Spooky tales of unexplained phenomena persist in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.
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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Bruce Luongo, and in Colonial Williamsburg, he's the tavern program manager. Which leads me to the obvious question, what is the tavern program manager?
Bruce Luongo: Well, basically, I manage programs in the tavern and right now, 90 percent of that means that I manage the tavern ghost walk.
Lloyd: New one on me. When is that done?
Bruce: That's done in the evenings, of course. Best time for a ghost walk. All year round, typically it varies with the level of business throughout the year, but typically we do anywhere from two to four tours a night, starting around seven-ish. The last one usually is around nine o'clock.
Lloyd: What's the idea?
Bruce: What's the idea? Well, as in a lot of towns, Williamsburg has a number of ghost tours and we thought, well, this is something that we can do, too. The Historic Area has an 18th-century version of folklore called “Legends,”
but in the taverns we thought we would go with the more modern and contemporary tales.
What we found when we started looking at this about two years ago was that there are a lot of unpublished tales that come from our guests and from our employees. The employees are the people who spend the most time in these buildings. If you start nosing around a little bit, you'll find that there's a lot of strange things that have happened to our employees, and some of them are willing to talk about it.
Lloyd: One of the women I interviewed for a podcast, a historical interpreter, said she was leading a group of people and saw a woman's face in the window and there was no one in the building.
Bruce: Don't tell me it was the Peyton Randolph House, was it? (Laughs.)
Lloyd: No, no it wasn't.
Bruce: No? Actually, we have had a number of events like that happen on our own tours, as a matter of fact. I said Peyton Randolph because that's usually where it happens. We always have guests that say they see a child's face looking out the window, and that sort of thing.
We've had several tours where not only guests but the guide, people I work with, have heard knocking from the inside of the front door at a time when there's nobody in there. And since that is alarmed, the entire first floor of that building has motion detectors. When they come back and tell me that, I can call security and say was anybody in that building, at say, ten minutes of nine tonight? Invariably the answer is "no."
Lloyd: Has that caught on? Because it sounds kind of interesting.
Bruce: The tour itself? It has caught on from humble beginnings, just about two years ago, October 1, 2004, was our first one. We have probably taken about 12,000 or 13,000 guests just this year. Nope, let me correct myself. It's closer to 19,000.
Lloyd: Going from which tavern?
Bruce: Well, we meet in front of Shields.
Bruce: We walk from there. We also talk about King's Arms and Chowning's and several buildings in between. It's not strictly taverns that we visit.
Lloyd: Okay, Chowning's gets you down near the Courthouse, right?
Bruce: That's correct.
Lloyd: That's a fairly long walk.
Bruce: It's about the east end of the Historic Area.
Lloyd: How many buildings are involved?
Bruce: We visit six different buildings. We don't go inside...
Lloyd: ...it's outside...
Bruce: ...it's a walking tour. We talk about Shields, the Capitol, King's Arms, the Prentis Store, and we go to Peyton Randolph and end up at Chowning's Tavern.
Lloyd: And you've got a pretty reliable person at Peyton Randolph House looking in. (Chuckles.) What are some of the other things that employees have told you about?
Bruce: Some of the stories that they share? Oh, there are all sorts of stuff. If we wanted to, the story is about an hour long, we could probably spend about four hours on it, we've heard so much stuff. There are certain apparitions, at Shields there's a woman in a green dress that has been seen by several different employees. We call her, of course, the lady in green.
There's lots of stuff at the Peyton Randolph House. That's arguably the most haunted house in Williamsburg, by common consent. A lot of stuff at Chowning's Tavern--furniture is moving...moving around, that sort of thing. One of our waitresses many years ago said she had a very difficult time getting out of the restroom once. The door kept pulling right out of her hand. The odd thing about that is that there is no handle on the other side--it pushes open. So she was trying to pull it open and something was grabbing where there's nothing to grab and yanking it back out of her hand. Stories like that are very intriguing.
Lloyd: (Chuckles.) I'm afraid I would sort of wonder if she had been nipping the wine.
Bruce: (Laughs.) She was on duty, so I really hope not.
Lloyd: (Laughs.) I can't help things like that. Okay, this sounds sort of insulting, but I don't mean it that way. Do people believe these stories?
Bruce: The people that we talk to, or the people who bring them [the stories] to us?
