Reach Out and Touch a Ghost

The Virginia Scientific Research Association (VSRA) leads ghost tours around historic downtown Leesburg, which is the county seat of beautiful Loudoun County, Virginia. The VSRA was founded in 1992 by Joe Holbert. According to this article from the Washington Post, Holbert, then the director of the Loudon Museum, began investigating paranormal sightings in Leesburg after the mayor requested that he put together a ghost tour. Soliciting local residents for stories, he was surprised by the volume of submissions he received. Holbert and his team were able to debunk all but 42 of the stories. Today the VSRA shares some of those stories on walking tours held from May through October.

I went on one of these tours with my sister and her husband this month. Our tour guide did a great job sharing stories about the houses and places of business we passed. We were touring at the same time as a much larger group ahead of us, so we often had to wait for that group to finish looking at sites just ahead before we could move on. A wedding being held at one of the sites held us up for quite some time; in fact, I think it’s possible the average tour time is closer to an hour and a half.

This tour is fairly well-known in this area for two different reasons. The first is that it is not lead just by history buffs telling ghost tales, but by the VSRA’s team of paranormal researchers. Many have had experience investigating the sites visited, and they share their personal knowledge and beliefs regarding the supernatural. Our tour guide explained that there are two main types of ghosts. Sentients are intelligent spirits retaining a human appearance; contrary to popular thought, researchers believe that sentients appear in the areas where they were happiest when they were alive, not because they died there or wish to avenge some wrong done to them. Residuals are perhaps best described as memories left behind by living beings, which can be picked up by some individuals. Examples of residuals in the Leesburg area are the sound of footsteps overhead in one building, a sudden feeling of sadness at a memorial site, the repeated sound of a crash over and over where nothing has fallen, and the strong smell of a woman’s perfume. (Imagine how surprised I was to hear about that last one at a site where, just minutes before, I noticed the smell of perfume and starting sniffing around trying to figure out who was wearing it.) Some residuals take human form but are merely visual memories (as opposed to sentients, which display awareness of their surroundings). Both residuals and sentients emit natural (DC as opposed to AC) electromagnetic frequencies (EMF), as do living things. Persons believed to be most sensitive to residuals are those who are more “right-brained” and those who have higher levels of EMF than the average bear. Our tour guide brought along an EMF reader which she whipped out as we toured a cemetery where stones (and an original part of the floor) mark the foundation of the church that once stood there. She invited us each to walk several times past the EMF reader, which she held still for the best reading. Mine was high at 100, my brother-in-law’s even higher at nearly 150, and one man caused the reader to spike past 1000, but most of the rest of the group had “normal” readings (causing disappointment in some!). The tour guide shared with us that one guest with a particularly high EMF reading once accidentally ignited a candle inside a tavern on the tour by simply looking through the window and joking she could make it light. The tavern owner had to be called at home to come unlock the tavern and put out the flame. My sister tried to get me to pull the same trick at the end of the tour! (Nice try, Cat ;))

The second reason for the tour’s popularity is its unusual ending: guests are invited to “touch a ghost” that is said to haunt one of the two old hanging trees right outside of the looming courthouse. The two trees still bear the faint impression of rings on their thick lower branches from where nooses were once tied. My sister pointed them out to me on the first tree as we stood under it; they are obvious once one knows what to look for. Seeing that tree made me feel saddened for what happened there and sent the expected shiver up my spine. But I wasn’t scared at any point of the tour until we approached the second former hanging tree. Here the tour guide explained that a residual can be felt around, and close to, one of the hanging branches. You’re supposed to get a slightly cooling, tingling sensation. But I mainly felt … awful, like I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the tree. I’m just going to leave it at that, but quite honestly, I haven’t felt that terrible about any one place in a long time. No one else seemed to feel this, so I guess I am crazy. The only thing the others noticed was the residual; those of us who said they could feel it noticed slightly cooler sensations and tingling around their hands. I was very thankful to leave the courthouse yard. It was odd to feel that way when I had previously been so excited to see what the whole “touch a ghost” bit was all about!

What I really enjoyed about the tour was how the ghost stories were mixed with bits of historical intrigue about the buildings of Leesburg. For example, we learned that many of the tiny doors and windows we saw were installed that way on purpose because it meant lower property taxes for the owners. A door at a building now housing a Chinese restaurant couldn’t have been much more than a foot across. Can you imagine trying to carry two armfuls of groceries through a door like that? Another building once housed three-time Presidential candidate Henry Clay in the 1800s, and many years later the owners discovered a spot on the wall where he’d written a declaration that the President (himself – guess he thought the third time would be the charm) once slept there. Today his writing is still in its original spot and framed for posterity.

I was also charmed by the general character of Leesburg. Prior to the tour, we had soup and sandwiches at Shoes Cup and Cork Club, so named because it was once the site of a shoe repair business; the original neon sign still glows above the front door. The beautifully designed golden lion’s face on the outside of well-regarded Lightfoot restaurant was quite striking, gleaming regally in the accentuating building lights. Lightfoot resides in the former Peoples National Bank site at 11 King Street. (The bank vault door is still present in the men’s room!) On the same street, right across from the courthouse, are two neighboring businesses: Freedom Bail Bonds, and a biker bar whose neon sign proclaims: “Better Here Than Across the Street”! As the enthusiastic songs of a country band drifted over to us standing under the big hanging tree, I thought to myself that the slogan was true in more ways than one.

Read more about VSRA and the ghost tours here. Happy Halloween!

Coming soon … the Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive, a brief stay in Luxembourg, the start of National Novel Writing Month, and I tackle the first of the 30 things!

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