Capital City Ghosts

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As Raleigh remodels itself to suit a burgeoning population and ever more sophisticated wealth of restaurants and shops, the city can’t hide from its ghosts. Partly because the spirits manage to seep through renovations—like the ghosts that keep showing up at Death & Taxes on W. Hargett Street. Mostly because we are looking for them.

“It’s thrilling,” says Nelson Nauss of the paranormal investigations he leads 
as executive director of The Ghost Guild, a registered Raleigh-based nonprofit paranormal research organization. The guild, selected by Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources to conduct investigations at Mordecai Historic Park, has also partnered with Theatre in the Park to investigate the old National Guard Armory building in Pullen Park and, most recently, with the North Carolina Museum of History for an investigation that took place in August. Nauss and 
the guild take a skeptical approach by observing and gathering data, forming hypotheses, and imagining possible solutions that explain their observations. “Every ghost sighting or legend is a mystery,” Nauss says. “Who doesn’t love trying to solve a mystery?”

Raleigh resident Al Parker has created a collection of “ghastly” ghost tours 
of the Triangle—available on the Durham-based Built Story app—that peel back layers of history to rediscover Raleigh’s legends. “One clue leads to another,” he says. “Ghost stories tell you a lot about a community and its history. They are a part of what makes a place unique.” Al is also the most recent volunteer to join The Ghost Guild organization.

Soul Searching
The Civil War’s traumatic aftermath set Raleigh up for hauntings from souls who linger. Ernest Dollar, executive director of the City of Raleigh Museum, has written “Hearts Torn Asunder,” which focuses on the Civil War’s final campaign in North Carolina. “Raleigh is a particularly good city for ghost stories,” Dollar says, noting that toward the end of the war there was intense fighting in Raleigh and the city was nearly destroyed. “All that grief and emotional energy swirling around—it’s not surprising that these troubled souls might return to haunt the city.”

Kara Leinfelder, creative director for the North Carolina Museum of History and member of The Ghost Guild, notes that cities across the country are using ghost stories to add a zing to historic preservation. “The word ‘history’ isn’t as compelling to this generation, so historic towns and sites have incorporated this paranormal spin to appeal to new and younger audiences,” she says. “Ghost stories have an oral history relevance that can be culturally rich; and are often passed down from generation to generation. Putting a spotlight on them leads to deeper conversations like preservation and conservation.”

Tricia Sabol, creator of Raleigh Walking Tours, says most of Raleigh’s ghosts aren’t angry. “Sometimes a spirit just gets stuck and can’t transition to the other side,” she says. So mysterious voices, footsteps or lights being turned on and off might just be evidence of ghosts going about their business. “Which might happen at a place like Death & Taxes,” she notes. It served as a coffin house and funeral home before becoming a bank, and finally a restaurant.

On a more personal level, searching for ghosts offers an opportunity for introspection. “We love ghosts because their stories provide a safe way for us to peer into the unknown,” Parker says. “People like to face their fears—and explore things they’re a little afraid of. Ghosts are safe. Some days you believe in them and some days you don’t.”

With that said, here are our favorite Raleigh haunts for those days when you want to believe. Whether you have a soft spot for legends or a fascination with the macabre, Raleigh’s unique history makes it the ideal spot for paranormal investigations.

1. Oakwood Cemetery: The Spinning Angel
Sabol has a soft spot for friendly ghosts, like the Civil War ghost that haunted the old Oakwood Inn Bed & Breakfast (now an Airbnb rental). “‘The colonel’ likes to play tricks,” she says. “He switches things around in a room, or jumps out to surprise people. One guest was taking a bath when he appeared and perched on the edge of the tub as if he wanted to chat.”

But the best place to visit on Halloween night, Sabol says, is Historic Oakwood Cemetery, where you might see the “spinning angel” statue. Legend has it that on Halloween at midnight, the angel’s head spins around 12 times. But there’s a bit more to it than that, Sabol says. The angel protects the grave of Etta Rebecca White Ratcliffe, whose family had her committed to Dorothea Dix Hospital. But a month after she arrived, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage, suggesting she suffered from a brain tumor rather than a mental disorder.

2. Heck-Andrews House: Girl Power
Darci VanderSlik leads the “Haunted History: Oakwood” tour for The Great Raleigh Trolley, and has been passionate about ghost stories since spending the early part of her career in Colonial Williamsburg. “These are the stories that don’t make the history books—stories about everyday life and people like us,” she says.

VanderSlik likes to lead her tours as close to nightfall as possible, preferably with a lantern. Her favorite stop is the Heck-Andrews House, now owned and recently renovated by the North Carolina Association of Realtors. It looks exactly as a haunted house should—even with fresh paint. Visitors there have sensed the ghost of the home’s last resident, Gladys Perry. “Gladys is not always painted in a good light,” VanderSlik says. “But when I read the whole history, my heart broke for her.”

