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A haunting we will go— Spooky houses, ghost sightings found nearby

Added October 14th, 2004

By ROD HARMON, Bradenton Herald Staff Writer
Reprinted from the Bradenton Herald

With Halloween comes a bevy of haunted houses promising to provide frightening
experiences to thrill seekers.

But there are some places in Manatee and Sarasota counties that don’t need actors in costumes and glow-in-the-dark sets to be scary. They’re said to be haunted year-round.

Florida is abundant with locales purported to possess supernatural qualities, and Tampa Bay is no exception. When Kim Cool of Venice began conducting research for a series of ghost-story compilations on the Sunshine State, she unearthed dozens of things that go bump in the night.

“Spiritualism itself seems to be catching on right now,” said Cool, who has published “Ghost Stories of Venice” and “Ghost Stories of Sarasota” with Historic Venice Press and is working on similar books on the St. Petersburg-Tampa area. “It’s nice to think that you don’t just live and die, that maybe there’s a chance at a second life.”

Administrators with the venues in this article say the ghost stories are just that – stories. Whether they’re evidence of supernatural activity or simply entertaining yarns is up to the reader to judge.

Gamble Plantation

Historic State Park
3708 Patten Ave.

Site of the only surviving antebellum plantation mansion in Florida, it seems only natural that the Gamble Plantation would harbor spirits. Its most famous guest, Judah P. Benjamin, is said to inhabit the room where he once stayed in the waning days of the Civil War.

Benjamin was a prominent lawyer and sugar farmer in Louisiana who was twice elected to the U.S. Senate. He resigned his seat when Louisiana seceded from the Union and held the offices of attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state in the Confederacy. A close friend of Jefferson Davis, he was known in the north as “the brains of the Confederacy.”

When the South collapsed in 1865, Benjamin took refuge at the Gamble Mansion and plotted his escape to England. He practiced law in Great Britain until retiring in 1883, and died in Paris the following year.

June Hartlieb, president of the Gamble Plantation Preservation Alliance, said she was leading a tour through the mansion one day when a woman gasped upon entering Benjamin’s bedroom.

“This woman took one step inside the room and took a sharp intake. I thought she had been stung by a wasp or something,” Hartlieb said. “She said, ‘I am a clairvoyant, and I want you to know that Judah P. Benjamin walks these rooms. And he’s quite a gentleman.’ “

Other people have heard and seen strange things in the mansion, but whether it’s the work of Benjamin’s ghost is cause for debate. Wayne Godwin, a park ranger at the Gamble Plantation, has witnessed what could be construed as supernatural phenomena.

“We were doing a tour, and, all of a sudden, a rocking chair started moving on its own,” Godwin said. “A couple of days later, a wardrobe drawer opened by itself in the middle bedroom.”

Godwin also told of instances where chairs seemingly moved by themselves and of lights mysteriously turning on. Still, he doesn’t think any of it was caused by spirits.

“It’s never really appealed to me that there was something there,” he said.

Coquina Beach

Bradenton Beach
Anna Maria Island

On the southern tip of Anna Maria Island just before the Longboat Key bridge, there are reportedly spirits wandering the beach at night, possibly guests of a hotel razed long ago, according to the Web site http://www.theshadowlands.net.

One of them, a male figure in black, walks from what is now a picnic area to the shoreline before vanishing. The figure is even visible during the day, according to the Web site.

A few miles north on Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach, there once stood a beach house notorious for its haunted activity. Built by Henry Curry in 1923, the house was said to have been inhabited by several spirits, including a woman who drowned in a shipwreck, a seafaring ghost who whistled and smoked a pipe, and a child who had a pet Dalmation.

If the stories are true, the spirits must have left when the house was demolished and replaced by a condominium. There have been no reports of ghosts there since, said Carolyn Norwood, co-founder of the Anna Maria Historical Society.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

On May 9, 1980, a freighter rammed the highest span of the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge during a blinding spring squall, ripping out a 1,297-foot span. Thirty-five people plunged to their deaths.

Within a few weeks, the story of a hitchhiking ghost began to surface. It’s always a woman. Sometimes, she has long, blond hair; other times, she’s wearing a white shawl. She walks barefoot along the highway, thumb in the air, until someone picks her up. As the vehicle begins to ascend the bridge, she asks the driver if he has accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.

Then she disappears.

