tinker Swiss Cottage in Rockford, Illinois, stands today as one of the most unusual homes in the state. It was built by Robert Tinker, an unusual man in his own right.  Born on December 31, 1836 in Honolulu, Hawaii to missionary parents, Robert came to Rockford in 1856. He was employed as an accountant by Mary Dorr Manny, the wealthy widow of John H. Manny of the Manny Reaper Works. His inspiration for his amazing cottage came during his tour of Europe in 1862, where he fell in love with the architecture of Switzerland. 

In 1865, after returning to Illinois, he began building his 27-room Swiss-style cottage on a limestone bluff overlooking Kent Creek. He surrounded his Swiss Cottage with over 27 acres of trees, vines, winding pathways, flowerbeds, and gardens. A three-story Swiss-inspired barn was added to the property which housed cows, chickens, and horses. In 1870, Robert and Mary Manny were married and became one of Rockford's most influential couples. Tinker became mayor of Rockford in 1875, was a founding member of the Rockford Park District and the CEO of the Northwest and IC Railroad lines. Mary Tinker died in 1901 and Robert later remarried her niece, Jesse Dorr Hurd. When Robert died in 1924, Jessie created a partnership with the Rockford Park District, allowing her to remain in the house until her death. After her death in 1942, the park district acquired the property and opened the home as a museum in 1943. 

Over the years, visitors and staff members alike have experienced the hauntings here first-hand, from the sound of footsteps in the hallways and on the stairs, to voices, songs being hummed, and the eerie laughter of children. A home for terminally ill children was located nearby for more than 30 years and often, the children were allowed to play at the cottage. Could some of them linger behind at the place where they found happiness? Even skeptical staff members have been convinced of the haunting as they hear things they cannot explain and have seen objects move by something other than earthly hands.


Located in the Capitol Hill section of Salt Lake City, Utah, is the McCune Mansion, built by Utah South Railroad and business tycoon Alfred McCune in 1900 at a cost of over $1 million. Born to a British Army officer and his wife in Calcutta, India, McCune immigrated with them to Utah Territory after they joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). By the time that he was 21, McCune had become a highly successful railroad builder and was connected to other millionaires of the era. He was a partner in the Peruvian Cerro de Pasco mines along with J. P. Morgan, William Randolph Hearst, and Frederick William Vanderbilt. He owned business interests throughout Utah and in parts of Montana, British Columbia, and South America. He and his wife, Elizabeth, traveled widely and at one point, Elizabeth was entertained by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. 

McCune wanted his home to be an extravagant display of his wealth and financed a two-year tour of Europe for architect S.C. Dallas, so that he could obtain design ideas. The new home towered over the surrounding streets and no expense was spared. It was constructed from red Utah sandstone, but other materials and furnishings were imported from all over the world. McCune and his wife lived in the home until 1920. Prior to moving to Los Angeles, they donated it to the LDS Church and it became the McCune School of Music. In the early 1950s, the mansion became the Brigham Young University Salt Lake City Center, until 1972 when it was moved to a larger location. It was sold in 1973 and became the Virginia Tanner Modern Dance School. Since then, the building has been privately owned, often used for wedding receptions and other short-term rentals.

Though it’s unclear why, the haunting in the house began soon after the McCunes moved out. Since then, the list of strange reports has continued to grow. Under the stairs is a room that was once used for music practice and although this is no longer its purpose, instrumental music is still heard coming from within. Two apparitions have been seen in the house- -- a man in a long, black coat and a little girl who resembles one of the portraits that hangs in the house. The young girl has been seen walking in and out of a mirror in the west end of the mansion. Another odd report involves phantom footsteps that begin and end in the center of rooms. There are also reports of items being moved about, furniture rearranged, lights turning on and off, and doors that unlock themselves, even after being secured for the night and double-checked. The identity of the house’s lingering spirits remains a mystery.


Located in Spring Green, Wisconsin is Taliesin, a former summer home that belonged to its designer, Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s become famous as one of the finest examples of his signature “prairie-style” architecture, but what most people don’t know is that it was also the scene of a heinous crime in 1914 that left a haunting in its wake. Wright began building the house in 1911, soon after leaving his first wife and six children. He had been involved in a scandalous affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. She left her husband to move to Spring Green while Taliesin was still under construction. Although Mamah did not have primary custody of her two children, they were spending the day with her on August 15, 1914. Wright was in Chicago, supervising the construction of another project. While Mamah and her children were eating lunch with several workmen in the dining room, a servant named Julian Carlton (who had been fired earlier that day) locked them in the house, poured gasoline under the door, and set the house on fire. As the people trapped inside tried frantically to escape, Carlton attacked them with a hatchet, killing seven people, including Mamah and her children.  The tragedy destroyed the majority of Taliesin and most of the records of Wright’s early work. Wright received a telegraph in Chicago and rushed to Wisconsin, only to find the mansion, and his life, in ruins.  

