A Rich Historical Heritage

The "Origins & History of the Palm Beaches" digital archive contains 40 original full-text articles profiling the history of Palm Beach County. The archive is a companion site to "Palm Beach County Issues & Views." Both sites are edited by Robert I. Davidsson, author of the book "Indian River: A History of the Ais Indians in Spanish Florida" and related articles about Florida's past. This archive is the winner of the Florida Historical Society's 2019 Hampton Dunn Digital Media Award.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Digging Up Palm Beach County's Haunted History

By Bob Davidsson
        When it comes to the supernatural, Palm Beach County has it all - Everglades ghost towns by the score, haunted mansions, cemetery tales from beyond the crypt, even a preternatural road on the island of Palm Beach.
        From Jupiter to Boca Raton, and west to Belle Glade, folktales, superstitions and unexplained experiences are unearthed from the timelines of history. Readers are invited to join this journey through the catacombs of crypto science to learn the history of the county's dark side. Continue at your own risk:

Every Lighthouse Deserves a 'Tall Tale'
        The Jupiter Lighthouse was built on an ancient Jeaga Indian shell mound along the north shore of the Jupiter Inlet. Lt. Robert E. Lee is credited as one of the site's original military surveyors, while his future opponent at the Battle of Gettysburg, Lt. George Gordon Meade, was the architect.
        Since its completion in 1860, visitors to the lighthouse have reported "cold spots" and heard "strange noises" while climbing the 100-foot internal stairway. Occasionally, spooked visitors have felt hands touching their shoulders, only to turn and discover no one is behind them.
       There is a gallery of spectral suspects to question in an attempt to solve this invisible mystery. The Jeaga tribe's main village of Hobe was once located directly across the inlet from the Jupiter Light. Archaeologists also have discovered Indian artifacts at the lighthouse site.
        During the Civil War, the lighthouse was inactive and its keepers hid the valuable Fresnel lens to prevent its use by the Confederacy. This did not prevent rebel smugglers and blockade runners from using the site in a deadly three-year game of hide-and-seek with Union gunboats on patrol.
        A short distance north of the lighthouse, in the Jupiter Narrows, Spanish conquistadors fought a desperate four-month battle against the native Jeaga and Santaluces tribes at Fort Santa Lucia during the winter of 1565-66. After sustaining nearly 80 percent casualties, the Spanish garrison mutinied, captured a supply ship entering Jupiter Inlet, and sailed away.
        Santa Lucia became a ghost town that has never been rediscovered, although many amateur history detectives and archaeological teams have tried and failed.
        In the 1760's, Lord Temple and his brother, Sir George Grenville, a future English prime minister and opponent of American independence, attempted to establish a plantation on the north shore of Grenville (Jupiter) Inlet. The enterprise failed when Grenville died in 1770. Several years ago, British pottery was excavated near the lighthouse.
        During the 19th century, the family of Eusebio Maria Gomez, a Spanish colonial official in St. Augustine, acquired the Grenville's "Jupiter Land Grant," which included the north shore of Jupiter Inlet and most of Jupiter Island. His heirs and family agents made several unsuccessful attempts to establish a plantation on the land grant. A few never left the island alive.
       The U.S. Army established and garrisoned an outpost called Fort Jupiter west of the lighthouse site in an effort to control marauding Indians during the Second and Third Seminole Wars. Two battles were fought along the Loxahatchee River in the year 1838.
       Today, visitors who dare to climb the lighthouse alone may risk an encounter with one of these unsettled spirits from Jupiter Inlet's rich and varied past.

