Paranormal experts, if there are such things, are in general agreement that Virginia is one of the most haunted states, perhaps the most haunted, in the nation. And for good reason. It is the oldest colony in America and there are more surviving old houses here than anywhere else. Plus, since the experts contend that tragic and traumatic deaths are a leading cause for the existence of ghosts, if there are such things as ghosts, then Virginia surely ranks at the top of the list since there has been more blood shed here over the past 400 years, dating from Indian attacks on the early settlers on up through the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
Accounts of lingering spirits blanket the entire map of the Old Dominion, from Winchester south to Bristol, and from Monterey east to Virginia Beach. The Northern Neck is not excluded from this questionable list and, arguably, one of the most haunted houses in this historic area is Stratford Hall. It was here, of course, that Robert E. Lee was born in 1807. The mansion itself dates to the late 1730s. Among its long ago occupants are some of the most famous men in American history, including Richard Henry Lee, a leader of the Continental Congress, and Light Horse Harry Lee, a hero of the Revolutionary War and Robert’s father.
As with so many antique estates, there is ample justification for ghostly encounters at Stratford Hall, for along with its majestic eloquence, family members through the centuries have had their share of tragic events. If a visitor to the house today asks a tour guide about ghosts, he or she is told they are not part of the narrative. The guides are trained to “protect” the historical integrity of the site. The key to finding a more positive answer to such a provocative question is to query others. Find a maid, janitor, or better yet, a night security guard, and they may well reveal some of Stratford Hall’s most guarded secrets.
That is precisely what the author did some years ago, and the results were quite surprising. Here are some examples. A domestic worker walked into the library one day to clean it, and then promptly retreated. Her supervisor asked what happened, and she replied that she didn’t want to disturb the gentleman inside. The supervisor replied, “What gentleman?” The worker said she saw a figure in old fashioned clothes checking over some papers. The two women then re-entered the library. There was no one there. The worker became very frightened and fled the house.
Once, a well-known psychic visited. When she passed through the great hall on the second floor, she stopped and said she felt “so many good impressions.” She claimed to see the room full of Lees, and that there was dancing, music and entertainment. She added that the Lees were pleased with how the house was being taken care of.
A hostess said her encounter came on a dismal, dark winter afternoon. During a tour, she saw a woman and a child in a room in colonial period costume. She thought it was another hostess, but when she later asked the other hostess about it, she was told the other hostess hadn’t even been upstairs. Then the second hostess lifted her hand, covered her mouth and said that the first hostess “had finally seen them.” Who? She had seen Ann Lee, the distraught and brokenhearted wife of Black Horse Harry Lee, and their little daughter, Margaret, who had died in the house at age two in 1820 after falling down the stairs. Others, including tourists, have reported hearing a phantom woman calling for a child, the sound of a child running, and then both of them laughing as if they were playing together.
Security guards, too, have experienced various forms of psychic manifestations. One said that a lot of mysterious things happen here, especially strange noises at night. Like what? “Loud racket,” he emphasized, and, “the sounds of heavy furniture being moved around when no one is in the room.” Also, he said: “Other times we heard rustling sounds, like petticoats and skirts rubbing against chairs and tables, but you never see anything.” One officer said he heard fiddle and harp music on occasion.
Another guard said that one night he was sitting in a chair when something unseen grabbed his sleeve and lifted his arm straight up. Also, he added, when he was alone one night reading a book, he got up to make his rounds and when he came back the book had flatly disappeared. One guard told of a new man on the job. “He quit after one hour and wouldn’t even talk about what happened to him.”
Two officers said that on multiple occasions they had seen the apparition of a small boy, about three or four years old, wearing dark purple britches and a light colored purple shirt with ruffled sleeves. Each time they approached the figure, he evaporated before their eyes. One said, “I believe he was a spirit. If he wasn’t, where did he go?” Could it have been the ghost of Robert E. Lee, who moved out of Stratford Hall when he was just three-and-a-half? Another clue suggests that it might be the son of Philip Ludwell Lee, himself the son of Thomas Lee, the founder of the house. According to family lore, this boy fell down the stairs in the mansion one day in 1779. He was four years old.
