This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
I’m staring at the statues of James Graham Brown and his beloved dog Woozum on the last Friday evening in August as the remnants of a storm called Isaac make their way into the Ohio Valley. An extraordinarily personable man in black shorts and a black polo shirt by the name of Robert Parker, aka “Mr. Ghost Walker,” is telling an attentive group around the statues about two of the Brown Hotel’s ghostly tenants — Mr. Brown and Woozum themselves.
This is my first ghost walk. Parker started “Louisville Ghost Walks” 10 years ago and gives this tour (which he proudly proclaims is the city’s original ghost tour and includes the Brown, Brennan House, Louisville Palace and Seelbach) every Friday night from Derbytime until Thanksgiving. Three days ago, at Highland Coffee, Parker promised that the experience just might convince me that ghosts are real.
Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Having been the kid who liked to watch horror movies and sit around in totally dark rooms (it’s really the only proper way to listen to music), I’ve always had an affinity for urban legends and tales of alleged hauntings. My mother and grandmother assured me that I was inviting the influence of Satan himself into my life by even considering writing this story, but as a child, I can remember several occasions when I saw what looked like the apparition of an old woman crossing the yard behind my grandparents’ Elizabethtown home. My grandfather once recorded noises that would recur on occasion in the house, sounds of a woman falling down the basement stairs. The duration of this phenomenon varied when it happened, and the screams and thumps were always preceded by the forceful opening of the home’s back door, which faced the basement stairs. It’s worth noting that a previous owner had fallen to her death in that basement and was buried in the cemetery next door.
In spite of this, I come from the John Malkovich school of thought on the supernatural (“The ghosts you chase you never catch”), which is to say, “Ha! I’ll believe it when I see it.” I initially set out to find some of Louisville’s most interesting ghoulish tales that don’t involve Waverly Hills, the sanatorium to the south that you already know about (see pages 16 and 17). But Louisville is home to urban legends involving an evil goat monster, a “living” statue of the Greek god Pan and even several alleged Bigfoot sightings, according to kybigfoot.com.
The aforementioned goat monster — a half-man, half-goat beast — resides at the Pope Lick Creek railroad trestle near Fisherville and, as the story goes, lures unsuspecting passersby into the path of speeding locomotives using his Satanic yowl and evil hypnotic abilities. The area around the creek itself is somewhat dark even in daylight due to the abundance of trees, and an eight-foot fence (you can see it from Taylorsville Road) stands on the hill leading up to the trestle, discouraging thrill-seekers.
Then there’s the statue of the Greek god Pan, atop Hogan’s Fountain in Cherokee Park, which comes to life and leaves its perch during full moons, inciting mischief. (Truth be told, Pan only appears to be missing from his base in certain light due to the statue being much darker than the fountain.) “I’m a child of the ’70s, man. That was the big thing,” says Keith Age, founder and president of the Louisville Ghost Hunters Society. “People were saying, ‘Oh, the statue comes to life!’ and everything. I’m like, ‘Yeah, you must’ve been eating some good mushrooms on that one.’”
Many urban legends have a small bit of truth to them. The Pope Lick Creek area is creepy, and teenagers have died there from being hit by trains, but goat monsters and living statues are little more than campfire tales. “Most urban legends are designed to scare little children to go to bed,” Age says. “‘If you go out there, please, whatever you do, don’t get on the tracks.’”
I turn my attention to a paranormal subject that many more people seem to witness: hauntings. It’s easier for me to accept that maybe ghosts exist because, hey, who’s to say people who spend a lot of time in a place don’t leave some sort of molecular energy footprint there, a by-product that flares up on occasion?
That’s why, before I hooked on to the ghost walk, I made a stop at the Palace, where bubbly marketing director Sydney O’Bryan and two of her co-workers gave me the lowdown on the historic haunt. “It gives me the willies to actually close this place down,” O’Bryan told me. Built in 1928 as Loew’s United Artists Theater, the Palace is home to at least three ghosts its employees have names for: maintenance worker Ferdinand “Fred” Frisch, projectionist “Bernard” and “the gray lady.” (Additionally, the theater stands on the former site of St. Joseph’s Infirmary for children, and several employees have reported hearing children’s laughter on the building’s upper floors.)
On Oct. 27, 1965, Frisch, who had worked at Loew’s for nearly 40 years, died of an apparent heart attack in his basement office and was found by manager Charles Zoeller. “(Frisch) is the one that a lot of people definitely describe seeing because they mention the glasses and the uniform,” said operations manager Johnny Downs, adding that the date of death and real identity of “Bernard” are much less clear. Regardless, employees know Fred and Bernard as the theater’s friendly spirits. The two are credited with turning up lost items and even pointing out maintenance issues. On one occasion, flickering dimmers led employees backstage to find that an old pipe capable of flooding that area had started leaking. A mysterious cigar smoke smell is attributed to Fred, and Bernard is known for being a trickster, moving a pew across the mezzanine from the ladies’ lounge on a few occasions.
While Fred and Bernard interact with the living, “the gray lady” is what Age and the ghost tour’s Parker both refer to as a “residual” — a ghost that repeats the same actions over and over again. She appears in period dress with a high collar, hair in a bun, acting like she’s going to her seat. According to Parker, ghosts tend to choose places to haunt based on strong connections to them in life. “If you were to come back as a ghost, where would you want to haunt?” he asks. (Here’s hoping Maker’s Mark is open to the idea of a spiritual occupant.)
Back on the ghost walk, the Louisville Palace is slated to be its third destination, but the second one — the Brennan House — is where I come the closest to having any sort of paranormal experience. Parker is passing around photos of the Fifth Street Italianate mansion’s interior and telling us of a Brennan infant — one of the family’s nine children — who died in the home. Modern workers at the Brennan House have witnessed the cradle that once held the child rocking, sometimes violently, on its own. Members of the crowd gasp as he tells the story, but I am distracted by a distant knocking sound that seems to be originating from the house.
As others study the “orbs” on the photos — roundish white blobs that supposedly represent the presence of ghosts — I note that this may require further investigation. Maybe if I hang back on leaving and stow myself away here for the night . . . .
Louisville Ghost Walks can be booked every Friday from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. through mid-November, and by special appointment throughout the week. Admission is $15 (adult), $5 (child 12 or younger) or free (child younger than five).