10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them

Tim Flight - May 1, 2018

Ghosts are dying out. Recent surveys reveal that only a third of American and British people still believe in them. These figures mark a steady drop from the early 20th century, when spiritualism was en vogue, and it is theorised that century’s numerous horrific events and the mandatory presence of science in school curriculums have made people less credulous. And yet, the cultures of both sides of the Atlantic are replete with ghostly phenomena, from films such as The Haunting in Connecticut and the Conjuring-franchise to TV series such as Ghost Hunters which churn up dubious evidence for the supernatural.

Beyond the statistics we can see a form of ghost-agnosticism: a desire to find out the truth, or just to enjoy the phenomenon vicariously as if it were real. For anthropologists and folklorists, ghosts are real in the sense that people believe, and have long-believed, them to exist. Much can be learned about a group of people through their beliefs and traditions, and we can extend this here to the alleged-ghosts of history’s most famous characters. Historical ghosts reveal how these figures are received and interpreted outside of the official record: read on for 10 examples and their accompanying lore.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, the Younger, c.1497-1543. Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII

‘The fat king with all the wives’ (1491-1547), as he is popularly remembered, started his reign as a talented and vigorous young man who excelled in learning, sport, and music. His love of food, however, led to him reaching a great size (his waist size was at least 60 inches, based on the last suit of armour he had tailored), developing gout and an accompanying foul temper. He is also famous for divorcing England from the Catholic Church, assembling a party of theologians and intellectuals to create a new English church derived from the writings of Martin Luther.

It comes as no surprise that a historical heavyweight (no pun intended) such as Henry looms so large (Ibid.) in English ghost lore. Hampton Court Palace, Greater London, was one of Henry’s favourite palaces, conveniently located for the capital and offering good sport at the nearby hunting parks of Richmond and Nonsuch. His phantom has been spotted on numerous occasions. He is seen swanning around his former home, usually in the elaborate garments made famous by Holbein’s portraits. There are even a few grainy photographs and videos of the king on the internet, predictably wheeled out each Halloween.

Henry is also said to haunt Windsor Castle, where his ghost is infinitely more intriguing. Visitors to the castle have heard him pacing the corridors, moaning and groaning at great volume, and those lucky enough to have seen him describe ‘a large, anxious, angry man pacing furiously and shouting loudly’. More mysteriously, Henry is said to haunt the Tudor manor of Samlesbury Hall in Lancashire, and has even been photographed, despite there being no record of his having visited the hall whilst alive. Capitalising on the legend, the Hall even employed a Henry-lookalike as a tour guide until 2009.

These apparitions of Henry reveal much about his reception as a historical figure. He is never the outstanding young king who patronised the arts and jousted but always the grossly-fat and cruel tyrant of later years. His Windsor ghost’s groaning is probably a reference to his gout, a condition caused by overindulgence in food and drink which makes walking agonisingly painful. His ghostly pacing is probably a reference to his marital frustration: his penchant for divorce came from his burning desire to have a male heir, and the only wife who gave him one, Jane Seymour, died of postnatal complications.

As regards his unexpected appearance at Samlesbury Hall, this can be linked to the decapitation of a Catholic priest that took place there during Henry’s Reformation of the English church. Perhaps this shows the king’s shame at the mass-slaughter he perpetrated. Several phantoms around the country are also linked to Henry and the Reformation, such as a ghostly monk at Glastonbury Abbey. There is also something to be said about his appearances at exclusively extant Tudor places: perhaps people are taken in by the historical atmosphere of such places, and cannot manage such feats of imagination out of the context.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
Anne Boleyn, by an anonymous English artist, late 16th century copy of a work of c.1533-1536. Wikimedia Commons

Wives of Henry VIII

Along with the ghost of the Glastonbury monk, others wronged by Henry continue to make post-mortem appearances. The most famous phantom wife of Henry is his second spouse, Anne Boleyn (c.1501-36). Anne was the woman whose many attractions caused Henry to seek a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, going so far as changing the country’s religion and making himself head of the church to achieve it. Anne was beautiful, cultured, and witty, and cast a spell over the enamored King. Unfortunately, these characteristics and her failure to produce a male heir led Henry to tire of her.

Accusing her of witchcraft (for seducing him), adultery, incest, and treason, Henry beheaded Anne at the Tower of London in 1536. Amongst other locations, Anne’s ghost is seen at her birthplace of Blickling Hall on her birthday, and her headless body is said to stride occasionally through the Tower of London. In these apparitions, we see a popular sympathy for the Tudor queen: she always protested her innocence, and later Tudor historians have been inclined to agree. A common interpretation of her ghost’s appearance fits this hypothesis: she is said to wander still because of the grave injustice she suffered.

