John F. Stavely,
Ghosts & Gravestones
in St. Augustine, Florida

(Historic Tours of America, 2004)

Dave Lapham,
Ghosts of St. Augustine
(Pineapple Press, 1997)

Dave Lapham,
Ancient City Hauntings:
More Ghosts of St. Augustine

(Pineapple Press, 2004)

Karen Harvey,
Oldest Ghosts: St. Augustine Haunts
(Pineapple Press, 2000)

My wife and I chose St. Augustine as our vacation destination because it offered Florida weather (Pennsylvania in February isn't the most pleasant environment) and was a much shorter drive than cities further to the south. As we hoped, the beach was great, the days were warm and the city was rich with history and architecture.

Considering the age of St. Augustine -- it is, after all, the oldest city in the United States -- we should have expected an equally rich ghost culture.

My fondness for ghost stories is longstanding, and I always enjoy exploring the supernatural side of places I visit. St. Augustine seemed particularly well suited to this passion. I wasn't disappointed.

My first foray was a slim volume recommended by the delightful proprietress of a Second Read Books, just outside the main historic and shopping district. Ghosts & Gravestones in St. Augustine, Florida, written by John F. Stavely and produced by Historic Tours of America, strives for the academic approach; hence, the narrative is clipped and to the point, a little dry, but it packs a lot of information into a very brief text.

I wouldn't recommend Ghosts & Gravestones for the person who likes to drink deep of ghostly atmosphere. However, for an overview of the basic apparitions believed to exist in the city, it's good value for the money.

But I wasn't sated. I want atmosphere. I want to be spooked.

Certainly, a walking tour of the city led by A Ghostly Experience, one of several St. Augustine ghost tours, provided much of the atmosphere Ghosts & Gravestones lacked.

Then I picked up Ghosts of St. Augustine and Ancient City Hauntings: More Ghosts of St. Augustine, both by Florida writer Dave Lapham. I read through both of them quickly, carrying them with me wherever I went to crack the pages whenever a few moments were free.

Lapham knows how to write a ghost story. Many of the basic stories are the same as those found in Ghosts & Gravestones, but the presentation is more fluid, more colorful, more ghostly. Stories I'd now heard or read twice before creeped me out for the first time, and there were plenty of new tales to keep the reading fresh. The books were unsettling, and when I revisited several of the allegedly haunted sites by myself late one night, I was downright uneasy.

Well, after all, these books are about ghostly cats and captains, soldiers and servants, widows and washerwomen. A judge haunts the trees of one cemetery, a young boy plays in the trees of another. Things move, noises come from nowhere, voices utter strange phrases and unusual smells appear from the shadows.

The Lapham books are everything a collection of ghost stories should be. The narratives are steeped in history and local color. The ghosts themselves are presented clearly, with ample anecdotes from witnesses where available and thoroughly researched explanations of the spirits' possible identities. At the same time, Lapham doesn't come across as entirely credulous; he looks for the root of each story without going overboard with pro-ghost enthusiasm.

If Lapham puts out another book of ghost stories from St. Augustine -- or pretty much anywhere else -- I'd be eager to read it.

Finally, I picked up a copy of Karen Harvey's Oldest Ghosts: St. Augustine Haunts. Harvey is a local resource, a tour guide in the city and an experienced researcher in the subject. In fact, she notes in her introduction, some of her research was used in Lapham's work.

She treads much of the same ground, as would be expected -- even St. Augustine has a limited supply of ghosts to write about. It's a testament to Harvey's abilities that I enjoyed reading so many of the stories another time.

Her approach, however, is more anecdotal, touching on personal experiences of many St. Augustine residents, visitors and tour guides. The latter cases are among the most interesting; it's fun to read about a guide who, while telling the story of a particular ghost, is accosted by the spirit in question. There are some guides who avoid certain locations because of their own well-earned fears.

Harvey also managed to provide a few new insights and encounters that the other authors had missed.

Bottom line: the books by Harvey and Stavely are good resources, each with strong points to recommend them to ghost enthusiasts and dabblers alike. For the best storytelling experience and hackle-raising creepiness, Lapham is the way to go.

As for the existence of the St. Augustine ghosts, that's for you to decide.

by Tom Knapp
1 April 2006

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