Move over Charleston; Savannah, you may need to take a step back. Salisbury, North Carolina, is claiming her well-deserved place on the list of most haunted cities in the Southeast.
On the surface, historic Salisbury seems like many other small Piedmont towns. Downtown shows positive signs of rebirth. Art galleries and specialty shops are gradually replacing the once abandoned storefronts. Gaslights and a brick street announce to visitors that Salisbury has an entertainment district. The restored Meroney Theater and the new Norvell Children’s Theater are proof of interest in the performing arts. History and culture are attributes that the citizenry hold dear, but during the past few months, something entirely different has been drawing crowds of out-of-towners to Salisbury.
A different type of history is attracting weekend ghost hunters and serious paranormal societies. Why are these groups coming to Salisbury? Why did Bonnie and Clyde rob banks? The answers are simple … money and ghosts! In the 1800s and early 1900s Salisbury had a reputation as the “wettest and wickedest” town in the state. There were five distilleries, a red light district and too many saloons to count. Salisbury was also the location of one of the Confederacy’s most infamous prisons. Salisbury’s checkered past is calling out to ghost hunters.
The popularity of television shows such as “TAPS” and “Ghost Hunter” are evidence of a growing interest in the possibility of paranormal activity. Acronyms like EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) and EMF (electro magnetic field) are popping up in dinner conversations. In general, people no longer seem to fear the ridicule that can be associated with a belief in the unknown. Many folks will eagerly tell you they believe in ghosts and other forms of paranormal activity, and more than a few will share their personal paranormal experiences. The Charlotte Area Paranormal Society has more than 1,500 active members in their paranormal “meet-up” groups. North Carolina has more than 70 paranormal research societies.
Salisbury’s historic structures are a terrific drawing card for weekend ghost hunters and professional paranormal researchers. During the first six months of 2010, more than 20 investigations were conducted by paranormal societies at local historic sites, business and private homes. The investigators were looking for scientific proof of paranormal activity and in many cases, they found the type of evidence that professional ghost hunters classify as credible.
The Wrenn House Grill & Pub, located in[0xa0]one of downtown’s oldest structures, has been investigated several times. The 1829, Flemish Bond brick building was constructed as a Female Academy by the First Presbyterian Church, and was used as a school for almost 100 years. Often school personnel lived in a portion of the building. In the early 1920s, Jimmy Wren and his sister, Mary (Molly) Wren, were invited by the church to use the building as their home.[0xa0]The Wrens were in their 70s and they lived in the building until their deaths in 1933 and 1943. For many years, the Wrens[0xa0]had been indispensable to Salisbury society. In the early 1900s, it was often said, “It takes four people to get married in Salisbury ... The bride, the groom, the minister … and Mr. Jimmie.” Jimmie Wren decorated the house, the church and the cake. Molly designed and made the dress.
In 1984, Nancy Alexander renovated the building as the Academy Restaurant. During the renovations, she experienced many unexplainable events. The restaurant has had several owners. When curious customers ask questions, restaurant employees often shared tales about the unexplainable activities that happen in the building. The sounds of children giggling and running[0xa0]are heard on the second floor. Chairs sometimes seem to move without the aid of human hands, and doors that appear swollen tightly shut suddenly swing open and then slowly close.
During initial restaurant renovations, piano music was heard inside the building, but the piano that once graced the second floor was no longer there. Several North Carolina paranormal societies have investigated the building. All groups reported evidence to support claims of paranormal activity. All groups recorded EVPs and found unexplainable elevated EMF areas in the building. During one investigation, an investigator who was in the kitchen was tapped on the shoulder several times. She turned around, thinking a team member was trying to get her attention. When she turned, several mixing bowls flew off a kitchen shelf. Was Mr. Jimmie ready to make a cake? During another investigation, two investigators saw an apparition of a young girl. They[0xa0]described the child to a restaurant employee; he said he had seen the same apparition. Over the years, employees have become accustomed to sightings.