Another beheaded wife, Catherine Howard (c.1523-42) is also said to return as a ghost. Like innumerable oafish men through the course of human history, the fat and middle-aged Henry chose to marry a pretty, flirtatious woman many years his junior. As is often the case, he became jealous and paranoid that she was unfaithful to him. Unusually, his suspicions were actually correct, and Catherine was beheaded after only 16 months of marriage, along with her lover, Thomas Culpepper. Tragically, while imprisoned at Hampton Court, Catherine managed to escape and tried to find Henry to beg for mercy, but was caught.

Her ghost is said to haunt Hampton Court, and the phenomenon is a remembrance of her failed attempt to ask for clemency. Contemporary accounts describe Catherine being dragged back to her room kicking and screaming, and her screeching ghost returns every year to a corridor known as the Haunted Gallery. Catherine’s trauma in this place seems to affect the living, too: people often faint, electronic equipment frequently malfunctions, in a particular spot in the Haunted Gallery. She is also seen floating to the Royal Chapel, turning, and then ‘to hurry back with disordered garments and a ghastly look of despair’.

As in the case of Anne Boleyn, Catherine’s ghost cuts a sympathetic figure. Although she did commit adultery, she is never seen in the company of Thomas Culpepper or the lovers she scandalously had before her marriage. Instead, she is seen in her moment of greatest despair, futilely seeking forgiveness and realising that her death was nigh (Henry had left Hampton Court, anyway). Just as Henry’s ghost represents Henry at his most disreputable, the way in which he is best-remembered, guilty Catherine and innocent Anne appear as reminders of his tyrannical later years, when he became a ludicrous pantomime villain.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
Abraham Lincoln, photographed in Springfield, Ill., 1846 or 1847. Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln

Quite the opposite of Henry VIII, Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) is fondly-remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents. Defeating the slave-owning South and ordering the Emancipation Proclamation make him especially palatable to our enlightened age, regardless of his real motives and actual views on race. His legend was only added to by his untimely death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre: the Confederate spy killing the relaxing abolitionist is a powerful image, and one that casts Lincoln forever as the ‘good guy’. Lincoln is commemorated on US currency, Mount Rushmore, and his elaborate tomb in Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln’s ghost is still frequently reported, especially at the White House. According to apocryphal legend, Sir Winston Churchill had an encounter with the phantom in the 1940s. Displeased to have been assigned the Lincoln Bedroom, so the story goes, Churchill strode from a lengthy soak in the bath completely naked except for his usual cigar perched on his lips, and was startled to see Abraham Lincoln himself leaning on the mantelpiece. With his legendary wit, Churchill is said to have quipped, ‘Good evening, Mr. President, you seem to have me at a disadvantage’, at which Lincoln chuckled, and disappeared.

Most of Lincoln’s appearances at the White House occur around the Lincoln Bedroom. He has been seen reclining on the bed, heard rapping at the door, and caused Eleanor Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, to bark at nothing (presumed to be Lincoln, though Eleanor did not specify why). Another guest of the bedroom, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, said that in 1942 she answered a knock at the door to find Lincoln in his customary frock coat and top hat, causing her to faint. Lincoln has also been seen at his own tomb and a portrait of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Lincoln’s ghostly returns to his grave and wife’s portrait are fairly common ghostly phenomena, but his alleged presence at the White House is more intriguing. The activity taking place during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, witnessed by Queen Wilhelmina and Churchill, coincides with World War II. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, America ended its policy of non-interventionism, and entered the fray. The attack on American soil was the worst since the Civil War ended in 1865, and despite a number of smaller conflicts in the intervening 74 years, must have brought back memories of the latter conflict.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that some started to imagine that Abraham Lincoln, the great American hero and war time president, had returned to keep a watchful eye over proceedings. Tales of his appearance to two prominent Allies can also be interpreted as a mark of acceptance (and forgiveness, in Churchill’s case, given the British assistance surreptitiously given to the Confederacy during the Civil War). Lincoln’s presence was thus something of a comfort, comparable to the example of Sir Francis Drake’s ghost in England featured below. Readers can decide for themselves whether Lincoln’s ghost is currently needed at the White House.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
King Charles I, after an original by Anthony van_Dyck, c. 1636 – 1799. Wikimedia Commons

Charles I

Charles I (1600-1649) has the distinction of being the only English Monarch to have been executed for treason. He was the son of James I, the king that Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators attempted to blow up in 1605. As well as writing a witchfinder’s guidebook (Daemonologie), James also wrote two treatises on the Divine Right of Kings, the belief that kings were appointed by God and thus only answerable to Him, free to impose laws by Royal Prerogative. Charles I also believed in the Divine Right of Kings, but his numerous failings led many to question the doctrine.

