You probably don't live that far from a place ghosts are said to roam. Maybe you don’t think about it until Halloween rolls around, when everyone seems to be ready with a scary story. But some of those ghost sightings may be tied to horrible events from the past—knowing the history of a place sets one up to see and hear things that might otherwise be ignored. And whether or not you believe in ghosts, the stories behind the legends can be seriously disturbing.
1. GIBRALTAR POINT LIGHTHOUSE // TORONTO, ONTARIO
The lighthouse at Gibraltar Point is one of the oldest buildings in Toronto. Originally erected around 1808, it was the scene of a mysterious death in 1815. John Paul Rademuller, sometimes spelled Radan Muller, was the first lighthouse keeper, and supposedly sold beer (possibly bootleg beer) on the side. The story goes that two or three soldiers approached Rademuller for beer, but after some kind of dispute, they hacked him to pieces with an axe, then buried the body parts. Documentation on the crime is sparse and contradictory, and no convictions were ever reached. The lighthouse is no longer in service, but people sometimes report seeing its light on. Some also hear eerie moaning sounds near the site. The sound is said to be the ghost of Rademuller, still waiting for justice.
2. THE GREENBRIER GHOST // GREENBRIER COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA
Elva Zona Heaster Shue was found dead in 1897. Her husband, Erasmus (also known as Edward) Trout Shue, dressed her for burial before the doctor arrived to determine the cause of death. Erasmus wailed and moaned and would not leave his wife's corpse until she was buried. The doctor gave her a cursory look, and wrote down first that she had died of an "everlasting faint" (he later changed the cause of death to "childbirth"). But Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster, had her suspicions. She testified that Zona's ghost visited her over a period of four nights and described how Erasmus had killed her.
Heaster took her story to local prosecutor John Alfred Preston and convinced him to reopen the case. Based on the visitation, the body was exhumed, and Zona's neck was found to be broken; her windpipe was also crushed. It was enough for a jury to convict Erasmus. He spent the next three years at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, where he died in 1900. Locals hope the ghost of Zona Heaster Shue can now rest in peace, but the ghost of her killer is one of many who supposedly haunt the erstwhile penitentiary.
3. THE WHITE DOE // ROANOKE ISLAND, NORTH CAROLINA
If you were in eastern North Carolina and saw a white deer, would you think of it as a rare animal or would you see it as a ghost? It might depend on whether you know the story of the ghost of Virginia Dare.
Virginia Dare was a real person, a member of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. She was the first English child born in the New World, shortly after her parents settled on Roanoke Island in 1587. Her grandfather, John White, left for England to bring back supplies and reinforcements, but by the time he returned in 1590, the colonists had disappeared. Their fate has remained a mystery for hundreds of years; many have assumed they were either killed by local native groups or moved with them to a more suitable home. Recent evidence points to the colony moving inland.
But all we have left of Virginia Dare are tales. The legend is that Dare grew up among the Croatan tribe and was turned into a white deer by a jealous shaman suitor. Another suitor tried to reverse the spell, but the doe was killed by the arrow of a local hunter. Her ghost is said to appear as a white doe roaming the Outer Banks to this day.
4. THE BELL WITCH // ADAMS, TENNESSEE
John Bell and his family lived on a roughly 300-acre farm near Adams, Tennessee. In 1817, the family began to experience frightening manifestations, ranging from strange noises to children being beaten in their sleep. They later heard the voice of an old woman, singing, quoting scripture, and eventually talking to the family.
The “witch,” who some believe was a deceased neighbor named Kate Batts, hated John Bell and constantly tormented him. When his daughter Betsy became engaged to Joshua Gardner, the witch expressed her disapproval and hounded the couple until Betsy broke off the relationship in 1821. Betsy had reason to be scared. Just a few months before, her father John had died. A vial of poison was found near his body, and the voice of the witch took credit for his death. The voice even supposedly laughed all the way through John Bell’s funeral.
Today you can visit a recreation of the family’s home and a nearby cave, and take part in an expanded Halloween schedule of activities there. The property and the cave are said to be haunted still, as many visitors report strange phenomena.
