Harpers Ferry has played an important role in the country’s history, but did you know it’s also famous for its number of ghost sightings? That’s where the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry comes in.
Started in 1970 by Shirley Dougherty, it claims to be the oldest paranormal tour in the country. At first a skeptic, Dougherty supposedly changed her tune when she had an encounter with a spirit in her tavern. More than a half-century later, the tour is still thriving under husband-and-wife team Rick and Amelia Garland.
While the tour offers up plenty of legends during the hour-and-a-half walk through the historic community, Rick says one story is a fan favorite. On a street named Hog Alley, our guide took the group back to 1859 with the story of Dangerfield Newby. “That contains a good blow-by-blow description of the John Brown Raid,” says Rick. “It’s a spooky story. We get a lot of strange pictures on Hog Alley, where the Dangerfield Newby story takes place. So, between the history and the spookiness, I’d have to say that’s my favorite one to tell.”
Here’s the gist: Newby, a former slave, was struggling to free his wife and children from bondage down South. Desperate to get his family back, he joined Brown as the famous abolitionist stormed the Harpers Ferry Armory. With only the guns in the armory and limited ammunition, the raiders were shooting glass, marbles, and nails. Caught in the crossfire, Newby took a spike to the neck, which killed him instantly.
Today, people claim to see Newby walking in the alley at night: a figure wearing all black, with piercing blue eyes and a melancholy expression. As the figure turns away, you can see the bloody scar on his neck from that fateful day.
Rick says two tour-goers have seen apparitions during the excursion, and a few have caught ghostly figures on camera. But don’t expect to talk to these phantoms—in fact, Rick discourages it.
“In October, I warn them,” says Rick. “I say, ‘I’m not going to conjure the ghosts. I am not going to talk to them. I’m not going to try and get them to come out for you. That’s not what we do.’”
There’s a difference, he says, between ghost tours and ghost hunts. “Ghost hunts are paranormal investigations—which, those are dangerous,” he says. “I know people love them, people do them, but they are dangerous. You never know what you’re going to uncover.”
Familiar sights, smells, and sounds might do the trick, though. Amelia told a Friday-night crowd that women wearing long skirts and lavender perfume, men smoking cigars, or singing the chorus from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” could bring out ghosts. Rick concurs. “It seems that clothing suggestive to the time period and odors, smells—whether it’s perfume or tobacco—also seem to make them comfortable and seems to increase phenomena when taking pictures.”
So, if you’re willing to defy the warning of a seasoned paranormal expert, grab your camera and warm up your vocal cords.