On an island off the Florida coast, mariners say that at sunset, a headless pirate can be seen riding a ghostly palomino along the shoreline.
In the 1980s, some Okeechobee residents told the story of a woman all in white who sometimes strolled through Everglades Cemetery on misty mornings. As the sun pierced the morning’s fog, the ghostly figure evaporated. No one knew who she was or why she walked there.
On. Dec. 22, 2019, a semi smashed into the old Desert Inn in Yee Haw Junction. Area residents were saddened by the loss of the historic structure and shared memories of the old building on social media. And some wondered ... “What will happen to the ghosts?”
The Sunshine State has no shortage of spooky tales — ghostly pirates still guarding their treasures, spirits of suicides who haunt the places where they died and old buildings where something “just doesn’t feel right.”
Books chronicle the more famous tales, such as the star-crossed lovers who were sealed in a wall by the woman’s jealous husband in the Castillo de San Marco in St. Augustine. Web sites offer firsthand experiences of close encounters of the ghostly kind. Area residents retell stories they heard as children.
Are the legends based on fact, or just colorful stories made up to scare children or entertain the tourists? Like some details in the ghost stories, it all depends on who you believe.
Some Florida cities seem to appropriate ghost stories from other places as their own. This appears to be the case with the story of pirate Pierre LeBlanc.
In the original story, LeBlanc was left on Seahorse Key to guard the treasure of Pirate Captain Jean Laffitte, with only a palomino horse for company. When a stranger came to the island, claiming to be there to hunt snakes to sell the snake skins for fancy leather boots and belts, the lonely LeBlanc welcomed the visitor’s invitation to enjoy some rum. When LeBlanc’s tongue was loosed by drink, the stranger tricked him into revealing the location of the treasure, and then killed him, cutting off his head with the pirate’s own cutlass. Legend has it that the headless LeBlanc can sometimes be seen at sunset, riding his spectral palomino along the shore.
Tampa Bay also hosts an annual party in honor of pirate Jose Gaspar, who was said to have hidden loads of treasure on Gasparilla Island and died without telling anyone the location. Some locals claim that Jose Gaspar’s spirit still haunts the island, guarding his treasure. Others claim the ghost of a headless woman — a wench who angered Jose Gaspar and lost her head in the argument — also haunts the island. But historians counter that the legend of the treasure of Gasparilla Island was more likely manufactured in the early 1900s to promote real estate sales. The name “Gasparilla” appears on maps that were made long before the time of the legendary pirate. Rather than the island being named for the pirate, it is more likely the pirate was named for the island. And the first written account of the pirate treasure was in an advertising brochure for the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad company.
The Skyway Bridge
The original Skyway Bridge, constructed in 1954 over Tampa Bay, was the scene of tragedy in 1980 when the freighter Summit Venture hit a support, causing part of the bridge to collapse and 35 people to plunge to their deaths. Most of the victims were passengers on a Greyhound bus. The bridge is also associated with a number of suicides.
Some people claim to have seen the ghost of a young woman preparing to jump from the bridge. Others claim to have stopped for a young female hitchhiker who vanishes.
There are also stories of fishermen seeing a ghostly Greyhound bus on the fishing pier that was part of the original bridge.
Kissimmee River spooks
“Ghost Stories of Florida” by Dan Asfar includes the story of boating enthusiast Rick Selzer, who had a strange experience when boating on the river just north of Basinger.
He told the author he had heard stories that the river is haunted by the ghosts of pirates and by the ghost of someone who was eaten by an alligator. On one boat trip, he was drawn by a splashing sound and followed an old oxbow to a pond he had never seen before. When he investigated, he found “the water was black — way too black to be natural,” the storyteller claims. “Then the splashing started up again. But this time it wasn’t so much a splashing but a huge watery upheaval. The center of the pond rose up with tremendous force and fell back on itself followed by a violent churning, like something huge was thrashing under the surface.” According to Selzer, nothing in the wetlands was big enough to make that stir.
“But beyond its size, I could tell that there was nothing there — there was nothing under the surface. The water was churning on its own as if the whole bay was alive.” He fled back to his campsite.
That night in the woods, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something had followed him from the river. He was awakened by a moaning sound and went to investigate. When he returned to his campsite, it was destroyed, tent collapsed, belongings strewn about, some items even up in trees. But although his food was scattered, none of it was taken, “not so much as a bite from any of it.” He searched for the prints of whatever animal might have done it, and could find no prints except his own.
The old bank building
The building referred to as “the old bank building” on State Road 70 in downtown Okeechobee, was actually only a bank for about two and a half years before the land speculation “bubble” of the 1920s burst. The building was used for a number of other purposes over the years, but the ghost story attached to the structure relates to the bank. According to the legend, the bank was the site of a robbery by the infamous Ashley Gang and a member of the gang was somehow locked in the safe. The story goes on that the safe was broken and could not be opened, so the bank owner bought a new safe and covered over the old one. Another version of the story relates that an elderly woman hostage was also trapped in the safe. But if there were ghosts, they have apparently moved on. Since the building was renovated as an event space in recent years, there are no reports of strange happenings.
