A few days before their big summer adventure, the Trippers get out the big board and set their agenda out.
After talking for a few about Christopher Balzano’s recent legend trip in the Myakka River State Park, he and Natalie Crist argue about the best way to go about tripping the locations picked out for their Summer18 trip.
They discuss the ghosts in Astor, DeLand, Silver Springs, and Oviedo. They also establish their first contest with the prize being a valued copy of Haunted Objects.
You can follow the trip at #TOLSummer18 and #hauntedlove.
You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.
Keep visiting the site for the trip log of our travels and other urban legends at:
Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends
There’s a ghost. Maybe. Odd things are happening, so people think the place may be haunted. They don’t know why, and so they find a story that seems to make sense or one that sounds familiar. There are two people driving down the road and and they get into a car accident. The man is ejected from the car and dies on impact, but the woman survives for a while. She can spot her husband, his dead body slumped under the tree nearby, and all night, as she waits for help to come and rescue her, she reaches out to him and calls his name. Now at the spot of the accident you can see two balls of light hover in the area. They seem to be trying to get to each other but never can. Sometimes a voice is heard on the wind
If believing in ghosts is thinking outside of the box, folklore and urban legends are the box we use to try and make sense of them. In Ormond Beach, Florida, there has been an story playing else out at least a hundred years. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll see they story might go back even further. Ghost stories about odd lights have been plaguing a stretch of road leading to the Tomoka State Park for as long as there has been a road there. The trouble is they don’t live in isolation. Instead every time you try to neatly put them in some kind of box, a detail wiggles out and attaches itself to another story. Or a true historical event sheds a different light on things, making it even harder to tell what might be true. More importantly, it confirms that something else is going on, something bigger than a simple haunting or a wayward ghost.
The story begins with what may very well be a natural occurrence which has taken on the name the Ormond Ghost Lights. As ghost stories go, they are pretty straight forward. As you travel from Bulow Creek State Park down Old Dixie Highway to Tomoka State Park, there is a part of the road that goes over a bridge. For decades people had seen orbs flying around the sky there at night and wondered what they might be. The activity seemed to reach its peak in the 1950s where the flight of the lights were so well known as to be part of the town’s collective lore.
People driving along the road were treated to a light show. At times there would be only one. It might fly through the sky or dance around in a circle and come crashing down. More of the stories tell about two lights that seem to be connected. They may hover or crash into each other. There are even reports of them combining into one. Often described as “playful” or “with a mind of their own” the lights have been known to follow drivers giving off a low hum and even cause accidents and death. They were observed playing with each other, and it was well known you could pull up to the bridge, turn your lights off, and enjoy a show.
This is where the stories start to pile up on each other and become connected to a larger picture. There is a story of a lone motorcycle driver who was killed while following the lights. He is now trapped on that stretch of road himself and appears as a bright orb with loud motorcycle engine that trails drivers and then disappears. A newlywed couple driving through broke down after seeing the lights. The man left to go get help and never returned. The woman followed soon after and neither were ever seen again. Their spirits remain on the site now, causing other couples to break down.
These stories sound similar to ghost stories told around the country. They make for some interesting goosebumps, but their similarity to other widely told tales give them the ring of legend and not legitimacy. Even the idea of soul collecting lights stretches back centuries. For example, the Wampanoag of New England believe in the idea of tei pai wankas, or the spirits of the dead seen in the form of balls of light. They believed these lights would often kill people or lead to their deaths, and to die in such a way would trap you as a tei pai wanka. They same idea is held by Europeans and European settlers only the lights are call Will O’ the Wisp.
The lights seemed to die down in the early 1960s, and when they disappeared leads to the most logical reasoning behind them existing in the first place. According to a park ranger at Tomoka State Park, “As far as I know that (the lights) has been disproven because of the fog and the lights way back then. The bridge used to be lower. The lights would shine across the marsh and the marsh gases would look like ghosts. That’s where it came from.” In fact, the current bridge was installed in 1961 and changed the angle at which cars approached the woods. This shift caused the lights to disappear, and with them the ghost sightings pretty much ended. They became just a story locals told.
Simple. Case closed, haunting solved and retired.
It would be easy to dismiss the ghost lights as having just been a natural phenomena with some creepy stories attached to them, but there are so many tales surrounding their backstory, and too many stories being told about odd things happening in the forest, to just dismiss them off hand.
