Photo by Steve Babin
DEAD CHILDREN’S PLAYGROUND
Tucked away near the walls of a historic limestone quarry, and adjacent to Maple Hill Cemetery, lies a small park. Within the park is a playground said to be haunted by the spirits of children buried in Maple Hill. Between the young victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the mysterious murders of local children in the middle of the 20th century, “evidence” of the paranormal abounds: swings that swing in sync by themselves with no wind blowing; dust rising as if a child has jumped off the swings; photographs with orbs or ghostly figures; even tales of laughter and children’s voices being heard. The activity is most common during the hours of 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
The stories are so prevalent, in fact, that according to aparanormalthing.com, the playground was investigated by the Alabama Paranormal Society in 2008, and a post from June 2011 shows that the site was investigated by the Alabama Paranormal Association:
“The investigation at the Dead Children’s Playground proved to be a hotbed of activity. The combination of probable limestone or quartz rock, the events that seemed to have unfolded there, and the fact that there is a 2 mile wide and long cemetery bordering the playground were probably all contributors to the activity here. Swings moving on their own with no breezes in the air, voices of children and people, apparitions, orbs, you name it, it was there! Most definitely a well-deserved location to be on the Alabama index of haunted places.”
Jacque Reeves is a native of New Mexico, though her ancestors are among the earliest settlers of North Alabama and Tennessee. She is past president of the Huntsville- Madison County Historical Society, Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, and past curator of the Historic Donnell House in Athens. She is the author of 15 books on true crime and history.
Reeves is the founder of Avalon Tours and The Huntsville Ghost Walk. She extensively researched Huntsville history and discovered a medium who provided information that corresponds to historic facts. “I happened to be gathering information to put together the ghost walk, so I asked him to walk with me throughout Huntsville to see what he could find. He is not from here, does not know our history, and I was shocked at how accurate the information was that he picked up by communicating with the ghosts. If he found something I didn’t already know from research, I was able to verify through further research,” said Reeves. “The work with a medium is what really sets us apart from ghost tours in other places. What we have found, and what the medium has found, has been echoed by other mediums who take our tours.”
The following are firsthand excerpts from her books.
HISTORIC HUNTSVILLE DEPOT
Sometimes, when I’m in the depot lobby alone, I like to imagine all the people that once passed through in the 100 years when it was a working train depot. There were Civil War soldiers, both North and South, who either occupied the depot, were imprisoned on the third floor, or were leaving for their next duty station. There were some who left to fight in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Some of them returned in coffins. Then there were the people who went to visit relatives, go off to college, or see the world. Many famous people passed through – presidents, generals, suffragists, and movie stars.
The Huntsville Depot has many Civil War ghosts who remain here even though they know they are dead and that the war is over. Many are veterans who congregate here to talk about events of the war. It is like they are at a lodge meeting. Upstairs, where the Confederate prisoners were kept, there is a feeling of being crowded, confined, and hot. One ghost showed our medium where his writing was left on the wall. Others complain about the Union soldiers forcing the young ladies out of the academy on Randolph Street so they could use it for barracks. One is frantically trying to get someone to put out a fire in the depot vault. “If you won’t help, then get out of my way!” he yells.
Back when the depot was open, the ghosts liked to see children come visit, and especially enjoyed watching them laugh as they ran around the grounds. One tells our medium that he sometimes playfully pulls the hair of the little girls. “Ask the guides, they’ll tell you!” the ghost says.
Many sightings have been reported by employees and visitors. Employees of Channel 19 were once driving by and saw a man walking toward the front door. They pulled over to ask him a question, but when they looked up, he was gone. They went to the door to find him inside, but the door was locked and the building was closed.
Employees have seen the ghost of a railroad employee walk up and down the passenger platform, even though there is no access except from inside the building. One employee was standing at the door and verified that no one had passed her. Visitors at night have seen a ball of fire come out of a window on the third floor and hit the ground below. One visitor saw a wall of fire inside the same room. Another employee who could see ghosts refused to go to the third floor.
MAPLE HILL CEMETERY ON WELLS AVENUE
While walking through an area near the fence with no headstones, there was a voice saying over and over, “get him off my feet!” It is the voice of a woman, and it could mean that someone was buried partially over her. Our medium said it was so clear that he was sure we must have heard it too.
We walked down to another grave of interest, that of Philip Flanigan, the second husband of Elizabeth Dale Gibbons Flanigan Jeffries High Brown Routt, known as the Black Widow of Hazel Green. The ghost of Philip Flanigan tells our medium that the headstone is not in the right spot; that it was broken at some time in the past and replaced adjacent to where it should be.
Phi lip Flanagan, Elizabeth’s new husband, was 35 years old. Their marriage took place on October 3, 1831, but he survived only six months after the wedding. He was buried at Maple Hill Cemetery. Elizabeth had the following inscription in his tombstone: “he was the sincear Friend, the agreeable companion, affectionate husband, the honest man.” Unfortunately, Elizabeth misspelled his name.
