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By DANNY MOGLE
They say that in Jefferson apparitions suddenly materialize out of nowhere and then just as quickly vanish. They say a sobbing woman refuses to leave the hotel where she killed herself long ago. They say that in the dead of the night restless spirits will run their ice-cold fingers along the back of your neck.
As proof that some of Jefferson’s dead never go away, believers point to the photo taken in the Pride House bed and breakfast of a fully formed mist man making his way down the stairs. Paranormal investigators – the so-called experts in this stuff – are more than happy to share recordings made at sites around town of what they are convinced are voices beyond the grave.
Ghosts, goblins and ghouls? Count me among the skeptics. I believe that when you die, you go to where God so deems and you don’t have the option of hanging around and pestering the living (although that sounds like it would be fun). But I figure if I’m possibly going to have a run in with a spirit, it will happen in Jefferson. So, I dared to spend the night in a hotel that is supposed to be infested with ghosts and poked my nose into the town’s most notorious haunts.
HISTORY AND HAUNTS
If Jefferson had an official spook ambassador it would be Jodi Breckenridge. For 14 years, she’s been leading the Ghost Walk. She knows all the good stories and has had eerie experiences. On this night, Breckenridge meets me in the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel about an hour before the tour.
Dressed in leather sandals covered with sequins, black capris and a print top, the stylish grandmother looks more like she’s ready to go to a church social than about to stir up the town’s overly-active spirits, or, as she calls them, “the boogers.”
She dismisses many stories that swirl around Jefferson as foolish tales from overactive imaginations. That said, plenty of ghostly encounters are happening that she cannot explain.
“When stuff happens, I look for the logical explanation for it,” she says. “But there’s not always one. I’ve learned to be open-minded.”
During her Ghost Walk tours, bone-chilling cold spots (which some believe indicate a ghostly presence) sometimes descend on her and the participants. On one occasion, a woman screamed that something was tugging on her necklace. Breckenridge says she saw the necklace standing straight out and then drop down.
Why is Jefferson a possible paranormal hot spot? The town’s long and colorful history includes an unusual combination of triumphs and tragedies and more than its share of murder, mayhem and mystery – perhaps a breeding ground for the supernatural.
Founded in 1840 on Big Cypress Bayou, Jefferson had the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time. A huge log jam on the Red River raised the water level making it possible for steamboats full of passengers and goods to chug all the way from New Orleans up the Mississippi and Red rivers, through Caddo Lake and into the bayou.
Hundreds of steamboats arrived each year. Within a few decades, the population boomed from a few hundred to about 20,000.
Jefferson’s Golden Era did not last long. In 1873, the Corps of Engineers blew up the natural dam on the Red River. Virtually overnight, the steamships could no longer get to Jefferson. Without the business generated by shipping, people didn’t have a good reason to stick around and moved away by the thousands.
It was as if Jefferson had become cursed.
THE JEFFERSON HOTEL
Of all the places in town, the 1850s-era Jefferson Hotel is reputed to be one of the most haunted.
Breckenridge used to work as a clerk at the two-story Victorian inn. “You would hear squeaking on the stairs and nobody would be there,” she says. “One morning a couple came down and wanted me to assure them that it was going to be quiet (the next night). They said that about 3 o’clock in the morning they were awakened by children giggling in the hallway, bouncing a ball and rattling their door handle. But there were no children in the hotel that night.”
Breckenridge becomes even more animated when she tells me about the ghost of the woman who hung herself.
“I had always heard about the woman from the 1880s who had been jilted at the altar and came to the hotel and killed herself. It’s a true story, but it happened in 1912. … Her name was Lydia Grigsby. She was supposed to have been married at the Methodist church but she was stood up. She was found hanging from the chandelier in her parents’ room.”
The most active room is said to be 19. Guests in 19 report being touched by an unseen being and awakened by mysterious banging. One woman swears the figure of a wispy blonde woman was standing beside the bed.
“Would you like to see 19, it’s not booked tonight?” asks the desk clerk, who had overheard our conversation.
Room 19 has red carpeting, red floral wallpaper and a bed with a massive wooden headboard. It looks like the bedroom of a sweet little granny; not a portal to the spirits.
I ask the clerk what it’s like to work here. “There are odd occurrences,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’ve been the only one here in the hotel and TVs have come on. You can hear dishes rattling in the restaurant (just off the lobby); pictures have moved. We’ve had mediums come in here (to Room 19).” As she speaks, I wonder why she chooses to stay in the hallway and not come inside. “It’s like they (the ghosts) are saying that they live here too.”
