Philadelphia: the City of Ghostly Love

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I was on my way to Philadelphia's Triumph Brewing Company to meet with my boss, Joe Wojie of Grim Philly Twilight Tours, and Laurie Hull, a paranormal investigator from Tri County Paranormal. We were going to discuss and map out the route to our Halloween tour, a hands-on historical ghost hunt. I had been waiting at my South Philly bus stop for over 40 minutes, alone. An older man, tall and skeletal, inappropriately dressed for the sweltering summer day in a bright red sweatshirt and winter beanie, chain smoked across the street and stared at me through his large, eighties-style sunglasses. Definitely a serial killer. I work as a guide for Grim Philly’s walking tours which feature the darker, seedier side of the city’s history. I’m an expert now on colonial prostitution, mass graves, eighteenth century diseases and their macabre treatments, and yes, serial killers. It makes for nervous travel on public transit. Fortunately, it appeared he was only interested in watching me, not following me, so I boarded my bus and made it to Triumph without incident.

I had been hoping for a more substantial group so that we could actually test out the ghost hunting equipment, but the only attendees were Joe, Laurie, and I. Joe’s thin brown hair, strong nose, and cleft chin are all completely eclipsed by his intensity, coiled up in his medium build and spilling out almost uncontrollably in his words and gestures. He presents history on the tours with his gravelly South Jersey accent, in a street vernacular that revels in the oddities of distant history while transforming it into present experience. It’s truly wonderful to watch, though the occasional customer does find his visceral style offensive. I’m amazed at the freedom with which he expresses himself.

Laurie I was meeting for the first time. Though the black sundress, black wavy hair, and snakelike tattoo encircling her arm might have given a first impression of harshness, I was immediately struck by her softness. She has an ethereal, gentle quality about her, from her delicate handshake to her large, bluish-green eyes. She said little and listened intently, her eyes revealing something – compassion, understanding, maybe knowledge – whatever it was, it made me uncomfortable. As if she could not only see the pain and vulnerability inside of me that I work so hard to hide, but might actually care.

Also present was Peter, another guide I hadn’t met before. He is very tall, athletic, and younger than the balding top of his head would indicate. He’d had a few beers when his tour ended at Triumph and was getting ready to go home. The ghostly aspect of the walk-through didn’t seem to appeal to him, but he agreed to join us if we’d wait for him to run home and pick up a box of wine to bring along.

While we waited, I asked Laurie some questions. I hardly knew where to begin; I had so many, and I’d never met a paranormal investigator before. Quite a few members of my family see ghosts, but I don’t, and I’m actually glad. I gave up meditating at night a few years back – I was worried that my relaxed state of consciousness at the witching hour might be misconstrued as a willingness to befriend lonely spirits. The number of nighttime noises I could hear in my apartment when I was still and silent freaked me out terribly. Still, I’m fascinated by the subject, and I collect ghost stories from anyone who will tell them to me.

Why do ghosts appear to some people and not to others? Laurie asserts that anyone has the ability to see ghosts, just as anyone can write or play basketball, or learn to, but some people will have more of a natural affinity for it than others. Many people are afraid, or busy, or just don’t believe, and so are not interested in cultivating those skills. She believes that children who seem to see things that adults don’t should be encouraged so that this talent can be nurtured. She encourages participants in her ghost hunt tours to be open to having a paranormal experience. One can even invite a ghost to touch him or her, but without making an open invitation for the group, since some people in the group might be opposed to that level of familiarity. Sometimes feeling a presence means experiencing extreme cold, or heat, or a nauseated feeling, or dizziness, or the feeling of having walked through a spider web. Each reaction is unique.

My mother sees dark shadows in her peripheral vision, particularly when she’s working the night shift at a hospital for mentally retarded children. Laurie says they are seen fairly frequently. Other occurrences include seeing a person as if in real life, but a few seconds later that person is not there. When my aunt was staying at an inn in Gettysburg, she woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of someone trying to get into her room. She opened the door to see who it was, and saw a man walking away in a what looked like an old, threadbare Civil War uniform. At the end of the hallway, he turned into where the bathroom was and disappeared. Laurie maintains that hearing one’s name called is common as is having one’s arm or hair stroked. When my nephew was little, he frightened his babysitter one night when he came out of his room and asked her why she woke him up stroking his head. She hadn’t been in his room at all. They lived then in a historic area of Scranton in an old Victorian house that my sister always swore was haunted.