VanderSlik describes her as an independent, educated young woman in the 1940s, a time when such women were considered enigmas and generally ostracized. When Perry’s career reportedly began to flounder, she moved into the Heck-Andrews house with her mother. “She stayed after her mother died and let her love and energy soak into that dilapidated house,” VanderSlik says. Even when the city offered to buy it, then tried to condemn it, Perry refused to leave.” Perry has yet to leave her beloved home—more than two decades after her death.

“It’s my girl-power ghost story,” VanderSlik says.

3. William Poole’s Woods: Shadows and Rotted Wood
Of the 21 stories on Al Parker’s “Most Terrifying Ghosts” tour—from the graveyard spirits at Dorothea Dix Hospital to “the smokestack ghost” on North Carolina State University’s campus—his favorite is the legend of William Poole. According to Parker, Poole was a vehement conservationist during the 19th century and enjoyed riding his beloved white horse throughout his vast property, while admiring the pine trees. When Union soldiers came to his mansion during the Civil War demanding gold, Poole refused to reveal where he had buried it, then watched in horror as the soldiers killed his horse and burned down his home. “In a fury, Poole made a pact with a demon to rise from the grave to protect his land,” Parker says.

Poole’s will insisted that the land remain undeveloped, though 30 years after his death, his family sold the tract to a logging company. Poole had his revenge when the trees were cut open to reveal rotted wood. “People have seen a shadowy white horse where Poole’s forest used to be,” Parker recounts, “sometimes with a rider.” Parker recently explored the area, which constitutes a section of the Capital Area Greenway System by Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek. “What was crazy was that someone had written on the greenway path in chalk: ‘Turn back,’” he says.

4. Theatre in the Park: Footsteps and Voices
The Ghost Guild also enjoys investigating Pullen Park’s Theatre in the Park, Nauss says, where voices and strange sounds—such as footsteps across the bleachers—have been reported. “We’ve had some very interesting experiences there since 2016,” he says of the guild’s visits to the one-time armory. “We enjoy learning about every location we investigate, and every time we visit the Theatre we find out something new. We’ve discovered the building has an opening for a telescope and that it used to serve as an observatory,” he says. Both the public and academics made use of it, including the Raleigh Astronomy Club and the well-known astronomers who were associated with it.

5. Mordecai House: Raleigh’s Oldest Home on its Original Foundation
The centerpiece of Mordecai Historic Park, Mordecai House is not only the oldest home in Raleigh still on its original foundation (built in 1785)—it may also be the most haunted. After numerous reports from visitors and staff recounting mysterious piano music and sightings of a shadowy woman wearing a long, black skirt, the City of Raleigh began keeping tabs on these activities by making The Ghost Guild Mordecai House’s official paranormal research team.

Mary Mordecai Turk, who lived in the home during the 19th century, enjoyed socializing, playing the piano and receiving visitors. Nauss says many believe it could be her spirit that has returned to watch over her beloved family home.

Mordecai Historic Park is celebrating its 50th anniversary on September 10, noon–4 p.m. The Ghost Guild will be on site during the celebration, which will include special presentations and performances; free 30-minute trolley tours of downtown Raleigh; free crafts and activities; free entry to Mordecai House, Allen Kitchen and other historic buildings; food trucks; cultural displays, and more.

6. Andrew Johnson’s Birthplace
Nauss recommends continuing your exploration of Mordecai Historic Park by visiting the tiny house where the 17th U.S. president, Andrew Johnson, had his humble start. Don’t expect a glimpse of President Johnson, but Parker says there have been numerous sightings of Jacob Johnson, Andrew’s father.

“It’s a good story,” Parker says, adding that Jacob was known to be friendly and honest. He took care of horses at an inn, served as the town constable and sexton, and ironically died a hero’s death in winter of 1811 while ringing the funeral bell at the North Carolina State Capitol building just a few weeks after saving two men from drowning in Walnut Creek. His death was attributed to exertion and exposure to the icy water. He’s buried at the historic City Cemetery of Raleigh. “He wasn’t fulfilled in life, and died with unfinished business,” Parker says. “Look out for a candle moving in the upstairs window.”

7. Death and Taxes: Nothing is Certain
This early 20th century building, originally home to the HJ Brown Coffin House and later the Raleigh Industrial Bank, now accommodates a contemporary restaurant created by Chef Ashley Christensen. It served as a coffin shop during the Spanish flu epidemic that began in 1918, then later a mortuary before opening its doors as a bank. Patrons claim they have heard footsteps and even a full conversation between a young girl and man, according to a blog post Dollar wrote for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. Whether these sounds stem from Spanish flu victims or mortuary inhabitants—nothing is certain, just like death and taxes.

8. North Carolina Museum of History: Haunted Artifacts?
“I’m a paranormal nerd,” says Leinfelder, the North Carolina Museum of History’s creative director. “I grew up with old folklore tales and stories of legend in my family, plus both of my parents are history buffs; paranormal investigation and study has just amplified my interest in history.”

