Sights and scares: Ghost tour exposes different side of Philly, combines history and thrills

In a city that is filled with history, Philadelphia has some of the oldest buildings in the U.S. But along with history comes an eerie sense that the people from the past are still watching over us.

On crisp autumn nights, the Spirits of ‘76 Ghost Tour illuminates the city of Philadelphia in a ghoulish light.

The tour leads participants throughout the haunted and historical Old City section, stopping at over 20 of the city’s most haunted sites.

The tour leads partakers through 20 haunted places in Old City including, the City Tavern and Washington Square, which was a part of William Penn’s original construction plan of Philadelphia. -- Diana Campeggio/Staff Writer

The tour meets at the corner of 4th and Chestnut, and once given a free glow stick, the tour begins and sets off to its first haunted destination.

Once you step onto the cobblestone streets, away from the streetlights and hustle and bustle of the rest of the city, one can’t help but feel the historical presence around them as they walk through the streets.

From City Hall to the graveyard at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the guide told true stories of some of the gruesome practices during colonial life, as well as the haunted folklore associated with the city.

On this particular night, the tour guide was Andrew Terranova, a theater major from Penn State University and Buffalo, N.Y. native, who told the tales of the city.  He remained confident and charismatic throughout the tour.

“I was a theater major in college, so I kind of got used to being on stage telling stories and that’s almost what it feels like whenever I start a tour,” Terranova said after the tour.  “I feel like I’m going to be doing an hour and a half one-act play and I’m on a stage.”

Terranova was knowledgeable and had a good understanding of the stories and the history.  He spoke in a way that was informative and yet engaging.

“I do concentrate beforehand and I take some personal time to relax before I do a tour because I don’t want to give a bland tour.  Nobody wants that, especially not for $17.50,” Terranova said.

The stories seemed to roll off his tongue, dripping with confidence and allure.

He easily captured the attention of the large group and had a good command of the historical facts, as well as the stories.

“I’m a history teacher by trade and that stuff is always interesting to me.  I guess you could say I believe in the ghost stuff too, but it’s the historical stuff that interests me more,” Tom Brown, a Tom’s River South history teacher who took the tour, said.

The tour was filled with historical information about Philadelphia as well as haunted tales.  At each stop, Andrew would explain the historical significance of the stop and then tell the haunted facts and folklore.

“The historical stuff he got right; that’s the stuff that I always listen for.  I get a little bit skeptical if they get the historical stuff wrong,” Brown said.

The tour took around 75 minutes and encompassed 20 different stops including houses, cemeteries and government buildings.

The group on this specific night was a rather large group with more than 50 people of all ages which was apparent only a few stops into the tour.

The group traveled throughout the streets of the city and often were separated by traffic lights. There seemed to be a lot of waiting for those who were straggling behind, but those with smaller children seemed to disagree.

“Since we were walking with my 7-year-old daughter, I thought the pace was perfect.  Maybe if it was just adults, the pace could have been a little quicker,” Brown said.

One of the first stops on the tour was the City Tavern.  This tavern, one of the oldest taverns in Philadelphia, has been the site of several ghost sightings throughout the years.

“Actually, the City Tavern story is my favorite story on the tour,” Terranova said.

During the Revolutionary war, the City Tavern was the political nerve center of Philadelphia.

After working long hours, the political and military leaders, including the First Continental Congress, would all gather at the City Tavern for a drink and to continue their debates.

During one of these disputes, a soldier pulled their gun and accidently shot a waiter, whose ghost has been said to haunt the building ever since.

Some years later, a young bride and her bridal party were getting ready on the day of her wedding in the upstairs of the City Tavern.  At some point in the preparation, one of the bridesmaids knocked over a lit candle and the entire room was illuminated with flames.

The fire overtook the tavern, taking the bride and her bridesmaids with it.

According to Terranova, the ghost of the young bride can be seen at wedding events that continue to take place at the City Tavern.  While taking the wedding party photo, the photographer will look through his viewfinder and see a young bride standing next to the real bride.  No film has been able to capture her.

The most memorable stop, Washington Square, is one of the original five squares that William Penn planned when he designed the construction of Philadelphia.

Buried in Washington Square are over five thousand Revolutionary War soldiers, victims of yellow fever and those who died at the Walnut Street Prison, which was once across the street.  They are buried in unmarked graves throughout the grounds of the square.

“It’s amazing how many soldiers can be found buried there,” Colleen Daniels, a tour guide with the company since April, said.

During the 1840s, the city of Philadelphia was having a serious problem with grave robbery, in which people would steal fresh corpses and sell them to local medical institutions through the black market.

The Quakers in Philadelphia were upset by this and hired a woman by the name of Lea to watch over the graves each and every night.  One night, she vanished and was never heard of again.

According to Terranova, the ghost of Lea has been seen in Washington Square rather frequently in the wee hours of the morning.  The sighting that is most famous comes from a rather reliable source, a Philadelphia Police officer.

He approached a figure sitting in the center of Washington Square, dressed all in black and carrying a lantern and a staff.

He got close enough to lift the hood off of the figure when the cloak fell to the ground, along with the lantern and staff.  It then disappeared before his eyes.

Even recently, electric and gas companies will sometimes come across new burial plots when they are digging around the perimeter of the square.

“Whenever they do this,” Terranova said, “archeologists will look across the field and they will see someone dressed all in black with a staff and a lantern watching over them to make sure they treat this grave with the utmost respect.”

As the group moved across Washington Square, they couldn’t help but tread lightly.

“There’s something about it that’s creepy,” Neil Nandi, hospitality manager and tour guide, said. “The hooded figure, the grave robbers.  The idea of the plotter’s field. It’s just all a creepy situation.”

Though the tour was not as terrifying as the brochure claimed, it did showcase a spookier side of Philadelphia that left a chill down people’s spine on the walk back to the train.

Tickets can be purchased on Spirits of ’76 website and tours take place on designated nights from April to November.

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