Determined not to defeated by this terrible turn of events, he rebuilt Taliesin in Mamah’s honor. But bizarrely, the second house also met with tragedy. In April 1925, a lightning storm started a fire in the house’s telephone lines and it burned to the ground. Defiant against the forces of nature, Wright built a third incarnation of Taliesin on the same site and it has survived to this day. 

Taliesin is one of the most visited of Wright’s home in the country – and the most haunted. After the murderous events of 1914, the bodies of the victims were taken to a cottage on the property called Tan-Y-Deri. It is in and around this cottage where Mamah’s ghost has been reported over the years. She is usually dressed in a long, white gown and while she is a peaceful presence, she is obviously restless and lost. It is also said that doors and windows open and close by themselves within the cottage and light sometimes turn on and off. Witnesses say that they sometimes close the place for the night, only to return the following day to find everything wide open. The events of the past have truly marked the house as a haunted place that will be forever linked to a tragedy of long ago.


The unique mansion known as Prospect Place, in the tiny town of Trinway, was built by George W. Adams, who came to Ohio from Virginia in 1808. Already wealthy, Adams had inherited his grandfather’s plantation but had freed all of the slaves his family owned before selling the farm. Adams hated slavery and chose Ohio as his new home because it was a free state. Within two decades, he was one of the wealthiest men in the region. He owned two flour mills, built bridges and canals, and helped develop the town of Dresden. In addition, he provided free grain for the poor and offered his home as a safe house for slaves who escaped the south using the Underground Railroad. 

He built the Greek Revival-style Prospect Place in 1856. It was the first house in the state to have indoor plumbing and was fitted with a cupola on top of the house where a signal light could alert runaway slaves that the place offered food and shelter. Injured, sick, or wounded slaves who did not survive their journey to freedom are among the spirits still believed to linger in the house. 

George Adams lived long enough to see slavery abolished in America before he died in 1879. He left his vast estate to his children, but over the years, relatives squandered it and by the middle 1950s, the house was abandoned. It was later sold to the Cox Gravel Co., which offered tours of the mansion, but it steadily declined. By the 1980s, time and vandals had reduced the place almost to ruins and it was slated for destruction. If not for the attention paid to the house by the famous Longaberger Basket Co. of Ohio, it might have been lost. Company founder Dave Longaberger had recently purchased and renovated a number of historic buildings in the area and he wanted to restore Prospect Place. Unfortunately, he passed away before work could be completed. But the house was rescued again, this time by George W. Adams – the great, great grandson of the original owner. Work to restore and preserve the mansion is ongoing today. 

Prospect Place has long been regarded as the local “haunted house” by those who live in the area. The stories of the haunting date back many years and if even a portion of them are true, it is one of the most haunted houses in the state. In addition to the spirits of former slaves who linger in the house, there are also the ghosts of train accident victims who haunt the basement. After an accident on a nearly rail line, the wounded were brought to Prospect Place and the basement was turned into a temporary hospital. Their ghosts are now believed to haunt the underground rooms. Another ghost is believed to be that of a young girl who died in an accident at the house. Her ghost has been seen playing inside and outside of the mansion, and her girlish laughter has been frequently reported. A ghost who has been seen near a staircase on an upper floor is thought to be George W. Adams himself, or perhaps the spirit of William Cox, Adam’s son-in-law, who mysteriously vanished in 1886 after absconding with a large part of his wife’s inheritance. Some believe that he has been forced in death to return to the place where he carried out his betrayal. 

Friday, August 12, 2016


How Uncovering History Tells the TRUE Story of "One of America's Most Haunted Houses"

Handprints in the mirrors, footsteps on the stairs, mysterious smells, vanishing objects, death by poison, hangings, murder, and gunfire -- The Myrtles Plantation in the West Feliciana town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, holds the rather dubious record of hosting more ghostly phenomena than just about any other house in the country. But what could be more dubious than the honor itself? That would be the questionable history that has been presented to “explain” why the house is so haunted in the first place.

