The Ghosts of Roanoke

Vintage Halloween postcard

Vintage Halloween postcard

With a city as old and with such a varied history as Roanoke, there’s bound to be some unsavory stories and creepy happenings still going on.

One of the most well-known Roanoke ghost stories is that of the Woman in Black.  She made several appearances in Roanoke in March 1902 after having been sighted on numerous occasions in Bristol.  The apparition reportedly only made herself known to well-known married men as they walked home after hours.  The Roanoke Times was constantly running stories from men who had encountered the Woman in Black. One such account written in the Times was as follows:

“The most recent instance is that of a prominent merchant of the city, who, on the night after payday, having been detained at his store until after midnight, was making his way home, buried in mental abstractions, when at his side the woman in black suddenly appeared, calling him by his name.  The woman was only a couple feet behind him, and he naturally increased his pace; faster and faster he walked, but in spite of his efforts, the woman gained on him until, with the greatest of ease and without any apparent effort she kept along side of him, ‘Where do you turn off?’ she asked of him.  He replied in a hoarse voice, ‘Twelfth Avenue.’  Ere he was aware, she had hand upon his shoulder.  He tried to shake it off, but without success.  ‘You are not the first married man I have seen to his home this night,’ she spoke in a low and musical voice.

Reaching the front gate, he made certain she would leave him, but into the yard she went.  This was a little more than he bargained for…The merchant admits that he was a nervy man, but that in spite of his efforts, he could not help being at least a little frightened.  ‘Twas the suddenness of the thing,’ is the way he expressed it.”

When the man finally reached his front door, he turned around and the woman was gone.  There were numerous other sightings in Roanoke of the Woman in Black, all by married men making their way home after sundown.  And as quickly as she had appeared, she left the Roanoke streets quiet.  Eerily similar accounts of a woman dressed all in black appearing to married men were reported in Bluefield, West Virginia and Alma, Nebraska later than same year.  No one knows much else about the Woman in Black; some speculate that she may be the spirit of a wronged wife coming back to escort married men home to make sure their wives did not share in her misfortune.

Possibly one of the most loved and recognizable landmarks in Roanoke is the Grandin Theater.  Although the Grandin is the jewel of the Grandin Village area and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is has a past marred by neglect and financial instability.  The Grandin has gone through several periods of disuse since its grand opening in March 1932.  During one of those episodes of negligence, it is reported that a homeless family moved into the projection room of one of the theaters.  During their stay at the Grandin, the two young children of the family died.  It is not known what caused the children to succumb, whether illness or the effects of homelessness.  However, once the theater became occupied again, employees and visitors reported hearing a crying baby when there were none present and sightings of a small boy that would vanish.  There have also been sightings of a man in one of the projection rooms, only to discover no one there upon further inspection.  One employee specifically remembered an encounter with one of the ghostly children.  After closing, one of the cleaning staff noticed a small child at the top of some stairs.  He assumed that the child had somehow been left behind, as he went up the stairs to approach the child, the boy walked through a closed door and disappeared.

There have been several paranormal investigation teams that have been to the Grandin and collected various voices and murmurings with EVP equipment and captured wisps and orbs in photos.

The Grandin Theater  (photo from Mark Morrow photography)

The Grandin Theater
(photo from Mark Morrow photography)

Another famous landmark in Roanoke, the Patrick Henry Hotel, shares a troubled past.  Like the Grandin Theater, the Patrick Henry went through ups and downs of financial troubles and abandonment.  The Patrick Henry opened in 1925 and was a popular spot for Roanoke society.  However, during the Great Depression, the building was converted into apartments and offices.  Many years later, new owners tried to bring back the hotel to its former glory.  Unfortunately, they too fell on hard times and hotel fell into disrepair.  The building is now home to luxury apartments, a special events venue, and restaurant and retains much of its vintage charm and glamour.

