The floors creaked and groaned as we walked; the last of the day’s sunlight pierced the sheer curtains, illuminating the particles of dust we raised as we stepped. Long shadows wrapped around the vintage furniture, across the faded faces in picture frames and over the frilly dresses of antique dolls like slithering black snakes; everywhere the smell of old things.
“Twelve, maybe more,” Jesse Lisk said.
“At least 12,” said Brooke Bachtel.
The two members of the Brooksville PIT (Paranormal Investigation Team) were referring to the spirits known to haunt the spooky old May-Stringer House in Brooksville, today home of the Hernando Heritage Museum. It’s considered by many, including PIT members, to be the most haunted house in Florida.
It was a few days before Halloween when we stepped inside the Victorian structure, with its classic gingerbread trim and seven gables. Museum volunteers had departed after a long day of spreading artificial cobwebs, placing rubber rats here and there, along with skeletons and headless dummies in preparation for the museum’s haunted house attraction — part of Ghost Fest, which opened last weekend and continues Friday, Oct. 29 7-11 p.m. and all day and into the evening Saturday, Oct. 30. When the festivities are over, and it’s All Hallows Eve, Lisk and Bachtel will be there, trying to calm the spirits of the 165-year-old house. Among them is the sometimes testy Gary, who resides in the attic, little Jessie Mae Saxon, the ghostly baby who doesn’t like people messing with her toys, the unknown woman who wears her hair in a bun, and the WWI Soldier said to have committed suicide in the house.
“Afterward (when the festival crowds have gone), it can take a few days for them (the ghosts) to settle back down,” said Bachtel.
Bachtel and Lisk were our tour guides on this visit, and as museum volunteers they frequently lead the famous ghost tours in the house. They’re well suited for the task of detailing the home’s long history and its many ghostly inhabitants.
As it’s told, the house is haunted by the spirits of those buried on the grounds, including John May, who built the house, his surviving wife Marena, and her children with second husband and Confederate war hero Frank Saxon: Jessie Mae, who died as a baby, and her infant brother who died soon after. But they’re not the only spirits there. Many of the antiques in the museum came with ghosts attached to them, said Lisk, who formed Brooksville PIT in 2015. The team, which includes Bill Davis and Craig Broshears, travels far and wide to investigate hauntings, free of charge. They are known for videos, photos and live feeds from haunted locations on their facebook page at www.facebook.com/brooksvillepit.
The team is familiar with the spirits in the museum and has assisted visiting paranormal investigators, including the crew of the “Kindred Spirits” television show.
“They (the show’s hosts) focused on Gary (the ghost) because he was the most active,” recalled Lisk. Gary is believed to have arrived in the house attached to his antique trunk, which is on display in the fourth-floor attic room.
The crew of the TV show wasn’t buying it, Lisk and Bachtel recalled, so they moved the trunk downstairs. The activity on their electromagnetic frequency meter and electrovoice phenomena recorder sure enough showed Gary followed his trunk, said Bachtel, adding that Gary was not at all amused it all.
“He’s a lot calmer than when he first got here,” said Lisk, noting that for quite a while he was grumpy and frequently used foul language.
Voices from nowhere don’t surprise anyone who’s spent much time the house, Bachtel said. Taps on the back, whispers in the ear and doors closing and opening on their own have been regular occurrences. Some have reported seeing a ghostly infant crawling on the floor toward Jessie Mae’s cradle. Others have heard childish giggling emanating from the baby’s room.
On one of their ghost tours of the home, the team was surprised to learn that one of the guests on the tour lived in the May-Stringer house as a boy some 50 years earlier when his family rented it for $100 a month. The man told a tale of annoying his mother one day by bouncing a ball in the house. She admonished him and told him to put the ball in his room. He bounced it up the stairs in a huff toward his room, the former room of baby Jessie Mae.
When he entered his room a woman who wore her hair up in a bun was standing there and told him to hand over the ball, which he did. As he walked out of the room toward the stairs, he heard the ball bouncing in the room.
The family experienced many other abnormal things in the home until one day they’d had enough and hastily left. His return for the ghost tour was the first time he’d been back since.
Other families tried living in the house over the years, but none ever stayed long, said Bachtel.