Long acclaimed as one of the most haunted houses in America, The Myrtles attracts an almost endless stream of visitors each year and many of them come in search of ghosts. There seems to be little doubt about the fact that the house is haunted – it’s the reason that its haunted that has been called into question. For several generations, owners and guides at the plantation have been presenting “facts and history” that they know is blatantly false. The Myrtles, according to hundreds of people who have encountered the resident spirits, is haunted --- but not for the reasons that we have been told. 

It was a simple check of historical records that revealed the real story. The true story of The Myrtles may not be as glamorous as the story presented by the staff at the plantation, but it is certainly strange. The history of the plantation is filled with death, tragedy and despair, leading us to wonder why a fanciful history ever needed to be created in its place. 

The Myrtles Plantation was constructed by David Bradford in 1794 and since that time, has allegedly been the scene of at least ten murders. In truth, though, only one person was ever murdered there but, as has been stated already, some of the people who have owned the house have never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. But as the reader will soon discover, the plantation has an unusual history that genuinely did occur, one that may, and likely has, left its own real ghosts behind. 

David Bradford was one of five children born in America to Irish immigrants. In 1777, he purchased a tract of land and a small stone house near Washington County, Pennsylvania. He became a successful attorney, businessman and Deputy Attorney General for the county. His first attempt to marry ended only days before his wedding (no details are known about this) but he later met and married Elizabeth Porter in 1785 and started a family. 

As his family and business grew, Bradford needed a larger home and he built a new one in the town of Washington. The house became well known in the region for its size and remarkable craftsmanship, with a mahogany staircase and woodwork imported from England. Many of the items had to be transported from the East Coast and over the Pennsylvania mountains at great expense. Bradford would use the parlor of the house as an office, where he would meet with his clients.

Unfortunately, he was not able to enjoy his splendid new house for long. In October 1794, he was forced to flee, leaving his family behind. Bradford became involved in the infamous Whiskey Rebellion and legend has it that George Washington placed a price on the man’s head for his role in the affair. The Whiskey Rebellion took place in western Pennsylvania and began as a series of grievances over high prices and taxes forced on those living along the frontier at that time. The complaints eventually erupted into violence when a mob attacked and burned down the home of a local tax collector. In the months that followed, residents resisted a tax that had been placed on whiskey and while most of the protests were nonviolent, Washington mobilized a militia and sent it in to suppress the rebellion. Once the protests were brought under control, Bradford left the region on the advice of some of the other principals in the affair. 

After leaving Washington, Bradford first went to Pittsburgh. Leaving his family in safety, he traveled down the Ohio River to the Mississippi. He eventually settled at Bayou Sara, near what is now St. Francisville, Louisiana. Bradford was no stranger to this area. He had originally traveled here in 1792 to try and obtain a land grant from Spain. When he returned in 1796, he purchased six hundred acres of land and a year later, built a modest, eight-room home that he named “Laurel Grove.” He lived there alone until 1799, when he received a pardon for his role in the Whiskey Rebellion from newly elected President John Adams. He was given the pardon for his assistance in establishing a boundary line, known historically as “Ellicott’s Line,” between Spain and the United States. 

After receiving the pardon, Bradford returned to Pennsylvania to bring his wife and five children back to Louisiana. He brought them to live at Bayou Sarah and they settled into a comfortable life there. Bradford occasionally took in students who wanted to study the law. One of them, Clark Woodrooff, not only earned a law degree but also married his teacher's daughter, Sarah Mathilda. 

Clark Woodrooff was born in Litchfield County, Connecticut, in August 1791. Having no desire to follow in his father's footsteps as a farmer, he left Connecticut at the age of nineteen and sought his fortune on the Mississippi River, ending up in Bayou Sarah. He arrived in 1810, the same year that citizens of the Feliciana parish rose up in revolt against the Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge. They overthrew the Spanish and then set up a new territory with its capital being St. Francisville. The territory extended from the Mississippi River as far east as the Perdido River, near Mobile.

Still seeking to make his fortune, Woodrooff placed an advertisement in the new St. Francisville newspaper, the Time Piece, in the summer of 1811. He informed the public that "an academy would be opening on the first Monday in September for the reception of students." He planned to offer English, grammar, astronomy, geography, elocution, composition, penmanship and Greek and Latin. The academy was apparently short-lived for in 1814, he joined Colonel Hide's cavalry regiment from the Feliciana parish to fight alongside Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. When the War of 1812 had ended, Woodrooff returned to St. Francisville with the intention of studying law.