Lloyd: The people that you talk to.
Bruce: We get a lot of folks on the tour, obviously, who are believers that love ghost stories. Who doesn't love a good ghost story, whether you believe it or not? I'll answer your question this way. I remain a skeptic myself, even though people I know and trust, that I have worked with, have told me these stories. They swear to me, "I swear to God, this is what happened." So I can't not believe them, but on the other hand, do I believe in the supernatural? I'm not sure.
Lloyd: I've never been positive about that myself. Some of the stories, you keep saying not really, but could be....
Bruce: Oh, I feel it's my job, when somebody tells me a story to try at least to debunk the obvious. What could it have been when you told me that you saw something? Could you have been mistaken? Could it have been an employee who ducked behind a bush? Whatever it might be, but occasionally it's very hard to do. I'm always asked on the tour when I give it, have you had an experience like this? Have you seen a ghost? I haven't, which is why I remain skeptical, but I've been there when other people have.
This is a story that we don't use much on the tour, but I'll tell you anyway because it illustrates one of the fun things we can do if we get something new. We can say things like this past February, on the 24th of February, it was a Friday evening. Most ghost stories you can't give a date and a time to like that. (Laughs.)
Bruce: In the winter, we moved them inside into Shields because it was supposed to be cold. Oh, well. We would set up a room in there, the entrance room called the hall. Now from the hall there's another room called lower room that you can only get to by going through the hall. So, we had one at seven and one at nine and we would just have people come into the hall, sit down, and we'd tell them all of the ghosts stories in there. Have a little fire going and that kind of thing.
So I had my coat on, and I was out on the front steps, with the reservation sheet, greeting people and bringing them in. A seven o'clock show and a nine o'clock. Right before seven, about ten minutes to seven, a couple came up and they gave me their name and I didn't see them on the list and I noticed that they were on the nine o'clock list. We were full, so I said I'd like to slip you in, but if everyone shows up, I just don't have any more seats. They said, oh no, we wondered if we could have dinner in the tavern and come to the nine o'clock presentation. I said that's a great idea, except that Shields is closed tonight, so we got them squared away on a place to go for dinner. They came back two hours later. They came in and they heard the nine o'clock presentation.
Now I mentioned the lower room before--you could only get in there by going through the hall and when they first walked up, I had two storytellers and a couple of people who had already showed up. So they were sitting in the hall. Nobody could have gone through there. After their presentation, at the end of it, we kind of open up the door to the lower room because we have some stories there about people seeing things in the mirror and that sort of thing. The door has a wonderful, wonderful creak to it. If there were a Hollywood soundman here I would say go get that creaking door. It's beautiful. And it's a lot of fun, you kind of open it up and tell the stories and invite the people to walk through it and see if they feel creepy and that kind of thing.
So these people did that. Then they came back out and they were talking to the storytellers for a little while. Then they called me over, because these people were claiming that the storytellers had been sitting in the lower room when they walked up the first time, just before seven o'clock. They [the storytellers] said no we weren't. Well, somebody was in there, there was a man and a woman sitting at the table, right by that window with the candle lit, and it looked they were eating dinner. That was why they [the guests] asked me if they could eat dinner in the tavern; they thought we were open.
So I'm standing out front, and I'm looking the other way while they're seeing apparitions in there because I set that room up. I know that door was closed before 5:30, and it was not opened until after eight, and there was not a candle lit in there the entire day. We had to argue with these people to convince them that we had not been in there that night. (Chuckles.) I seem to be looking the wrong way most of the time when these things happen.
Lloyd: You take these tours around at night. Williamsburg is not that well lit.
Bruce: Oh, that makes it wonderful.
Lloyd: Yeah, but how do you see to get around?
Bruce: Well, we carry a lantern, and there are streetlights.
Lloyd: I know, but there are not a whole lot of them.
Bruce: We carry lanterns so they won't lose us and as a matter of fact, we kind of use the darkness because when we go to the Prentis Store, that's one of the narrower streets there and we go to the side of the building, and we get a nice dark shadow there and it makes for a great atmosphere for a couple of ghost stories. But it's not that hard to walk around at night in Williamsburg. There's enough light to see.
Lloyd: Well, it's not like you're going to bump into things because it's all neatly laid out along a couple of streets.
Bruce: That's true, you just have to look down because we do use horses here. (Laughs.)
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.