Haunts of Richmond with the Houlihans: Resurrecting the Art of Storytelling

 

by Charles McGuigan        Design by Doug Dobey

It’s a warm, warm, late October evening, just past seven, and the sun’s already set. I’m standing with a crowd of about twenty people in downtown Richmond at the corner of 20th and Main streets. We’re standing on a sidewalk that borders an enclave of buildings that make up the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, which is the largest repository of Poe memorabilia in the world. Though Poe never lived here, there’s a remnant of his adoptive father’s home in the building we face. But more about that later.

It seems fitting that our group is waiting beside this shrine to the author of “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque”, because for the next hour and a half we’ll be touring this ancient part of the city, and learning about ghosts and specters and things that go bump in the night. Along with that, we’ll also find out things about this city we might never have known. It’s part of the way the Houlihans conduct their ghost tours, which gracefully merge history with supernatural phenomena. And above else, they tell a riveting story.

We huddle in a semicircle around Chris Houlihan, who is the vice president of Haunts of Richmond. His wife, Beth, who serves as president of their ghost tour business, will take us to some of the spookier sites in Shockoe Bottom in a short while. Haunts of Richmond, incidentally, was founded about fifteen years ago by another wife and husband team—Sandi and Scott Bergman.

Scott gives a brief history about those who preceded us on these streets, and how the area was settled, before he hands the tour over to his partner.

“Many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have walked these streets and darkened the doorways of these building here around us,” Scott tells us. ‘And tonight we’re going to share with you some of their stories and how they tie into the neighborhood.”

As Scott drifts off into the night, Beth takes center stage, and describes the ring of buildings behind her. Among other things, she tells us the Old Stone House at the Poe Museum is one of the oldest standing structures in Richmond, and that it appeared on the city’s original 1737 land grant, and was owned the Ege family. “The family lived here until 1911,” says Beth. “So that is a lot of birth, living and death here on this property.”

The buildings that make up the Poe Museum are loaded with ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. “This is our most densely haunted property in the city that is not disaster-related or war-related,” Beth says. “Every building here on the property has at least two ghosts that we know of, and all the gardens are haunted as well.”

She talks some about a playful child ghost named Jonathan Ege who died at age six of small pox. He haunts the Old Stone House, and when the gift shop was located there, he loved to unwrap the Poe bobble head dolls they sold. In the dead of night, when the employees were gone, he would line them up in military formations on the floor.

“It was very freaky the first few times you opened up the gift shop in the morning and saw those bobble head dolls lined up,” Beth recalls. “And then you get annoyed because you have to pick up after Jonathan. He never picked up, just like any six year old I know.”

Beth regales us with several more stories about other ghosts on this property, a number of whom are playful. Earlier in the day I spoke with Beth at Stir Crazy Cafe in Bellevue. She tells me about one ghost at the Poe Museum who is anything but friendly. This one’s downright vicious.

“There’s one building at the Poe Museum I don’t go into,” says Beth.

Because practically every time she’s visited the Memorial Building, Beth has left with bruises.

Shortly after she and her husband settled in Richmond, Beth attended an Unhappy Hour Night at the Poe Museum. She entered the Memorial Building, and, while examining the contents of a display case below the staircase, an uncanny feeling crept over.

“I got an itchy feeling like somebody was watching me,” she remembers. “So I looked up the stairs. Nobody was up there. It was roped off, you couldn’t go up.” The only other person in the room was her husband.

Beth describes the sensation she had, a kind of unspoken language that alerts her to a ghostly presence. “It’s like fingertips on the back of my neck,” she says. “I like to call it my spidey sense. I pay attention because that’s usually when someone is there with me, whether I can see them or not.”

After her spidey sense flared up in the Memorial Building, Beth called out to her husband, who stood at the far end of the room. “Okay, honey, I’m done looking here,” she said. “I’m going to leave.” Once outside, Beth glanced down at her arms. “I actually had fingertip bruises,” she says.

Even though the bruises were there, Beth vetted the story in her own mind. “I started to debunk,” she says. “I had been building sets for a musical, so it’s possible I could have bruised myself at that point in time and just not remembered it.”