He began his studies with Judge David Bradford and soon earned his degree. He also succumbed to the charms of the Bradford daughter, the lovely Sarah Mathilda. Their romance blossomed under the shade of the crape myrtle trees that reportedly gave the home its lasting name. The young couple was married on November 19, 1817 and for their honeymoon, Woodrooff took his new bride to The Hermitage, the Tennessee home of his friend, Andrew Jackson.

After the death of David Bradford, Woodrooff managed Laurel Grove for his mother-in-law, Elizabeth. He expanded the holdings of the plantation and planted about six hundred and fifty acres of indigo and cotton. Together, he and Sarah Mathilda had three children, Cornelia Gale, James, and Mary Octavia. Tragically, their happiness would not last.

On July 21, 1823, Sarah Mathilda died after contracting yellow fever. The disease was spread through a number of epidemics that swept through Louisiana in those days. Hardly a family in the region went untouched by tragedy and despair. Although heartbroken, Woodrooff continued to manage the plantation and to care for his children with help from Elizabeth. But the dark days were not yet over. On July 15, 1824, his only son, James, also died from yellow fever and two months later, in September, Cornelia Gale was also felled by the dreaded disease. 

Woodrooff's life would never be the same but he managed to purchase the farm outright from his mother-in-law. She was quite elderly by this time and was happy to see the place in good hands. She continued to live at Laurel Grove with her son-in-law and granddaughter, Octavia, until her death in 1830. 

After Elizabeth died, Woodrooff turned his attentions away from farming to the practice of law. He and Octavia moved away from Laurel Grove and he left the plantation under the management of a caretaker. He was appointed to a judge's position over District D in Covington, Louisiana, and he served in this capacity until April 1835. On January 1, 1834, he sold Laurel Grove to Ruffin Grey Stirling.

By this time, Woodrooff was living on Rampart Street in New Orleans and had changed the spelling of his last name to "Woodruff." He had also been elected as the president of public works for the city. During this period, Octavia was sent to a finishing school in New Haven, Connecticut, but she returned home to live with her father in 1836. Two years later, she married Colonel Lorenzo Augustus Besancon and moved to his plantation, Oaklawn, five miles north of New Orleans.

In 1840, the Louisiana governor, Isaac Johnson, appointed Woodruff to the newly created office of Auditor of Public Works and he served for one term. Then, at sixty years of age, he retired and moved to Oaklawn to live with Octavia and her husband. He devoted the remainder of his life to the study of chemistry and physics and died on November 25, 1851. He was buried in the Girod Street Cemetery in New Orleans.

In 1834, Laurel Grove was purchased by Ruffin Grey Stirling. The Stirlings were a very wealthy family who owned several plantations on both sides of the Mississippi River. On January 1, Ruffin Grey Stirling and his wife, Mary Catherine Cobb, took over the house, land, buildings and all of the slaves that had been bought from Elizabeth Bradford by her son-in-law. 

Since the Stirlings were so well thought of in the community, they needed a house befitting their social status. They decided to remodel Laurel Grove. Stirling added the broad central hallway of the house and the entire southern section. The walls of the original house were removed and repositioned to create four large rooms that were used as identical ladies and gentlemen's parlors, a formal dining room and a game room. Year-long trips to Europe to purchase fine furnishings resulted in the importation of skilled craftsmen, as well. Elaborate plaster cornices were created for many of the rooms, made from a mixture of clay, Spanish moss and cattle hair. On the outside of the house, Stirling added a 107-foot-long front gallery that was supported by cast-iron support posts and railings. The original roof was extended to encompass the new addition, copying the existing dormers to maintain a smooth line. The addition had higher ceilings than the original house so the second story floor was raised one foot. The completed project nearby doubled the size of David Bradford's house and in keeping with the renovations, the name of the plantation was officially changed to “The Myrtles."

Four years after the completion of the project, Stirling died on July 17, 1854 of consumption. He left his vast holdings in the care of his wife, Mary Cobb, who most referred to as a remarkable woman. Many other plantation owners stated that she "had the business acumen of a man," which was high praise for a woman in those days, and she managed to run all of her farms almost single-handedly for many years. 

In spite of this, the family was often visited by tragedy. Of nine children, only four of them lived to be old enough to marry. The oldest son, Lewis, died in the same year as his father. Daughter Sarah Mulford's husband was actually murdered on the front porch of the house after the Civil War. The war itself wreaked havoc on The Myrtles and on the Stirling family. Many of the family's personal belongings were looted and destroyed by Union soldiers and the wealth that they had accumulated was ultimately in worthless Confederate currency. To make matters worse, Mary Cobb had invested heavily in sugar plantations that had been ravaged by the war. She eventually lost all of her property. She never let the tragedies of the war, and others that followed after, overcome her, however, and she held onto The Myrtles until her death in August 1880. She was buried next to her husband in a family plot at Grace Church in St. Francisville.