For a long time swamp gases, and just about any other gas you can think of, has been the rational explanation for why some ghosts appear. The logic is sound. Think of the number of cemeteries with their decomposing bodies and all of the orbs seen by the living. However, the questions have never really been answered as to why it exists in some places and not others or why different kinds of gases cause different kind of lights. In fact, the explosions of these gases have never really accounted for the movement of the lights either. Why do some seem to dance or follow people or spin around and combine. Why do some seem to have a personality or even a consciousness. In cemeteries, a body is said to take several decades at most to decompose and release these gases. How then can stories of ghost lights persist over an even longer time or in cemeteries where the bodies are hundreds of years old? To say the convenient, if misunderstood, explanation dispels all of the ghost stories is less logical than to admit some might be spirits.
To say nothing of the physics of how a shift in an angle can cause these light to immediately go away. The headlights reflecting off the gas caused the ghosts. It makes sense on one level, but the argument falls apart when looked at closely. For example, many of the people who observed the orbs said they would turn off their lights to enjoy the show. How then are their headlights causing them? How do headlights turned on account for the ones that were higher in the sky?
Then there are the deeper questions, the ones that establish a pattern of the supernatural and unexplained in the area. The Ormond Ghost Lights are just the most popular of the legends. Other date back further and point to the land being rotten somehow, perhaps cursed for some reason.
To start with, Old Dixie Highway, which was originally conceived as a path between Chicago and Miami back in 1925 over what used to be known as King’s Road. In that part of Ormond Beach it connects Bulow Creek State Park to Tomoka State Park. Bulow Creek has its own share of paranormal activity, including the infamous Fairchild Oak, otherwise known as the Suicide Tree. There have been reports of lights and dark figures in the woods and several reports leading to the theory that a Bigfoot or skunk ape makes the grounds its home.
The entire area, not just one section near the bridge, has a dark history and modern occurrences.
Take the mysterious fog that may have killed dozens of people in the 1950s and 1960s. Around the same time the Ormond Ghost Lights were rising in popularity a mysterious pink fog was known to come in off the Tomoka River. An unusual amount of people died in relation to it, and even more went missing to never been seen again. The locals, and legends, tell that this odd natural happening was given supernatural significance and directly held responsible for a rise of missing person cases at that time, and explained why there have been reports of people dying there in group for hundreds of years, including the disappearance of local Native American tribe, the Timucua, who had lived there previous to European settlement.
There is nothing to back up the specific claims of the pink fog. Research finds that there are no reports of mass disappearances, although bones have been found in the forest sections of Tomoka State Park. No one has been able to date them, and different stories attribute them to Timucua, slaves, or even modern residents who were said to have disappeared. The bones, in fact, are continuing to be found. The same ranger said discovering them has been a constant at the location for years, even as recently as this century. “We had slave bones washing out to the grounds here about 6 years ago. Slaves girls from the 1700s. There bodies were washing up on the grounds.”
While done of this offers any kind of proof, the odd history of the area has to be taken into account. There are shell mounds, which often point at burials and sacred lands. The largest mound is said to house 150-200 Timucua. While the Timucua were described by the European settlers who landed in East Florida as giants, they were wiped out quickly by their new neighbors even though other tribes, and even Timucua in other areas of Florida, survived.
The Europeans who settled that area didn’t fare much better. They suffered rises and falls while people in other parts of the country flourished. Richard Oswald was given 20,000 acres in what is now the state park to grow rice and indigo. Although those crops were high demand, the plantation fell apart in less than 20 years. Bulow was once a striving was the crowning jewel of the area but was decimated by “strife.” until it was left in ruins. That area then became the scene of murders, accidents, and suicide, leading to the notoriety of the Fairchild Oak.
Nothing seems to be able last there for long. Plantations failed, settlements went up in smoke, and business ventures like hotels and attractions never got the momentum they did in other places. Even the notorious Fountain of Youth springs in Tomoka State Park disappeared, until what was once a reflecting pond that brought in from people all around dried up and now has nothing to show for its once pristine past.
The plantations in this area also have seen more slave uprising than other parts of the country. Captain James Ormond for whom the area is named, was killed by a slaves in 1819. An overseer named Tom Addison was killed by slaves in 1825. The most notorious of these murders is that of Samuel Huey, one of Oswald’s first overseers. He was known to be a harsh man and a drunk, as well as the kind of man who was rumored to be stealing from the boss. According to several sources, Huey died at the hands of the slaves under his charge. Some accounts say they killed him directly while others say he had an accident, falling into the river and, probably drunk, unable to swim back to the boat or to the shore. The slaves stood by and watched him drown.
