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Ghost Tours in St. Augustine: A fanciful foray into phantom fantasy — or fright
One of the oldest cities in North America has enough ghosts to keep ghost-tour operators busy.
Taking a ghost tour in the US’s oldest city.
At 455-plus years, St. Augustine, Florida, is America’s oldest city. There’s a lot to recommend a city that old -- history, ancient (for the states) architecture, Spanish culture, 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.
I tagged along on a couple. Outing #1 was a Ghosts and Gravestones Trolley Tour.
It’s ironic that the tour begins right next to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not building. Just sayin’…. First ghost hunting tip: go for the stormy weather, alleged by dedicated ghost hunters to provide more energy for the “manifestations” to draw on.
It was misty out: check.
We visited a cemetery, wax museums, pirate haunts and an old jail.
As we hopped on a trolley, all dressed up for Halloween, with about a dozen other eager seekers, we were instructed on the basics of ghost sightings: look for little orbs with tails, a white light, a shadow, an apparition in white. 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 130-year-old Potter’s Wax Museum building, 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 things happening, which by the end of the night had become a mantra -- footsteps heard, bottles falling, objects flying. 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!
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 as the Hanging Jail from 1871-1953, for the eight criminals who hung from the gallows. A dramatic inmate told the stories of the sadly deceased with great gusto while playing out all the gory details of the crimes. The impersonators were the best part of the tour, but unfortunately 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.
How to account for some of these specter sightings?
Shadows; specks of dust; reflections, overactive imagination? 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-invaded pub crawl was a good way to combine my spirits with…well…theirs, as part of my next phantom-filled adventure.
Not often does my line of work require me to attend an extended Happy Hour so when the opportunity to imbibe at four different venues all in the name of research presented itself, well…I felt obligated…. Ergo: Ghost Tours of St. Augustine Creepy Crawley Pub Crawl. Zombie martini, anyone?
Brian, our tour 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.
Ghosts are as polarizing as politics.
Claiming that the theory of ghosts is as polarizing as politics (though probably not today …), 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 archeological digs, he assured us that residual energies remain. Rarely, 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 admonished, you have to acquaint yourself with a place and know what to look for -- or, more accurately, “share the presence of.”
My creepy crawl comrades kept checking their EMF transmitters to see if they’ve 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.
And 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 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.
Bars serve the spirits I can believe in!
We were all more than happy to get to another bar for more uplifting spirits. At Meehan’s Irish Pub, the liquor is held in place by wires because, as rumor has it, the bottles have more than once inexplicably flown off the shelves. According to Kaiser, who has been bartending there for four years, he has 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, also renowned as haunted, enthusiastically proclaims, “Oh yeah, I’ve experienced everything.” Those experiences, not surprisingly, range from erratic lights, moving dishes, unseen voices and apparitions of a woman in white and a man in a uniform. I ordered yet another drink!
It’s hard not to be moved 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.
Learning about Miss. Lily in the St. Francis Inn.
The next day, glad to be done with ghosts 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, 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 playful ghost who wanders the third floor searching for her lost love and wreaking havoc with the other 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 information, visit floridashistoriccoast.com; ghosttoursofstaug.com, www.trolleytours.com/st-augustine/ghost-tours-st-augustine.asp.
Fyllis Hockman is a multi-award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for over 30 years — and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles appear in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet. When not traveling, she is almost as happy watching plays or movies, working out, and sitting on a barstool next to her travel-writing husband.