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9/30/2004

Culture > Culture

SPOOKY!

 

St. Augustine is the oldest city in North America, which means there's a lot of historical crap to learn about there. But the really cool thing about being around so long is all the folks who died horrible, violent deaths there and have consequently decided to stick around and haunt the city. As we all know from the movies, a bloody past equals lots of spooks. And St. Augustine has both.

QUICK HISTORY LESSON

The city was one of the first epicenters of bloodshed and conflict in colonial America. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first spotted the state in 1513, named it "La Florida" (Land of Flowers) and spent the next 50 years launching six unsuccessful expeditions to claim the area for Spain.

Alas, the French Huguenots got here first in 1564, establishing Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River. So in true "conquistador" fashion, the King of Spain sent Adm. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a 16th-century Tony Soprano, to whack all the Frenchies, Native Americans and pirates who refused to join the Spanish Army and convert to Catholicism. A lot of people died pissed off, leaving Central Floridians with a convenient place to hunt ghosts.

Susan Harrell, manager and guide for Ghost Tours of St. Augustine, clued me in to a few of the best ghost stories in town. "A lot of our ghosts are here only because they refuse to leave their property," she says.

HAUNTED HOTELS

There are several haunted hotels in St. Augustine, each with its own unique story. The oldest and most famous is the St. Francis Inn Bed and Breakfast. Built in 1791, its architecture reflects the early residents' concern for their safety due to the constant threat of invasion. The inn also happens to be positioned across from an unmarked Indian burial ground.

Behind the inn's beautiful appearance lies a love story that ended tragically in a double suicide. In the late 1700s, a slave girl named Lily and the innkeeper's nephew fell deeply in love. But the pair had to keep their love affair a secret because it was forbidden for white men and slaves to be together. The couple devised a plan to escape town so that they could be together.

Their secret meetings were soon exposed when the owner of the inn caught the lovers in the attic. Lily was ordered to leave the property by sunset, and the innkeeper threatened to disown his nephew. Distraught, Lily went to pack her things.

Just before she was going to leave, Lily searched for her lover to say a final goodbye, but he was nowhere to be found. As a last resort, she checked the attic, where she found him hanging by the neck from the ceiling. She gently climbed up, removed him from the noose, slipped her own neck in and hanged herself.

The ghosts of Lily and her lover are frequently spotted by the inn's owners, staff and guests. Reports have TVs and coffeepots going on and off by themselves, glasses of water being mysteriously knocked over, doors unlocking and opening by themselves, apparitions of a young black woman in period dress floating up and down the stairs, orbs of light floating about the hotel, and room and bathwater temperatures changing dramatically, from icy cold to boiling hot. Lily's room is the most frequently rented at the inn, and there is a long waiting list if you want to stay there.

The Casablanca Inn on the Bay is also haunted. And interestingly enough, its incorporeal occupation has to do with booze.

During the early 20th century, the Volstead Act prohibited the import and sale of alcoholic beverages, causing a drastic increase in smuggling activity as bootleggers often brought illegal rum through St. Augustine from Cuba.

At the time, the keeper of the Casablanca Inn was a rich widow who was having an affair with one of the rumrunners. She remains anonymous to this day, due to the fact that she still has descendants living in the city. But back then she was well-known for allowing smugglers to stay at the inn and secretly serving alcohol to guests. When government agents were in town, she would stand on the inn's roof and swing a lantern back and forth, signaling the rumrunning boats to keep moving.

Prohibition went away, and so did the innkeeper. But her spirit lives on. Countless boats have reported seeing a lantern swinging atop the hotel back and forth at dusk. Also, guests of the adjacent hotel have been awakened by a light flashing in their windows. Most people report seeing only the light, but others say they've seen a dark figure pacing behind the light. Locals believe the spirit of the widow remains on the roof to signal safe passage to her lover.

HAUNTED RESTAURANTS

While most of St. Augustine's ghosts are said to be friendly, there is one well-known exception. A few blocks south of the Casablanca Inn, near the Bridge of Lions, sits an old crimson-painted restaurant with an even older resident ghost. During the British invasion of St. Augustine's first Spanish period in 1700, a woman named Catalina Depores was born where Harry's of St. Augustine stands today.