On December 5, 1865, Mary Cobb had hired William Drew Winter, the husband of her daughter, Sarah Mulford, to act as her agent and attorney and to help her manage the plantation lands. As part of the deal, she gave Sarah and William the Myrtles as their home. 

William had been born to Captain Samuel Winter and Sarah Bowman on October 28, 1820 in Bath, Maine. Little is known about his early life or how he managed to meet Sarah Mulford Stirling. However, they were married on June 3, 1852 at The Myrtles and together; they had six children, Mary, Sarah, Kate, Ruffin, William and Francis. Kate died from typhoid at the age of three. The Winters first lived at Gantmore plantation, near Clinton, Louisiana, and then bought a plantation on the west side of the Mississippi known as Arbroath. 

Twelve years after the death of Ruffin Stirling, and after the Civil War, William was named as agent and attorney by Mary Stirling to help her with the remaining lands, including Ingleside, Crescent Park, Botany Bay and The Myrtles. In return, Mary gave William the use of the Myrtles as his home. Times were terrible and Winter was unable to hold onto it. By December 1867, he was completely bankrupt and the Myrtles was sold by the U.S. Marshal to the New York Warehouse & Security Company on April 15, 1868. Two years later, however, on April 23, the property was sold back Mrs. Sarah M. Winter as the heir of her late father, Ruffin G. Stirling. It is unknown just what occurred to cause this reversal of fortune but it seemed as though things were improving for the family once again.

But soon after, tragedy struck the Myrtles once more. According to the January 1871 issue of the Point Coupee Democrat newspaper, Winter was teaching a Sunday school lesson in the gentlemen's parlor of the house when he heard someone approach the house on horseback. After the stranger called out to him, saying that he had some business with him, Winter went out onto the side gallery of the house and was shot. He collapsed onto the porch and died. Those inside of the house, stunned by the sound of gunfire and the retreating horse, hurried outside to find the fallen man. Winter died on January 26, 1871 and was buried the following day at Grace Church. The newspaper reported that a man named E.S. Webber was to stand trial for Winter's murder but no outcome of the case was ever recorded. As far as is known, Winter's killer remains unidentified and unpunished. 

Sarah was devastated by the incident and never remarried. She remained at The Myrtles with her mother and brothers until her death in April 1878 at the age of only forty-four. 

After the death of Mary Cobb Stirling in 1880, the Myrtles was purchased by Stephen Stirling, one of her sons. He bought out his brothers but only maintained ownership of the house until March 1886. There are some who say that he squandered what was left of his fortune and lost the plantation in a game of chance but most likely, the place was just too deep in debt for him to hold onto. He sold the Myrtles to Oran D. Brooks, ending his family's ownership. Brooks kept it until January 1889 when, after a series of transfers, it was purchased by Harrison Milton Williams, a Mississippi widower who brought his young son and second wife, Fannie Lintot Haralson, to the house in 1891. 

Injured during the Civil War, in which he served as a fifteen-year-old Confederate cavalry courier, Williams planted cotton and gained a reputation as a hard-working and industrious man. He and his family, which grew to include a wife and seven children, kept the Myrtles going during the hard times of the post-war South. But tragedy was soon to strike the Myrtles again. 

During a storm, the Williams' oldest son, Harry, was trying to gather up some stray cattle and fell into the Mississippi and drowned. Shattered with grief, Harrison and Fannie turned over management of the property to their son, Surget Minor Williams. He later married a local girl named Jessie Folkes and provided a home at the Myrtles for his spinster sister and maiden aunt, Katie. Secretly called "the Colonel" behind her back, Katie was a true Southern character. Eccentric and kind, but with a gruff exterior, she kept life interesting at the house for years.

By the 1950s, the property surrounding the house had been divided among the Williams heirs and the house itself was sold to Marjorie Munson, an Oklahoma widow who had been made wealthy by chicken farms. It was at this point, they say, that the ghost stories of the house began. They started innocently enough but soon, what may have been real-life ghostly occurrences took on a "life" of their own.

The "Ghost Story" that Isn't....

There is no question that the most famous ghostly tale of the Myrtles is that of Chloe, the vengeful slave who murdered the wife and two daughters of Clark Woodruff in a fit of jealous anger. Those who have been reading this chapter so far have already guessed that there are some serious flaws in this story but for the sake of being complete, I included the tale here since it has long been told by owners and guides at the house.  