There are historical records to back up that Huey did in fact die off the coast of what is now Tomoka State Park. The records don’t report what has happened since then. Huey’s coast is said to haunt the banks of the river in the back of the park. The ranger spoke of the ghost without being asked the question and says people have reported being watched while fishing or walking the area. He says it is widely known to be haunted. “At the end of the peninsula there was an overseer who showed up with 70 slaves to clear it. He was so mean to the slaves they revolted against him. They took him down to the end of the peninsula and drowned him. They replaced him with a mulatto overseer and things went on. You can feel the vibe down here at the end.”
In fact, the same ranger says, the whole place is said to be haunted and people report an eerie feeling in different spots throughout. This Ormond Ghost Lights, while no longer seen on the bridge, are still seen in other places in the woods. Bones and bodies have been found on the grounds, making it hard to determine who the spirits might be there. Some people feel the ghosts might all come down to Tomokie, whose large statue looms in one corner of park near where many of the mysterious lights and figures are seen.
The Great Spirit came to earth every night to drink of the Water of Life from a special cup. It often overflowed or spilled from the cup, creating the spring which was said to have healing powers. Tomokie, a Timacuan chief and giant even among his people, stole the cup and drank directly from the Waters of Life himself, defiling it and causing war among the people. It is unclear whether this was a civil war or with another tribe, but the stories tell how he became like a Superman, able to fight off large numbers of men himself. A great battle raged between the two sides. From the opposition rose Oleeta, a woman known as a great warrior. She shot Tomkie in the heart with a poison arrow, killing him before she was overtaken by his followers and killed herself. The two sides continued to fight, eventually killing each other off. Oleeta is buried near the spring somewhere while the location of Tomokie’s body is unknown. The cup was said to be taken from the spring and is in the possession of a tribe in Florida and held scared and safe but unknown to the outside.
People contribute the bones and ghosts to this battle. They say the lights are the souls who died in that fighting, the pink fog is a revenge on people somehow, and that the land is cursed because of Tomokie’s offense. This story is spread as part of the origin of so much of the darkness and unexplained the area is victim to. For centuries, Ormond Beach was lived in the shadow of the chief’s sins.
Only it hasn’t.
Tomokie is not real and never has been. Well, maybe sort of. Although his broken down and vandalised statue stands tall against the setting sun, his story only dates back to 1955 when a statue was created by artist Fred Dana Marsh and a false legend was concreted to commemorate the dedication of the statue and symbolize what many felt was an idealized version of the people that had lived there. Although now a popular folktale, the story seems to just be repeated, almost word for word, by different sources, and no original source dating back before the 1950s exists. The name itself appears to be a corruption of the word Timucua and the participants act more like early 20th century ideas of Native Americans than what they actually thought, believed, or practiced.
That’s the way it has always been in Ormond Beach. There is something in the woods that can’t be explained. There is something in the moon that makes the odd fogs that float in take the form of monsters and ghosts. The fact that the stories exist, not whether they are true or not, tells us that there is a need to explain the shadows moving through the trees and the unexplained movements of the water. Since we have been able to record history there the place has been cursed and the people have had to shelter themselves against a supernatural battery, one which can’t be explained but has to be experienced. There is no need to worry about that though. There is always a new story to make sense of it all.
Do you need to have your mysteries solved for you? The very nature of a ghost story, at least one where people believe the haunting to be real, calls for some kind of neat package for the reader to see all the moving parts and for things to make sense. We crave that, maybe because the very questions that these stories look to answer (what happens after we die, is there life after death, how to I find peace) are the ones that will allow us to settle our minds. If the story doesn’t make sense or doesn’t settle with us, we forget or change it to fill in the plot holes.
Yet, there’s something about those holes of an urban legend that separate it from the history we find comfort in. People might long to understand the answers to the questions they ask, but folklore and urban legend pop up and survive in a different place as well. The stories make sense and seem familiar, but there is something about not being able to get all the details straight that draw us in and keep the story rolling around in our head trying to connect the dots of it all. If we had a few more bits of information, we could crack the case open the way no one ever had before. It’s that engagement that makes the legend live.
There are no easy answers in Shiloh Cemetery in Sanford, Florida. There is a least one solid ghost there people report, which makes it easier to say the cemetery might be haunted, but that’s where any clarity ends. Who the ghost may be, why she is there, and what connection she might have to it are all up in the air. That may be why people continue to be obsessed with the faceless spirit walking among the rows.