Charles’s choice of wife, the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France, was widely unpopular, given England’s status as a Protestant country and nationalistic hatred of its enemies’ Roman faith. He also spent lavishly on his vast art collection, clothing, and entertainment which, alongside his military failings, led to clashes with Parliament. Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 and ruled England as he pleased for 11 years, ending up facing bankruptcy because of his unchecked spending in 1640. Parliament was recalled, and eventually the English Civil War broke out in 1642. Defeated, Charles was captured, convicted of treason, and beheaded in 1649.

Charles appears as a ghost across England. Frequently he is seen with his Royal army (Cavaliers), a folk-memory of the turbulent Civil War. He also haunts two places in Oxford, where he had his garrison for a period. A story is told that he tried to borrow a book from the Bodleian Library, famously a non-lending establishment, but was simply told that ‘no one is allowed to take books from the library’. His phantom still walks the Upper Reading Room, clutching a book. He is also said to play bowls with his own head in St John’s College Library.

The Bodleian ghost story is especially interesting, as it neatly predicts the circumstances of Charles’s trial and lampoons his pompous adherence to the Divine Right of Kings. Asking to borrow the book suggests he assumed that, as king, he was above the laws for other men. The librarian’s placid response mirrors his trial, at which he was tried under his commoner’s name, Charles Stuart. The ghastly story of Charles’s head-bowling at St John’s (at the time a fiercely-Royalist establishment) both mocks the king for his defeat and reminds the college of its poor judgement in backing such a strutting fool.

Much like the American Civil War (see below), the traumatic years of the English Civil War have left their mark on ghost-lore. The 1642 Battle of Edgehill, the first battle of the Civil War, was a clash between 30, 000 soldiers. 1000 men were killed, with a further 3000 grievously wounded. Barely two months later, ghostly warriors were seen fighting again in the sky above the battlefield by terrified shepherds. The sound of whinnying horses, clashing armour, and moribund men are still heard at the battlefield to this day. The phantom battle represents a traumatic wound in the nation’s memory.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, 1934, US. Wikimedia Commons

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Elizabeth Parker (1910-34) and Clyde Chestnut Barrow (1909-34) today are undoubtedly folk (anti-)heroes. Modern retellings have focused on the romantic relationship between the pair, at times casting their exploits in the Robin Hood-mould. The very names ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ can even be used positively to describe an especially-devoted couple. The historical Bonnie and Clyde, however, were violent criminals who murdered 13 people during their 2-year crime spree during the Great Depression. As in the case of Al Capone (see below), their perceived glamour has somehow outstripped the appalling crimes they committed and turned them into pop culture icons.

The circumstances of their deaths perhaps have something to do with their post-mortem reception. Police finally caught up with Bonnie and Clyde on an isolated road in Louisiana on May 23rd 1934. Concealed in bushes at the side of the road, four police officers ambushed the pair in their stolen Ford V8 and shot the car to pieces with automatic weapons and shotguns. Although Bonnie and Clyde’s brutal crimes brought the heavy arm of the law on themselves, there is a lingering sense that the police were somehow unfair in ambushing them, rather than confronting them on an equal footing.

Apparently this resentment at the officers is shared by the ghosts of Bonnie and Clyde, for they are said to haunt the weathered memorial on the road commemorating their last stand. Here, they usually materialise as strange lights and mists (perhaps just ordinary lights and the common weather phenomenon of mist). Their stolen car is on display in Primm, Nevada, and is also said to be haunted by the ghosts of its most famous occupants. The Baker Hotel, Texas, played host to Bonnie and Clyde for several nights during their career, and their ghosts are sometimes seen in the ballroom.

This latter detail fits in with the unfairly sympathetic view of Bonnie and Clyde in popular culture. It has been speculated that they haunt the Baker Hotel to remember happier times, the specific location of the ballroom suggesting their (historically unattested) fun-loving side and the beautiful romance they are portrayed as having in modern interpretations. If we can apply rationality to the subject of ghosts, albeit briefly, surely two hardened murderers who beat and robbed desperate people during the Depression would come back as malevolent spirits to torment the living, rather than posing for tourist photographs and visiting a ballroom?