Do the spirits of Native Americans dance on the banks of Lake Okeechobee? One person who claimed to have seen these spirits said it was just at sunset when he saw what he thought were Seminole Indians, but when he tried to get closer, they vanished into thin air. This legend could be connected to the Seminoles who fought in the Battle of Okeechobee. Or, if they do exist, the restless spirits could be connected with an earlier tribe.
The author of the website www.weirdus.com relates: “Prior to 1910, early pioneers reported seeing human skeletons in the shallows around the southern end of Lake Okeechobee. Fishermen claimed to catch human skulls in their nets. A surveyor clearing land on Grassy Island in the early 1900s, exposed more than fifty human skeletons that were covered only with a couple of inches of sand. “Willis Crosby used to catfish in Okeechobee and shared his story with me about finding a half-dozen human skulls in 1953 just lying in the mud on Observation Island.
“There were a bunch of other bones scattered all over the bottom, I guess they were human,” he recounted. “Everybody said they were Indian bones; it was pretty much common sight when the water was down.” All accounts of finding human bones come from the area extending from Kreamer Island to Observation Island and the several square miles in between the mainland.
“In 1918, the water level dropped to an all-time low, revealing hundreds of human remains wedged in the silt along the north sides of Ritta and Kreamer islands. There seemed to be no order to these skeletons. Bones of both adults and children were scattered all over the lake bottom.
“According to one legend, in February 1841, two-hundred Seminoles, rather than be captured by the army, committed mass suicide. Allegedly, these people slit their own throats and flung themselves into the water where their bodies disappeared into the glades water.”
Jonathan Dickinson State Park: Legend has it that the ghost of Trapper Nelson (born Vincent Nostokovich) haunts Jonathan Dickinson State Park, 16450 S.E. Federal Highway in Hobe Sound. “Trapper” Nelson was born Vincent Nostokovich. He lived in the Loxahatchee from the 1930s until 1968. Trapper Nelson, called “The Wild Man of the Loxahatchee,” was an imposing figure at 6 feet, 4 inches, and 240 pounds. He lived off the land, hunting and fishing.
He also caught many animals and built a small zoo to house them. Trapper Nelson made money by charging visitors to dock near his home and visit his zoo. He also wrestled alligators to entertain the tourists.
On July 24, 1968, Trapper Nelson was found dead inside his cabin, with a shotgun wound to his abdomen. The county coroner ruled it suicide, but many who knew him did not believe he would have taken his own life. They pointed out that when he died, his traps were still set, and that Trapper Nelson would not have left animals to suffer. He would also not have left his “zoo” animals in cages with no one to care for them.
Some people speculated that he was killed by a jealous husband or someone who wanted his land. Another theory was that he had been killed by his brother in retaliation for testifying against him in court. Yet another theory is that he was killed by someone who thought he had a stash of money hidden.
Some park workers and visitors claim to have seen or heard the ghost of Trapper Nelson. The ghost is reported to be friendly to those who appreciate the park and even tries to flirt with some of the female visitors. He is also said to be protective of park areas that were Indian burial grounds.
The DuPuis Wildlife and Environmental Area is in northwestern Palm Beach and southwestern Martin Counties. The entrance is on State Road 76 (off U.S. 441 S.E. near Port Mayaca). According to online forums discussing the paranormal, there are reports that horses have spooked just before the appearance of a semi-transparent woman in a long cloak. There are also reports of ghostly Indians who disappear when the viewer attempts to get closer.
Florida Atlantic University Humanities Building
The FAU Humanities Building in Boca Raton is reported to be haunted.
According to the stories, a female ghost has been seen by night shift employees. She is seen crying in the amphitheater, but vanishes when approached. One night shift employee was closing the building for the night when he heard and reported that someone was on the third floor, running and slamming doors. He and another employee searched the floor, each starting at an opposite ends. All doors were found locked, and no one was there.
Spook Hill is in Lake Wales, in Polk County, on the east side of North Wales Drive, about a quarter-mile south of U.S. 17. It is called “Spook Hill” because cars appeared to roll uphill. A sign explained the legend: “Many years ago an Indian village on Lake Wales was plagued by raids of a huge gator. The chief, a great warrior, killed the gator in a battle that created a small lake. The chief was buried on the north side. Pioneer mail riders first discovered their horses laboring down hill, thus naming it “Spook Hill.” When the road was paved, cars coasted uphill. Is this the gator seeking revenge, or the chief still trying to protect his land?” More recent reports indicate more modern road repairs apparently tamed the “spooks.”