Glades Ghost Towns R.I.P. Under the Muck
        The hopes, dreams and legacy of thousands of pioneer farmers rest within the foundations of numerous Glades ghost towns hidden today under green fields of sugarcane in western Palm Beach County.
        You won't find most of the towns listed on modern maps, but if you turn the pages of time back to the years 1900-30, these small farming communities will come to life. The first was Kraemer Island (established in 1893), followed by the villages of Bryant (1902), Ritta (1909), Gardena, Fruitcrest (1912), Okeelanta and Gladecrest (1913), Chosen and Geerworth (1921) and Bean City (1923).
        Fertile Everglades muck, and misleading promises by developers, attracted would-be farmers from northern states, immigrants from Europe, and African-American farm workers from across the south. The town of Geerworth was promoted in England by H.G. Geer and C.C. Chillingsworth as a promised land of plenty for hard-luck, out-of-work British farmers.
        The reality was far different. The new arrivals faced the debilitating heat and humidity of the Glades, insect pests, droughts, seasonal flooding and a series of  tropical storms climaxed by the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928. Most of these fledgling communities ceased to exist after a wall of water from Lake Okeechobee, nearly 10 feet high, flooded their homes and fields.
        Between 2,500 and 3,000 residents of these small farming communities were killed by the storm, and about 35,000 were left homeless in Palm Beach County. The bodies of many of the dead were burned in the fields to prevent disease. Others were carried to mass graves near Port Mayaca, where about 1,600 were interred.
        As the flood waters receded, the dead were lined in row along the Belle Glade-Chosen road. They were divided by race. The black storm victims were hauled to the county's "Paupers Cemetery," founded in 1913 at the intersection of 25th Street and Tamarind Avenue in West Palm Beach. The bodies of 674 African Americans, and those listed as "race unknown," were rapidly buried in mass graves.
        Many white hurricane victims were transported to Woodlawn Cemetery, located near downtown West Palm Beach, for their final interment. While the bodies lay at rest, some say their spirits still wander through both cemeteries on the night of Sept. 17, the anniversary date of the 1928 hurricane.

Haunts of the Rich and Famous in Palm Beach
        Whitehall, the palatial mansion on the shore of the Lake Worth Lagoon in Palm Beach, was built by railroad tycoon Henry Flagler as wedding gift for his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham. Some say old Henry was so fond of the landmark home, and his young wife, that he continued to walk the halls of the mansion even after his death.
        It was May 10, 1913 when the Palm Beach magnate slipped and fell down a flight of marble stairs at Whitehall. He died of his injuries at age 83. For several years, the trains of Flagler's FEC railroad stopped for 10 minutes as a tribute on his burial date of May 23.
        Today, Whitehall is a museum visited by thousands of guests each year. While the ghost of Henry Flagler is credited as the source of ephemeral foot steps heard on the stairs, he may not be alone.
        Flagler's second wife, Alice, was diagnosed as medically insane by her husband's physicians. She had an unsettling habit of consulting a Ouija board and forecasting the deaths of others. Flagler pushed a special bill through the Florida Legislature making "insanity" legal grounds for divorce. Alice was institutionalized and died in 1930.
        Mary Lily, wife number three, also met an untimely and mysterious death in 1917. As an heiress to both the Flagler and Bingham fortunes, Mary Lily was the wealthiest woman in America. An autopsy, conducted at the request of her two brothers, revealed her body contained "enormous amounts" of  morphine, as well as traces of the heavy metals arsenic and mercury.
        Murder conspiracy theories filled the newspapers for weeks, but there would be no justice for Mary Lily in this world. Perhaps she is seeking it in the afterlife.
        Stalking the undead has become a tourism industry in the Town of Palm Beach and several other communities in the county. A "Ghosts of Palm Beach" walking tour targets the historic buildings and alcoves along Worth Avenue.
        Famed architect Addison Mizner is best known for his stylish Mediterranean Revival homes and buildings in Boca Raton and Palm Beach. Some of his unique designs were incorporated in the Everglades Club on Worth Avenue, where Mizner once lived. The architect died at his Palm Beach residence in 1933.
        While there are no human cemeteries in Palm Beach, there is a gravesite in the Via Mizner arcade for his beloved spider monkey, "Little Johnnie Brown". The monkey's tombstone reads, "Johnnie Brown: The Human Monkey. Died April 30, 1927."
        According to the local urban legend, Mizner, with Johnnie on his shoulder, can be seen late at night admiring his architecture and browsing the shops in the exclusive shopping district. One favorite haunt is his "Memorial Fountain," which he designed as a tribute to Henry Flagler and other early pioneers.
        No supernatural tour of the island of Palm Beach is complete without a visit to the "Witch's Wall," located where North Lake Trail merges with Country Club Road. For generations of local high school students, visiting the haunted site by car, with a group of friends in tow, was considered a rite of passage, as well as a fun Saturday night thrill.
        The "Witch's Wall" is actually a ridge of Anastasia limestone carved to create a steep valley that allows a road to pass through to the center of the island. Limestone is porous and contains many cracks and fissures. Many years ago bars were placed across one of  the larger holes on the south wall.
        It became the perfect scenario for a ghost story. There are many plots and versions, but the basic story line is a wicked witch lives in a house at the top of the limestone hill. The witch captures passing travelers (mainly children) and places them in a dungeon below the house.
        Cars passing the Witch's Wall at night hear the voices of children coming from the dungeon, and strange light passing through the bars. It is believed the source of the noises and reflected light was actually a nearby water utilities pump station.
        Teenagers find the paranormal legend more exciting than reality, and a proven method of enticing coed dates to hold their boyfriends a little tighter.