5. THE MERCER-WILLIAMS HOUSE // SAVANNAH, GEORGIA
In 1860, construction began on a fine Savannah home for General Hugh W. Mercer. Due to the Civil War, construction wasn’t completed until 1868, by which time it had a different owner. About a century later, in 1969, the house was purchased by antiques dealer Jim Williams—a preservationist who restored quite a few Savannah buildings to their original glory.
Williams hired the much-younger Danny Hansford as an assistant, and the two also had an intimate relationship. On May 2, 1981, Williams shot and killed Hansford. He was tried for the crime four times; the question was whether he had shot Hansford in a premeditated murder or in self-defense. In the fourth trial, he was acquitted. Less than a year later, Williams himself died of pneumonia and heart failure, allegedly falling dead in the exact spot where Hansford died in his home nine years earlier. The killing was the subject of the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the 1997 movie of the same name. The house, which is said to be haunted by the ghosts of both men, is now a museum operated by Williams’s sister.
6. THE HAUNTED RAILROAD TUNNEL // MOONVILLE, OHIO
Moonville, Ohio, was once a thriving mining town with a population that peaked at about 100 people, but the last residents left in 1947. Nearby is a railroad tunnel that is purported to be haunted by one—or many more—of the people who have died there.
The most famous ghost is a railroad brakeman who had too much to drink and fell from a train in March 1859. His leg was so badly mangled that he supposedly bled to death before it could be amputated. Three other railroad brakemen are said to have died in the area. Several accounts exist of people who see the ghost of a brakeman near the tunnel, swinging a light in an attempt to stop the train.
Engineer Frank Lawhead’s train collided with another train near the tunnel in 1880. Fireman Charles Krick also died in the accident, which was caused by a dispatcher’s mistake. Since then, there have been reports of ghostly figures frightening engineers along the tracks.
Some have seen a ghost described as an older woman. There were three women who died while crossing railroad tracks in the Moonville area—one each in 1873, 1890, and 1892. A 10-year-old girl was killed while crossing a trestle as recently as 1986, the last railroad death in Moonville. Some maintain the female ghost is a woman who died along the tracks in 1905.
Other deaths include several people who hitched a free ride on the outside of a train (which barely fit through the tunnel) and a few who were walking along or even sleeping on the tracks. Railroad workers occasionally see a semi-transparent man being hit, and sometimes they hear screams, but no solid body is hit during those events.
7. MERCY BROWN // EXETER, RHODE ISLAND
Chestnut Hill Baptist Church Cemetery in Exeter, Rhode Island, is reported to be haunted by a vampire named Mercy Lena Brown. She was preceded in death by her mother and sister, victims of tuberculosis, and Mercy would often visit their graves. In January 1892, 19-year-old Mercy herself fell to tuberculosis and was interred with her family members. Her brother Edwin also fell ill with tuberculosis. Soon, townspeople suggested the cause of the family's tragedies was the restless dead. A group of local men dug up the graves of Mercy, her mother, and her sister on March 17, 1892. Only Mercy, who died in January, was free of decomposition. This led villagers to believe she was a vampire. The villagers cut out Mercy's heart, burned it, mixed the ashes with water, and gave the concoction to the ailing Edwin. He nevertheless died a couple of months later. The story of Mercy Brown was an inspiration for elements in several novels, including Bram Stoker's Dracula.
8. NELL CROPSEY // ELIZABETH CITY, NORTH CAROLINA
In 1901, 19-year-old Nell Cropsey disappeared from her home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Her boyfriend of three years, Jim Wilcox, was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and murder. He was at the Cropsey house that night, and the family said the two had argued.
More than a month later, Cropsey’s body was found in the Pasquotank River. But she didn’t drown—the coroner’s report said the cause of death was head trauma that had occurred before she was dumped in the river. Wilcox was convicted of her murder and sentenced to 30 years, but pardoned in 1918. Wilcox allegedly told the entire story to a newspaper editor in 1932 for a book about the case. But Wilcox committed suicide shortly afterward, and the newspaper editor died in an auto accident just a couple of weeks later. People have seen the ghost of Nell Cropsey in the house ever since, appearing as a pale figure that never speaks. There have also been reports of lights going on and off, doors slamming, and a cold breeze blowing without explanation. The home is still inhabited, and the residents live in relative peace with the ghost. After all, it was her home before it was theirs.
Are ghosts haunting a site near you? Part two of this list is coming next week.