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posted: 10/31/2012 3:20 PM

Haunted houses claim Civil War spirits and an evil madame who was no lady

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Surveys suggest that more than half of all Americans believe in ghosts and haunted houses.

Q. Is it true that the ghosts of several Civil War soldiers haunt the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania?

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A. More than 50,000 men were killed when the Union Army clashed with Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg in July 1863, so it's no surprise that several buildings in Pennsylvania's 3,000-acre national park and the battlefield itself are believed to be roamed by several ghosts.

Each year around Halloween, I devote this entire column to answering questions about haunted places -- or, at least, homes and other spots that some believe to be haunted.

The ghastly vision of a headless Army officer atop his translucent horse is often spotted in an area of the park named Little Round Top. The spirits of scruffy Texan soldiers have been seen in the maze of boulders known as Devil's Den, guarding the strategic military locale in death just as they did when they were alive. Some of those misty figures have even been captured in photographs.

One of the most credible reports of ghostly encounters was made by two administrators who worked at Gettysburg College, which briefly served as a makeshift battlefield hospital. They got in the elevator late one night and pressed the button to go down to the first floor, but the car instead went straight to the basement. The doors opened to reveal a frenzied Civil War operating room, replete with blood-spattered surgeons, soldiers screaming in pain, and a grotesque pile of arms and legs that had just been hacked off by the medical team.

The two women said a lifelike, blood-soaked doctor saw them and came rushing toward the elevator cab as if to ask for help. The doors closed just before he reached them: The next morning, investigators found little more than janitorial and office supplies in the room.

Q. Is it true that the old country song "Ghost Riders in the Sky" is based on a true story?

A. Yes. There are actually two stories that could explain the origin of the ghost riders, but Dennis William Hauck -- arguably the world's top expert on paranormal phenomena -- said the doomed cowboys began moving their spooky herd across the skies above the plains in southern Texas in the 1870s.

The second half of the 1800s was a time of rising tension between veteran cattlemen and newly arrived homesteaders. It all came to a head on a stormy night, Hauck writes, when a cattleman driving his massive herd to market found that his usual route had been blocked by a homesteader's newly built farmhouse.

Instead of moving the steer around the property, the angry cowboy and his crew stampeded the herd straight through the house. All of its occupants were stomped to death.

Many people who claim to have seen the ghost riders and their herd flying across the prairie skies say they're accompanied by the screams of the homesteaders who were killed. Some even say that, as the song penned by Stan Jones in 1948 suggests, the cattle have steel hoofs and snort fire.

Q. When I was a girl growing up in New Orleans, my grandpa used to tell me about a house in the French Quarter that was haunted by slaves who were tortured and killed by a very wealthy socialite. I am 83 now, and I can't remember the details. Do you know anything about the place?

A. You are probably thinking of the LaLaurie House at 1140 Royal St., which was purchased by Madame Delphine LaLaurie and her rich husband, Louis, in 1831.

Though prominent in social circles, Madame privately had a cruel streak as long as Bourbon Street. One night, a neighbor saw her chase a child of one of her many slaves onto the balcony with a bullwhip: The girl then either jumped or fell to her death, and it was later discovered that the body had secretly been dumped in a well behind the house.

Not long after, a devastating fire broke out at the house. It reportedly was started by a slave cook, who had been permanently shackled inside the kitchen and had lost the will to live.

Rescuers found more than a dozen slaves in the home, most either dead or dying, chained to the walls or strapped to makeshift operating tables. Many had been horribly maimed and tortured.

Madame escaped by carriage as an angry mob approached the home, and she never publicly resurfaced.

The hauntings apparently began in the late 1830s, after a new owner bought the property and rebuilt it. Several ghostly figures were spotted over the ensuing years, including the figures of several disfigured slaves and Madame herself. Lights would turn on and off as if switched by unseen hands, the eerie sounds of invisible chains being dragged across the floor became commonplace, and disembodied screams would float down from the attic, where many of the slaves had been held.

Few of the subsequent owners or renters stayed in the property for long in the next 100 years. The home became a rundown tenement by the 1920s, and residents began complaining of a new ghoul: A man who would walk about the house, cradling his severed head in his arms. It later became a furniture store, but the owner gave up after repeatedly opening his doors in the morning to find all of his merchandise covered with filthy, foul-smelling goo.

More information about the LaLaurie House can be found at www.nola.com, the outstanding website operated by the media company whose holdings include The Times-Picayune newspaper.

The property today has been restored, and is once again being used for residential purposes. The current owner hasn't reported any paranormal experiences, according to nola.com.

Real estate trivia: A Harris Poll of 2,201 Americans found that 51 percent believe in ghosts, while an Associated Press survey says that 23 percent of us claim to actually have seen one. Most sightings are in personal residences.

• Our recently revised booklet "Fight Your Property Taxes and $ave" explains how appealing your bill to win a steep reduction doesn't have to be a scary proposition. For a copy, send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers/Tax, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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