Bumps in the Night 

Hunting for ghosts at Magnolia Manor.

"Now, ya'll are going to think I'm crazy, but I swear I saw an old woman this afternoon walking down the hallway when I was checking in. These two didn't see any old woman," says Teresa, pointing to her two girlfriends, crowded next to her on an antique loveseat.

"What did she look like?" asks S.P., a member of the Memphis - Mid South Ghost Hunters (MMSGH) from his chair in the parlor of Magnolia Manor, an antebellum home turned bed-and-breakfast in Bolivar, Tennessee.

On a table between the women, the ghost hunters, and my friend Greg and I are several pieces of electronic equipment — tape recorders, video recorders, digital cameras, and electromagnetic-field detectors. We're about to begin a workshop in which S.P., Rich, and Mervin (three ghost hunters who prefer that the Flyer not use their full names) will teach us a little "Ghost-Hunting 101" in this reportedly haunted house.

But first, Teresa needs answers. She describes the woman she saw as elderly, short, heavy-set, and wearing an apron over a dress. She can't remember the color of the woman's hair, but it was short. As she explains her sighting, her middle-aged friends shake their heads and giggle lightly, as if to show their disbelief.

None of the ghost hunters saw the woman either. Rich says the mysterious woman may be a friend of Elaine Cox, the hostess and sole resident of Magnolia Manor.

Mervin (who, despite the name, is female) takes Teresa back to the manor's private quarters, where Cox and two friends are visiting. When they return several minutes later, Mervin is smiling and Teresa's wearing a stunned look.

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS

Neither of Cox's friends resembled the woman she saw, and no one else had been inside the house besides the five workshop attendees, the ghost hunters, and Cox's guests.

The ghost hunters' conclusion: Teresa may have seen an apparition. Judging by her description, Rich suggests it could be the ghost of Annie Miller, the last family resident of Magnolia Manor, who died in 1979 at age 84.

It's exactly what Teresa wanted to hear. Having been on numerous amateur ghost hunts in her home state of Arkansas, she's had plenty of experiences recording electronic voice phenomena (EVP), a form of ghost hunting that picks up voices of the dead through audio recordings. But she came here to see an apparition.

So did I. At the least, I was hoping for some type of paranormal experience. The MMSGH host monthly overnight workshops at Magnolia Manor, where small groups of eager ghost seekers learn how to track a phantom.

My friend Greg and I were hoping that one night in an allegedly haunted antebellum home would convince us that ghosts are more than fodder for campfire stories.

The Haunted Mansion

Tucked in a row of stately historic homes on Bolivar's Main Street, Magnolia Manor is barely visible from the road. That's due to a lawn filled with large magnolia trees that no doubt served as the mansion's namesake.

The colonial Georgian home was built in 1849 with bricks said to have been handmade by slaves. Judge Austin Miller, the home's original owner, was a well-to-do lawyer, banker, and politician. He played a large role in the state legislature's determination of the Southern boundary of the state, a decision that placed Memphis in Tennessee rather than Mississippi.

Colorful stories abound about the mansion's history. Union generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, John Logan, and James B. McPherson allegedly planned the Battle of Shiloh in the gentleman's parlor at Magnolia Manor.

Legend has it that one day during a meal Sherman stated that all Southern women and children should be exterminated. Mrs. Miller ran outside in tears. Grant ordered Sherman to apologize, which he did. But the proud general wasn't fond of saying sorry, so he also slashed the walnut staircase with his saber. Today, the evidence remains in the form of a deep cut in the wooden railing.

click to enlarge Seeing is believing: Elaine Cox resides in Magnolia Manor, where some guests believe spirits move coins during the night. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Seeing is believing: Elaine Cox resides in Magnolia Manor, where some guests believe spirits move coins during the night.

Members of the Miller family continued to occupy the home through the 1970s, when Magnolia Manor was willed to the city of Bolivar. A local attorney purchased the home for his daughter in the late 1970s.

The house was only occupied a few years before Cox took ownership in 1981. Soon after, she began renting three upstairs rooms and a backyard cottage as a bed-and-breakfast.

Guests have reported strange noises and a few sightings of apparitions. A ghostly woman in a Victorian dress reportedly pulls the covers off guests in the 1849 Room. An old woman in a rocking chair has been sighted in the wee hours of the morning in the C.A. Miller Suite. The same apparition has been spotted holding a candle in Annie's Room late at night.

Cox says lights go on and off, doors open and close, and occasionally she hears heavy footsteps walking up the staircase. Since the MMSGH began hosting workshops here over a year ago, numerous audio recordings have been made of what they believe to be the dead trying to communicate.

Stalking Spirits

Greg and I arrive in Bolivar on Saturday evening. As we pull up to the home, I can't help but get the feeling that I'm a character in the opening scene of a horror film. You know the one: A couple kids decide to spend an innocent evening in a haunted house and everything's going nicely until a back-from-the-dead serial killer comes up from the basement.

But S.P. has assured me that the ghost hunters use Magnolia Manor because they believe it's a place where spirits have no ill intent.

click to enlarge p._18_cover_story_3.jpg

So I shake my fear, and we ring the bell. Cox points us in the direction of the 1849 Room, and we head up the staircase. Once in our room, my eyes are immediately drawn to a woman's portrait hanging over the mantel.

