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East Pasco's ghost lore reappears at its old haunts

Although no one has reported seeing her recently, the "Lady in White" remains the most famous East Pasco apparition, at Halloween or otherwise. She haunts the hill at U.S. 301 and U.S. 98 where the late businessman Stockton Massey lived in an 11-room wood-frame house that burned in August 1981, the handiwork of an arsonist.

The arson remains unsolved, as does the mystery of the Lady in White, although there are stories about her. Massey himself used to speak of the mischief she caused at his turn-of-the-century dwelling, such as strange noises and doors opening and closing.

Dade City lawyer and history buff William Dayton, who collects tales of ghosts and other lore, has heard numerous accounts of the ghost over the years.

Out-of-town visitors unfamiliar with stories about the spirit "just came in (Massey's house) and casually asked, "Who's the old lady out in the garden; the one in the old-fashioned white dress?"' says Dayton.

"I've personally seen dogs bristle up and refuse to go in the house," he says. "Stockton said, "Oh yes, that's the ghost. Dogs always act that way."'

Other visitors there claimed to have seen the spirits of children following something that adults could not see. One version of the story has it that the woman was the mother of a child killed during an Indian attack in the early 19th century. The stories usually involve children from either the Bradley or the Tucker family.

Another variation on the theme says that the ghost is that of a woman killed by Indians.

But Dayton says the attacks did not occur near the hill where Massey's house was built. (The Hillside Trace Apartments are there now.) In most ghost stories, the spirit haunts the place where it lived or died.

In the case of the Lady in White, the tales started before the home was built. Col. J.A. Hendley, who lived in the Dade City area when it was called Fort Dade and helped organize the county, may have been the first person to witness the spirit's presence on the hill.

His horse supposedly was spooked by something on the hill; Hendley fell from the beast and broke an arm.

Other haunts

Another burned house in Dade City also has a ghost story. A two-story dwelling on 14th Street near Pasco Elementary School supposedly had a ghostly occupant seen only by young children, Dayton says.

The house had a second-story door that opened onto air and a free fall to the ground. Years ago, though, it had a second-story porch. In the 1920s a young boy fell off the upper porch, broke his neck and died. His parents removed the top porch.

Friends of Dayton's lived in that neighborhood, and their young sons gave him accounts of the ghost.

"One of the little boys just casually referred to it as "the little boy's house,"' Dayton says. "No one over about the age of 8 ever saw it, but to little kids the little boy was just as real as anyone else. It wasn't a spooky boy. It wasn't scary."

Dayton's Dade City home, built in 1904, also carries a ghost story, although he never has had an experience with the apparition _ "another lady in a long, white dress."

Perhaps it's the same lady from the hill?

"Yes," Dayton says. "Maybe she makes house calls."

The first night he lived there he might have believed the stories. All night, he heard someone walking up the steps, the boards creaking as the weight shifted. He kept getting up to check, but no one was there. Finally, he realized that the old hot-water heater near the stairwell was making the creaking noises.

"It does sound like someone very slowly walking up the steps," Dayton says.

The sounds in his old house all can be attributed to typical creaks and groans or to such a purely natural phenomenon as the aging hot-water heater.

Perhaps that is so with most ghost stories.

"I can't discount them, but there are also plausible explanations for all of them," Dayton says. "They're interesting and they sort of enrich the local lore."

Dayton added to the lore when he was a student at Saint Leo preparatory school in 1959 or 1960. He and some friends concocted the story of the phantom nun, he says, smiling at the memory.

A nun was murdered in St. Edward's Hall, they told the younger boys at the school.

"We'd go through (the hall) with red waterpaint and drop a trail of blood," Dayton says. "The little kids would go to bed and the floors would be clean and they'd wake up and there'd be a trail of blood coinciding with the latest ghost story."

It didn't take long before those in charge figured out who was spreading the phantom nun story and scaring the wits out of the younger boys. The stories were ordered stopped. But the tale periodically surfaced, and Dayton says that for all he knows it could have been a legend started long before he arrived at the school. Such tales tend to emerge periodically, growing as new storytellers reinvent the old.