Virginia Real magazine
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Virginia Ghosts


Otis M. Clarke Jr. and sister Alice at Hewick in Middlesex County.

Virginia Ghosts

                                                                 by Otis M. Clarke Jr.

    A long time ago, my father told me there were strange happenings at his boyhood home in South Boston.

“At times we would hear knocking that we could not explain,” Father said. “One night, my brother Morell asked the noise, ‘Are you a ghost? If you are, knock three times.’

  “There was silence, and then we heard three distinct raps.

  “When a member of the family was ill, we would ask the ghost to be quiet, and the spirit would oblige.”

   My Aunt Margaret died when she was small. Pictures show she was a lovely child. The family never recovered from the shock of losing her.

    Father told me, “Occasionally we would hear a noise like a cradle rocking coming from the room where my sister died. The noise stopped when we went in the room. We could find nothing unusual.”

   My grandfather, Dr. Alexander Trent Clarke, was a physician. He died in 1904. He was an excellent doctor. Father told me that he had a reputation for never having lost a pneumonia patient, and that was before the days of the miracle drugs.

    Once, he told me, sometime after Dr. Clarke’s death, one of his sisters was seriously ill. She was delirious in the night and seemed to be speaking to someone, but there was no one there. The next morning, the new doctor came and found her awake, ready for breakfast and feisty.

   “I think you are very much better,” the physician observed.

  “Yes,” she said, her voice full of reproach for this upstart.   “Father was here.”  

   A lady ghost has appeared a number of times in the South Boston house. One night a houseguest, who had never heard about the phantom, saw the lady. The next morning, he asked, “Is there something strange about the room I slept in?”

    “Yes, there is,” Uncle Morell replied. “What did you see?”

    “A lady came in my room. At first I thought it was Mrs. Clarke,” my grandmother. I spoke to her. She did not answer. She seemed to be floating. Then, she disappeared.”

    There is another family tale of a child being tucked in by a friendly ghost. One of my young cousins was visiting in South Boston. In the morning, her mother asked, “How did you sleep, dear?”

    “I got cold until you came in and put the covers back on me.” Her mother had not been in her room that night, nor had any other live member of the family.

  I visited the South Boston home several times when I was a child. I didn’t see the ghosts, but then I didn’t get cold in the night, either.

Nell's Ghosts

      Fredericksburg is a river port dating to Colonial times. During the Civil War, major battles took place in and around the city.  It is a place for ghosts – so many that the Chamber of Commerce offers a ghost brochure.

     My sister Nell Clarke, who lived there  for many years, gave me ghost reports.    She gave me the news that a taxi driver saw General Lee at one of the battlefields. Nell knew her ghosts. She lived in an apartment in a house at 1118 Caroline St. that was, and perhaps still is, haunted by three people and at least one cat.  

    The three-story frame house was built by Dr. Sidney Scott. It is one block from the Rappahannock River, exactly where Confederate troops challenged Yankees trying to cross the river on pontoon bridges during the Civil War. It was quieter in my sister’s day; she taught piano in her apartment.

   Now and then, Nell would smell lilac perfume in the room nearest Caroline Street. Others did not smell it.

  She went to her landlord.  “Scotty, did anyone in your family use lilac perfume?”

    “Yes, my great-aunt used lilac perfume a lot,” Dr. Scott replied.

    Now Nell knew the old lady’s spirit still visited the house. She was ever on the lookout.

    Once in awhile, Nell smelled woodsmoke in her studio. Others did not. This would occur about noon on Fridays. It smelled like green lumber burning.

    “Miss Clarke, I smell smoke,” said one of her students, sitting at the piano with her.

     “What does it smell like?” said Nell, who could not smell anything that day.

    “It smells like wood burning -– somebody burning wood scraps.”

  A lumber yard had been on the lot before the house was built. At the end of the week, about noon, the workmen would burn the wood scraps.

   During one visit, Nell was serving breakfast to me and my wife, Flora. I brought up the subject of the house ghosts.  

    “Hush, I can’t talk about them here!” she said.

  “Why not?”

  “The spirits will hear you. They won’t like it. They’ll snatch the covers off your head.”

   The next morning, Flora was serving herself coffee before Nell arose. She poured the coffee in a cup and turned to do something at the sink. She went back for her coffee and found it had been spilled. At first we thought the cup was leaking. It was not.

    Nell wasn’t surprised. “See, I told you the ghost would do something,” she said.

   Later she told us about other tricks of the kitchen ghost, such as when she saw a candle roll off a tray, go over the rim of the table and fall to the floor. A can of cat food, which had been sitting securely on the kitchen table, turned on its side and rolled off. The kitchen ghost, when irritated, would bend the prongs of her forks.

   Nell loved cats. Gershwin was her best beloved for many years. He was a fat cat and bad tempered to everyone but Nell. His death, though,  was for all of us like losing a member of the family.

  “Some nights I hear Gershwin scratching under my bed,” Nell told me. “The noise is the same that he made when he was alive. He had a favorite perch. At times things will get knocked off the perch for no apparent reason.” He told me her other cats, the living ones, would avoid a spot or refuse to go into a room – apparently sensing Gershwin and not wanting to get clawed by a jealous ghost cat.

     Another phantom may well be Dr. Scott, the man who built the house.  After Scotty died, Nell told me, “I keep my pills in a dresser drawer. I find them scattered. Sometimes a top is unscrewed, and the pills spilled.” I would appear that the good doctor was concerned about her health and thought she took too much medication. He was trying to tell her something.

   Montross Ghosts

     My other sister, Alice Margaret Clarke Crutchfield, lived in Montross in Westmoreland County. Her house, in the eastern part of town, had a resident ghost.

     Her house was typical of country homes built in Virginia after the Revolution and before the “ranch style” house. The frame house had a central hall, with a living room and a bedroom on either side and three bedrooms upstairs.

    Alice told me that her children felt something at the top of the stairs. In fact, every time I went up the stairs I felt cold shivers on my neck and shoulders. Her youngest daughter, Beth, told me, “I’ve felt something trying to stop me in the hall. I had to shove my way through.” Beth showed me the exact spot.

   I have taken pictures of both locations, and there are strange reflections on the images. We can’t prove they’re ghosts. But they could be.

   Hewick, my grandmother Jones’ former house near Saluda, has two ghosts that according to family stories smell strongly of tobacco.  

    We recently visited the Jones family cemetery at Plainview, Grandfather Jones’ boyhood home. It was later owned by a cousin, Pollard Woodard. Mrs. Woodard told us that a former owner wanted to move the cemetery – it sits in the middle of beautiful and valuable farmland – until he was told that the cemetery protected the barns. Potential thieves, he was told, wouldn’t dare cross the cemetery to raid the chickens. The ghosts would stop them.

    It would be just like the family ghosts to thwart wrongdoers. The Clarke family spirits, mostly, acted as our protectors, and only incidentally as our harassers. What’s a harmless joke now and then between generations of a family, and between the spirit and temporal worlds?

      Otis M. Clarke Jr., a Virginia native, is a writer in Birmingham, AL.




Executive editors:
Clarke Crutchfield
Harry Henson
barn photo by Grace E. Pedalino

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