Possibly the most terrifying encounters were experienced by J.R. “Butch” Myers, a leather craftsman who lives in Richmond. He travels about demonstrating how eighteenth-century shoes are made. In June 1989, he was at an exhibition at Stratford Hall. He spent the night in a dependency building near the main house. Getting ready for bed, he lit six candles in stands, then heard approaching footsteps outside and assumed it was the security guard making his rounds.
Myers recalled: “I took a couple of steps toward the door when a sudden down draft of freezing cold air hit me, taking my breath away. It was like walking into a cold storage locker. I got goosebumps all over. Just as this happened, there was a thunderous noise in the chimney. It sounded like the whole building was going to collapse. I didn’t find this out until later but the chimney was sealed top and bottom. There was no way anything alive could be in it. If this wasn’t scary enough, and believe me it was,” Myers continued, “I turned around just in time to see the candles go out. They didn’t go out at once, as if blown out by a down shaft of air. They went out one at a time, in sequence, as if someone was snuffing them out!” At first Myers thought someone was playing a joke on him, but then he realized he was alone in the room. He told a security guard what happened, and the man didn’t seem surprised. He just said, “Oh, you’ve just met our friend.”
Myers returned to his room and relit the candles. He said: “Now you can believe this or not, I don’t care, but the icy coldness hit me again, and the racket kicked up in the chimney, which really scared me now, because the guard had told me about it being sealed. Then, someone or something very methodically extinguished each candle again, this time in reverse order! There definitely was something there, a presence or whatever you want to call it. It was enough for me. I said, ‘Listen, you can have the room. Just let me get my pillow and blanket and I will get out of here.’ And I got out of there as quick as I could and went over to another dependency, where the guard was, and I told him I was spending the night with him!”
Myers went back to Stratford Hall five years later for another craft show on the grounds. He refused to stay in the dependency where he had been before, but one evening he walked over to it. “It was a nice gentle breeze blowing,” he says, “but when I got in front of the building, everything was deathly still. Nothing was stirring. It was an eerie feeling. I put my hand on the doorknob, and it was like clutching an icicle. That’s as far as I got. I wouldn’t go back into that room. There was something in there that didn’t want me inside. The guards told me it wouldn’t hurt me, but they hadn’t felt what I had in that room. I’m not saying definitely that it was something evil, but I didn’t want to stick around and find out. It had made its point with me. I’m not psychic or anything, but I believe there is something to ghosts and spirits and there’s a lot we don’t understand about all that yet. But I can say for sure that I am certain there is something otherworldly at Stratford Hall. There was something unexplained in that room, and one experience with whatever it was, or is, was enough for me!”
*Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of one which appeared in a previous edition of The House and Home Magazine. Mr. Taylor passed away on February 23, 2014. Virginia ghost books by L.B. Taylor, Jr. may be obtained at 108 Elizabeth Meriwether, Williamsburg, Virginia 23185. There are 13 independent volumes of The Ghosts of Virginia, covering the entire Commonwealth. They are $18.00 each. Civil War Ghosts of Virginia, The Ghosts of Fredericksburg, which includes a chapter on Stratford Hall, and A Treasury of True Ghostly Humor are $15.00 each. Please include $3 shipping and handling on single book orders and $5 on multiple book orders. Check or money order only. For questions, please call 757-253-2636 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be born a Virginian is to be subtly aware of one’s uniqueness, even among Southerners. At the heart of these distinctive people is the Lee family, generations of Old Dominion aristocracy, who once called Stratford Hall home. When born into a history as rich as Stratford Hall’s, you carry in your genes the indisputable occurrence of the generations who had a direct impact on our American Spirit–the understanding of ferocity, strength, limits, and as Margaret Mitchell might say, gumption. These ideals were passed down through Lawrence Towneley, granddaddy to George Washington, Robert E. Lee–and notably Queen Elizabeth II, by the way–to other memorable ancestry extended through generations of sagacious Southerners, the spirits of those who once called Stratford Hall home and now find these acres too alluring to leave.
As an Investigative Medium, I am able to talk with dead people to learn about what history has not revealed. I also work with authors, archaeologists, historians and detectives in their search for the truth. I am often privy to the esoteric details of historic events, and at Stratford Hall, history has just begun to reveal itself.
