At age 458 - founded during the Spanish empire by Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés - St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States. There’s a lot to recommend a city that old, including charming colonial architecture and a lot of history - not just stretching back centuries but also including its beginnings as a tourism mecca during the Victorian era, the early 20th century, and even the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. And of course ghosts. A city that old has a lot of history to haunt -- a lot of death and despair to permeate the landscape -- and the spirits of St. Augustine are sufficient to keep a multitude of ghost tour operators very busy providing a frenzy of frightful fun. And one recent All Hallow´s Eve I tagged along on a couple of them.
As we hopped on the "Trolley of the Doomed," all dressed up for Halloween, with about a dozen other eager seekers of the spooky, we were instructed on the basics of ghost sightings: look for little orbs with tails, a white light, a shadow, an apparition in white (seems to be the preferred attire of apparitions). At a cemetery fence, not surprisingly always a portal for the undead, cameras were flashing and phones lighting up, one after the other. “Why are they all taking pictures of the fence?” inquired my always-skeptical husband. “There’s nothing there.”
The 75-year old Potter’s Wax Museum building (which bills itself as the oldest in the USA) we were told was built over a cemetery, thereby explaining all the “energy.” I was beginning to pick up on the idea that energy was just a euphemism for ghosts. Our guide talked of strange happening which by the end of the night had become a mantra -- footsteps heard, bottles falling, objects flying. Combined with a lot of corny humor, it didn’t help convince me of the authenticity of the experience.
As we walked through the museum, I suddenly felt a vibration on my arm -- a very intense vibration -- and I quickly looked around to see who or what “energy” might be near me. How disappointed was I to discover it was only my Fitbit! Another 10,000 steps logged but no other-worldly workout buddy to share it with.
A re-enactment of an old pirate being felled by an executioner -- with one of my tour compatriots assuming the role of the condemned -- was great theater. But nothing compared to that of the Old Jail, known by the way as "the hanging jail" from 1871 to 1953, for the eight criminals who swung from the gallows there. A dramatic inmate told the stories of the sadly deceased with great gusto playing out all the gory details of the crimes. The impersonators were the best part of the tour - but for better or worse they were all very much alive!
Someone claimed to get a picture of an orb -- allegedly a filmy white light with or without a tail -- on her cellphone. I looked through the bars into the same very dark cell and all I saw was - well, a very dark cell. However, the marketing person employed by the tour company sent me this photo taken on a tour of a nearby castle in 2008: She claims, “NO ONE was standing there in period costume where the apparition appeared!”
How to account for some of these specter sightings? Shadows; specks of dust; reflections, overactive imaginations? But many claim they capture images on their cameras that are unexplainable -- ghosts trying to present themselves in recognizable spirit forms. Who am I to argue?
Given my own penchant for spirits of the drinking variety, it seemed a ghost-infused pub crawl a good way to combine my spirits with…well…theirs as part of my next phantom-filled adventure. And not often does my line of work require me to attend an extended happy hour, so when the opportunity to imbibe at four venues all in the name of research presented itself, well, I felt obligated. Ergo.. zombie martini, anyone?
At one of our stops, Meehan’s Irish Pub, the liquor is held in place by wires because they say the bottles have more than once inexplicably flown off the shelves. According to Kaiser, who has been tending bar here for five years, he´s heard voices, seen lights flicker, had the bathroom door stick for no apparent reason, and claimed sightings of a man in overalls. “If you don’t believe in ghosts, come work here,” he invites.
Similarly, Sara, a bartender at Scarlett O’Hara’s (which, by the way, has since closed), also renowned as haunted, enthusiastically proclaims, “Oh yeah, I’ve experienced everything.” Those experiences, not surprisingly, include erratic lights, moving dishes, unseen voices and apparitions of a woman in white (notice a pattern here?), and a man in a uniform. I ordered yet another drink
It’s hard not to be affected in some way by all these stories. As skeptical as I was when I began the trip, how do you dismiss the experiences -- often so similar -- of so many others? Or ignore some very real tangible evidence ostensibly captured on film? I was left just shaking my head a lot -- and feeling somewhat reassured that overall, ghosts seem to be a lot more playful than they are scary.
At the beginning of our tour, Brian, our guide and historic/haunted/site veteran, passed out electromagnetic field transmitters to aid in our search for otherwise unrecognizable companions; supposedly their energy is recorded on the readers, which tend to beep loudly in response. Or it could just mean that there’s a computer nearby. Hard to tell. As we walked the neighborhood, Brian advised us to ignore the more modern establishments and focus on the historic ones -- the better to haunt you with, my dear -- about which he regaled us with stories. Claiming that the theory of ghosts is as polarizing as politics (though probably not these days), he said the spectrum tilts 60-40 in favor of believers. “Ignore the skeptics,” he admonished. “That’s not why you’re here.”
As we walked over streets that were built over cemeteries and past ongoing archaeological digs, he assured us that residual energies remain. Never, though, is a ghost going to come up and say, “Hello, my name is Ralph and I’m going to haunt you tonight.” Instead, he said, you have to acquaint yourself with a place and know what to look for -- or more accurately, “share the presence of.”
My creepy-bar-crawly comrades kept checking their EMF transmitters to see if they’d connected with any external energies and then snapping their cameras in the hopes of randomly catching them on film. Until we got to the next bar, of course, and started imbibing again. For a while I thought the liquid spirits were overtaking the more ethereal ones. But then we moved on.
The rash of squeals emitted from several transmitters at the corner of Charlotte and Hypolito Streets caught everyone’s attention -- equaled only by the story Brian then told of the murder there on November 20, 1785 of one William Delaney by a jealous rival. Now, I didn’t see Delaney’s spirit anywhere but I also know this didn’t happen at any other intersection. Coincidence?
And Don´t Mess with Miss Lily
The next day, glad to be done with phantasms for awhile, I was doing more traditional sightseeing. When I mentioned to a curator at a small museum that we were staying at the St. Francis Inn, the oldest in St. Augustine (dating back to 1791), he asked in what room. I told him. “Ah then, you’re safe,” he said, “as long as you’re not in Lily’s Room.” Oh?
When I returned to the inn, I found that stories abound around Lily, a most mischievous spirit who wanders the third floor searching for her lost love, wreaking havoc among some guests. As I’ve learned is usual with ghosts, lights go on and off, bathroom locks get jammed, and objects fly across rooms. I was beginning to feel right at home. I nodded toward Lily, just in case SHE could see ME.
For more info on St Augustine, check out FloridasHistoricCoast.com.