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

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.

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