In a book kept behind the front counter, guests record their ghostly encounters.
“I opened my eyes and I saw a woman in a white gown and long hair,” reads an entry by a guest from Dallas. “She pulled up the covers and patted my shoulder. As she leaned over to look at me, she smiled and then walked off.”
The next entry really grabs my attention.
“I heard banging on the walls, voices in the hall, footsteps, laughing. The next morning we learned we were the only people in the hotel at the time. We also had taken a picture of the balcony from inside and in that picture is an apparition of a man. He’s see-through!” It is signed “Maddie, Room 12.”
My wife and I are staying in Room 12.
THE GHOST WALK
“Everything in Jefferson isn’t haunted,” Breckenridge tells the 24 people assembled to begin their Ghost Walk adventure. The group includes a couple with two young kids, an elderly woman and her grown daughter and a man who appears to be half-embarrassed.
“I’ll be taking you to places that have stories dating back a long time. I’m not making this stuff up. And if some fools jump out of the bushes, I give you permission to hit them,” begins Breckenridge leading the way.
She has a final word of warning. “If something does happen, get out of my way, ’cause I’m going to be the first to get out of there.”
The first stop is the old 1860s-era Kahn Saloon. We file into a dark room. “There have been at least three murders right here in the room we’re standing in.” She says of all places on the walk this is where people most often feel the presence of spirits.
“On a (haunting) scale of 1 to 10 this is definitely a 10,” she says. “Someone asked me once, ‘what do they (spirits) want.’ I don’t know. I’m not psychic. Jodi doesn’t talk to the spooks.”
The next stop is the Excelsior Hotel. We are not permitted inside. Breckenridge says the owners don’t like to admit it’s haunted. She also rates it a 10 on her haunting scale.
She tells the story of what happened when movie director Stephen Spielberg stayed at the hotel while preparing to make his 1974 film “The Sugarland Express.” “He threw his briefcase in the rocking chair and something in the chair threw it back. … He was so scared that he made everybody (in the film crew) leave in the middle of the night and find a hotel over in Marshall.”
Across from the old Haywood House Hotel, Breckenridge shows us a photograph taken from the very spot we are standing. She claims a blurry image is a ghost in front of the building.
At the Jefferson General Store, she says a little ghost boy named Roy is spotted with no shirt and shoes. “A worker in the store said she saw him right there.” She points to where I’m standing.
At the Old Mill Antiques store, the owner assures us the place is haunted by a man and a little girl. “I’ve seen them both. … One time, I heard the man whistling a tune. I told him, ‘you better stop that, you’re bothering me,’ and it stopped. He’s not here to scare us. He seems to be overseeing the building. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
NIGHT OF FRIGHT
Back at the Jefferson Hotel, it is the proverbial witching hour, the moment I’ve both dreaded and looked forward to. The possibility of a night of fright sends my heart racing. We turn out the lights but I stay alert. My eyes are wide open and I listen for every noise. If a ghost hovers over the bed or rattles the doorknob, I’m determined not to miss it.
I’m not sure how long I had been asleep when I’m jolted wide awake by a blood-curdling scream. For a split second, I’m convinced it is the angry wail of the jilted bride-to-be coming to get me. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Before I can leap out of bed and go screaming back home, I realize it is only the screeching cry of a train whistle.
SCARING UP BUSINESS
People come to this genteel town of 2,000 to hunt for antiques, stay at the bed and breakfast inns and, increasingly, in hopes of having an encounter with the spirit world. Jefferson’s reputation as a haunted haven has grown thanks to exposure on Travel and SciFi cable channels and blog postings and videos from visitors claiming to have had hair-raising encounters.
With its life blood being the tourist dollar, Jefferson doesn’t shy away from its spooky reputation. It’s good for business.
The tourism department’s website entices potential visitors to “come to Jefferson for an authentic experience … and maybe hear a ghost story or two.” The clerk at the Jefferson Hotel says many of their guests come in order to brag that they’ve spent the night in a haunted hotel.
Jefferson also offers Ghost Train excursions, The Haunts and History of the Grove tour and a ghost dinner package at the old Kahn Saloon.
Just remember, the spooky thrills come with a price tag.
They say everybody loves a good ghost story. That’s good news for Jefferson which has plenty of stories to go around and is not afraid to use its ghostly residents to scare up business – one boo and bump in the night at a time.