The Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida is a destination worth visiting, ghosts or no ghosts. It is the icing on the cake for a visitor interested in the paranormal, that this ancient (for our country, at least) fort seems to house multiple hauntings. The first block was laid for this venerable old edifice in 1672 as protection against pirates and other sea-born threats to the Spanish colonial town of St. Augustine. It took 23 years for the fort to be completed, and in that time many of the workers employed in its construction perished from tropical heat and diseases, not to mention violence. It was during the Spanish rule that the Castillo obtained its first ghostly duo.
A Colonel Garcia Marti (or Martis in some accounts), who was commandant of the fort, had a lovely, but apparently fickle wife named Dolores. She was enjoying a clandestine relationship with one of the colonel’s subordinate officers. Her husband rumbled upon the affair when he smelled his wife’s distinctive perfume on the younger officer when he reported for duty one day. The passionate Spaniard could not accept this infidelity and insubordination lying down, so he had his wife and the officer bricked up inside a small, windowless storage room deep within the stone walls. Their bodies mouldered away until centuries later, when the hidden room was discovered. Legend has it that if you place your ear on the stone wall outside this room, you can hear the screams of the slowly dying couple, desperately crying for mercy. I don’t know so much about that, but on one recent trip to the Castillo, I noticed two teenage boys standing against the wall in the room that neighbors the hapless couple’s impromptu tomb. They were taking turns laying their hands upon the wall and whispering to one another in amazement. Being the rude interloper that I am, I approached them and asked them what the dealio was. They told me to put my hand on the wall and see if I could detect anything unusual. When I set my hand on the stone wall, I felt an undeniable current that felt like a very strong static electricity. I’m sure there’s some type of scientific explanation for this otherwise inexplicable electric current that occurred deep in the bowels of this ancient fort that only has a very limited amount of electric power in certain areas. But knowing the story of the neighboring room sent a shiver down my spine. Unless that shiver was caused by the electric charge.
Another spooky story connected with the fort originated during the Seminole Indian Wars, when the building was a bastion of the U.S. Army. Chief Osceola of the Seminole Indian Tribe was taken captive by the Army when he willingly met officers at Fort Payton for what was falsely represented as truce negotiations. He was held at the Castillo (then called Fort Marion) for three months before he died of malaria. His attending doctor, Frederick Wheedon, requested that he be allowed some time alone with the chief’s body, as the two of them had grown close during the chief’s incarceration. The doctor’s request was granted, but instead of privately mourning, he was privately sawing the head off the poor noble chief. The doctor then concealed his perfidy by wrapping the warrior’s scarf around his neck. Then, after the viewing and funeral, but before the internment, Dr. Wheedon again requested the honor, as attending physician, of being the person to seal Osceola’s casket. Before he did, he slipped the head out of the casket and into his voluminous, black doctor’s bag. The doctor embalmed the head and used to display it in his office. He was also fond of using it as a means of discipline for his children. If they misbehaved, they were sent to bed with the head of Osceola perched on their bedpost. So effective did the (not so) good doctor find this parenting method that when his daughter married, he graciously bestowed the head upon the newly wed couple, for use in the raising of their own children. Their opinion of this gift might be apparent in the fact that shortly after receiving the head, they in turn gifted it to one of the medical universities in New York.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that this is my favorite tale connected to the Castillo. I feel terrible for the indignity suffered by the noble and mighty warrior, but at the same time, the thought of using a disembodied head as a parenting tool tickles my darkest funny bone. The outrage has resulted in the apparition of the chief’s head being seen floating up on the ramparts of the old fort and prison.
Also seen on the ramparts are flashes of lights, resembling soundless explosions emitting from the ornate brass cannons that stand sentry along the crenellated battlements. Full body apparitions, in outdated soldiers’ garb have been sighted, as have unexplained wisps of smoke (or something) that glide along in the same area near the cannons.
There are many other ghostly tales connected with this stately fortress, not to mention the whole historic district of St. Augustine. The historic section of town closes down relatively early in the evening. On one of our first trips there together, my boyfriend and I arrived at about 10 p.m. to find most of the establishments closed for the evening. We were able to grab a drink at a local pub before its 11 p.m. closing time, and then we set out through the darkened town to visit the old fort. While you’re obviously not permitted to enter the fort at night, the outside grounds (and moat) are accessible all night. People sit outside the walls and fish in the salty water below its guard towers until the wee hours of the morning. My boyfriend and I circled the entire building, even descending into the moat, which was pretty much dry since we were visiting before the rainy season started. It’s a wonderful experience to explore those historic grounds by moonlight, with the tall walls silhouetted against the silvery clouds as they scuttle across the night sky. We didn’t see any ghosts on that or any of our subsequent visits, but each and every time we visited, we felt an almost physical sense of history hanging about the place. There’s no eloquent way to describe the experience, but when you feel it, you won’t mistake it. That Castillo is alive with it.