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
Countess Elizabeth Bathory aged about 25, contemporary copy of 1585 original, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Bathory

Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed (1560-1614), also known as the Blood Countess, was a wealthy and powerful Hungarian noblewoman who killed over 650 young women. Hoping to preserve her eternal beauty, Bathory would fill bathtubs with her victims’ blood and bathe in it. She was also fond of making living ice-sculptures, pouring buckets of water over naked victims stood outside the castle walls who froze to death, their faces preserved in agony. Some were covered in honey and consumed by sweet-toothed ants, others had gobbets of flesh removed with hot pincers for the Countess’s supper. Still others were simply burned.

Or so the story goes. In fact, there is no hard evidence that any of the above ever happened, and it is far more feasible to suspect that Elizabeth fell victim to a smear-campaign orchestrated by her fellow nobles. All evidence against her was hearsay, and archaeologists have found no evidence of the necessary mass burials at any of the properties she once owned. Elizabeth was a member of a prominent Hungarian family, outstandingly wealthy, and in possession of vast estates and castles. Through her deceased husband, Ferenc Nádasdy, she was connected to another of the most esteemed Hungarian dynasties.

As a widow, Bathory was dangerous. Should she remarry, she could upset the apple cart of power in Hungary, or gain a near monopoly on land ownership by allying herself with a wealthy suitor. Elizabeth was also sarcastic, intelligent, and incredibly self-assured: she was, in short, a big problem. When Nádasdy died, he entrusted his wife and children to the politically ambitious magnate, György Thurzó. It was Thurzó who led the investigation, trial of her accomplices, and confiscation of Bathory’s estates. Elizabeth was probably cruel to her servants, like many of her contemporaries, but she was unlikely a mass murderer.

Bathory was never formally tried or convicted, owing to the power of the rest of her family (who nonetheless seem to have been complicit in getting her out of the way), but she was walled up in a room in ÄŒachtice Castle for the last five years of her life. Throughout her surviving letters written during her house arrest at ÄŒachtice, Bathory firmly maintains her innocence. Nevertheless, the figure portrayed in Thurzó’s prosecution is straight out of a fairy tale, and more titillating than a middle-aged widow tricked out of her estates, and that is how she has been remembered.

The Bloody Countess is, of course, the form that her phantom takes. Precise details of the haunting are scarce, but visitors to ÄŒachtice describe feeling a sense of dread and evil which they naturally ascribe to her. Locals maintain, again nebulously, that the castle is haunted, though surprisingly little activity has been reported at the wine merchants that stands on the site of Bathory’s manor house where most of the ‘killings’ actually took place. Perhaps it’s just easier to feel the (probably fictional) atrocities of the past in a ruined castle arrogantly-perched on a hill top than at an off-licence.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
The Battle of Gettysburg, painted by Currier and Ives, New York, c.1863. Wikimedia Commons

American Civil War Ghosts

The American Civil War (1861-65), fought between the Union and Confederacy, needs no introduction. However, it is worth refreshing our memory of the statistics: 655, 000 people killed, and a further 419, 000 injured, to say nothing of the resultant economic and ecological depression that came for many in the aftermath. Even with hindsight, it remains divisive: although most are glad to have seen the end of slavery, the brutality meted out by both sides still rankles in some parts, and as in all conflicts it is important to separate the issues fought over from those made to defend them.

Just as the ghosts of the English Civil War are still seen or heard nearly 400 years after the conflict, so too the ghosts of the American Civil War are still said to walk the earth. Many relate to the Battle of Gettysburg (1863). The Daniel Lady Farm, occupied by Confederate troops after Gettysburg as their field hospital, is said to be haunted by General Isaac Ewell and 10, 000 soldiers. Likewise, the Baladerry Inn was used as the Union’s field hospital, and is also still claimed to be haunted by those who died and suffered after the bloody battle.

Purportedly the most haunted site associated with the Battle of Gettysburg is Devil’s Den, a hill on the south side of Houck’s Ridge at the battlefield. It was used on the second day of the battle by Union sharpshooters, but captured by the First Texas Regiment, who used it for the same purpose. The many boulders strewn across the hill were useful as cover for the artillery regiments. It is haunted by a deceased member of the First Texas Regiment, clad in a bright shirt and floppy hat, who utters the enigmatic words, ‘what you’re looking for is over there’.