Over the course of her six years with the museum, several stories about strange occurrences have been reported by staff in the ground level and third-floor office space. After becoming a volunteer member of The Ghost Guild, Leinfelder suggested a paranormal investigation of the museum. Nauss was perplexed at first. “The museum was built in 1986, which is pretty new,” he says. “Then we had to ask ourselves if it was possible that the reported activity is tied to one or more of its over 150,000 artifacts spanning more than six centuries. This was a great chance to learn.”

Leinfelder thinks it makes sense that some of the museum’s artifacts might have retained some paranormal energy—though nothing has ever been proven. “We have some pretty interesting things in the collection and with the number of centuries it spans, there’s just no telling really!”

9. The North Carolina Executive Mansion: Knock, Knock
“I’d love to do an investigation at the [Governor’s Mansion],” says Alex Matsuo, a paranormal investigator and founder of the Raleigh-based Association of Paranormal Study. Gov. Daniel G. Fowle was the first to live in the mansion.

As a widower with four young children, he had an extra-large bed made to accommodate nighttime visits from his youngest son. “In 1891, partway through his term, he died in that bed,” Matsuo says.

In 1969, Gov. Bob Scott moved Fowle’s large bed into storage, only to be repeatedly bothered by knocking noises behind the wall. “He believed it was Fowle’s ghost,” Matsuo says, expressing his wish to restore the bed to its original location. Later, Gov. Pat McCrory claimed he would jokingly say goodnight to the mansion’s “friendly” ghost. Current Gov. Roy Cooper has returned the bed to its original location—and has not been bothered by any knocking noises. “My sense is that the spirits in Raleigh are pleasant, and they each have a story to share if you are willing to listen,” Matsuo says. “Ghosts are people too, after all.”

10. The Old Pine State Creamery
Looking for a spooky place to have dinner on Halloween night? Try any restaurant in Raleigh’s Pine State Creamery building, which was a focal point of a series of Jack the Ripper–style murders during the 1980s. When Matsuo investigated the Creamery, she detected screams that she believes belonged to the murderer’s female victims. The now-closed Xoco Mexican Bar & Grill, which was located in the Creamery, announced numerous reports of hauntings via a sign on its door that read: “To Our Patrons: It has been confirmed by ASAP Paranormal that our location is haunted. We are not responsible for the actions of any ghosts/spirits on the premises. Thank you.” Xoco may be gone, but it is doubtful the ghosts are!

Thank you to our storytellers
Shown from left to right at Historic Oak View Park: Tricia Sabol, creator of Raleigh Walking Tours; Ernest Dollar, author of “Hearts Torn Asunder” and executive director of the City of Raleigh Museum; Al Parker, creator of 21 walking tours via the Built Story app and member of The Ghost Guild; Kara Leinfelder, creative director for the North Carolina Museum of History and member of The Ghost Guild; Nelson Nauss, executive director of The Ghost Guild; and Darci VanderSlik, who leads the “Haunted History: Oakwood” tour for The Great Raleigh Trolley.

Be sure to tune into Midtown and Cary Living’s “Talk of the Triangle” October podcast, which will air in two parts, on October 4 and 11.

You don’t want to miss our fascinating and ghostly conversations with Dollar, Nauss and Leinfelder.

Ghost Stories Too Tame? Try True Crime!
By Caitlin Wheeler

“When I say ‘museum’ you think musty and dusty and dull,” says Ernest Dollar, executive director of the City of Raleigh Museum. “So we have to be creative to make people see how weird and fun history can be.” Across the country, museums and historic sites have drawn visitors in with ghost tours. Dollar is a bit more of a history purist. “Ghost stories and legends and folklore give us amazing insight into a culture,” he agrees. “But it’s a gray area, and we can neither prove it nor disprove it.”

While “commiserating over drinks,” Dollar says he and other members of the North Carolina Museums Council wondered if ghost tours might not fit within their “best practices” policies, but determined that the cold, hard facts of true crime absolutely would. “The true history is stranger!” Dollar says.

Thus, the museum has developed a “Dark Raleigh” tour, which features true but “untraditional” history, dubious characters and dark stories. “People have a real morbidity about life,” says Dollar, who researched a number of gruesome deaths, murders and suicides for this year’s tour.

“True crime is super popular,” agrees Al Parker, who has developed true crime tours of Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham and made them available on the Durham-based Built Story app. Once you’ve heard enough about Raleigh’s worst criminals, head over to Durham. “Durham is the freakiest town in the Triangle,” Parker says, adding that it claims “a history packed with murder and mayhem!”

Halloween Tours
Take yourself on an only-in-October treat: a tour created by Al Parker of “Raleigh’s Best Halloween Decorations,” available on the Built Story app. And be sure to walk through Raleigh’s Historic Oakwood neighborhood, where you’ll encounter the Oakwood Halloween House at 504 Oakwood Avenue. “Homeowner Jesse Jones goes all out decorating his house, and on Halloween the police close down the block to cars and everyone comes dressed up,” says Tricia Sabol, creator of Raleigh Walking Tours. “It’s a great scene.”

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