No one really can tell where
haunted legends come from. You might see
a reference to it on the Internet or have someone pass it down to you, campfire
in front of them or flashlight under their chin or a mention in the local paper
sometime around Halloween when there is a market for that kind of thing. That’s not the origin though; that’s how it
spreads. Why does one place inspire so
many stories, so many tales of ghosts whispering in the trees, and others don’t? Why do some places inspire fear and a similar
place inspire peace? It’s been said
everyplace is haunted a little, some just don’t catch on. When you look at why some of them become part
of the complexion of a community, you can’t find the why or the root, just the
tree and the reputation and a place where the story is stronger than the
There might be a reason Myakka
River State Park in Sarasota has so many legends attached to it, but it isn’t
clear cut. If you’re looking to spend a night in a tent
or camper, there are more than a dozen within a half hour of it, but there is
something about it that sparks the stories.
There are two ghostly legends with traction there, and as impossible as
the stories are to verify, the backstories are so muddled as to make the ghosts
just reasonable enough to maybe exist.
It all might start with Skunk Ape. Florida’s version of Bigfoot, the creature has had a reputation for stalking the area for decades, but in 2000 a woman sent a letter to a local paper complaining about the cryptid, and it launched off a firestorm. Debate raged across the cryptozoology community over what it was and whether the whole thing was a hoax, but enough papers covered it and recycled the story that the picture became famous. Books published on the subject usually tend to include it, and it made Myakka River the place to go to see Skunk Ape. According to an unnamed ranger, “They’ve shot movies here and TV shows, but I don’t know a single person who’s seen it. They just brought a whole bunch of noise about it and when it shows on TV the park will get busy for a while about it.”
Despite his claim, people are blogged enough about sightings to solidify the stories and make it one of the most popular Skunk Ape hunting grounds. This was reinforced with videos in 2013 and 2017, both have which have been analyzed and debated. The park is filled with animal life, including deer, bobcats, and dozens of species of birds. None can be mistaken for the cryptid.
One of the most popular theories going around in the paranormal and supernatural landscape these days acts as a sort of unified theory. Places in the word, be it the Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts or a place like Skin-walker Ranch in Utah, draw the weird into it. A place that is known for Bigfoot or Skunk Ape, or even UFOs, will also be home to other unexplained stories. Some say this is because vortexes allow all of these types of things to come from another dimension or place. Others say disturbances in the physical world at these locations, often magnetic anomalies or theoretical ley lines, attract them. A folklorist might say that when one story catches on and gets retold it makes more sense for another story to use the same place as its setting. Any of these might be the reason why two other ghost stories have gained popularity in the last couple of years.
Big Flat Campgrounds is the perfect spot for a family outing. Consisting of two culs de sac with trails spidering off of them, a car or camper can pull in and have everything they need to stay the night. Fire pits and bathroom facilities offer a break from the modern world and a connection to Mother Nature. Trouble is there’s also a ghost that is said to disturb the people who stay there. Even more troubling, the ghost has no head. He, and he is always identified as a man, is said to disturb people in the night and be heard in the trees during the day. He’s been known to move objects left outside and at night people report him crying, both of which echo classic woods folklore and media like The Blair Witch Project. One of the saddest and spookiest parts of the rumors is that people hear him walking around in circles, like he’s searching for something, but people cannot see a person who is making the noise.
The story has traction because of
several reports online where the month of July is said to be more active for
the headless man. Big Flats is one of a
few camp areas in the park but the only one with a resident ghost. It might make sense given its geography. Although it seems secluded and a world onto
itself when you are there, it is only several feet away from the main road and
river itself. At night this might be mistaken
for something paranormal. “Most people are not familiar with the sounds
of a park like this,” says the ranger. “Even
if they go to other parks, each one has its own sounds.” He also claims another part of the legend is
hard to understand. “July is dead
there. We don’t even open it during the
week. Between the rain and the mosquitoes,
it’s not someplace a lot people are visiting in the summer.” If the ghost is a creation of someone trying
to fill the campsite during its slow time, it has not worked. The legend however is very specific, which
usually means there might be something to it.
Alligator are common in the park, as they are all around the Myakka River. The area known as Deep Hole, not far from Big Flats, has become notorious for how many alligators roam there wild. The story might act as some kind of warning to people to beware of these animals and some of the other wildlife that are active at night. It would make sense given the fear of gator attacks that a man would lose his head at the campground. There have also been rumors of homeless people in the park at night and homeless deaths, although none of these stories have been backed up. Those stories, for those that retell them, are as accurate as the ghost stories.
I went there by myself to see if there could be a reason for the story to catch on. Being July and the middle of the week, it was closed off like the ranger said. While there I was trapped in several beautiful but violent lightning storms and had to wait in my car for the storms to pass.
It gave me a chance to get some beautiful pictures, but also a chance to experience mysterious noises in the woods. It was clear there were some alligators in the swampy part near the camp by the crackle they make, or at least close enough for the echo to reach me. In fact, not knowing about the reputation of Deep Hole, I spent almost an hour there, observing them. A few times one walked less than twenty feet from me without me noticing them until they were right beside me.
There was something else caused
by the rain and swamp area. Several
times I tried to grab a branch to knock on a tree, which is a reputed way to
connect with Skunk Ape. Every time I
picked up a branch to knock, it fell apart in my hands from the dampness. It was then I focused on the sounds coming
from the woods around me and realized most of the trashing and footsteps were
these palms falling and hitting other threes before reaching the ground. It sounded like someone walking through the
Another popular ghost story in
the park revolves around the Canopy Walk, a bridge in the middle of Myakka that
has become a popular tourist spot. The
walkway is about 25 feet off the ground, but the two structures connecting it
loom 100 feet in the air and offer an amazing view of the surrounding area from
the top. The ghosts are said to look like everyday
people but disappear without warning and before people’s eyes. They are seen climbing the structures and
walking the area below, there one moment and gone the next.