In the early 1980s, during its days as a hotel, a young stewardess was murdered in Room 606.  She was brutally stabbed to death and her body placed in the bathtub, blood saturating much of the room.  The murderer was never caught.  Police believe that the woman knew her attacker and that the killer hid in the closet and attacked the woman once she was alone.  Ever since, that specific room has been notorious for paranormal activity.  Numerous guests reported lights turning on and off and inexplicable cold areas in the room.  One terrified guest of Room 606 claimed a specter staircase appeared in her room and that a woman came down and walked over to where the woman was lying and touched her hair.  The guest spent the remainder of the night in the hotel lobby, too terrified to go back upstairs to her room.

Various other activities have been reported.  The ballroom area has been said to still retain the sounds of bygone revelers, the sounds of laughter, clinking glasses, and silverware audible when no one is around.  Staff have also shared stories of seeing apparitions seated at a table and one of the phantom guests kicking at the bottom of the tablecloth before disappearing.

Front facade of The Patrick Henry Hotel

Front facade of The Patrick Henry Hotel

Lastly, one of the more obscure ghost stories surrounding the Roanoke area involves a house on the southwest end of Patterson Avenue.  A Roanoke resident had grown up on Patterson Avenue next to an old house that dated from the 1880s.  The grand old house was a large white house complete with turrets and a wraparound porch.  The house remained abandoned for some time and tenants would move in but move out within a few days or weeks.  At the time of these occurrences, the Roanoke woman recounting the story was very young and didn’t understand the implications of what this could mean.  She played around the outside of the house with siblings and friends frequently and recounted that they often saw a woman in one of the upper windows that watched them as they played outside, even when the house remained vacant.  The lady in the window appeared to be in her 30s and wore a dress that looked almost Victorian.  The woman again states that she was too young to realize and be afraid of what she saw.  After mentioning seeing the woman in the window to her parents, her father became concerned since the house was supposed to be unoccupied.  When he and a neighbor went to check on the house later, they saw the woman in a Victorian-style dress at the top of the stairs, looking out a side window.  As they climbed the stairs to approach her, she disappeared.   The two men called the sheriff’s department to come and investigate.

It was then that the woman recounting her story learned about the first owners of the house.  The home was originally used as a funeral parlor.  The basement was used to prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial and the main floor was the funeral home, while the family, the mortician, his wife, and their four children, lived on the upper floor.  One day neighbors noticed that the wife and children had not been seen in some time.  The mortician claimed they had gone to visit out-of-town relatives, but they never returned.  About two years later, the mortician also left town.

When the sheriff’s department started to investigate the house after the ghostly woman had been seen on the abandoned property, they found five bodies buried under the dirt floor in the basement and numerous graves scattered across throughout the backyard.  They suspect the five bodies under the basement floor were the remains of the mortician’s wife and children.  The house was later torn down and nothing else has been built in its place.  All that remains of the mansion on the 1100 block of Patterson Avenue is a crumbling stone wall that surrounds the lot.

For the stories recounted here, there are many more that have not yet been told.  Roanoke is reportedly one of the most haunted cities in the state; the Star City’s past has left us with both a colorful history and also some painful memories, some which are still remembered from beyond.  Happy Halloween!

Vintage (and creepy) Halloween costumes

Vintage (and creepy) Halloween costumes

Information for this post, including the Roanoke Times excerpt, came from L.B. Taylor Jr.’s book Haunted Roanoke

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Flapper DIY

The Prohibition Ball is Friday!  That means getting decked out in your flapper finest, but if you aren’t on a Great Gatsby budget, you can always recreate the look on your own.