I told Laurie my one almost ghost story, the one that probably frightened me enough to keep them from ever appearing to me again. When I was about 11 years old or so, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a basketball being dribbled in the dining room downstairs. I remember straining to listen clearly – definitely a basketball. Terrified, I hid my head under the covers so the sound was muffled and tried desperately to go back to sleep. (Had it called my name, I’m sure I would have died of fright.) When I went downstairs in the morning, a basketball was on the dining room chair in the corner. There was absolutely no reason for a basketball to be in the house at all; we kept all of our balls and sports equipment in a bin on the back porch. That was my only experience with a presence of any kind, if I didn’t in fact just dream the whole thing, and I’ve always been pretty happy to leave it at that.

Laurie commented that it had probably been a child ghost. That hadn’t even occurred to me! (No one else at home had ever seen it. Where was it now? I thought of all the time I had spent up in the attic alone, sorting through my boxes of stuff leftover from college or my overseas travels. Had it been watching me? Had I been too absorbed in going through my old things to notice?) Laurie said child ghosts creeped her out worst of all. I agreed that they were scary, though I was surprised that someone who dealt with paranormal encounters for a living would feel that way. I told her that I considered clowns creepier than child ghosts. Joe, distracted from his texting by the mention of clowns, thought clown ghosts were the worst. We all shuddered in agreement. Laurie silenced us all though with her pronouncement that what she was really afraid of was mirrors – thought to be portals – hands down the creepiest thought of all. (I am still unable to look in my bedroom mirror before going to bed at night, and Joe told me afterwards that a friend of his who lived in a house he believed to be haunted got pictures of the spirits with a digital camera pointed into the mirror, though he hadn’t been able to see them himself. If there are ghosts in any of my mirrors, I don’t want to know!)

“Come on, try it, “ she told me, bringing me back to the present with those unsettling eyes. “Do you sense anything?” I held on to the bar to steady myself on the bar stool, screwed my eyes closed, and concentrated. Nothing. “I feel it,” she said. “There’s a presence here. It’s upstairs.” The bartender jumped in and informed us that Triumph did in fact have a ghost. He had been heard on the second floor and in the basement but didn’t seem to like to be out when a lot of people were around. The bartender told us that he had heard him say the word ‘precision’ once, very clearly, and it happened in the area of the kitchen where the knives were kept and sharpened. That gave me chills. No one there seemed to know who he had been or why he had stayed; the bartender thought the tavern had been a mill back in the day.

Peter returned with his box of wine and some plastic cups in a backpack, and we were off. We decided to start the tour at Welcome Park, the original site of William Penn’s home and the still-standing Thomas Bond Boarding House, and then to move across the street to City Tavern, whose building and surrounding yard are supposed to be haunted, a belief Laurie quickly confirmed.

“I was standing right about here, taking pictures of the third floor windows, when I felt a searing pain on my hand. I thought I had been bitten by some kind of big bug! It hurt so much I dropped my camera, which luckily was hanging on my wrist. My husband and I left, and as we were driving home, he said to me that it looked like a burn on my hand. It was a burn. I was completely creeped out.”

I slapped nervously at mosquitoes in the encroaching darkness, feeling a little nauseated, which I hoped wasn’t contact with a paranormal presence. Peter broke the silence by deciding it was a good time to break out the box of wine. We all had some, though we hadn’t been too keen on the idea back at Triumph. I took some pictures of the windows myself as Joe and Laurie discussed the stories they knew. I scanned the photos trepidatiously, but no apparitions stared back at me.

The story that is told, though historians have been unable to substantiate it, is that the tavern is haunted by ghosts of the members of a bridal party that burned to death in an 1854 fire. Supposedly, on the night before the wedding, the women were up on the third floor putting the final touches on the bride’s dress when a candle or whale oil lamp was knocked over. Fabrics were not flame-retardant as they are today, and the room was completely sealed off by flame before any of the men could get up to help. All of the women died and the tavern burned to the ground. The night before a wedding! How does one recover from a tragedy like that? I asked Laurie about the story being rumored to be a hoax, and she said that while her research didn’t uncover any proof of the bridal party deaths, some kind of entity had most definitely burned her.