The story goes that in the 1950s people came to this site to commit suicide, and that soldiers returning home from Vietnam travelled there to take their lives as well. While some stories do not mention the Canopy Walk alongside the story, it has been connected to it. Jackson Millen, a resident of Sarasota, has heard the story but always with the suicides taking place from jumping. “I don’t remember when I heard it. But they jumped from it after coming home.” While he admits the story was passed to him recently, he is sure of the time frame for the deaths. This, however, would be impossible. The bridge and supports were not built until 2000, long after the Vietnam War.
It is possible the surrounding area was the site of suicides and ghost reports. There was nothing to make this particular section of the park standout before the bridge was there, and the rangers say there have been no suicides in there in the past. Perhaps the ghosts do walk the swampy area and the new canopy offers an excellent landmark for the stories, something to give the sightings more context. The idea of post-war suicide is a popular motif in haunted sites, including being part of the backstory for the Oviedo Lights, a famous spot for legend tripping about an hour and a half from Myakka.
My second trip to the park focused on the Canopy Walk, but this time I went with Natalie and my kids to do a segment for Tripping on Legends with Kids. It’s not a place for people with a fear of heights, but no one we spoke to had heard of the legends or seen anything, including the people at the gift shop and the restaurant. Climbing it did perhaps solve one part of the ghost story. With all of the twists and turns and the thickness of the woods surrounding it, someone can appear one moment and then not be there when you swing back around. It would be easy to lose someone and give you the impression they had just disappeared.
With nothing to backup any of the
stories, and the 2000 build date killing the suicide part of the legend, we
were sure the park was just an amazing place to see alligators, deer, and the
different birds who hung out in the water.
Then we saw the cage. Although people
have told me they are all over the park, we had not seen one until we were
circling around past the canopy. They
informed me they are for capturing wildlife for relocation, although it does
not make sense to me to capture something in a place with so much wildlife
running free. It was creepy enough that
we got out of the car to investigate.
After hearing the stories of tree
knocking, Natalie and Ella decided to try it out, hitting the trees in threes. As is her way, when nothing happened, Ella
yelled at the Skunk Ape. We immediately
heard three raps, as if someone was hitting the cage even though we could see
nothing. They tried again and got no response. We got in the car and decided to loop around
to the main area in the back of the park, and as we travelled, we continued to
hear the three raps against metal. No
matter where we went the next hour we heard them, three clangs right outside
the window, as of metal was striking against metal. We tried to recreate it, thinking there might
be something wrong with the car. We were
not able to find a reason for the sound.
It only stopped when we left the park.
It was unexplained. More importantly, it followed us the entire length
of the park, meaning there was either more than one of them or it was something
different from the Skunk Ape. A few
months later, while preparing for a library event, I went through the tapes to
see if I could get the knocks for the audience.
There is only one time they can be heard, although they really can’t. Right as they sound, the audio gets distorted
and only gets distorted in that one spot.
Sometimes tracking a ghost story
kills it. There is a natural reason for
what people experience or you find an article in a newspaper refuting the
backstory and explaining how people might get confused. Other times the mysteries add to the location
and leave you thinking. Almost every
condition that exists at Myakka River State Park can be found at any number of
other locations nearby, but this is the place the ghost stories stick. It could be something about the wandering
animals and narrow roads, but they repeat themselves over and over in every
park across state. Some places get the
reputation and some don’t, which forces all of us to think twice and understand
maybe that’s because some places are
Towers are meant to be monuments, and monuments are designed
to draw the attention of all who see them.
They mark great people or are meant to commemorate a moment in time
people feel is worthy to be relived and remembered. Standing like centennials, they are lightning
rods for ceremonies, meetings, and even dates.
They are lightning rods for legends.
Hulley Tower may be standing in the front of the Stetson
University campus in Deland, Florida, but for the students there it is the
center of the school. Once over
116-feet, it has been the home to several legends over the years, but not all
of them are haunted. For example, it
used to be said that students would go to the tower before a big test and rub
the brick hoping for good luck. If it
was a particularly tough exam, students were said to ask the two people interned
inside the tower for help. It’s also
said to be the meeting place of a secret, exclusive society at the college, but
no one has ever been able to get a firm handle on the real story.
One of the creepiest legends about the tower, and the one
that brought us to the campus, was the story of Susanna Brown. She was said to be the daughter of a Baptist
minister from Iowa. She attended Stetson
in the early 1890s as a finishing school, but in her first semester she fell in
love with her English professor. The two
quickly began to fall for each other, and over the course of the year they
would meet at Hulley Tower late at night to talk and spend time together. The affair continued through the summer, but
things took a turn in the fall semester.
While they were kissing behind the tower late one night, they were
spotted by a fellow staff member. He went
to administration, and by the next afternoon Susanna was thrown out of school
and her professor fired. She was destroyed. She would have to go back home dishonored and
without the man she had fallen in love with.
She cleaned out her room, making sure to take a ribbon her love had
given her and a poem he had written her.
She snuck off to Hulley Tower and jumped from the top after telling the
world that she would love her banished professor forever. To this day her voice is heard declaring her
passion at night during the fall. Her
ghost is also caught climbing the tower stairs and seen jumping from the top.
It’s the kind of story you’ve heard before. At least you’ve heard something like it whenever you’re from. The legend was made popular in Dusty Smith’s Haunted Deland and the Ghosts of East Valusa County. The only trouble is, it never happened. Unlike other bits of folklore or legends, this one seems to be the creation of the author herself, although it is unclear if she was told the story by another source. It falls apart on a basic level, although all who hear it want it to be true. Brown is said to have attended the college and committed suicide in 1892 or 1893. Hulley Tower was built by the second president of the university, Lincoln Hulley, who served Stetson between 1904 and 1934, 12 years after the suicide.
He and his wife Eloise donated the building to the university, mainly as a source for the 11-bells she loved that rang out over the campus, and both are laid to rest in the mausoleum at the base of the tower. Lincoln Hulley died right before it was completed in 1934, and the bells continued to play there for decades after Eloise had died as well. There is no way Brown could have killed herself from throwing herself off a tower that didn’t exist.
So maybe the suicide happened somewhere else on campus and the tower, being a touchstone for things at Stetson, became the new site of the death. According to Kelly Larson, archivist at the college, there have been no suicides on campus. When Natalie and I went there we spent the day diving into the records of the school, and we could find no death that matched Brown’s or any reference to her attendance or expulsion from the school. Furthermore, the picture published in Smith’s book identified a man as the professor who was having the affair. In fact, that man acted as an interim president for the college a few decades after the picture was taken. He was not quietly thrown out or even a professor at the school.
The real haunting at the tower is actually much more
romantic. Lincoln and Eloise are said to
still walk the grounds near the tower in the early morning hours. Although they died at different times, they
have found each other in death and return to the place they loved in life. At times they are said to be seen with
walking a dog, although it is more commonly said to be Lincoln Hulley walking
the dog alone. It is more likely this is
another potential ghost who has been connected to Hulley because of the tower
and the popularity of the love story.
This legend is repeated on campus and retold by people who attended the
school. There are written references to
it in the paper, and most people who went to school have seen the couple or
know someone who has. There have also
been reports of the bells sounding even though no one is ringing them, an
amazing feat considering they are not even housed in the tower anymore.
This is the legend we wanted to trip. Not only did it fit in perfectly with our Haunted Love Project, it was also something we could do on campus without specific permission or without breaking the law. One of the reasons the bells are no longer in the tower is that it is not really there anymore. In 2005, 94 feet were taken down due to safety reasons, and the bells were dispersed throughout the campus. The bodies of the couple are still at the base, their coffins visible through the windows, but the building is locked and there is no reason for staff to go inside.
We had woken up at midnight to try and capture the Oviedo Lights and returned to the campus at 5 o’clock AM. The grounds were dead but lit up by the yellow street lights of the campus. After walking the grounds in front of Hulley, we went to the building itself to try and talk to whomever might take the early morning walks. The feeling was different than it had been when we had visited earlier in the day, cooler but with an odd electricity in the air.
Then it happened. As we focused on the yard behind the tower, something dramatically changed. As we stood watching the main buildings, the supposedly haunted Holler Fountain and Elizabeth Hall, we were suddenly in a bubble. There was no air, no sound, as we watched several dark figures move across the grass, weaving in between the trees. These were not like the shadowy figures we had seen during the Ghostly Pants legend trip or the Mini-Lights. These were almost like the negatives of a photograph like I would later see at Arbuckle Bridge. There was nothing malevolent about them, but rather it felt like we were watching a moment that had happened long ago but inversed somehow.
And then after a few moments, it was over.
The air was humid again, and the noise of the early morning
birds came back. Both of us looked at
each other at the same moment and felt we had been brought back to the real
world. It was not the couple we had
seen, or maybe it had been in some way.
We had perhaps viewed the impression of students going to class, year
after year and decade after decade, leaving an impression on the environment
around them. We got back in the car,
knowing there would be nothing else that would happen, and drove off.
Legends give birth to other legends. We need them, and we need them to be ours, so
we take the best parts, the ones that really speak to us, and add details that
make them our own. Every generation
borrows the greatest hits from the one before until the original story, the
truth of the details, is lost. Not that
it matters much. A great story is always
better than the truth and always better when you yourself can be part of
it. Hulley Tower inspires that kind of
borrowing. Still looming large on the
campus of Stetson despite its new, small stature, it continues to be the kind
of place students come to feel the electricity at the school and be part of
something bigger than themselves, like a living yearbook that isn’t contained
to one year. It would seem some keep
coming back for the bells even after they die.
We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.
The only motivation more powerful than love is desperation. Put in the wrong situation, a good man will do
things he would never have contemplated.
Love may lift your heart, but desperation lowers it. Too often the two play with each other and
those soaring highs of passion can make one sink even deeper when it isn’t met
by another person. Put in a corner, what would you do? What would you do if it was for love?
It’s unclear what brought the man to the bridge that night, but it was definitely one of the two. He met the old woman by a full moon to purchase a love potion, but we do not know his motivation. There may have been a specific woman he had his eye on or something more economic on his mind. The old woman was well known by that time as someone who was well trained in mixing herbs and concurring the elements to make things happen. No one uttered the word witch. The people in the town were too dependent on her folk remedies and too use to consulting her to use that word, and there was nothing evil in her eye or suspicious in her actions to warrant that tag. She was just an old woman who knew things, much like the medicine men of the Seminole who had been there before.
Listen to the original episode where we discuss the legend..and some crazy love potions.
It’s odd he hadn’t asked about the price before he agreed to
meet her. It was steep. In return for the love potion who would bring
his true love into his arms, all he had to do was give her his firstborn
child. He was infuriated. He grabbed the crone, swearing to anyone who
might have heard them on that night that he would never give up his child. In the struggle, she fell from the bridge and
impaled herself on the cypress tree growing near the banks of the water. He knew what he had done would condemn him,
and who would miss the old woman anyway.
Weighing the body down with stones, he drifted the body out to the
middle of the creek and let the body drop to the bottom and ran for a new town.
The next part of the story gets hazy. Some say her ghost began to appear on the bridge, pointing to where her body lay on the bottom. Others stories say by the time the man left town never to be seen again her body had floated back to the top, revealing his crime. Most of the people who continue to see her don’t care which of the stories are true. They just know she is still seen on the bridge, especially during a full moon. It’s a story that’s been part of Arbuckle Creek long enough to outlast the town itself, and some modern reports say she may have gotten her revenge in death. There’s more than one spirit on the bridge in Lorida, and they may still be playing out a deal gone bad seventy years later.
When we hear a story like this, the first thing we try to do is relate it and see if the story makes sense with the area. A story like the Mini-Lights shouts about the way the neighborhood views itself and its invaders or the story of Oak Ridge Cemetery makes sense given the setting. This legend, while familiar in its elements, seems so isolated that there just might be something to it. While we originally discovered the story on Haunted Places, there were enough whispers about it, and enough odd moments in the history to make it worth going out.
The town of Lorida is itself a ghost town, another victim of the train boom and its own geography. There was obviously something odd going on there before it had been settled. The Seminoles, trying to make their way south during their early period of migration, suffered major causalities trying to cross the lake nearby. They ended up naming it Lake Istokpoga, which means “Lake where someone was killed in the water.” The towns grew up around the body of water, and while those who called it home seemed to enjoy the land while they lived there, it rose and fell in less than a hundred years.
The town was first settled in 1910 when people began to settle around the bank of the lake. There was plenty of land to graze and open space, so roots began to be put down. The name was changed from Cow House to Sunnyland to the Hamlet of Istokpoga. The name stuck, but when the Acline came through and started a small settlement to coincide with their rail stop on the other side of the water, people began to get confused over which was which and mail began to get lost. Mary Strokes, who ran the post office at the time, suggested the name Lorida. The town found its footing in farming and cattle and grew as the trains came through and roads began to be put down. The town itself has never become as popular or populated as some of the ones around it, with Highway 98 being the only way in and out of town.
It’s unclear how well the story of the witch is known in the town. It feels too old to really take place during the timeline of the town. Rich Newman in his book Haunted Bridges: Over 300 of America’s Creepiest Crossings dates the meeting at 1945, but when I followed up with him he was unable to remember when he had heard that date. The current bridge was built in 1965, and we were unable to find any concrete evidence on when the bridge became concrete. The legend takes an odd turn though. According to almost all versions of the story, the witch began to be seen on the bridge not long after her death and plagued the town enough for them to try and stop her nightly appearances. A mob formed, traveled to her shack in the swamp, and burned it to the ground hoping that would stop her. It did not work.
That would be enough, but there are other stories that paint a more complex picture of what might be going on there. The woman has been known to mess with people’s radios, appear on the bridge to passing cars, and float over the sight of her murder in the form of ghost lights. However, there have been two other ghosts seen at the spot. According to a follow-up comment on Haunted Places, and echoed a few other places online, a man and a small boy have also been seen there. These two have been known to duck under the bridge and out of sight and play with the poles of people who try fishing there. Could it be that the murder did indeed take the potion from the dead woman and use it? Is he paying the price in death of he and his son being trapped on the spot of the broken deal?
Listen to our recap episode of the trip…
All of this was on my mind when I began preparing a love potion for us to use at the bridge. After consulting longtime friend and witch extraordinaire Marla Brooks, I began cooking up a potion we would use to try and connect with the old woman whose spirit might be trapped there. Using Marla’s advice and a combination of recipes online, I created a potion consisting of red wine, apples, salt, rosemary, and a few other ingredients that were recommended. While I was not able to chant over the mixture while it was brewing like the directions said, I did play old 1980’s power ballads, still being slightly silly about the whole thing. I left it out overnight during a full moon and hoped it would be enough.
In keeping with the connecting theme, I bought three candles were fragrances consistent with conjuring spirits. One was of lilac, another was of cherry, which also related to love and the legend, and a third which was a mix of several of the other flowers and herbs Marla’s book, and another I consulted, had talked about.
By the time we had made it out into the field, things had changed. Perhaps it was the effect of the potion and making it, perhaps it was consulting with Marla herself, but I was starting to see the haunting slightly different. There is a long history of deals made with witches or deals made with the Devil for personal gain in folklore. Rumpelstiltskin had asked for the same payment for his services. They almost all go wrong. Our angle had been to play up the witch aspect of things, but it was more clearly a murder scene we were traveling to. We would use these witch elements as a way to try and communicate with the spirit, making her comfortable and more willing to speak with us, but instead of spending time with the folklore on the witch side of things, we would try and talk to her and see the story from her side.
The moon was low and bright yellow by the time we got to the bridge. Following Marla Brook’s advice, we lit the candles and recited the incantation she gave us, changing the words slightly to match legend tripping and not investigating:
The Witch’s Circle of Protection
Have everyone stand in a circle and one person shall read this:
Guardian s of the North, Element of Earth, I call upon thee to be present during this investigation.
Guardians of the East. Element of Air, I call upon thee to be present during this investigation.
