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Local ghost expert shares stories of the supernatural

By Natalie Austin - Daily Staff Writer

(Oct. 30, 2004) WINCHESTER -- Mac Rutherford's knees tell him when there's a ghost around.

He gets a strange feeling in them, he says, seeming at a loss for words to describe the sensation.

Wearing a felt hat, wool vest and with twisted walking stick in hand, Rutherford is surrounded by all his familiar haunts on a recent, misty fall morning.

Walking along the Loudoun Street Mall, Rutherford points to this building and that one, referring to spirits who slip in and out of the historic walls, among shopkeepers and their wares.

Winchester is the oldest city west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, reminds its unofficial "ghost specialist," who, during countless tours, has introduced hundreds of visitors to its spectral residents.

Just about everyone loves a good ghost story, says Rutherford, who published the book, "Historic Haunts of Winchester: A Ghostly Trip Through Winchester's Past," this year. In the small collection of stories, he commits to the written page tales that he seems to know by heart.

After all, when it comes to a good ghost story, the trick is mostly in the telling. And, these days, it seems people can't get enough of them.

Rutherford also conducts ghost tours in Lancaster, Pa., and will soon release a new book on hauntings in that old city.

"Ghosts have become big business and they sell," says Rutherford, adding that a couple from Delaware is heading down to take a look at Winchester's spirit world this evening. Visitors from as far away as Australia have taken the ghost tours, he adds.

The paranormal docent knows his subject matter, gliding from one ghost tale to the next with ease. One ghost story spins into another and another.

"My belief is I know there are people that this is a space where they are waiting to cross over, have unfinished business or don't know how to go over," says Rutherford.

He says he has never actually seen a ghost, but has felt their presence and seen his share of inexplicable occurrences.

His paranormal interests began in earnest while he attended Middle Tennessee State University, where he learned of the story of the Bell Witch, an infamous spirit that terrorized a pioneer family in Tennessee in the 1800s. Among those who had encounters with the evil force was Gen. Andrew Jackson -- later president of the United States -- who, as the story goes, had his wagons stopped dead in their tracks by the witch. The ghost haunted John Bell and his family until his death by poison, which a disembodied voice laid claim to, the legend says.

Also while a college student, Rutherford once investigated a haunted stretch of railroad track in Chapel Hill, Tenn., where a man beheaded by a train in the 1900s continues nightly to swing his light, signaling the locomotive. Pausing in the center of the downtown mall, Rutherford says he saw the swinging light, which appeared to turn red as the spirit turned to retrace its path.

He stops in front of an old building on the downtown mall and launches into a tale as chilling as the damp, morning air.

Some of the old buildings there date back to the 1700s, including the site of the Stone Soup Gallery at 107 N. Loudoun St., which was Miller's Apothecary for many years. It is there that a spirit named Jeanette is seen, says Rutherford.

Heading into the antique shop, Rutherford says the story goes that the young woman had a baby out of wedlock and the infant died. The tiny body, says Rutherford, is buried in the basement of the old apothecary. Jeanette's spirit is often seen in what would have been the kitchen, where a wall separates two connecting fireplaces. Rutherford stands in front of one of the cavernous fireplaces, blackened from years of use. According to the story, the infant's body is located directly below.

Several people have seen and heard Jeanette, he says, including a local attorney, who once told the shopkeeper that it was wonderful that she had her employees wear Colonial dress. He reported seeing a young girl in clothing of that period working in the back. The store's owner politely told him she had no such person working in the store.

"I have felt Jeanette," says Rutherford. "Everyone feels a cool breeze when she goes by."

Offering a popular theory, he says the falling temperature could be attributed to the ghost drawing energy from the living in order to appear for a brief moment.

"They don't know they are dead. They seem to be carrying on life in their time,"says Rutherford, adding he has heard the sound of Civil War soldiers marching in Gettysburg, Pa., and the clicking of their muskets as they went by.

Behind the Stone Soup building, a young black man was tortured and lynched by a group of Union soldiers from the 29th Pennsylvania, which fought in the First Battle of Kernstown in 1862, according to Rutherford's book. The sounds of men wearing heavy boots running up and down the stairs of the two-story building have been reported by a former upstairs tenant, who described the presence as evil compared to the spirit of Jeanette.

Assisting him in his paranormal investigation, Rutherford says, are a mother and her 17-year-old daughter, whom he declined to identify, only offering they both have "the gift."

Everyone has the ability to commune with the spirit world, Rutherford maintains, but most people block it out. People who are receptive, however, report having this contact.

"They are not interested in us," he says. "I don't think people should at all be afraid of ghosts."

According to Rutherford, Winchester's ghosts don't all remain indoors.

Civil War soldiers have been spotted on the lawn of the old Frederick County Courthouse. Cries of torture have been heard coming from the building, once used as a prison and a hospital, according to his book.

Stopping at Indian Alley, he begins the legend of the "Giant Indians." People have reported seeing the tall figures with sad expressions walking down the alley, says Rutherford, in sightings which date back to 1707. An American Indian burial site, containing skeletons of people recorded to be at least 7 feet tall, was unearthed during the excavation for Fort Loudoun during the French and Indian War, he says.

Rutherford walks only a matter of feet before launching into his next story, stopping at an imposing antebellum house, enshrouded in black ironwork, from foundation to eaves.

Now the site of Provident Bank, 25 W. Piccadilly St. is reported to be haunted by the ghost of a Confederate soldier, who has been spotted gazing out a front window.

It was in the early '80s, Rutherford says, when an artist friend was passing by in a car and immediately wanted to stop and do a quick sketch of what he thought was a well-turned-out Civil War re-enactor. The artist went into the home, then the location of Colonial Arts and Crafts, and was told by an employee there was no costumed employee, but instead an apparition that had been spotted by passersby more than once.

It was in that room that Gen. George Smith Patton -- grandfather of the World War II hero -- died after refusing to have his leg amputated due to wounds he received in the Third Battle of Winchester in 1864, Rutherford says. At that time, the house was home to Patton's cousin, attorney Philip Williams. The elaborate ironwork, he adds, is original, buried to protect it during the war.

The large number of hauntings revealed during just a short stroll with Rutherford seems to indicate a ghost on every corner of the historic city's downtown.

Rutherford says, however, he doesn't believe Winchester is any more haunted than other cities. Although popular with ghost seekers, Halloween, he adds, doesn't mean much to a spirit.

"We don't know and we will never know. It's all a matter of belief,"he says. "Everyone wants to see a ghost."

* Contact Natalie Austin at naustin@nvdaily.com

Reprinted from Oct. 30, 2004 issue of The Northern Virginia Daily.

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