The old Fayette County Courthouse, which is now the Lexington History Museum, certainly looks spooky, especially when streetlights illuminate its massive stone walls on a sultry summer night.
Before the Civil War, there was a busy slave auction block and whipping post beside the lawn. A man was hanged from a second-story window of a previous courthouse on the site. A lynch mob once tried to storm the building, and plenty of defendants over the years were unhappy with their guilty verdicts and sentences, which included death.
So, it seems logical to ask: is the 110-year-old edifice haunted?
That question found me standing silently in total darkness on a recent Friday night, inside the sweltering mechanical room just below the building's dome. Beside me were museum President Jamie Millard and three "paranormal investigators" with a ghost-hunting group called Afterlife Investigations of Kentucky.
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The investigators were armed with all manner of electronic gadgetry. And as our clothes were slowly soaked with sweat, they repeatedly called out to any spirits who might be lurking about: Do you want to talk? How did you die? Were you guilty?
I'm not sure I believe in ghosts, but Millard does, for the same reason most of these paranormal investigators do: they think they have shared a home with them.
Millard and his wife, Madelyn, are convinced that their home off Bryan Station Road is haunted by Otho Offutt, the man who built it in 1830. Offutt was an eccentric guy who played the piano. His claim to fame is that his brother, Denton, owned a general store in New Salem, Ill., that employed a young clerk named Abraham Lincoln.
The Millards have felt presences, found armoire doors opened and candlesticks moved on a mantle. "Once we heard the piano playing when there was nobody here to play it," she said.
Plenty of ghost sightings have been reported in historic downtown Lexington. The Hunt Morgan House is said to be haunted by John Hunt Morgan's nanny, Ma'am Bette, a slave who loved to wear a pair of red shoes the Confederate general gave her. But Allison Carter of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, who lives in the house, said she has yet to encounter Ma'am Bette.
The ghost of a little girl has been reported in a Second Street building once used as a hospital. There also have been ghost sightings at the Bodley-Bullock and Peters houses on Gratz Park, and the old fire station on Jefferson Street.
"I haven't ever felt a presence in this building," Millard said of the old courthouse, "and I'm frequently here alone at night."
Still, when the ghost hunters offered to check out the place, Millard figured, why not?
As soon as darkness fell that Friday night, the ghost hunters set up camcorders on tripods throughout the building; they videotaped and watched on a remote monitor. They got out digital thermometers, because they said spirits' comings and goings are sometimes marked by rapid temperature changes. They had electromagnetic-field detectors, which they said can sometimes reveal a ghostly presence. And they used digital cameras and audio recorders to capture any sights and sounds that might not be apparent to human eyes and ears, investigator Ron Perkins said.
For the next several hours, small teams of investigators roamed the darkened museum, looking for signs of ghosts. "They don't come out when you want them to," investigator Ann Watts said. "They come out when they're good and ready."
Several Afterlife investigators said they took up ghost hunting as a hobby after living in a haunted house. They would hear strange noises, see strange sights, feel strange sensations. The group's co-founder, Joe Patterson, said he once had a "negative entity" in his home so powerful that it threw a queen-size waterbed across the room. He said it left after he brought in a Pentecostal minister for a prayer session.
Afterlife has searched for spirits in buildings across Kentucky, and it claims to have found evidence of some. But by the time I left the old courthouse around midnight, nobody had found any there. By 2 a.m., even the investigators gave up the ghost.
"They found nothing," Millard said. "They want to come back and take another shot at it, though, because there was a lot of street noise that evening."
Millard doesn't expect them to find any ghosts on their return visit, either. But he has invited them to check out his house. "I think there's a lot more opportunity there," he said.
If Otho Offutt agrees, I'll let you know.