According to the story, the troubles that led to the haunting at the Myrtles began in 1817 when Sarah Mathilda married Clark Woodruff. Sara Matilda had given birth to two daughters and was carrying a third child, when an event took place that still haunts the Myrtles today.

Woodruff, had a reputation in the region for integrity with men and with the law, but was also known for being promiscuous. While his wife was pregnant with their third child, he started an intimate relationship with one of his slaves. This particular girl, whose name was Chloe, was a household servant who, while she hated being forced to give in to Woodruff's sexual demands, realized that if she didn't comply, she could be sent to work in the fields, which was the most brutal of the slaves’ work.

Eventually, Woodruff tired of Chloe and chose another girl with whom to carry on. Chloe feared the worst, sure that she was going to be sent to the fields, and she began eavesdropping on the Woodruff family's private conversations, dreading the mention of her name. One day, the Judge caught her at this and ordered that one of her ears be cut off to teach her a lesson and to put her in her place. After that time, she always wore a green turban around her head to hide the ugly scar that the knife had left behind.

What actually happened next is still unclear. Some claim that what occurred was done so that the family would just get sick and then Chloe could nurse them back to health and earn the Judge's gratitude. In this way, she would be safe from ever being sent to the fields. Others say that her motives were not so pure and that what she did was for one reason only: revenge.

For whatever reason, Chloe put a small amount of poison into a birthday cake that was made in honor of the Woodruff's oldest daughter. Mixed in with the flour and sugar was a handful of crushed oleander flowers. The two children, and Sarah Mathilda, each had slices of the poisoned cake but Woodruff didn't eat any of it. Before the end of the day, all of them were very sick. Chloe patiently attended to their needs, never realizing (if it was an accident) that she had given them too much poison. In a matter of hours, all three of them were dead.

The other slaves, perhaps afraid that their owner would punish them also, dragged Chloe from her room and hanged her from a nearby tree. Her body was later cut down, weighted with rocks and thrown into the river. Woodruff closed off the children's dining room, where the party was held, and never allowed it to be used again as long as he lived. Tragically, his life was cut short a few years later by a murderer. To this day, the room where the children were poisoned has never again been used for dining. It is called the game room today.

Since her death, the ghost of Chloe has been reported at the Myrtles and was even accidentally photographed by a past owner. The plantation still sells picture postcards today with the cloudy image of what is purported to be Chloe standing between two of the buildings. The former slave is thought to be the most frequently encountered ghost at the Myrtles. She has often been seen in her green turban, wandering the place at night. Sometimes the cries of little children accompany her appearances and at other times, those who are sleeping are startled awake by her face, peering at them from the side of the bed.

I am sure that after reading this story, even the most non-discerning readers have discovered a number of errors and problems with the tale. In fact, there are so many errors that it's difficult to know where to begin. However, to start, it's a shame that the character of Clark Woodruff has been so thoroughly damaged over the years with stories about his adulterous affairs with his slaves and claims that he had one of his lovers mutilated. Sadly, these stories have been accepted as fact, even though no evidence whatsoever exists to say that they are true. In fact, history seems to show that Woodruff was very devoted to his wife and was so distraught over her death that he never remarried. 

Before we get to the problem of Chloe's existence, we should also examine the alleged murders of Sarah Mathilda and her two daughters. In this case, the legend has twisted the truth so far that it is unrecognizable. Sarah Mathilda was not murdered. She died tragically from yellow fever (according to historical record) in 1823. Her children, a son and a daughter -- not two daughters -- died more than a year after she did. They certainly did not die from the result of a poisoned birthday cake. Also, with this legend, Octavia would not have existed at all (her mother was supposed to have been pregnant when murdered) but we know that she lived with her father, got married and lived to a ripe old age. In addition, Woodruff was not killed. He died peacefully at his daughter and son-in-law's plantation in 1851.

The key to the legend is, of course, Chloe, the murderous slave. The problem with this is that as far as we can tell, Chloe never existed at all. Not only did she not murder members of the Woodruff family but it's unlikely that the family ever had a slave by this name. Countless hours have been spent looking through the property records of the Woodruff family, which are still available and on file as public record in St. Francisville, searching for any evidence that Chloe existed. It was a great disappointment to learn that the Woodruffs had never owned a slave, or had any record of a slave, named Chloe, or Cleo, as she appears in some versions of the story. The records list all of the other slaves owned by the Woodruff family but Chloe simply did not exist. 

