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Houses of Horrors

(ran TP edition)

It's Halloween, and most of us are probably resigned to a holiday of routine. Take the kids trick-or-treating. Rush out to grab a cape and plastic fangs before going to a friend's costume party. Finishing off the unclaimed Sweet Tarts while Halloween (the one with Jamie Lee Curtis, of course) plays in the VCR.

It's easy to believe there's nothing frightening about this area, which is relatively light on history.

You'd be dead wrong.

Tampa might not have the spooky reputation of some of the South's older settlements, such as New Orleans, Savannah, Ga., and the outer banks of North Carolina. But it is endowed with a handful of choice ghost stories that span Hillsborough County.

Skeptics should bear in mind that this is a non-scientific report. We endeavored to relate accurately what we've been told, not to prove or disprove anything. But is there a better time to suspend your skepticism than on Halloween? Are even the staunchest doubters immune to the chilling tingle of a good ghost tale?

The Ghost of Tampa Theatre

This is the dean of Tampa ghost stories because it is set in one of the city's most famous landmarks. Plus, there couldn't be a more appropriate venue for a ghost story. An over-the-top blend of Italian Renaissance, Greek Revival and Florida Mediterranean styles, the interior of the 1926-vintage movie house seems to ooze spirits from every ceramic floor tile, every macabre wall crest, every faux star that winks at you from the simulated night sky ceiling.

Tara Schroeder, the theater's public relations manager, recently talked through the noise of the winding table in the dark, cramped projection booth that overlooks the auditorium. She spoke of Foster "Fink" Finley, the theater's projectionist from 1930 until his death in 1965, whose spirit is said to haunt that very room.

Fink's old projection system was a carbon arc projector, powered by a generator in a dingy anteroom off the projection booth. When Fink's successor scanned the movie on the screen for the cue mark to switch film reels, "This heavy door (to the generator room) would gently glide open, and he would have to stay focused on seeing that cue mark, and he would see an apparition in his peripheral vision." Also one of the control switches would toggle on and off.

"Fink's replacement ended up quitting because of all the shenanigans going on up in the projection booth," Schroeder said. It probably came as little comfort to the spooked projectionist that Fink died of a heart attack that struck while he was on the job.

Schroeder related other incidents that have happened during her five-year tenure at the theater. "Two separate staff members on two separate occasions have had the same exact experience," she said, referring to a door on the mezzanine level that opens to the house manager's office. About four years ago, a staff member came to work early and alone and heard keys jingling in the doorknob. Coming up the stairs from the lobby concession stand, the staffer then heard the door jiggle. "And by the time they came up, no one was there," Schroeder said in a mock tone of foreboding.

She said the same thing happened to another staffer about two years ago.

Schroeder herself got a thrill when professional ghost hunters came to the theater about a year and a half ago. She and a staffer met the investigators after a late Friday movie, at midnight.

"They had this electromagnetic sensing device," Schroeder recalled. "So we walked all around the theater, up in the booth, and everything was dead. We get in the middle of the stage, and (the device) starts going nuts. There was nothing on. The lights weren't on, the sound system wasn't on." The investigators then took numerous random photographs, hoping to capture an apparition on film.

Nothing.

The investigators left. She and the staffer remained, got a drink at the concession stand and returned to the stage. They chatted about the evening's events. "So we started goofing and saying, "Oh, we love this theater as much as you do. Please give us a sign.' I swear we were just kidding. And we heard keys off in the distance, for about 10 to 15 seconds. And then it stopped." Schroeder checked behind and beneath the stage.

Nothing.

Two Tales From Nature's Classroom

If you were a sixth-grader in the Hillsborough County school system, you should be familiar with these next two stories.

Nature's Classroom is a 365-acre outdoor learning center on the Hillsborough River in Thonotosassa. It's a rustic field-trip destination for the county's sixth-graders, boasting a wildlife preserve, science center, a small paddle-boat fleet and sprawling woods coursed with hiking trails.

It is out on the trails _ surrounded by spindly, overreaching oak branches and dense palmetto thickets _ where the NC teachers like to tell students the stories of the Gorgeous Tree and the Strickland/Chance feud. They are pure folklore but rooted in historical fact.

One recent Monday morning, veteran NC teacher Bill Munsey took refuge from ravenous mosquitoes inside his Ford Bronco. He had gingerly guided the truck along a winding path to a spot in the woods where the Gorgeous Tree stands. The grandfather oak he estimates to be 300 to 500 years old easily dominates the surrounding trees.

Munsey spoke of the Calusa Indians, who inhabited the area for 10,000 to 20,000 years before European explorers arrived in the 16th century. "There were probably tens of thousands of them here. And they lived a pretty decent life _ lot of game to hunt, and they were pretty isolated from the other tribes, so they were a pretty peaceful people. All of a sudden their lives changed."

Spanish explorers arrived under the mistaken assumption that Florida had gold. "The Spanish took over the area," Munsey said, "and they pretty much put the Indians into servitude. The Indians had to grow their food for them, and build their fort, take care of their animals, and this created pretty bad relations."

