1 Market Square SE | Roanoke, VA 24011
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Colonial transportation hub is chock-full of haunted places and urban legends.
Bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, Roanoke, Virginia offers picturesque views of both ranges from nearly every street. Locals and visitors can enjoy an abundance of fun activities, which range from outdoor adventures to brewery tours. Yet don’t let this independent city’s natural surroundings and cultural excursions fool you. Roanoke has a wealth of haunted locations, as well as a few creepy urban legends that will make your spine really tingle!
English settlers began exploring the Roanoke Valley as early as the seventeenth century. They were drawn to the region by its very rich and fertile lands. The twenty mile long valley falls within a great basin and is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachia. Prior to the pioneers, the area was home to various Native American tribes. These Indians lived an agricultural-based lifestyle, cultivating the earth and fishing from the Roanoke River. The word “Roanoke” is believed to be derived from their currency of smoothed shells, called “rawrenoc.”
By 1740, the Europeans had established their own farms in the Roanoke Valley. Tradesmen began flooding in, and the region’s population grew substantially. About three decades later, the vast county of Botetourt was created. It was named after Norbone Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt. Berkeley served as the royal governor of Virginia from 1768 to 1770. He died on October 15, 1770 in Williamsburg, and there is a statue which commemorates him in the Capitol building.
The arrival of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in 1852 transformed the valley from a rural and agrarian society to a suburban and commercial one. The city of Roanoke, Virginia was established that same year. It was originally called “Big Lick,” after a large outcropping of salt near the Roanoke River. During the colonial era, Roanoke was a primary stop along the Great Wagon Road. The Great Wagon Road would eventually stretch from Pennsylvania to Georgia. It “provided a route for inland trade and settlers heading west.”1 During the Revolutionary War, the road played a pivotal role in supplying American forces in the western areas of the English colonies. Circa 1754, the road’s route spanned approximately three hundred and ninety-five miles, starting at Philadelphia and ending at the intersection of Williamson Road and Franklin Road in Roanoke. Some one hundred and forty-five miles were then added, bringing its final stop to Shallow Ford in North Carolina.
Roanoke’s rich and long history has helped it become one of the most haunted cities in southwestern Virginia. Below we recount the chilling story of “The Woman in Black,” and explore two spooky sites: The Patrick Henry Hotel and the majestic Grandin Theater.
The Woman in Black
According to a March 1902 article in The Roanoke Times, the men of the city were being terrorized by a “Woman in Black.” “Her name was on every lip; strong men trembled when her name was spoken; children cried and clung to their mothers’ dresses; terror reigned supreme!”2 No one knew her name, or why she was in Roanoke. Though she never physically hurt anyone, the way the woman would unexpectedly appear then suddenly vanish was enough to strike fear in even the boldest of hearts.
The woman was described to be quite strikingly beautiful, with “dancing eyes”3 and a black turban that hid most of her face. When she spoke, cold chills would run down men’s spines. One prominent Roanoke merchant, upon leaving his store after midnight, ran into her. She materialized out of nowhere and tried to flirt with him. “You are not the first married man that I have seen to his home this night,”4 she whispered as she followed him to his front door. Terrified and speechless, the merchant dashed inside.
Within a few days, though, reports of the woman’s appearances ceased. Some believed that she’d moved on to haunt the town of Bluefield, as the locals there began to encounter a woman who exactly matched her description. Yet that same month, a story titled “Two Prominent Men see Ghost!” ran in an Alma, Nebraska newspaper. This “ghost” was said to be that of a young woman, dressed also “in deep black”5 and prone to materializing out of the shadows. If not a spirit, how could the same woman be in multiple places at once?
The “Woman in Black” has thus become an acclaimed urban legend in Virginia. Some theorize that she is the ghost of a scorned woman, returning from the hereafter in an effort to sway husbands from their wives.
The Patrick Henry Hotel
The Patrick Henry Hotel is located in the city’s downtown historic district. It was built in 1925 and is both a national historic place and a Virginia landmark. During its days as a hotel, The Patrick Henry catered to traveling salesmen. It had an ornate lobby, a spacious ballroom and three hundred guest rooms. It was chartered by William Wise Boxley and designed by William Lee Stoddart. Boxely was a local business leader, and Stoddart an acclaimed architect from Tenafly, New Jersey. Besides The Patrick Henry Hotel, Stoddart was the mastermind behind hospitality structures including The Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia and The Genetti Hotel in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
In 2009, The Patrick Henry Hotel was transformed into an apartment complex. Some of its original interior decorations were kept intact – such as antique chandeliers and an old faux skylight in the atrium. What else has not changed “is the alleged fact that the old Patrick Henry is haunted.”6 Reports of lights turning on and off by themselves, guests encountering unexplainable cold spots and bodiless footsteps being heard in the hallways continue to this very day.
When a team of ghost hunters visited the hotel, they thus had their fare share of paranormal delights. They recorded several electronic voice phenomena, said to be the conversations of deceased tenants. The group also claimed to have witnessed three ghosts dressed in tuxedos in the hotel’s ballroom. People have also seen the apparition of a man smoking a pipe on the second floor.
