The Lady in Black

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Many places throughout the world have stories of mysterious ladies in black, but the one told in the small town of Clifton Forge, VA is based in fact. Her name was Annie Fisher, and she was a young woman when the world was being ripped apart by the Great War. Annie was in love with a boy who enlisted in the military and in 1914, he departed from the Clifton Forge train station with the promise that he would be back when the war was over and they’d get married. For four years Annie waited patiently, secure in the belief that her young man would return to her; however, when World War I ended in 1918, she began to get anxious when she hadn’t received word of her love’s return. She began going to the station to meet each train as it arrived (and at that time Clifton Forge was a booming railroad town, so there were up to 16 passenger trains a day). She would carefully scrutinize each man’s face as he disembarked, hoping futilely to see the one she longed for.

Weeks, then months, and finally years passed, and still Annie would faithfully make her way from her family home, down Brussels Street, into the downtown area, to the station where she would meet every arriving passenger train. Her soldier never came. Eventually, although she never gave up hope, Annie took to wearing widow’s clothing, complete with a long black dress and a black hat with a black veil. Local children playing at the train station in the 1920s remembered her as the creepy lady with a pale face who was always there standing in the shadows.

The Great Depression and the switch from steam to diesel engines hit the economy of Clifton Forge hard. Jobs became more scarce, and the number of passenger trains slowed to a trickle compared to the heyday of the 1890s to 1920s. But still, each day Annie made her slow journey down the hill from her home to the rail yard so she could make sure she was there for every arrival, just in case the love of her life came back for her at last.

Over the next decades, Annie became a familiar, forlorn figure, drifting through town in her old-fashioned black dress and veil. In the 1960s, she paid neighborhood children to do her shopping, and they found it amusing that she carefully washed her money, bills and coins alike, and stored it in jars of baking soda to keep it fresh. She presented a somewhat terrifying visage, as she heavily powdered her face with flour until it was a stark white mask, but the townspeople knew she was just eccentric and there was no harm in her.

Annie Fisher never married. She stayed true to her beloved soldier until the day she died. He never did come back to keep his promise, and whether that’s because he changed his mind, fell in love with someone else, or died in battle, no one knows. The truth, like the soldier’s identity, has been lost in time. But for almost 50 years, from 1918 until her death in the 1960s, Annie kept the faith and never missed a train.

After Annie died, people started to report seeing an indistinct black figure slowly drifting along the streets of Clifton Forge, especially on nights when the fog would creep down from the mountains to envelop the town in its muffled embrace. A high school student told me last October that he’d seen her one night under a streetlight, a darker mist floating against the fog and then slowly dissipating. Others have seen her as a transparent dark shape wafting in the general direction of downtown where the train station used to be. More frighteningly, a few have witnessed what appeared to be a real person dressed in head to toe black, with a dead white face and hollow black eyes, again lingering in the downtown area.

My mother knew nothing of the Lady in Black when she moved to Clifton Forge in 2015; however, a year later, as she was walking in the downtown area at twilight and rounded the corner of the hardware store, she saw a person in a black, hooded cloak leaning against the brick wall looking down. As she passed, the figure (she thought it was a girl, but wasn’t sure) raised its head and looked directly at her with smudged, haunted black eyes in a white face. That unblinking stare gave my mom such a jolt that she instinctively crossed the street and almost ran away from that corner. At the time it didn’t occur to her that she might have encountered a ghost, but when I started researching town legends and came across that of the Lady, she started to wonder if perhaps that was who she’d seen. Unfortunately (for me, although I’m sure my mom would disagree), she’s never seen the cloaked figure again, so its identity remains a mystery.

Should you happen to visit Clifton Forge, VA, especially on a foggy night, and see a dark mist or otherworldly black-clad figure around the downtown area, count yourself lucky to have perhaps caught a glimpse of our sad, lonely, loyal Lady in Black and wish her well. Maybe someday she’ll find her soldier’s spirit and finally be at peace.

