Walking ghost tour offers glimpse into city’s dark past

Grace, a ghostly tour guide with Eerie Nights Ghost Tours, speaks at the steps of the Virginia Capitol Building.

The only ghost we saw was our tour guide, but it was still a frightfully good time.

Most people who have friends and family visit from out of town know the struggle that is finding something to do. If you are inviting them for a particular event – say Powhatan’s upcoming Labor Day Parade or Festival of the Grape – or a special birthday or anniversary party, your problem is solved. But if you have people coming in for anywhere from a single night to a full week, you might just have the desire to find something interesting for them to do.

Earlier this month, I had a friend come for a visit from North Carolina to stay for a single night. Her boyfriend and his friend were attending a concert in downtown Richmond, so the plan was to have dinner together, drop them off at the concert, and then go off with my friend Brie to do something on our own nearby.

Brie is a little unconventional, so we chose a suitably unconventional outing – taking a ghost tour of downtown Richmond. It seems like something you save for Halloween, but, aside from the slightly-too-warm weather, it really didn’t feel out of place to be doing it in the summer. I have done other tours around Richmond – usually during the day and occasionally involving history. This one was a little special.

Our tour guide was a ghost named Grace Morris, who died tragically in the James River while out on a picnic with her husband and some friends.

After the tour was over, Brie and I had a drink of water or four (it was a warm night, remember?) at a pub with our tour guide, who told us that she had been tasked with creating her character – who was really a delightful Southern belle – but everyone else she talked about in the two-hour walk was real. I want to laud her dedication to the character, especially when telling us we could take still images with our “devil boxes” but no moving pictures as it might steal her soul, and she only had but so much left.

It was a fascinating walk and talk that saw me puffing up some of Richmond’s hillier parts (I am working on getting in better shape) and long staircases.

At times, the stories got a little grisly and morose. Grace’s descriptions of soldiers in the Civil War having their limbs amputated came a little too close on the heels of my barbecue dinner.

It was both difficult and all too easy to stand in the middle of the 17th Street Farmers Market and imagine the slave auctions that were held in that very place. It was easy to imagine in a general sense because I have seen enough movies and documentaries set in times when slavery still existed in this country that showed slave auctions, although how accurate they were to the horrible truth I don’t know.

I say it was hard because it is difficult to superimpose those same images of human suffering over the lively downtown restaurant scene, where I saw few markers to shed light on that part of the city’s history.

(Since the tour, I learned about Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission and am interested to take a closer look at the Slave Trail).

I also was unaware of the failed slave revolt planned by literate slave Gabriel Prosser in 1800, which was foiled by torrential rain and a traitor within his group who warned white authorities of the impending attack.

Part of the tour led us to the steps of the Capitol Building, which is lit up at night and the grounds open to visitors. After climbing up the steps, we rested at the top, and the view of the city at night was spectacular.

We visited Monumental Church, which is the site of the Richmond Theatre fire of 1811 that claimed 72 lives. Grace talked about the spooky photos people have taken where mysterious faces could be seen in the windows, but, to be honest, imagining the terror of the theatergoers in that burning building didn’t need anything for added effect. I liked how she talked about not only the death but the heroism of two men in particular, Dr. James McCaw, and an enslaved blacksmith, Gilbert Hunt, who saved many lives that cold winter night.

Despite the way the above might sound as I talk about a night hearing about so much death, this was not an overly macabre outing. It was a glimpse into the city’s darker history, true, but it also was a way of remembering people who are long gone.

Brie and I loved how personal everything felt, especially as Grace related the events of her fictional life to those of real people and places in the city. In a strange way, a talk that was all about death brought history to life for us.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

Recommended for you

Commenting is limited to Times-Dispatch subscribers. To sign up, click here.
If you’re already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.