By Lauren Wood / The Natchez Democrat — Raine Cavin knows she doesn’t live alone in the Peter Hunter House on Union Street. The portrait of the boy who died in the house at a young age named Ralph hangs in the house. She says he can be heard from time to time playing with marbles in one of the bedrooms upstairs.

With the spirits: They may be dead, but their souls still roam

Published 12:01am Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thomas Henderson has been dead for nearly 150 years, but some believe he still wanders around his antebellum house, Magnolia Hall, trying to communicate with the living.

Kay McNeil, historian at Historic Jefferson College, used to live and work at Magnolia Hall in the 1980s and said she’s witnessed and been a part of several first-hand accounts of Henderson’s paranormal activities.

Henderson’s background and history are key elements, McNeil said, in connecting the incidents inside the house with its previous owner.

Born and raised in Natchez, Henderson grew up to become a wealthy planter and merchant.

When cotton became king in the South, Henderson profited greatly — enough so to construct Magnolia Hall in 1858.

But just a few years after finishing the construction and moving into his new home, Henderson had a stroke and became bedridden in the house before eventually dying.

After his death in March of 1863, Magnolia Hall had several owners until the house was given to the Natchez Garden Club in 1976.

A few years later, McNeil moved in to become one of the house’s caretakers — living in the upstairs portion of the house in an apartment in the servant’s wing.

And it didn’t take long for Henderson to begin trying to reach out to McNeil.

“One night I went into the bathroom which shares a wall with a room in the main part of the house, and I heard some thumping noises in the connecting room that sounded like pictures falling off the wall,” McNeil said. “The next day, I walked into the room, and there were no pictures on the wall.”

During another late night visit in 1986, McNeil was walking back to her bedroom from the main house and was suddenly stopped in her tracks.

“I couldn’t move at all, and it was like I was frozen,” McNeil said. “I felt a distinctive tap on my right shoulder, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up like static electricity.

“My three cats came around the corner, stopped and their eyes grew wide as buttons as they gazed over my right shoulder.”

Then, as McNeil began to move the only part of her body that she could, her eyes — something happened.

“When I moved my eyes to try and get a look at what was around me, the spell was broken,” McNeil said. “I could suddenly move again, and nothing was behind me.”

As odd as those incidences were, McNeil said she didn’t really begin putting all the pieces of the puzzle together until a Spring Pilgrimage visitor in 1986 helped shed some light on the situation.

“This couple walked in toward the end of the day, so we took them on the tour, but never mentioned anything about Thomas Henderson or any of the strange things that had been happening,” McNeil said. “When we got to the back bedroom where (Henderson) died, this lady said something dreadful had happened in that room, and there was something struggling to get out.”

The visitor eventually introduced herself as Marcy Goodman, a physic from Illinois, who had decided to come to Natchez for pilgrimage and was immediately drawn to Magnolia Hall, McNeil said.

“Marcy kept saying that the person trying to say something was mumbling, and it was hard to understand the voice,” McNeil said. “Thomas Henderson’s daughter kept a journal and in that journal she talked about her father’s last days and how her he would desperately try to speak but it came out as mumbling.”

Goodman told McNeil that she might be able to get a stronger connection with the spirit if she held something that once belonged to Henderson.

At that time, artifacts and items from the house weren’t locked up as they are now, so McNeil handed the physic Henderson’s Bible.

“Once I gave her the Bible it started getting really hot, so hot that she could barely hold it,” McNeil said. “The Bible fell open to a passage from Exodus that talks about God telling Moses to convey a message.

“Marcy (Goodman) said Thomas Henderson wanted to give me a message.”

But McNeil never received that message as the incidences ended just before she moved out of the apartment in 1998.

Several paranormal groups have taken measurements and readings inside the house, but McNeil said all the signs point to Henderson being a friendly presence.

“I’m not afraid of him, because I know it’s still a well-loved house if he’s in there,” McNeil said. “I think he still feels a tie to the house and doesn’t want to leave.

“I can’t blame him.”

Natchez Area Paranormal Society co-founder and case manager Kim Frith said such stories aren’t uncommon in Natchez — in fact, the society currently has seven open investigations into paranormal or supposed ghost manifestations.

Most of the people who contact the society are private citizens who are distressed by what they think may be spirits disturbing them. The society has a protocol it follows before dedicating itself wholly to a case, Frith said, that includes screening what kinds of medications a person may be using that could possibly cause paranoia or hallucinations.

They also have a contractor and a plumber who checks to see if the disturbances in the house aren’t caused by something a little more mundane.

But every once in a while, the society runs into something that can’t be explained by pipes banging inside a wall or bad wiring.

And to keep at the top of their game, Frith said the society does volunteer work at public places — including Magnolia Hall.

One public place that the society has done plenty of research and found what Frith characterized as “cross-substantiated (paranormal) activity” is the former Adams County jail, now the home to the Adams County supervisors’ offices and boardroom.

Before becoming home to the county government, the building housed Adams County’s petty criminals and death row inmates alike, and executions by hanging were conducted in the building. Today, the trap door on which condemned prisoners stood in the final seconds of their lives remains as part of the ceiling over a workroom.

It’s just outside Supervisor Calvin Butler’s office door. Butler said he has never felt any presence there or been disturbed by otherworldly forces, but he has heard stories from others who have.

And it was those stories that Frith said took the paranormal society to the jail.

The evidence of a haunting in the jail that stands out in her mind the most, Frith said, came from the last time the society investigated the jail. While she was in the upstairs portion of the former jail — which still retains its barred cells — the group with her was watching her activity through a thermal-imaging camera. Frith was using a dowsing rod to track paranormal energies.

“On the thermal image, I was red,” she said. “Everywhere the dowsing rod led me to go, they saw a man who was the total opposite of me on the thermal image, which was blue.”

While most of the paranormal society’s clients are distressed and don’t know how to deal with ghosts, others are happy to have them around.

Raine Cavin lives at the 1859 Peter Hunter House Bed and Breakfast at 611 North Union Street, and she said ghost activity is just part of her daily schedule — hearing doors slam, having radios come on unexpectedly, finding books across the room from where she left them and opened like they had been read. Sometimes she feels the pressure of someone sitting on the foot of her bed, even though no one is there.

Some activities can be traced to specific ghosts, Cavin said, including one named Mrs. Frannie who died in the house.

“She drank three pots of coffee ever yday, and I find coffee cups outside of the cabinet sitting on the counter every day,” Cavin said.

Another former resident of the house, a boy named Ralph who died young, can be heard playing marbles in an upstairs room of which he was known to be fond, she said.

And then there are the Union soldiers who occupied the house during the Civil War.

“I believe the Union solders, sometimes their sprits walk through the house, and I hear their heavy boots through the house,” Cavin said.

But Cavin said she doesn’t think of her haunted house as a place in which she doesn’t want to live.

“It is not a bad haunted, it is a good haunted,” she said. “I told (the ghosts) when I moved in, ‘I am not a bad person, I am a good person.’”

Cavin said she has times when she knows that she is not alone, even though there is not another living soul in the house.

That’s OK with her.

“I say, ‘At least now I don’t live alone,’ and the ghosts cost me very little,” Cavin said.