Many of our tales and legends are centuries old, details and facts obscured by time. Yet despite our technological advances, strange occurrences continue and our region is particularly rich with stories that defy explanation. So, just in time for Halloween, we hope you’ll enjoy a selection of hauntingly true tales as told by your friends and neighbors, beginning with my own.
Holly Hill – Gloucester
On a moonless winter night we were on our way home to Gloucester after dining in Mathews and had crossed over the county line where the twists and turns of Route 14 straighten out just past Mount Zion United Methodist Church. I was driving, my husband seated beside me with our teenage daughter in the backseat leaning forward between us chattering away.
Suddenly, my headlights picked up the form of an enormous tree lying across both lanes of the highway directly in front of us. My husband uttered a single expletive as I slammed on the brakes and hollered to them to brace for impact. This was no mere tree limb. Its entire bulk lay across the road and median and there was no earthly way I could avoid slamming into it head-on. As we hurtled toward it my headlights illuminated every detail of the tree’s bark with crystal clarity. And then … nothing…we sailed right through it.
“What the heck?” our daughter cried, clutching the backs of our seats as we slowed, my foot still firmly pressed against the brake. I looked for a turnaround because I just had to go back and see what we had encountered. A mischievous prank, a rug or piece of tar paper perhaps, that looked like a tree, something to explain what we had obviously misconstrued? Back at the spot directly in front of Holly Hill Antiques there was not a single twig, shred of fabric, scrap of paper, or shadow to be seen. It was as if it had never happened.
Now, whenever we pass Holly Hill after dark, we often recall that night. Even with a full moon, Holly Hill’s large trees don’t cast shadows across the highway. I know, because we’ve looked and to this day have no explanation as to what took place that night. Holly Hill Antiques owner, David Weller, is delighted. “Ghosts are great for business! Mother always said she wished the house was haunted. Now we have a ghost tree!”
Church Hill – Gloucester
Evan and Sandy Van Leeuwen are well acquainted with the ghostly tales that
surround their home, Church Hill, built high above the Ware River in 1658. Seated in their gracious drawing room paneled in rich walnut and elegant crown moulding, one senses the passage of centuries that have filled this house with laughter and tears.
The fireplace would be a cozy spot to curl up by on a winter’s day except the previous owners had it blocked off because the young ghost who walks the halls of Church Hill had an affinity for stoking its fires. A house that had already burned twice didn’t need another.
Built by Mordecai Cooke, sheriff of Gloucester, the house was originally named Mordecai’s Mount. His daughter, Frances, married Gabriel Throckmorton in 1690 and the estate eventually passed from the Cooke family to their Throckmorton descendants, who changed the name to Church Hill. It was in this family line that the hauntings began.
As the story goes, during a visit to London, a Mr. Throckmorton took his daughter Elisabeth to visit their ancestral home. There she met and fell in love with an English gentleman and, upon her return to Gloucester, they made plans to marry. But her father did not approve of the match so he intercepted their letters, putting an end to their affair.
In her grief, the daughter became ill, fell into a coma, was presumed dead, and was buried in the family graveyard. A manservant who had been punished just prior to her death, and knowing she had been buried with her jewelry, dug up her body and cut off her finger in order to steal one of her rings. The shock of the desecration revived the comatose woman, who dragged herself to the house and tried in vain to attract the attention of the household. Come morning, the poor girl’s body was found on the front steps, frozen and covered with snow. It is thought to be her ghost that haunts Church Hill today.
Evan grew up at Church Hill beginning in 1966 and has fond memories of his mother’s many encounters with the unexplained. “My mother had events, which she fondly embraced, like finding earrings in places they didn’t belong, or having an overnight guest’s hair restyled while he slept, but they’ve never been anything malicious or harmful,” he’s quick to point out. It took his wife’s move to Church Hill in 2008 for Evan to realize that their resident ghost prefers the ladies of the house.
Mindful of the tales of rustling petticoats and plaintive tunes, the current Van Leeuwens have had their own odd encounters: the discovery of vintage drop earrings left on a foyer table after a party that no guest ever claimed (even after inquiries) and the tugging of bed covers while they’ve slept.