Maybe the cemetery itself has something to do with it. Shiloh is one of five graveyards collectively known as Sanford Cemetery, the largest and most modern of which is Evergreen Municipal Cemetery which faces West 25th Street with a clean, majestic front. The resting place presents like a well-organized if generic small town spot, something you pass by without thinking too much about. In fact, if you didn’t know there was something older behind it, you would not be able to guess that behind the newer cemeteries lies two that are falling apart, highly vandalized, and lost to history for decades until recent interest has touch the community into calling for their rejuvenation
Go in a little further and the graves start to become more cracked and overrun with growth. Trash piles up, as if the worst of the front cemeteries has blown back to the other ones, hoping that history can be brushed away as easily. The Page-Jackson cemetery is now hailed as a crucial link to the history of African Americans in the area, including the final resting place for Drew Bundini Brown, a corner man for Muhammad Ali who helped to craft some of his most famous taunts and an unused plot for Zora Neale Hurston. The land was donated by a local man, William Page-Jackson, who was either a gravedigger or a local farmer who allowed people to be buried there for free and maintained the property. His story is another local legend that adds to the overall story of the place.
People say that after he passed away the care for the land never switched over to anyone, and it fell into disrepair. Unlike the other cemeteries that make up Evergreen, the city does not contribute to the maintenance. Many of the graves are sunken into the ground or sprayed with graffiti, and the forest has claimed most of the land back until recent times. People who volunteer to clean it up find links to the past of African Americans in the area, so there is a touch of reverence now the place has not experienced in a long time. The larger family plots sometimes look like graverobbers have had their way with it and broke the fences and barriers down on their way in.
With the increased focus on maintaining the grounds, ghost stories have made their way out of it as well. Almost all are nonspecific and mundane. People have seen shadows or heard crying at night. There is one report of a man seen looking at a headstone and then disappearing when the witness turned away for a moment. The nature and tone of the reports are so generic you have to wonder if there is anything there or people just feels there needs to be.
When looking into a ghost story, it is often the things that are different about it that make it stand out. Every cemetery is said to be haunted, which often makes the stories feel like a rationalization of an odd feeling you had. In fact, if there is a backstory, it has more to do with a historical person, or at least a person who can be researched online, and the haunting conforms to the backstory instead of standing on its own. For example, a woman is seen in white and people assume it to be the ghost of a woman buried there who died on her wedding day.
Behind Page-Jackson is yet another, even older cemetery which is in even worse shape and does not have the gravity of being an important historical location to most. This means less people know about it and even less care or visit it. It is often mentioned as the sister cemetery to Page-Jackson, to the point that even some of the ghosts seen there are said to belong to the latter and have wandered into Shiloh for some reason. When you’ve reached the back of the Page-Jackson, and after you’ve taken a few moments to think about why we would ever let our dead be treated so disrespectfully, you’ll see a dirt road that leads to something even more heartbreaking and even more frightening.
It’s the ghost that remains the biggest mystery. She’s so unusual and her descriptions so specific that it makes sense people need to create stories to explain her. If the Page-Jackson ghosts are so generic as to be unbelievable, than the woman seen in Shiloh is real because no one would make her up. Instead of a woman in a white flowing gown, the Woman of Shiloh is dressed in dark robes which hide her body and shade her actual height. Some of the stories say you can’t see her feet so she appears to be floating. Unlike other cemetery ghosts who are searching for something or guarding it, she wanders around aimlessly, usually not even noticing the people who spot her around dusk or late at night.
Often she is seen as a ghost light, something more like a large, visible, and glowing orb (it is odd that with so much activity in both of the cemeteries, some attribute only some specific ghost lights to the Lady). What really defines her however is her long hair which is said to be flowing, as if by an invisible wind, and the fact she has no face. Instead all people report is a skull, sometimes with parts of the skin still attached but usually not. They say she is a skeleton walking around the outskirts of the cemetery and sometimes seen walking aimlessly among the graves. Locals say she may be the most reliable ghost in the state, and that if you just wait long enough you will always see her.
She is much like the cemetery itself. Her decimated face mirrors the scattered nature of the graves and her interest in walking around the border give her the feel like she is trapped and forgotten.
They have given her a story, and it is the story which both draws people in and offers some of the biggest questions. According to BackpackerVerse, a psychic made contact with the spirit a number of years ago and was able to get a bit of her history. According to the man, she was murdered by a serial killer about twenty years ago (the article in not specific about when exactly the man is speaking about) and dumped in a body of water nearby. The fish ate her face on and now she is doomed to walk Shiloh.