So she put it to the acid test, and the following month returned to the Poe Museum during a scavenger hunt, which was part of another Unhappy Hour. Again, she found herself in the Memorial Building where she found the clue she was looking for. Before entering the building though, Beth checked her arms for bruises. There were none. But when she and her husband left the building, Beth looked down to her arms again. “I had a handprint on my arm,” she says. “Same thing, just bigger this time.”

Even after that second encounter with an entity that had left bruises on her arm, Beth returned again, about a year later. By that time, she was already a tour guide, and was familiar with some of the poltergeist activity in the upstairs office, where a solid oak table would often be flipped over at night. While she was measuring the table, Beth’s spidey sense kicked in, and she told a friend, who had accompanied her, that she had to leave the building.

“And as I’m going down the stairs, I feel like someone is pushing down on my shoulders,” says Beth. Outside, she asked her friend to look under the collar of her blouse. “I actually had handprints around my neck,” she says. “So I stopped going in that building for nine years.”

Not long ago, Beth returned yet again. “I just had to go back in the building,” she tells me. “I said, ‘Okay, let’s see if it still doesn’t like me.’ And I took one of my guides with me. As soon as we got upstairs, we heard maniacal laughter and we both turned right around, came back down.” When Beth inspected her arm, there was a bruise on her forearm.

Beth has a fairly good idea who this malevolent spirit might be. He could have hitched a ride in to the building on an old staircase.

“We actually think it might be Mr. Allen,” Beth says. “The staircase in the Memorial Building came from his townhome. We’re pretty sure he’s attached to that staircase.”

The Mr. Allan Beth refers to figured prominently in the life of Edgar Allan Poe. John Allan was a wealthy local merchant, and after the death of Poe’s mother, he and his wife adopted the young Edgar. But Poe and Allan did not like one another. It turns out, John Allan seems to be something of a misogynist.

“He doesn’t like women, actually at all,” according to Beth. “I’m not the only female who’s been hit. Melanie actually got shoved down the staircase, and she ended up breaking her ankle. She was the director of education. She no longer works there.”

Then she says this of certain: “They can be very violent. They can be very protective of their space, and they don’t necessarily like people going into it.”

As the ghost tour continues, Beth leads us west along the cobblestone alleyway behind the Poe Museum over to 19th Street were we make a right, and then come to a halt.

“All right folks,” says Beth. “We’re going to face the building across the street. So this is Shockoe Art Space today. Originally, it was a tobacco warehouse as most of the buildings down here were. But during the Civil War, this was actually a hospital for Florida. This is Hospital Number Eleven, the Globe Hospital.”

At the time of the Civil war, there were two main hospitals in Richmond that were devoted to caring for wounded soldiers. Chimborazo, up on Church Hill, could accommodate 3,600 men; and in the far west end, outside the city limits, there was Winder Hospital, which could serve up to 4,300 wounded soldiers. But the casualties of that war were so great that the central government asked each state in the Confederacy to open its own hospital in Richmond. They were bringing the wounded in on rail, day and night.

Beth points to the building across the street from us, the one that now houses an art gallery on the first floor and apartments upstairs.

“This was one of the best hospitals in the city,” she says. “If you were wounded, you wanted to sent here, or to Alabama’s second hospital. The reason why is that both the people who ran those two hospitals respectively believed in germ theory.

All those broken bodies that passed through Florida’s hospital left at least two indelible stains there. Persistent stains. Stains that defy the very laws of nature.

“The first one is literally just inside the door to the right,” Beth says. “The other one’s a little bit further back by the support beam.”

Over the years, various tenants of this former Civil War era hospital have tried to remove the obstinate stains.

“They grabbed their industrial strength cleaners and they cleaned over it,” says Beth. “Two days later, it came back. They did it again. It came back again. They ground down the concrete, they put new concrete in. It came back up through the new concrete. You can’t get rid of it. When the art gallery moved in, they tiled the floor. It came up through the new tile. Trust me, blood stains, when they want to stay, will stay.”