Sandy recalls one incidence vividly. “I had wrapped packages for our granddaughter’s birthday and they were stacked in the dining room. I had just gone into the dining room to pick them up when I got a puff of wind in my ear. It was a distinct “puff”, not some errant breeze. This is the only time I’ve jumped when something happened in the house.”
“If it is Elisabeth, she was a teenager, an 18th century young lady,” Evan says, “and she would have enjoyed things like jewelry, parties, music, and messing with my brother-in-law’s hair.”
Much of the paranormal activity has taken place in the drawing room that dates back to the 18th century. One night, alone and playing her violin while seated at the piano, Sandy had her arm firmly nudged and, at another time, felt a comforting pat on her shoulder as she knelt exasperated, while picking up papers that had tumbled out of a butler’s desk.
As we chatted, two loud thumps came from upstairs. “Is anyone else in the house?” I asked. “No” they both replied, looking up at the ceiling.
Hewick Plantation – Urbanna
The ghosts that haunt Hewick Plantation are a reportedly varied lot, from a man in black to a lady in pink, from singers to smokers, door slammers, and leg grabbers; they have provided a never ending source of thrills and chills to generations of Hewick residents and visitors alike.
Built in 1678 of Flemish bond brick by Christopher Robinson, the manor was originally named The Grange. When Christopher Robinson II inherited the estate he renamed the plantation ‘Hewick’ after the family’s ancestral home in England. As a clerk for Middlesex County, member of the House of Burgesses, member of the King’s Council, and an original trustee of the College of William and Mary, Christopher Robinson II brought prosperity to his 3000 acre estate.
Hewick remained in the family throughout the 17th and 18th centuries but by the 1920s its fortunes had waned and the house sat unoccupied for several years. Over the years owners came and went, each putting their own unique stamp upon the house. The current owner, Walt Hurley, acquired the property in 2007 and also owns Bethpage Camp Resort next door.
As with any old house, stories of ghosts arose over the years that are now part of its history. Arriving at Hewick Plantation we couldn’t help but wonder if its ghosts were displeased having visitors. We were met at the back entrance by Michelle Brown, the plantation’s event coordinator, because the front doors refused to open.
She had struggled for several minutes with a large brass key to no avail and so we entered into the modern kitchen at the rear of the house. Unfortunately the kitchen is not yet linked to the main part of the house so Michelle called for assistance from one of the campground’s maintenance men. Before he could give the key a good turn, the door suddenly swung open effortlessly.
While we waited for the maintenance man to arrive, Michelle entertained us with stories she’s been told by the various contractors and maintenance men who have been working on the house.
“We have [electric] candles set in all the windows we leave on all year round,” Michelle said. “They are quite attractive when viewed from the outside but for some reason the candle in the bottom left window will not stay lit. They have had electricians work on the wiring, switched candles, changed light bulbs, but no one can figure out why the candle in that one window won’t work. It may burn awhile, but when we leave the room and come back it’s out again.” Blame it on quirky wiring perhaps, but whenever Walt enters that room his dog heads straight to that corner and barks up a storm.
Around back two large cellar doors lead under the house. One autumn contractors hired to winterize beneath the house had left for lunch with the exception of one worker who decided to remain behind. As he relaxed in the cellar he distinctly heard the heavy clomp of footsteps overhead. Knowing the house was unoccupied and locked, he hastily retreated to the safety of the campground, vowing never to stay
there alone again.
On another day maintenance men were installing light bulbs in various ceiling fixtures and, after climbing down from a tall step ladder, the crew watched in fascination as one of the bulbs slowly unscrewed itself and fell to the floor.
Strange occurrences extend beyond the boundaries of the house as well. A Bethpage charter boat captain was alarmed to see a spectral lady dressed in a flowing white gown walking along the shoreline one evening at dusk, only to be relieved upon hearing that her apparition has been seen by others as well.
As Hewick Plantation undergoes extensive renovations, who knows what other mysteries may be uncovered?
Auburn – North
On what should have been the happiest day of her life, tragedy struck. According to legend, as Mary Eliza ascended the staircase on her wedding day she tripped on the hem of her gown and her fall proved fatal. Since that fateful day, her leather wedding slippers have been passed down to each subsequent owner of Auburn as an ongoing tradition.