Guardians of the South, Element of Fire, I call upon thee to be present during this investigation
Guardians of the West, Element of Water, I call upon thee to be present during this investigation
This next part should be read and repeated by the participants, one line at a time.
God and goddess, Guardian Angels and Spirit Guides
Be present with us during this investigation.
Bless the circle and keep us protected
No unwanted entities are welcome here
Only pure, divine beings are invited into our space.
The circle will close on its own with the investigation is over
Spirits will return to the light
There shall be no attachments to any of those here tonight.
The Circle is now cast. So Mote It Be. (or Amen)
A small pinch of cinnamon, a petal of rose, the sweet taste of apple, that’s how the love grows. And for those who taste this potion, they shall feel that warm emotion.
We set up next to the bridge on the boat launch. As we said the incantation, we poured the
love potion around us, casting a protection circle, saving some for dumping off
For a location so far out in an unpopulated part of Florida
later at night, the bridge was busy. The
loud moaning of the cows around us sounded like ghostly agony, like dinosaurs,
and added to the creepiness of the location.
The longer we were there the more we understood an alligator was tracking
us from the water. Cars flew by,
crowding the road as we tried to cross it.
The reports of the man and boy are centered around underneath the bridge, so we explore a bit. It was covered with graffiti and mold with the alligator close by. We then made our way onto the bridge to try and talk to the woman and dump the remaining love potion on the bridge and into the water where she was thrown and landed.
It’s always hard to take moments of a legend trip and say we
touched the ghostly part of the story.
We do not look for evidence but often get it, but more often than that,
we have only our feelings and impressions to go on. For example, only two times during the trip
did we hear nearby dogs violently bark.
The first was when we cast the protection spell and the second was
before we left and I spent a few moments closer to the water talking to the
woman and the two males. It meant
something at the time, but nothing solid.
Almost all of the old love potions we had explored going
into the trip had made a point of talking about the power of menstrual blood as
a powerful element. As soon as we had
finished the incantation, Natalie, who was at the tail end of her period, felt
a very tangible change in her flow. It
normally would not have given us pause, but the timing and the connection was
too on point for us to ignore.
Then there were the fireflies. Ever since our trip to Mounds State Park
where we had experienced a rash of these insects which led us to a Pukwudgie
encounter, we had become aware of connections to the paranormal and to folklore. When we had stepped into the area where we
were going to cast the circle, three appeared, hovered near us, and then
The other odd thing happened while we were physically on the
bridge dodging the speeding cars as we spilled the remaining potion. While looking across to the other side where
her body was thrown, my eyes played a trick on me. Imagine shining a light into your eyes
quickly and seeing the darkened figure of the flashlight when you close your
eyes or look away. My eyes saw a man
take three large steps before stooping down to a smaller figure twenty feet
away. He looked like that kind of
shadow. I watched this happen three
times before experimenting with the lights we were using to see if I could
recreate it. I couldn’t.
Lastly, we had three odd lights appear, not from the insect
world. We had established that there
were three spirits at the bridge, confirmed to some degree by the fireflies earlier
in the night. At one point when I went
closer to the water, three odd lights appear in pictures Natalie had
taken. Not that odd given that we had
three candles lit nearby, so a camera might pick them up their reflection. However, in a series of pictures taken
seconds apart and without moving the camera, they rise up in the frame with
Most folklore comes from a need. It may be trying to explain something or
trying to teach the history or an important moment to the community. There is something you can track, which is
why they are so appealing to Tripping on Legends. We understand ourselves by understanding the
story. At Arbuckle Creek in Lorida there
is not lesson to learn, no message to the town or reflection of community. There’s a woman on a bridge and a father and
son. There are just a few ghosts and a
story told to explain them. If context
building understanding, you won’t find it there, and maybe the fact you can’t
means the story itself is more truth than tale.
We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.
It would be easy to say there was a curse. Too many things had gone wrong, too many
things continue to go wrong, but at some
point you need to take a step back and realize when you try to carve a new
world out of a swamp or maintain a European lifestyle in a world of people who
are strangers, heartbreaking moments are bound to happen. When we look at a location and see tragedy
after tragedy the first instinct might be to rank it as tainted somehow and
call in the Warrens. When something
within that location is recognizable, say a tree that seems out of place and
dwarfs everything else around it, a villain arises and takes the brunt of the
blame when stories start to be told.
The Fairchild Oak in Ormond Beach is right out of Central Casting. It’s overwhelming size and twisted branches, mixed with a story here and there about spooky happenings, and it’s no wonder it has become one of the more popular legends in the area and a have-to-go spot for those examining the weird in Florida. Imagine two points connected by a road. On one end lies local folk figure Tomokie and on the other a tree famous for inspiring such feelings of sadness you might not make it out alive.
The history of the area is a mixed bag of success and
failure, which makes sense all things considered. In 1804, James Ormond was granted a stretch
of land near New Smyrna Beach on the east coast of Florida in gratitude for his
hard work on the seas. Tensions between settlers and the Timucua were
already strained by that time, but there
doesn’t seem to be too much drama between them and the plantation, which he
named Damietta. He appears to have enjoyed
moderate success. In what would be the
first blow for the family in the New World, he was killed by a slave in 1817 on
In 1924, his son James Ormond II who had left to go back to his native Scotland moved to what would eventually be named Ormond Beach and established his own plantation. He had an even better relationship with the Native Americans still in the area, said to be friends with some of the most influential players in the Seminole War and Florida history. While no one is entirely sure the exact circumstances of his death, James II was found dead underneath an oak tree on the property in 1829. The death, whatever happened, was gruesome enough for his son to comment on it for years afterwards. The story now is that it was a suicide, although there is nothing to justify that story except what has been told about the tree in the years since. His son buried him on the property at what is known today as Ormond Tomb Park.