A pair of soft, sparkling eyes stare back at me. Transfixed, I move in closer. The portrait seems to come alive the longer I stare. I later learn the portrait is believed to be that of Priscilla McNeal, a wealthy cousin of the Millers who died at age 18.

Rich tells me it may have been painted post-mortem and warns me that Priscilla's ghost is known to wake people in the night.

At 8 p.m. we head downstairs to the parlor, where silver and gray damask wallpaper, stately mahogany and walnut chairs and tables, and grandiose chandeliers whisk us back to the days of hoop skirts and chivalry.

The women visiting from Arkansas (Teresa, Stephanie, and Laneca) gather on the sofa, while Greg and I opt for straight-backed cushioned chairs. S.P. and Rich go over how to use the electronic equipment.

"Pay close attention, because your ghost hunt has already begun," says S.P. "It's all about being aware. Unless you're really paying attention, you won't notice anything."

He tells of how, in March of last year, an apparition resembling the original Mrs. Miller floated past the parlor door during a workshop just like this one.

"We saw a full-bodied apparition of a lady in a Civil War-era hoop skirt," says S.P. "I thought it was Mrs. Cox at first, because she owns a hoop skirt that she sometimes wears. I thought she'd come down to give us a treat, but I could see right through this figure, which was glowing and shimmering. I jumped up and ran into the hallway, but no one was there. Mrs. Cox was in the kitchen in blue jeans."

As we're discussing the difference between using analog tapes and digital recorders to capture EVPs, Greg shivers and then whispers to me, "Hey, breathe on my face."

"What?" I say, louder than a whisper. It attracts the attention of the others, and Greg informs us that he felt cold air on his face, almost as if a hand had touched his cheek. He was hoping that it was just my breath, but my breath is not cold.

The ghost hunters give us a tour of the manor around 9:30 p.m., accompanied by tales of sightings and experiences of previous guests.

In our room, Rich tells of a skeptical man who was staying here during a Christmas party several years ago. He went to bed early while his wife socialized downstairs.

click to enlarge Resident Elaine Cox has furnished Magnolia Manor with antebellum antiques. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Resident Elaine Cox has furnished Magnolia Manor with antebellum antiques.

"When his wife went looking for him, he'd disappeared from the bed," says Rich. "He was hiding in the bathroom. He said he'd been awakened by the ghost of Priscilla pulling the covers off of him."

Greg squeals with delight at the idea that a ghost was sighted in our room. Goosebumps rise on my arms, and I glance at the portrait again, silently asking the young woman pictured to kindly not wake me in the night.

Next, we enter the sitting room attached to the C.A. Miller Suite, the largest and most luxurious of the guest rooms. I hear a faint meow.

"Did anyone else hear a cat?" I ask. I'd already been informed that there was no cat in the house, but past guests have reported phantom mewing. No one else heard it.

"I bet you just heard Whitey, the ghost of Annie Miller's cat," says S.P. Whitey is buried in the Miller family plot at Polk Cemetery in Bolivar, the only four-legged resident of the centuries-old graveyard.

At 11:15 p.m., we gather in the C.A. Miller Sitting Room for an EVP session. We'd been asked to bring tape recorders, so I place my trusty Olympus on the table. All the lights are turned off in the room, except for one small lamp. A door leading out to the hallway is left

When everyone's quiet, S.P. begins the session:

"We come here tonight to visit. We don't mean any harm or disrespect to anybody. We'd just love ... "

Before he can finish his sentence, the lights in the hallway flash on and stay on. Everyone gasps.

click to enlarge Priscilla's ghost is said to pull the sheets off guests as they sleep in this room, built in 1849. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Priscilla's ghost is said to pull the sheets off guests as they sleep in this room, built in 1849.

"Wow, I just got chills," says S.P. He thanks the spirit for giving us a demonstration and proceeds with a roll call of each Miller family member. If their ghosts are present, S.P. tells us, they may choose to speak on our tape recorders.

During the session, Stephanie announces that she felt a hand rub her lower back. Rich and Laneca spot a dark ball of energy that darts from underneath one chair to another. All of us report feeling cold breezes moving throughout the room, and I get chills when someone points out a distant radio-like chatter in the background. I'd been hearing it too but thought it was my imagination. There is no radio upstairs.

After the event-filled EVP session, I was certain the place was rife with paranormal activity. It's 2:30 a.m., but, scared to sleep, Greg and I play an hour-long game of Monopoly. I only admit defeat when I begin falling asleep in between turns.

Greg turns the lights off but props the hallway door open so some light shines in. There's no way I'm sleeping in complete darkness in a haunted house. I pull the covers way over my head and hold on tight. If Priscilla decides to visit, she'll have to fight to remove the covers.

Greg, still eager to see some ghost action, lies in bed awake, waiting for something to happen. Just as I'm dozing off, I hear, "Hey, do you feel that?"

"What?" I ask, afraid to hear the answer.

