By Frank Kourt
“Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."
The quote above is from Shirley Jackson’s classic ghost tale, “The Haunting of Hill House,” but it could be easily applied to the brooding mansion known as White Hall, right here in Richmond.
Groups gathered at the old 44-room mansion this weekend to attend one of its annual “Scandals and Ghost Stories” tours.
My wife and I attended took a Saturday evening tour conducted by curator Lashe Mullins, and while the group politely listened to tales of scandal, it was the tales of haunting that seemed to pique the most interest.
Most of the scandals, and many of the ghost stories, surround Cassius Marcellus Clay, a 19th century emancipationist and White Hall’s most famous resident, dubbed “The Lion of White Hall.”
Mullins pointed out that an emancipationist was not the most popular thing to be in the Kentucky at the time, and the fiery Clay was not averse to rough physical brawling to defend himself and his ideas. Besides brawling, Clay’s scandalous behavior included rumors of peccadilloes while he served as minister to Russia and two divorces.
One of the most famous scandals involved Clay’s divorce from his first wife and, subsequent marriage, at the age of 84, to15-yer-old Dora Richardson.
Legend has it that a sheriff's posse showed up at White Hall to “rescue” the girl, but was dissuaded when she told its members she was there of her own free will. Mullins said it was lucky they left peacefully, because Clay had a cannon loaded and ready to fire on the group, had it come to that.
Perhaps “fiery” was too tame a term to describe Clay who, at 89, found himself unable to climb the stairs to his bedroom because of gout, and set up a bedroom in his library.
Probably expecting to encounter a feeble old man, three men intent on robbery, and possibly murder, broke into the library, and were met by Clay, knife at the ready. One of the men was stabbed to death on the spot, another made it to the ice house before he bled out and died, while the third fled, presumably screaming, into the night.
Mullins said tales of ghostly goings on at the mansion have included sightings of a man that many assume to be Clay, a young boy in period dress who seems to like playing hide and seek, a woman in a hoop skirt and even a baby who can sometimes be heard alternately “gurgling” happily, or crying.
“Just about everybody who has ever worked here has had something mysterious happen to them,” said Mullins, who has worked there as a tour guide, and later in her present position as curator at the mansion.
Mullins said she has smelled the waxy scent of burning candles where there are none, and a scent of rose perfume, observations that have been made by others. Like others, she has also heard sounds like moving furniture in the house when nobody else was there.
Mullins said a former curator told her of an incident when she saw a pile of papers levitate across the floor of one of the 10 bedrooms in the house. “Cold spots,” indicative of ghostly activity, have also been reported, as have partial and full materializations of ghostly figures.
While Mullins said she personally does “not have a problem” with the house, she does say that being in the master bedroom of the mansion makes her uncomfortable because, over the whirr of the fans that help cool the upper floors, it seems as though some unseen presence is trying to talk to her.
While most people associate ghostly activity with the dark hours, much of the spirit-like activity has been reported during the daytime, Mullins said. Of course, that may be because the daylight hours are when most people are around to observe the phenomena.
One cannot help wonder if, when the lights are out and the forbidding old mansion is locked up for the night, the hallways echo with the ghostly footfalls of The Lion of White Hall who still guards his home; whether an other-worldly baby cries out in the night; or whether a long-dead12-year-old boy seeks a playmate to join him in an eternal game of hide and seek.
More “Scandals and Ghost Stories” tours are slated for July 20-21, at 7, 8, 9 and 10 p.m. at the mansion. Admission is $7 per person, regardless of age. You must make a reservation by calling 623-9178.