Do you need to have your mysteries solved for you? The very nature of a ghost story, at least one where people believe the haunting to be real, calls for some kind of neat package for the reader to see all the moving parts and for things to make sense. We crave that, maybe because the very questions that these stories look to answer (what happens after we die, is there life after death, how to I find peace) are the ones that will allow us to settle our minds. If the story doesn’t make sense or doesn’t settle with us, we forget or change it to fill in the plot holes.
Yet, there’s something about those holes of an urban legend that separate it from the history we find comfort in. People might long to understand the answers to the questions they ask, but folklore and urban legend pop up and survive in a different place as well. The stories make sense and seem familiar, but there is something about not being able to get all the details straight that draw us in and keep the story rolling around in our head trying to connect the dots of it all. If we had a few more bits of information, we could crack the case open the way no one ever had before. It’s that engagement that makes the legend live.
There are no easy answers in Shiloh Cemetery in Sanford, Florida. There is a least one solid ghost there people report, which makes it easier to say the cemetery might be haunted, but that’s where any clarity ends. Who the ghost may be, why she is there, and what connection she might have to it are all up in the air. That may be why people continue to be obsessed with the faceless spirit walking among the rows.
Maybe the cemetery itself has something to do with it. Shiloh is one of five graveyards collectively known as Sanford Cemetery, the largest and most modern of which is Evergreen Municipal Cemetery which faces West 25th Street with a clean, majestic front. The resting place presents like a well-organized if generic small town spot, something you pass by without thinking too much about. In fact, if you didn’t know there was something older behind it, you would not be able to guess that behind the newer cemeteries lies two that are falling apart, highly vandalized, and lost to history for decades until recent interest has touch the community into calling for their rejuvenation.
Go in a little further and the graves start to become more cracked and overrun with growth. Trash piles up, as if the worst of the front cemeteries has blown back to the other ones, hoping that history can be brushed away as easily. The Page-Jackson cemetery is now hailed as a crucial link to the history of African Americans in the area, including the final resting place for Drew Bundini Brown, a corner man for Muhammad Ali who helped to craft some of his most famous taunts and an unused plot for Zora Neale Hurston. The land was donated by a local man, William Page-Jackson, who was either a gravedigger or a local farmer who allowed people to be buried there for free and maintained the property. His story is another local legend that adds to the overall story of the place.
People say that after he passed away the care for the land never switched over to anyone, and it fell into disrepair. Unlike the other cemeteries that make up Evergreen, the city does not contribute to the maintenance. Many of the graves are sunken into the ground or sprayed with graffiti, and the forest has claimed most of the land back until recent times. People who volunteer to clean it up find links to the past of African Americans in the area, so there is a touch of reverence now the place has not experienced in a long time. The larger family plots sometimes look like graverobbers have had their way with it and broke the fences and barriers down on their way in.
With the increased focus on maintaining the grounds, ghost stories have made their way out of it as well. Almost all are nonspecific and mundane. People have seen shadows or heard crying at night. There is one report of a man seen looking at a headstone and then disappearing when the witness turned away for a moment. The nature and tone of the reports are so generic you have to wonder if there is anything there or people just feels there needs to be.
Listen to episode 17…Trips, Triangles, and North Carolina Folklore…where we get more into the legends at the cemetery.
When looking into a ghost story, it is often the things that are different about it that make it stand out. Every cemetery is said to be haunted, which often makes the stories feel like a rationalization of an odd feeling you had. In fact, if there is a backstory, it has more to do with a historical person, or at least a person who can be researched online, and the haunting conforms to the backstory instead of standing on its own. For example, a woman is seen in white and people assume it to be the ghost of a woman buried there who died on her wedding day.
Behind Page-Jackson is yet another, even older cemetery which is in even worse shape and does not have the gravity of being an important historical location to most. This means less people know about it and even less care or visit it. It is often mentioned as the sister cemetery to Page-Jackson, to the point that even some of the ghosts seen there are said to belong to the latter and have wandered into Shiloh for some reason. When you’ve reached the back of the Page-Jackson, and after you’ve taken a few moments to think about why we would ever let our dead be treated so disrespectfully, you’ll see a dirt road that leads to something even more heartbreaking and even more frightening.
It’s the ghost that remains the biggest mystery. She’s so unusual and her descriptions so specific that it makes sense people need to create stories to explain her. If the Page-Jackson ghosts are so generic as to be unbelievable, than the woman seen in Shiloh is real because no one would make her up. Instead of a woman in a white flowing gown, the Woman of Shiloh is dressed in dark robes which hide her body and shade her actual height. Some of the stories say you can’t see her feet so she appears to be floating. Unlike other cemetery ghosts who are searching for something or guarding it, she wanders around aimlessly, usually not even noticing the people who spot her around dusk or late at night.
Often she is seen as a ghost light, something more like a large, visible, and glowing orb (it is odd that with so much activity in both of the cemeteries, some attribute only some specific ghost lights to the Lady). What really defines her however is her long hair which is said to be flowing, as if by an invisible wind, and the fact she has no face. Instead all people report is a skull, sometimes with parts of the skin still attached but usually not. They say she is a skeleton walking around the outskirts of the cemetery and sometimes seen walking aimlessly among the graves. Locals say she may be the most reliable ghost in the state, and that if you just wait long enough you will always see her.
She is much like the cemetery itself. Her decimated face mirrors the scattered nature of the graves and her interest in walking around the border give her the feel like she is trapped and forgotten.
