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Ghost tales captivate on tours and in books
Explaining the unexplained: Why ghost tales continue to captivate our collective imagination

 Helen Marler steps into the persona of the 19th century's Jane Beale outside of the Richard Johnston Inn along Caroline Street during her phantom- walk tour. She shares her tales of ghostly occurrences in the historic Fredericksburg area.
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Date published: 10/30/2005


In real life, shoelaces often come untied. Shutters come unhinged. And in a group of 13 young mothers and a reporter, the one wearing the overpowering, floral-scented perfume isn't always likely to 'fess up.

But for those who wish to believe that paranormal activity exists in downtown Fredericksburg, these are just a few pieces of evidence from local storyteller Helen Marler.

In the guise of Mary Washington contemporary Jane Beale, Marler leads groups year-round by appointment on her "Phantoms of Fredericksburg" walk.

"The honest truth is I don't know if I even believe in ghosts," said Marler. "But at the same time, I do know that people see things on our walks; they hear things; things happen. And I honor their experiences."

Since 1993, Marler has helped parties of thrill-seekers, cameras in hand, uncover the city's supernatural attractions. Her clients have included Scout troops, police officers and serious ghost-hunters.

At a leisurely pace, the experience (she avoids the "four-letter word" tour) runs just over two hours, passing by historic sites such as St. George's Church, where pew doors open mysteriously, and the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, where phantom curtains may appear in the windows. Depending on the willingness of the group, Marler estimates the walks can cover 30 to 40 of downtown's haunted sites.

But she cautions that those expecting to be frightened out of their wits might miss the point.

Marler describes the walk as "a sneaky way to learn history"--emphasizing the lives of the city's past residents rather than morbid campfire tales.

"When I meet people that are really interested in history, then they have more fun because then they get the bonus of ghosts, too," she said.

For many like Marler, Fredericksburg's ghosts, real or not, are just another part of its long heritage that needs to be told. In fact, much of the local ghost-lore of today was documented in the early 20th century, during the same period that efforts began to preserve historic buildings like Kenmore and the James Monroe Museum.

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Fall Hill's Katina

Ghost-tale author L.B. Taylor Jr. counts among his favorites of Fredericksburg lore the story of an Indian princess who became a beloved servant to the Thornton family of Fall Hill. In the 1920s, two boys sleeping in an old nursery reported seeing an old woman with black braids enter and leave through the wall where a door had been. And as recently as 2002, visiting Mary Washington students and the privately owned mansion's current residents have felt Katina's presence.

Kenmore's Col. Fielding Lewis

Lewis, a successful planter and brother-in-law to George Washington, lost his fortune manufacturing arms during the Revolutionary War. His spirit has been seen poring over financial records in an upstairs bedchamber of his famous residence. In 1971, a seance was held in the bedroom, though reporter Helaine Patterson wrote that "[n]one of the time-honored signs of the ghost of Kenmore showed themselves." While the second floor is no longer open to the public, visitors might still hear the troubled colonel's footsteps pacing the empty rooms above.

Federal Hill's Gov. Alexander Spotswood

The ghost of the former governor, for whom Spotsylvania is named, gives new meaning to the term "bon vivant" at the privately owned Federal Hill. The specter, thought to be Spotswood (he died before the house was built), has appeared in a pink hunter's coat, mixing drinks and offering toasts to his own portrait. Other spirits have been known to appear near the mansion, including a "Headless Blue Lady" who visited Charlotte Street one week in May 1974.

Rising Sun Tavern's poltergeist

Taylor likes the mischievous qualities of the ghostly guest that visits the recreated Caroline Street tavern, once a hotbed for Colonial upheaval. Some believe it is the original tavern's keeper, John Frazier, whose spirit has been known to pull caps off the unwitting "bar wenchs'" heads, and rugs out from under their feet.

Chatham's lady in white

The Stafford manor of statesman William Fitzhugh saw many famous visitors. But only one keeps returning to mark the anniversary of her death every seven years on June 21. The nameless spirit is that of a young Englishwoman whose plans to meet her lover were foiled, according to legend, by George Washington. The site, now overseen by the National Park Service, keeps late hours for the occasion-- the next of which is in 2007.

--Sources: "The Ghosts of Fredericksburg" by L.B Taylor Jr., Free Lance-Star archives, historypoint.org