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Glimpses of the ghosts of Richmond past.

Haunted History


Richmond is not particularly haunted; while, through the years, there have been numerous reports of Civil War ghosts north and south of the city, and repeated sightings of the apparitions of long-passed aristocracy on plantations to the east, few well-documented spirits remain in the city proper.

This is the somewhat perplexing consensus of local professors, museum curators, history society officials and authors of the city's spook-lore. After all, isn't Richmond one of the oldest places around — and therefore the repository of more souls, silent or otherwise, than the average burg? The city, too, has had its share of great fires, structural collapses and other calamities in which many have met untimely deaths. So where are all the ghosts?

L. B. Taylor Jr., author of The Ghosts of Richmond and four volumes on supernatural shades and shadows throughout Virginia, agrees the capital city seems to be spectrally challenged. In all his extensive research — including poking around under Monumental Church, shrine to the dozens who died in the awful theater fire of 1811 — even he has yet to encounter firsthand the wrath of a Richmond wraith.

Taylor amusingly theorizes that perhaps compared to hauntings elsewhere, the city's presumably better-bred spirits have had the good manners not to inflict themselves on posterity, to overstay their welcome.

Perhaps indeed. But he and other sources provide at least a few cases here of the occasionally uncouth phantom:

1737 - The lost generation at Westover

Col. William Byrd II founded Richmond in 1737. It would be decades, however, until more than a few hundred souls inhabited the town. In the meantime, the Byrds of nearby Westover Plantation had more than enough tragedy to occupy them.

In November 1737, Col. Byrd's daughter, Evelyn, died at the age of 29. She had been a sad, reclusive figure ever since her father threatened to disown her if she married the man she loved — a wealthy English aristocrat, but a Catholic.

Since her death, numerous relatives, servants, guests and visitors at the estate have encountered the ethereally beautiful Evelyn, radiant in the white gown she had longed to wear in life.

And Evelyn apparently is not alone at Westover. Her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, died 11 years after marrying Evelyn's brother, William Byrd III. Elizabeth had suspected William of adultery and sought evidence, perhaps love letters, in the large chests of drawers stacked high in their bedroom.

Using the lower drawers as steps, she reached to open the uppermost, but the large chest suddenly tipped and fell, in an instant crushing her to death against the floor.

Since then, servants have grown accustomed to the screams that periodically can be heard coming from the room. (And to the chilling presence of William Byrd III himself, who later gambled away the family fortune and, facing the loss of Westover, killed himself in the house.)

1826 - Betrayal in Shockoe Bottom

James McNaught was the man to see about guns. Hailed as "the celebrated Gun Smith of this city" by the local press for the "uncommon excellence" of his firearms and his connections to exporters in London, it was only natural that when he took as an apprentice 14-year-old Daniel Denoon, whose father had died in the War of 1812, the boy had reason to be grateful.

Teacher and pupil quickly formed a close, familial bond, and for more than eight years, worked together in perfect trust, McNaught even leaving the shop in Denoon's hands for as many as nine months at a time while he visited England. In early 1826, however, McNaught was upset by his now 22-year-old foreman's desire to set out on his own.

For his part, the junior gunsmith already had stayed on for more than a year after his apprenticeship ended and was quietly disappointed at not receiving the bonus McNaught had promised him for running the operation during his long absence. The master's increasingly heavy drinking and lax business practices also were driving him away.

But their relationship apparently remained harmonious until several weeks later, when after dinner with his family, foreman and apprentices, McNaught called the young man upstairs.

As Denoon reached the top stair, McNaught aimed a pistol at his protege's abdomen and fired. Then McNaught turned the gun on himself. (He survived, but in another fit of apparent madness dispatched himself while in the city jail.) Shocked and stupefied at his respected master's deed, Denoon stumbled to the bottom of the steps and was able to describe the incident before expiring.

To this day, the scene of the wicked murder remains an unsettling place, with strange phenomena occasionally observed by employees and patrons of the business that now occupies the former gunshop at the corner of Franklin and 18th streets — a popular restaurant called None Such Place.

