Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County is well known for its American Civil War history. The town was the site of John Brown’s Raid, the Battle of Harpers Ferry, and the town changed hands from Union to Confederate several times.
Harpers Ferry saw so much destruction during the war that many now say it’s a town home to ghosts and hauntings.
This story is part of a Halloween episode of Inside Appalachia, which features ghost tales and legends from across Appalachia.
Up a series of steep, stone steps and just beyond a screeching gate is the entrance to the historic St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Harpers Ferry.
Built in 1833, it still holds mass on Sunday, and is open for special occasions like Christmas. But at night, and year-round, its courtyard is the meeting place for the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry – said to be the oldest ghost tour in America at nearly 50 years old.
On a recent night, about 50 people have gathered to attend the two-hour tour. There are parents with young children, older couples, and a handful of teenagers. Many tour attendees are from out of town, like Melanie Ray, from Baltimore, Maryland. Ray said she and her boyfriend were visiting the area and looking for something to do.
“I love anything that has anything to do with history, and Harpers Ferry has a lot of pretty bad history, like a lot of bad things happened,” Ray said.
That history is what makes Harpers Ferry a pretty cool backdrop for spooky tales, and tourists like Ray are intrigued by that.
Not everyone believes in the stories, but some do.
Rick Garland took over the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry 10 years ago. He’s a local historian and tour guide. During the day, he runs a four-hour historical tour in Harpers Ferry, but at night he tells tales of hauntings.
The Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry was originally run by a woman named Shirley Dougherty, who started the tour in 1970. She has since passed away. Garland continues Dougherty’s legacy because her family asked him to, and because he loves history. Garland also believes in ghosts, but he has a sense of humor about it.
“Is there anybody here who does not believe in ghosts? What are you doing here? I’m only kidding,” Garland said to the laughing crowd.
With his lantern in hand, Rick takes the large group around the town, highlighting spots that are known for ghostly sightings. He encourages folks to take photos – just in case they might catch something paranormal.
Rick tells many ghost stories on the tour. One of them describes how in the 1980s, a man and his three children moved into an apartment in town, but every night, the father heard a crying baby in his bedroom.
“A few minutes later, the crying sound started up for a third time,” Garland said to the crowd. “It was louder this time, and he's getting very fed up with this. So, now [he] says louder, ‘I told you, you have to shut up,’ and the moment that got out of his mouth, he saw something flash across his bedroom.”
But when the father goes to check it out, there’s nothing there. Later, the crying starts again, but this time, when the father yells, there’s a crashing sound almost like an explosion of bricks.
Rick describes a possible explanation for the haunting. Apparently, a diary was discovered, written by a little girl named Anne, who lived in that building during the Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1862.
“Anne continues to write, ‘when the Confederates are bombing our town there's a woman upstairs in this house on the top floor with a newborn baby, a little infant in her arms, rocking the baby back and forth,” Garland tells the crowd.
Garland said the diary entry describes how a cannonball smashed into the house killing the baby and severely injuring the mother.
The crowd is silent.
A lot of the ghost stories Rick tells are connected in some way to the Civil War.
By the end of the tour, many who came out, chat with Rick, ask questions and share photos of what they captured, including one woman, Cindy Rhodes from Charlotte, North Carolina.
Rhodes and her husband travel all over the country to check out ghost tours like the one in Harpers Ferry. The history, for them, is the biggest draw.
“That’s what they’re more fun for, you know what I mean?” Rhodes said. “There’s a ghost here and there, but they’re more fun for the history, I think.”
And for some who come out to tours like this one, like Brandon Schaefer of Baltimore, they like to be scared and to run into something spooky.
“I like the haunting stuff, and I always hope to see a ghost, so that’s mainly why we came out here,” Schaefer said.
Being a tour guide is Rick Garland’s full-time job, and though he does other historical tours, the ghost tour, is his favorite.
“It’s great to see how this affects other people,” he noted. “So, if you can entertain them, whether it’s with the history part of it, or with the ghost tour part of it, or the spooky part of it, or with a joke, the fact is, that they want to be entertained; they came out to be entertained, and if you can do that for them, they feel good, you feel good, everybody has a good time.”