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5 of the Most Haunted Places You Too Can Visit

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year – Halloween – and in honor of my favorite holiday, here is a countdown of 5 of the scariest places I’ve personally investigated. Best of all, you can go to any or all of them yourself…if you dare.

5. Sedamsville Rectory, Cincinnati, OH. The rectory was built in the late 1800s and when you enter, it’s basically a big, run down, spooky house with a cramped basement, numerous bedrooms, and a large attic. Alleged ghosts here range from phantom dogs (from the days when the building was possibly part of a large dog fighting ring), to the young victims of a pedophile priest, to a dark, malevolent, maybe even demonic entity that has supposedly scratched and pushed the owners. To me, the scariest part of my evening there was the neighborhood, which was bleak and poverty-stricken. Some of the houses were inhabited, but many windows were broken out, grass was growing through the uneven sidewalks, and menacing looking people lurked on the shadowy corners, occasionally bursting into near-maniacal laughter or rants. The rowdiness of the neighborhood and the ever present, if distant, roar of downtown Cincinnati traffic basically contaminated any potential audio evidence. We pretty much left with no real evidence. And yet…after my investigative partner left for the comfort of his hotel, I bunked down on a couch in the downstairs parlor, ostensibly to sleep for a few hours. But after dozing fitfully for about an hour, I awoke at 4 AM and my imagination started to churn. Moments later I was in my car and getting out of that neighborhood as fast as I could. Haunted? Maybe. Creepy? Definitely. http://www.sedamsvillerectory.com/

Sedamsville Rectory

Sedamsville Rectory

4. Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, PA. Basically this entire town is haunted, as the fighting on July 1-3, 1863 raged through the existing town and surrounding areas. The reports of paranormal activity are extensive and range from apparitions of soldiers to sounds and smells of battle to heart-rending EVPs. The battlefield itself is free to visit and investigate as long as you abide by park rules. And keep in mind, you can stay in bullet-ridden B&Bs like the Farnsworth House, but even the chain hotels in town are built on land that was soaked in the blood of Confederate and Union soldiers alike; activity can occur anywhere and everywhere, and has. This is a location steeped in history and allegedly teeming with ghosts.

Gettysburg Battlefield

Gettysburg Battlefield

3. Old South Pittsburg Hospital, South Pittsburg, TN. Located on the site of an old plantation, on land previously inhabited by the Cherokee and utilized by troops from both sides during the Civil War, it is allegedly haunted by everything from phantom nurses and doctors to forlorn children to aggressive shadow figures. I can attest it’s a thoroughly scary place to spend the night. http://osphghosthunts.com/

Old South Pittsburg Hospital

Old South Pittsburg Hospital

2. Rolling Hills Asylum, East Bethany, NY. This building opened in 1827 as a poor house and also served as a sanatorium and retirement home, among other things. Many hundreds of people lost their lives here and lots of them allegedly linger. Featured on numerous paranormal TV shows, including Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, and Ghost Asylum, the facility offers several different tours and “lockdowns” for the brave of heart. My time there was mostly spent in the Porta-John thanks to a non-ethereal virus, but it was still a fun place to visit. For further information, check out their website at http://www.rollinghillsasylum.com/.

Rolling Hills Asylum

Rolling Hills Asylum

1. Waverly Hills Sanatorium, Louisville, KY. By far my favorite place to visit to date, mostly because it was spring when I went, so the night air was gentle and smelled faintly of honeysuckle, and the bathroom/gift shop facilities are some of the nicest I’ve run across at a haunted location (and these things are important to a girl – clean bathrooms and chocolate). Just two of us investigated, which the staff said was the smallest group to ever investigate this hulking behemoth of a building. I loved every second, even in the infamous body chute. This is another location that has starred in nearly every ghost show out there, even the British show Most Haunted, and it definitely lives up to its creepy hype. Visit their website at http://www.therealwaverlyhills.com/ for the location’s history and options for you to experience it for yourself.

Waverly Hills Sanatorium

Waverly Hills Sanatorium

** Honorable mention: Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, Weston, WV. I’ve already waxed ecstatic about this place twice in previous blogs, so won’t do it again. Except to say: Go there. http://trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com/

Coming Oct. 1…Haunted Heritage Tours!

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It’s official – the walking tour of the downtown historic district of Clifton Forge, VA launches Saturday, October 1, 2016, led by yours truly. If you live in the general area or are looking for a fun Fall activity, please stop by any Friday or Saturday night in October and join me. The ghost tours will meet at 7 PM at the Clifton Forge Town Hall and will last approximately 90 minutes. Learn about the Romeo and Juliet of Clifton Forge, the friendly sheriff who still stalks the halls of Town Hall, the sorrowful Lady in Black, and more!

To learn more, please visit my website at HauntedHeritageTours.com or visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Haunted-Heritage-Tours. Tickets are $10/adult and $5/child, cash or check only. Reservations are appreciated, but not required. I hope to see you soon!

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Rail Yard, Clifton Forge, VA

The Hag – Epilogue

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Just a follow up to my previous post regarding my “hag” experience – the day after it happened, I was bitten by one of the dogs that acted so strangely. I’ve run past that animal almost every day for 9 months with no problems. The day after getting bitten, I ran a new route (to bypass that dog and its very apologetic owner) and was bitten by yet another dog. Mind you, I’ve been jogging outside for more than two decades and only had one other dog bite in my entire life. Two in one week seems a bit beyond coincidence.

After that experience, I was pretty nervous about what might happen next. Was this just a portent of things to come? I went riding with my father on his Harley that weekend and was sure I was going to die. But so far, so good….knock on wood. Perhaps the hag experience was a warning that I didn’t understand in the moment. Maybe my intuition or sixth sense was telling me danger was lurking. Maybe I had a genuine premonition and ignored it. The lesson in all this? When you get goosebumps for no apparent reason, when the chills shoot up and down your spine and leave you with a lingering sense of dread…listen to what your body is telling you. You may avoid something much worse than a dog bite.

The Hag

Today something very odd happened and I’m still grappling with it. After work, I went for a run, and it was fabulous – the weather was gorgeous, I physically felt wonderful, my pace was great – and then about a mile from home, I ran past a house where the dogs always come out and bark at me the whole way down the hill. As ever, they came barreling out of the yard, snapping at my heels, and then suddenly stopped, turned around, and ran away from me as fast as they could. All good; I felt painted with gold, like maybe someone up there likes me and got those yappy little pests out of the way. But moments later I ran past another house, this one with two big dogs who always greet me with joyful howls, and these dogs not only didn’t bark, but stared frozen at something RIGHT BEHIND ME. What’s more, at that moment the world became eerily quiet, with no traffic, no birds, just the sound of my own harsh, frightened breathing as I turned to see what the heck the dogs were looking at. In my mind, I pictured a hag-like, black-draped, twisted figure floating just behind me…but nothing was there. I even looked down at my shadow, thinking maybe the hag’s shadow would be visible trailing behind me on an invisible cord like a malignant balloon…but nothing. Still, I swiped madly behind me with one arm to sever any attachment, real or imagined, and muttered that nothing was allowed to follow me home. I ran that last mile with the hackles on my neck raised, half expecting an unspeakably cold hand to catch me around an ankle and drag me down to the land of nothing-good. Nothing happened, and perhaps it was pure imagination, but part of me wonders just what horrors do lie just behind the green and gold glory of spring.

Joy

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ImageThis afternoon I was running through mud and snow and had one of those rare moments of sheer joy – breathing the crisp air, feeling the pull of muscles warming up after a long sedentary workday, catching the last few drops of wintery sun before they fell behind the mountains. Moments like that are what keep me sane, especially during the holiday season when so many of the things that are supposed to bring joy, at least according to all those sappy commercials, just don’t. Some days there doesn’t seem to be much to smile about or look forward to, and some days carrying my behind out into the cold and wind seems like an exquisite form of torture, but there is nothing on earth that makes me feel quite as close to the infinite and divine as being outside, feet hitting the ground, just me and nature. I’ve run when it’s 20 degrees and when it’s 100 degrees, through broken bones and illnesses, through thunderstorms, snow, ice, and drought, and never once have I regretted getting out there and getting it done. I don’t always look elegant (okay, I never look elegant), but inside I feel like poetry in motion. Running realigns everything both physically and emotionally, at least for a little while. And as some people say about other activities that shall remain nameless, even a bad run is still pretty good.

The stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is one of the hardest times of the year to stay committed to any type of fitness routine, but I’d encourage everyone to give it a shot. Seriously, it helps you cope with your weirdo relatives. It briefly replaces the need for a significant other, should you happen to be perpetually single like me. It makes you feel like you can kick the ass of anyone and anything that comes along and tries to stop you. And it occasionally keeps you from making bad choices. (Like hiding under the covers all day with a book and a bottle of wine, like I sometimes want to do. Instead I go running. If I still want the wine, well, at least I burned off some of those calories ahead of time!)  Even if you mostly walk and only jog a few feet at a time, eventually you’ll build up to jogging longer and longer. It really is the most efficient way I’ve found to stay in shape – doesn’t take much time, comparatively speaking, and you get a lot of bang for your buck. All you really need is a pair of decent running shoes. (Literally. Although I saw a man in England running through the woods in shoes and nothing else, and hope never ever to see anything like that again.) Sweat and fresh air – I truly believe they will cure most anything, from depression to a hangover (just in case that vat of chocolate martinis really is calling your name).

I’ve included a photo of me when I was 2 years old. Wonder Woman was (and remains) my idol, and I thought I was serious hot stuff in this outfit…even while standing on my own shoelace. Ha! Not much has changed; running still makes me feel like Wonder Woman on the inside (even when I trip over my own feet and face-plant in front of a bunch of strangers – doh!). It doesn’t matter how slow you go or how silly you look. Or if you’re bleeding or limping, and I’ve done plenty of both. What matters is that you get up and keep going. That, my friend, is the path of a true superhero and a good philosophy to apply to life in general – it’s an endless source of joy that is internally generated and therefore at risk from no one but yourself.

Poltergeists in Port Republic?

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I apologize for my lengthy silence – this hasn’t been the best of years. However, here is a short foray back into the world of blogging and the paranormal. For those who grew up near my neck of the woods in the Shenandoah Valley:

Did you know that in May 1865, near Port Republic, VA, a family was tormented by what appeared to be a rock-throwing poltergeist? It began one May evening around dinnertime, when stones began falling both inside and outside the house; the phantom attacker took a breather overnight, and began again the next morning at dawn. Windows were broken and items inside the house were moved by unseen forces. At around 4 P.M., the phenomena stopped, never to return (or at least not so far). This was reported in the Staunton Spectator at the time (and reprinted in an interesting book called Unexplained! by Jerome Clark).

I personally know folks who have experienced poltergeist phenomena in their homes not all that far from Port Republic.  Perhaps our charming valley isn’t as benign as first appearances might lead one to believe?

Hereafter

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Not long ago, I was chastised by a friend for not showing proper respect in a cemetery. It’s true that I was excited; it’s a beautiful graveyard and I’d just found the plot where the founder of the city and his descendants were buried. And no, I don’t (usually) lower my voice or act any differently in a cemetery than I do anyplace else, although I do have immense respect for those who have lived before me. I just don’t treat the dead any differently than the living, because to me, theoretically, they’re only in another stage of life. I tend to put myself in their position – if they are indeed still lingering nearby, if they are somehow cognizant of what is happening on this plane and in this time, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone come talk to them or at least read their names and show a modicum of interest in who they were?