1850 - The greedy ghost of the West End

Richard Whichello, a miserly and disreputable tavern keeper, was widely known for mistreating his slaves, employees, and occasionally even customers. One of these apparently decided to exact some long-overdue, but nonetheless horrifyingly, extreme revenge.

After a night of poker during which Whichello allegedly took a cattle drover for a fantastic sum — the amount the drover had received for a full herd of cattle — the tavern keeper was found the next morning on his bedroom floor, his skull crushed by an ax, the money gone.

For years after, as treasure-seekers sought to find his fabled hoard, digging in and around the tavern, servants, visitors and later residents complained of bizarre and supernatural occurrences: It seemed the greedy Whichello, even in death, was disturbed by the efforts to obtain what he still considered his wealth. Only in the mid-1930s, when the last attempt at finding Whichello's treasure also ended in failure, did his spirit apparently seek its final rest, and the haunting cease.

It certainly has not disturbed any recent residents of the renovated tavern, now the DeVilbiss home at 9602 River Road.

1875 - Leigh Street's mysterious skeleton

The Hawes family home on Leigh Street was a happy one: bright, dutiful children filled it with laughter and played throughout its large rooms and halls, amid its lovely grounds and gardens. One of them, Virginia, who would go on to write the "Lassie" books, recalled in her 1910 autobiography that there was, however, one tragic figure who occupied the home with them.

The ghost, a small woman in a gray dress with her face sadly lowered into her hands, wore a distinctive tortoiseshell comb in her hair and would "glide noiselessly" along the front hall.

Virginia's father remained suspiciously unmoved at her reports of the ghost, and he ordered that no one speak of it. His insistence continued even after Virginia's mother saw the apparition; after it startled her sister; and after it accosted a cousin. Finally, Mr. Hawes revealed he, too, had known of the spirit for some time, but feared word of their house's haunting would make selling it impossible.

In 1875, after Mr. Hawes died and all the children were married and gone, Virginia's mother sold the house to St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which converted it into an orphanage. Virginia later learned from a former neighbor that the sad ghost with the tortoiseshell comb in her hair continued to appear, the cause "of a midnight alarm, of screaming children at the occasion of a little gray lady walking between the double row of beds in the dormitory."

Virginia ultimately also learned what she believed to be the source of her family's and the orphanage's visitations: the forever-unidentified, skeletal remains of a small woman, found by a construction crew buried four feet under ground without a coffin, as though in haste, a pace or two from what had been the front hallway of the Hawes house.

Beneath the skull was an ornate tortoiseshell comb.

1945 - Unfinished business at Glasgow House

Ellen Glasgow's remains rest in Hollywood Cemetery, her grave adjacent to that of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. But the prolific novelist's spirit, many believe, continues to reside in the Richmond home where she lived and wrote for more than 50 years.

The Pulitzer-winning author died Nov. 21, 1945, at her family's long-time residence at One West Main Street. She was known to have felt a passionate attachment to the home, built in 1841, which Glasgow's family moved into during her mid-teens; she even left in her will consideration for preserving the exotic imported wallpaper in her second-floor study.

It was in the study that, day after day, night after night, Glasgow's hands slowly, imperceptibly aged as they clacked her keen typewriter. When she died in her early 70s, Glasgow left unfinished what would have been her 20th novel.

Now attorneys' offices, the home served after her death as a university center and residence. Many students and academics have had the sensation of an otherworldy presence within; some even have heard footsteps or the ringing of a long-disconnected buzzer that Glasgow had used to summon servants. In the ultimate encounter, a student resident reported returning to the house one evening to find the unmistakable spirit of Glasgow herself waiting for him on the stairway landing. This frightened him so much he fled and never returned to collect his belongings.

Glasgow herself wrote that during her long years alone in the house "ghosts were my only companions." She meant it literally, and in her autobiography, "The Woman Within," described a chilling encounter with a malevolent force.

Now it seems Glasgow, who died in her sleep, remains the woman within One West Main Street, the one whose typewriter occasionally still can be heard clacking away into the night, a distinct sound that passes into silence only when the door to her cherished study is hesitantly, fearfully