There have been murders in the area, so the tale does not seem that far-fetched, and there are several serial killers who used this part of Florida as a hunting ground. There have even been believers (me for one) in the theory that there may have been some involvement from Gerard Schaefer, although that does not fit the “about 20 years ago” senario. One of the likely candidates may be April Marie Stone whose dead body was found by the side of the road in 1991. The young woman was found stabbed to death and wrapped in a blanket on Painted Post Road near the Wekiva River more than ten miles away. Accused serial killer William Devin Howell was thought to be responsible for her death but has never been formally charged. The primary issue with this is that Stone was known for her long red hair, all of the news reports from the time talk about it, and if the spirit in Shiloh had red hair it seems likely that detail would be offered up.
There are, of course, problems with all of this, not the least of which is that the information was given by a psychic who never got the woman’s name or her connection to that specific location. Saying someone died in a body of water is like saying someone died near an oak tree; there are just too many to make the place specific enough to use. In addition, the time frame fits into classic motifs for urban legends and folklore. Twenty years is just enough time for it to seem plausible but not specific enough to do any real research into it. That’s the beauty of the Lady of Shiloh though. There is enough information for you to hit the Internet and think you may have found who the suspect might be.
Here’s the thing though. The Lady of Shiloh is not like other ghosts, or at least she varies enough that her sightings have the feel of genuine encounters. Her half-eaten face or skeleton face is not often a detail attributed to ghost stories, and when it is the ghost is usually said to be more angry or even violent towards people. She doesn’t fit that, which leads people in the area who have not seen her to think she must be real. Perhaps the stories that have been used to flesh out her appearance are works of fiction, but there is someone there, lonely, wandering, and seemingly trapped.
When We Were There
Shiloh was a just a stopover for us, an interesting story for us to follow up on while we were on the road to the real trip. For an afterthought, it proved to be both an interesting historical site which made us feel sorry for the state of the grounds and a haunted location which provided plenty of debate but not many insights into what is happening there. In fact, with some of the other things occurrences over the next week, it was almost more as if something was following us rather than us experiencing something connected to the actual cemetery.
The broken fences and cracked headstone we saw on the way in, from both Page-Jackson and Shiloh, darkened our mood as we drove further away from the main street and nicer parts of Sanford Cemetery. It was clear by the piles of trash and natural waste that cleaning up was happening, but the sheer amount of it pointed out just how long it had been before volunteers had stepped in. Shiloh itself was open and the graves somewhat sparse, although as we got deeper in we realized this was due to some headstone no longer existing or being sunken into the ground. There also were an unusual amount of graves along the treeline of the surrounding forest, almost hidden.
From the moment we passed by Page-Jackson and into Shiloh, Natalie was uneasy. We got out of the car and she almost immediately began to hear what she described as knocking coming from the woods, a sound that would come to define other locations we were to touch along the road trip. Her unease grew as she heard inhuman noises coming from some of the plots within the cemetery. “It was a combination of movement and a nonhuman noise, like guttural. I was like get me out of there.” We ended up not staying too long, in part because of Natalie’s unease, partly because there was not much going on, and mostly because we had a long night of driving ahead of us.
The impact of where we had just been didn’t fully hit us until we were on Interstate 95. As we drove we listened to some of the 30 minutes of recordings that we made. The first one that struck us as some kind of confirmation was a deeper, angrier voice chanting water repeatedly throughout the recording. That same voice is heard saying other things, such as “I’ve got you now,” and at one point the man taunts Natalie to come into the woods and calls her Angel. There are multiple times where the voice swears at her or grunts, seemingly in reaction to something she says. It even tells her to, “Die, whore.”
Another male voice, not nearly as threatening or dark sounding at one point says to us, “We’re dead and you come here. Rude.” A younger boy also says that he has us now.
In one section of the recording there is a clear high voice which can best be described as lamenting. Although most of it can’t be understood, she at one point say, “It was the whole thing.” Later, when Natalie tries to speak to whatever might be there, she says, “Ask,” and then either, “Tell them,” or “turn around.” At one point she asks, “What do you want from me. Pushing me, ” before being interrupted by a male voice asking, “Why?”
At different times two different voices are talking to each other. The way they relate to each other gave me the impression of an older, more experienced man ordering another younger man around. To me, and I have no evidence of this, the masochistic and forceful nature of the older man felt like a violent offender, the kind who would assault and kill a woman, training a younger man. He gives instructions and the second man is unsure of himself and questioning.
As folklorist, we usually do not spend too much time breaking down evidence. To us the story is why we are there. These recordings paint a picture of what is happening there, adding to the oral tradition that has grow up surrounding the phantom.
There is speaking through almost all of the recording and we encourage other people to break it down, evaluate it and get back to us.
You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at email@example.com.
We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.
Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends
Now one of the most popular figures in the supernatural world, Balzano goes into his early research into the legend and how it came to grow and become what it is today. They explore some of the early references before tackling some of the errors in the lore that have
twisted in recent years.