The Arcadia Opera House, which is now a museum, was also a source of ghost stories. Visitors reported the sound of footsteps could be heard as if someone was walking toward them but no one was there. Mysterious laughter was also reported.
The Devil’s Tree
Oak Hammock Park, 1982 S.W. Villanova Road in Port St. Lucie, is said to be haunted by the victims of a terrible crime. According to the book “Silent Scream,” by Yvonne Mason, the bodies of two women were discovered in 1977 along the C-24 Canal at the site of what is now Oak Hammock Park. The girls were killed by Gerard John Schaefer, a former Martin County Sheriff’s Office deputy believed to have killed about 30 women and girls in the 1960s and 1970s. Schaefer reportedly lured his victims in pairs and raped and killed one while the other watched before killing the second victim.
According to the book “Weird Florida,” by Charlie Carlson, the tree the two girls were hung from is believed to be haunted and is now called the Devil’s Tree. In her book, Ms. Mason believes the rumor of a Devil’s Tree at Oak Hammock Park was started by kids telling ghost stories after the two bodies were discovered. According to local folklore, chainsaws and any other chopping tools are rumored not to work around the tree. The problem is no one knows exactly where this tree is anymore — if it’s still there. The park’s bathrooms are also believed to be haunted by ghosts of the girls who died there. Visitors report feeling a cold chill. They also report the doors slamming when there appears to be no one there.
The Elliott Museum
The Elliott Museum, 825 N.E. Ocean Blvd. on Hutchinson Island in Martin County, was established in 1961 by Harmon P. Elliott in memory of his inventor father Sterling Elliott. It is not so much the building itself that is reported to be haunted, but rather some of the historical items in the museum may have ghostly “attachments.”
Reports of paranormal activity at the museum include items being moved from one display to another, audio systems failing and doors opening and closing seemingly by themselves. Some visitors can’t shake the feeling of being watched. There have also reportedly been sightings of an apparition of a young girl wearing a long white Victorian-style dress who vanishes when approached.
House of Refuge
Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge, 301 S.E. MacArthur Blvd., Hutchinson Island, is the oldest building in Martin County. Ten such buildings were installed along the east coast of Florida in the 1870s to house those rescued from shipwrecks. The House of Refuge’s very existence is testimony to the number of shipwrecks along that shoreline.
According to one legend, the property is haunted by the Ais Indian tribe that was estimated to have lived in the area more than 800 years ago. Other stories relate the house is haunted by some who found refuge there or by those who lived there as caretakers. Some claim to have smelled beef stew cooking although the kitchen has not been usable since the 1940s. There are also reports of seeing shards of a broken mirror in a bed, but when someone tries to examine the bed, the shards disappear.
The Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park, 3500 S.E. 38th Avenue in Okeechobee (off U.S. 441 S.E.), was the site of the Battle of Okeechobee in 1837, the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Second Seminole War. Some visitors to the area have reported strange sounds and feeling discomfort. Some even reported feeling as if someone had touched them, when no one was there.
The Desert Inn
The Desert Inn, at Yee Haw Junction on U.S. 441 at State Road 60 was connected with a number of ghost stories. According to “Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore,” by Greg Jenkins, Yeehaw Junction started out as a resting stop for cattle drives and a depot for Flagler’s East Coast Railway.
The upstairs of the building served as a bordello — and the Desert Inn has the distinction of being the only bordello on the National Historic Register. After the bordello closed, the inn provided lodging for weary travelers. Over the years, there were many deaths connected to the area including bar fights that turned into shootouts and automobile accident victims who were taken to the inn for shelter and who died before medical help arrived.
According to “Ghostly Legends,” in the early 1990s a traveler who was staying in one of the upstairs rooms committed suicide by hanging himself from an overhead pipe. Former owner Bev Zicheck, who was interviewed for the book, found the body.
Mrs. Zicheck reported that some staff members refused to go upstairs alone because people have strange feelings and experiences there. Incidents include furniture apparently moving by itself, doors opening and closing and the sound of someone pacing upstairs when no one is up there — and the door to the upstairs is padlocked.
In a 2012 interview, Roxanne Clark, who was one of the managers of the restaurant, said she believed the ghost stories, but she wasn’t afraid as the ghosts added to the charm of the historic building.
On. Dec. 22, 2019, a semi smashed into the old Desert Inn, which was then the property of the Osceola County Historical Society. While historians were saddened to lose the landmark, others wondered, “What will happen to the ghosts?”
Online sources for this article included www.weirdus.com; the shadowlands.net, www.hauntedflorida.com. Published sources include: “Haunting Sunshine” by Jack Powell; “Haunt Hunter’s Guide to Florida,” by Joyce Elson Moore; “Ghost Stories of Florida, by Dan Asfar; and “Ghostly Legenda and Haunted Folklore,” by Greg Jenkins.