Over the years the grave has been site of vandalism and ghostly activity, some of which might be sparked by fact his son chose to place his father on top of an existing Timucuan burial mound. This might be a case of the sins of the father falling upon the son. While there is deep history of mound disturbances leading to paranormal activity, this doesn’t seem to fit Ormond’s personality. All that is written about him conveys a sense of harmony with the native population, so it seems odd that he would have disturbed mounds to create his plantation or that his son did not have permission to bury him where he did. The location of the tomb, however, fits with the folklore of restless spirits.
Property shifted hands over the next few decades until it was purchased by Norman Harwood in 1880. By all accounts, Harwood was a nasty character. He was a large, imposing man who was said to lack social graces and social connections. He had come to the area on the heels of some failed business ventures in Minnesota and continued his streak of bad luck in Florida. The man has since become a thing of legend in the area, with equal stories being told of how he tried to swindle the locals and how he was swindled by them. Five years after arriving in Florida he was also found dead on the property. Again, there is some confusion about how that was done. Some said he hung himself from the same tree Ormond had while others say he shot himself under it. Alice Strickland’s “Ormond on the Halifax,” which features first-hand accounts, said he died in his bed. Not to be derailed by a bump in the folklore, some reports combine the two and say he asked his bed to be moved under the tree and then killed himself. His death made national papers and is said to have warranted a 200,000 insurance payout.
The lore of the oak was solidified and was given a nickname by locals. Dubbed the Harwood Oak or the Haunt Oak, it had a reputation for dark figures running around the grounds and ghostly bodies swinging from the branches. Perhaps the more disturbing stories involved not phantoms by psychology and made it a popular spot for legend trippers. It was said if you sit under the tree voices in your head will begin to whisper to you, encouraging you to kill yourself. Like the Assonet Ledge in Freetown, people who come to the park to this day are said to have their sunny dispositions damped by coming into contact with it or resting in its shade. It is said that since Harwood’s death dozens of people have killed themselves at the tree or took their lives after spending the day near it. Of course, none of these are confirmed, but people still refer to it as the Suicide Tree. It was this reputation, already firm in the mind of the people in the area, which led to parks advocate Eileen Butts strategically changing the name to the Fairchild Oak after a famous botanist who has visited it and insisted it be saved.
On December 11, 1955 it was renamed with a ceremony and a
few months later that part of the old plantation was dedicated Bulow Creek
State Park. A rose by any other name
would still smell as sweet, or in this case a tree by any other name would
still inspire darkness.
I had spent considerable time at the Assonet Ledge, explored the hanging trees at Dudley Road, and braved the Devil’s Tree in Port Saint Lucie, so I felt confident these stories were more legend than reality. Natalie, always with a positive outlook, and I would be safe from hard. We decided then to trip the tree with another urban legend known for its deaths; the famous Gloomy Sunday song. Written in 1933 by Hungarian songwriter Rezső Seress under the name “Vége a világnak” or The “World is Ending” the song is rumored to be the most deadly tune ever written.
While the lyrics were changed a while later by László Jávor, and again for the American recording, people on both sides of the Atlantic have been said to be thrown into unexplained grief and sorrow when listening to it, with reports of between 19 and 36 suicides being directly connected to it. Seress is said to have committed suicide years after the release, although this might be due to the growing legend his legacy had on people and the horrible conditions of his country. The most famous American recording of the song by Billie Holiday was said to have cursed her, or been a reflection of deal she had made with the Devil, and led to her fame and contributed to the tragic circumstances of her death. Since its publication and release, different versions of the song have been banned by radio stations and governments looking to protect the public from the Hungarian Suicide Song.
When you enter Bulow Creek State Park, you are immediately
hit by the enormity of the Fairchild Oak.
There have been Timucuan artifacts found there dating back 2,000 years
which some say place the tree at that age, but the more realistic estimate is
somewhere between 250-300 years old. In
that time the tree has snaked its way into the sky and branched out dozens of
yards in each direction, with its limbs twisting back to the earth, creating
overlooks and hiding places. A thick copper
wire connected to a rod adorns the top and assures the frequent Florida
lightening will not hit it. The rest of
the park consists of smaller trees and nature trails, but people come for the
It was a busy Sunday. The park was filled with bikers from Canada who we continued to see down up and down the Old Dixie Highway when we travelled to Tomoka State Park later in the day. The loud revving of their motors made it hard to concentrate on any voices inside our heads, and the general sunny day and the positive vibes of the people surrounding us made it nearly impossible for us to be depressed, even as we stood under it and played Gloomy Sunday. We asked a few people in the park if they knew the reputation of the park they were exploring, but none did.
Two unexplained moments did happen while we were there. As soon as we entered the shade I began experiencing
a headache that lasted until I was back in the car. This has happened at several different
locations to me before, and I never know just how much weight to put into it,
but it was worse at Bulow Creek than it ever has been before. Similarly, Natalie was having issues. During the Gloomy Sunday part of the trip
when we were playing the song and listening for suicidal suggestions, her back
began to hurt from the way she was sitting near the tree. She placed her head on it and was hit with a
searing pain when she made contact. It
went away when she moved her head back away from it.
The second odd experience occurred while we were making the Facebook Live video of the song. After playing for a little bit, the feed went out completely. Once the song was done, it came back instantly. We kept track of the reception the entire time we were there, and everything not involving Gloomy Sunday went through. It was just those moments.
