Published: Friday, January 17, 2014 at 5:16 p.m.
Natalie Wynn isn't a ghostbuster, and she doesn't have a proton pack like the fictional poltergeist slayers from the movies.
Still, she knows just how to handle the specter some say has inhabited her historic home for a century. Wynn simply treats it like a rambunctious teenager — she doesn't take any guff.
And with seven flesh-and-blood children of her own — ages 17 to 30 — she has had plenty of experience.
"She's a kid," Wynn said of the ghost. "I have yelled at her like I would any other kid in the house."
With its Victorian-era gingerbread trim and landmark widow's walk, the Wynn home is one of the oldest and most distinguished houses in the region.
Strangers, some of them looking for the historic A.C. Freeman house a block away, have been known to wander in the front door in search of a tour. One woman even struck up an argument with Wynn, claiming the house was a museum rather than a private residence.
With its prime spot on West Retta Esplanade overlooking Gilchrist Park and Charlotte Harbor, Wynn's place certainly has museum qualities.
It was built in 1893 by one of Punta Gorda's most successful early businessmen, James Sandlin, a real estate and shipping investor, developer and merchant who helped bring the railroad to town.
But Sandlin's family was beset by tragedy. An infant died three days after birth. A son, Felix, 11, died in 1902. Sandlin himself died — possibly of tuberculosis — in 1903, leaving behind a 34-year-old widow and three children.
But perhaps the most notable calamity occurred in 1909, when Sandlin's 14-year-old daughter, Mary Leah, was ironing on the porch with a gasoline-heated flat iron — a common appliance until World War I.
Somehow, the gasoline spilled and Mary's clothes ignited. Screaming, she ran ablaze down Harvey Street. Neighbors caught her and put out the flames, but the girl died three hours later.
Ever since, the Sandlin house has been said to be haunted. Natalie and Vander Wynn can attest to that.
"It is just part of the thing about this house," she said.
The legend has been recounted in several books — including "Charlotte Harbor: Early Years" by U.S. Cleveland and Lindsey Williams, and "Floridaland Ghosts" by Dylan Clearfield — so there's little hope in trying to hide the tale.
Instead, the Wynns have decided to embrace the otherwordly aspect of the house, and they plan to disclose the presence to potential buyers as they market the home for sale at $1.59 million.
Mary, the "harmless" ghost
When the Wynns bought the house in 2001, they asked the seller about scary Mary, the "harmless" ghost.
He pointed to his forearm. The hairs were standing on end.
In the years since, the couple have compiled their own set of ghost stories.
"One time, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and I called 'Natalie?' She said 'yes' from over here (the other side of the room)."
It was just Mary.
"It is kind of fun," said Vander Wynn, an anesthesiologist at Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte. "It adds to the value of the house."
Another time, the Wynn children had Mary trapped in a closet — the living and the dead trying to push the door shut or force it open.
"We have heard her creaking and walking," said Natalie Wynn, a nurse-anesthetist. "Not so much lately, with the kids out of the house. Mostly when they were younger, when we spent more time in this part of the house."
Nowadays, the Wynns spend most of their time in a more modern, elevated and hurricane-resistant addition. It's not Mary's favorite haunt.
She has disappeared completely, though. In early January, Natalie heard what she initially thought was the cat tapping on the walls.
But when she looked down, there was the cat, standing next to her owner and minding her own business.
Before the addition was built, the Wynn children slept in bedrooms on the second floor. From there, a steep staircase ascends to the widow's walk.
"There were a few times when they came screaming down here because they heard something," Natalie Wynn recalls. "They were freaked out."
Previous owners of the Sandlin House had similar experiences, according to historical accounts. One family's children refused to sleep upstairs. Their friends would not spend the night. One of the children, Frank Smoak Jr., slept with his rifle next to the bed.
Weapons are totally unnecessary, Natalie Wynn says. You just have to know how to speak to an adolescent ghost. Besides, "she is friendly."
Mary is congenial even though the Wynns may have the object that led to her demise — on display, no less. In the living room, on a pedestal, sits an old, gasoline-heated iron that they found on the property.
And while the Wynns aren't shying away from Mary's alleged presence, neither do they draw too much attention to it. When the couple bought the house, for instance, there was a mark on the porch where Mary supposedly caught fire.
But because the porch had a lot of rotten wood, they replaced it, doing away with what had been a tragic reminder of the fire, according to history books.
After James Sandlin's wife sold the house in 1925, more chapters involving Mary were written.
Smoak Jr. told historians that one night, when his father was away, he and his mother heard the front door open and footsteps in the living room.
"We heard the intruder coming up the steps," he said. "We remained very still and heard the footsteps go into another bedroom. I grabbed my rifle, and we cautiously approached and looked in. No one was there! Mother and I felt it was the ghost of Mary Leah Sandlin coming back to her bedroom. Father pooh-poohed me, saying, 'Dead people can't hurt you. You have to worry about live people.'"
Years later, owner Julie Hollander once found the gas iron turned on. Another time, she discovered laundry that had been mysteriously scattered on the floor.
Mary hasn't been responsible for every incident in the house, however.
When the Smoaks owned the place, sparks from the chimney set wood roof shingles on fire. Smoak Sr. implored his son to help him fight the blaze with buckets of water. The fire department, he feared, would chop holes in the roof while putting the fire out.
On another occasion, a would-be, early 20th Century assassin fired a shot through the front door at a renter. The bullet deflected off the screen door and hit the renter in the leg, sparing his life but costing him the leg.
Ghost stories aside, the Sandlin House has been a journey for the Wynns.
Four years after buying it, in 2005, they renovated and expanded the place, bringing the combined square footage to about 5,600 and creating a roomy home with all the functionality of a modern residence.
The addition, for instance, is made with insulated concrete forms. Windows, except for the 120-year-old fenestration around the porch, are new and impact-resistant. The siding is fiber-cement.
The addition features a "hurricane room" upstairs, too, installed because the original house was damaged by Hurricane Charley when flying debris pierced the roof. To make sure that wouldn't happen again, the ceilings were covered with stamped-metal tiles.
The original house did not have an indoor bathroom or a kitchen when it was built, but today there are five bathrooms and the addition has a kitchen with modern touches like a huge granite island.
The Wynns converted an original porch into a kitchenette overlooking the pool, and turned several small rooms bisected by a hallway into a large living room.
"Some pieces are original, some were added later and some are new," Natalie Wynn said.
"The outside of the old house is all original."
As is the resident ghost.