By Tracey Teo
For those who love a good ghost story, it’s not really Halloween without a gleefully ghoulish haunted tour. The South offers plenty of spine-tingling adventures sure to make your blood run cold with tales of restless spirits, grizzly executions and supernatural occurrences. Most are a mix of fact and folklore, so take it all with a grain of salt, and indulge your dark side.
Poor Ellen Smith, how was she found?
Shot through the heart lying dead on the ground.
This murder ballad is based on a true story of love and betrayal, and nobody can spin it better than Dan Riedel, History & Haunts co-founder who leads tours through Winston-Salem’s West End.
It goes like this.
In 1892, the body of 19-year-old house maid Ellen Smith was found in the woods behind the Zinzendorf Hotel that once stood on the site where the group is gathered now. Unfortunately for her shady beau, Peter DeGraff, his note requesting a rendezvous was tucked into her blouse, which led to his arrest. Smith likely thought the estranged couple were going to reconcile, but DeGraff wanted to be rid of her — permanently.
At his trial, the jury was presented a picture of a hard-drinking scoundrel who seduced a poor, simple girl and quickly tired of her. When he tried to break it off, Smith wouldn’t take no for an answer. She hounded him, perhaps seeking comfort after the birth of their stillborn child.
At first, DeGraff vehemently denied murdering Smith, but moments before a black hood was placed over his face in preparation for what would be the last public hanging in Forsyth County, he finally confessed to his evil deed. It’s said the apparition of a lovesick, forlorn young girl wanders the site where Smith’s body was discovered.
“To this day, people claim to see a lady in a blue dress and white apron walking the very area where they found her body,” said Reidel.
There’s an ironic twist to this already twisted tale.
“They buried Ellen in Potter’s Field,” said Reidel. “Little did Peter know he would be buried right next to her.”
The woman DeGraff wanted so desperately to discard is his eternal companion.
Ghosts & Gravestones Tour
As the Trolley of the Doomed makes its way down Duval Street, late-night partiers shout, “You are doooomed!”
“Yes, we are doomed!” the riders respond cheerfully as they hurtle into an unknown dimension.
The one-hour Ghosts and Gravestones tour, a macabre journey into Key West’s haunted history, is led by “Mahulda,” a 19th-century artificial flower maker that died of accidental arsenic poisoning from the toxic green dye essential to her trade.
Her consumptive-like beauty and ethereal voice captivates her audience as she recounts the true story of Dr. Carl von Cosel and his corpse bride. She points out the U.S. Marine Hospital where the doctor became so obsessed with a young, beautiful tuberculosis patient named Elena, he stole her body and kept it in his house for seven years, going to extraordinary lengths to preserve it. He claimed his Bride of Frankenstein-like creation sang melancholy ballads and spoke with him.
When the story hit the news in 1940, some called it love. Some called it lunacy.
The trolley slows so everyone can get a good look at Capt. Tony’s Saloon on Greene Street, once an icehouse that doubled as a morgue. Two headstones are inside the haunted bar. Elvira Edmunds (1822) rests under the pool table and Reba Sawyer (1950) lies beneath the “hanging tree” that grows through the roof.
Next, the group disembarks at The Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum to view a cursed silver bar salvaged from a Spanish shipwreck and hear a chilling tale about a specter called “Daddy Longlegs.”
A nightcap at a downtown bar helps chase away that persistent sense of unease that remains long after the tour – just steer clear of the haunted ones.
Colonial Williamsburg is best known as a school field trip destination that delivers an immersive experience in early American history, but the one-hour Colonial Ghosts adventure recounts grim stories of pirates, soldiers and howling apparitions that you won’t hear on daytime tours.
At the Public Gaol (jail), guide Josef Kruger relays the blood-curdling account of Blackbeard’s crew and their evil deeds. In 1719, the band of cutthroat pirates (Blackbeard himself was not among them) sat in damp, rat-infested cells awaiting their executions.
The motley bunch were eventually hanged behind the jail, but proving there’s no rest for the wicked, their aggrieved spirits continue to roam the cobblestone streets.
According to Kruger, guests have been unnerved by eerie apparitions.
“Visitors are shocked when they see the reflections of the executed bodies in puddles or in the river where the bodies were dumped,” said Kruger.
Other harrowing highlights include the Peyton Randolph House, supposedly haunted by veterans of long-ago wars, and the Bruton Parish Church graveyard where the weeping specter of the first rector’s wife is said to hover over the crumbling tombstones, forever distraught by her husband’s remarriage after her death.