On the upper floors of that building, there are a number of apartments, and on more than one occasion, apparitions have materialized out of thin air and passed through solid walls.

“These ghosts didn’t realize that they had passed on, so they are doing what they did in life,” Beth says. “They are searching for a soldier. Some people who live in those apartments have told us, ‘Yes, they walk through my living room. They walk through my kitchen. Oh yeah, they walk through my bathroom.’ I’d be out at that point. I’m sorry, but a bathroom is sacred space.”

The tour continues to the site of one of Richmond’s most storied disasters.

“All right ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to move down,” Beth instructs us. “This is going to be one of our longest walks between stops. Just stay close together, we’re going to be crossing on Broad Street.”

We walk north up 19th Street, cross Broad, and on the other side, where 19th becomes Cedar, the incline grows steeper. Just north of Marshall Street, our group comes to a stop, and we face a faux wrought iron fence that runs parallel to the sidewalk.

“Come a little bit closer,” says Beth. “Because what is important is right under our feet. We are literally standing on the entrance to the Church Hill train tunnel. Now this train tunnel was opened up in the late 1870s by the C&O Railroad, and was a modern, miracle marvel of engineering at that time. It was over a mile long tunnel, and it was just really incredible that they were able to build this. Unfortunately this tunnel was nicknamed the Tunnel of Death. It had a lot of problems. They had a lot of collapses when they were building it because Church Hill is nothing but clay. The C&O was used to digging through rock. They weren’t ready for the unstable substance of clay.”

The tunnel was eventually completed, and was used for a few years, but in 1901 the double-track viaduct running parallel to the Kanawha Canal was built, and the train tunnel was abandoned. By the early 1920s, Richmond’s train traffic boomed, so C&O decided to resuscitate the tunnel. They shored it up, relined it with concrete. They were making steady progress on rehabilitating the tunnel until October 22 1925. They were almost finished with the project at that point, just 300 feet remained, but at two o’clock on that fateful afternoon, Ben Mosby, who was the fireman on the train engine that was making repairs to the tunnel, saw something. He was standing on a flatbed car.

“Ben turns around and he looks up and he sees one brick fall from the ceiling,” Beth tells us.  “And he screams, ‘She’s a-coming.’ That was the only warning that these two hundred men had to get out, and get out now. The next thing Ben sees is a huge chunk of brick fall from the ceiling, and it lands squarely on the steam engine, which explodes. He is thrown from the train, and is somehow miraculously able to crawl out on this side of the tunnel.”

Both the train and at least two of the workers are still entombed in the tunnel to this day. It was their premature burial, their cask of amontillado, a la Poe. And though Ben Mosby survived, his burns were so severe that he died eight days later.

Earlier in the day, at Stir Crazy, where Beth also works as a barista, she tells me about her own relationship with the ghost of Ben Mosby.

“Now, for some reason Ben has taken a liking to me,” she says. “For some reason, Ben always seemed to be drawn to me, and also to another one of the guides. He would touch my back, he pulled my hair. He would bother her as well, like kind of blowing in her ear.”

At the time, they didn’t know who the ghost was, so they brought in some other paranormal experts. “We actually invited Spirited History to do an investigation because we were curious about who was trying to get our attention,” says Beth.

Among other things, the folks from Spirited History performed a dowsing rod session. “So they use the dowsing rod for yes and no questions,” Beth explains. “If they open up wide, it’s a no; if they close and cross, it’s a yes.”

“We went through all the men whose names we had, starting with Tom Mason who was the engineer that passed away inside,” says Beth. “And then, finally, Marsha, who’s the other guide who has the experiences as well, piped up and said, ‘Are you Ben Mosby?’ And we got an immediate yes. We’re like, ‘Okay Mister Mosby, great, you’re here.’”

Ben turned out to be a pretty talkative spirit.

“We had twenty minutes of yes and no questions,” Beth remembers. “What we got from him was that he’s happy we tell the history, and he doesn’t want us to stop doing that. He wants to keep that history alive. He doesn’t like it when certain tour groups come over and say he is the vampire (part of Richmond’s urban vampire legend). He’s a ghost in his own right, and he’s proud of that part. So he also let us know that Marsha reminds him of somebody he knew when he was alive. She apparently looks like somebody he knew, and he just likes my energy. He finds me calming, apparently.”