Graceful Georgian-style Auburn, situated on the North River in Mathews County, was built by Philip Tabb for his son in 1824. Dr. Henry Wythe Tabb (1791-1863) lived there almost six decades, outliving two of his three wives and fathering numerous children.
For a brief time in the 1970s Auburn was owned by former Beatles John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. “Yoko Ono was very superstitious and refused to have the slippers in the house,” current homeowner Lynn Hornsby says. “She gave them to the caretaker and even had the house exorcised.” Following John’s fatal stabbing in New York in 1980, Auburn was sold again, but it’s not the ghost of John Lennon who walks the halls of this gracious manor.
When Lynn and Chip Hornsby spotted Auburn for sale in 1997 for Lynn it was love at first sight. When Chip’s career brought them to Tidewater, Lynn knew immediately where she wanted to live; her dream of living in this historic home unfazed despite a friend’s cautionary tale of ghosts that walk its halls.
“We had been living here three or four months and my husband was out of town on business,” Lynn recalls. “My oldest daughter, Megan, came down one morning and asked what her dad had been doing in the middle of the night standing at the foot of her bed just staring at her. It gave me goose bumps because I knew he wasn’t home.” Her daughter went on to explain that he had on a crazy outfit, like a military costume. When he refused to answer she went back to sleep, but was now relaying the event to her mother in vivid detail.
Not wanting to alarm her child, Lynn refrained from reminding her that Dad was still out of town. “The last thing you want to do is have your children think you’ve moved them into a haunted house!” Lynn laughs. “At the time I immediately recalled my friend’s warning, ‘Wait until you have an encounter with the soldier!’”
This was not the first time Auburn residents had reported encounters with this military apparition and, like others before them, the Hornsbys have also had their share of slamming doors, lights turned on in empty rooms, and frigid spots of air in unexpected places.
As an expansive addition to Auburn began, Lynn would talk to Mary Eliza, telling her she hoped she liked the changes they were making to the house. “I felt at times there was a feeling of acceptance,” says Lynn. “That this had been a happy home in the past filled with love, entertaining, and family gatherings despite the various tragedies. Surely she’s happy now that we are here with our family being good stewards of the home.”
Things are quiet at Auburn for the moment and Lynn intends to keep them that way!
Old House Woods Road – Diggs
Our tour ends on another stretch of road, Old House Woods Road (RT. 704) in Mathews County. The small community of Diggs is little more than a collection of farm houses and cottages now, known locally as “The Haven” that once was the site of a general store and post office. For centuries fantastical tales have arisen around a fifty acre patch of pine woods and marshland that lies between Whites Creek and Haven Beach known as Old House Woods, and about a particular stretch of road and an old house that once sat there.
County residents with long established and respected names, visitors, news reporters, authors, and self-proclaimed paranormal investigators have reported encounters with an assortment of ghostly figures: pirates and redcoats searching for buried treasure; a skeleton in armor; an ancient sailing ship—the Bay’s own version of the Flying Dutchman; storm hags; headless dogs and cows; glowing orbs and flashing lights; and malevolent spirits that have filled travelers on that road with dread.
Online blogs are filled with stories that range from the plausible to the outlandish; tales that have raised more than a few eyebrows. Many first person accounts have been well documented in newspaper articles and books as far back as 1928, and that have been passed down from one generation to the next, becoming urban legends that some embrace and others scoff. It’s easy to forget that before the invention of radio, television, and the Internet, folks gathered together before a fire or on front porches after dark and swapped yarns.
Storytelling became an art form and listeners were spellbound hearing a spine tingling tale that took place just up the road. Yet there are others who swear they’ve encountered the unexplained on that quiet stretch of sandy track and no amount of derision will shake their beliefs that Old House Woods is the source of many bizarre and terrifying encounters.
I visited Old House Woods Road on a summer’s eve and found nothing more lethal than some green headed flies and glowing orbs of lightning bugs high up in the pines. And yet, there was an inexplicable feeling that time was standing still and that if you returned to this same spot in fifty or a hundred years, and the sea hasn’t claimed it, Old House Woods Road will appear just as it is today.
Perhaps that’s what hauntings are all about; each generation gathering to hear tales of ghosts and hauntings and the unexplained, reaffirming our beliefs that physical death may not be the final act. So on this All Hallows Eve, happy hauntings and pleasant dreams!