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
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.