Beth does have a calming spirit, and since she was a child has been encountering ghosts in one form or other. She seems to have that sort of shine. Her father was a Methodist minister who moved his family from church to church, every three to five years, from New York to Iowa to Vermont. And the family would live in the parsonage. Beth recalls the first time she met a spirit.

“There was one time when I was six, I remember going down in the basement in West Burlington, Iowa,” she tells me. “I was sick at the time, and Dad was across the street at his office, and I’d gone down to get some of the laundry out, and I saw a gentleman come out from around a corner, and I was like, ‘Dad what are you doing here?’ And then I realized it was not my dad.”

This entity was in no way threatening. “I never felt in danger,” says Beth. “I was just curious about who I was seeing, what I was seeing. I thought, maybe I might be slightly hallucinating because I was ill at the time. So I didn’t say anything. Then, a couple months later, perfectly healthy this time, I went downstairs again to get the laundry, saw the same thing. He came out from around the corner. I was just watching him, and he didn’t seem to look at me or anything.”

“Then, I asked dad, ‘Have you ever seen the guy in the basement? There’s somebody down there.’ And he said, ‘No, there’s not.’ I was like, ‘There’s something down there, Dad.’ And he’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it.” He didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to scare me, I guess.”

Years later Beth’s father would tell her that he too had seen some of the ghosts his daughter saw. Beth considers the different kinds of spirits there are, and why they may manifest themselves. She mentions lingering spirits.

“Some of them may know it, and enjoy the fact that they’re lingering,” she says. “Others don’t realize they’ve passed on, so they keep doing what they did in life. And those are the ones that don’t interact with you. Other ghosts, are just trying to figure out what their new state is.”

The way Beth describes these preternatural entities is kind of like the First Law of Thermodynamics—energy can be neither created nor destroyed, just transferred, or changed from one form to another.

“We have too many stories and ancient religions that talk about an afterlife or another plane that we go to when we die,” she says. “I like to think there’s a place we go to to recharge before we come back as something else. Because energy is energy, it’s going to be reused somehow.”

In the final analysis, that’s what ghosts seem to be.

“They are a form of energy that’s been released, and they don’t know what to do yet,” Beth says. “That energy has to go somewhere when you die, it’s just a matter of where it goes. Some of it lingers on here, some of it, I firmly believe, gets redistributed to the world around us. It’s kind of like it gets recycled. It’s reabsorbed into the land, into the air, into the life that’s around us, and that’s just a personal belief that I have. Some of that energy just hasn’t found a way to become reabsorbed.

The energy of souls Beth has known, of those who have passed on, sometimes visit Beth. When I ask if she’s ever able to communicate with her deceased relatives, Beth nods.

“I have communicated with my father and my grandmother, but more with my father,” she says, and she smiles. “It’s generally when I do activities like he and I used to do when I was younger. That’s when I’ll see him. In my old house, I used to have a huge garden in my backyard and he would come visit me while I was gardening. I found out he does it to my sister as well when she’s out in the garden.”

I ask why her father hasn’t been reabsorbed yet.

“I think he’s just checking in on us, and making sure we’re doing okay,” says Beth.

There are times when some people view what Beth tells them with an air of skepticism, but for her the main point of doing what she and her husband do is a time-honored tradition that, in recent years, with our increasing reliance on electronic wonders, has taken the one-on-one human voice out of the equation, and with it the art of storytelling.

“There are times that people will give you that eyebrow raise,” Beth Houlihan says. “And I’m like, ‘Look, it’s not my job to try and convince you. It’s my job to tell you a good story.’ And that’s what I love about what Chris and I do. This is a tradition that has been dying off, and we need to bring it back, and it’s coming back in the tourism industry, it’s coming in ghost tours like Haunts of Richmond.”

Haunts of Richmond

(855) 445-8927

https://www.hauntsofrichmond.com/

About CharlesM 294 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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