This is not a post about a ghostly legend, but about the power of legends. I’ll share the stories behind three places I’ve not written about before and recap a few I have, but that is not the story here. We all love a good ghost story, and there were moments where we seemed to touch something that we could not explain, but that it not the focus of this story. My son’s eyes lit up as he listened to a voice on tape seeming to answer a random question he asked, but this is not a post about evidence. I could spend a lifetime trying to convince you that ghosts are real, but this is not a story of ghosts, or at least in this story the ghosts are secondary characters, the background behind the adventure that really played out.
This is a story of family, neighbors who aren’t neighbors, and the power of legend.
Mothman had to wait. So did the Allman Brothers, and Robert Johnson’s crossroads, and the Bunny Man Bridge. Other bridges closer to home, like the infamous Bellamy Bridge, were delayed, and walking along a haunted brick fence in the Panhandle waiting for an angry spirit to push me off will was pushed back. The oddness of the world right now affects everyone differently, and in the opening days, we fell short of our lofty Spring Break goals. Sort of. We wanted to turn Spring Break into Spooky Break and explore legends beyond the borders of Florida.
Things didn’t work out that way.
In early March Tripping on Legends with Kids did a live show where we discussed and debated where we wanted to travel for the upcoming days off school. The sky was the limit, except for the ironic rule that we wouldn’t fly. We debated going east and tracking down the legend of two men selling their souls or going north to explore the Bridgewater Triangle and the ever-scary family we have there. Inspired by Buzzfeed Unexplained, Ella had gained a new obsession in Mothman, so he was firmly pinned on the map and in her heart.
Then things started to get worse for us all. As more reports came in and the panic started in stores, we switched to an all Florida trip into the Panhandle, a region Tripping on Legends has largely ignored due to its distance. Then staying in hotels got scary and we scrapped that. A few haunted libraries had been eager to have us visit, but then they closed and told us with frowns that we would have to wait. It would be day trips, but there was still so much to look into that we still held our heads high.
The first choice was obvious. More than three years ago I had travelled to Arcadia with Natalie to look into two legends coming out of Oak Ridge Cemetery. We tried talking to the Talking Mary Statue and showed our respect for the fallen airmen at the RAF grave and memorial. It was our first official trip and set the tone for what the show would become, but we decided there was one ghostly legend we would not look into. After hearing of the seven children’s graves, we agreed to avoid that part of the cemetery. It was just too emotional for so early in our career.
The legend of the Richardson children is too rich to ignore though. In 1967, all seven of the Richardson children died a mysterious death over the course of two days. The final autopsy determined the kids had been poisoned by pesticide. The most obvious suspect was their father, James Richardson, even though there was no real motive for killing them. The family was not well off as he was a migrant worker getting jobs mainly in Arcadia, but from all reports he was a loving father, well known to sneak the kids candle and constantly seen in town showing them affection. He had even put a down payment on new bikes for the older kids for Christmas. The poison was found only after the place had been searched multiple times and a tip came in from the police days later. But he was African American and poor, and ultimately convicted of the crime by an all-white jury. Richardson served decades in jail before being exonerated in 1989 and moving out of state . The next-door neighbor and babysitter, Bessie Reese, confessed to having intentionally fed them the tainted lunch on her death bed. Although she had confessed to the crime in the early days of the investigation and was considered unstable, she was not even brought in as a witness even though she had been with them during the time of the poisoning.
The case is still fresh in the minds of both the white and black citizens of the city. Maybe it’s the ghost story of the children that keep the story alive. Since just shortly after the murders, people report odd lights at the simple graves of the Richardson children. They talk of different colored balls rising from the ground and whirling around, almost as if they were playing with each other. There are odd shadows seen around sunset. Children in the cemetery have even reported seeing other children playing near those headstones and going to visit and get in on the game only to have the children vanish. I had first heard of the report from David Hoes writing on the Web site Phantoms and Monsters, but there were other reports on the Internet as well, some from adults speaking about moments they had as children.