Later when we talked to a Ranger at Tomoka State Park, he said he knew nothing about those legends. He did however say that people had spoken lately about hearing tree rapping and whispers about Skunk Ape roaming the trails around the tree like in Myakka River State Park.
Sometimes people need a focus for their grief. In the 20th Century people in Eastern Europe turned to a song, an extreme example of becoming sad by listening to sad music you searched out because you were sad. It becomes a cycle and the focus becomes the scapegoat. For over two hundred years people have been mystified by what might be living at Ormond Beach. It’s a seductive location with dreams of success but too many obstacles and mysteries. The oddness might go further back, as evidence by the Native American folklore born there and the disasters they documented. The scapegoat there takes several forms, like a giant statue or ghost lights down the road. The most intimidating, the one that seems to stay rooted no matter what catastrophes happen around it, is a large tree, standing like a guardian watching it all.
We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.
It started as a filler legend, one thrown into an episode to
create that symmetry that makes things nice and neat. We had two strong legends taking place far
away but close enough to be done on a possible road trip to different parts of
the state. Two legends well developed
and covered by books and on the Internet with some appeal and plenty of
background story to make for interesting trips.
The third was closer but more obscure and with almost nothing to back it
It became one of the most compelling ghostly legends we
covered in 2018.
There are four tenants that drive Tripping on Legends.
1. (And maybe most important) Follow the signs.
2. As said by my old English teacher, copied by me and my
classroom, and with a little editing; All ghost stories are a representation of
the life and times during which they are created and told.
3. Ghost stories are often a reflection of the living and not the dead.4. Lastly, sometimes you can’t understand a story until you’re standing in the place it was created. If you travel to Dudley Road in Massachusetts or look at the Gothic etchings in the façade of the Charlesgate Hotel in Boston, you can understand why stories are told about them. If you stand in the shadows of asylums and prisons like Waverly Hills, you feel them begging to have a story told about them. It’s what I call the “Supposta be haunted” factor.
The Swamp Witch of Hog Islands dips into all four of these factors.
Listen to the original episode where we discuss the witches.
Hog Island suffers from a bit of an identity crisis and has
a foot in two worlds. While you can
find it on a map and with your GPS, from an outsider’s perspective there is
confusion over just who owns it. Located
at the merging of Hernando County and Sumter County some people refer to the
area as Pemberton Ferry and some still remember the old name of Croom. In fact, when we got there and spoke to
people, there was even confusion with what the name of the town originally
was. Most often it’s associated with the
surrounding town of Brooksville, which is how we have always labelled it, and
the fact they would want to be linked to the controversial history and the dark
present of that town might say something about the town.
It might just be easy to say it this way. In the old ghost town of Croon, today called
Hog Island, lies Withlacoochee State Forest.
In Withlacoochee State Forest lies a campground and a swamp. In that swamp lies a legend of a witch who
likes to visit the campground and play with anyone silly enough to come into
The legend did not have much meat to it. Originally seen in a BackpackerVerse post and then explained a bit more on another site, some time in the 1700s, a woman was found to be a witch living in the area. She was tried and convicted and sentenced to death. Some of the stories say she was burned at the stake while others, more in line with the how witches were handled at that time in America, was hung for her crimes. She continues to haunt the forest she was murdered in, appearing to hikers and visitors today and wreaking havoc on people in the campground nearby by scratching on tents and cackling in the dark.
The story didn’t seem to make much sense when we first heard it. Was that area of Florida populated enough in the 1700s? Croon seemed to be a boon town born of the railroad a hundred years later. In fact, the community seemed to be established in the 1840s as Fort DeSoto, not the one near Tampa, and failed shortly after due to a water shortage because it was built on lime rock.
There was another connection as well, brought up by the blog
is a Verb. The legend did not appear
to be that old, and the connection to witches and witchcraft might be born of
Hollywood and not Hernando history. In
1996, a movie version of The Crucible was made.
The classic play centers around the Salem Witch Trials but was shot on
Hog Island in Massachusetts.
Our expectations for the legend were not high.
As soon as we got off the exit in Bushnell, the trip took an
odd turn. Most of the small towns in Florida
were born of travel. People needed to
get from one big place to another big place by traversing a swamp, so railways
and sketchy roadways were created, and these towns lived and died on the
success of those roads. The state prison
and the National Cemetery were proof of one thing in the area; the Federal
Government had swept in during the New Deal days and taken over. They own most of the square footage we saw on
our way to Hog Island.
After taking a quick tour of the National Cemetery, we made
our way past the a few battlefield reenactment areas to the campground. We got out to take our traditional “We’re
Here” picture when Natalie was struck by something odd in the woods. Most of the swamp forest looked like it had
been scorched by wild fire or controlled burns, but one area off in the
distance was blacker with creepy branches facing to the side. She was immediately drawn to it, and we
started to walk towards it. Follow the
We hadn’t gotten too far when a ranger pulled up beside the car,
forcing us to go back to the road where we had parked. As we talked, he told us he knew nothing
about the legend or anything else paranormal in the state forest. He did tell us two things as he got more
comfortable with us: his grandmother had long been known in the area as a white
witch who people had turned to and who had told him weird stories growing up
and that there might be something ghostly lurking in some of the places in the
area because they were known for the Hanging Trees. More on that later.
He also told us there was a better way to get around the
swamp if we just followed the path that ran through it starting at the parking
lot a little ways up. We followed his
advice and made our way up to the dried up swamp of Hog Island. It was pretty standard, and nowhere really
near the tree we had been looking for, but we followed the path looking for
signs of the witch or people willing to tell stories about here.
