Ghost Finish 1

(Illustration by Michael Witte)

The once-bustling river port of Jefferson has been saluted for many things: the state’s first gas streetlights, one of the state’s first breweries and, my personal favorite, an abundance of ghosts. The satisfyingly entertaining and quirky town is no been-there-done-that destination.

We relive the eveining, and mock ourselves for shrieking like little girls.

You go and go again, because you never know what you might discover—or what, from gators to specters, might discover you. I like to go without an agenda, but I always end up scheduling in a ghost walk.

Before you walk, know that among the unsung glories of the town is the state’s quirkiest street plan. In 1842 founders Allen Urquhart and Daniel Alley (who should be ashamed of themselves in perpetuity) came to loggerheads over mapping out Jefferson’s streets. Call it a compromise, but each simply proceeded according to his own preference. Urquhart laid out his side of town along the bayou with streets at right angles to Big Cypress Creek. Alley’s parcel has streets running toward the points of the compass. The collision of visions creates the city’s unusual V-shape layout. It’s something that adds to the excitement of wandering about town, especially after dark and in search of goose bumps—which is exactly what my son and I returned again and again to find. On the most memorable trip we determined not to stay in an accommodation boasting ghosts-in-residence.

Local lore has long held that a sighting in one hotel inspired the movie Poltergeist, but we settle into a historic lodging without any hair-raising history. Signing on for one of the much-touted ghost tours, we decide, will offer excitement enough.

As the sun sets we gather with a dozen others for a walk hosted by local historian Jodi Breckenridge. Tourists from the Netherlands and Canada join in. Among us we speak five languages—but we soon discover that shrieking in fear needs no translation. We walk up and down several blocks, ultimately centering in on the proudly haunted Jefferson Hotel, followed by a brief diversion above town to a shuttered and rather sinister mansion with a history of woe.

The thrills and chills begin at once. Clustered around a former hotel adjacent to the bayou we hear a tale of fire, hidden treasure, and mayhem. Recently restored, empty, and for sale, the building’s tall windows and wraparound verandah make it such a wonderful property that early in the day had me musing about relocation. After dark the building seems if not sinister, just a little less welcoming.

Elliott and I climb to the second-story balcony while other members of the group shoot cellphone cameras willy-nilly into the darkness in hopes of capturing “orbs.” When I turn to peer into a dark, second-floor window, Elliott, who has been standing 10 feet away with his back to me, suddenly shouts indignantly, “Mom, don’t push me!” When he turns to find that neither I—nor anyone else in the group—is anywhere near him, I see his eyes widen. He bolts down the stairs toward the light of a streetlight. Slightly shaken, I decide to take one more look in a window—just as it rattles violently. As first one shutter then another inexplicably slams shut, I make my run for the stairs.

The evening unrolls with lots of historical tales and hysterical laughter. It is exhausting good fun. Late that night, settled into the carriage house we’ve rented for the weekend, my son and I relive the evening, mock ourselves for shrieking like little girls, and agree it’s the place to be on Halloween. We drift off but, about 20 minutes later, awaken to the door rattling. I lie still, wondering if Elliott has heard anything. I am about to drift off again when the door shudders again. I sit up. Across the room I see my son sitting up in his bed. “Mom,” he whispers, “what is that?” I hold my breath and we sit like that until a sudden rattle jolts us both.

Wanting to model bravery, I jump up and turn on the lights. I stare at the door, wondering if I should open it. Then I notice something mounted just above the door frame: a mechanism with a timer. As I watch, it begins to rotate and with surprising power dispenses a burst of room freshener that rattles the door. I laugh. Hard. My son demands to know what is going on. I point. He follows my finger. Shaking his head, he turns to me and says, “We never speak of this again.”

To this day, nothing has proved more entertaining in the retelling than the tale of the ghost that rode in on a blast of fresh air.

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