But one Spanish captain and an Indian maiden became attracted to each other. For months, they met in secret, going on picnics, horseback riding. "After about a year and a half of this, they realized they had fallen in love and wanted to get married. But they didn't know how to handle that. They couldn't live in the fort, because Indians weren't allowed in the fort after dark. They couldn't live in the Indian village because the Indians hated the Spanish." So they horded supplies and eloped far off into the woods where no one had ever gone before.

However, the maiden had already been promised to another young brave in the tribe, and a dowry had been paid. The scorned brave swore to hunt down the Spanish captain.

A couple of years later, the captain's wife was on the porch of their cabin. "And she sees coming up the trail that young brave and four or five of his friends," Munsey said. "And she yells to her husband, "Run, get out of here!"'

After a long chase into the woods, the captain "finds the biggest oak tree he can," the Gorgeous Tree, "and he climbs way up to the top and lays down among the resurrection fern." The Indians passed underneath him, doubled back, spotted him. A brave shot him with an arrow. He fell. "His beard caught in one of the Vs in the tree as he's falling, and it rips right off his face. And he hits the ground screaming and runs off into the woods, never to be seen again. This scared the Indians so much, because they had never seen a Spanish soldier without his beard and they're a very superstitious people. They take off and nobody ever came back to that area of the forest again. It became a sacred forest," Munsey said.

Soon the Calusa maiden came by and saw the pool of blood on the ground. She looked up and saw her husband's beard hanging in a tree. "Well she let out a scream that you could hear north of Atlanta. And she put a curse on her people, and she takes off into the woods, never to be seen again. Her curse was this: that they would never ever be able to forget what they did to her husband. Well, that man's beard grew and grew, and pieces flew here, and pieces flew there, and if you ask any Indian in the state of Florida what all this stuff is hanging out of the trees, they'll call it "Spanish man's beard,' because they believe it's part of the captain's beard still hanging from the trees. We call it Spanish moss."

Munsey drove farther into the woods until he came to the remains of the Strickland ranch, at the edge of Nature's Classroom property. Little more than a caved-in log cabin and stable on wooded pasture, it's what's left of the homestead of the Strickland family, one of the first pioneer families that settled the area about 130 years ago.

The Strickland cabin used to sit near the river, not far from the structures of Nature's Classroom. Unfortunately, that put the Stricklands close to the Chance family's property. They feuded about property lines and accused each other of stealing cattle.

"It really escalated _ fistfights, name-calling, shooting at each other," Munsey said. The Stricklands eventually jacked their house up, put it on a wagon and drove it with a team of horses to its present location, about 200 yards from Morris Bridge Road.

Young Genevieve Strickland and Lucifer Chance became friends at the local schoolhouse, which used to stand at the modern-day junction of Fletcher Avenue and Interstate 75. They shared school materials, sneaked into the woods and studied together well into their teens.

"What he'd do is he'd sneak up to this area when he wanted to see Genevieve, hide behind one of these trees and make an owl call. One day he came up to see her, and he didn't know it but she'd gotten real sick and was running a real high fever." She was moved to another room, while her two brothers stayed in her room. Before long they heard a bogus owl call outside the window. They ran outside and captured young Chance.

The commotion brought Mr. Strickland outside. Lucifer confessed his relationship with Genevieve. The Strickland men were so upset that they lynched him at a nearby tree.

The next morning Genevieve came out to get a drink of water, saw poor Lucifer, and let out a scream. She ran back into the house and swore she'd never leave there. She died six weeks later. "Nobody knows if it's from a broken heart or from a fever. The people in Branchton and this area to this day say you can sit out here on the pasture on certain nights and you can still hear Genevieve moving around in the house."

And on other nights, the legend goes, you can hear a human owl call followed by a scream piercing the Thonotosassa night.

The Ghost of the old Brandon Cultural Center

Dick Cimino is an Ybor City-born Tampa banana turned Brandon good ol' boy.

He's a former Brandon chamber president, former president of the Kiwanis Club, former president of the American Cancer Society Brandon Unit and a former board member of the Brandon Cultural Center, and he runs an insurance business.

And he says couldn't care less if people think he is crazy. He knows what he saw late one night in late 1981 at the old Brandon Cultural Center.

The building originally was a funeral home for F.T. Blount Co., which donated it to the fledgling Cultural Center in 1979 after moving the building to a spot on Clayton Lake on Vonderburg Road. Kiwanis fund-raisers, art auctions and exhibits, chamber luncheons, weddings and plays took place at the Cultural Center.

A rash of alarms triggered by the building's motion detector sent Cimino and a fellow board member to the center two or three times a week. Sometimes two or three times a night. Every time they drove out to investigate, they found the building empty and locked.

At about 3 a.m. one day, the alarm monitoring company called Cimino at home.

"They said, "Mr. Cimino, we hate to bother you again, but the alarm went off in the Cultural Center again.' So I went to check it." It was Cimino's third visit that night.