The Bradenton Herald tried to track down the source of this tale in June 1980, but couldn’t verify its origin and passed it off as a modern variation of an urban legend. Kim Cool tends to agree with that conclusion.

“The hitchhiking ghost is a classic ghost story,” said Cool, who is features editor at the Venice Gondolier Sun. “There are variations of that all over the place.”

Still, the story persists more than two decades later. During the 20th anniversary of the bridge’s collapse, a toll collection supervisor recalled seeing the woman during the early morning hours in 1987.

Even if the hitchhiking story is just a hoax, Cool wouldn’t be surprised if there were actual spirits haunting the Skyway.

“It would make sense that with such a horrible disaster, there would be some ghosts,” she said.

Sarasota Opera House

61 N. Pineapple Ave.

There’s a popular saying about ghost hunters: Where there’s a
theater, there are spirits.

That certainly seems to be the case in Sarasota, where Cool found six theaters reportedly buzzing with supernatural activity. The Sarasota Opera House, located in the hub of the downtown district, is one of the oldest. Built in 1926, it’s played host to silent films, the Ziegfeld Follies, Elvis Presley and world-renowned opera stars.

According to “Ghost Stories of Sarasota,” at least one of them may have decided to stick around after death. An employee who asked not to be identified told Cool there seemed to be an unidentified spirit searching for a friend at the theater and that footsteps could be heard in the Peterson Great Room.

The spirit may roam back and forth between the opera house and the nearby Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, which is suspected to have spirits of its own.

“I was at the Golden Apple just the other day, and met a couple of people who I had not talked to for the book,” Cool said. “One guy said he spent the night there painting sets and was trying to catch a nap in the men’s dressing room but couldn’t sleep because there were too many strange things going on. He tried the women’s dressing room, and that didn’t work, either, so he stayed up all night.”

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

5401 Bay Shore Road

The Ringling museum is one of Sarasota’s most beloved treasures. It houses the extensive art collection of circus magnate John Ringling, one of the famed Ringling Brothers and a key player in Sarasota’s development during the early 20th century.

Just north of the museum sits Ca d’Zan, the winter home that Ringling built for his wife, Mable, in the 1920s. Almost as exquisite as the art that graces the museum, the mansion was an epicenter for Florida society until John Ringling’s death in 1936.

Ron McCarty has been registrar of Ca d’Zan for more than 20 years, and played an essential part in a recent six-year restoration that returned the mansion to its original glory. Although he’s never seen any ghosts, he’s heard dozens of stories over the years about spirits inhabiting the Ringling home.

“There have been guards who said they saw Mable in her bathtub,” McCarty said. “A workman saw someone in the attic, and it scared him so much, he won’t come back to this property.”

Rilla Fleming, who has worked in Ca d’Zan’s outdoor café since April 2002, said she’s seen both John and Mable in the mansion. Fleming is an artist with a gallery in Sarasota’s Towles Court who says she can sense spirits.

She described John Ringling as being a bit aloof, always standing in the background smoking a cigar while tours wind their way through the mansion. Mable is the opposite, she says, and loves to show off her home to guests.

“John would follow us around the house,” Fleming said. “Mable would lead us, like, ‘Here we are!’ She was very gracious, very accommodating.”

Fleming also said she’s seen the ghost of a dog scampering back and forth near the front door. It’s a large animal, which would fit the description of John Ringling’s dog, Tell.

In February 2003, Cool took a VIP tour of Ca d’Zan after hours with a local television station and two mediums. The mediums said they sensed not only the spirits of John and Mable, but of numerous spirits, waiting to “pass over” in the tap room, where John Ringling had entertained many friends. The mediums told McCarty that Mable was pleased with the restoration, and they could point out items that weren’t originally in the house.

“The mansion is climate-controlled with a state-of-the-art system,” Cool said. “When we walked into the tap room, it was icy cold. We all felt it. The mediums said there were hundreds of spirits there.”

The official word from the Ringling is that there aren’t any ghosts. Still, McCarty said several mediums have gone into the mansion at different times and had the same experience in the same spots.

But instead of being the typical haunted house, where ghosts try to drive people away, the Ringlings welcome visitors, Fleming said. It’s a happy place that evokes feelings of warmth and comfort.

Just as Mable would have wanted.

“There’s a happiness that radiates from the house,” Fleming said. “You can’t
come here and not feel a sense of peace.”

Rod Harmon, features writer, can be reached at rharmon@bradentonherald.com

Topics: News & Reviews

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