They say that if you walk, late at night, up Hog Alley, a short, steep street in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., you might see a tall black man, dressed like a gentleman from the 1800s, pacing up and down. If you get close enough, he slowly lifts his head to show piercing blue eyes. But when he lifts his head a little farther, you see blood dripping from a scar that goes from ear to ear. . . .
There’s no better time than the Halloween season to hear a good ghost story. In the dark. By lantern light. In a town that’s practically deserted by 10 p.m., when the “O’ Be JoyFull” ghost tour finishes up.
I started the 8 p.m. tour a skeptic, but by the end of the night I was spooked by the littlest things. Someone’s shadow. A plastic bag blowing down the street. Funny what two hours of tales about apparitions and phantom footsteps on staircases can do to a person.
Harpers Ferry offers at least two types of ghostly events. There’s the historical tour that Rick Garland of O’ Be JoyFull offers, and then there’s the more “believe-it-or not” paranormal experience at the Haunted Cottage, just outside the national historical park area. I started with historical.
Harpers Ferry is loaded with Civil War history and also, apparently, the auras of lots of folks who lived in that time — if you believe the tales that Garland tells.
He weaves yarns based on a combination of history, hearsay, ghost “science” and shtick during a walking tour that alternately amuses and startles the three dozen adults and children who follow along on a Saturday night. “Ghost stories are like Irish stories,” he says at the start. “They’re 100 percent true, I swear. And if they’re not, they should be.”
What does appear to be true about Hog Alley is that a 6-foot-2 freed Virginia slave named Dangerfield Newby joined abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 and wound up dead there. He was shot in the neck, his limbs were cut off, and he was stabbed repeatedly and left to die behind a tavern, where he was then eaten by hogs. Gruesome.
Garland starts his tours with “facts” about auras and “residual energy hauntings” and suggests that guests “take a bunch of pictures in Harpers Ferry, because strange things happen here.” For instance, “light auras” that aren’t visible to the naked eye can show up later in photos. Several young teens in the group grip their cameras tighter, ready to snap ghosts.
Our first stop is the former Iron Horse Restaurant, down by the railroad tracks. Garland tells of rattling doorknobs, the sound of someone falling down stairs and family members who search the stairwell and find nothing. He pauses as an “iron horse” rolls down the tracks, then continues with the tale of a Confederate soldier who was shot in the house and fell down the stairs, and the three sets of tenants who chose to move in despite warnings that the house was haunted, and who rather quickly moved back out.
The place is vacant now.
We move on to the mouth of a small cave in the rock ledge that “Lower Town” Harpers Ferry sits on, a feature that daytime tourists mostly overlook. Garlands tells more stories about cemeteries and drunks and Civil War soldiers doing more gruesome things with dead bodies.
The last stop is “the most haunted building in Harpers Ferry,” according to Garland, the former home of Catharine Wager, who died in 1829. Garland starts telling the story of a guest staying upstairs who saw someone carrying what appeared to be a dead body. The man walked right toward a wall and then through it like . . . “Whoosh!!!” Garland shouts, throwing up his arms. Several people standing closest to him gasp and step back. Then we all giggle. But just a little.
I, meanwhile, edge away from the darkened window I’m standing near. Garland continues with his stories. A whimpering child who appears in the night. People who have stayed in the upstairs apartment breaking into cold sweats upon seeing a 19th-century woman in “traveling clothes.” The fact that no one wants to be in the house after dark.
I’m rattled and hurry to my car when the tour ends.
The next day, in broad daylight, I visit the Haunted Cottage. It’s a whole different ballgame. Vince Wilson, who runs the cottage and says that he is certified in parapsychology, holds seances and does “psychic surgeries,” among other things. The place seems like the SyFy channel come alive, with magic and mystery tours, a library for paranormal research and an exhibit of the supernatural, in addition to your typical ghosts in the attic and cellar. Items of interest are a Doomsday clock, a Bigfoot video and a crystal skull of doom. (Really, what’s a haunted cottage without those?)
Upstairs, a little black cat crosses my path. Hmm.
So, to recap the Harpers Ferry’s choices: Historical ghosting or paranormal heebie-jeebies? Or both? Skeptic or believer, the tours may not change your point of view, but they sure are a fun way to test it.
Perlman is a consultant and freelance travel writer who blogs at Boldlygosolo.com
25 Union St.
Rates from $118 on a Saturday night in October.
186 High St.
Housed on the ground floor of what had been two homes built in 1839. Sandwiches and burgers starting at $9.99, entrees and pastas starting at $13.99.
175 High St.
Monday through Saturday at 8 p.m., by reservation only. Call by
5 p.m. $8, children 8-12 $5, younger than 8 free. Cash or checks.
43 Old Taylor Lane
Prices vary by event: $15 for a Houdini seance; $17 for a magic and mystery tour; $110 for a haunted weekend.