Another Salisbury restaurant, the Brick Street Tavern, also has a history of unusual events. The current owner, Jennifer Casey Medinger, has calmed the nerves of several employees who have come face to face with spirits from the past. Several paranormal research societies have investigated the building during 2010. In the 1920, Wallace and Sons Wholesale Dry Goods built the structure as a warehouse. Construction was completed in phases. Based on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, the first phase was completed before 1920. The first phase of the building replaced several older buildings that had been used as shops and small-scale manufacturing. The second phase of the building was completed in 1922. This addition replaced a dwelling that can be seen on Salisbury maps in 1885. Before the home was razed to make way for the completion of the Wallace Wholesale building, it was being used as a tenement house and the office of Dr. F.L. Daniels, Salisbury’s only black doctor at that time.
Several apparitions have been seen in the Brick Street Tavern and in other businesses that occupy the first floor of the old warehouse. For many years, the Brick Street Tavern area was a pool hall. A wide staircase at the back of the building leads to a floating catwalk that circles three walls. Children dining with their parents often smile and wave their hand toward a man who appears to be standing on the catwalk near the staircase. Children report that he is smiling and waving to them. Parents do not see the apparition; only the children see him.
The spirit of a woman has been seen climbing the stairs by restaurant workers who arrive at work during the early morning hours. An apparition of another man, dressed as a livery stable manager, has been seen walking through several businesses that occupy the old warehouse space. During the investigation, several EVPs with distinctly different dialects were digitally recorded. Investigators also captured a shadow figure on video that could not be logically explained. The atmosphere of the Brick Street Tavern is always hospitable. It seems some spirits have decided to make it their permanent home.
The Empire Hotel stands guard over the second block of South Main Street. Like a lonely forgotten sentinel, it continues to hold its ground waiting for the troops to return. The landmark is actually three buildings. The oldest section was the grand Boyden House Hotel, completed in 1859.
In the early 1900s, the hotel was expanded and remolded. A new beaux-arts façade designed by Frank Milburn was added, and in 1907, the name was changed to the Central Hotel (Source: Carolina Watchman April 25, 1855, and May 17, 1859). In the 1920s, the name was changed to the Empire Hotel. The hotel closed in 1963 after 104 years of serving the interests of Salisbury. From its antebellum beginnings through the high life of the 1890s and the jazz of the roaring 1920s, the hotel was a centerpiece of a gracious lifestyle. Attendance at the elegant masquerade balls was documentation of social status. Gourmet dinners of lobster and aged beef were toasted with the finest wines in the main dining room. Men retired to the bar after dinner to enjoy imported cigars.
With a little imagination, one can still hear the music floating through the air. If the worn and crumbling walls could speak, they would share stories about the traveling actors who stayed at the hotel and performed at the Meroney Theater. They would tell you about the extraordinary Mr. Tripp, who lived at the Empire when the Sparks Circus wintered in Salisbury. Mr. Tripp wrote with his feet because he had no arms. Surely, the heart of the hotel would speak kindly of George Mac Poole, known by locals as Lord Salisbury because of his elaborate style of dress.
Recently, a NASCAR commercial was filmed at the hotel. A hotel room is the backdrop for a “ghost hunter” who seems to be investigating NASCAR’s past. The glorious past of the Empire made the hotel the perfect location for this cleverly produced video.
What would a professional ghost hunter find at the Empire? Would Lord Salisbury dress for the occasion in spats and top hat? Would Mrs. Laura Crouch, the long time matron of the hotel, walk the halls and check up on the chambermaids in anticipation of her guest?
Possibly, Cisco Christian, the number one bellhop and sidekick of Colonel O.W. Spencer will open the front door, bow, and offer a hardy welcome.
As Detective Dan Muldoon said, “These are but a few of the stories of the Naked City.” North Carolina ghost hunter societies have discovered a cornucopia of legends and ghost stories in Salisbury. Believers and non-believers alike agree that a walk through downtown Salisbury is truly a walk through history combined with a whisper of the unknown.