CLEARWATER — Under a red glow of string lights, a trolley full of ghost hunters and the spooky-curious bounced around Clearwater as the night sky darkened. We traveled past old neighborhoods with neat lawns and good lighting, through a cemetery where the silhouettes of Spanish moss-covered trees hung still in the summer heat, then onto a busy road lit with stoplights and neon signs.
Throughout the night, a gritty, deep voice shared stories of the ghosts of Clearwater from a recording on a loudspeaker.
It was history, hauntings and a socially appropriate excuse for the looky-loos. I happen to be into all three.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to the opening night for a brand new ghost tour, not because I’m the author of a local travel book, “100 Things to Do in Tampa Bay Before You Die,” but because I helped tell the story of one of the ghosts. Gertrude Warnick died while rescuing patients from a nursing home fire in 1953. She rests in an unmarked grave in Clearwater, and when he heard about that, Michael Helmstetter, CEO of Jolley Trolley, wanted to do something to help.
Helmstetter offered 50% of the proceeds from a new tour he was planning until Warnick got a headstone. (One is now in the works, and I’ll report more when I know it.)
Since 1982, Clearwater Jolley Trolley has been moving locals and tourists around the beaches and streets of Clearwater. They host pub crawls, weddings and offer regular routes. When he was ready to add the haunted tour, Helmstetter went to the Clearwater Historical Society, he said, “so this thing would be factual, actual and real history.”
Together, they picked a route for a south tour, now running, and tapped local author Joshua Ginsberg to turn the histories into stories.
Here are three of the people you’ll meet on the tour.
Before the tour even leaves the parking lot at Clearwater’s Historical Society and Museum, you’ll hear about Ivan Bormuth, whose presence still hangs heavy in the old boiler room.
In 1947, Bormuth was a janitor at what was then the South Ward School. According to a report from the Tampa Tribune on Feb. 7, 1947, tragedy began when Bormuth, 55, tried to relight the school’s furnace.
“Apparently a considerable amount of oil vapor had accumulated in the furnace and it exploded when Bormuth struck a match,” the Tribune reported. The explosion, which knocked Bormuth to the ground, burned his face and hands, and he was listed in critical condition at Morton Plant Hospital. The Tribune reports the explosion could be heard three blocks away at the courthouse, and no one else was injured.
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“Women came running from homes in the neighborhood of the school, and a large crowd gathered.”
I couldn’t find any news reports of what happened to Bormuth next, but in doing research for the tour, Clearwater Historical Society president Allison Dolan discovered he had died of a heart attack that year, causing the school to close for a week. The school officially closed in 2008, and in 2014, the Historical Society moved in.
“I will not go in that building alone because when you walk in there, you just feel this moment of someone standing next to you and you don’t know why they’re there. It’s kind of like a heaviness,” Dolan tells trolleygoers through a recording on the tour.
She often brings her dogs when she comes to the building after hours.
They refuse to enter on the side where the boiler room is.
One of the best parts of most ghost tours is they take you places you otherwise wouldn’t get access to. With Haunted Clearwater, that includes the gated grounds of the Belleview Inn at Belleview Place.
Past sleek condos and stately homes, you’ll see the old hotel that railroad tycoon Henry Plant built as the Belleview Biltmore in 1897. (It was relocated here in 2016.) Plant’s son, Morton Plant, met Maisie Caldwell Manwaring, the Palm Beach Post reported in 1999, and offered her husband $8 million to divorce her.
“Accustomed to getting what she wanted, Maisie balked when Morton refused to buy her a string of perfectly matched Oriental pearls from Pierre Cartier for $1.2 million.”
Reports differ on that bit. The Post reported “Maisie traded her wedding present from Morton — the Plant mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City — for the pearls. The House of Cartier is still there today.”
After her death, a 1957 column in the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned the pearls were a gift to Maisie from her husband. Regardless, the pearls were traded for the mansion, and after his death, Maisie went on to marry several more times.
When Maisie Caldwell Manwaring Plant Hayward Rovensky died, her famed pearls sold at auction to an anonymous dealer, according to a report from the United Press. Reports from the time differ on the amount the pearls brought in, but someone bought pearls once worth $1 million for less than $200,000.
In 2019, Forbes published an extensive piece on the transaction and the people behind it.
“And the pearls? After having been sold at auction for a fraction of their original value, they appear to have vanished off the face of the earth. No one seems to have any idea where they ended up; the two strands may have become separated, or even broken up so the pearls could be used in other pieces. But if they’re intact somewhere — half-forgotten in a vault, or overlooked in someone’s vast-but-disorganized collection — then someone is in possession, nearly a century after Mrs. Plant first wore them, of the single greatest piece of Cartier memorabilia of all time.”
The treasure hasn’t been forgotten, though.
In 2004, the Times reported on a ghost sighting at the Belleview and listed Maisie as one of the reported regulars who “wanders the halls, looking for her pearls.”
The most recent tragedy on the tour took place at Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre. There, in 1981, ex-theater manager Bill Neville was found murdered.
According to a report from the St. Petersburg Times, Neville and a business partner rented the theater in 1979 after it closed down.
“They reopened it and featured old, classic movies and live entertainment. The venture failed, however, and closed less than a year later.”
Neville’s mother told the newspaper her son “loved that theater and put his heart and soul into it.”
Neville made the news again in 1999, when the Clearwater Times reported on a series of strange things that took place at the theater. A few years after Neville’s murder, a group of actors rehearsed a show there. The producer told a crew member not to stay in the theater alone. But the crew member had work to finish.
“Late that night, (Jim) Demetrius said he glanced up at the balcony at the moment one of the chair seats slammed closed,” the Times reported. “’If you know those seats, you know how heavy they are,’ Demetrius said. ‘They don’t close by themselves.’”
Demetrius walked to the edge of the stage and called out to Neville.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you. I had nothing to do with it. Now I’ve got to get this work done.”
“After that it was like we had come to an understanding,” Demetrius said. “I could stay and work and he could leave me alone.”
Meet Tampa Bay
On the first night of the Haunted Clearwater tour, after more than an hour of stories, histories and gawking, the trolley lumbered back to the lot of the Historical Society. I wasn’t the only one there fascinated by the place we live and the people who were here before us.
So many people see Florida as nothing more than beaches and theme parks, said trolleygoer Suzann Bex of East Lake, “and Florida has so much depth.”
“I love the whole concept,” agreed Rita Besser of Clearwater.
She’s excited for the trolley’s north tour, which should be running in a few weeks and, naturally, includes a trip through Dunedin’s cemetery. I plan to be there and can’t wait to see who we meet next.
If you go
The 75-minute Haunted Clearwater tour costs $29.99 for people 12 and older, $19.99 for children under 12. Tours take place every evening at different times, depending on the day. For more information about Clearwater Jolley Trolley’s Haunted Clearwater tour, visit clearwaterjolleytrolley.com/tour-item/haunted-clearwater.