Depores' family moved to Cuba for 21 years during the British occupation, but returned to reclaim her home after Florida was given back to Spain. Upon her return, she petitioned the governor for restoration of her property, but he refused. Not to be deterred, Depores wrote the King of Spain and asked that he grant her permission to reclaim her property. Surprisingly, the king granted her wish – an unprecedented accomplishment for a woman of the time. Seven years later, she died of unknown causes in her upstairs bedroom.

Today, the guests, wait staff and owners of Harry's say Catalina's temperamental and haughty spirit still wanders the restaurant. According to the staff, there have been numerous reports of both male and female guests running terrified from the bathrooms after seeing a woman in period dress staring at them in the mirror. When they turn around, there's no one there. She's also been known to throw things.

"Catalina is probably still there because she had so much trouble reclaiming her home, she refuses to leave, even after death," says Harrell.

HAUNTED LANDMARKS

There's no shortage of spooks in St. Augustine. An old school is haunted, as is a jail and a drugstore. All are said to be frequented by spirits fond of slinging things around and making unexpected appearances.

But it's the St. Augustine Lighthouse, originally built in 1824, that is said to be the vortex of the spiritual underworld, according to local legend.

Ethereal inhabitants of the lighthouse include the lighthouse's first owner, an old lighthouse keeper and the young daughters of a man hired to restore the lighthouse in the late 1800s.

The original owner, Dr. Alan Ballard, was forced to sell it to the government in 1865 because it was thought the encroaching ocean would eventually swallow it. But Florida's funds were depleted after the Civil War. The state offered to buy the lighthouse from Ballard for substantially less than it was worth, but Ballard refused to sell. So the government threatened to take the lighthouse via eminent domain and give him nothing. Outraged, Ballard vowed never to leave his precious lighthouse. Lighthouse staff now working there say Ballard kept his vow; his spirit can be seen late at night walking in and around the property.

The keeper, Peter Rasmussen, was always seen enjoying a cigar, and had a reputation for being a very strict manager and quite meticulous when it came to maintaining the lighthouse. Today, the scent of Rasmussen's cigar can still be detected several times a week, say the people who staff the lighthouse today.

But perhaps the most intriguing story of the lighthouse is that of the Pity girls. Hezekiah Pity was hired to renovate the lighthouse in the late 1800s. One day his daughters, Eliza, 13, and Mary, 15, asked him if they could play around the grounds. Pity let them, but made them promise to stay away from a cart used for carrying building materials from the bay to the lighthouse. The curious girls disobeyed, climbed into the cart, and drowned when the cart slid down a hill and into the bay. Today, the two girls can be heard laughing in the tower late at night. The eldest Pity girl is also spotted from time to time, wearing the same blue velvet dress and blue hair bow she died in.

The Oldest Wooden School House, located on St. George Street, is said to be haunted by a young woman who lost her daughter there in the early 1800s. There have been sightings of a woman in period dress, her dark hair pulled into a bun, looking out the second-floor window. Recently, a psychic made contact with the spirit, and reported that the dead woman is still in mourning because her daughter died when she was away. Passersby report seeing the woman at the second-floor window, looking west as she waits for her husband to return. It's possible they are seeing a mannequin set at the spot for effect.

HAUNTED WATERS

Even the water is haunted in St. Augustine. The Bay of Matanzas is home to the souls of French Huguenot soldiers murdered by Adm. de Avilés when the Spanish originally settled St. Augustine. The bay got the name "Matanzas" (Spanish for "slaughter") after 200 French Huguenot soldiers were beheaded for refusing de Avilés' ultimatum to convert to Catholicism and join the Spanish army, or die.

Local fishermen say they have experienced strange sightings on the waters. One of the most frequent reports is of a green light emerging from deep beneath the surface. Once the light breaks the surface, it turns white, a beautiful face emerges and it disappears into the air.

Locals have also reported bay waters turning blood red after sunset. The sands of the bay are said to briefly turn a reddish tint when stepped on or stirred up in the shallows.

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