American Style: Real Haunted Houses
In this special installment of our “American Style” series, I’m focusing on a few Haunted Houses famous in America and their many shared architectural stylings. It’s easy to think haunted houses have a “look,” but in truth, they have an era. The older the home, the more likely it has a history that’s as supernatural as it is old.
So far, our American Style series has focused on the history of architectural styles and how they often crossed the seas with immigrants and became repurposed for America.
Today, we’ll look instead a few famous haunted houses, their architectural styles and corresponding histories, and why these haunted manors capture our imagination like they do.
What comes first — the architecture or the apparitions?
Any fan of the movie Ghostbusters remembers that the big finale takes place at “Spook Central,” which is really 55 Central Park West. Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis explain how the building is designed as a portal meant to facilitate what’s essentially supposed to be the end of the world. Dead coming back to life, skies as black as sackcloth, Zuul, yada-yada [Ed: Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!].
While that makes for great Hollywood, I’m sorry I can’t report the same harbinger-of-the-afterworld is true of turrets, widow’s walks, or mansard roofs.
A lot of the homes we find famous for hauntings are because they’ve been around so long and the stories are so old and many-layered that we associate their older architecture with ghosts. Old homes are not the only places haunted by ghosts, they’re just what we can call “legacy hauntings.” It takes time and history to amass a reputation for hauntings. Sometimes that happens more quickly, like with the Amityville Murders or the Borden ax murders of Fall River, Massachusetts.
Old America, old spooks
From New England to the Deep South, you’ll find the landscape dotted with Victorian, Gothic, and Georgian homes and all their stylings that we now associate with all things spooky, thanks to Disney’s Haunted Mansion, the Addams Family, Psycho, and all the other pop-culture we love to be scared by.
Whether you’re looking into the witchy past of Salem, Massachussetts, or visiting the nearby Lizzie Borden House said to be haunted with the ghosts of her “alleged” murders, or touring the Deep South and homes like Williamsburg’s reputedly most haunted, the George Wythe House dating to 1750, you’ll find they often all share similar architectural stylings.
Here, we’ll share some of the homes famous for their ghosts. It’s worth noting that “ghost tourism” has skyrocketed in recent decades and places that once hid the tales are now embellishing them with great delight. As a result, some histories have been exaggerated, so the tales can vary depending on the sources found.
The Myrtles Plantation
This St. Francisville, La., antebellum plantation is 220 years old and sits on the National History Register. Built in 1794, some accounts say there’ve been 10 murders on the Myrtles’ grounds over that time, but others state only one murder transpired. Still, plantations have a dark history all their own, thanks to the horrors of slavery.
The most famous ghost here is said to be Chloe, “the murderous slave,” who, legend has it, poisoned three of her owner’s children and was then hanged for it by other slaves and haunts the grounds to this day.
Some historians say there is no evidence of this, and the children were killed by yellow fever, but that the property saw many, many die on their grounds through slavery, illness, the Civil War, and more. The well-documented deaths alone are sufficient to ensure Myrtles Plantation remains one of the nation’s most haunted properties.
Today, you can visit the famous ghost with her green headdress and tour the plantation yourself. These ghost-hunters seek to debunk popular myths about the plantation but insist the hauntings are for real.
The Lemp Mansion
Built in 1868, this beautiful St. Louis, Missouri, Italianate Victorian landmark has a long, dark history. It was built by the family who originally brewed Falstaff Beer, and who once were among the richest, most elite families that St. Louis had ever seen. Behind closed doors, though, depression and tragedy ran rampant, and four family members committed suicide in the home between 1900 and 1940. Others also died young, including the legend of one illegitimate son believed held captive in the attic for his lifetime, thanks to the “shame” of being born with Down’s Syndrome.
With the family in tatters, Charles Lemp killed his dog, then himself, in 1949. Everyone else dead, the last surviving Lemp, Edwin, moved to Kirkwood, Missouri, and the troubled mansion was sold to become a boarding home, where tales of its haunting began.
Falling into disrepair, the building was sold in the ‘70s to become restored as a restaurant and inn, which it remains to this day.
Today it is considered one of America’s top 10 haunted properties.
“Since the restaurant opened, staff members have reported several strange experiences. Again, apparitions appear and then quickly vanish, voices and sounds come from nowhere, and glasses will often lift off the bar flying through the air by themselves. On other occasions, doors are said to lock and unlock by themselves, lights inexplicably turn on and off of their own free will, and the piano bar often plays when no one is near.” Read more here.
The Winchester House
This home truly is a part of America’s history. After all, this mansion was built with money earned from the gun that kept the North in the American Civil War, Winchester’s Henry, the first repeating rifle, and probably responsible for more deaths than any other early weapon.
Married in 1862, William and Sarah Winchester watched as their young daughter wasted away and died in 1866. In coming years, William would die from tuberculosis, and Sarah would be told by a medium that Willam’s ghost proclaimed to her that the tragedies they suffered were retribution from the souls slaughtered by the firearms that made their family so wealthy.
She was instructed to head west and begin building a home. As Prairie Ghosts reports–
“You must start a new life,” said the medium, “and build a home for yourself and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon too. You can never stop building the house. If you continue building, you will live. Stop and you will die.”
And so she bought a six-bedroom house and employed all manner of craftsmen. For the next 36 years, for 24 hours a day, up to two dozen tradesmen at a time would toil away — adding to, changing, and complicating the original structure.
Today, the Winchester House remains one of the most unique homes ever built. By the end of the “never-ending” construction, it had reached seven stories high, with 26 rooms, and 47 fireplaces. It also sported countless stairs that would lead to nowhere and double-back hallways, closet doors that opened to just a blank wall, and many other baffling designs, all meant to confuse and frustrate any evil spirits. Superstitions played a large part too, with the number 13 playing a motif throughout — windows with 13 panes, stairs with 13 steps, and so on.
Is the mansion haunted today, or was it just the bizarre result of supernatural interference? Maybe you’ll only know if you visit.
If you’re fascinated by ghost stories, look around you. Most towns and cities have “cemetery societies” and architectural history fans that love to share the history of local residents and their haunts. While many of these stories are as much myth and legend as they are fact, they’re all fascinating tales to hear told, and all play into our fabric of Americana.
Why not explore your area and learn of some of your local American Style “haunts” during this season of spooks and frights?