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MIDNIGHT IN THE CASTILLO

The best time to explore a haunted Spanish fort is at night after all the tourists have long departed. By special arrangement with the National Park Service the Orlando-based Spook Hunters group was granted permission to conduct an after-hours ghost hunt in St. Augustine’s ancient Castillo de San Marcos. Chief spook hunter, Owen Sliter invited me to participate with his group in this rare opportunity. The Spook Hunters are made up of a wide range of members from skeptics to believers, who use various “ghost detecting devices” like EMF detectors, infrared cameras, digital cameras, video recorders, and even an Ouija board.

The Spanish began building the Castillo de San Marcos in 1672 taking twenty-three back-breaking years to complete. Prior to the Castillo, wooden forts were the only defense for St. Augustine. The need for a masonry fort became obvious as early as 1586 when Sir Francis Drake with two thousand men sailed in on twenty ships and left St. Augustine pretty much in ashes. In 1668, the English pirate Robert Searles ransacked the town. With the increasing threat of the British colonization to the north, Spain’s Queen Mariana ordered the construction of a stone fort at St. Augustine. The fort is built from coquina, an indigenous stone of bonded shells that was pretty good at absorbing the impact of a cannon ball. The Castillo is America’s only true medieval structure and in spite of suffering many attacks, it has never been conquered. When Florida became a United States territory in 1821, the Castillo was renamed Fort Marion in honor of General Francis Marion. Today it goes by its original name the Castillo de San Marcos.

Over the centuries the Castillo has accumulated more than its share of ghosts making it a lucrative hunting ground for spook hunters. It was 9 p.m. during a thunderstorm when we entered the sallyport of the Castillo where we were met by three representatives of the National Park Service. It was dark and damp inside and the occasional flashes of lightening reflecting off the musty stone walls made a perfect setting for a ghost hunt. The Spook Hunters used the old guard room as a staging area before splitting off with their flashlights in different directions to try their individual skills at detecting spooks. The Rangers opened the old prison for us to explore and standing inside this pitch dark place we were momentarily transported back in time to when prisoners were held in this room. Using flashlights we scanned the walls looking at years of graffiti etched into the stone walls. The EMF detectors indicated no abnormal energy fields, so without a flashlight, I felt my way into an adjacent room and just to see what would happen, I took a flash picture in the dark. In the quick flash of my camera I saw a man in British attire staring right at me. Now if anything will give you a shock, it is being on a ghost hunt and seeing a British guy from 1770 standing there looking at you. I scrambled out of the darkness to find someone with a flashlight. We went back in there and in the beam of the flashlight saw the British fellow…not a ghost but a life size mannequin that was part of an exhibit. I gave a sigh of relief but was disappointed that I had not encountered a genuine apparition leftover from the British period.

Lightning flashes lit up the courtyard as I stood in the sallyport looking out into the wet night while sounds of thunder rolled overhead. It could have easily been mistaken for cannon fire. They say that you can put your ear to the walls of the Castillo and hear battle sounds. I tried this, but only got my ear wet. In the meantime, Owen Sliter, our leader, was returning from across the courtyard where he had been talking with the Rangers about any special places to look for ghosts. They were very helpful through the night but could not suggest any specific places to look, although one ranger did admit to believing in ghosts.

The first unexplainable occurrence happened in the old prison room when Spook Hunter Karen reported smelling a fragrance she called Patchouli. At first she thought it was someone’s perfume. I also got a slight whiff of this sweet aroma in one of the other rooms. This was interesting because in the stories about the fort people have reported smelling perfume that some claim belonged to the ghost of Senora Delores Mari. According to the tale, she was having a love affair with Captain Manuel Abela. When Senora Dolores’ husband, Colonel Garcia Mari discovered their shenanigans he chained them inside the gun powder room and sealed them up alive behind a stone wall. Now if you believe the story, then you’ll believe that Senora Delores is the woman who is frequently seen romping about leaving the scent of her perfume lingering in the Fort. In 1833 a cannon fell through the gun deck into a narrow secret room in which were found human skeletons. It appeared that some unfortunate souls had been sealed up in the Fort, although some records say the remains were animal bones. There’s another problem with this story, it seems there are several discovery dates for this hidden room, 1833, 1838, and 1938. The 1938 report claims some workers found the secret room while cleaning up in the powder room. I suppose that if there is any fact to any of this, it would be that some bones were found in a hidden room. Whether the bones belonged to Senora Delores Mari and Captain Abela is still open to speculation.