Ghosts That Haunt Public Places
        Some specters are not shy about making their eerie presence known in public buildings found throughout  Palm Beach County. Libraries, theaters, even five-star hotels, are frequented by spirits from the afterlife.
        The modern, high-tech Warren Library, located on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, is not a setting where the living would expect to encounter the undead. Apparently, spirits don't always follow library codes of conduct written by the living.
        According to the academic legend, the ghost that frequents the Warren Library is a janitor who mysteriously disappeared after working at the college for many years. Students and staff have heard someone (or something) rummaging in a locked janitor's closet late at night. Perhaps a ghostly cleaning crew is still making its rounds.
        The staff of the Palm Beach County Library System's Main Library on Summit Boulevard share their information center with an avid reader from the beyond the grave. An elderly women dressed in conservative clothing, perhaps from an earlier age, has been observed by several librarians shortly before 9 p.m., the library's closing time.
        While librarians are making a final circuit before closing, the elderly woman is observed as they pass by, always standing in the nonfiction section reading a book. However, when a librarian turns to tell her the library is closing, there is no one there.
        The nonfiction collection is located in the oldest section of  the Main Library. It was built in 1968, and has survived numerous hurricanes, bomb scares, fire alarms and evacuations. The library has policies and procedures for every emergency - except ghosts.
        In the winter of 2012, the author of this article had a close encounter with the Main Library's spectral patron. While working a night shift as library supervisor after closing time, he walked past the collection of "New Books" which were all neatly placed in their stacks. Unexpectedly, a book popped out of the shelf directly behind him and fell to the ground with a loud pop.
        The book was nonfiction, the ghost's favorite genre.
        The Lake Worth Playhouse on Lake Avenue has entertained the public since 1975 with its community theater productions. In one of its prior lives, it was called the Capri Theatre and billed X-rated adult movies. In the 1920s, silent films were featured in the Oakley (LC) Theatre.
        The theater was built in 1924 and operated by brothers Lucian and Clarence Oakley. The 1928 hurricane badly damaged the original theater, but the determined brothers invested all their savings rebuilding the Oakley Theatre with an Art Deco design.
        The 1928 hurricane disaster was followed by the economic devastation of the Great Depression. The Oakley Theatre lost customers, and Lucian became depressed trying to keep his theater out of bankruptcy. He committed suicide. Exactly one year later his brother, Clarence, died of a heart attack.
        Today, the two brothers share a paranormal interest in Lake Worth Playhouse productions. Lucian's spectral image allegedly is seen in mirrors, and the departed theater owners are occasionally heard walking the catwalk above the stage. Objects also have been observed moving on their own accord.
       In recent years, the playhouse has become a popular venue for entertaining "haunted house" productions on Halloween.
       The historic Gulfstream Hotel is located three blocks east of the Lake Worth Playhouse. It was built in 1923 at the height of the "Roaring '20s." Fifty years later, in January 1983, the hotel was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
       The ghostly presence encountered by both guests and staff in the past is believed to be the mischievous spirit of a 6-year-old girl who roams the hotel playing tricks on the living. According to the legend, the Gulfstream Hotel became haunted after a child fell down an elevator shaft in the 1930s.
        The child spirit is fond of playing games with new arrivals in the hotel. Some of her favorite tricks are tapping people on their shoulders, pulling on the dresses of women, and switching televisions on and off. She also continues to have a deadly fascination with elevators.
        In recent years, the Gulfstream Hotel fell on hard times, changed ownership and was vacated. The preliminary plans for renovation and expansion of the historic site were approved in 2016. The spirit of a little girl residing in the hotel was not consulted about its future plans.
        The ghost of a boy supposedly buried on the campus of Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach also is restless spirit. The phantom scholar is heard rattling rafters in the auditorium. He seems to be particularly active creating noise during drama club rehearsals.
        The Boynton Beach Holiday Inn motel near Congress Avenue may have been built on an ancient Indian burial ground. In the world of the supernatural, this is never a good idea. Guests at the motel report shadowy apparations of human figures roaming the halls at night.
       The upscale Boca Raton Resort and Club opened Feb. 6, 1926 as the Ritz-Carlton Cloister Inn. It was originally designed by Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner.
        For more than 90 years, the ghost of  a long-deceased chambermaid named Esmerelda has been making her rounds on the third floor and Cloister Hall. Esmerelda was one of the first service employees hired by the hotel in 1926. Visitors have reported hearing her walking the hallways, and discovered items rearranged upon returning to their rooms.
        Apparently, the spectral maid is continuing to tidy up the resort's rooms for guests. Either out of dedication to their earthly responsibilities, or ignorance of their current ephemeral state of existence, some ghosts don't know when it is time to retire to the grave.