"I think there's something sitting on the end of my side of the bed. Do you feel that? It feels like the bed is pressing down near my feet," Greg says.

I can feel some pressure near the foot of the bed. The mattress is depressed, as if someone is weighing down one end. Then, it lets up and the feeling is gone. Lying awake, scared shitless, I stare into the open hallway door.

click to enlarge Priscilla McNeal's portrait: Stare long enough and she'll come to life. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Priscilla McNeal's portrait: Stare long enough and she'll come to life.

Suddenly, a shadow passes across the opening, as if someone (or something) is walking down the hallway. I shudder and glance at the clock. It's 3:26 a.m. And then I fall asleep.

Ghost Hunter History

You'd never guess by talking to him, but S.P. hasn't always believed in ghosts. His skepticism waned after he noticed streaking balls of light in some photos he'd snapped during a ghost tour several years ago. Just for fun, he sent them to the Ghost Stalkers of West Tennessee (MMSGH's earlier incarnation) for evaluation.

The group's members determined that the spirit-like images were simply spider webs illuminated by a camera flash. But S.P. was intrigued.

"Next thing I know, they're asking me to go on investigations with them. Then they asked me to join," says S.P., who's been a member since 2002.

S.P. and his fellow hunters focus much of their time on house calls. People who believe their homes or businesses may be haunted can contact the group through their Web site (www.memphisghosthunters.com). All MMSGH investigations are free and confidential.

"We have a questionnaire we send back to the person, and it's fairly involved," S.P. says. "If people are really having a problem and they need help, they'll answer the questions and agree to our conditions — no electronic equipment may be turned on, no smoking is permitted, children must be out of the home, and pets must be secured.

"We've had some pretty crazy things happen during an investigation, so we're concerned about the safety of children," S.P. says.

The team spends several hours in each home or business, recording in active areas and checking for moving electromagnetic fields.

"We've found that the best way to hunt for ghosts is not to hunt, but just to go in and visit," S.P. says. "The spirit energies in these places aren't going to interact with you unless they're comfortable. You have to be respectful."

click to enlarge Pictured: Annie Miller (on the right), the last family resident of Magnolia Manor
  • Pictured: Annie Miller (on the right), the last family resident of Magnolia Manor

Team members rely mostly on audio recordings and EMF detectors to collect evidence, but they also use video recorders and digital cameras to document their investigations.

"About 99.9 percent of the ghost pictures you see on the Internet are the result of photographing dust, moisture, pollen, or insects," S.P. says. "It's extremely rare to catch anything in a photograph. If you go outside when it's dark and shine a flashlight in front of you, you'll see all the dust in the air."

Sometimes, they're able to "talk" with the spirit. If a client wants the ghost gone, MMSGH members will politely ask the spirit person to leave. Other clients simply want a name or history of their ghostly visitor. S.P. says most spirits aren't out to cause harm.

"They're just people without bodies," says S.P. "We don't believe that hauntings are demonic in nature. Sometimes the energies in these houses are mad or confused, but I'm sure if you walked through downtown Memphis, you'd see a few crazy people out there."

Over the years, numerous requests have come in from people wanting to join the team on a hunt. But S.P. says spirits are less likely to communicate when there are lots of people around.

They began offering the monthly ghost-hunting workshops at Magnolia Manor as a way for amateur hunters to learn the techniques of the trade. (The next Magnolia Manor workshop will be held August 11th and 12th.) The group will also begin offering monthly two-hour workshops in August at an allegedly haunted site in Memphis. More information and a workshop schedule will be posted on their Web site soon.

The Morning After

I'm awakened by the alarm on my cell phone. Priscilla didn't come calling in my slumber. I glance at her portrait and silently thank her. I wake Greg. Breakfast will be served downstairs in 30 minutes.

As I'm brushing my teeth, I overhear S.P. and Laneca talking in another room. She's explaining why she'd left the Miller Suite, where she'd been sleeping alone, and crawled into bed with her friends in Annie's Room.

"Something woke me up last night," Laneca says, "and I got scared and ran into bed with them. It felt like someone was sitting at the end of my bed, and I felt it touch my hand. I felt it lie down next to me — twice!"

"It happened to us too!" I exclaim, as I run into the room, butting into their conversation. Laneca's incident occurred around 3:30 a.m., just minutes after ours.

Before we went to sleep, the ghost hunters advised us to place coins on a piece of paper with a photocopied picture of the same coin. The coin was to be aligned directly over the copy. They say that, occasionally, the spirits at Magnolia Manor have been known to move coins.

Neither the coin in our room nor the one in Annie's Room had moved, but in Laneca's room, it was positioned just slightly to the right of its copy.

We share our ghost stories over breakfast in the sunroom, and Cox gives us a brief history of the home. Though she'd never met the Millers, the older residents of Bolivar have imparted plenty of Miller family tales to Cox through the years.

We gather our things and say goodbye to the ghosts of the Miller family. S.P. proclaims our stay as one of the most spiritually active weekends in the workshops' short history.

If there was ever a doubt in my mind that ghosts are real, it's gone now. And occasionally, when I wake in the night, I tug my covers tightly around my shoulders ... just in case.

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