The Haunted Pubs and Taverns of Colonial Williamsburg
The pubs that are sprinkled about the town of Colonial Williamsburg were so popular in the 18th century that many of its patrons, long since passed from this life, have refused to give up their place at the bar, these specters still tipping back a few even in the afterlife. There is a theory within the paranormal community that when spirits are attached to an area, any structure that is rebuilt or restored will be a logical place for ghosts to return to and visit or stay, especially if this structure was a reconstruction of a place they were attached to while alive. The restored pubs and preserved taverns of Williamsburg are an excellent example of this kind of attachment. A public house, shortened to the now familiar word, “pub,” is an establishment providing alcoholic beverages to be consumed on the premises. The traditional pub was originally centered in Britain and regions of British influence. A tavern, likewise, was a British term that denoted a place that could board travelers for the night. Taverns were very important places during colonial times. In fact, if a town did not have one, it had to pay a fine! Taverns could also serve food and dispense drinks. The tavern soon became synonymous with the term “inn.” These inns in Williamsburg still house the spirits of those who yet linger in our world. Colonial America, being under British rule, abided by structured English rules and customs. English common law imposed the social responsibilities for the well-being of travelers upon the inns and taverns, declaring them to be actual public houses which must receive all travelers who are in reasonable condition and who were willing to pay the price for food, drink, and lodging. This hospitality apparently extends to long after death.
During the 18th century, Williamsburg had countless taverns. With the advent of the Prohibition era, many of them lost customers to speakeasies. The Volstead Act, enacted on October 28, 1919, made it illegal to produce, sell and consume alcohol in the United States. Speakeasies were where thirsty citizens would secretly go to “break the law.” When Prohibition ended in 1933, people went back to drinking in taverns.
It was the fraternity of these places, the gathering and the gossip, that made these establishments such a staple in English and early American society. Tavern keepers were known to be the best-informed people in town. Inns and taverns were also especially important during times of war. They were great places to learn new information, even eavesdrop on some smoldering events that would soon combust. Revolution was in the air. John Adams, for instance, enjoyed going to taverns because he could “get a sense of peoples’ “moods.” It is out of this storied milieu, this spirit of community, this establishment where ideas were shared and movements fomented, that the pub and tavern garnered its esteem among, apparently, both the living and the dead! Colonial Williamsburg is a time capsule, merely a mirror, preserving the reflection of 18th century America.
The world’s largest living history museum: A view of Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg is unique, being a functional town that is designated a historical landmark and a living history museum. Surviving colonial structures have been restored as close as possible to their 18th-century appearance, with traces of later buildings and more recent improvements removed. Many of the missing colonial structures were reconstructed on their original sites beginning in the 1930s. Animals, gardens, and dependencies, which refers to things such as kitchens, smokehouses, and privies, add to the Colonial environment into which all visitors are instantly inundated.
But it is the previous residents and visitors to this town that still holds the imagination. Ghosts, you see, are bookmarks to history, reminders that lives were lived in this place. Because Williamsburg is so well maintained and restored, it seems that the ghosts still reside within this area, going on about their activities in the very places they would frequent while alive. Now they simply haunt their favorite pubs and taverns.
More than One Kind of Haunting
In the field of the paranormal, ghosts haunt in various ways. We can divide these haunts by the way the ghost manifests itself.
Types of Ghosts:
- Intelligent (Classic)
- Shadow People
Poltergeists are ghosts who rarely take on a physical form yet reveal their presence by moving items, knocking, or slamming doors. The word poltergeist comes from the German which translates, appropriately enough, into “noisy ghost.”
A residual haunting refers to the phenomena in which a person, sound, or activity is permanently impressed into the very environment, embroidered seamlessly into our reality. These haunting are phantasmic recordings that play back under certain conditions.
An intelligent haunting is one involving a ghost. Also called a classic haunting, often times the ghost manifests itself into its living form and can interact with the living through speech, writing, or gestures.
Contrary to what television programs want you to believe, demonic hauntings are extremely rare and when they are present quite destructive and very dangerous. These demons are not the souls of departed humans; indeed, these entities are not created beings but intruders into our world. Often times these entities will violently manipulate their environment and often reveal themselves in vile smells or take on the spectral forms of grotesque figures. It is these hauntings that can lead to possession. Thankfully, there have been no reported demonic activities at Williamsburg, although the reports originating from Chowning’s Tavern is the closest to these types of hauntings.
Shadow People is a new category of hauntings. These entities seem to defy classification. The shadow people are vacuous human forms that often display attributes of all the other hauntings. Like poltergeists, these shadowy figures can move objects. Sometimes mistaken for demons, these beings can also be quite frightening and startling. Whether they are a disembodied soul, caught in our reality, or something completely different and unknown, is still up for debate. What is known for sure, the hauntings of shadow people are a part of the Colonial Williamsburg experience.
Let us wander around from tavern and pub and meet a few of its ghostly denizens, shall we?
The historic Brick House Tavern
If you are strolling down Scotland Street and are lured in by the smell of pizza, get a slice and stay for the ghosts for you have discovered the Brick House Tavern. The Brick House Tavern offers places to stay in an old Colonial house. The Brick House Tavern was built with solid design and materials; making it last for over 200 years before it was restored again as part of the Williamsburg renewal project. It is a large rectangular brick structure, with two floors that have eight rooms on each floor. A 1770 stay at The Brick House Tavern included a meal and lodging, which simply meant a place to sleep. Strangers slept in the same bed, unless they paid extra to have a bed to themselves The first floor was designated for women lodgers and the second floor was reserved for the men. Even if you were married, husbands and wives were still separated from each other under the rules and laws of the inns. All sixteen rooms now have their own private bathroom, these were added by using the closets in each of the rooms. The rooms are smaller than modern hotels, as Colonial people didn’t require a lot of personal space. During the Colonial period, each room would have one chamber pot, to be used by everyone sharing that particular room. In the morning, all the night’s contents would be dumped out. Oh, how times have thankfully changed! The rooms at the Brick House Tavern now have single, twin and queen beds. All the rooms are comfortable, with heating and air conditioning, and come with all the modern bells and whistles and perks, like room service. The services are so good that it seems some people have checked in and never checked out! The haunting spirits of this inn still follow the normal ways they did while staying here as a lodger in 1770, and they may even share the bed with you! Usually it is a female spirit slipping into bed with the living on the first floor, and a male spirit may try this on the second floor. Even in death, these ghosts are still obeying the laws of the inn. Of course, some of these hauntings may be residual, but many guests have reported ghostly interactions with an intelligent haunting. Some of these spirits seem confused if a woman is sleeping on the second floor, or a male is sleeping on the first floor, and those not following the rules of the 18th century are unceremoniously tossed out of their sleep and onto the floor!
Strong foot falls are also heard on the steps when no one living was going up or down the stairs. The sweet aroma of tobacco drifts through the tavern from time to time when no one living is smoking in this non-smoking building. The sound of many keys jangling” has been reported, possibly the calling card of a tradesmen, innkeeper or former owner who may be visiting, checking up on the living. Thomas Sands, the last owner of the building, has been reportedly witnessed checking on his building and the guests long after his earthly body was interred.
In this tavern, lights turn off and on at the will of unseen entities. Electricity, of course, would have been unknown to those who lived in the late 1700s. These ghosts also seem fascinated by the fact that clean water can be gotten by just turning on the faucet or shower, therefore many people have reported finding their showers of sink faucets running.
The haunted Chowning’s Tavern
Several factors were considered before a license to operate a tavern was approved:
- the financial status of the individual
- the tavern’s location
- its distance from already established taverns and inns.
Despite the struggles, running a tavern was a good way to earn a living. Williamsburg was the political and social center of the colony at the time. Therefore, running a tavern in the town turned up a favorable profit and provided a steadier income than agriculture. This was realized as early as before 1739, when this property was owned by William Shields. This tavern was a rendezvous for travelers, tobacco farmers, fishermen, and the locals. Even today, Chowning’s tavern is a destination for gatherings, offering guests a comfortable spot to enjoy simple and delicious foods, spirits and beverages. But not all of its spirits are of the liquid variety. And it seems not all gatherings in this establishment was congenial and amiable. The spirit of a supposed slave girl has been seen within the tavern, possibly the ghostly impression of a servant who cared for weary travelers or cooked meals. This fleeting apparition has been seen flitting throughout the room and disappearing within the kitchen area.
Some Ghosts Prefer to be Heard and Not Seen
A copious number of EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, have been recorded in this tavern. The sounds of typical tavern conversation has been captured when the tavern was empty. However, something a bit more distressful may have occurred in this place as well. Witnesses have reported and recorded the sounds of a woman screaming as well as vicious snarls picked up on audio devices. Could this be residual evidence of a terrible crime that occurred in the distant past of the former life of Chowning’s Tavern? To add further to the secret, a ghostly figure of a young girl with long, tangled black hair and no face has also been reportedly seen in this tavern. Is this a clue, a ghostly reminder of a crime not brought into the light of justice? Maybe you will be the one to solve this Colonial mystery?
The haunted and historic Market Square Tavern
The Market Square in Williamsburg had become the town trading center in the mid-1700s. Merchants from all over the world sold their goods in this part of town. As a result, people petitioned to have a tavern constructed close to this rapidly growing commercial area. In 1749, the now historic Market Square Tavern was established. The Market Square Tavern is one of eighty-eight original buildings still around and it’s open to guests who wish to experience an authentic colonial-era atmosphere. And Colonial-era ghosts!
Spectral appearances that seemed so life-like that those who witnessed them assumed they were costumed reenactors, have been seen wandering about the tavern. Unexplained noises have been heard when the tavern was empty. And visitors from another period have seemed to bleed into our reality as well. You see, next to the tavern was the Greek Revival Church which saw many horrors during the Civil War, including amputations and burials of the dead. Guests have reported seeing ghosts of wounded soldiers roaming the grounds and have heard tapping from inside the walls. The cries of anguish have also been recorded, reminders of a time when war raged just outside the windows of the tavern. Oh, the horrors this tavern has witnessed! History does not exist in a vacuum and neither do ghosts. From what the hauntings at the tavern on Market Square has revealed to us is that not every ghost belongs to the Colonial period and some ghosts seem to seek our attention to resolve a nearly 300-year-old injustice.
King’s Arms Tavern
On February 6, 1772, a woman named Jane Vobe opened a tavern on East Duke of Gloucester Street. It became one of the liveliest places in Williamsburg. Genteel colonists would gather there to enjoy live music, friendly service, and, of course, good food. Today, the King’s Arms Tavern operates just as it did nearly two and a half centuries ago. Waiters are dressed in traditional 18th century gear, and while taking orders, they share “news” and “happenings,” the latest gossip of colonial Williamsburg. Meanwhile, musicians stroll through the rooms, playing period tunes. As a result, patrons feel as if they have truly stepped back into time. And the ghosts apparently feel as if they never left!
A woman named “Irma,” who worked and died at the tavern, is the restaurant’s famous resident spirit. Some say that she was one of the first live-in managers at the restaurant. She was killed when a terrible fire, caused by a dropped candle, a common occurrence in Colonial America, devastated the building. Thus, whenever a candle mysteriously goes out on its own at King’s Arms Tavern, people assume that it’s Irma. Others insist that she was actually an employee of Colonial Williamsburg, who simply died of a heart attack in one of the tavern’s upstairs rooms. Whatever her background story, Irma joins the throng of ghosts that has helped make Williamsburg a popular ghost hunting destination. She has been described as a friendly spirit, who enjoys helping out staff. According to rumors, appreciative workers often wish her a good night every evening before they finish their shift.
Another ghost is also said to haunt this tavern. One of the nation’s first ordained black ministers” used to work at the King’s Arms Tavern. Mentioned in records as going by the name Gowan Pamphlet, this brave man was among a small collective of slaves and free blacks who founded the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg in 1776. He may have been owned by the tavern’s proprietress, Jane Vobe. At first, this group had to meet secretly in the woods, in order to avoid arousing their masters’ suspicions. They were later given use of a carriage house on Nassau Street by a man who was very moved by their powerful hymns and stirring prayers. Some employees have heard the faint murmur of spirituals echoing in empty rooms. Could this be Gowan, still singing the songs he loved so much in this life? Mostly, a stately figure of a smiling black man is seen, and his demeanor does not frighten the experiencer but rather calms the nerves and reassures that there is more to this life than skin and bones. After leaving his humble job at King’s Arms Tavern, Gowan Pamphlet became a pastor at the First Baptist Church. He was freed from slavery in 1793. As a freeman, Gowan makes his presence known.
Shields Tavern:A place for food and spirits
Located on 422 East Duke of Gloucester Street, Shields Tavern offers food in an authentic 18th century atmosphere. Here you can dine on a nice crayfish and shrimp stew or a more familiar southern fried chicken. But as you are seeping in the atmosphere, and after taking a bite, look around. You just might see a ghost!
During the mid-1700s, Colonial Williamsburg had approximately seven licensed taverns. Licenses were given to colonists on an annual basis. Shields Tavern first opened in 1705. It operated under the name Marot’s Ordinary. Its owner at the time was a man by the name of John Marot. The tavern had a parlor, a second story, a wine cellar, a bar, and even a garden room. Its prime location in downtown Williamsburg and its size made it a popular place for locals to eat, socialize and hold business meetings. Weary travelers would book rooms and lodge at the well-furnished Shields Tavern as well.
During Marot’s time, Shields Tavern catered to the gentry class. After his death, however, the clientele became more middle class. According to some stories, John Marot was murdered by a man named Francis Sharpe. The ghost of a caretaker, believed to be Marot himself, has been seen wandering about the tavern, still checking if all is in order.
In 1745, a man named James Shields obtained the property through marriage, thus the tavern formally became known as Shields Tavern. Mr. Shields was a plantation owner and owned several slaves. A few of these slaves were said to work in the tavern. This may be the origin of a ghostly little boy seen hiding under the dining tables, peeking out at visitors. When this phantom is approached, he merely disappears. also owned “plantations at Skimino and on Mill Swamp”4, horses, and several slaves.
Throughout the early 1800s, the property which was once Shields Tavern, changed ownership multiple times. Around 1858, an article in the newspaper Williamsburg Weekly Gazette announced that the building had been ravaged by a mysterious fire. The property’s next resident, a Mr. Moss, restored the site and opened two large shops there, from which he produced carriages, buggies and wagons.
The street in front of the tavern is said to have been where a girl was killed after being hit by a carriage. People who have taken photos in front of Shields Tavern have had their photos come with the image of a black mist. Could this be the tragic reminder of the death of a child, taken before her time?
Wetherburn’s Tavern: Ghosts still linger within these walls
Shields Tavern is located right by another haunted 18th century eatery, Wetherburn’s Tavern. While Shields Tavern catered to the lesser gentry, Wetherburn’s was frequented by the upper class. Around 1750, Henry Wetherburn added a new room to his tavern, the Great Room. As the name suggests, this was a cavernous space designated for entertaining and hosting important meetings, dances and elegant dinners.
Wetherburn’s Tavern was also where members of The Ohio Land Company, including George Washington and George Mason, gathered to talk business. The Company was founded by Virginian planters in 1747. It sent out surveyors to explore the United States and define boundaries for settlements. The lands to the west of the Appalachian Mountains were of prime interest. It was little concern to this group that all that land now belonged to the Native American, granted by treaty, but that is a different story altogether. The Company was chartered by King George II of England in 1749. The King granted The Company with 200,000 acres of land near the Ohio River. In return, The Company promised to settle 100 families in the area and erect a fort to protect them and the British claim. These Founding Fathers have been seen wandering through the tavern from time to time, residual hauntings etched into the very architecture of the tavern.
But not all the ghosts of this tavern are so notable. Candles are sometimes knocked to the floor, and dishes and plates found broken and strewn on the floor by an apparent poltergeist who also calls this place home,
Raleigh Tavern: Where history and ghosts mingle
The historic Raleigh Tavern, established in 1717, was named after its founder, Sir Walter Raleigh. Throughout its years, the tavern was the site of slave auctions and was used to sell theater tickets and merchandise. Many famous guests frequented the tavern. Thomas Jefferson, in addition to the Market Square Tavern, regularly attended balls held at the Raleigh in the late 1700’s. In 1768, the Governor ate at the Raleigh during his first night in the city. Seven years later, Peyton Randolph, President of the Continental Congress, returned from Philadelphia, was greeted at the Raleigh, celebrating his return. Also, George Washington, along with many other influential Virginians, often dined at the Raleigh.
Many historic events took place at the tavern. A very famous political group known as the Burgesses often met at the Raleigh. In 1769, Governor Dunmore dissolved the group for its political disrespect. Members responded by reconvening at the tavern. There they decided to suspend the purchase of various goods from the British. In 1773, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Dabney Carrhey formed the Committee of Correspondence, which was an important step towards Continental unity, at the Raleigh. On May 27, 1774, as a result of the Governor dissolving the House of Burgesses, eighty-nine members reassembled at the Raleigh to form another association. This union became known as the Continental Association. The Raleigh was the first establishment to hear the whispers of revolution.
The tavern also played host to the founding of two organizations that are still around today. On December 5, 1776, William and Mary students gathered in the Apollo Room and founded Phi Beta Kappa. Also, in 1779 another group of gentlemen met at the Raleigh and formed the Pulaski Club, one of the oldest social organizations in the nation.
It is within these walls that figures are seen talking, caught in a conversation centuries old. Or perhaps they are debating and pontificating on the state of affairs of our country today? Either way, this tavern still plays host to those who made this country what it is today.
Magruder Hotel: A place where historical periods collide
Not all establishments in Colonial Williamsburg are from the 1700s. And, as we have seen, not all ghosts that haunt this location are from the Colonial-era. The Magruder Hotel is an example of this. It dates to the Civil War.
One of the most significant battles during the Civil War was the Battle of Williamsburg. On May 5, 1862, the North and the South engaged in bloody combat. This pitched battle left 1,682 Confederate and 2,283 Union soldiers dead.
It is this unique piece of history that affords Fort Magruder Hotel and Conference Center its historical status: not only did the Battle of Williamsburg occur on its grounds, but the hotel itself has become a museum for its artifacts. From old musket balls to hand-stitched quilts, there are plenty of Civil War era relics on display. Guests can pose in front of authentic cannons and explore the various earthwork fortifications which still stand the property.
However, the hotel’s efforts to preserve the past has proven just a bit too successful. There have been several reports of paranormal activity within the hotel, most likely caused by soldiers who feel more than welcome where they are so celebrated. A female guest at Fort Magruder was interrupted from her sleep by a red-headed Confederate soldier, perched upon her bed. Indeed, besides picturesque views of battlegrounds, the hotel’s guest rooms offer so much more. Here you can get up close and personal with history!
But it is not just guests who have encountered spirits at Fort Magruder Hotel. Hotel housekeepers have experienced similar spooky encounters, with some ghosts even manifesting as maids. Visitors to the hotel thus have to play a guessing game and try and figure out who’s really alive, and who’s just pretending.
The hotel’s lobby and lounge are also frequented by unsettled spirits. Employees have seen figures walk through windows, discovered doors mysteriously unlocked, arcade games moved, and broken glass scattered all over the floor. It’s moments like these that make staff wish that their hotel didn’t have such a close connection with history.
Where Past is Prologue
Colonial Williamsburg is a reminder of what America once was and the ghosts who haunt the taverns and pubs are reminders of what a person of ingenuity is capable of doing. It is here, in these establishments, that slaves returned as freed men, were great men contemplated about the right of man, and where a British Colony broke free and became the United States of America. It is one these grounds that a divided America fought to be indivisible and always united. Colonial Williamsburg is the backdrop on which the history of America is projected. If you are lucky enough, you may witness one of the ghosts of the people who made this country what it is today!
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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