Never pass up an opportunity to hear a first-class storyteller talking about something he's passionate about.
Miraculous timing landed us in the Washington metropolitan area in time to join a 9 p.m. Ghost Tour in Alexandria's Old Town. Hometown of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee, Alexandria has a rich and mystical history that is tied to pivotal events in the life of this country, from its prominence as a tobacco port in colonial times to its occupation by Federal forces during the Civil War War of Northern Aggression. Just to walk the brick sidewalks and see the homes of legendary figures of American history is magical enough; throw in some tragic deaths in mysterious circumstances, piracy and romance and revenge, and you've got your audience spellbound.
We were able to secure a private tour with Al, whose Revolutionary costume displayed fine calves (alas, not pictured here) in the tradition of "putting one's best foot forward." With lantern in hand, he took us first to Market Square, where he built for our imaginations the stalls and wares - and blushing young ladies - of a busy 18th-century marketplace. And of course a bounder who seemed to be wealthy and charming but untrustworthy; young ladies who walked out with him were later found foully murdered <gasp>.
Delighting in the story, my inner teenager (who is skeptical and resistant to tricky teaching methods) realized that we were in fact absorbing a great deal of actual history - the founding of the town, the ways of life that grew up around its seaport and plantations - brought to life in humrous tales. You have to pay close attention to Al because he's often setting you up for an elaborate joke. For example, we peered into an old-time ice cellar, and were told that dead bodies were stored on ice until they could be buried; and the re-use of that ice resulted in the invention of pink lemonade. Ewwww! Gross! And guaranteed to appeal to 12-year-old boys.
The girls in the audience were more likely to swoon over the romantic tale of the stranger who died in Room 8 over Gadsby's tavern - see, that window up there to the left of the doorway? Founded circa 1785, Gadsby's has entertained statesmen including Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Monroe - guys they name streets after! In Alexandria, BTW, the streets were named for royalty, from King, Queen and Prince to Duke and ... Cameron? Yes, Cameron, the Scottish peerage of Lord Fairfax. (See, despite myself I learned stuff.) Anyway, a mysterious man giving no name brought his bride to Gadsby's, where she died in Room 8; but sometimes a traveler will find the candle lighted in the room, or glimpse a dark-haired woman in period costume at the back of the ballroom before she vanishes again.
Plenty of architectural details were sprinkled among the stories - such as the second-story mirrors that allowed inhabitants to see who was at the front door; and the country's narrowest house, built by closing off a narrow alley to deter its use by drunken sailors. World's narrowest home, barely 11 feet wide? Weird. Closing off an alley to keep sailors from using it for bodily functions? Memorable.
The following day, our B&B hostess listened to our tales and then asked if there were REALLY ghost stories and supernatural sightings in Alexandria. I answered, "It's hard to say," but the truth is: OF COURSE there are! People have lived and died in Alexandria for centuries. Some of them are famous, some obscure; some died in mysterious or gruesome ways; some were fiercely partisan, the stuff of legends like the 30 Confederate graves that were moved in the middle of the night to a different churchyard. These are the raw materials of ghost stories. The stories change and evolve in the telling; but the tall tales and embellishments bring the ghosts of Washington and Jefferson, Hamilton and Lee and their contemporaries, to life.