Room 606 has been reported to be the most supernaturally active place in The Patrick Henry Hotel. According to local lore, this was where a young airline stewardess was brutally stabbed to death. Her vicious murderer then stashed her bloody body in the bathtub and was never nabbed. When a female guest stayed in the room a few years later, she claimed that the ceiling above her bed opened up and the ghost of said stewardess descended to touch her hair. When parapsychology teacher Deborah Carvelli took her students to that same room, they too witnessed the same spooky phenomenon. “A few students [even] said that they envisioned the bathtub being full of ‘blood and water.’”7
Another ghost that haunts The Patrick Henry Hotel is that of a lady named Lucy, who is said to have died in her room but still likes to wander around the establishment in the wee hours of the evening. Night attendants and nocturnal guests have also come across the spirit of a man dressed in 1920s clothing.
The Grandin Theater
The old Grandin Theater is an acclaimed city landmark – “one of the jewels in the arts and cultural crown of the Roanoke Valley.”8 The theater first opened in 1932, as one of the first theaters in the city with sound. It was constructed by architect John Zink, and the first movie screened there was Arrowsmith. This melodramatic film starred Ronold Colman and Helen Hayes – Academy Award- and Tony Award-winning actors. For several decades, The Grandin Theater ran talking pictures, including classics like The Sound of Music and Annie Get Your Gun. Legendary blues musicians, such as John Lee Hooker and BB King, also held lively concerts there. When Julie Hunsaker became the Grandin Theater’s new manager in 1986, she added comedy shows to the theater’s growing list of attractions.
The Grandin Theater struggled financially during the late 1900s and was forced to close in November 2001. On October 20, 2002, though, it was able to raise enough funds to reopen. The French film, Mostly Martha, was screened to celebrate its grand return.
Today, The Grandin Theater offers movie fans a mix of Hollywood titles and indie films. However, be careful if you opt to watch a flick at the Grandin Theater. According to the theater’s assistant manager, “a homeless family once lived in the projection booth for some time when the theater closed at one point in the ‘50s.”9 Employees claim to hear the ghostly cries of one of the clan’s deceased babies, when the building is empty of customers. “There have been reports of a face looking down from the projection booth, a boy walking through the closed doors of the screening room, and the sounds of clinking glasses and laughter from the upstairs when employees are alone in the theater at night”10 as well.
If you are a Roanoke local with another urban myth to share, feel free to reach out to us! Contact us as well if you visited the city recently and have a frightening experience to tell.
1. “The Great Wagon Road.” GeorgianIndex.net. Last updated by webmaster 2007. Web. 7 August 2016. Para. 1.
2. Taylor, L.B. The Great Book of Virginia Ghost Stories. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2010. Page 267.
3. Bahr, Jeff, Troy Taylor, Loren Coleman, Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman. Weird Virginia. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2007. Page 23.
4. Taylor, L.B. The Great Book of Virginia Ghost Stories. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2010. Page 268.
5. Bahr, Jeff, Troy Taylor, Loren Coleman, Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman. Weird Virginia. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2007. Page 23.
6. Taylor Jr., L.B. Haunted Roanoke (Haunted America.) Charleston: Haunted America, A Division of The History Press, 2013. Page 14.
7. Taylor Jr., L.B. Haunted Roanoke (Haunted America.) Charleston: Haunted America, A Division of The History Press, 2013. Page 15.
8. “About.” GrandinTheater.com, n.d. Web. 7 August 2016. Para. 4.
9. Lau, Katelyn. “Ghostly stories, haunted sites and sinister sisters who scare.” CollegiateTimes.com. 30 October 2007. Web. Para. 10.
10. Contributor. “Haunted Places in the Roanoke, Virginia Area.” SuperForty.com. 15 September 2009. Web. 7 August 2016. Para. 13.
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Our Favorite Ghost Stories from Roanoke and Beyond
It should come as no surprise that Virginia—with all its centuries of history—might have its fair share of ghosts. From skirmishes between native American tribes, to skirmishes between native Americans and colonists, to hundreds of Civil War battles, Virginia’s soil is soaked with generations of bloodshed. Could you blame these restless spirits for lingering?
Roanoke and the surrounding areas are home to a few spectral spooks of our own. Below are just a few of our favorites. What are YOUR favorite Roanoke ghost stories?
The Woman in Black
This is probably one of the most famous Roanoke ghost stories—possibly because it’s actually documented in local newspapers from the time. The story goes, for just a few days in 1902, a mysterious and beautiful woman in a black dress, the lower part of her face partially obscured by a black turban, terrorized the men of Roanoke. And not just any men—married men. As they walked home at night, she would materialize, whispering in their ears and calling them by name, sending chills down their spines.
According to a March 1902 article in the Roanoke Times, one midnight eve, she followed a prominent local merchant all the way to his front door:
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. (1)
Just as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone.
Later that same year, accounts of an eerily similar woman were reported in West Virginia and Nebraska…but she never again returned to Roanoke. Some speculate she is a spurned woman out to get revenge by swaying men from their wives and causing discord in their marriages. Others suggest exactly the opposite—she appeared to guide men back home to their wives, ensuring they would not stray and no other woman would suffer as she had.
