October Is the Month of Ghosts and Goblins
But in Alexandria, Spirits Walk Among Us All Year Long
By Kris Gilbertson
“About five years ago, an 8-year-old boy comes up to me while I’m selling tickets at the public tours,” said Wellington Watts, owner of Alexandria’s Original Ghost & Graveyard Tour. “He grabs my shirt sleeve and says ‘Mister, I see ghosts.’ Which sounds a lot to me like the movie, Sixth Sense.
“I think, this kid’s pulling my leg as well as my sleeve, so I say, ‘OK, what ghosts do you see?’ He said ‘I live in a house over on Prince Street. When I come down at night to get a drink of water in the kitchen, I see them all the time—I see two ghosts in my living room, and they are hanging from the rafters by their necks.’”
Alexandria Ghosts & Graveyards
Wellington Watts came to Alexandria in 1994. A native of southern New Jersey, Watts indulged a love of history by becoming a ghost tour guide for Doorways to Old Virginia. Within two years, he bought the company, renamed it Alexandria Colonial Tours, and developed additional tours based on other interests, which can be explored at www.alexcolonialtours.com.
Watts runs the hugely popular Ghosts & Graveyard Tour from March 1 through Thanksgiving weekend. The ghost tour shuts down during the coldest winter months, then opens for their busiest season, March through the Fourth of July. When students converge on DC, they average 320 customers a night. The 34 colonial-costumed tour guides are part-time, independent contractors. These days, Watts prefers not to give tours himself unless requested by a client because he’d “rather give a guide a job.”
Watts’ tour guides come from many disciplines: students, actors, and unrelated occupations. Nikki Enfield is a massage therapist by day with a studio in Del Ray. By lantern light, she performs dynamic renditions of better-known visitations, taking in stride conditions from inclement weather to (as on a recent night) the occasional group who just won’t join the fun. With unflagging energy, she will work for 90 minutes to pull them into the spirit of adventure and afterward remain upbeat.
Privacy and Tolerance
“Just to let you know,” Watts said recently, “I don’t believe in ghosts myself. I do this more as a fun thing, a business venture—so I don’t dabble in the communication-with-the-dead type of thing.”
“However,” he added, “that doesn’t mean I don’t hear stories.
“There are a couple haunted houses that are off the beaten path,” said Wellington, “but the homes are privately owned and the owners ask us not to point the house out on the tour.” It is clear that Watts’ ghost tour thrives at the tolerance of residents and with respect for their privacy.
“Back when this tour got started 30 some years ago, the previous owners would take people right outside the front doors, and that was OK until afterward, when the customers came back at about 11:00 at night and knocked on the door, saying ‘can we see your ghosts?’ Or they’d start peeking in the windows while the family’s trying to eat dinner. So there are a few places that obviously we keep quiet.”
Tours do not identify the part of Prince Street where the child who sees ghosts lived. At the time, Watts asked himself, “What could this child be talking about? In learning the address, I did some research.”
During the War of 1812, when Alexandria was looted of everything of value (but not burned to its foundations), two British spies were captured and hung, not on Market Square as the norm, but in this house. When British invaders entered the house, they found the bodies hanging from the rafters, and they are still there.
A house one block over on Duke Street is famous for being the most haunted house in the city. “It changed hands a few years ago,” said Watts, “and the new owners’ little boy kept seeing tour groups outside, knowing it was a ghost tour, and people pointing at the home. We were told no more ghost tours. So I can’t name the house or family, but very strange things happen in that house.
“One of the most chilling was about 10 years ago. I had been in this office about a year, and the [office next to Watts’] was rented to an interior designer. She was hired by a family that had moved into that house. She comes up the stairs one day as I am about out the door and asked ‘do you know anything about such and such a house?’ Well, yes, I do, what do you want to know?
“She said, ‘I just came from that house and this happened minutes ago. I’m doing the interior renovation. It’s a great house, great job, but I was trying to hang a mirror on the living room wall and no matter what I could do, when I was hanging it on the hook, it would not balance evenly. It would tilt to the left or tilt to the right, and I was so frustrated that I finally picked it off the hook and set it down on the floor, leaned up against the wall.
“‘Carpenters were working on the mantelpiece behind me. They called my attention and when I turned around – BOOM – the mirror went from the floor to the wall in perfect alignment. So can you tell me more about that house?’”