Away from Gettysburg, other smaller battles have left their ghosts. Kolb’s Farm, Georgia, saw a skirmish that resulted in the deaths of 1, 000 Confederate troops. Amongst their ghosts is a playful entity that tugs on visitors’ hands and clothing. The Battle of Antietam (1862) saw c.4, 000 deaths and almost 18, 000 injured, and the battlefield is rich in revenants. Phantom gunfire and the smell of gunpowder have been reported along the aptly-named Bloody Lane and, inexplicably, strains of ‘Deck the Halls’ have been heard. Ghosts of both sides have also been seen fighting one another, as at Edgehill.

So what do these supernatural reports signify? In the first instance, it is common for traumatic events of the past to leave a mark in the national consciousness, from which reports of ghosts tend to spring. Additionally, historians have long determined that the war broke out over States’ Rights, and the limits of Washington’s interference, rather than slavery in and of itself. There is still friction between individual states and the White House, and these ghosts are a reminder of the continuing issue, to which we can add some instances of the controversial Confederate Flag being flown in the South.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
Tombstone of a Roman Legionary from the Legio I Adiutrix called Titus Valerius Montanus, who died in Mongotiacum aged 33, 1st century AD, Mainz. Wikimedia Commons

Roman Legionaries

The Romans successfully conquered Britain in 43AD on the third attempt, after the failures of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC. They swiftly set about improving conditions in the new Imperial outpost, and have left behind roads, buildings including the famous facilities at Bath and Hadrian’s Wall, along with a few ruined amphitheaters, temples, and villas. Although they had to deal with uprisings from disenfranchised local tribes such as the Iceni and the ever-troublesome Scots and Welsh, Roman Britain was relatively peaceful and prosperous until Rome itself fell and the Anglo-Saxons shooed the remaining conquerors away in the 5th Century.

There was a Roman garrison in the city of York in northern England, then called Eboracum but renamed Eoforwic (‘wild-boar town’) by the Anglo-Saxons, from whence we derive the modern name. Eboracum was the capital of the Britannia Inferior province, and two Roman Emperors, Septimus Severus (211AD) and Constantius Chlorus (306AD), died there. Its importance to the Romans apparently continues, as in 1953 a young heating engineer working in a cellar saw 20 Roman Legionaries marching. They were visible only from the knees upwards, later found to correspond to the height of a then-undiscovered Roman Road running beneath the house.

The witness was so frightened that he needed a fortnight off work to recover. His descriptions of the soldiers’ dress were remarkably accurate, and gave detail about the outfits then-unknown to historians but later verified through excavations at Hadrian’s Wall. The Legionaries appeared tired, and spoke to one another in hushed tones, their garments splattered with mud. At the other end of the country, Roman ghosts have been seen in the county of Dorset. There, another troop of soldiers was several times seen marching along Bindon Hill to the site of a Roman camp on Ring’s Hill in the 1930s.

It is interesting to note that very few Roman ghosts were seen in England before the last 100 years. In the aftermath of the York sighting, many also claimed to have seen near-identical apparitions (reports thitherto suspiciously absent). The details of that night in 1953 are hard to explain, and require a skeptical anthropologist rather than a historian. What can be said, however, is that Roman Britain has been a popular fixture of the British curriculum since the mid-twentieth century, giving everyone the opportunity to learn about the period, and this may have given some witnesses the necessary imaginary material.

The behavior of the York soldiers certainly corresponds the historical reception of Roman Britain since the 20th Century. This has focused on the great contribution they made to Britannia, about which far less is known, though Tacitus’s Agricola gives a fairly withering portrait. The anxiety of the soldiers could be related to the popular view of the Romans as civilized conquerors beset by uncouth and violent locals. Perhaps the sudden reappearance of the Romans in the mid-20th century reveals anxiety about the influence of Europe in the wake of World War II, eventually resulting in the Brexit vote of 2016.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
Sir Francis Drake, 1583 painting from an engraving by Jodocus Hondius, London. ABC.es

Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake (1540-96) is one of England’s most cherished heroes. A sea captain at the time of Elizabeth I, Drake circumnavigated the world, and secured his popularity when England was faced with invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588. Given carte blanche to do what was necessary to defeat the threat by Elizabeth, Vice-Admiral Drake responded by destroying much of the Armada anchored in the port of Cadiz (remembered as ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’). The Armada was effectively defeated at the Battle of Gravelines, after which most of the fleeing ships were destroyed by the Irish Sea.

