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Hernando museum is haunted, staff says. Now, they’re looking for a cemetery there.

More than 50 enslaved people plus the family that held them might be buried at the plantation-era Heritage Museum in Brooksville.
The May-Stringer House, home of the Hernando Historical Museum in Brooksville, has a reputation as haunted. Now, those who run the museum want to learn whether there's a forgotten cemetery on the property, too. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

BROOKSVILLE — A dozen gravestones bunched closely together rise from the backyard of the Hernando Heritage Museum.

One of markers memorializes Garland Perry, who died in 1953. Another bears the names of Hannah and Greenlief Johnson, who died 19 years apart in the late 1800s.

All the bodies, though, lie somewhere else. The gravestones were stolen from Bayport Cemetery in the 1970s and eventually made their way to the museum in Brooksville, a place that already had a spirited reputation as home to a purported 11 different ghosts.

A dozen headstones stolen from a cemetery during the 1970s found their way to the Hernando Heritage Museum in Brooksville, where they're now on display. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

The graveless markers notwithstanding, those who run the museum are convinced they have their own forgotten cemetery — somewhere on the city-block sized property at 601 Museum Court.

Among those who would be buried there are four members of the family that built the 1800s-era May-Stringer House — now home to the museum. Nearby, museum staff says, is likely to be the final resting place for some 50 enslaved people who farmed the land when it was a plantation.

The museum is working to find out for sure, emboldened by new attention to local African-American burial grounds that has followed the discovery by the Tampa Bay Times of forgotten Zion Cemetery in Tampa.

“If they are here, we want to memorialize them,” said museum curator Morgan Wick. “We want to build a marker and let people know where they are.”

It’s been a goal of Wick’s since she joined the museum six years ago. The next step is bringing in archaeologists with ground penetrating radar to survey the land for lost graves.

“We are very curious,” docent Vicki Sidlauskas said. “We’d like to honor those buried here.”

RELATED: See how the story of Zion Cemetery has unfolded in the Tampa Bay Times

RELATED: Nearly 400 people buried in Tampa are missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

Vicki Sidlauskas, who runs the gift shop at the Hernando Heritage Museum in Brooksville, said she has encountered spirits and apparitions all across the property. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

The story of the May-Stringer House dates to 1842 when the federal government ratified the antebellum Armed Occupation Act, giving 160 acres to any settler who moved to Florida and cultivated five acres while helping to fight the Native Americans living here.

Richard Wiggins originally homesteaded the land where the house now is located. In 1855, he sold the 160 acres to John May, who moved from Alabama to start a plantation. May built a simple four-room house and died three years later.

His wife Marena May continued to run the plantation. Museum docent Autumn Resch found tax records from 1860 showing the May family held 56 enslaved people that year. Many of them stayed on as hired help following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, docent Sidlauskas said.

A cistern outside the May-Stringer House in Brooksville provided water to enslaved people as well as livestock during the plantation era. The house now is home to the Hernando Heritage Museum. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

Marena May married Frank Saxon in 1866 and they lived in her home. Their first child died during childbirth and Marena May died in 1869 while giving birth to a daughter, Jessie Mae Saxon. The girl died at age 3. Frank Saxon later remarried and moved.

The house next was owned by Sheldon Stringer, whose family lived there for three generations and expanded it to 14-rooms across four stories. Over the years, parcels were sold until the plantation dwindled to the size of a city block.

Earle Hensley later purchased the home and sold it in 1981 to the Hernando County Historical Museum Association.

A picture of little Jessie Mae Saxon in death hangs on the wall of the Hernando Heritage Museum in Brooksville. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

Over the years, historians have searched local cemeteries for the four people who died in the house.

“There is no record of them anywhere,” curator Wick said — unusual considering that a pioneer family typically would have created a prominent burial site. “That is why we think they are here. That was normal back then."

Enslaved people were often buried on plantations, she said, so they are likely on the property, too.

So, where is the cemetery?

Land records might point the way but they were burned in a Hernando County Courthouse fire during the late 1800s, Wick said. No known record even indicates the boundaries of the original 160 acres, leaving a wide area to search.

But Wick is confident the burial ground is somewhere on the remaining city block now owned by the museum. Plantation owners, she said, typically located cemeteries close to the house so survivors could visit and to protect against grave robbers.

If not, she added, the burial ground could be 160 acres away in any direction — an area that takes in Brooksville City Hall and the Hernando County Courthouse.

Morgan Wick, curator at the Hernando Heritage Museum in Brooksville, said she has encountered a spirit she attributes to little Jessie Mae Saxon while visiting the child's room. The museum is housed in the plantation-era May-Springer Home. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

Today, according to those who operate the museum, the place is haunted by the spirits of the May and Saxon families.

They’ve heard consistent stories from visitors, volunteers and employees — Marena May walking around and her daughter cry for her mother. Other ghosts, they believe, are linked to some of the 12,000 artifacts that tell the story of plantation life in Florida.

One example: a ghost attached to a vaudeville-era trunk, dubbed Gary by the museum staff.

“We also call him Mr. Nasty,” docent Sidlauskas said. “He is one of the few here who are not pleasant. He likes to tell people off.”

Visitors have claimed to hear him cursing, and others — including Sidlauskas — insist he has grabbed them.

Some have snapped photos that show mysterious aberrations, they claim.

There’s no concern among museum staff that finding the cemetery will rid them of their signature ghosts.

They don’t see the hauntings as a cry for help.

“The ghosts are just trying to get attention,” curator Wick said. “The cemetery would bring the house more attention. They’ll like that.”

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