YOU KNOW A PLACE. So do I. It could be a house — occupied or long abandoned, it doesn’t matter. It could be an office building, old and decaying or newly built on the site of a previously demolished structure. It could even be a cemetery.
But you know a place. It’s the kind of place people talk about in hushed tones. Parents warn their children to stay away from it. Ordinary people, rational people, people who don’t cotton to stories about spooks and spells, will veer far off a more convenient path to avoid it. A place that just isn’t quite … right.
There are rumors. Stories told in whispers, as thought the tellers were afraid to tempt some foul fate, or perhaps attract something sinister that might be lurking within earshot. Some of these places have unsavory pasts — disappearances, tragedy, murder — while others are speculated to have been built on the burial grounds of an ancient indigenous civilization.
You know the stories. You’ve heard them. Someone always claims to have heard, felt, seen or sensed something beyond the experience we would refer to as “normal.” The distinct sound of footsteps upstairs when no one was home. A photograph showing a face in a window — in a building that’s been abandoned for decades. A shadow where there shouldn’t be a shadow. Something resembling a plume of smoke gliding down a hallway in the dark. A disembodied voice calling from an empty basement. A sense of being watched in an empty house. A spot in a room where the temperature drops to an unearthly cold.
Perhaps you, yourself, have been in a place like this. A place where you could’ve sworn something moved just outside the corner of your sight. Or you felt a chill raise the hairs on your neck, and hoped it was just a breeze … hoped — even though you knew all the windows and doors were sensibly shut.
Such places can be found all over the world, and South Florida is no exception.
As it stands, this seems like a good time of year for Florida Weekly to highlight those places with a reputation for being the most … unsettling? … in our readership areas.
Some people claim, even swear, to have experienced unusual occurrences in these places, in spite of others blowing off their testimonies as the result of coincidence or overactive imaginations. What follows are some of those supposed occurrences, based on accounts, stories, legends.
“Explain it: we cannot. Disprove it: we cannot,” said narrator John Newland on “One Step Beyond,” the first TV show to deal with the paranormal, 60 years ago. “We simply invite you to explore with us the amazing world of the unknown.”
Of course, you may have your doubts about this exploration. You may consider these accounts to be hearsay or utter nonsense.
But you could always visit one of these places on your own … decide for yourself if they are — as some allege — occupied by the spirits of the unquiet dead.
“Much of that historic neighborhood by Retta Esplanade and Marion Avenue is built on top of shell mounds because the Calusa Indians were here in Punta Gorda,” said Evie Alexander, owner of Southwest Florida Walking Tours, who said she came by that bit of information by way of a local historian. “They would bury their dead in the shell mounds and then built on top of it. When the first settlers came here, that was the best land to build on because it was higher and had good drainage. But sometimes when they were building, they would find skeletons. … A lot of the houses in that neighborhood are possibly built over Calusa graves.”
Keeping in mind that the Calusa were no strangers to human sacrifice might account for the several homes that are purported to be haunted in the downtown area.
But a favorite hotspot for paranormal investigators has been Indian Spring Cemetery (9500 Indian Spring Cemetery Road, Punta Gorda), the second oldest in Charlotte County. It was initially created in 1886, and has grown over the years to its current 40 acres.
According to the official Charlotte County website, the name derives from a spring nearby that was thought to have been used by Native Americans. Owned and maintained by the county since 1948, it contains more than 2,500 verified interments, some unmarked, dating back to 1889 — including former Florida Gov. Albert W. Gilchrist and a section dedicated solely to infants.
It is highlighted in a 2019 article in the Palm Beach Post titled “Haunted Florida: These 5 cemeteries are worth the trip,” and is also listed by the paranormal themed website Backpackerverse (www.backpackerverse.com) as one of the 10 most haunted cemeteries in the entire state. Indian Spring Cemetery is the subject of numerous YouTube videos detailing paranormal investigations, and some visitors have allegedly reported seeing ghost lights and shadowy figures, and hearing disembodied noises that sound like screaming and moaning.
By the way, the land for the original cemetery was donated by an early merchant, shipper and developer who also served as town’s mayor, James L. Sandlin by name. This is ironic because he also built the home that is considered to be the most haunted in the entire city — with the ghost being his own daughter.
