It was the day before Mother's Day.
Jan Knowles, president of the Heritage Museum, had been in the second floor office of the sprawling Victorian home, tidying up.
Then, it happened.
Her friend and the museum's director, Virginia Jackson, meandered in, her face flush and her mouth wide open as if she had seen a ghost.
"Honestly, I did not believe it," Knowles said. "But in the 14 years I have known her, I never saw her look that way."
Turns out that Jackson had seen a ghost, or more appropriate, she had heard one wailing.
"Right then, I was a believer," Knowles said.
Legend has it that Baby Jessie haunts the house, crying "Mommy, Mommy."
Her spirit is both feared and revered here.
But as many people visit the Heritage Museum today and Saturday for the haunted house tour, perhaps they will have only one question to ask: Is there any truth to the legend?
"Sure, there is," Jackson said. "You can take that to the bank."
John May built the house in Brooksville, at the end of what is now Fort Dade Avenue, in 1856.
May and another prominent Hernando County resident, Joseph Hale, each donated 15 acres to the county in the same year to establish the county seat, which was then known as Pierceville.
John May died five years later. His widow, Marena, remarried a Civil War hero, Frank Saxon, who fought for the Hernando Wildcats.
In 1868, Marena gave birth to a baby boy, who later died. One year later, Marena died during labor with Jessie. The girl lived until she was 2 or 3 years old and suddenly passed away from a fever around 1872.
Jessie's soul, believers say, now haunts the four-story, 15-room house, perhaps looking for the mother she never knew or the older brother she never had a chance to play with.
"She really has nobody," Jackson said. "It must have been sad for her."
Jessie, her mother, Marena, the little boy and John May are believed to have been buried on the museum property, in an unmarked grave not far from the steps leading to the porch.
Jackson said that although there is no proof that the family was interred there, workers have filled the area with dirt because holes had mysteriously appeared in the ground.
"That's the only reasonable explanation for it," she said.
Inside the lilac-colored house with large curtains that resemble the patterns on doilies, Jessie's picture rests above the fireplace in the parlor.
In it, the infant girl is lying in a cradle with a wreath wrapped around her.
Frank Saxon's figure is depicted in a stately portrait just above Jessie's. It stands guard as if he is minding his daughter's mischief.
"Jessie gets blame for a lot of things," Jackson said.
Toys and a doll that may have belonged to Jessie have moved eerily from the dining room to the foyer or are arranged in different positions in front of the fireplace.
A film crew that was shooting the house after dark asked volunteers whether they turned the lights off at night. Apparently, there was a different light on each night they were there.
"Oh, that's just Jessie," Jackson recalled saying. "It's wherever she is. She seems to come out when people are doing work on the house."
Twenty years ago, Jessie's lamenting cries first startled her. She had just finished vacuuming.
Jackson does not claim to be the first person who heard the "friendly ghost," as they call her.
In 1981, right after the organization received the deed for the property before it was set to be condemned, volunteer Bob Griffith and his son were sanding the floors in what is now the doctor's room when they heard Jessie.
"We don't fear her," Jackson added. "She is a good ghost."
Some people have also claimed to have heard loud footsteps coming from Jessie's old bedroom and the attic. "It was definitely not Jessie," Knowles said.
Those steps were too loud. She and others say it might be another apparition, who had come with donated furniture to the Heritage Museum.
Pieces of furniture block the attic window. It sits beneath a giant weeping willow whose long, thick trunk casts a shadow on the west side of the building. The tree hovers over the galvanized roof and its branches spread open like the fingers of a human hand.
"I don't know what the fascination is with haunted houses," Jackson said.
While the legend has fascinated some and confounded others, it has caught the attention of many _ at least those who have heard the story.
"Some people claim that there was a ghost, but there is no proof that it existed," said former County Judge Monroe W. Treiman, who knows the story.
It, however, does hold firm in the annals of Hernando oral history, even if it can't be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
"I didn't say that I didn't believe it," Treiman said. "We can't just poo-poo it because you just don't know."
_ Duane Bourne can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to dbournesptimes.com.