Then something intervened.
We heard an odd knocking on the wood, like that we had heard in the Myakka River State Park. We noticed something odd off the path and ahead of us. Despite it being a clear day with virtually no wind, a single branch, although it appeared more like a thick vine, was swinging back and forth. All the noise of the campground and the swamp disappeared as we stood there and watched it move, like someone was swaying it to get our attention. We immediately left the path.
As we approached it, we saw what Natalie had been so drawn to when we first arrived, although it looked slightly different. Those burnt and bent branches had a mirrored set on the other side, also creeping towards a center. Together, they looked like a set of hands or a gate.
Follow the signs. It was easy to see how someone seeing this somewhat natural formation could make up a story about why the swamp would have such an odd landmark. The oddness was not over yet. As we made our way to it, I saw something in another tree nearby. My first reaction was that it looked like the wires we had seen at the Fairchild Oak designed to attract and disperse lightening, something thick and iron and twisted. The more we looked, the clearer it became that it was a piece of old rope that ended in a noose.
Something new was starting to form in our minds about what
this legend might mean.
The gate, however, was still calling us. We walked through the clearing to be floored
by what can best be described as a fairy ring carved into the swamp. It formed a near-perfect circle set off from
the rest of the tree but blended so easily into the environment it appeared
totally natural. The still water which
formed the circle was split down the middle by Cyprus trees which gave the
impression of being guardians and had fairy entrances. The surface was covered with green swamp
algae which almost glowed in the sunlight.
Several benches had been set up around it, so there was obviously some
intent to have people see it even though we had read nothing about it being an
Since our experiences at Mounds State Park in Indiana we had become more aware of the trees in the places we tripped, always looking for fairy trees or indicators that something paranormal or supernatural was entering and exiting the location. This was out of a storybook. Sometimes you can’t understand a story until you’re standing in the place it was created. We both felt that we were in a presence while at the site. Despite there being several families nearby and kids calling out, the rest of the world dropped out while we were there and we heard nothing. While no voices or odd sounds came out from either recorder while we were there, we both knew something was communicating to us, although not directly. In places like Stetson we had felt we were in a moment and then the moment was over and we both could measure the time it had ended. This felt more like us being in the presence, and it wasn’t until we left that it was over.
All of that is not something you can measure, but that’s why
we look to experience and not capture.
The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful. As soon as we left the circle the noises of
the swamp and families came back and we explored the area and campground for a
while. We left and searched for the ruins
of the old city of Croom that were said to still be standing in some parts of
the town but were unsuccessful. We
talked to another ranger who was of little help on the paranormal or historical
fronts. The old timer said he had never
heard of the failed town even though he lived in the area his whole life and
was technically working in a park called Croom.
We ate dinner in a local restaurant, and by the time we were finished it
was too dark to travel to our second location that may be the key to understanding
why the legend might exist.
What It All Means
About a half hour from Hog Island stands one of more infamous
cemeteries in Florida with one of worst reputations. Spring Hill Cemetery has long been known to
locals and paranormal enthusiasts as one of most active locations in the
state. A quick search will find dozen of
sites mentioning the activity there and hundreds of first-hand accounts of
encounters with the darker spirits haunting it.
What makes this location so active and so negative at times is the
nature of the death the ghosts were said to experience. Spring Hill was known for its lynchings.
Brooksville is defined by outsiders like us, perhaps
unfairly, by the events in its history by some of the people who lived
there. The town was renamed in 1856,
inspired by Preston Brooks, a senator from South Carolina with a bit of a
radical past. Much has been of the man’s
life and beliefs, but two things can be separated from the folklore surrounding
him. The man was a strong advocate of
slavery, as were many Southern lawmakers at the time, and he nearly killed a
man on the floor of the Senate who had insulted his family during an
anti-slavery speech. Either way, the
impression from those not from the town is that Brooksville, even in name, is a place
with a long history of racism and violence against African Americans, even if
that reputation is unwarranted. Every
year they hold a Civil War reenactment, it would seem in defiance of Martin
Luther King Day. According to the
ranger, everyone knows in the area that they have a deep history of KKK involvement
and lynchings. He spoke of three places
in the area known for their hanging trees, one at Spring Hills.
There is something mystical about Withlacoochee State Forest, that much is clear. Something lives in the swamp and inspires the story of witchcraft and unusual activity. There is more to the campgrounds than just a spooky story. You feel it when you enter the ring and feel it leave you as you walk away. Perhaps that energy draws people who practice witchcraft or use natural energy, much like hotspots like the Freetown State Forest. But that same energy can trap things, and the ghost that people claim to see might be something else.
From the research, the legend comes off as a whitewashing of
the history of the location. There may
very well be a ghost there, but it is not a witch. Unusual things happen, and the people need to
explain it. Rather than understanding
and presenting the history there, like its neighbor Brooksville, the witch
story might be covering up hangings that happened in the swamp. Rather than admit its past, the folklore hides
a dark truth and presents a more palatable story, even though it does not make
as much sense within its own history. It’s
not the spirit of a murdered African American.
It’s the ghost of the witch.
Witches have long been scapegoats and a great bad guy to a
story. Misunderstanding makes for a
great villain. At Hog Island, something
is happening that defies understanding, and the easiest straw to pull is one that
has been used time and time again. All ghost stories are a representation of the
life and times during which they are created and told. The same can be said of the creepy things
that live in them. History is alive in
the swamp; it’s just not clear whose history it is.
We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.