He entered the building with flashlight and pistol and shined the light through the glass wall that separated the foyer from the grand room. "I saw this form in there," Cimino recalled. "So I walked up to the doors, and I was shining it in there, and this form just slowly moved away from me. It was a young woman in a blue print dress. I could see she was young. Whatever it was, it didn't look like the person was walking. It was just moving."

Cimino went to the fuse box and turned all the lights on. "And I went through every nook and cranny of the building, closets and everything. There wasn't a soul in there."

For Cimino, the sighting was the confirmation of sensations he had been experiencing in the building for some time. "I had been in the building at times before and I'd have an eerie feeling that there was somebody there with me. I wasn't scared. Never was scared."

Cimino said about 10 months later the then-executive director of the center confessed she sometimes would feel a presence.

Not long after that, a friend of his wife told Cimino she knew someone whose teenage daughter had died and was buried by Blount Funeral Home in a blue print dress. "And the gal was an artsy young lady," Cimino said. "I thought she figured she'd hang around, 'cause we needed some help at the Cultural Center.

"I never had any strong feelings one way or another whether there was ghosts or not. But I have strong feelings now. I believe there are ghosts."

The old Cultural Center building was torn down in 1988 and was eventually replaced by a building that now houses the center and the Brandon Regional Library. Upon the new building's dedication in 1991, center members "released" the spirit of the young girl from a box in an informal ceremony. She hasn't been seen so far.

The Biglow-Helms Mansion

The foreboding, fortresslike house completed in 1908 at Bayshore and Gandy boulevards is the premiere spook house of south Tampa. Robinson and Plant high school kids in the late '70s and '80s knew that was the ultimate place to break into on a dare. They knew that Satanic cult members trespassed there to perform pagan rituals. Until the late '80s, you could see the bizarre Christ-on-a-cross statue in the back yard.

The mansion was built by Silas Leland Biglow, who moved to Tampa from Brooklyn in 1884 and was a founding City Council member. He died there in 1917. In 1919, Mrs. Biglow sold the house to prominent surgeon John Helms, who converted it into a private hospital. Since the Tampa Municipal Hospital (later Tampa General) wasn't completed until 1927, the Helms clinic served as one of the area's major hospitals _ and morgues.

"The covered porch, because of the thickness of the walls and the fact that it was open air, was one of the cooler spots in non-air-conditioned Tampa," said Charles Jordan of Hyde Park Architects, one of the mansion's tenants today. "So that became the temporary morgue for the hospital."

By 1930, Helms had converted the house back into his residence with the advent of Tampa Municipal Hospital. Mrs. Helms lived there until her death in 1974. It sat vacant and was boarded up by the late '70s. In the early '90s, the house was refurbished for office space and today makes an elegant home for a law firm, investment bankers, property managers and the architects.

Over the years, reports of Biglow's ghost have persisted at the mansion. Its hospital/morgue pedigree has added to its lore.

"I've heard ghost stories from clients related to the fact that it was a hospital and consequently the occasional morgue," said Jordan, although, he added, he hasn't seen any ghosts.

Thickening the house's supernatural pall was the fact that portrait artist Jack Wilson, Mrs. Helms' nephew, died of a heart attack in the converted second-story apartment in 1965.

Suzanne Walker, a legal secretary who works in the second-floor law firm, said a psychic visited the house two years ago. "She came through the first floor," Walker said, "didn't feel anything down there. Of course, we had it blessed (by a priest) before we moved in," she said with a laugh. "And so she came up the stairway. Coming up to the second floor, she said, she definitely felt something in that area spiritual. On the second floor it wasn't too strong, but then up here on the third floor definitely. There was definitely spirits up here. And our bookkeeper who used to work with us said she used to come up to the attic doorway, and she said she definitely felt spirits. She would never go in the attic."

Walker added that "None of us come in at night and work by ourselves."

The Ghost of Falk Theatre

It was pitch black up in the light booth of the historic Falk Theatre, across the street from the University of Tampa. Richard Sharkey was alone one afternoon six or seven years ago and groping for the light switch. "I felt something literally touch the side of my head and pull my hair back," he said. "And I thought it was a spider web. So I ran to the light switch and turned the light on. I turned around fully expecting to see the spider web hanging there, and there wasn't anything there. Nothing. My back went all icy cold."

Sharkey, a set and lighting designer, knew he had met Bessie.

Vaudeville was still alive in the 1930s. That was when actor Bessie Snavely's touring vaudeville troupe pulled into town. "Bessie supposedly was in love with the stage manager," Sharkey said, "and the stage manager was in love with one of the other performers. There was a big fight, and then they discovered Bessie hanging. The first story I heard, she was hanging from way upstairs, and the other story I heard was she hung herself in a dressing room. But the dressing rooms are only about 7 feet high."

Sharkey said he has heard of many other people claiming to have seen the ghost of Bessie. He also said the UT class of '68 dedicated a plaque to her spirit in one of the dressing rooms.

Sharkey, a 1971 University of South Florida graduate, has worked on and off in the 69-year-old building since 1973. He says he feels scared "all the time. I believe in ghosts and things, so it's real easy to walk into this place at night by yourself and want to leave. The building is an old building. It creaks. You hear all these strange things."

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