From a ghostly girl in a red checkered dress, to a Philadelphia naval ship teleporting to Norfolk harbor, Norfolk has produced a lot of lore in its 335 year history.
Some stories are verifiable, while others find support only in the shadows. It is now October, so if you’re living in Norfolk, become acquainted with some of downtown’s ghostly lore and unexplained tales, whether you believe in them or not.
The Philadelphia Experiment
In 1943, as WWII raged in Europe, the U.S. military was looking for an edge to defeat Nazi Germany. Be it nuclear weapons, mass brainwashing, sonic weaponry, or… teleportation? Well, maybe. In the summer of 1943, the USS Eldridge was supposedly fitted with equipment meant to bend light around the ship and render it invisible. While docked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the Eldridge reportedly disappeared, leaving a green fog in its place.
Months later, a separate experiment took place on the USS Eldridge. This time the ship not only disappeared, but teleported to the harbor of Norfolk, Virginia, where it sat in plain view of men aboard the USS Andrew Furuseth. After a short time, the Eldridge vanished and reappeared again in Philadelphia. What’s more, men who were supposedly aboard the USS Eldridge during the experiment reported extreme nausea and mental instability, while some men were “fused” to the decks of the ship—their bodies permanently adhered to the metal—their faces forever writhed in agony. Yes, you heard that right. Norfolk was supposedly the destination of a teleporting warship from the ninth-dimension. This story is known as the “Philadelphia Experiment” and it is as real as folk lore gets. Welcome to Norfolk (cue creepy laugh).
Ned and the Black Boy of the Wells Theatre
Speaking of sailors, those men of the high seas comprised the majority of the stage hands and fly riggers in American theaters during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sailors had an intimate knowledge of rope and knots, were used to working in cramped spaces, and were therefore suited for the labyrinth of walkways, sandbags, ropes, and props found high above the stage.
The Wells Theatre employed up to a dozen sailors in the early twentieth century. One of the first sailor stagehands to work at the Wells, “Ned”, would go to the fly loft of the theater to get a better look down at actresses’ cleavage, according to theater legend. One time, while leaning forward to sneak a peak, Ned fell over the handrail, got tangled in the ropes, and inadvertently hung himself. Smooth move Ned.
Staff at the Wells Theatre have encountered Ned many times over the years; some have seen a ghostly man in the rigging area above the stage, smoking silently and knocking the sandbags back and forth; others have found their tools missing or the rigging ropes tangled for no reason; others still have seen a man’s shadow on the backdrop while no one is around.
But it doesn’t end there.
The second balcony of the Wells Theatre once acted as the “Black Balcony” where African Americans could take in a show. During a mad dash for the exit one day, it is said that a young black boy fell from the balcony to his death. The light and sound tech team frequently hears footsteps on their soundbooth, which sits where the boy would have landed, and theater employees hear frequent laughter on the second balcony when the theater is empty. However, the most vivid account involves a waitress from the A.J. Gators next door, which shares a wall with the theater. The waitress did not offer her name and had never heard of the Wells Theatre “ghosts” before she experienced this encounter:
“I was taking my break and went to the upstairs, third floor storage area for a quiet place to rest. When I was sitting there I was surprised to see a young African American boy playing in the storage room. When I told him he shouldn’t be here, he laughed, turned and ran straight through the east brick wall toward the Wells Theatre and disappeared.”
Pretty strange. Take in a show at the Wells Theatre and experience some of the magic for yourself.
The Moses Myers House
The Moses Myers House was built in 1795 by the first permanent Jewish settlers in Norfolk, Moses and Eliza Myers. Five consecutive generations of Myers family resided in the house until it was turned into a museum in 1931. Both Eliza and Moses, several of their adult children, and three of their infant children died in the home.
Many people have spoken of unusual and otherworldly experiences.
In the fall of 2003, a Chrysler Museum of Art photographer entered a third floor bedroom that had not been accessed in months. There he saw a blonde haired girl in a checkered dress sitting in a chair. The little girl and the photographer were both surprised to see each other. A few seconds after the photographer looked at the little girl, she vanished into thin air. He left the house immediately, shaken and disturbed.
Other employees and guests have reported doors closing on their own, as well as footsteps on the second floor when no one is upstairs. A youth group once spent the night in the Myers house and witnessed a “black fog” hanging over them in the early morning hours. Are these experiences just coincidences? Misunderstandings? Dream-like visions of the recently awoken? Or perhaps the Myers family left behind more than just its house and furniture… Visit The Moses Myers House between 12p.m. and 5p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and have a look for yourself.
The Hunter House Victorian Museum
Another historic house in Downtown Norfolk bares the ghostly footprints of residents past. The Hunter House Victorian Museum was built by a wealthy banker named James Wilson Hunter in 1894. Much like the Moses Myers House, only one family lived in the house before it became a museum. James, his wife Lizzie, and two of their children all died in the house and were laid out in the front parlor before burial, as was customary. Since becoming a museum in 1965, visitors and employees alike swear to have had unsettling experiences in the Hunter House. Two docents claimed they witnessed James Wilson Hunter sitting in his favorite chair in the parlor. Some say they smell the sweet scent of cigars throughout the home, though no one smokes inside anymore.
Not long ago, Museum Director Jaclyn Tubbs was setting up for an event when she heard two women talking. She walked towards the voices, but found no one. Jackie was alone in the museum at that time… Or was she? Come by the Hunter House on Halloween for “A Night at the Museum”, a unique blend of traditional Victorian and contemporary decor and frights!
The Norfolk City Jail
The Norfolk City Jail is reputed to be the most haunted place in the city. In the 1940s, a prisoner hung himself in his jail cell (exactly why he hung himself and in which cell has not been divulged). Since then, prison guards and inmates both report unusual activity on that cell block; many prisoners assigned to that particular cell claim they are being watched while alone, with one inmate reporting that he could “never see (his) face in the mirror, only a blurred and distorted blob.” Other inmates claim to see the shadow of a man with a rope around his neck, slowly swinging back and forth when no one is around. If sleeping in that cell is not a crime deterrent, I don’t know what is.
Suicide at the Police Headquarters
Columbus C. Benson (a.k.a. “C.C.”) was the City of Norfolk’s Chief of Police from 1873 until January 28th, 1880. That evening, while on duty in the police headquarters of Downtown Norfolk, C.C. used a police-issued handgun to shoot himself in the head, dying instantly. According to his co-workers and friends, C.C. “had been laboring under mental distress for weeks”, most likely due to his wife discovering he was having an affair with a very young woman. The depression and anxiety of his misdeeds had become too much for him to bare, and he took his own life. Although there have been no ghostly sightings of C.C. Benson since his suicide, the fact that a police chief and a prisoner—two men diametrically opposed in society—both committed suicide a few blocks from each other in Downtown Norfolk, highlights the unnerving effects that mental illness and depression can ravage on a community, regardless of occupation or social status. That, my friends, is quite haunting in and of itself.
More to Know
There are also reported hauntings in the Freemason Abbey Restaurant, the graveyard of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, private residences aplenty, and even in the bowels of the Battleship Wisconsin. Indeed, the folk lore, hauntings, and macabre mythos of Norfolk’s past do not end with this article.
Go explore Downtown Norfolk; visit the owners and workers of its establishments and ask about their personal experiences.
Uncover a new frightened whisper that trembles with the adamancy of testimony.
Leave your science kit at home and bathe in the fables of those who believe.
Feast upon murky logic and tune your existence into another plane.
Downtown Norfolk can be a haunted paradise or a blessed hellscape; that depends on you. So go forth and chart the other worlds of our city, for you have nothing to worry about… yet.
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