In fact, since the beginning of Tripping on Legends, the creature has been making guest appearances from time to time, from an odd story coming out of Astor, Florida, to a potential transformation into an animal in Indiana.
Watch an interview with a recent Pukwudgie experience in Indiana…
Excuse the section on Harry Potter…something unseen decided to chime in and was caught on tape. See if you can figure out what it’s saying.
If you hear more than we do, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep visiting the site for the trip log of our travels and other urban
legends at: www.trippingonlegends.wordpress.com
Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends
The stage had been set for us to experience some of the what was being whispered about in Oak Hammock Park. The rumors of dark figures, odd noises and cries, and mysterious visions had us on edge. We were hoping that such an active and well known area, coupled with the number of people we hoped were using the park for recreation, would provide us with interviews and information on the Devil’s Tree.
The weirdness began before we had even left the house though. The night before, as we were going over the game plan on how to trip the site, we had gotten into a discussion of a Spooky Southcoast guest named George Case and his recent appearance on the show. That led to us discussing the idea of backwards lyric in the song Stairway to Heaven and how Led Zepplin had been accused of making a pact with the Devil for success and riches. As we sat and ate our breakfast in a local diner, the song came on. One of the driving forces of our adventures has always been following the signs, and this was definitely a sign that things were going to get interesting.
Oak Hammock Park is buried in a residential neighborhood and seems to come out of nowhere. It would be hard to find if someone didn’t tell you it was there.
Natalie decided, out of necessity, to explore the first part of the legend. It was safe to say she encountered no spirits in the ladies’ bathroom, where the ghost of the two dead hitchhikers are said to haunt people by banging and scratching on doors or being seen in the mirrors.
We spent the next hour in the wrong area of the park carefully scrutinizing each oak we came across. As we walked, we discovered a rock painted with the odd symbol of an eye. Having dealt with markers and symbols of cults who use woods like these, an idea that has been rumored to also happen in this park, my mind automatically thought this had been left by someone to mark a path to the tree. I was ultimately proven wrong. The park, like many others in the country, was having a special “egg-hunt” type activity where local artists painted rocks and left them behind for people to find and share on social media.
We eventually decided to shift gears, retrace our steps, and reenter the park from a new location with the hopes of following the directions to get to it. As we walked by a set of swings and slides, we heard a little kid talking to a woman and her baby about the Devil’s Tree. He was trying to get the woman to go out with him to the woods to visit it. We looked at each other and approached them. Both the woman and the young boy had heard the stories, and the boy, who we learned was named Christopher, eagerly offered to take us out and show us where it was.
Our guide walked through the woods, more concerned with the killer’s supposed house than the actual tree. He shared with us several stories, mostly concerned with the house, and confirmed our theory that everyone in the area had heard the stories and knew the part as being a dark and haunted place. We finally came upon it and immediately understood why the tree could be a target for urban legend.
It’s thick trunk is scarred with burn marks and knots that mark where people have tried to cut it. The tree was also cut up with designs, some of them common in occult practices. Over time, someone had filled in parts of the tree with cement, as if they were trying to practice that old wive’s tale of helping a tree grow by cutting out rot and filling it in. It reminded us in retrospect of some of the fairy holes we discovered connected with some of the locations we explored in Indiana and which are often associated with Pukwudgies.
The branches themselves are a collection of mangled arms and fingers, most pointing down instead of up towards the light. Someone coming upon the tree might mistake it for some kind of natural accident and be overtaken by how twisted and mutilated the whole scene appeared. We were also struck by how many of the ends of the branches looked like devil’s horns.
Christopher quickly took us to the foundations in the wood. Before we had gotten to the location we had read nothing about possible houses in the woods nearby, but here was a collection of abandoned blocks of cement and twisted iron. Some had the appearance of stairs while others were laid out as foundations. Others were at least three feet high. We tried to research several times what the buildings had been but have been unsuccessful. The best theories are that the buildings might have been associated with Victory Forge Military Academy and Southeastern Military Academy or a failed development from the Atlantic Gulf Communities Corporation.
One of the odd elements of the forest was several locations near the Devil’s Tree that had circles often associated with cult activity and the remains of bird feathers nearby.
We talked to several other people who came across us as we circled the tree. Most had heard of it before, although none of them had specific stories to share. Christopher eventually left us to meet up with his friends, and Natalie went off to make sure he got to them safely. I took the opportunity to put down the camera and recorder and sit against the tree to see if anything would happen. While nothing too dramatic happened, the recorder did pick up some voices and I had an uneasy feeling the entire time.
