By Marcia Lane
In St. Augustine ghosts apparently feel right at home — so many are reported that they must. Enough, in fact, to support nightly ghost tours on foot, by trolley and at sea and to have inspired half a dozen books over the last 25 years. This is a town where ghosts, and the ghostly, have become something of a cottage industry.
But spectral beings and stories about them are nothing new. Back in 1874-75, Harper’s Weekly magazine was running a series by Constance Fennimore Woolson on life in the Oldest City, including the story of a maiden named Maria Sanchez.
That’s the same Maria Sanchez for whom the lake, which was long a creek, is named. The name makes its first appearance on the 1737 map of the city; it may be 100 years older. Who was Maria Sanchez? Historians say there are 25 possible candidates and counting.
The 1874 story in poetry form tells how a “Norther coming, Already humming, Doth bear away, That Spanish maiden, Far from town.” As her dugout is swept away “That calm spectator, An alligator” is watching and summons his mate who eats the girl, while the bull gator is left with only the boat and the crabs Maria Sanchez has been gathering.
Chances are good, historians say, that Mrs. Woolson conjured up the story and the ghost she claimed could be seen with her “firefly lamp.” Woodson does allow Maria must be “a very muddy sort of ghost” since there was so little water in the marshy area of the creek.
A TOUCH OF THE MACABRE
For every fictional tale, St. Augustine teems with stories based in truth, and macabre enough to please the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.
In the early 1820s, lawyer Joseph Lee Smith was in St. Augustine as a territorial judge. Separated from his wife, who was still in Connecticut, he would write long, chatty letters home. Charles Tingley with the St. Augustine Historical Society Library says that, in one, Judge Smith tells his wife the story of meeting a charming and very beautiful young woman at a party. A week later she became ill and died.
While her body was being carried on an open funeral bier to Tolomato Cemetery, her forehead was scratched by the branch of an overhanging acacia tree. The wound began to bleed, and people realized she wasn’t dead but in a coma. She was taken home and recovered.
The story’s been embellished through the years. Now you’re apt to hear that when the woman died several years later her then-husband told the men carrying the bier to avoid the tree. Some versions say the judge fell in love with her at first sight but kept his feelings hidden.
IN THE CEMETERIES
Because St. Augustine was originally predominantly Catholic, a burying place for Protestants was needed and that’s how Huguenot Cemetery came into existence. It was opened just in time to handle the many victims of a yellow fever epidemic. Before closing in the late 1800s due to lack of space, 436 burials were recorded.
Not everyone rests quietly at that cemetery or several others where lights have been reported, as well as floating figures and sightings of people in period dress.
A popular story these days is that of Judge John Stickney, a gentleman from the north who came down to St. Augustine even before the Civil War was over. “Carpetbagger” is how some described the lawyer who soon had his fingers in lots of pies, becoming prominent in the town and in government. He’d get so involved in politics that at one point he was investigated for ballot-box-stuffing during a presidential election.
Stickney was in Washington, D.C., in 1882 when he fell ill and died. His body was shipped back to St. Augustine and buried in the Huguenot Cemetery. Twenty years later, his grown children were living in Washington and decided they wanted his body moved to where they were then residing. A gravedigger was hired and the coffin dug up.The digging naturally drew onlookers, including a couple of rowdies who’d been drinking. The gravedigger said the men picked up and examined some of the bones before leaving. After they were gone, the gravedigger found several gold teeth missing from the skull.
These days, ghost tour leaders will tell you the judge’s figure is often seen roaming the cemetery, apparently still looking for his teeth.
That addition to the story causes Tingley to laugh every time he hears it. “I conjured a ghost,” he says, noting that, when a tour operator came he told her the story and left the ending hanging so she could draw her own conclusion.
Don’t try telling that to anyone who swears they’ve seen the judge’s ghostly figure roaming the cemetery. His mortal remains may have been moved to Washington, but people will swear his ghost stayed in St. Augustine. Tingley calls it “the power of suggestion.”
Another popular sighting is a boy, reportedly the ghost of a five year old named James Morgan, who loved to climb on a live oak tree in Tolomato Cemetery. Tolomato, on Cordova Street, is the Catholic cemetery built on the site of an 18th-century Franciscan Indian mission. More than 1,000 people were buried there before its closing.
Young Morgan joined the dead at Tolomato in November 1887 after he fell from the tree. His family secured several other plots beside him but the mother and father eventually left St. Augustine, unable to remain in the town that had brought them such grief. They never returned, the story goes, and the boy remains alone.
Numerous people, including children, report seeing the little boy. If you go on the internet you can find a photo taken of what appears to be a young boy hiding among the tree limbs.
While cameras don’t lie, they can be deceived.
Case in point — the Tovar House on St. Francis Street. On the internet it’s called the Oldest House, says Tingley, but that’s an error. That house is next door. There is a video online that shows a shadowy figure moving across the wall and suddenly disappearing. Scary.
Except that it’s not a ghost, but an example of camera obscura, a natural optical phenomenon. A shaft of sunlight comes through a very tiny opening in the window shutter into the dark room and projects a figure that’s outside onto the wall.
For all the “it can’t be” arguments to ghosts, some things are difficult to explain away. That sudden cold spot. The unexplained sorrow of a place. The glimpse of someone or something out of the corner of your eye.
On April 24, 1944, a fire broke out at the Castle Warden Hotel on San Marco Avenue, sweeping through two rooms on the third and fourth floors. In a few minutes, two women were dead. The fire was thought to have been started by a lighted cigarette in the third floor room. The occupant summoned a bellboy who used up one fire extinguisher then ran to get another. By the time he could get back, flames were coming out from under the door of Room 17, the fire had spread to the penthouse, and flames blocked the hallway. Thick black smoke was everywhere and screams were heard from Room 17.
Firefighters arrived and broke into the two rooms, where they found both women dead of suffocation. While there were signs of intense heat, neither body was burned. Officials said both apparently tried to escape the deadly fumes, using wet towels. The woman in Room 17 was found doubled up in a bathtub, the woman in the penthouse was on the floor of her bathroom.
At the time, Norton Baskin and his wife, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, owned the hotel. Rawlings, author of the classic novels, “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek”, was friends with the woman in the penthouse, where the Baskins had formerly lived.
Guides tell this story these days when you visit the hotel, which now houses Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The story is spicier if hints of a possible double murder are included. Some people report smelling smoke, others a chill up their spine. Others just feel a deep sense of sadness.
If you’re like so many others out there who can suspend your disbelief, it’s stories like this that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you’re walking down a deserted St. Augustine street and a vague shadow passes just outside your field of vision.
“Did I just see that?!”
Who’s to say that you didn’t?