Local Cemeteries Are Lively Places at Night
        Judging from the growing popularity of cemetery tours in West Palm Beach, Boca Raton and elsewhere in the Palm Beaches, there are many tales to be told of restless spirits in our county graveyards.
        The Riddle House was once located at 327 Acacia St. in West Palm Beach. It was built in 1905 using leftover wood from Henry Flagler's hotel projects on Palm Beach.
        The building was originally used as a funeral parlor serving the adjacent Woodlawn Cemetery. For 15 years, it was known as the "Gatekeeper's Cottage" for the graveyard. Due to its brightly-colored exterior, the cottage also was commonly called a Victorian "Painted Lady".
        Cemetery workers used the Gatekeeper's Cottage as a meeting place. One large gravedigger, called "Buck," was killed during an argument, but continued to report to work after his death. He was observed walking through the cemetery, and often seen sitting on the porch of the Gatekeeper's House taking his breaks from work.
        Karl Riddle, a former city manager responsible for the upkeep of Woodlawn Cemetery, lived in and later acquired the house in 1920s. His home earned a supernatural reputation when Joseph, an associate of Mr. Riddle, hanged himself in the attic. It is said he was trying to escape pending financial difficulties.
        In 1995, the Riddle House was donated to the "Yesteryear Village" historic park, located near the South Florida Fairgrounds. As they moved and repaired the historic home, workmen experienced missing tools and strange sightings while completing the project.
        The Riddle House was featured in a 2008 episode of  "Ghost Adventures" on the Travel Channel. Today, the home is a favorite haunt of visitors during "Yesteryear Village " ghost tours.
        Our Lady of Peace Cemetery in Royal Palm Beach opened in 1974 as the only Catholic cemetery owned and operated by Diocese of Palm Beach. As its name implies, by day it is a restful setting of mausoleums and gravesites, and features a fountain topped by a statue of Our Lady.
        The cemetery is promoted as "a peaceful atmosphere that reflects our respect of loved ones who rest here in peace." However, on some nights, visitors claim the atmosphere is much different.
        There have been reports of a strange fog covering the cemetery, and shadowy figures standing in the mist that move and vanish at will. Others have seen orbs of light in the cemetery at night.
         The true history of one cemetery is even stranger than the most fanciful ghost story. Such is the saga of the Boca Raton Cemetery and Mausoleum.
         Before 1916, deceased family members from the rural community of "Boca Ratone" were buried at their homes, nearby churches, or on the barrier island near the Boca Raton Inlet. The inlet burials could be the source of orbs of light appearing near this narrow outlet to the ocean.
        Fishermen and nocturnal visitors occasionally feel "warm spots" near the inlet on cold winter nights. A young woman buried near the inlet in the distant past also makes spectral appearances by the sea, according to the local legend.
         The first community cemetery was a one-acre section at the site of the future Boca Raton Resort and Club. Prior to the construction of the new hotel in the 1920s, the cemetery was closed, the bodies disinterred, and then transported to a new 10-acre gravesite north of Glades Road.
        During World War II, western Boca Raton was selected as the site of an Army Air Corp airfield. The cemetery had to move a second time. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers selected the highest point in Boca Raton for its third cemetery, Sunset Hill. Some bodies were exhumed for a second relocation in 1942 and buried in their third plot. The new 15-acre graveyard became the Boca Raton Municipal Cemetery and Mausoleum.
        It is not surprising that at least two spirits are active at night in the Boca Raton Cemetery. Automobiles passing the cemetery before dawn have called in reports to the Boca Raton Police Department of a "screaming man" in the graveyard. He is never found by police units on patrol.
        The main mausoleum in the cemetery is the haunt of a little girl with a wandering spirit. Visitors claim to have seen a child at prayer by the mausoleum. Others have heard a young girl playing games among the monuments.
        Yes, Palm Beach County is a paradise where the living enjoy the days, and restless spirits join in the fun after sunset.
(c.) Davidsson.  2016.

NOTE: See related October 2015 article, "Muck Monster Legend Becomes Part of Our History," archived in Older Posts.