So how did such a story get started?

In the 1950s, the Myrtles was owned by wealthy widow Marjorie Munson, who heard some of the local stories that had gotten started about odd things happening at the house. Wondering if perhaps the old mansion might be haunted, she asked around and that's when the legend of "Chloe" got its start. According to the granddaughter of Harrison and Fannie Williams, Lucile Lawrason, her aunts used to talk about the ghost of an old woman who haunted the Myrtles and who wore a green bonnet. They often laughed about it and it became a family story. She was never given a name and in fact, the "ghost" with the green bonnet from the story was described as an older woman, never as a young slave who might have been involved in an affair with the owner of the house. Regardless, someone repeated this story of the Williams' family ghost to Marjorie Munson and she soon penned a song about the ghost of the Myrtles, a woman in a green beret.

As time wore on, the story grew and changed. The Myrtles changed hands several more times and in the 1970s, it was restored again under the ownership of Arlin Dease and Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Ward. During this period, the story grew even larger and was greatly embellished to include the poison murders and the severed ear. Up until this point, it was largely just a story that was passed on by word of mouth and it received little attention outside of the area. All of that changed when James and Frances Kermeen Myers passed through on a riverboat and decided to purchase the Myrtles. The house came furnished with period antiques and enough ghost stories to attract people from all over the country. 

Soon, the story of the Myrtles was appearing in magazines and books and receiving a warm reception from ghost enthusiasts, who had no idea that what they were hearing was a badly skewed version of the truth. The house appeared in a November 1980 issue of LIFE magazine but the first book that I have found that mentioned the house was by author Richard Winer. Both the magazine article and the Winer book mentioned the poison deaths of Sarah Mathilda and her daughters. 

As time went on and more authors and television crews came calling at the Myrtles, the story changed again and this time, took on even more murders. In addition to the deaths of Sarah Mathilda, her daughters and Chloe, it was alleged that as many as six other people had been killed in the house. One of them, Lewis Stirling, the oldest son of Ruffin Grey Stirling, was claimed to have been stabbed to death in the house over a gambling debt. However, burial records in St. Francisville state that he died in October 1854 from yellow fever. 

According to legend, three Union soldiers were killed in the house after they broke in and attempted to loot the place. They were allegedly shot to death in the gentlemen's parlor, leaving bloodstains on the floor that refused to be wiped away. One fanciful account has it that years later, after the Myrtles was opened as an inn, a maid was mopping the floor and came to a spot that, no matter how hard she pushed, she was unable to reach. 

Supposedly, the spot was the same size as a human body and this was said to have been where one of the Union soldiers fell. The strange phenomenon was said to have lasted for a month and has not occurred since. The only problem with this story is that no soldiers were ever killed in the house. There are no records or evidence to say that there were and in fact, surviving family members denied the story was true. If the ghostly incident occurred, then it must have been caused by something else.

Another murder allegedly occurred in 1927, when a caretaker at the house was supposedly killed during a robbery. Once again, no record exists of this crime and an incident as recent as this would have been widely reported. The only event even close to this, which may have spawned the story, occurred when the brother of Fannie Williams, Eddie Haralson, was living in a small house on the property. He was killed while being robbed but this did not occur in the main house, as the story states. 

The only verifiable murder to occur at the Myrtles was that of William Drew Winter and it differs wildly from the legends that have been told. As described previously, Winter was lured out of the house by a rider, who shot him to death on the side porch. It is here where the stories take a turn for the worse. In the legend, Winter was shot and then, mortally wounded, staggered back into the house, passed through the gentlemen's parlor and the ladies parlor and onto the staircase that rises from the central hallway. He then managed to climb just high enough to die in his beloved's arms on the seventeenth step. It has since been claimed that ghostly footsteps have been heard coming into the house, walking to the stairs and then climbing to the seventeenth step where they, of course, come to an end. 

While dramatic, this event never happened either. Winter was indeed murdered on the front porch by an unknown assailant but after being shot, he immediately fell down and died. His bloody trip through the house never took place --- information that was easily found in historical records. 

So, is the Myrtles really haunted? 

There is nothing to say that the Myrtles is not haunted. In fact, there is no denying that the sheer number of accounts that have been reported and collected here would cause the house to qualify as one of the most haunted sites in the country. However, as you can see from the preceding pages, the house may be haunted, just not for the reasons that have been claimed for so many years. 