I was a bit surprised that her paranormal experience had weirded her out and asked her whether she wasn’t used to occurrences like that by now. “It was the first time I was hurt physically by a presence,” she told me. “It was a little unnerving.” I asked her whether she thought the ghost had meant to hurt her. She didn’t think so, but she said that evil spirits did exist. I told her that I didn’t believe in evil. She countered that everything in the universe has an opposite, for balance, so if there were good spirits, there had to be bad ones. I don’t recognize though a qualitative differentiation between good and bad; I think there are simply actions and results. She explained that it might be better to think of some spirits as constructive forces, made up of constructive energy, while others are destructive forces, with energy that destroys. Apparently, ghosts do not harm with conscious malicious intent, any more than a tornado intends to cause damage. She does carries holy water with her just in case.

I wondered whether ghosts or spirits knew that she had an ability to see or sense them. Were they more likely to reach out to her? Why were they reaching out anyway? Laurie believes that she stands out to ghosts like a light in a dark room. She explained that most ghosts simply want someone to listen to their stories. How very human of them! It must be frustrating for ghosts with so many people closed to their presence and unable to hear them. A common reason that ghosts don’t cross over into the afterlife is that they are too attached to the life they had on earth, such as the ghost reported to be at the Thomas Bond Boarding House who sits on guests’ beds as they are about to go to sleep. It never appears on the first floor, which suggests to Laurie that it is the ghost of a servant who is completely committed to serving there. I looked at her quizzically. Isn’t the afterlife supposed to be better than life on earth? Who would choose to stay here? She answered that ghosts just get extremely attached to something on earth – a job or career, a particular place – and don’t want to move on. It seemed very unhealthy to me.

“Oh, it’s completely unhealthy!” she asserted. “Healthy people do not become ghosts.” (I made a mental note to find a good therapist in Philadelphia once I was financially secure enough to do so.)

Joe then reminded Laurie that she had noticed a friendly spirit, elderly, maybe a grandmother, following a waitress once at one of their meetings. She distinguished between a ghost – a presence who had not crossed over and was sort of unhealthily trapped on earth, and a spirit – a presence who had crossed over but chose to come back occasionally to check in on loved ones, such as the spirit of a deceased grandmother or grandfather. She maintained that everyone had spirits, guardian angels in effect, watching over him or her. She often feels compelled to tell people when she senses particularly strong familial presences around them.

“But you saw one following her, right?” Joe asked. “Can you see them all the time?” Joe can talk on and on around any subject that he doesn’t want to discuss, and if something makes him feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, he won’t ask directly. She saw right through him with those all-knowing eyes.

“And you wanted to know whether I could see one following you?” she asked. Joe shrugged sheepishly. Don’t we all want to know that? I’d never ask though. I wonder if that is my own mechanism for avoiding disappointment. It would make me particularly uncomfortable to ask Laurie a question like that since being clairvoyant and psychic is what she does for a living. “Yeah, I don’t know about all this ghost stuff,” Peter said uncomfortably and poured a little more wine in our cups. Laurie evaded the question, and I got the sense that either she didn’t see a spirit following Joe around or just didn’t see them all the time.

As we left the City Tavern yard, Laurie pulled out her EMF meter. It didn’t register anything, so we headed into the haunted areas that would wrap up the Grim Philly Halloween tour. She pulled it out again near the Bishop William White house, next door to where Dr. Benjamin Rush’s house had been, and it blinked yellow. She explained that the EMF meter measures disruptions in the electro-magnetic field that are believed to be caused by spirits (if there is no other known cause). The meter shows a green light for safety, a yellow light for caution (spirit may be in proximity), and a red light for – GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE! (Laurie looked at us expectantly. “Come on guys, it’s the joke I tell my group participants!” Joe laughed nervously while Peter and I just stared. I was a little wigged out by the yellow light.) Presumably a red light would indicate a very strong and close paranormal presence.

While many of the founding fathers fled Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic in1793, Dr. Rush stayed to help patients. Unfortunately, he was a big fan of blood-letting, which probably hurt his patients much more than it helped them. Presumably many died in the area of his house. A guide at the Christ Church Burial Ground maintains that Dr. Rush trained his servants to drain patients’ blood, and when they ran out of containers to put the blood in, they were instructed to take the patients outside and drain their blood at the curb, to let it run along the street.