In another room where western Indians were held during the 1880s, an EMF meter indicated a high level of energy that seemed to pulsate. Another detector was brought in to confirm the finding and it too showed a high energy field. We looked around for electrical wiring or outlets that might be causing the registration on the instruments but found no explanation for the reading. Then, behind an overhead beam we found the answer, it was a concealed security motion detector that was emitting the energy.

The most interesting weird thing to happen occurred in the room where Seminole Indians were held during the Second Seminole War. Photographs taken in this dark room showed orbs of light. One photo in particular showed a very bright round light that could not be explained. There were no reflective surfaces in this room, no floating dust particles, no camera flaws, and the anomalies were caught on digital camera. Following the unexplainable orbs, one of the Spook Hunters reported getting high readings on his EMF detector. He had followed these readings from the bottom of the stairway up to the terreplein where the energy seemed to dissipate.

Owen tried to recreate this reading by following the same course but could not pick up the energy field. All possible causes were checked out, such as motion detectors and electrical systems, but we found no explanations to what caused the weird EMF readings.

Meanwhile across the courtyard in the old guard room, two members of the group were working a Ouija board trying to communicate with the past. They claimed to have contacted a spirit named Tomas who was a soldier at the Fort in 1593. The date was in question since it was before the Castillo was built. But as our skeptical leader Owen Sliter who doesn’t put much stock in Ouija Boards, remarked, “How can something bought in a toy store contact dead people?”

Through its long history the Castillo de San Marcos has held untold numbers of prisoners, including one of my own ancestors in 1810, Colonel William Williams, an officer in the East Florida Patriots. I wondered in which of these dark rooms he had been held. Other captives in the past included Seminole Indians, Geronimo’s Chiricahua band, pirates, prisoners of war, and many that we may never know about. Some escaped while others met their demise while held in cramped conditions behind the walls of this massive fort but their burial places remain unknown. The famous Seminole leader Osceola was held here before being taken to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, where he died. After Osceola’s death in 1838, his head was cut off by Dr. Frederick Weedon, the army doctor who had treated him. Doctor Weedon returned to St. Augustine with the embalmed head and displayed it in his drugstore for many years. There are traditional stories about how Doctor Weedon used the head for disciplining his children by placing it on their bedpost. After the doctor’s death, the Weedon family donated Osceola’s head to a New York surgeon who gave it to the museum at the Medical College of New York City. The head was lost when an 1866 fire destroyed the museum.

There’s a report that allegedly comes from a night watchman at the Fort many years ago, who claimed to frequently observe the apparition of a young girl dressed in white roaming the grounds and vanishing behind trees. Another account tells about a Spanish soldier searching for a ring on the grounds outside the fort. Allegedly he was killed in the 1700s by a cannon ball while looking for the ring.

During our visit the rain kept coming down and most of the Spook hunters were pretty well soaked from going in and out of the rain from one part of the Fort to another. Some went up on the terreplein where the cannons overlook the edge of the Fort. From down in the courtyard their silhouettes looked like dark entities against the flickering flashes of lightning. Occasionally I could see the tiny red or green lights of one of the detection instruments or the eerie beam of someone’s flashlight behind the bars of a window in one of the rooms. Modern civilization was just beyond the walls a city block away but for the Spook Hunters it seemed two centuries away…that is except for the modern technology of the group’s digital cameras and EMF detectors. No spiritual entities materialized during our visit, but we did capture a couple of strange orbs with cameras and one unexplainable EMF reading which was enough for the Spook Hunters to declare their hunt a success.

Weird Florida

 

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