A look at his probate packet at the library reveals that three months after his marriage to Elizabeth, he started to get ill and in the last 90 days of his life, he consulted a doctor 45 times, an average of every other day. He was deep in debt, in spite of the fact that he dressed very well for the time and his personal belongings were the best money could buy. Did Elizabeth kill him to keep him from getting the money and land she inherited from her first husband?
He talks about his death [his ghost speaking to the medium] – it was a complete surprise, his body swelled, puffed up and his limbs became stiff. His body was dug up and someone examined his fingernails for evidence of arsenic poisoning. In the final moments, he had no strength to walk up the stairs and he sat back in the kitchen. He called to his wife, but she wouldn’t answer. He wants water, but he can’t get any. There is food cooking on the stove, and he is getting weaker all the time. He thinks he is too young to die. He did not die suddenly, he says, and he thinks it wasn’t something he ate, but something he drank. As he was dying however, he remembered thinking, “there are no rats in the house.” People are coming to gather him up (his wife didn’t find him, and he is disappointed that she wasn’t there for him) and he has been pronounced dead, but he isn’t dead yet. However, he is looking down at his own body on the floor.
Rumor says he was killed by his wife, whose many husbands died similarly and with the exception of the first husband who lived 17 years after marrying Elizabeth, the other five marriages were much shorter.
His ghost says that it isn’t what you think it is. “The bloodline is most important.” Perhaps he thinks we should be more concerned about our bloodline, and less about his death.
My personal experience…one day when I was doing some research at Maple Hill, a man walked up to me and said he walks through the cemetery every day and he also sees ghosts. One story was of special interest to me. He walks every day past the grave of a Confederate Colonel, who died in the Civil War. The colonel bows his head, and this man bids him good morning every day.
“What does he want?” I asked.
“He wants to be acknowledged,” was his reply.
“What does he say?”
“He doesn’t say anything.”
“What is his name?”
“I can’t remember his name, but I’ll take you to his grave.”
Imagine my surprise. It was the grave of my great-great-grandfather, General William Hundley.
THE HUNTSVILLE TIMES BUILDING
History remembers J. Emory Pierce as the founder of the Huntsville Times. Perhaps he was more successful – and certainly more creative – as a con artist and a fraud. Flamboyant to the end, there were 101 pallbearers at his 1952 funeral at Maple Hill Cemetery. His ghost, however, still lingers at the art deco building he erected in 1928.
Jacob Emory Pierce was 14 when he took a job as a newspaper boy at the Huntsville Daily Tribune for a whopping $2.50 per month. He eventually founded a rival newspaper, the Huntsville Daily Times first printed on March 23, 1910.
In 1928, plans were underway to build two “skyscrapers” in Huntsville. The Hotel Russel Erskine was planned to be a 12-story luxury hotel on Clinton Street, near the heart of downtown. J. Emory Pierce could not be outdone. The new Huntsville Times Building was built a few blocks away on the corner of Greene Street and Holmes Avenue.
The building was designed to be 10 stories tall with art deco details. When Pierce found out about the Russel Erskine Hotel, he decided the Times Building would have to be 12 stories high as well. The biggest problem was that the elevator had already been ordered and it would only go to the 11th floor.
Pierce told the Otis Elevator Company that he would not make payment until the elevator was installed to his satisfaction. After it was installed, he told the elevator company that he wanted them to remove it, but warned that if they damaged the building, he would sue the company. The rumor was that he got the elevator at no cost. Access to the 12th floor could only be made by taking the stairway from the 11th floor.
Like the Hotel Russel Erskine, the Times Building was finished just in time to usher in the Great Depression. It was not a good time for businesses in America! In 1931, the Huntsville Daily Times went into receivership. Pierce defaulted on a construction loan and lost everything.
Not surprising, there is some ghostly activity present in the building. Nannie Pierce, wife of J. Emory Pierce, is pleading his case. She says he was a good man, and there are people out to get him. The ghost of J. Emory Pierce is trying to return. His energy is here, but he is unable to get back.
J. Emory Pierce wasn’t finished with the newspaper business yet. In 1935, his son started the Huntsville Daily Register and J. Emory Pierce became the publisher. He traveled in a chauffeur-driven car to visit rural farmers in Alabama and neighboring states. He sold advertising to them for a special TVA edition of the newspaper, but his sales pitch was worded in such a way that farmers thought they were buying TVA stock that would ensure they would get electricity sooner to their farms. The money was handed over and when they later looked at their receipts, farmers discovered they had been duped. The misrepresentation was his undoing. Complaints from various farmers led to Pierce’s arrest in Winchester, Tennessee.
Pierce and his chauffer were tried in Memphis. His chauffer testified that they sold advertisement to as many as 5,000 people in 92 different counties. Pierce was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Pierce’s ghost looks out the window to the street below. Someone has been killed and he knows it should have been him, he was the intended victim.
