"haunt (hont, hant): 1. to visit (a place) often or continually; frequent . . . 4. to be associated with; fill the atmosphere of; pervade [memories of former gaiety haunt the house] Haunt is often used with a ghost, spirit, etc. as its stated or implied subject"
-- Webster's New World Dictionary of American English
Leesburg is haunted in every sense of the word. A town steeped in history, it sees its share of visitors every year--many of whom are still alive.
Col. Erasmus Burt, however, is not one of the latter. Since the Civil War, Burt has been calling on a North King Street home known as the Glenfiddich House. A Confederate hospital when the disastrous Battle of Balls Bluff broke out nearby 137 years ago, it was a natural place for him to retreat to when wounded. A diary written by a young woman who also was staying there at the time of the battle describes Burt's return to the house that would prove to be his final haunt.
"A mark of his suffering remained behind in the blood which stained the floor," she scribed with portent.
Burt's bloodstain has appeared and disappeared over the years as attempts to remove it with solvent have proved only temporarily successful. Subsequent owners of the property also have reported peculiar presences and spooky sounds in the great house--the disembodied clinking of a ring on the banister, the heavy outline of an invisible corpse on the bed.
Today, Melanie Miles runs a business out of the Glenfiddich House with her husband, David, and is not unfamiliar with the home's ghostly guest. "I've had several encounters over a few years," she said. "Mostly just a feeling more than anything else."
Once, while alone in the house recovering from neck surgery, she heard bootsteps in the hallway, just on the other side of her door. Burt "was waking me up because I overslept," she said. "He was doing me a favor. We have a good relationship."
But if Burt was there last weekend, he was only one of 1,500 visitors to the Glenfiddich House. Over four days, that's how many people took the Leesburg Hauntings walking tours to explore the rich--if often bloody--legends of the county seat.
At eight locations in the historic district, costumed interpreters welcomed the morbidly curious with gruesome narratives of local landmarks' more unfortunate chapters. Stories of former residents who met their bloody ends years ago conclude with disturbing evidence that, although dead they are, departed they ain't.
Consider the first stop on the tour, the Captain Head House. A large Federal-style house on West Market Street dating to the mid-18th century, it first belonged to Capt. George Head, son of a Tory Revolutionary War prisoner. Although no one is sure where he was buried, an interpreter in Revolutionary-era housewife togs suggested: "There is a hand-dug clay basement. Insert your own conclusion here."
Every property owner since Head has reported that the windows of the house have a tendency to open by themselves, she said. New windows have been installed and locks applied, but to no avail. Rumored to have been obsessive with keeping the windows of his home wide open even in the dead of winter, Head is believed by some to assert his continuing dominion over his home, insisting, to this day, on a draft.
The annual Leesburg Hauntings were started nine years ago by Leesburg Renaissance, a now defunct organization created to promote business in town. Sponsored by the Loudoun Museum for the last seven years, the Hauntings recount "legitimate stories handed down over the years from residents and businesses," according to the museum's executive director, Tracy Gillespie.
Joe Holbert, an expert on the paranormal and former museum board president who was one of the tour's originators, was emphatic that the Hauntings include "no fake stuff. No legends. Rather, these are things we have writings or witnesses for."
With a Colonial history that dates to 1725 and as the scene of one of the Civil War's more violent skirmishes, Loudoun County has been home to many poor souls who were cut down in the prime of life. "Depending on what you buy into with this, a lot of activity with ghosts is because they have unfinished business," said Gillespie during last weekend's tours.
And yet, last weekend, visitors with tingled spines gave as much as they got. As the Loudoun Museum's primary annual fund-raiser, the Leesburg Hauntings jibe with the museum's mission of interpreting and imparting local history. "History through the back door" is how Gillespie described it.
"We didn't want to just jump out and yell boo" as one might in a standard Halloween haunted house. A lot of longtime as well as "new residents have no inkling of this history. You'd be surprised how many people learn," she said.
The tour's second stop was the Loudoun County Courthouse at Market and King streets, the third courthouse to stand at that intersection. Of the original, a horrible truth remains.
In 1768, it was the site of Loudoun County's only execution. In those days, people accused of capital offenses were judged and sentenced in Williamsburg, but when a slave named Mercer pleaded guilty to murder, it was considered necessary to punish him locally to deter a slave uprising.
Mercer was hanged publicly near the courthouse, and thereafter Mercer's spirit was reported to haunt the courthouse halls--in search of justice. As a reminder of slavery's brutal legacy, Mercer's story was the most haunting of the tour.
"Would your spirit find peace," asked one of the courtroom's costumed reenactors "knowing that these acts are not the work of the devil, but the work of humans as real and fearful as you or I?"
"The courthouse story is a little tricky for us to bring up, but we are reporting from the documents," Gillespie said. "If it were about a white indentured servant, we would have done the story."
The tour had more cheerful moments. There was the story of a spirit in a pink turn-of-the-century Victorian home that seemed to have a penchant for tidying up after its residents.
And it had other somber moments. A scene at the museum's log cabin annex, the site of a former mortuary, taught the tour-takers about 19th-century mourning customs--for instance, some young widows or women who lost their children would dress in mourning garb until the end of their own lives.
"It was a good history tour," said Jeff Lee, a software developer and ghost tour connoisseur from Sterling. Having been on haunted tours in nearby Harper's Ferry, W.Va., and Williamsburg, and as far away as Australia, he admits to being a believer "to a degree." Although the Leesburg Hauntings didn't quite curdle his blood, he said, they were educational.
The hauntings grossed $14,500 for the museum. Gillespie said the tour changes every year to keep it fresh for returning goblin groupies--sometimes other haunted buildings are rotated in, sometimes new hauntings at old homes are duly added to the repertoire, such as at North King Street's Lynch House where they "happen all the time."
Gillespie, who describes herself as "not a disbeliever," was exhausted by the end of the tours.
Someday, she said, "I'm going to come back and haunt this museum myself."