20 October 2012

Alexandria Ghosts

Looking for ghost stories?  Have I got the town for you: Alexandria, Virginia.  We’ve got three centuries of ghosts to choose from, and we aren’t done yet.

Founded in 1749, Alexandria hosted the gathering of governors that kicked off the French and Indian War.  General Edward Braddock, who convened the conference, wrote the fateful letter to the British government suggesting the colonials pay for their own defense, which prompted the creation of the Stamp Act.  If that wasn’t enough, he was a braggart, a drunk and a sexual predator.  He was no respecter other people’s property, and oh yes, he insisted the town’s citizens house and feed several thousand unruly British troops without compensation or legal recourse.  Fortunately, he managed to get himself killed within three months of his arrival, and the aftermath gave local boy George Washington some serious experience in retreating.

Speaking of George, he slept, ate, drank, danced, and was first called “president” here.  Dolley Madison served oyster ice cream at her parties here. 

Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians by William Charles (1814)
The town surrendered to the British twice in during the War of 1812. On one of those occasions, local leaders had to chase the British down to do the deed.  It saved the city from burning…by the British.  The political cartoonists of the day were another matter.

Robert E. Lee’s hometown, Alexandria was the site of the first Union and Confederate deaths in the Civil War.  It was occupied by Union forces for the duration, although it voted overwhelmingly to secede with the rest of Virginia. 

During the occupation, nearly every large building was converted into a military hospital.  Many of the remaining structures became part of the Union war machine, serving as laboratories for the advances in engineering which helped win the war for the North.

All this history means there are so many ghosts, local ghost tour guides have to pick and choose.  Are the customers interested in the War for Independence?  Tell them about the Loyalist wrongfully shot by the British, who has since made a point of harassing any English-born man or woman who presumes to cross the threshold of his Prince Street home.

Are they romantics?  Recount the story of the Female Stranger, whose male companion swore her deathbed attendants to secrecy about her identity—then skipped town without paying the hefty tab for her medical treatment and her elaborate gravestone in St. Paul’s Cemetery.  Or talk about the screaming ghost of Candi’s Candies, who burned alive when a candle ignited her wedding gown.

To say nothing of the usual parade of spectral dogs and soldiers, executed criminals (including one who was cooked alive in an outdoor oven), suicidal sea captains’ wives, etc., etc.  You could fill a book.  In fact, people have.

So why hasn’t it appeared on any of the televised ghost hunting shows?  You’d think it would be a natural.

Okay, you can understand why someone might now want to open their home, but the museums?  Gadsby’sTavern, favorite haunt of the Female Stranger and the occasional incorporeal cotillion, has been a restaurant and museum for years.  Ramsay House, formerly owned and still patrolled by one of the town’s founders, serves as Alexandria’s Visitor Center.  On the creepy side of the street, the headquarters of Franklin and Armfield, one of the nation’s largest slave trading firms, has been office space since 1984—which seems appropriate in an odd, double-speak kind of way.

I don’t know why those folks didn’t invite Ghosthunters to come on down.  I only know the reason why the Carlyle House never made it to national TV.

Carlyle House
(courtesy Ser Amantio di Nicolao at en.wikipedia)
Carlyle House was built in the early 1750s by John Carlyle, a wealthy merchant and close family friend of George Washington.  The Georgian Palladian stone mansion was the premier house in town for many years—and the only one with a front yard.  So it was the natural choice for General Braddock’s famous conference. 

It was the “mansion house”, which gave its name to the Mansion House Hotel, and became an integral part of the hotel complex.  During the Civil War, the hotel also became one of the largest medical facilities in the region and ground zero for one of the conflict’s biggest battles of the sexes.  It was a proving ground for the Civil War’s most outrageous innovations: women nurses.

And that’s just the building’s public face.  An Englishman of Scottish extraction, Carlyle appears to have been a superstitious sort.  When the Northern Virginia Park Authority restored the mansion in the early 1970s, they discovered a dead cat had been walled into the hearth—an old Scottish tradition thought to protect the house from harm. 

It worked on the house, if not on the Carlyles.  Both of Carlyle’s wives died of complications in childbirth before the age of thirty-five.  All but two of Carlyle’s eleven children predeceased him.  Only one survived to her majority. 

However, daughter Sarah Carlyle Herbert not only beat the family odds, she had seven healthy children and lived out her full three score and ten.  Her descendants and those of her sister Ann (who died in childbirth at seventeen) are the reason the house can display so many Carlyle family treasures.  They cherished their heritage and their ancestors’ possessions.

This historic photo shows the Mansion House
Hotel during the Civil War, when it served as
a military hospital. The hotel was built in front
of the Carlyle House (aka the Mansion House).
Before its restoration, the house was popularly supposed to be the most haunted place in town.  The basement wine cellar, the result of a mid-nineteenth century renovation, was described as a pen for runaway slaves.  (It wasn’t.)  Mrs. Green, the wife of the man who built the hotel, was said to roam the backyard, fretting about the ruination of her daughter Emily.  (Emily wasn’t ruined. She never even dated a Yankee.  She married Frank Stringfellow, a Confederate spy who later became a U.S. Army chaplain in the Spanish-American War.)  Any number of ghostly Civil War patients were said to repeatedly throw themselves off the roof.  (When the hotel was converted to a hospital, the house was used as a doctors’ residence.  The patients were billeted in the hotel, which spanned the street in front of the mansion.  Some of them did jump or fall from the upper floors of the hospital, but not the house.)

But all the ghoulies seem to disappear as soon as the derelict remains of the hotel were torn down.  I suspect it had something to do with all that sunlight streaming through windows which hadn't seen the street in over a hundred years.  But whatever the reason, I’ve worked as a volunteer docent at the Carlyle House for two years now, and I’ve never felt any out-of-place “spiritual energy” or unnatural cold spots.  The building is quiet.  Serene, even.  At least to me.

But I wonder if the house’s last curator felt the same.  You see, one of those national ghost hunting shows did approach him about doing a program about the house.  He said no.  He said the house wasn’t haunted.  Insisted it wasn’t.

“Why’d you turn them down?” I asked.  “Half the time they don’t find anything.  The other half, they’re just scaring themselves.  Either way, it’s good publicity.”

“I know.  But…” 

He hesitated.  The former curator resembled a genial linebacker, and I wouldn’t have thought anything made him nervous.  But by this point in the conversation he was looking downright sheepish.   

“But,” he repeated, his voice dropping to a hoarse whisper, “what if there’s something here?”

Jean Marie Ward

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