The children, who ranged from ages 2-8, are buried in the cemetery and thought to be the source of several stories of hauntings. Goat Hill, several miles to the north of the cemetery, is known for its ghost lights. Sometimes at night people see an odd light, compared to an early sunset, coming from the direction of the cemetery over the hill. There have been reports of orbs of light seen by the human eye and caught on camera, which are not all that uncommon in ghost reports. However, people report seeing half a dozen at times which appear to be playing with each other. The children do not contain their games to Goat Hill though. Over the years children in their neighborhood have spoken of playing with kids in the cemetery who eventually disappear as they hide behind headstones. One stories even says you can make them come out during the day by covering your eyes near their graves and counting to thirty.
This seemed like the perfect place to start Spooky Break. Our intention was to try and get the children to play with us. We pulled some toys from a bin in the garage and decided we would try and get them to move and then leave them for the children when we were done.
The first thing you need to know about the cemetery, and one of the things it took Natalie and I a while to notice on our first trip, is that Oak Ridge is very much a separated burial ground. While it may have started as just the practice of the day, there is clearly a white section and a black section. The road and vast field keeps the two apart, and while there are no longer any official laws that make it that way, tradition still lives there. Intentionally or unintentionally, there is even a different gate for the African American part which opens up into groves.
Once inside, it took us a while to find the Richardson plot, but once we were nearby it was clear there was something special about it. Unlike most of the other family plots of that section, the graves are surrounded by a simple stone wall which unifies those inside. Their mother is placed in the middle, still looking after her family. Ella was deeply moved, much like when we visited Marshal John Bowman’s grave, and spent a little time at each headstone, saying their names and touching each one while asking them to find peace. It made me wonder if their playing was their peace in an odd sense, their way of touching each other after death, fooling around to extend those moments cut too soon.
We placed the toys around the graves and were preparing to play hide and seek when a SUV approached from the other side of the cemetery and a young African American woman hesitantly got out. She looked us over and slowly approached the grave. For the first time since I started Tripping on Legends, I felt I did not belong where I was. But she was interested in what we were doing. She came to the graves, she said, because someone needed to remember the little ones and their story. She spoke of the sheriff who had arrested James and how his family was still active in the town and how some members of the Richardsons had moved because they could no longer stand to go by his house every day. I asked her about the other legends in the cemetery, if she had heard of the RAFs and the Hollingsworths and she smiled shyly. That’s not my side, she told me.
She was a stranger, but we hugged as she left, her husband and small child playing near the trees less than twenty feet away. My kids looked at me oddly (they were under strict rules to not touch people during our adventures) and went back to doing their EVP work. She left and we moved on to the other haunted spots, and although their were voices that spoke to us at the airmen’s graves and we spent some time wishing a newly buried Hollingsworth a quick journey, it was that moment near the back of the cemetery that moved me.
Day two was not as serious. Myakka River State Park had been a true turning point for the kids. We had gone there one day seeking out a headless camper and exploring a suicide bridge but had ended up being stalked by Skunk Ape. It was a day to remember, and we looked to try and get him to make himself known, or at least to get him to knock for us again. It was an odd scene. The rangers were already in masks and gloves, and we were aware things were different, but the park was packed with people in the campground area. It was business as usual, but we were also acutely aware that things were slightly different.
We knocked on trees for over an hour hoping to hear something back, but Skunk Ape was not interested, maybe because of all of the people around us. But there were two moments we had to stop what we were doing, one of which I did not even remember until Devin reminded me of a few days ago. The first took place while we were one the side of the road knocking on trees and asking the cryptid to answer back. Devin, who is not one to make something out of nothing, saw a dark shadow on the edge of the swamp. He described it as about three feet tall and staring at him from behind a fallen tree. He moved as we moved to it, and Devin was convinced he has seen a Pukwudgie (Given the trickster nature of what we had experienced our first time there, a Pukwudgie makes more sense than Skunk Ape). As we approached the fallen tree, our equipment all powered down, including my phone, and for a minute as we stood there the heaviness was tangible. Then a tree randomly fell near us, and the moment was over. It was like walking outside in a Florida summer from an air-conditioned building, like being hit by pure humidity. Then it was over.