On a warm day in June, 2009, I arrived with my family for the last tour. A knowledgeable historian guided us, taking great revelry in the tawdry details of the alleged affair between Robert E. Lee’s older half brother, Henry Lee IV, and his ward, Elizabeth McCarty, his wife’s younger sister. As I listened to the guide, I heard a woman over my right shoulder exclaim, “I did not do it!” I turned and sensed a presence and asked in my mind, “What is your name?” I heard, “Elizabeth”.
A year later, Stratford Hall’s director of events, Jon Bachman, invited me to return with my uncloaked gift. I told Jon my suspicions of Elizabeths McCarty’s honorable morality and the incredulous gleam in his eye conveyed that I had my research cut out for me. I am the first to admit that my interest in history does not qualify me for an educated discussion. As a medium, I am simply a mouthpiece, like a television or radio. I receive information, and with my human prism, I translate it as best as possible, and pass it on.
Historians believe Elizabeth had an affair because she once wrote in her diary that Henry Lee was seduced by her long hair, so she was going to cut it off. I may not know much about history, but I do know about Southern women, and I have never known one to cut off her hair to be less attractive to a man she loved. (Or any man, for that matter.)
Over the past two years, I have had many conversations with Elizabeth and she consistently maintains her innocence. She tells me she stayed at Stratford Hall when she was a flirtatious young teenager and had a crush on one of Henry Lee’s brothers. She feigned attraction to another brother so the one she liked would be jealous. Consequently, there was an argument resulting in her unpopularity among all the brothers. Her sister Ann repeatedly told her husband Henry that he needed to pay more attention to Elizabeth, so he eventually made the effort, despite the family fracas she created.
One day Elizabeth caught her sister Ann reading her dairy, and she decided to teach Ann a lesson. She wrote that Henry was seduced by her long hair, and she was going to cut it off. Elizabeth tells me that Ann did not believe it for a second, and that she never cut her hair, which she always wore up, as was the style of the day. When I asked Elizabeth why she would do such a thing, she answered, “I was very young. I regret that. It defames the man who was so kind to me all those years.” Elizabeth wishes she had been more kind to Henry, but she said in her lifetime, they made peace with each other. She later became Elizabeth McCarty Storke, bought the plantation from Henry Lee IV, and lived there for fifty years. She transformed Stratford Hall, and her cultured Southern touch can be seen today at the Grist Mill, and in the home and gardens, where she is buried. She leaves a living legacy at Stratford Hall, and I want to be sure she is remembered for the wonderful contributions she made, rather than those she did not.
I’ve met a number of ghosts who have received me with the great Southern hospitality you would expect from the Lee family. Ruth Ann, the spirit of the Lee family’s cook, welcomed me into her kitchen and shared recipes and stories of her family. She also shared her aversion to a spirit who visits her daughters, and causes a ruckus in her kitchen. She tells me he always comes down the chimney, blows out the candles, and makes a lot of noise. She said the spirit was named Tyrone, after the Greek god of the same name. Which of course, begged the question of the duties of the faux Greek god, “Tyrone”. Ruth Ann replied with sarcasm, “He tells me he is named after the Greek god to women”. I finally met Tyrone and asked him why he chooses to come down the chimney instead of through the door. He told me it was an appropriate entrance from the Heavens.
Unbeknownst to me, my friend L.B. Taylor had written about this amusing spirit and his entrance into this outbuilding many years before and his story is included in this issue. Apparently, there is never a dull moment on these seemingly quiet acres.
On my last visit, a spirit described himself as a worker named Wesley, and visited with several of us at the tomb area. We all enjoyed hearing about life on the plantation, but it wasn’t until the next day that I was spooked. In the Dining Hall, I met the great great granddaughter of one of the plantation’s slaves, and she wanted me to introduce her to her ancestor. After explaining how I can’t reach spirits on demand, she defeatedly replied, “That’s okay, I know where Grandfather Wesley’s cabin is and maybe one day I will talk to him.” Needless to say, I’m planning another visit soon.
Laine Crosby is a New York Times Bestselling author, Investigative Medium and proud Southerner. In her book, Investigative Medium––the Awakening, Laine writes about her own true story of moving to a Maryland plantation with her family and awakening suddenly psychic––talking to the spirit of a slave buried in her yard. For more information about Laine, her books and appearances, visit www.LaineCrosby.com.