When the bearded man inquired, “Will y’all be staying the night?” my wife, Amy, found it befitting to quote The Eagles: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Hauntingly appropriate given that we were registering for the evening at The Myrtles Plantation-a 200-year-old home in South Louisiana to which, thanks to the murders and poisonings that checker its past, the Smithsonian ascribed the ghostly epithet: America’s Most Haunted House.
An ornate example of Louisiana’s plantation past, the home belies such spectral sobriquet. Lacy ironwork trims the wraparound veranda, scores of ancient live oak and crepe myrtles shade the property in a moss-draped canopy, and furnishings date to the 19th century, including the 300-pound chandelier replete with 3-pound crystal teardrops. Slaves once farmed this land, growing cotton, indigo and food crops. Gen. David Bradford, leader of the Whiskey Rebellion, built the 20-room mansion in 1796 in St. Francisville, a tiny burg 30 miles north of Baton Rouge.
He built it, however, atop sacred burial grounds of the Tunica Indians, who, displeased with such disrespect, have purportedly cursed The Myrtles.
The home’s real-read: haunted-history begins about 1818, when Judge Clarke Woodruff bought the plantation. But whether you’re a believer in the nether world or just a curious cynic, the fact that The Myrtles now is a bed and breakfast means you can share a night with poltergeists, apparitions, spirits, ghosts and voices. No Ouija board required.
I first visited this plantation for a high-school photography project-and I left scared. I was shooting infrared film hoping to capture some unseen presence. While setting up in the French day room, I glanced up and thought I saw-for an instant-something draped in white, dancing gaily.
I passed it off as wishful thinking.
Later, during an impromptu tour, the guide mentioned that psychics say the figure flitting about that room is Woodruffs eldest daughter, Octavia, killed because she was the illegitimate spawn of the judge and Chloe, a black governess to Woodruffs children as well as his mistress.
I left early.
And, no, the film recorded nothing.
This being my first trip back to the plantation. I prevailed upon Amy to come with me. She would have nothing of such foolishness: She, too, had visited it in high school, and had retreated shaken after a guide’s tale of an apron-clad spirit known to haunt the Blue Room, one of five upstairs bedrooms. The guide interjected that the guests in the Blue Room typically awoke by 3 a.m. and fled in fright
During that trip Amy had been assigned the Blue Room and. needless to say, fled long before 3 a.m.-in fact, before the guide finished the tour. But 1 promised Amy if she came with me she could shop for antiques in St. Francisville, a historic little town. And I won.
We arrived midafternoon, Saturday. The mystery tour wouldn’t begin until 8:30. Our early arrival allowed us to wander about the home in the security of sunlight. I longed for a ghost; Amy longed for an antique shop and the arrival of Sunday morning.
We gathered with a dozen guests and numerous visitors on the veranda at the appointed hour, awaiting the tour and a night of ghost tales and the chance to experience what only Hard Copy and The National Enquirer cover as a regular news beat-the supernatural. Guide Hester Eby opened the door. Inside, in luminosity as wan as a candle, The Myrtles was a preternatural and sentient place.
“This is a strange home,” Hester said, beginning a 45-minute, room-by-room tour of murders and maimings. ’Take the Blue Room, for example.”
Amy glanced my way.
“Recently,” Hester related, “a woman and her husband were lying in bed asleep. The woman woke; an old lady stood over her. ’My name is Mrs. Woods,’ the old lady stated. ’Brenda is OK.’ And the old lady vanished.”
Brenda was the guest’s friend and had been involved in a traumatic accident. The guest phoned Brenda’s husband…Brenda had emerged from a coma and was well. “Mrs. Woods raised me,” Brenda told her friend. “She’s dead. Why?”
“The guests left,” Hester said.
The majority of hauntings involve people who once lived here, like Chloe, who was caught eavesdropping one day and had her left ear severed as punishment. Not pleased, Chloe boiled oleander leaves and baked the arseniclike residue into a cake. Woodruffs two youngest children died from that lethal treat in their nursery, me Twin Room.
Dying moans reputedly now haunt that room. Some guests say the children stare from the window; others behold a blue, wispy form, thought to be Chloe, who tucked the children in at night.
“In fact,” Hester said, “a male guest woke in the Twin Room and couldn’t move. His covers had been tucked in tightly around him. And the same had been done to his two sons, though they hadn’t done this before going to bed.”
In the 1820s, a man named Louis Stirling had planned to marry Octavia. But Stirling welshed on a gambling debt and was knifed to death. He died in the doorway separating the dining room and the foyer. There his spirit supposedly remains. Former housekeeper Lillie Scott insists that whenever she tried to buff that area, her machine bucked wildly and died.
Louis, however, isn’t the only Stirling ghost. There’s Sara and her husband, William Winter, and their daughter, Kate, the granddaughter of Ruffin Grey Stirling, who bought The Myrtles in the mid-1830s. At 9, Kate contracted yellow fever, and a voodoo priestess was summoned for a cure. Kate, nevertheless, died in her room-the Peach Room. The priestess was killed. However, slaves reputedly secreted the priestess’ bag of black magic into the Peach Room’s walls, knowing she would return to haunt those who had harmed her.
Today a child’s cries allegedly plague this room, and some guests report hearing passages from the Lord’s Prayer.
In 1871, Kate’s dad, William, was shot in the chest while standing on the veranda. He died in his wife Sara’s arms on the 17th step of the main staircase. At night, visitors in the upstairs suite have heard a woman crying for William while someone climbs the staircase.
The noise stops after 17 steps.
“When a Chicago policeman and his wife spent a night in the suite,” Hester announced, “the officer awoke to a knock about 2 a.m. and found a woman walking the hallway in a wedding gown. She walked right through the window.
“The officer woke his wife and said, ’We’re leaving. Now.’ “
’There are other stories,” Hester told me later as I wandered The Myrtles. Stories of inexplicable hand prints that appear in a certain mirror and of a murdered gatekeeper who frequently runs people away. “But that’s for another visit.”
Amy and I saw no ghosts, spirits or uniforms; we heard no cries or moans. Neither did the other guests. I, however, did hear parts of the Lord’s Prayer-but that was Amy praying for an uneventful night,
We awoke at sunrise, ate breakfast and strolled through the plantation one last time. Before leaving, I had to ask: Hester, do you really believe?
“I have no doubt,” she said softly.