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Ghostly Things Are Happening in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

  • Deborah Block

The tiny historic town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, who come to see about 100 restored 19th century buildings, and enjoy the cozy shops, restaurants and inns.

Harpers Ferry is best known as the place where John Brown, a fiery abolitionist, tried to raid the town’s arsenal in 1859, and planned to use the weapons to help free slaves. The town was pivotal during the U.S. Civil War from 1861-1865, when Harpers Ferry was taken over at different times by both Union and Confederate soldiers.

But behind the serene, rural town it is today, locals say restless spirits are present from the paranormal world.

'They have seen something'

“The whole town is haunted,” explained Alyssa LeVasseur, manager of the John Brown Wax Museum. “People have seen things. You can probably ask anyone in town who has been living here, or works here, and they have seen something. They can't deny it.”

In what used to be a family home many years ago, are wax figure displays illustrating the life of John Brown. To reach the displays on three levels, visitors have to navigate narrow, dim hallways that echo their voices and footsteps. The effect, which feels almost ghost-like, doesn't faze LeVasseur.

“I hear ghosts all the time,” she said. “I’ve heard kids’ voices and footsteps, so I know they are here. I say good morning to them.”

Then one day when she forgot to greet them something unexplainable happened.

“I was walking by one of the displays when the audio went on by itself. You have to push a button to turn it on. Then I realized I hadn’t said ‘good morning’ to the spirits, and as soon as I did, the sound stopped.”

This is a photo of Shenandoah Street in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in March 1938. Harpers Ferry town, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, was an important arms-producing center by the mid 1800s.
This is a photo of Shenandoah Street in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in March 1938. Harpers Ferry town, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, was an important arms-producing center by the mid 1800s.

'Ghost lady'

At the nearby True Treats Historic Candy store, chocolate and other candies are brightly lit on tables and in baskets. The cute and welcoming shop is popular with visitors, hardly seeming like a place where a ghost would want to hang out. But store manager, Tara Dockman, known as the “ghost lady” in town for her sensitivity to paranormal activity, says there are two ghosts who frequent the store, and she even knows one of them by name.

“The female has a white flowy gown, and she goes to the top floor of the store where there are no customers,” she explained. “And Colby, a man, likes to show himself, and usually shows a shoulder or a pants leg, which you will see walk across a room. They both like to throw candy around, and slam doors on customers.”

Dockman said Colby is a trouble maker who may also push people. She assured me she had spoken to him about not bothering me while I was in the shop, and was hiding in a corner storage area.

“Who believes in ghosts?” historian Rick Garland asks about 30 people who have come for his weekend ghost tours. Most of them, from children to grandparents, raise their hands. Tall, with a gray beard, and wearing black clothing, Garland dresses the part of a typical man in the 1800s during the Civil War era.

John Brown's farm, where he gathered weapons and plotted a raid for six months, is seen Oct. 10, 1959.
John Brown's farm, where he gathered weapons and plotted a raid for six months, is seen Oct. 10, 1959.

Ghost tour

Nine years ago, Garland took over the oldest ghost tour in the United States, which he infuses with historical anecdotes about Harpers Ferry. He takes visitors to places where paranormal incidents have supposedly occurred. Leading the group along creepily dark streets, with an old fashioned oil lamp for light, he stops in front of a building with a white porch. He talks about a terrifying incident in the 1960’s, described by Shirley Dougherty, who began the ghost tour 47 years ago.

“The door knob keeps moving and the whole door violently shakes for a few moments,” Garland said as he waves his arms. “And then Shirley hears something or maybe someone (taps his foot) falling down the stairs. She’s right at the bottom of the stairs; all she has to do is turn and look. What does she see? Nothing.”

Garland stops at other places where ghostly apparitions have been seen, like a woman with a child, an angry older man with a cane, and a freed slave who was brutally murdered.

Not so sure?

After taking the tour, William McGinty said he’s not convinced ghosts are real.

“I’m opened minded,” he said, “but your mind can play funny tricks on you. I hear noises in my house sometimes.”

But for the ghost lady of Harpers Ferry, the spirits are everywhere.

“You really do have to debunk the creaking and stuff like that,” Dockman said. “But once you get past that and the stuff starts touching you and throwing stuff at you, don't tell me that it's not for real.”

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