Haunted Virginia

For centuries, Virginia has laid claim to the best—and the first—ghost stories.

Tom Green

The party was already in full swing at Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace when the beautiful Lady Anne Skipwith spied her husband flirting with her younger sister on the dance floor. 

Guests at the ball looked on as she confronted him in a jealous rage, then stormed back to their room at the George Wythe House, losing one of her red shoes along the way. There, residents recall hearing her distinctive footfalls as she furiously stomped up the stairs to her bedchamber.

Within the year, Lady Anne died during childbirth and her husband eventually married her younger sister, proving the ballroom flirting may have been more. 

Two hundred years later, this noblewoman still haunts the Wythe House in Colonial Williamsburg, where visitors regularly report hearing the distinctive one-shoed clack of her footsteps echoing in the historic home late into the night. 

A heartbreaking tale perhaps, but Lady Anne, one of the state’s earliest recorded ghosts, is in good company. From Chincoteague to Cumberland, Virginia is home to thousands of spirits: wounded soldiers, star-crossed lovers, grieving parents, trapped miners, and more.

Superstitious Settlers

“Virginians insist they have the most and the best ghost stories of any state,” says Alena Pirok, Ph.D., a professor at Georgia Southern University in Savannah and author of The Spirit of Colonial Williamsburg: Ghosts and Interpreting the Recreated Past (University of Massachusetts Press, 2022). “They’ve been saying this since the 19th century.” 

Our first ghost stories were told by superstitious early European settlers. A fascination with the supernatural grew during the Spiritualist movement of the 1800s, which promoted the idea that the living and the dead could communicate.  

Given our long, tumultuous history of settlement, revolution, and war, Virginia is a natural breeding ground for ghostly tales. But Pirok, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Virginia’s haunted history, says you don’t have to believe in spirits to celebrate them. At their root, ghost stories allow us to engage with history. “You are talking about people from the past, and through these stories you can have access and connect to them.”

Consider these tales: Just a few years after his death, George Washington’s spirit is said to have chatted with a Massachusetts congressman who was spending the night at Mount Vernon; in the 1960s, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe were sighted arguing outside the fifth President’s law office in Fredericksburg; and visitors have seen an entire crowd of settlers dressed in Colonial garb glide silently into a Jamestown church and then disappear.

Virginia’s yarns have another distinction, Pirok says. Traditionally, they’re not terribly scary. “They’re very sweet. They’re very loving in that human-to-human way. They aren’t Stephen King-type stories.”

Godfather of the Virginia Ghost Story

If there’s a hero to our ghost stories, it would be L.B. Taylor Jr., a former NASA official and editor who wrote 25 books and hundreds of magazine articles about Virginia’s haunted past.

His work helped legitimize the paranormal, giving rise to ghost tourism in Williamsburg and around the state.

Over decades, Taylor traveled Virginia, compiling stories through interviews and searching long-forgotten archives to find creepy accounts in diaries, slave narratives, and personal papers. Through his dogged research, he popularized the state’s ghost stories and brought them to the modern era. 

“There’s not a ghost tour in Virginia that cannot trace its existence back to L.B. Taylor,” says Pirok. “He made these stories accessible.” Pirok first discovered Virginia ghosts when she found one of Taylor’s volumes at a used bookstore in Fredericksburg.

Dinner with a Ghost

Since Taylor’s death in 2014, Virginia’s ghost population has continued to grow. Take the recently discovered spirits believed to reside at the 1870 Octagon Mansion History Museum in Wytheville, which inspired the 2019 short film, A Haunting at The Octagon Mansion. 

Unlike other specters, which have been rattling around for centuries, the Octagon’s spirits—a 12-year-old girl named Audrey and the reverend who built the mansion in 1870—were only discovered after Debbie and John Cushman bought the long-empty building in 2018.

“What we have at the mansion seems to be very cordial,” Debbie said. “They’re not evil, nothing demonic. That’s after over three years of investigations.” She says her 4-year-old granddaughter has befriended Audrey, and the minister seems to be content as long as there’s bourbon on the dining room table. 

The mansion hosts paranormal investigators—essentially real-life ghostbusters—who regularly rent out the space for overnight hunts, using electronic sensors and recording equipment to track spirits. Similar gatherings are held at Belle Grove Plantation Bed & Breakfast in King George, whose spectral residents have been featured on the Travel Channel’s Kindred Spirits and SyFy’s Ghost Hunters.

Pirok isn’t surprised by the findings: New ghost stories are emerging all the time, she says. “Human beings tell ghost stories. This is part of who we are.” 

And the professor, who has made a career of studying the supernatural, says she’s not immune to getting the heebie-jeebies herself at the end of an evening ghost tour. “If the story’s told well, and it’s a crisp night, it’s contagious.”  

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue.

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