The second was while crossing the suicide bridge nearby. They call it the Canopy Walk, and for me it is pure fear. I’m not scared of ghosts or the unexplained, but never ask me to go higher than twenty feet off the ground. As we prepared to cross the walk, Ella called out that she wanted a sign that the spirits were there. The entire day had been clear and without wind until that moment. We were hit by a burst of wind, one which seem to not hit the other dozen people near us, and then the air was still again. It was not definitive proof of life after death, especially in a location where the legend does not live up to the actual history of the bridge, but we were all chilled.
The real moment of the day happened during lunch. We sat at the picnic area, careful to not get too close to any of the other park goers around us. As we ate, we told stories of the past adventures and friends who were no longer in our lives. There was a sadness, but also the kind of hopefulness as we sat and talked.
Each one of us had different reasons to be excited for day three. Ella was looking forward to Spring Hill cemetery because she felt there was something in the name that was calling to her. I was excited to bring the children to Iron Bridge and check for ghosts in a place that has no history but should be haunted. Devin was all about the rock and roll. It was the perfect stage for each of us to get what we wanted.
Brooksville is the sister city to Pemberton Ferry, the town that history has all but forgotten. While Pemberton Ferry failed and never speaks of the odd things that happen there, Brooksville is the opposite, fully embracing the ghosts that are said to still haunt there. I had first wanted to go to Spring Hill when Natalie and I had gone to Hog Island to track down the swamp witch, but being unfamiliar with it and with the sun setting quickly that day, we decided the rumors were too creepy for us to go there unprepared in the dark.
Brooksville is a complex town, as I have discovered while exploring This Town is Myth. It has a strong reputation of racial tension, making Spring Hill an even more compelling haunting. Off the record, several people have pointed out the different hanging trees in the town to me, none of whom can confirm that any hangings took place in the cemetery. It is a place everyone agrees is haunted, and firsthand experiences and online posting all talk about something dark and evil there.
Rumors are what the cemetery lives on. Considered one of the creepiest haunted locations in Florida, Spring Hill is said to host several kind of ghosts, none of whom are happy with the living. Much like the Richardson section of Oak Ridge, the cemetery is an African American burial spot set off in the middle of nowhere. The small green sign marking the road to it would go unnoticed unless you were really looking. Even then, you need to go down one of several paths to find it laid away in the woods. In the middle are several trees, at least one of which is said to be a hanging tree where several blacks from the town were lynched. It’s said you can sometimes see people hanging from the trees, replaying the crime. The dark figures are also said to push people who enter and walk around the headstones and throw things at visitors. A Confederate solider is seen and known to yell and scream at night, and people have reported weird crying, like calls of agony, from the woods surrounding it.
The actual location doesn’t fit the part, however. While crude and weathered in most parts, the cemetery is a beautiful mix of nature and stone, one of those places you imagine people would have picnicked in older times. The light reflected oddly in places, giving it almost an angelic look and feel. The beauty still unplays the feeling you have in there. While I kept the nature of the activity mostly hidden from the kids before we arrived, when we got out of the car they both began to feel uneasy. Ella even refused to get out of the car. Both talked to me about how they felt they were not supposed to be there and that it was the creepiest place we had even been. All three of us were almost sick to our stomachs.
We stayed for over an hour, taking pictures and becoming obsessed by one grave which was pointed in a different way from its family’s headstones. The kids were almost jumpy, snapping their heads in different directions because they were seeing things out of the corner of their eyes. While they both had gotten into the habit of touching headstones, they refused to do so at Spring Hill. At one point Devin did and asked me to confirm it was cold to the touch when no others were. They were all too eager to leave, but as we did we noticed multiple hand prints in dust on the car that had not been there before.
They were both disappointed by Iron Bridge, although for me it was not a wasted trip. If any place should have ghosts, it’s Florida’s most deadly location, a place where over a dozen people have died and a haunted train was said to ride not far away a hundred years ago. It was a good place to have a snack, but there was nothing too interesting to report. But then it happened. As I sat near the water, Devin tossing rocks in the water and Ella balancing on the wooden beams nearby, both kids stopped and walked over at the same time. Ella slipped her hand in mine and Devin grabbed me around the waist. “This place is important to you, huh dad?” Devin is a master of simplifying big ideas. I told him it was but I wasn’t sure why yet. Ella suggested we put away the equipment for a while and just watch the water. There probably won’t be ghosts, she said, but the river is absolutely beautiful.
“It would be stupid to not take advantage of the moment,” she said.
It struck me for the first time, even as the world around us was starting to fall apart, that these moments would start to fade between us. Ella is now 11 and Devin 15, right on the edge of that turning point when spending time with dad takes a backseat to just about anything in their lives. Tracking these legends has put this on hold for us for now, something we can all agree on and do together, the last bit of common ground we share with each other. The feeling extended to dinner in the park as we ate meatloaf and stuffing and drank power drinks. They rolled their eyes at my lame jokes and picked on each other. Ella, too old to be playing in the playground, enjoyed the swings and rope line, as if growing up had taken the day off and she could just be a kid for a while. She begged for us to stay longer, and I allowed it because she was running around enjoying the other kids even though they had to remain apart from each other and because I wanted to wait for the sun to set before hitting the last adventure of the day.
On March 19, 1982, Ozzy Osbourne’s bus started to suffer from a broken air conditioner. They had been driving for most of the day, so they decided to stop at Flying Baron Estates in Leesburg, Florida, to try and fix it and sleep because it was connected to their tour bus company. The bus driver, Andrew Aycock, was also a pilot, and he decided to take one of the planes out despite having spent their downtime drinking and doing cocaine. When he finally got guitarist Randy Rhodes on the plane, he decided to buzz the tour bus. He clipped the wing on the vehicle, tipped the plane, and crashed into the trees before slamming through the garage of the house. Rhodes and two others on the plane died on impact and were burned so badly they needed to be identified by dental records.
Since then there have been several reports of phantom fires and a times when the accident replays itself.
Spooky Break happened to coincide with the anniversary of the crash. Devin, a serious fan of hard rock and heavy metal, was excited to see where one of his heroes had died. Flying Baron Estates is down a long, private road we were unable to get down, but we were able to hold up at a cattle ranch that gave us a good view of the crash site. We took out a ukulele and asked any spirits in the area to feel free to play it for us. Inspired by Buzzfeed Unsolved, the kids demanded we each take time alone at the wooden fence to try and bring the spirits forth. As the sun was almost completely set and the night was creeping into the horizon opposite us, we all heard and were able to capture noises of a plane. You could see the cloudless sky for miles all around us, and the time of day would have made lights on any aircraft a necessity, but there was nothing in the sky. It lasted for about three minutes, getting louder, before stopping abruptly instead of fading out of range.
When we got home close to midnight, the kids were still energized and asking about the next ghostly legend we were going to explore. Since, they have asked when we are going back out and have both spent hours reading and researching haunts across the country, anxious to get back out into the field and anxious to get my opinion on every creepy tale they can find.
Good ghost stories can bring us together. We pull the blanket over us as we tell them or huddle a bit closer around the fire to listen intently. We share in them because they offer a common factor among us. They reflect what both repels and draws us in, shared fear played out in narratives we all know about places we hope to visit. They can seem timeless like the histories they reflect. Ghostly legends, however, are not just about the scare. They are about the potential for a common experience, a moment that happens that only those involved can understand because they were in it together. We are not a traditional family, but those are our times together. My kids will remember spring 2020 for distance learning and words like quarantine and curves, but they will remember it for something else as well.
We tripped five legends, ate seven meals on the road from a cooler, put roughly 500 miles on the car, and spent most of our time driving with our devices away. We laid flowers at two cemeteries, discussed why races do not get along, and argued over whether towns should embrace their histories even when they are a stain. Spooky Break was both inspiring and scary, both tiring and invigorating. We walked among people who were determined to keep their distance but also people willing to talk and hug strangers. Along the way we gathered some evidence and had a few personal experienced that fed our belief and understanding of the unexplained, but that is hardly what the kids remember. As they get older, I imagine the time we spend together will become less and less. Life has a way of getting in the way, and as time goes on, all three of us have more things to load into our boxes each day. For one week we were able to drop everything and be in the moment. Across haunted bridges and swamps, from a deadly river to the graves of dead children, what they tell me they remember most were the funny or intense flashes we shared in between.
Haunted legends, it seems, can even bring a family together. Our history together is not a scrapbook but an ongoing ghost story.
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