I’ve thought about what my friend said and completely see his point, and therefore have determined to be more aware of my behavior around those who might not share my viewpoint. And perhaps the way I see it is purely selfish. I have no husband and no children and little hope of having either; 50 years from now, there will likely be no one who remembers me or knew me, and 100 years from now there definitely won’t be. I’ll be a name etched in marble, or listed as the old maid aunt in someone’s family tree, but no one will know who the real me was. This to me is infinitely sad, and it’s true for just about all of us. At some point, we’ll fall out of memory unless we’ve done something remarkable enough to be recorded for posterity. How many of us know the names of our ancestors beyond a generation or two? And even if we do, what do we really know about those people with whom we share the most intimate of bonds, our blood, our DNA, our distinctive features, personality traits, and quirks?

This is why I investigate the paranormal, at least in part. I’m interested in the stories that ghosts, assuming they exist and assuming they are what remain of us when we die, have to impart to the living. If nothing else, I would like to somehow validate them and perhaps even help them, if they are lost or lonely or confused. I’d like to discover their names and anything they want to tell me about their lives or deaths. I’d like to give them the chance to share who they were and what they loved and wanted in life, perhaps even what they still want. If I were a ghost, I would want someone to just talk to me as if I were still alive, to bring laughter and emotion back to me and remind me of what being human means. Heck, I want someone to do that for me now. Ha! I think it all boils down to human compassion and connection. We are all intertwined and all important, and that is as true in life as it is after death.

Soldier’s Christmas

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Tonight I opened this year’s Christmas card from my grandmother and it contained a poem many of you may have seen before, although I had not. It was written by Lance Corporal James M. Schmidt many years ago and, after a slight change in wording, became “A Soldier’s Silent Night.” Regardless of how you feel about war, we all owe an unfathomable debt to our troops and their families for their selfless courage and sacrifice. If nothing else, we can give them our sincere gratitude and at least take a moment to think about them during the holidays.

“A Soldier’s Silent Night”

‘Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,
in a one bedroom house made of plaster and stone.
I had come down the chimney with presents to give,
and to see just who in this home did live.
I looked all about, a strange sight I did see,
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.

No stocking by mantle, just boots filled with sand,
and on the wall pictures of far distant lands.
With medals and badges, awards of all kinds,
a sobering thought came to my mind.
For this house was different, so dark and so dreary,
the home of a soldier, now I could see clearly.

The soldier lay sleeping, silent, alone,
curled up on the floor in this one bedroom home.
The face was so gentle, the room in such disorder,
not how I pictured a United States Soldier.
Was this the hero of whom I’d just read?
Curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed?

I realized the families that I saw this night,
owed their lives to these soldiers who were willing to fight.
Soon round the world, the children would play,
and grownups would celebrate a bright Christmas day.
They all enjoyed freedom each month of the year,
because of the soldiers, like the one lying here.

I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone,
on a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home.
The very thought brought a tear to my eye,
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.
The soldier awakened and I heard a rough voice,
“Santa don’t cry, this life is my choice;

I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more,
my life is my God, my Country, my Corps.”
The soldier rolled over and drifted to sleep,
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep.
I kept watch for hours, so silent and still
and we both shivered from the cold night’s chill.

I didn’t want to leave on that cold, dark night,
this guardian of honor so willing to fight.
The the soldier rolled over, with a voice soft and pure,
whispered, “Carry on Santa, it’s Christmas day, all is secure.”
One look at my watch and I knew he was right.
“Merry Christmas, my friend, and to all a good night.”

Autumn Reflections

As for many people, autumn is just about my favorite season. Something about the changing leaves and crisp air makes me feel that anything is possible, that mystery lurks around every corner, and the world we see is teetering on the edge of revelation. Maybe it’s just the darkness of the approaching year’s end that calls to my blood, that hint of decay beneath the wild beauty of the trees and the slightly malignant moon. The gatherings of pumpkins and dried cornstalks on porches and at the end of driveways seem to be ancient offerings left for pagan gods. In the twisted, hidden places of my soul, I feel a tidal pull…when nature is at its most compelling, with the muffled beat, beat, beat of its heart calling a warning to those who choose to heed it. Get ready, it says, something wicked this way comes, a shadow in the gloaming….