“Did you see that?” Laurie asked me. The grassy area next to the houses, where Dock Creek formerly ran, is a little eerie, but I hadn’t seen anything, and the men were up ahead of us. She said she saw a dark shadow in her peripheral vision, behind us closer to the street. I quickened my pace.

Two things Laurie says are guaranteed to result in a ghost are beheadings and grave robberies. I was a little surprised that grave robbery was so problematic – if I had died and moved on, would I really come back as a ghost because someone dragged my body out of its burial plot? I would have thought that once a soul moved on, that was it. Laurie’s answer was unequivocal – if someone robbed my grave, I would absolutely, most definitely, come back as a ghost. Beheadings weren’t big in Philly, but unfortunately stealing buried bodies was. (Or fortunately, I guess, for ghost hunting.) The Surgeon’s Hall site in the square by the Robert Morris statue is rumored to be haunted with the ghosts of corpses dug up illegally from Washington Square for medical research.

From there we moved on to Washington Square. We were still outside the park, at the site of the Walnut Street Prison, when the EMF meter blinked yellow. As we went through the entrance, it started to blink red! We all stopped to look. “Maybe it’s from the street lights,” Peter said, looking around. “I don’t think so,” Laurie answered, as she reached in her big bag, “but it could need new batteries.” She fished out some new batteries and changed them in the meter. The red blinking stopped. We were all a little crestfallen.

Washington Square is a busy site for ghosts, as any graveyard could be. Estimates of the number of dead bodies buried in the park range from 4300 to 7500. The square served as a ‘potter’s field’ for the dead of the poor as well as unknown visitors to the city since its beginnings in the late 1600s. Thousands of American soldiers were executed by the British and buried at the park during the Revolutionary War, and victims of the yellow fever epidemic were thrown in mass graves in the square as well. Laurie says the message she gets from spirits there is that they want people to know it’s a cemetery, not a park. It is sad that most of the people who walk through the square have no idea that they are walking on a burial ground. I guess I would want my resting place to be honored too.

In addition to the EMF meters, she also uses dowsing rods, which are L-shaped and made of lightweight metal. If the participant holds them while thinking very clearly of what it is he or she wants to find, the rods will cross in the area of that energy. The rods can also be used to ask yes/no questions, as can a digital voice recorder. She had a digital voice recorder with her, and once we got the men to be quiet, she and I used it to ask some questions of spirits in the park. When she played the recording back, there wasn’t any response. She thinks the yippy little dogs carrying on there that night were probably annoying the spirits. (I can sympathize.)

In one of the versions of the film What The Bleep Do We Know, there is a scene describing how the native Americans could not see Christopher Columbus’ ships when they arrived. Those massive ships with their rippling sails were so out of the everyday realm for the natives that they literally could not see them. One of them, the chief or medicine man, noticed the change in the ocean wave patterns caused by the ships and concentrated until he could see them. He was then able to ‘show’ the ships to the others. Seems impossible to believe, but according to the film, that’s what really happened. Perhaps there is another reality coexisting with ours, overlapping and intersecting our layers, other energies not seen by our untrained, unconcentrating eyes. Maybe the apparitions pop in and out of our reality at a rate that can’t be seen by (most of) our eyes, but can be caught with the speed of a camera lens. Perhaps I am too obsessively analytical, too much in my head, to truly be aware of the presence of ghosts or spirits around me.

Maybe life energy is transformed but not lost. Perhaps death is not an end but a beginning of a new stage, in a new dimension. At any rate, Laurie Hull offers an opportunity for people to hone their perception skills, to have an experience out of the everyday realm. Maybe allowing a ghostly spirit or two to tell their stories, to make connections, will help them rest in peace.

I’m looking forward to playing with Laurie’s paranormal investigation equipment at one of Grim Philly’s Halloween ghost hunting tours. I’m hardly daring to hope that I’ll have some kind of experience with a presence, but this time, I might even ask. I’m ready.

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Information about this year’s hands-on historical ghost hunt can be found at www.grimphilly.com. For more information about other ghost hunts in the Philadelphia region, check out Tri County Paranormal’s website at www.delcoghosts.com. Learn more about local haunted areas in Laurie Hull’s books Philly’s Main Line Haunts and Supernatural Pennsylvania.

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