Much of what follows can be considered to be coincidence or some kind of cognitive bias. How many odd things have to happen before you start to admit to yourself something unexplained is going on. As people who who try and catch the tail of an unseen tiger, Natalie and I tend to make more leaps than I would have in my investigator days.
Deciding to go against one of our rules and jump into one of the legends, we took a part of the bark with us. This would prove to be a mistake. We soon left, and as soon as we got back into the car, we instantly had car trouble. As we made our way to Cassadaga to look into some of the stories there, night seemed to come out of nowhere and we decided to stop for the night. We called ahead and no place was open. We made our way to the Orlando area, which is considered Hotel Capital of the World. There was no room at the inn. There was something moving us on and forcing us to leave the area.
We eventually decided to make the three hour drive home despite the late hour. As the car continued to clank and sputter, we stopped to refuel. I decided to get rid of the bark, slightly superstitious and eager to get rid of any bad vibes. I reached out to throw the piece of wood away and it literally jumped from my hand into the garbage.
We started on the road home downing coffee and singing to make sure we stayed awake. Natalie decided to nap, but her sleep was disturbed. As she tried to doze, she kept hearing an old time phone ringing. Not a cell phone with a funky ring, which neither of us have, but an old phone ringing. It happened for most of the car ride home, but it was not until the next morning I explained to her that a phone ringing was one of the first signs of oppression, leading to possession.
Odd dreams kept us both from getting a good night’s sleep. Natalie spent most of the night hearing whispers and what sounded like a flute, to the point she asked me to turn the radio off. Not only did I not have a radio on, but the flute as she explained it sounded more like a pan flute. Pan has a deep connection to our current idea of the Devil.
It’s difficult to say in any solid way that there is something to the stories that are coming from the Devil’s Tree. For a few decades it has captured the imagination of the community, the dark figures like burn marks against the tree. The legend of the hauntings there, true or not, and the mystique surrounding Gerard Schaefer will form the ideas we have of the park and the tree that continues to grow on the outskirts. The Devil may not have made his way to Florida, but Port St. Lucie and anyone who follows the canal and the path to the Devil’s Tree knows there is something sinister there, watching and waiting to make itself known.
Some places are only evil in retrospect. Something horrible happens and people see the act for only the events that took place. Later, with time to contemplate what has happened and the benefit of hindsight, we see the stage might have had a bigger part in the play than the plot itself. We look forward from that evil event and see the place as tainted somehow. The circumstance now becomes the cause of all the bad that happens after it, the trigger for the darkness that finds its way to the place. Take a step back though. History usually tells us that what we thought was the cause of tragedies taking place is often just the effect of something that happened before, and with enough perspective, enough moving back of the camera, you can tell some places have been drawing this kind of thing in for longer than we know. The places themselves might even just be evil.
Places like these often become infamous, like the Bridgewater Triangle and the Freetown State Forest in Massachusetts.
Most people will tell you Gerard Schaefer is the root of the evil that lurks in Oak Hammock Park in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He fits the part well, having confessed or been linked to the killing of more than 30 women in a short time span in the late 60s and early 70s before being caught, convicted, and eventually killed by a fellow inmate. His habit of physically and psychologically torturing his victims, often visiting them afterwards to be with them after death and keeping souvenirs, makes him one of the more sinister serial killers in American history, even for a murderer working out of Florida. His friends in jail included Ted Bundy and Ottis Toole, the latter of whom was suspected of setting up Schaefer’s death. All of this from a man who was once known as a soldier, teacher, and officer of the law.
Schaefer’s actions, how many women he killed, how he killed them, what his motives were, are the sort of lies and blurry area serial killers often build around themselves after they are caught. He was no different as his jailhouse confessions and contradicts seduced people in to listening to him and debating his place in the pantheon of other murders, but ultimately left people instead arguing over how much of what he said could be trusted or backed up. It is no wonder then, all these years later, that the spot of one of one of his crimes should take on a life of its own and unfold as one of the most notoriously haunted locations in Florida.
Maybe its this embracing of the folklore of his own life that encouraged Schaefer to deny he had killed anyone in the one spot most closely connected to his name.
Tripping on Legends had first heard of the Devil’s Tree in the early days of the show. I had found several location around Florida all obsessed with the idea that somehow there was something evil in these places.
