Tours offer ghostly tales of haunted Hampton Roads

Andrea Castillo
Contact Reporteracastillo@dailypress.com
Local events explore the horrors of Hampton Roads' history

For about 20 years, Willie Balderson has been playing the part of Israel Hands, the pirate Blackbeard's right-hand man, but this year is the first time he takes on the role as part of Colonial Williamsburg's new Halloween event "Haunting on DoG Street: Blackbeard's Revenge."

Balderson as Hands, who was shot in the knee by Blackbeard and later would betray his fellow pirates after their leader was killed in a battle on the sea, with the remaining crew members tried in Williamsburg and condemned to death, will be joined by undead pirates and a gravedigger, among other characters, Oct. 30-31.

"He's a very dark man who was willing to break a code to save himself," said Balderson, Colonial Williamsburg's Revolutionary City Program Development manager. "Others that probably in the course of years saved him at some time … this is a guy that's betrayed all of them."

Balderson's been growing out his beard for months, and when he needs to get into character, he avoids using his phone or computer.

Bringing the ghost stories to life, and telling stories in general, are at the core of the human experience, said Balderson, who looks at the event as a way to share Williamsburg's history in a fun way.

"There are things that go bump in the night that resonate, I would argue, with everyone," he said. "They don't necessarily have to be supernatural things, but there are things that kind of cause a little stir in the nape of the neck, maybe the hairs raise up. We as the human race, we're story tellers."

"Blackbeard's Revenge" is among a handful of Halloween events exploring the darker history of the area, from the Revolutionary War to present day.

Visitors to the Hampton History Museum's "Tales of Hampton: Horror Stories," which runs from Monday through Friday next week, will go on a walking tour and hear from actors portraying Hannah Tunnel, who warned local Confederate troops about the presence of Union soldiers during the Civil War, as well as Joan Wright, who in 1626 was accused of being a witch.

The history behind the stories adds to their fear factor, said Mike Cobb, a local historian who is helping organize the history museum's event.

"These aren't just made up or hearsay," he said. "It's based in truth."

For the second year, Hampton resident David Hunt, who has experience as a tour guide on the Miss Hampton II harbor cruise, reprises his role George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was born in what is now Hampton and is believed to have been poisoned by his nephew.

Though he grew up in the city, playing Wythe has allowed him to learn local history he never had heard before.

"It's the mystery that attracts people," he said. "It adds a layer to the town you grew up in."

Also in Hampton is the Fort Monroe ghost walk, in its second year.

The walking tour on Friday and Saturday nights features traditional ghost stories at Fort Monroe, including the tale of Esmerelda, a guest at the Chamberlain who was killed in a fire at the hotel while waiting for her father to return from sea. The tour, which includes stops at the fort's post office and theater, also features accounts from some residents who have had experiences with spirits.

"It's interesting to walk in the same footsteps where some of the same people were in this historic place. This time of year brings out the spooky side of things," said Susan Lineberry, Fort Monroe's director of special events. "We just want to share those stories."

Williamsburg's Colonial Ghost Tours also gives visitors the chance to have an experience with the supernatural.

On the hour-long walking tours, which includes stories that span several centuries of Williamsburg's history, some guests have had unexplained encounters that include lights going off and on, chairs moving and sounds of knocking and voices, said Mark Dickson, manager of Colonial Ghost Tours and occasional tour guide.

Many of those encounters tend to happen during the company's latest tour, which leaves at 11 p.m., he said.

"There's an awe to witnessing something you can't explain. It creates a moment and a memory with someone you're with that can't be replicated. It's definitely a different kind of experience you can't get somewhere else. It's something you don't have control over."

Over time, while buildings have been torn down and new ones built, the spirits remain in place, Dickson said.

"It's not about the physical building but the events that happened there and the people there," he said.

Meanwhile, organizers of Endview Plantation's "An Evening at Endview" have steered away from the ghosts and focused more on history.

Visitors to An Evening at Endview on Oct. 30 will go on a guided tour that will include a hayride, a walk on a lantern-lit nature trail and encounter re-enactors who were important to the plantation's history, including William Harwood, who built the home in 1769, and Thomas Harwood, the first of the family to arrive in Virginia in 1622.

While the event takes place Halloween weekend, organizers are focusing more on the history of the plantation in the first year of the event, said Laura Willoughby, Endview's historic site coordinator.

They did decide to host the event at night to give visitors a sense of what it would be like to be on the property after dark before electricity existed.

"It's so different to see this at night," she said. "You get a different feel."

Castillo can be reached by phone at 757-247-4635.

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