Defeating the Armada offered Drake a form of redemption. His previous exploits were decidedly unsavoury, and many in England (and all of Spain) saw him as a pirate for robbing Spanish galleons and raiding settlements in the Americas. Elizabeth drew criticism for her decision to entrust the defence of the realm to a pirate, but of course his success vindicated the queen’s gamble. Victory, likewise, turned Drake into a national hero, and tales of his pluck and derring-do proliferated. One such story has a confident Drake finishing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before entering the Battle of Gravelines.

The image of the prodigal son come good at the time of England’s greatest need was irresistible, and we find his ghost attached to a legendary musical instrument. Drake’s Drum is a drum decorated with his coat of arms that accompanied him around the world and even, on occasion, into battle. According to legend, Drake promised, as he succumbed to fatal dysentery, that if the drum was played when England was at war he would return from the grave to defend the realm. It was heard beating at during the Napoleonic Wars and at the start of WWI and WWII.

The historical context of the drum being heard beating is significant. In the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was faced with invasion for the first time since the Spanish Armada, before Napoleon was defeated. France’s proximity to Britain made this prospect terrifying. Again, in both WWI and WWII, Britain was faced with invasion by foreign powers. Though largely ineffective, German bombing raids in WWI severely damaged Britain’s confidence, and by the time of the aeronautical advances of WWII invasion was a daunting prospect. The idea of a fallen hero rising from the grave to fight off a fearsome enemy was clearly irresistible.

10 Ghosts of the Most Famous Historical Figures and Where to Find Them
Mug shot of Al Capone, 1930, Miami, Florida. Wikimedia Commons

Al Capone

Alphonse Gabriel Capone (1899-1947), nicknamed Scarface, is perhaps the most notorious figure in 20th Century America. Capitalizing on the banning of alcohol during the disastrous Prohibition era, Capone made a vast fortune by selling alcohol on the black market. With many people perceiving Prohibition as a ludicrous and tyrannical law, the impertinent and witty Capone was looked upon fondly by the American public. His charisma and open admission of bootlegging made him a folk hero: ‘I’ve been spending the best years of my life as a public benefactor. I’ve given people the light pleasures… and all I get is abuse.’

However, public opinion turned decidedly against him when seven members of the rival North Side Gang were gunned down on St Valentine’s Day 1929, for which he was widely assumed to be responsible. This went against the public image Capone gave of himself, for though he admitted to bootlegging and ran his operation in plain sight at the Metropole Hotel, Chicago, he always firmly denied any involvement in violence or murder. The truth is that Capone rose to become a mob boss by murdering opponents and kept his business running smoothly through horrific violence, intimidation, racketeering, and bribing city officials.

Famously, Capone was finally convicted not of his mafia activities but tax evasion, for which he received 11 years. He died of a heart attack brought on by tertiary syphilis after being released. Our ghost story begins, however, while Capone was alive. Whilst serving an earlier minor sentence for carrying a concealed weapon at Eastern State Penitentiary, Capone was haunted by the ghost of a man he killed, known as Jimmy. Fellow prisoners heard him talking to Jimmy and screaming at the ghost to leave him alone. Jimmy followed him from Eastern State and continued to plague Capone at Alcatraz.

‘Jimmy’ is believed to have been the ghost of James Clark, a victim of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. When not shouting at Jimmy at Alcatraz, Capone whiled away the hours by learning the banjo. The inexplicable sound of a banjo being plucked is often said to be heard coming from his former cell. He is sometimes seen propping up the bar at the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago, which he used for business meetings. On a related note, the site of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre is haunted by the ghosts of the victims and the sound of gunfire.

These reports give a sense of the contradictory manner in which the notorious gangster is remembered today. In full possession of the facts about Capone’s personality and criminal career, he is rightly seen as a ruthless killer and thoroughly unpleasant man, to which the ghosts of the North Side Gang attest. The ghostly banjo-playing and his presence at the hotel bar attest to his softer side and the enduring romance of Capone’s legend. His self-crafted public image — a lovable rogue simply giving the people what they wanted directly in the face of killjoy public officials — also endures beyond the grave.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and Times of Al Capone. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003.

Newman, Richard. Ghosts of the Civil War: Exploring the Paranormal History of America’s Deadliest War. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2017.

Scott, Beth. Haunted America. London: Macmillan, 2007.

Thorne, Tony. Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of the Blood Countess, Elisabeth Báthory. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

Westwood, Jennifer, and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. London: Penguin, 2005.

Westwood, Jennifer, and Jacqueline Simpson. The Penguin Book of Ghosts. London: Allen Lane, 2008.

Advertisement