It’s a subject Ms. Alexander is familiar with.
When she initially bought out Southwest Florida Walking Tours in 2017, it was strictly culinary excursions through downtown Punta Gorda. She added a history tour, but then discovered that patrons really wanted to hear about ghosts and hauntings.
A Haunted History Tour fit the bill — and, for the more adventurous, a Victorian Séance event was added, demonstrating how mediums of the late 1800s would dabble in summoning residents of the spirit world. Ms. Alexander decided to research and collect the ghost stories into a book, “Ghost Stories of Punta Gorda,” a blend of fact and legend, the historical narrative made more engaging by using elements of fiction. It was a perfect complement to the Haunted History Tour.
Recently, Ms. Alexander has once again adapted her business to the desires of her patrons.
“People were saying they loved the ghost stories but they also loved the history, too,” she said. “Now we have our new tour, call Haunts & History, and we go around the downtown. We go to the only bona fide haunted house in Punta Gorda, and that’s the Sandlin home, which is (currently) occupied by a family, so we don’t go inside but we’ll stand in front of it and talk about it.”
The Sandlin House (401 W. Retta Esplanade) was built by Sandlin in 1893. The family was already no stranger to tragedy, as two of their children died, one in infancy and one at age 12.
But it was an incident in 1909 that would give the house its unusual reputation.
Mr. Sandlin’s daughter Mary Leah Sandlin, 14, was performing the mundane chore of ironing clothes on the front porch when tragedy struck.
“Because they were wealthy, they had this state-of-the art gasoline-powered iron,” Ms. Alexander explained. “It either malfunctioned or she spilled gas on herself and burned to death.”
Based on accounts, the poor girl went running down the street, engulfed in flames. Neighbors tried in vain to put the fire out in time to save her.
Families that have inhabited the house since have reported hearing footsteps and creakings that go beyond the normal noises expected of an old house.
“It seems her spirit is very concerned about anything related to fire and clothing,” Ms. Alexander said. “Someone will be ironing and walk away, and they find the iron’s been turned off or unplugged. There were reports of clothes taken out of the dryer and thrown on the floor.”
Fortunately, Mary Leah’s spirit seems to be a benevolent inhabitant.
According to Ms. Alexander, “The previous owner had six children, and said, ‘I treat Mary Leah just like one of my own. If I hear her running up and down the halls, I tell her to stop that.’”
The haunting of the Sandlin House seems to be a universally accepted fact in Punta Gorda.
“The last time it sold, they put right in the paper, ‘House for sale. Ghost included,’” Ms. Alexander said. “So they were very up-front about it.”
The story of the sale in 2014, along with its haunted history, even caught the interest of the U.K. Daily Mail, making international news “across the pond.”
The paranormal is an admittedly controversial subject. There are plenty of folks who insist upon its reality, while others dismiss it out of hand. Then there are those are forced by experience to admit the possibility of the paranormal exists. When one such skeptic comes forward, attention must be paid.
Enter Gina Taylor, owner of True Tours in Fort Myers, a business that offers walking tours of the city.
“We don’t have a scary tour; people don’t come on this tour to be scared,” she said. “They’re going to be a little creeped out at best.”
Ms. Taylor said she was the original director of the Burroughs Home and Gardens — where she discovered and fell in love with the city’s varied history — and later took a position with the Lee Trust for Historic Preservation. Eventually, she opened True Tours.
At first, the tours were strictly historical in subject.
“Being as that I’m a historian and not real big into the paranormal, I can say that I love facts and figures, which is history; it’s real,” Ms. Taylor said. “I branched into the Haunted History Tour by popular demand.”
She doesn’t like to call her Haunted History Tour a “ghost tour” because she focuses on accurate historical detail about some of the buildings in the city.
“I do not have my tour guides dressed up, holding lanterns, with black faces, looking Goth,” she insisted. “Nobody jumps out and screams at you. I don’t do any of that. Being a former museum director, I like to stick to credibility.”
ThThat being said, Ms. Taylor makes no bones about what some people have claimed to experience firsthand: A hotel entrance whose stairway was cordoned off after a shadowy human figure would appear behind visitors who stood on the steps. Employees of the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center (2301 First St.) hearing a woman’s voice calling, “Hello!” from an empty basement. The shopkeeper who would find clothing displays moved around when she opened her store in the morning.