J. Emory Pierce died of a heart attack in Houston in September 1952. The Huntsville Times reported that “at one time he was engaged in 52 different businesses of various kinds.” His obituary, published on September 14, went on to say he had spent the previous 15 years in Memphis and Houston in connection with a “national advertising concern.”
The obituary couldn’t have been better if he had written it himself. He “pushed for cheaper power, lower taxes, and better roads.” He was buried at Huntsville’s Maple Hill Cemetery near his parents and the future final resting places of his siblings and children.
THE CALHOUN HOUSE
A small parking lot in downtown Huntsville holds residue of a tragic event that took place in the large house razed in the early 1900s. A Civil War ghost looks for an answer to a question that, until recently, could not be explained. A little background information is necessary to understand why the ghost, as well as the residue of the past, still remains.
Mr. Meredith Calhoun was born in 1805. Over the course of several decades, he came to own several plantations and various pieces of property. He and his family traveled extensively and sent fine art pieces and statuary to furnish their three-story mansion in Huntsville, located on the corner of Greene Street and Eustis Avenue.
Union soldiers entered Huntsville in April 1862 for the first of several occupations. The Calhoun’s imposing mansion was unoccupied and vulnerable to unwanted guests. Located just off the courthouse square and near four large churches, the showpiece home was admired by many who passed by. A Union soldier, Henry Ackerman Smith of the 21st Ohio Infantry, wrote a letter home to his wife in May 1862 describing the home. He said the flower beds were “tastefully laid off” and “it is certainly one of the attractions of Huntsville and is well worth the visit.”
Union General Ormsby Mitchel took as his temporary living quarters, the home of Hugh Lawson Clay on Madison Street. Mitchel confiscated furniture, beds, linens and even a piano from a local hotel. In addition, he confiscated fine statuary and artwork from the Calhoun home.
The large roomy Calhoun mansion was the perfect place to house sick soldiers, especially those with contagious diseases. In June 1862, a smallpox epidemic spread through the ranks of Union soldiers. A local citizen wrote that the city had been “visited by pestilence and sword.” Local ladies, aware that even those boys in blue were someone’s son, brother, husband, and father, volunteered their services to bring them back to health. Their surgeon published a letter in the local newspaper thanking the ladies for their care and kindness.
The armies, of both the North and the South, came and went. Brigadier General George Crook used the Calhoun house as his headquarters when his troops came in November 1863. It was a hospital again in the summer and fall of 1864 when a typhoid fever epidemic decimated the ranks of the Union army, leaving as many as 32 soldiers dead. At that time, one soldier suffering from delirium due to his high fever, jumped from the window of the building’s third floor. He did not survive. Those who witnessed the event described the soldier as out of his mind. Those around him were afraid of catching the disease themselves and were reluctant to touch his body.
The residue of that event remains. A medium, upon visiting the site for the first time, described a feeling of confusion, nausea, high fever, and the sensation of falling. He said it was if the ground was rushing toward his face. Unaware that a house had once been on that site, he asked if there had ever been a hospital there, because of the overwhelming feeling of sickness he was experiencing.
Another ghost appeared, an amputee, who wanted to know what happened to the amputated arms and legs of the soldiers. “They were buried,” the medium answered. “Yes,” the ghost answers, “but where?” That question remained unanswered until a few years ago when a man on a bicycle rode up to me and said that renovation had been going on in and under an old building very near the old Calhoun site. While digging the basement underneath the floor, workers found numerous arm and leg bones bearing saw marks. During the Civil War, the site had been a vacant lot and because it was near the hospital, it seemed like a good place to discard limbs.
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee officially surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. Celebrations were held throughout the country, and Huntsville was no exception. On May 1, 1865, Union soldiers erected a flagpole in front of the Calhoun house and flew the stars and stripes.
Many of the Union soldiers who died in the area were buried in Huntsville’s Maple Hill Cemetery, while others were buried in plantation graveyards throughout the area. After the war, men were sent to dig up those bodies from all cemeteries in the South and either send them to their loved ones in the North, or re-inter them in Chattanooga National Cemetery.
The history of the Calhoun house did not end there. The house later served as Huntsville Academy. [After having a price put on the heads of the James Brothers, Frank James was eventually brought to Huntsville to be tried for the robbery of Alexander Smith, a government paymaster at Muscle Shoals. The Federal Courthouse at that time was the Calhoun House.] James was acquitted, however, and spent his final 31 years in honest employment. Of this era, the spirits remain silent.
Huntsville Times Building and Historic Huntsville Depot photos courtesy of Huntsville Madison County Public Library
Colonel Hundley, Leslie Stout as the ghost of Sally Carter, and Calhoun House photos courtesy of Jacque Reeves
Jacque Reeves’ Ghost Walk photo by Pete Dobbs