Spirits live on at renovated historic site
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a series about ghosts of Henrico.
Another Halloween has come and gone, but in various sites in and around Henrico, the haunting goes on year-round.
On Oct. 19, in fact, a group of twenty overnight visitors to Henricus Historical Park actually encouraged visits from the spirit world.
As part of the "Haunted Henricus: Things That Go Bump in the Night" program, a special overnight investigation was held with representatives from Transcend Paranormal, who shared their findings of modern-day paranormal activity at the park. After being assigned period beds and straw-stuffed mattresses in the reconstructed park hospital, visitors were invited to stay up past the official 2 a.m. bedtime if they wanted to tag along on an extended ghost investigation with the paranormal ghost-hunting team.
During the first round of the sleepover, which kicked off at 9 p.m., guests were accompanied by a guide with a lantern as they toured a series of campfires manned by various costumed interpreters in 17th-century character.
"Halt! Be ye men or devils?" challenged the lookout at one fire. As the campers neared the hospital, Mt. Malady, a second lookout asked the group, "What madness possesses you to be out at night? There are savages about. In with you, where you are safe!"
At the nearby watchtower, a watchman played drums trying to rouse the spirit of Sir Francis Drake to lead residents out of danger. Meanwhile, inside the hospital, a recently departed resident of Henricus lay covered in a shroud.
"Is one of you the sin-eater?" her caretakers asked the visitors anxiously, offering bread and ale to anyone in the group who could absolve the soul of the deceased and keep it from wandering. Hearing no takers, they showed the visitors out the door, pausing only to sprinkle salt in a ritual designed to help guide the travelers on their journey.
Along the trail between the buildings, guests heard a variety of old English legends and native lore, such as the tale of the young Indian brave who went searching for food for his starving family after a snowstorm and encountered the mythical Wendigo. In another story, a man made a bargain with the Evil One and agreed to pay with his skin at the end of his life – but then sought to renege as the end drew near. Other storytellers described methods of trapping witches, and demonstrated the craft of making charms to ward off evil spirits, using bottles filled with hair, nail clippings and pins.
Residents of Norfolkshire had a different method of keeping the evil spirits away, said one storyteller; they would build a bonfire out of straw on the hill, and pitch burning clumps into the air to keep the low-flying spirits at bay. They would also keep a cut piece of straw on hand to stab the Evil One through the heart.
"It is said," the interpreter noted, "that if you can spit over [Satan's] head between his horns, that will dispense with him.
"But that seems like it could end badly," he added doubtfully. "So I keep my piece of straw about."
Site of struggle, tragedy
For the next phase of the overnight, which lasted until midnight, visitors traveled from building to building in the park and heard ghost stories about hauntings that have actually happened around Henricus.
John Pagano, the site manager for the park, reminded guests that the site is steeped in four centuries of struggle and tragedy.
"You're on top of 400 years of people dying in various ways," Pagano told visitors as they gathered in the Planter's House. "Indian attacks, disease; think of the mortality rate. Most of the people here suffered and had tragedy."
So it shouldn't be surprising, Pagano went on, that the spirit world appears to so active at Henricus, or that Transcend Paranormal teams visit the site several times a year to investigate. The 1622 Indian massacre took place only a mile or two away, and a Civil War cemetery is located adjacent to Mount Malady.
What's more, said Pagano, Reverend Whitaker, who inhabited the original parsonage that has been re-created at Rocke Hall, is known to have drowned in the river nearby after falling off a boat. Although he was the most prominent minister in Virginia at the time, there was no investigation into the death – suspicious circumstances that some historians suggest hint of scandal, said Pagano.
At any rate, he summed up, the place is clearly the home of many long-departed souls. "It's not ‘violent’ haunted, but ‘curiosity’ haunted," Pagano stated. "There are all kinds of bangs and bumps, voices and footsteps."
Nevertheless, Pagano remarked that he has slept alone at the Planter's House on only two occasions.
"The first time was interesting," he said. “But the second time, my mind started to go."
A legend grows
Growing up near Sleepy Hollow in New York, Pagano said, he was always a doubter when it came to the paranormal – until a harrowing, late-night encounter in college with the famed Headless Horseman.
On a lark, he and a group of friends went looking for the unmarked grave of the horseman – a real-life Hessian decapitated in battle – in the cemetery of a 17th-century church at midnight. Noticing that something seemed to be following them on the adjacent ridge, the friends began to hear sounds of a hard object dragging on leaves, and were shocked to see what looked to be a square block of black moss crashing through the trees towards them.
The group ran for the car and drove away in a panic, stopping at a farm a mile down the road to rest and try to make sense of what they had seen. "We were all in shock," said Pagano, describing his friends' "thousand-mile stares." But before they could even catch their breath to speak, the friends spotted a horse galloping on the ridge. They stayed just long enough to hear the horse neigh and catch a glimpse of its two red eyes and the person mounted on its back. And they drove off in a panic again – all the way home this time.
"I've been sensitive to spirits ever since," Pagano said.
In his five years at Henricus, Pagano has had multiple encounters with spirits at the park. But he is not the only one.
One of his part-time employees was doing chores in the Planter's House, he recalled, and trying to get a fire going. When she glanced in a corner, she suddenly saw a woman dressed in 17th-century garb sitting there. "It startled her so much she left the building and came and found me," said Pagano, who could see nothing when he arrived.
Other staff members have heard scratching on tables, felt tables move, seen people in the shadows, walked into empty rooms to find lanterns swinging, and felt hands on their legs. One time an interpreter's bandolier was suddenly yanked up and then dropped by an unseen hand. Pagano reports having his breeches grabbed from the side of his thigh and pulled.
Most of the visions that have been sighted seem to feature women, he noted, or have connections to children; staff members speculate that they may have been victims of the nearby massacre. Women appear to hover or linger over different sites, and once a woman's voice was heard yelling three times. Pagano was standing near an open window once, talking to a visitor, when a 17th-century woman passed by who was not part of the staff.
"Did you see her?" he asked the visitor, and was disappointed to hear the visitor reply, "No, I was looking at you."
The majority of his experiences with the spirits of Henricus, said Pagano, occur in the daytime. Because Rocke Hall, the re-created parsonage, is the newest and nicest building in the complex, he spends most of his quiet time sewing or writing there.
"One time, closing a window, I felt a small hand go down my back," he said. Another time as he was closing a window, he distinctly heard someone sigh heavily three times. Female staff members have reported the feeling of being touched inappropriately in the parsonage, even when they were the only ones there. And on a 30-degree day when no visitors were in the park, Pagano recalled, "I heard running around the corner of the house two separate children, laughing."
"This building's definitely got some edgy stuff," said Pagano.
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