The Devil’s Tree is located in a corner of Oak Hammock Part in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and has been deeply rooted in the area since before there was even a park. It’s a sprawling tree with branches that seem intent on trying to get away from the massive trunk they are connected to. It’s set off from the main area of the park, on a path between the swing sets and a canal Schaefer is rumored to have carried the two young women he killed in on. If you were walking you might even ignore it if it were not for its intimidating size among the smaller trees that surround it and the odd blackened shapes on the trunk, as if someone had tried to burn the tree, which appear on all sides.
The tree acts as a sort of touchstone for the darkness that is said to lurk in the area. Black figures have been spotted near the tree at night, and the rumors and folklore say they are not all human. There have been reports of rituals being held there and men with robes wandering the woods nearby and near the great oak, but some have also claimed to see what they describe as people made of black smoke. These figures, sometimes referred to as shadow people or shadowmen, are somewhat common in areas where there is heightened paranormal activity. Another theory, the one spread most by those who see them or hear the stories and are not as familiar with ghost television shows, is that these are demons or dark spirits who are drawn to the forest and feed of the negative energy there.
Either theory might be right, but only one horrible act can be confirmed as having happened there. In April of 1973 the remains of Susan Place, 17, and Georgia Jessup, 16, were discovered on Hutchinson Island, a little over twenty miles from where the tree sits. They had been missing since late September and suspicion quickly fell on a deputy for the Martin County Sheriff’s office. Gerard John Schaefer had committed a crime similar to it in 1972. The two teens he picked up hitchhiking had been bound, threatened physically and sexually, and left hanging from a tree on Hutchinson Island. They had escaped when he was called on his police radio, and after they had made their way to the police station, the very station he worked at, he claimed he had done all of it to scare them into never hitchhike again. He was convicted and served time for that attack.
The crimes were similar enough, and Schaefer’s rapidly deteriorating image was tainted enough, that he was brought in for questioning on the murders. A search warrant was executed for the house he and his wife shared with his mother. Among the items found were fictional stories filled with details of unsolved murders, including the death of his former neighbor, personal effects and jewelry from crime scenes, and a torn ID and a book of poetry belonging to a hitchhiker from Iowa who had gone missing a few months before.
This hitchhiker, Collette Goodenough and her friend Barbara Wilcox, both 19, had made their way from the Midwest in late 1972, last being seen in Mississippi in early 1973 on their way to Florida. Their bodies were eventually discovered in 1977 a few hundred yards from the Devil’s Tree. The reports say they had been hung from the tree and then cut down and disposed of in the thick growth nearby. Other reports say they were hung much closer to where their bodies were found. Although he both denied and embraced the attacks and murders of these women at different times for the rest of his life, the truth remains that at least five women were confirmed murdered, all connected to the deputy sheriff. He was convicted in 1973 of the two murders on Hutchinson Island and was sentenced to two life sentences but died in jail after being assaulted by another inmate.
If all of this seems confusing, you can understand why so much lore might develop around the murders and why people might confuse the details and fuse the events together. There are even some details being left out. Schaefer accused the DA of setting him so he could marry his wife. He was accused of informing on serial killer Ottis Toole for the famous murder of Adam Walsh. The definitive study of the case was written and published by an old friend of his. The list goes on and on.
It is that element of the story, that grasping at what might be truth, what might be lies, and what might be myth, that allows his acts to be so deeply associated with the Devil’s Tree. There is just enough truth in all the stories for him to have killed the women at the tree and cut them down later to visit them. There’s just enough confusion for people to believe a bit of his evil is left in the woods there.
The tree is now famous. In addition to the reports of hooded and dark figures, people have reported seeing shadows of bodies hanging from the twisted branches. They hear the whimpers and cries of the women in the public bathroom nearby. At times, people say, if you touch the tree the world seems to stop, that all the wildlife and noise around drops away, like you’re in a bubble.
The tree is also said to be indestructible. According to news articles published, several times the tree has been slated for destruction and people have been unable to complete the task. Saws used to try and cut it down have broken. The tree has been set on fire several times, but instead of catching and burning down, odd marks, like monsters and demons, have formed in the wood instead. One of the most persistent legends about the tree is that if you take a piece of the bark, bad things will happen to you.
Other details have added to the legend in the years since the murders. Throughout the woods near the tree are the ruins of houses that have been torn down and forgotten. People in the area, including the historical society, have no idea what the foundations are from, but their place in the area lead to the story that one of these was Schaefer’s house and was the location where the evidence was found.
This points at something perhaps tainted about the area. While most of Port St. Lucie exploded after its founding, something made this area fail. Why was construction stopped there? More importantly, why was there a battle for the land between the town and a religious school which tried to use the area for their school. The school lost the battle and set up camp only a few miles away, and since has been the target of multiple accusations of sexual and physical abuse.