In all likelihood, the infamous Chloe never existed and even if she did, historical records prove that Sarah Mathilda and her children were never murdered but died from disease. Instead of ten murders in the house, only one occurred and when William Winter died, he certainly did not stagger up the staircase to die on the seventeenth step, as the stories of his phantom footsteps allegedly bear out. Such tales belong in the realm of fiction, not in the chronicle of one of the alleged “most haunted houses in America.”

The house may really be haunted by the ghost of a woman in a green turban or bonnet. The Williams family had an ongoing tale about her and while it may have been a story that was never meant to be told outside the family, the story spread nonetheless. They admit that while they ghost apparently did exist, no identity was ever given to her. It's also very likely that something unusual was going on at the Myrtles when Marjorie Munson lived there, which led to her seeking answers and to her first introduction to the ghost in the green headdress. Did she see the ghost? Who knows? But many others have claimed that they have.

Frances Myers claimed that she encountered the ghost in the green turban in 1987. She was asleep in one of the downstairs bedrooms when she was awakened suddenly by a black woman wearing a green turban and a long dress. She was standing silently beside the bed, holding a metal candlestick in her hand. She was so real that the candle even gave off a soft glow. Knowing nothing about ghosts, Myers was terrified and pulled the covers over her head and started screaming. Then she slowly peeked out and reached out a hand to touch the woman, who had never moved, and to her amazement, the apparition vanished. 

Others claim that they have also seen the ghost and in fact, she was purportedly photographed a number of years ago. The resulting image seems to show a woman but it does not fit the description of a young woman like Chloe would have been. In fact, it looks more like the older woman that was described by the Williams family. Could this be the real ghost of the Myrtles?

Even after leaving out the ridiculous stories of the poisonings and Winter's dramatic death on the staircase, the history of the Myrtles is still filled with more than enough trauma and tragedy to cause the place to become haunted. There were a number of deaths in the house, from yellow fever alone, and it's certainly possible that any of the deceased might have stayed behind after death. If ghosts stay behind in this world because of unfinished business, there are a number of candidates to be the restless ghosts of the plantation's stories. 

And, if we believe the stories, the place truly is infested by spirits from different periods in the history of the house. There have been many reports of children who are seen playing on the wide verandah, in the hallways and in the rooms. The small boy and girl may be the Woodruff children who, while not poisoned, died within months of each other during one of the many yellow fever epidemics that brought tragedy to the Myrtles. A young girl, with long curly hair and wearing an ankle-length dress, has been seen floating outside the window of the game room, cupping her hands and trying to peer inside through the glass. Is she Cornelia Gale Woodruff or perhaps one of the Stirling children who did not survive until adulthood? 

The grand piano on the first floor plays by itself, usually repeating the same chord over and over again. Sometimes it continues on through the night. When someone comes into the room to investigate the sound, the music stops and will only start again when they leave.

Scores of people have filed strange reports about the house. In recent times, various owners have taken advantage of the Myrtles' infamous reputation and the place is now open to guests for tours and as a haunted bed and breakfast. Rooms are rented in the house and in cottages on the grounds. The plantation has played host to a wide variety of guests from curiosity-seekers to historians to ghost hunters. Over the years, a number of films and documentaries have also been shot on the ground and many of them have been paranormal in nature.

One film, which was decidedly not paranormal, was a television mini-series remake of The Long Hot Summer, starring Don Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, Ava Gardner and Jason Robards. A portion of the film was shot at the Myrtles and it was an experience that the cast and crew would not soon forget. One day, the crew moved the furniture in the game room and the dining room for filming and then left. When they returned, they reported that the furniture had all been moved back to its original position. No one was inside either room while the crew was absent. This happened several times, to the crew’s dismay, although they did manage to get the shots they needed. They added that the cast was happy to move on to another set once the filming at The Myrtles was completed.

The employees at the house often get the worst of the events that happen here. They are often exposed, first-hand, to happenings that would have weaker folks running from the place in terror. And some of them do! One employee was hired to greet guests at the front gate each day. One day while he was at work, a woman in a white, old-fashioned dress walked through the gate without speaking to him. She strolled up to the house and vanished through the front door without ever opening it. The gateman quit his job and never returned to the house.

The Myrtles can be a perplexing place. History has shown that many of the stories that have been told about the place, mostly to explain the hauntings, never actually occurred. In spite of this, the house seems to be haunted anyway. The truth seems to be an elusive thing at this grand old plantation house but there seems to be no question for those who have stayed or visited here that it is a spirited place. At the Myrtles Plantation, the ghosts of the past – whoever they might be -- are never very far away from the living of the present.