They gathered under a leaden night sky, more than a dozen spectators huddled on a brick sidewalk strewn with fallen leaves. Their eyes were fixed on the man dressed as a Colonial sailor, who pointed toward the darkened window of a dove-gray rowhouse in the heart of Old Town Alexandria.
“That’s the room where Laura Schafer was getting ready for her wedding,” he said. It might have been his ominous tone, or the atmospheric setting, or the fact that this was the first stop on a historic ghost tour, but it seemed clear that the story wouldn’t end happily.
It was a crisp evening this month, the time of year when tickets to local ghost tours sell out quickly as Halloween lovers venture out in search of a scare. In a region steeped in rich history — replete with centuries-old graveyards, mansions-turned-museums and eerily quiet battlefields — tour guides at historical sites seize the opportunity to introduce a wider audience to the facts and faces of bygone generations, offering a glimpse of a colorful past through a ghostly lens.
These seasonal tours generally involve a blend of verifiable history (Laura Schafer really was a young woman who met a grisly end on her wedding day in 1868, after her dress was set ablaze by an oil lamp) and embellished legend (people say that Schafer and her fiance, who killed himself hours after his bride’s death, still haunt the rowhouse and a cobblestone alley nearby).
“A regular history tour — unless you’re really interested in history, the public doesn’t necessarily go for that,” Alexandria Colonial Tours owner Wellington Watts said. “But if you add some legends and folklore and some ghost stories, people can’t get enough. It’s like getting a look behind the scenes, being able to peek into other people’s lives.”
A lifelong love of history led Wayne Kehoe, a veteran Alexandria Colonial Tours guide, to walk the streets of Old Town in the sailor’s costume, sharing the same stories with dozens of new visitors each night. Between tales of hauntings and strange happenings, Kehoe paints a portrait of everyday life in Colonial times — describing the way women used hand-held fans to communicate secret messages to would-be suitors or demonstrating how a lady would step into a carriage without showing her ankle.
“When I was growing up, my family always took historic vacations and went to historic places, and we usually always did a ghost tour wherever we visited,” Kehoe said. “One of the great ways to experience a town is a ghost tour, because not only are you getting the history of the town but you’re getting the ghost legends and the folklore. . . . It’s a way to see a new place in a different way than you would during the daytime.”
His favorite part of this job, he said, is the opportunity to spark a sense of curiosity among a wide range of visitors — history buffs, skeptical eighth-graders, diehard believers in the paranormal.
“Most of us don’t love the way that history is taught to us, but when you tell it in a story, that’s when people do love history because it’s the story of people,” he said. “A lot of people will ask me after the tour, ‘Can you tell me that person’s name again? I want to read more about them,’ or ‘How could I learn more about the history of my own town?’ ”
Visitors ask similar questions after ghost tours at the National Building Museum in the District, said Kristen Sheldon, the museum’s volunteer manager.
“After each tour, we conduct a Q&A, and everyone always asks ‘what’s true?’ ” Sheldon said. “That’s the most common question, and that lets us explain more of the history.”
At the museum, which has hosted paranormal tours in the fall for nearly a decade, volunteers pose as the “ghosts” of long-dead historical figures — such as Mary Surratt (the first woman executed by the U.S. government, for her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) or a young bricklayer who helped construct the building in the 1880s.
The museum’s guides weave forgotten facts and spooky stories into a thematic experience, Sheldon said. In past years, Mary Surratt explained the architectural history of the massive Corinthian columns in the building’s Great Hall, and noted how some people have claimed to see distorted faces swirling in the marble. During this year’s tours, the ghost of a bricklayer claims to be the murdered owner of a 19th-century shoe — one of two dozen that were found buried in the building’s foundation.
Sheldon said the array of work boots and ladies’ slippers probably represents the European tradition of placing a shoe in a new construction site to ward off evil spirits.
“But the fact that we found so many is kind of crazy, and sort of creepy,” Sheldon said.
The building is the setting of several dramatic tales, including a story about a young night guard in the 1900s who confronted a demonic, corpselike figure wandering the third floor. The guard was so terrorized by the encounter that he supposedly gouged out his eyes, Sheldon said.
No one is sure who the frightening apparition might represent, but tour guides use the story as a way to introduce the former pension commissioners who worked in the building, which was originally constructed as the U.S. Pension Bureau’s headquarters.
“It’s a tenuous line you walk with ghost stories and history. Obviously, you can’t really corroborate a lot of this stuff,” Sheldon said. “But it offers a different entry point for people who might then get interested in a particular site.”
Not all local ghosts boast the drama of burning brides or demonic pension commissioners. Some — such as the apparitions that may or may not haunt Oatlands Historic House & Gardens in Leesburg or the 200-year-old Beall-Dawson House in Rockville — are more subtly spooky.
Oatlands, once a massive wheat plantation owned by one of Virginia’s first families and tended by more than 100 slaves, hosts seasonal paranormal tours of the plantation’s sprawling Greek Revival mansion and stately grounds. Guests learn the story of the property’s past and also hear accounts of unexplained encounters reported by visitors and employees, said Lori Kimball, director of programming and education for the National Historic Trust site.
Those accounts include the occasional sound of hoofbeats near the long-empty stables, or the strong scent of roses in the hallway near a room where the former lady of the house, Edith Eustis, kept her flowers. Staff members say they’ve heard muffled footsteps in the west side of the mansion, when the building is known to be empty.
“We’ve had different sorts of experiences like that — sometimes just sensory, or sometimes an apparition, but nothing has ever been scary or threatening,” Kimball said.
Similar strange occurrences have been reported at Beall-Dawson, a highlight of Friday’s “In Search of Ghosts” tour offered by the Montgomery County Historical Society. Visitors will learn about the family of Upton Beall, Montgomery’s second clerk of the circuit court, who built the house in 1815, as well as the African American slaves who lived on the property, said Amanda Elliott, education and outreach coordinator for the society.
Tour guests will also hear about reports of mysteriously slammed doors, or volunteers who heard their names called by otherworldly voices. A frequently told story concerns a volunteer who saw the fleeting apparition of a man kneeling and laying bricks on the kitchen floor. Employees speculate that it might have been the spirit of Nathan Briggs, a worker who helped renovate the house in the 1940s, Elliott said.
“Our hope is that we can draw people to learn about the history of the county, and get a little scare right before Halloween,” she said.
After an hour-long journey through the picturesque streets of Old Town, the Alexandria ghost tour ended at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House Burial Ground, where Kehoe explained that the 40 or so headstones belied the more than 300 people buried in unmarked graves beneath the grass and brick walkways. A headstone was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford, he explained.
“Look down — every inch of this graveyard has bodies below,” he said, and several tour-goers glanced nervously toward their feet.
Kehoe offered parting advice, passed along from a spiritual medium who once told him how to avoid bringing a ghost home with him after a visit to the graveyard. “If you don’t want anything to follow you, you have to touch the fence on the way out,” he said.
The participants scattered across the dark cemetery. Some took photos of the steps where Kehoe said he once saw an apparition. Others studied the epitaphs and historic markers on the grounds.
But Kehoe’s words clearly made an impression. As the group gradually filed out to the darkened street, each person lifted a hand to touch the wrought-iron gate.