Fanciful foray into fantasy and fear

By Fyllis Hockman

At over 450 years old, St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest city in the United States with plenty to commend – history, ancient architecture (for this country), Spanish culture, and, of course, ghosts. A city this ancient has plenty of history to haunt – plenty of death and despair to permeate the landscape – and the spirits of St. Augustine are enough to keep a multitude of ghost tour operators busy. I followed a couple.

Outing #1 was a Ghost and Tombstone Trolley Tour. My first ghost hunting tip: Go for stormy weather, alleged by dedicated ghost hunters to provide more energy for “manifestations” to draw upon. It was foggy: check.

As we hopped on a cart, we were instructed in the basics of ghost sighting: look for small orbs with tails, white light, shadow, white apparition. At a cemetery fence, unsurprisingly still a portal for the undead, cameras flashed and phones went on one after another.
“Why are they all taking pictures of the fence? asked my still skeptical husband. “There is nothing there.”

The 130-year-old Potter’s Wax Museum building, we were told, was built over a graveyard, thus explaining all the ‘energy’. I was beginning to get the idea that energy was just a euphemism for ghosts. Our guide talked about 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 quickly looked around to see who or what “energy” might be near me. What a disappointment I was to find out it was just my Fitbit!

During a visit to the Old Jail, known as the Hanging Jail from 1871 to 1953 for the Eight Criminals Hanging from the Gallows, a dramatic inmate enthusiastically recounted stories about the sadly deceased, all reenacting the gory details of the crimes. The impersonators were the best part of the tour, but they were all very much alive.

A costumed interpreter from the suspended prison in St. Augustine, Florida, tells members of a ghost tour about events that took place there in the past. (Photo courtesy of Victor Block.)

Someone claimed to have an image of an orb – allegedly a wispy white light with or without a tail – on their cell phone. I looked through the bars in the same very dark cell and all I saw was, well, a very dark cell.

How to account for some of these spectrum observations? Shadows, specks of dust, reflections, overflowing imaginations? But many claim they capture images on their cameras that are inexplicable – ghosts trying to come across as recognizable spirit forms. Who am I to argue?

Given my own penchant for spirits (of the drinkable variety), it seemed like a ghost-invaded pub crawl would be a good way to combine my wits with theirs on my next ghost-filled adventure. .

It’s rare for my job to require me to attend an extended happy hour, so when the opportunity to soak in four different venues, all in the name of research, presented itself, I felt compelled to attend the ghost tours of St. Augustine Creepy Pub Crawl. Zombie Martini, anyone?

Claiming that ghost theory is as polarizing as politics, Brian, the guide, said the spectrum tipped 60 to 40 in favor of believers.

“Ignore the skeptics,” he warned. “That’s not why you’re here.”

As we walked the streets built above cemeteries and ongoing archaeological digs, he assured us that the residual energies remained. However, it’s rare for a ghost to come along and say, “Hello, my name is Ralph and I’m going to haunt you tonight.” Instead, he warned, you should familiarize yourself with a place and know what to look for — or more accurately, “share the presence of.”

My spooky fellow explorers kept checking their electromagnetic emitters to see if they had connected to any external energies, then breaking their cameras in hopes of catching them randomly on film. Until we got to the next bar, of course, and started drinking again. For a while I thought liquid spirits were taking over more ethereal spirits. But then we moved on.

The eruption of screams emitted from several transmitters at the corner of Charlotte and Hypolita streets caught everyone’s attention – matched only by the story Brian then told of the murder there on November 20, 1785 of William Delaney by a rival jealous. I haven’t seen Delaney’s spirit anywhere, but I also know it hasn’t happened at any other intersection.

We were all more than happy to go to another bar for more uplifting spirits. At Meehan’s Irish Pub, the liquor is held in place by wires as, rumor has it, bottles have more than once inexplicably flown off the shelves. Kaiser, who has been a bartender there for four years, says he heard voices, saw lights flickering, slammed the bathroom door for no apparent reason and saw a man in overalls.

liquor bottles held together by strings
At Meehan’s Irish Pub in St. Augustine, Florida, which is said to be haunted, bottles are kept from flying across the room. (Photo courtesy of Victor Block)

“If you don’t believe in ghosts, come work here,” he urged.

I ordered another drink.

It’s hard not to be moved by all these stories. As skeptical as I was at the start of the journey, how could I have ignored the – often so similar – experiences of so many others? Or ignore very real hard evidence ostensibly captured on film?

All I could do was shake my head.

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