Lesser known spirits, folk tales, ordinances
Not all Alexandria ghosts are well known or documented. You can hear stories of personal encounters with spirits in many of the city’s historic structures. The building at 1026 King Street, constructed between 1880 and 1900, has housed numerous businesses, currently Hank’s Oyster Bar, and is known to be haunted. Ask bartender Tom Shoemaker if he’s met the ghost and he will cheerfully recount episodes of paranormal mischief. He and colleague Carlos Guillen refer to the ghost as female, but the only documented death at that address was one John Spencer in 1903.
Carlos has also worked at Vermillion, in the 1100 block of King Street. Alone there one night, he heard a woman speaking behind him. Looking about, no one was there. “It was very creepy,” said Carlos, but then he forgot about it until a couple of years later. A customer asked if he’d ever heard voices in the building. She’d grown up in that house, and knew of a woman who’d died there, but apparently never left.
The Potomac River has left its banks often enough to add another dimension to life and death in Old Town. The 100 block of King Street is built on landfill. The natural bank of the Potomac River came to Lee Street (which was called Water Street before the Civil War). Even today, when the river floods it may rise to its original bank.
Wealthy families in old Alexandria buried their dead under tabletop tombstones. These monuments displayed family wealth and prestige. The heavy stonework also weighted the coffins down, keeping them in the ground during floods. “With an unweighted coffin in high water,” said Watts, “in some places you might see your late Aunt Bessie floating around.”
Who owns the past?
Alexandria’s spirits have never lacked for people to chronicle their existence, but sometimes the history of a site is more contested than the ghosts. Tradition holds that George Washington celebrated his last Fourth of July at Spring Gardens Tavern, located at 414 Franklin Street, which from multiple accounts is haunted by a Revolutionary War soldier who makes appearances around the house and grounds.
In the 1980s, the homeowner planned to build a swimming pool. This required allowing Alexandria Archeology to recover any artifacts of value, which a tavern site is expected to hold. The controversy arose because excavation uncovered no evidence that the location had ever been a tavern, contrary to the research of a prominent local historian, the late Ruth Lincoln Kaye. Battle lines were drawn between Kaye and then city historian Michael Miller and archeologist Pamela Cressey.
The disagreement continues, with advocates on both sides, although according to Wellington Watts: “If Pam Cressey said no, that carries a lot of weight.” But what has never been questioned is the presence of the Revolutionary War spirit.
Mercy Street, a Civil War medical drama based on true stories and developed by Public Broadcasting System, will premiere on January 17, 2016. Set in Alexandria in spring 1862, the series will focus on two volunteer nurses: Mary Phinney, a New England abolitionist, and Emma Green, a Confederate belle. The setting is Mansion House, the Green family’s hotel that was seized by Union forces for use as an army hospital. The hotel/hospital was located on the now restored Carlyle House front lawn.
The story concerns the drama and common twists in everyday life behind the front lines of the Civil War. PBS describes it as “a fresh twist on a story that resonates with larger themes we struggle with even today.”
The series is “inspired” by memoirs and letters from real doctors and nurse volunteers at the hospital in Alexandria, the longest occupied Confederate city of the war. It is being shot in the Richmond and Petersburg areas (?!)
There is no indication that the series will address the demise of at least three period victims who died in Mansion House, not from war wounds but by falling or being pushed out upper story windows. By many accounts, they are still there.
Ghost & Graveyard tour groups regularly stop on the lawn to talk about the hospital and Carlyle House history. Wellington Watts recalls one night when tour guide Ken Balbuena was addressing a group and felt a hand on his right shoulder. He turned but no one was there. Thinking nothing of it, he moved on.
Another guide, Kelsey Whitlock, saw that the lawn had been vacated and moved her group into the same space. While giving her talk, she too felt a hand on her right shoulder. Again, no one was there. She didn’t give it another thought. At the end of the night, Ken related this strange incident to Wellington. He was in earshot of Kelsey, who all present say turned deathly pale. Shortly after, Kelsey moved to Hawaii.
Ghost & Graveyard Tours are a function of
Alexandria Colonial Tours, Ltd.
201 King Street, 3rd Floor
Alexandria, VA 22314
Many of the people depicted in the upcoming PBS series Mercy Street were real citizens of Alexandria who now reside in Ivy Hill Cemetery. A special tour of Ivy Hill will be conducted on Friday, October 30, with emphasis on this history. Reservations can be made through the Colonial Tours website.