Culture
12:51 pm
Wed October 30, 2013

A Look at Tampa's Past Through Ghost Stories

Listen to the audio version here.

If happy jack-o-lanterns, cute costumes and family-friendly fun don't quite cause your blood to run cold -- you might be among those ready to take Halloween to a new level.  Maybe a good old-fashioned "ghost tour" in downtown Tampa is what you're looking for.

It was a dark night with a soft chill in the air-- well, it was 66 degrees out-- when I joined a crowd of about 30 people at the corner of Franklin Street and Twiggs Street in downtown Tampa. Here is where I meet Deb Frethem--the "Queen of Haunts."

She wears a black and white vest, a purple headband and cape, black-painted nails and a spider bracelet on her hand.

Frethem works with Ghost Tours of Tampa, and she explains what I am getting myself into.

"A ghost tour is not a haunted house, we use no special effects, no one is going to jump out and try to scare you.  If you were looking for Busch Gardens Howl-o-Scream, you took the wrong exit off the freeway," she says.

"The Queen of Haunts" tells the story of the spirit in the Tampa Theatre.
Credit WUSF/Yoselis Ramos

She says that these stories are researched and real.

"So what that means is if you do have an experience this evening, it's the real thing."

We walk down Franklin Street with music in the distance while cars pass by, and stop near the Tampa Theatre. And here is our first ghost story. The "Queen of Haunts" tells us about the projectionist whose soul continued to come to work even after the man had died and why a scent of Lilac by the top balcony could mean he's not too far away.

As we continue through the city blocks, Frethem tells us about the "Brown Man" that roams the University of Tampa. She explains why Tampa is literally built on a pile of bones. And she tells us about the love story of the man who for Ashley Street is named after. William Ashley was a plantation owner in Virginia who left everything when he came to Tampa--everything except one African-American slave, his love.

Tim Reeser manages Ghost Tours and he says they are a way to preserve the past.

"It’s a form of history, folklore. We like to call it 'ghost-lore' because it’s history as defined through these ghost stories," he says.

Frethem says using spooky ghosts is a way to hook in people to listen to history.

"You know a lot of people if I said, 'Let's go take a historic tour of Tampa,' now there's a lot of people who would go, but there's a lot of people who would say, 'Eh, not that interesting.' But if I say, 'Hey, let's walk around Tampa and I'll tell you some great ghost stories,' you get a lot more people wanting to walk along," explains Frethem.

She sees more and more tourists signing up for ghost tours like this.

"We have this fascination with things we cannot explain. And it's just human nature," Frethem says,  "and everybody likes to be just a little scared."

The last story of the night brings us to the corner of Franklin and Whiting Street. A very old, brick and seemingly-out-of-place building stands across the street from us. It surely does not look like the rest of a vibrant and lively downtown. It has an eerie look to it.

Frethem says though no one comes out to give a scare...

"There is that certain moment when you get that little shiver up your back...and let's face it- that's just fun!"

In the early years of the 20th century, a Russian doctor named Frederick Weightnovel had a "patent business" in this very building. After a few years, it appeared he had a second business.

"Besides the patent medicine in the first floor, on the second floor, he gets into the business of "helping" young women who find themselves in trouble.

The trouble was an unwanted bun in the oven. But during the "procedure," Irene Randall caught an infection.

Her last request was for Dr. Weightnovel to send for her mother to see her before she died. Dr. Weightnovel never did. The woman died in that room, and Dr. Weightnovel died in jail not long after. It is said that both their spirits still linger: Dr. Weightnovel can be seen through the window on the first floor. Irene can be seen through the second window of the second floor, as if gazing out looking for her mother.

As Frethem finishes her story, I turn my gaze towards the second window at the top and see nothing out of the ordinary, but the hairs on my arms do stand on their ends.