One of the most recognizable flapper looks is the fringe dress.  This look is fairly simple to achieve.  All you need is a plain dress (now that summer is ending, you may even be able to score a maxi dress on clearance and hem it to the length you want!) and some fringe from a craft store.  Then it is as simple as pinning the fringe all around the dress and then sewing it in place (or hot gluing for the sewing-challenged).  Drape and pin your first row of fringe to the top edge of the dress.  Make sure the fringe goes all the way around the dress, not just the front.  Then drape, pin, and sew on the bottom row of fringe.  Next measure the distance between where you want your second row of fringe to start all the way down to wear you want the second-to-last row of fringe to end.  Take that amount and divide it by how many rows you have left to sew on.  This ensures that all the rows will be evenly spaced. Then just finish sewing and/or hot gluing the fringe in place and you are ready to dance the Charleston all night long!

Another recognizable look is the feathered headband.  All you need for this staple accessory is some elastic sequined trim and a few feathers of your choice.  Wrap the sequined elastic around your head to get a measurement, you want it snug but not too tight.  Cut and sew the ends together and then attach 2-3 feathers to one side, get some extra-long beaded necklaces, some fishnet stockings, and red lipstick and you are set!

As usual, recreating the mens 20s style is considerably easier.  A darker color suit can be purchased from a thrift store.  It should fit normally around the waist and length-wise but be fairly baggy in the leg and pants area.  Pair the suit with a white shirt and vest or suspenders and a fedora for a classic 20s style.

20s fashion that you can do yourself!

20s fashion that you can do yourself!

There’s still time to try out your DIY flapper skills for the Prohibition Ball on Friday!  Get your tickets at prohibitionroanoke.com to help benefit the Historical Society of Western Virginia.

Prohibition in Roanoke

With the Prohibition Ball and Halloween just around the corner, this seemed like an ideal time to take a look back and remember the Prohibition era in Roanoke.

On October 31, 1916 Roanoke officially ran dry.  National Prohibition was still 3 years away- but with active groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Prohibition Party, and the Anti-Saloon League, Roanoke joined surrounding jurisdictions in Virginia that called for an end to liquor sales.  The 28 saloons that proliferated on Salem Avenue and Second Street were forced to close their doors, and the public sale of alcohol banned.

Parents were encouraged to keep their children indoors after dark and end Halloween festivities early.  Norfolk and Western handed out paychecks to employees two days early to allow liquor to be bought before the deadline.  In the days leading up to October 31, city police were on heavy patrol.  While public sales were soon to be illegal, private consumption of alcohol was not criminalized.  Customers brought wagons, cars, suitcases, and crates to saloons to carry off their purchases while they still could.  Residents of neighboring counties came into Roanoke to partake in the sales before ‘The Drought’ took hold of the city.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Liquor being poured into a sewer in New York during Prohibition Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The scene on Salem Avenue that evening was nothing short of Mardi Gras proportions.  People dressed in Halloween costumes were stumbling through the streets trying to hit every saloon they passed on their way to private festivities or hotel parties.

Estimated alcohol and beer sales on the day before Prohibition was enacted is said to have exceeded $100,000.  At 10:00pm, bartenders and wholesalers closed their doors for the last time.  The next day, Salem Avenue was eerily quiet and abandoned.  Many saloon owners scraped off window signs, hauled off tables and chairs, and hung “For Lease” signs.

Prohibition advocates held a rally on November 1st.  The mayor, Charles Broun, spoke at Jefferson Theater along with temperance organizations and other teetotalers, and children performed in a play to symbolize the end of liquor and drunkenness in the state of Virginia.  The theater was packed, and thunderous applause erupted from the temperance-minded attendees as Mayor Broun promised to strictly enforce Prohibition laws in the city.  Eighteen other states joined Virginia in enacting Prohibition in 1916 or before, and the rest of the United States followed suit in January of 1920.

Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933.  On October 3 of that same year, Virginia residents voted for the repeal of the 18th Amendment.  Roanoke voters made their choice clear by voting down Prohibition 4,036 to 2,156.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Patrick Henry Hotel is hosting a Prohibition Ball on Friday October 30 at 8:00pm.  Visit prohibitionroanoke.com for more information and to purchase tickets!

Information for this post came from Hidden History of Roanoke: Star City Stories by Nelson Harris.