By Julia Gabbard, Tour Guide
Gray Lady sightings continued into the 20th century. Some believe that participating in such occult activities, as the last resident of Liberty Hall, Mary Mason Scott (Mame), was known to do, can open doors to the spiritual realms, and create portals through which the dead may come and go. Perhaps this could explain the ongoing, occasional encounters that so many claim to have had over the years.
Doubtless, many personal anecdotes went unrecorded and have been lost to the passage of time and memory, but there are many that have been written about and repeated. One of the best known of these occurred in 1911 to[i] She wrote a descriptive account of her experience, after she had been a guest in the home, staying for a few days in the haunted bedroom. Though she was aware of the tales of a ghostly presence, she was undaunted when it was suggested that she sleep in that room. In her own words, here is how she tells the story:Miss Rebecca Averill, a family friend and neighbor of the Browns.
"I read until twelve o’clock, and, turning out the bed-lamp, slept for almost two hours. Then, suddenly hearing the ‘swish-swish’ of silken garments, I sat straight up in bed and pinched my arm to see if I were really awake. I felt my heart, to see if I had palpitation, for, in the moon light, half-way across the big room, there walked the Grey Lady, pausing now and again as if communing with other presences who were not however – visible to me. Just then the town clock, across the tree tops a square and a half away, rang out – ‘Boom-Boom’! and I was so startled, that I slipped down under the bedcovers but soon peeped out, only to find her gone!”[ii]
Next morning, she told her hostess that the figure had been wearing a gray silk bonnet and a long crepe shawl. The hostess told her that she herself had often seen the same figure, and that if she called out, it would vanish through the closed bedroom door. Averill was told of a family member who had seen the figure twice, once hovering over the bed, and when the girl reached out her hand, it passed right through the dove-colored veil. She also told of a servant who’d been sewing in the haunted room one afternoon and saw the figure manifest twice, floating around, before it seemed to rise up the chimney.[iii]
A daughter in law had seen the ghost in the room at midnight while visiting and ran screaming, refusing to set foot inside ever again. Averill’s godmother told her that she had also seen the spirit twice, once speaking to her in the hallway, whereupon she passed through the closed door of the ghostly bedroom.[iv]
Despite all these tales, Averill declared she would spend the rest of her visit in the eerie chamber, hoping to encounter the ghost again, but said she never reappeared to her. Averill said that she would not have dared to speak to the spirit, as she recalled from her Sunday school lessons that if one spoke to spirits, they might hear things they would be better off not knowing.[v]
As stories began to circulate about the haunting, a Louisville Courier-Journal article was published about her in 1922, and it contains a reference to Mrs. Varick as the Lady in Gray, perhaps due to the common descriptions of ghosts as wispy gray figures.[vi] As we know, that name would become The Gray Lady and would stick in the minds of the public, though Mame referred to her as “our beloved ghost,” a reminder that she had once been a caring family member, and perhaps still is.
On into the 1900s, sightings and strange occurrences would continue, sometimes a questionable glimpse in passing, sometimes a bit more alarming to those who were unprepared for the disembodied antics of the restless spirit.
[vii] Two respectable men, State Journal employee Bob Watson and firefighter Lies (Butch) Barber, had been called upon to guard the house from vandalism, as the electricity had been turned off due to the fire. They had lit candles to provide light, leaving them in the rooms and on the stairs as they patrolled the house. Deciding they should check the attic, they opened the door leading up to it, but only with difficulty, as it was flush with the floor and required force to open. While in the attic, they heard the door slam shut. Alarmed, they quickly freed themselves, running down stairs to see if anyone had come into the house. Finding no evidence of trespassers, they went and closed the attic door, only to find it open again later on another round of checking security. Throughout the three nights of their stay, this would happen several times and was inexplicable to the men. The third and final night brought a crescendo of activity to the brave men, who heard strange cries, moans, and groans, and would discover that each candle they lit would be snuffed out. They did not claim to believe in the ghost after their experience, but Watson stated that there was definitely “something weird going on in that house.”[viii]A well-documented account from the 1960s happened after there had been a fire at Liberty Hall, near the base of the grand staircase.
The aftermath of the fire, and the resultant repairs required, could perhaps explain the agitation of the household spirit. It’s understood that such disruptions to theenvironment they are used to, can cause spirits to act out, or manifest, as they resist changes to the spaces they have occupied for so long.
In fact, as the repair work was being completed, the curator at the time, Frances Coleman, was taking photos for the insurance company to document the work. She took one at the base of the staircase, where much of the damage had been, and when she collected the photos from the developer, there was an inexplicable figure on the stairway.[ix] She had seen no such thing when taking the photo and returned with it to the developer, seeking an explanation. It was discovered that the figure appeared on the negative as well, and being the year 1965, no solution to the mystery could be found, but it was determined there had been no tampering with the photo. This would become the famous ghost photo of the Gray Lady, but interpretations are as varied as the persons who look upon it. You can judge for yourself.[x]
[i] Averill, Rebecca, “The Gray Lady: A Ghost Story of Liberty Hall,” transcription from late 1930s, Liberty Hall Historic Site
[vi] “Liberty Hall,” Louisville Courier-Journal, November 13, 1922 and Nickell, Joe and John F. Fischer, Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas (1992): Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY
[vii] Moseley, Sudie, “Do Ghostly Guests Still Return to Liberty Hall?” Louisville Courier-Journal, October 29, 1965
[viii] Ramsey, Sy, “Kentucky Ghosts Haunt Old House,” The Springfield Sun, December 2, 1965
[ix] Zuercher, Rick “The Ghosts of Liberty Hall,” State Journal, October 26, 1980
[x] In an interview with Joe Nickell, Mrs. Coleman stated that she took the photo in March 1967 to document restoration work. Nickell had a professional photographer review the photo, who deemed it “the result of an accident” From: Nickell, Joe and John F. Fischer, Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas (1992): Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY