Key West & St. Augustine Ghost Tours - Supernatural Florida
By David Wilkening
Boo! Explore Florida's supernatural side with ghost tours in St. Augustine and Key West.
The 72-foot schooner Freedom bobs in the rippling black waters of Matanzas Bay in St. Augustine. Looking up at the mist-laden night sky, this passenger thinks of the poet Lord Alfred Noyes: The moon was a ghostly galleon/tossed upon cloudy seas.
The floors creak as the crew hoists the huge white sails. The tall ship slips into an almost soundless night, slowly, a silent spook gliding under a velvet sky jeweled with blazing stars and ghost-like clouds scurrying past the moon. It is a fine night to tell tales of the supernatural in Key West.
At times, our tough-talking pirate guide's dress billows as the wind wheezes in whispered gusts. Wheeeooo. A silent pause as the wind catches its breath. Wheeeooo.
Aye, mate. Our guide tells of the time in the 16th century when 170 French sailors miraculously escaped their wrecked ships. Begging for quarter, they surrendered to the Spanish, who promptly put them to the sword.
"They say the river ran red with blood that night, and there are those who say they have seen it happen again," she says in a soft, lilting tone.
This is the "Ghosts of the Matanzas" tour. It includes the telling of ghostly tales (this night, the river did not run red), singing ("What do you do with a Drunken Sailor"), snacks and beer or wine posing as "grog."
It's only one of about a half dozen spirited tourist attractions that have appeared recently in this history-rich city. So why have things that go bump in the night started showing up in St. Augustine and in other old Florida cities such as tiny Key West?
One explanation is that St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, St. Augustine already had a fort, a church, a hospital, a seminary, fish markets and more than 100 houses and shops. It has had a long time to accumulate ghost tales in the process. That is why it is one of the top destinations for ghost and paranormal tours in Florida.
The city's tumultuous past includes pillaging pirates, wars between the Spanish and French, and Indian massacres. Not to mention epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox and measles. The ghosts know that Death has come here in many disguises.
It makes it easy for visitors such as my wife, Suzanne, and I to find spooky stuff in the places we stay and the attractions we visit.
We check into the white coquina limestone St. Francis Inn, the city's oldest B&B, going back to 1791. We are given keys to The Ballerina Room, so named because of a handsome painting of a demure-looking young lady in a white dress.
The floors groan like a rusted cemetery gate, making us think about Lily's Room, formerly 3-A, on the third floor just down the hall from our Ballerina.
In the mid-1800s, the son of the building's owner fell in love with a maid. Forbidden love, in those class-conscious times. Despondent, the son hung himself in what is now Lily's room. That is known.
What is not known is why Lily's ghost turns up as an apparition whisking down the hallway, sometimes carrying towels or sheets.
For more stories of that ilk, we waited until that evening to join "A Ghostly Experience Walking Tour."
One of my favorite stories was the tale of the highly respected Judge John B. Stickney who was buried in the Huguenot Cemetery at San Marco and Orange Avenues. His children decided to have his body moved to be near family members in Washington.
A crowd gathered as a local gravedigger unearthed the judge's remains. He turned out to be well preserved except for some unexplained missing teeth.
"So the apparition most often seen walking around the cemetery is Judge Stickney in a tall hat and long cape," said Cindy Stavely, general manager of Ghost Tours of St. Augustine. "He seems to be walking bent over, as if he's looking for something. Some say it's his teeth."
The next day, when we visited the Spanish-built Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the United States, a guide told us no humans ever managed to overcome defenders of this dank dungeon. But ghosts have prevailed over the iron bars and thick wood-shuttered windows.
One story is the tale of Colonel Garcia Martis and his wife Dolores. Stealing away during the night, Dolores would sneak off with Captain Manuel Abela. Eventually, the secret lovers' tryst was discovered when the Colonel one day caught a whiff of his wife’s scent on the captain. Soon after, Dolores and Captain Abela disappeared.
An explanation given by the Colonel for their sudden absence was that Dolores moved back home to Mexico and the Captain was reassigned to Spain, but when a hidden room in the dungeon was discovered, they found the ash and remains of two skeletal bodies. To this day, it's said that people can feel the touch of cold spots and smell the hint of Dolores' perfume.
Key West Ghost and Paranormal Tours
We left St. Augustine and headed for Key West, which is about as far south as ghosts can go in this country.
In common with St. Augustine, Key West has a long history of violence including pillaging pirates who, when their day had passed, went into the equally brutal wrecking (ship-salvaging) business. Hurricanes and massive fires took hundreds of lives and almost destroyed this southernmost city.
"This is one of the oldest cities in Florida and I'm convinced we have more ghosts per capita than anywhere else in the United States," says David Sloan, owner of a ghost tour group.
It's the violent past, he says, or perhaps ghosts can't cross water. Whatever the reasons, Key West is only two miles by four miles, so we rented bicycles to tread to the historic Key West Cemetery.
It was an overcast day and the dingy, off-white monuments offered little contrast to a slate gray sky. The moisture in the air was so thick that if you were a mourner, you might think Heaven was holding back tears of grief.
Because the soil is primarily coral and limestone, digging to any depth is difficult here, so many tombs are at least partially above ground. Some visitors find this disturbing, but I thought it looked like souls inching closer to Heaven.
There are more than 100,000 graves here, more than three times the souls alive in Key West. It's dead in the center of Old Town. But, perhaps because of its humorous touches, it feels as alive as any place in this party-loving city.
The spirit goes on here, you might say, in epitaphs such as that of hypochondriac B. Pearl Roberts: "I told you I was sick." Her marker was made from the nightstand used to store her medication.
Suzanne and I checked into Cypress House, a boutique hotel with a lush tropical garden, a 40-foot-long lap pool, a hearty two-hour continental breakfast and an evening cocktail hour of pour-your-own.
Cypress House is also haunted by ghosts.
"Guests frequently report they have left the door open to their room and come back to find it's deadlocked - from the inside," said Dave Taylor, former owner-manager.
Other ghostly areas include the Crowne Plaza La Concha, where you can have a drink at the outside bar on the roof and view the sunset.
While you're there, look out for the ghost of a man who refused to let a plunge down an elevator shaft deter him from coming back to tap visitors on the back.
During a visit to these Florida areas known for their spiritual activities, I met many people who believe in ghosts. But I found only one tourist who reported seeing one. That was Jamie Lynch who, with her husband, had driven almost 20 hours from their home in New Jersey to the haunted Francis Street Bottle Inn. She had gone to bed when she heard, unmistakably, footsteps in her room. She saw a ghostly figure. What did she do?
"I was so tired, the dead couldn't make me get up," she says.
Perhaps the moral is that you can't call up ghosts on demand... and that, conversely, spirits might appear when you're least prepared for them.