And then there are the photos — like the ones from the Old Lee County Courthouse (2120 Main St.).).
“When we stop at the historic courthouse, we always invite the crowd to take out their cellphones and start taking pictures,” Ms. Taylor said. “We tell them where to do it. It is so often that they will get nothing, and then we tell them to review their pictures the next day … and they send me these images.”
The images appear to be human figures and faces that appear in windows — long after the last employees have gone home.
“A lot of times in the pictures, you can actually see the face,” she said. “It’s creepy. We have the tour guides … pass around on their cellphones images that we have seen. We got all these images from our guests; they send them to us.”
The courthouse seems to be the top hot spot for such activity, as is the Andrew D. Gwynne Institute (corner of 2nd and Jackson streets), a building that opened as a school in 1911 — and where, in some photos, a schoolmarm from the last century allegedly appears to watch over unseen children in what was once their playground.
“What I find to be interesting about one abandoned hotel downtown, that used to be called the Hotel Greystone,” Ms. Taylor said, “is that I have gotten, over the 10 years (that I’ve run the tour) the same image probably 15, 20 times. How is that possible, when the building’s abandoned?”
The hotel is the subject of a short horror film available on YouTube (youtu.be/2uFRx40bkFE).
“Over the years, we’ve interviewed many employees who will tell us stories that are very creepy, that there’s definitely paranormal activity,” Ms. Taylor said. “So after all these years, after me being just a historian, I can say there’s something to this paranormal stuff. There’s no explanation.”
Countless surveys have been conducted regarding what people fear most. There are a few items that are often a common denominator among them: public speaking, death, spiders and clowns.
Oh, and dolls. Especially cursed ones.
We’re not talking about the fictional Chucky of the “Child’s Play” movie franchise. Or Annabelle, the offshoot of “The Conjuring” universe (which, in reality, is a supposedly possessed Raggedy Ann, not the menacing version created for Hollywood).
No, we’re referring to the doll that the vacation-rental site Holidu (www.holidu.com) includes in a Top 10 list of the most searched-for haunted attractions according to Google.
Robert the Doll makes its home in the Fort East Martello Museum (3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd.). According to its dedicated website (www.robertthedoll.org): “Science tells us dolls are inanimate objects, but those who care for Robert the Doll and the thousands who visit him each year know better. Lights flicker. Cameras malfunction. Letters of apology arrive on a daily basis. The bizarre circumstances surrounding Robert have earned him a reputation as the most haunted doll in the world.”
It was in the early 1900s that a young boy named Robert Eugene Otto, known simply as Gene, was gifted by his parents the life-sized doll dressed in a sailor suit, his face painted with the features similar to a jester.
Early on, Robert seemed to exhibit its own mischievous behavior. When Gene was alone in his room conversing with Robert, two separate voices could be heard. Furniture would be found overturned and toys mutilated, which Gene insisted was the work of Robert.
After Gene’s death (as an adult), tenants who lived in the house claimed to hear footsteps in the attic. A plumber turned to hear the source of giggling behind him — only to find that Robert had moved across the room of his own volition. A woman who bought the house donated Robert to the Fort East Martello Museum after she, too, discovered that the doll moved around the residence on its own.
Encased in a glass display, Robert still wears the same sailor suit, but his features have weathered severely with age. The paint on its face is long gone, replaced by pocks and scars, the nose worn down to a nub. Yet the doll is still allegedly able to wreak havoc on visitors. Cameras and other electronic devices were said to malfunction in its presence, and the doll is said to cast curses on those who photograph it without first asking its permission.
“Letters continue to arrive daily,” according to the Robert the Doll website. “Ghost hunters, TV shows, psychics, skeptics and believers visit Robert on a regular basis to witness firsthand the strange stories they have heard.”
And what about you? Are you willing to visit any of the places you have just read about, and try to witness firsthand the strange and inexplicable occurrences associated with them? Of course, they might turn out to be nothing. Or you might get more than you bargained for.
Something to consider next time you you’re alone and you hear footsteps.
Pleasant dreams. ¦