They have given her a story, and it is the story which both draws people in and offers some of the biggest questions. According to BackpackerVerse, a psychic made contact with the spirit a number of years ago and was able to get a bit of her history. According to the man, she was murdered by a serial killer about twenty years ago (the article in not specific about when exactly the man is speaking about) and dumped in a body of water nearby. The fish ate her face on and now she is doomed to walk Shiloh.
There have been murders in the area, so the tale does not seem that far-fetched, and there are several serial killers who used this part of Florida as a hunting ground. There have even been believers (me for one) in the theory that there may have been some involvement from Gerard Schaefer, although that does not fit the “about 20 years ago” senario. One of the likely candidates may be April Marie Stone whose dead body was found by the side of the road in 1991. The young woman was found stabbed to death and wrapped in a blanket on Painted Post Road near the Wekiva River more than ten miles away. Accused serial killer William Devin Howell was thought to be responsible for her death but has never been formally charged. The primary issue with this is that Stone was known for her long red hair, all of the news reports from the time talk about it, and if the spirit in Shiloh had red hair it seems likely that detail would be offered up.
There are, of course, problems with all of this, not the least of which is that the information was given by a psychic who never got the woman’s name or her connection to that specific location. Saying someone died in a body of water is like saying someone died near an oak tree; there are just too many to make the place specific enough to use. In addition, the time frame fits into classic motifs for urban legends and folklore. Twenty years is just enough time for it to seem plausible but not specific enough to do any real research into it. That’s the beauty of the Lady of Shiloh though. There is enough information for you to hit the Internet and think you may have found who the suspect might be.
Here’s the thing though. The Lady of Shiloh is not like other ghosts, or at least she varies enough that her sightings have the feel of genuine encounters. Her half-eaten face or skeleton face is not often a detail attributed to ghost stories, and when it is the ghost is usually said to be more angry or even violent towards people. She doesn’t fit that, which leads people in the area who have not seen her to think she must be real. Perhaps the stories that have been used to flesh out her appearance are works of fiction, but there is someone there, lonely, wandering, and seemingly trapped.
When We Were There
Shiloh was a just a stopover for us, an interesting story for us to follow up on while we were on the road to the real trip. For an afterthought, it proved to be both an interesting historical site which made us feel sorry for the state of the grounds and a haunted location which provided plenty of debate but not many insights into what is happening there. In fact, with some of the other things occurrences over the next week, it was almost more as if something was following us rather than us experiencing something connected to the actual cemetery.
The broken fences and cracked headstone we saw on the way in, from both Page-Jackson and Shiloh, darkened our mood as we drove further away from the main street and nicer parts of Sanford Cemetery. It was clear by the piles of trash and natural waste that cleaning up was happening, but the sheer amount of it pointed out just how long it had been before volunteers had stepped in. Shiloh itself was open and the graves somewhat sparse, although as we got deeper in we realized this was due to some headstone no longer existing or being sunken into the ground. There also were an unusual amount of graves along the treeline of the surrounding forest, almost hidden.
From the moment we passed by Page-Jackson and into Shiloh, Natalie was uneasy. We got out of the car and she almost immediately began to hear what she described as knocking coming from the woods, a sound that would come to define other locations we were to touch along the road trip. Her unease grew as she heard inhuman noises coming from some of the plots within the cemetery. “It was a combination of movement and a nonhuman noise, like guttural. I was like get me out of there.” We ended up not staying too long, in part because of Natalie’s unease, partly because there was not much going on, and mostly because we had a long night of driving ahead of us.
The impact of where we had just been didn’t fully hit us until we were on Interstate 95. As we drove we listened to some of the 30 minutes of recordings that we made. The first one that struck us as some kind of confirmation was a deeper, angrier voice chanting water repeatedly throughout the recording. That same voice is heard saying other things, such as “I’ve got you now,” and at one point the man taunts Natalie to come into the woods and calls her Angel. There are multiple times where the voice swears at her or grunts, seemingly in reaction to something she says. It even tells her to, “Die, whore.”
Another male voice, not nearly as threatening or dark sounding at one point says to us, “We’re dead and you come here. Rude.” A younger boy also says that he has us now.
Listen to the unedited full recording to see if you can hear even more voices with our episode Evidence from Shiloh Cemetery in Sanford, Florida
In one section of the recording there is a clear high voice which can best be described as lamenting. Although most of it can’t be understood, she at one point say, “It was the whole thing.” Later, when Natalie tries to speak to whatever might be there, she says, “Ask,” and then either, “Tell them,” or “turn around.” At one point she asks, “What do you want from me. Pushing me, ” before being interrupted by a male voice asking, “Why?”
At different times two different voices are talking to each other. The way they relate to each other gave me the impression of an older, more experienced man ordering another younger man around. To me, and I have no evidence of this, the masochistic and forceful nature of the older man felt like a violent offender, the kind who would assault and kill a woman, training a younger man. He gives instructions and the second man is unsure of himself and questioning.
As folklorist, we usually do not spend too much time breaking down evidence. To us the story is why we are there. These recordings paint a picture of what is happening there, adding to the oral tradition that has grow up surrounding the phantom.
There is speaking through almost all of the recording and we encourage other people to break it down, evaluate it and get back to us.
Explore all of the episodes having to do with the 2017 Summer Legend Trip:
Check out Christopher Balzano’s books, including the newly released Haunted Ocala National Forest
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