By BARBARA BOWERS Special to the Citizen
Disembodied footsteps. Levitating lamps. Slamming doors, electrical malfunctions and furniture with a mind of its own, say, a footstool that moves itself: These are mainstays of haunted houses, but the most basic prerequisite is a lost soul--maybe two--rambling around inside an old house.
Because Key West has plenty of both, the largest historic district of wood frame houses in the United States is quietly developing a reputation for being one of the most haunted cities in the country.
But of course, little secrets have always permeated little towns, and the secrets in these parts embrace a hospitable open-minded thinking that extends to all residents, present and past.
"That's my picture; leave it alone," said a colleague, who related the story of a ghost in a house where she formerly lived. It liked to turn wall photos and paintings askew. My friend chooses to remain anonymous because "people think you're nuts if you admit to having extra sensory perceptions," she said.
That power is her little secret; that, and practicing ESP control, especially when it runs amuck in places like the cemetery at St. Paul's Episcopal Church: "My chest tightens up there," she said. "It's the only place in town that physically affects me."
Paranormal activity is duly noted in graveyards--hotbeds worldwide--and some houses are world renown, like the wooden-Dutch Colonial in Amityville, N.Y., even though the haunting there has been considered a hoax since Jay Anson published his "true story" in 1977, about the Lutz family who moved in after the former owners were murdered.
Although not quite in that league of horror, Key West has its share of well-known haunted properties; more than a dozen of the 3,000 or so wooden structures in the historic district admit to ghosts. Just Google Key West haunted houses to get the ghoulish details on each museum, café, hotel, fort, morgue-cum-bar and mostly, bed and breakfasts: Chelsea House, Old Town Manor, Marrero's Guest House, to name a few.
"I believe in spirits, but I have not seen a ghost in the 14 years I've owned this property," said Helen Gironet of her L'Habitation Guest House on Eaton Street. "My landscaper, though, says she could feel a ghost in the garden, and see something green standing to the left of the stairs.
"Whatever it was, it freaked her out," said Gironet.
But not all ghoulies, ghosties and long-legged beasties are freaky and full of bad ju ju. Captain Phillip Cosgrove's ghost at Banyan Resort is occasionally spotted with a playful little girl; she merely snatches chocolates off beds after turn down.
"One guest in our Treetop room said something slipped under the sheets to grab her hand," said Kelly Bartley, the Banyan's front-desk manager. "It was a little girl's hand and she told my guest that furniture was not where it should be.
"I haven't seen any ghosts, but I believe people when they say they have, and this particular guest says she got out of bed to look out onto the balcony, where next she saw a group of people in costumes that assured her 'everything was OK; it's OK'."
This wasn't even during Fantasy Fest, and Bartley says this group apparition was a first for the Treetop room; normally room 405 gets the paranormal action, although at Marrero's Guest House and Chelsea House room 18 is the lucky number.
In almost every guesthouse or museum case, the haunting spirit seeped into the Dade County pine back when the building was a single-family house. For instance, Ernest and Pauline Hemingway still seen in their home, now a museum; Captain John Geiger in his home before it became the Audubon House; Dr. William Warren and his wife Genevieve before their mansion became Old Town Manor. However, their 3-story Greek revival beauty is more famous for being listed on the National Register of Historic Places than for its ghosts.
Most famous of all the island's ghost-ridden manses is The Artist House, and its connection to a doll named Robert.
"We're not haunted by Robert, but by Ann, who hated her husband Eugene Otto's infatuation with the doll," said Joanna Kearney, owner of the guesthouse with her husband Ray. "Ann's a positive force, who protects people here, and many of my guests have seen her.
"While I don't have psychic powers, I believe there is a presence here; apparently one that doesn't like to cook," laughed Kearney. "Three years ago, a wedding party booked the entire guesthouse, and two ladies came down early, about 8 a.m., but were sent away because a woman in the kitchen told them breakfast was over.
"They went in search of breakfast on Duval Street and when the girls returned an hour later, all their friends were eating in the garden," said Kearney. "No one working for me sent those girls away."
Was it Ann? Maybe Ann under the spell of mischievous Robert the Doll? Though closely associated with the Artist House, where the Otto's lived more than a century ago, Robert is on display at East Martello Museum. David Sloan, who first started Key West's Ghost Tour, began researching Robert in 1996, when the doll was locked up in the museum's back room.
"None of the staff wanted to get him for photos I wanted to take," said Sloan. "When they did, my camera malfunctioned then, as many cameras have since Robert's been put on display."
Sloan's current research for a book about Ann Otto, Eugene Otto and his doll Robert has turned up "a fascinating story" that delves into the reality, myths and legends of Robert. But sharing it has been a task of supernatural powers.
"I started with a permission letter to Robert, which said 'if you don't like what I'm writing you'll let me know.' He let me know," said Sloan. "Two computers died while I was working on the book. The same thing happened to a third, which recently froze up."
Sloan was able to retrieve everything on that computer, except the 237 pages of his book. Robert's story even evaporated from Sloan's Cloud backup, and since he began writing the book in 2011, even more freakish episodes have taken place in Sloan's home: "It sounds insane, I know," he said. "Even I might not believe this stuff if it didn't happen to me."
Will you? Walk with me next weekend through his Catherine Street house, and learn how Sloan practices ESP control at home.
Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer and host of a radio talk show about owning and maintaining property in the Florida Keys. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to email@example.com. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.