History haunts the River City

One Friday night a few weeks ago, I ventured into Babes of Carytown with some friends and the night ended up, as it always does, in line waiting for the bathroom. Usually my friends and I will file into the restrooms at the back of the restaurant, behind the dance floor, but on this night long lines prompted us to seek out the other set of bathrooms near the entrance, which I didn’t know existed. A line was already forming in the tiny room past the end of the bar, where a sink sat between two closet doors that opened into toilet stalls. While waiting for my turn I tried opening a third door off to the side, hoping it would reveal another toilet, but the door was locked.

When I wondered about the door aloud to my friend, another woman who looked like a bouncer replied that the door led to an upstairs apartment above the restaurant. Apparently it was haunted, she said, because someone had died there.

I was instantly curious about this tidbit of a story – who was this person, and what happened to them? Was it a natural death, a suicide or a murder? And what did she mean by “haunted”? I couldn’t get more information before Halloween, but the former journalism student in me wants to get to the bottom of the story.

Lots of old stuff around here looks like it should be haunted, probably isn’t.

Richmond lays claim to quite a few haunted restaurants, which is why I’m surprised that the story of whatever happened at Babe’s isn’t part of the local lore. Carytown’s Byrd Theatre, just a few blocks down, is reportedly home to two spirits. This is why I love Richmond during Halloween season: This town is haunted as hell.

Between historic homes, repurposed buildings and all the sites from the Civil Warlots of places are haunted in this town. This is likely due to Richmond’s two primary characteristics: It’s old, and it’s murdery. Old as in, this was the capitol of the Confederacy and there are lots of Civil War-era haunts around the city. Lots of places have ties to the war including Belle Isle, which served as a Confederate military prison, where Union soldiers slept in tents surrounded by a stockade. Now a popular outdoor attraction, and I wonder if joggers ever encounter voices or visions of the men who perished there centuries ago.

The Shockoe Bottom Canal Tours get extra spoopy this time of year.

When I was in high school, my creative writing class took a field trip down from Charlottesville to tour the Edgar Allen Poe Museum and stroll through the spooky splendor of Hollywood Cemetery – two of my favorite Richmond haunts to this day. 

Hollywood Cemetery is a must-see in the spring or fall, when the seasonal blooms make the park’s creep factor eerily comfortable. Although Hollywood Cemetery is the resting place of several presidents, politicians and soldiers, my favorite attraction is the statue of the black dog that guards a young girl’s grave and allegedly roams the grounds at night.

Then there’s the mausoleum of William Wortham Pool, home of the “Richmond Vampire.”

Personally I prefer the vampire theory.

Whether Pool himself was a vampire, or whether the vampire legend arose from sightings of a man who was burned in the 1925 Church Hill Tunnel collapse depends on which version of the legend you prefer. (The man, Benjamin F. Mosby, is also buried in Hollywood Cemetery.)

Richmond’s high level of hauntedness is connected to its other defining characteristic: Murder. When I was growing up, Richmond was the “murder capital” with the highest murder rate in the country, at 67.2 per 100,000 people.

CBS 6 did a great video (that refuses to embed) on Richmond’s vexing history as a murder city – read and watch it here.

Interestingly, despite Richmond’s reputation for murder, there’s no one case or killer that’s synonymous with the city, like the Atlanta Child Murders or the Boston Stranglers. Sometimes, when I fantasize about a My Favorite Murder live show finally coming to Richmond, I wonder which cases they would choose to cover here. But Richmond doesn’t seem to have one standout killer or case, it’s more like a vague sense of violence baked into the feel of the town itself. 

For example, before this summer I didn’t even know Richmond had it’s own serial killer, the Southside Strangler. Reading about that case led me to another local serial murderer who was labeled as the Golden Years Killer because some of his victims were older women, but the name sells a story that the case itself doesn’t really deliver.

The case that most people seem familiar with is known as the 2006 Richmond spree murders, one week in which two men murdered seven people and effectively annihilated two families. It’s a terrible and heartbreaking story that plenty of people still remember living through, especially those who knew the victims. To put it in MFM terms: It’s not a case that Karen and Georgia would choose to cover in a live show, should they ever come to Richmond.

At least the Peedmont thinks it’s all funny.

Violence still plagues parts of this city, but those same communities are also making strides. Law enforcement around here isn’t perfect, but they’re making better efforts to connect with the neighborhoods they serve. These days Richmond is mostly known for being a bastion of breweries and, more recently, the setting for that Jason Mraz video. 

I’ve lived in Richmond for five years now, which makes me laugh because at some point each year I’ve declared that I would finally move away. I used to joke that RVA had a way of sucking people in and keeping them here; plenty of people who grow up here never leave, and plenty of transplants who land here remain in limbo thanks to the relatively affordable cost of living. This year I finally acknowledged that I’ve become one of them – it’s just easy to settle in to this town.

Besides, the longer I live here and uncover its rich history, the more I grow to love Richmond for the old, haunted and murdery city that it is.

Happy Halloween!

Fellow RVA murderinos: What do you love about Richmond? What are your favorite cases, haunts and historical spots?

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