The Patterson Avenue Ghost
These days, all you’ll see of the haunted house at the southwest end of Patterson Avenue is an abandoned lot. But in the 1880s, this was the site of a beautiful, white…and haunted mansion.
The house was originally a funeral parlour—its basement was used for preparing bodies, the main floor was the funeral home, and the upper floor was where the mortician, his wife, and their four children lived. Eventually, neighbors began to realize they hadn’t seen the mortician’s wife or children in quite some time. When questioned, the mortician claimed they had gone out of state to visit some relatives. Two years later, they had not returned, and the mortician abandoned the home.
Decades later, the mansion on Patterson Avenue still sat vacant. Families moved in, but would move out within weeks, or even days. One Roanoke resident, who grew up next door to this house, recalls playing on its grounds with her siblings and other neighborhood children. They often saw a young woman, dressed in Victorian garb, watching them from one of the upper floor windows. She was never alarmed by the woman, but one day she mentioned it to her father, who took it upon himself to investigate—he knew that the house was not currently occupied, and no one should be inside.
He and a neighbor went into the house and saw the woman at the top of the stairs, looking out the window. When the sheriff’s department investigated this ghostly sighting, they dug up (literally) more than they expected—five bodies, suspected to be the mortician’s wife and children, were found buried under the dirt floor of the basement, and several more makeshift graves were scattered throughout the backyard.
Possible location of the former Patterson Avenue Ghost House; image from Google Maps
A short drive from downtown Roanoke, Grandin Theatre is a local gem for many reasons. Not only can you watch films in a uniquely historic setting…you may also encounter a ghost, or two!
The theatre—one of the first in America built for “talkies” (movies with sound)—was built in 1932. It’s had a rocky past and has closed down a few times over the years. At one such time, in the 1950s, it’s said a homeless family moved into the projection booth. While they were there, two of their young children—one of whom was an infant—died.
At night, when the theatre is empty of customers, employees claim to hear the phantom cry of the family’s infant child. One former projectionist claims to have seen a young boy lingering at the top of a stairway. Thinking he might be lost or left behind after the last show, he followed the boy, only to seem him disappear through a closed door. Others have heard laughter and clinking glasses coming from upstairs, and one former employee claimed to have seen a ghostly face peering from the projection room…when he knew he was alone in the building.
Also known as Historic Avenel or the William M. Burwell House, this 1838 Bedford plantation is home to the White Lady, among other supernatural presences. Said to be the ghost of Letitia Burwell, the oldest daughter of the Burwell family, the White Lady roams the property, dressed in a long, white, early 1900s-style dress. Local musicians who sometimes use the home to practice often hear a woman’s voice singing along, and visitors have smelled musty perfume wafting through the halls.
Ghost hunters who have investigated the property on several occasions have noted seeing an orb that looks suspiciously like an eye, and have heard someone murmuring, “the secret is in the wall” and “hi Kitty, Kitty, Kitty.” The Lee Room, where Robert E. Lee was a frequent guest of the Burwells, contains a bed that occasionally looks slept in, with rumpled blankets and an indentation in the pillow where a head might lay.
Roanoke-Area Ghost Walks and Haunted Houses
Want to check out the spooks for yourself? There are several local ghost tours and other haunted events, guaranteed to get your heart racing and your spine tingling:
Read More About Ghosts in Roanoke
(1) From “The Ghosts of Roanoke,” History Museum of Western Virginia, https://vahistorymuseum.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/the-ghosts-of-roanoke/comment-page-1/
Ghosts of The Lost Colony
Ghosts of The Lost Colony 2017
The First English settlement in the New World completely vanished, without a trace, on Roanoke Island. Experience this historic event as The Lost Colony presents: Ghosts of The Lost Colony.
Join a team of ghost hunters who have discovered hot spots believed to be associated with spirits of The Lost Colony of 1587 and the show The Lost Colony. The Astral Plane Investigations team lead their groups on an hour-long tour, visiting locations in the Fort Raleigh Park and the Waterside Theatre where ghost appearances and other paranormal activity occur. As your group experiences these strange occurrences, they learn the story of The Lost Colony and gain insight as to what might have happened to the colonists. Step back in time, be a part of the mysteries of Roanoke Island and meet the ghosts of the past.
Sponsored in part by the Outer Banks Tourism Bureau, Ghosts of The Lost Colony is open to the public April 10 – 22, 2017. Tours leave at 8:00 PM from The Lost Colony ticket office. Guests should plan for an hour of haunting history as they walk the grounds in search of paranormal activity. Tickets are available by phone at 252-473-2127, online at www.thelostcolony.org, or the day of at the box office. Adult tickets are $20, children ages 6-10 are $15, and children under 5 are free.
Tours are conducted outdoors in the evening on uneven terrain. These trails are not accessible by individuals with physical handicaps or in wheelchairs.
Va tour roanoke, ghost
The Roanoke Ghost Tour
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