PENSACOLA, Fla. — A doctor who used a guillotine to perform amputations, a wealthy family marred by insanity and a man murdered inside his sealed and boarded-up mansion are among the stories that frighten willing listeners who line up in towns throughout the South to tour supposedly haunted places.
From Charleston, S.C., to Atlanta to New Orleans and beyond, ghost tours are popular with tourists and locals alike, at Halloween and throughout the year. New Orleans has year-round tours of all the spooky sights in the Crescent City and it is well known in literature and popular culture through stories of vampires, witches and other supernatural creatures. But smaller Southern cities like Pensacola, Fla., and Mobile, Ala., are also touting their own haunted histories.
“I think we are the gothic part of the country. We have a lot of skeletons in our closets, here in the South,” said Diane Roberts, a professor of literature at Florida State University and author of books on Southern literature and culture.
She believes the region has produced so many famous authors with a focus on the supernatural because the South has such a deep and conflicted past.
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“Ghosts can be a metaphor, and the South has a history of grinding poverty, slavery, war and genocide of native people,” she said “We are collectively very guilty and haunted by our past in this region.”
Tamara Roberts, a longtime guide for ghost tours organized by the Pensacola Historical Society, agrees there is something special about Southerners and their relationship with the dead.
“These were our neighbors, our people so to speak,” said Roberts, as she wove her way through the rows of tombstones at the historic St. Michael’s Cemetery in downtown Pensacola on a recent afternoon. “Ghost stories are popular all over the world, but I think there is a little of something in the South that to me goes back to family and community.”
Pensacola dates to 1559, when Tristan De Luna and his Spanish fleet landed on the white sand beaches. De Luna briefly attempted to build a settlement, but it was washed away in a hurricane.
“Pensacola is such an old city and there are lots of ghost stories around here,” said Wendi Davis, coordinator of the historical society’s ghost tours. The ghost tours are the society’s biggest fundraiser and draw hundreds of people each October.
However, Davis says there is more to the tours than Halloween hype.
“People experience things and they love to share their stories,” she said. One tour guide brought a group close to an old home and she heard a voice warning her away from the property, but there was no visible source for the voice. Others have reported smelling mysterious cigars and gardenias on the tours and even seeing ghostly apparitions in period clothing.
Mary McDonald never discounts such stories. McDonald, who runs the historic Daughters of the American Revolution Richardson house in downtown Mobile has lots of ghost stories. McDonald even has a photograph taken by paranormal investigators of a supposed ghost in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
She says the home also has mysterious cigar smoke, and people have heard nonexistent children playing in the stairwell. Others say they have watched children’s marbles placed on a bed in an upstairs bedroom move without anyone touching them.
But McDonald says her ghostly visitors don’t appear to have any bad intentions.
“Everybody says that any ghosts they have come across in the house have been very pleased that we are here and taking care of it,” she said.
Elsewhere in Mobile, the ghosts are not so content. The story of the owner of one downtown mansion, who was murdered inside his sealed and boarded up residence, is a favorite of Carol Peterson, CEO of Bay City Convention & Tours. She has conducted ghost tours in downtown Mobile for more than 20 years. She says people claim they still hear the man’s ghost making noises from the upstairs bedroom where he was slain.
“Most ghosts are on a journey and when that journey is over they leave, but he is not done — John the ghost is still there,” she said.
Nearby New Orleans is well known for its connection with the paranormal, but Peterson said she believes Mobile actually has a stronger haunted history.
“We have just as many ghosts and just as many ghost stories because we were founded before New Orleans,” she said.
All types of people go on the ghost tours, said Roberts, the literature professor who also does the Pensacola tours.
“You always get some who are there to hear a good story and they don’t believe in ghosts. You get people who are very, very much into hoping they are going to see something,” she said. “It is just kind of fun and it’s Halloween. Who doesn’t like a good ghost story?”
Roberts’ favorite stories include the story of Pensacola’s Dr. Eugenio Antonio Sierra, who was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in 1849 after he lived to 99. Dr. Sierra used a guillotine to perform amputations on patients in his home office.
Then there is the story of the wealthy Charbonier siblings who were buried in a family plot at St. Michael’s in the 1800s. One sibling was jilted in marriage and another went insane from syphilis.
Roberts says the siblings have reappeared as spirits and that the brother is known to be a troublemaking ghost.
Despite being so intimate with the scary stories, Roberts says ghosts don’t frighten her.
“Actually it’s more the IRS and spiders, and things like that, that I think are scary,” she said.