As mentioned previously in this column, the Old Salem historic district just south of downtown Winston-Salem has its share of ghost stories. For present-day ghost story enthusiasts, a great thing about Old Salem is that one can see the actual, original buildings in which events transpired leading to the paranormal tales still told today. The Salem Tavern Museum at 812 South Main Street is one such example.
The brick structure that is now known as “The Salem Tavern Museum” was built in 1784 to replace an earlier tavern at the same site. The original tavern was built in 1775, but it, having been constructed out of wood, caught fire and burned to the ground (not unlike another Winston-Salem historic place, The Hotel Zinzendorf). The building was restored in 1965, and is now open for tour via Old Salem Museums and Gardens. Yet before it became the museum and tourist attraction it is today, The Salem Tavern was once home to a restless spirit.
The Salem Tavern was built by the town’s Moravian settlers as a place to offer food and lodging to visitors passing through the settlement. Such an establishment was an important commodity to provide for potential customers patronizing the Moravians’ shops and purchasing their goods. The building was still being used for that very purpose, when a stranger to the town arrived at the tavern on horseback seeking a place to stay. The man, of course, was offered a room, but it became immediately evident that the visitor also needed medical attention. The tavern-keeper that checked in the man could see the traveler was very sick, and called for a doctor to tend to the tavern guest. Nevertheless, in spite of the doctor’s efforts, the guest slipped into a coma. Shortly thereafter, the man died.
Unfortunately, the combination of the man’s grave illness and the tavern-keeper’s scramble to secure medical care meant no identifying information about the traveler was determined prior to his death. Upon his passing the town’s authorities did a thorough search through his saddlebags and examined his clothing, but nothing about the two provided any information about the man’s identity or place of origin. Having no way either to determine the gentleman’s particulars or contact his next of kin, the Moravians interred the man in their “Parish Graveyard,” the cemetery in which they laid to rest all non-Moravian strangers to the town. That would not be, however, the last they heard from the anonymous boarder.
In the days following the man’s death, the servants in the tavern began to have strange experiences. The workers heard unusual noises that seemed to have no cause or explanation. They also reported feeling “cold spots” – distinct instances where the air in one of the tavern’s rooms would turn icy and send chills through the servants. Both of these occurrences, the servants claimed, only started after the nameless visitor expired. To the dismay of the tavern-keeper, the workers became convinced that a ghost was haunting The Salem Tavern. The servants grew so increasingly frightened of encountering the spirit that they even refused to go in the building’s basement unaccompanied by a fellow co-worker. Soon even the tavern’s skeptical innkeeper would not be able to deny the restless soul’s presence in the lodging.
One night –the interior of the tavern lit only by flickering candlelight– the tavern-keeper was in his office working. In an instant, the door to the office flew open, and one of the tavern’s maids, hysterical with fright, rushed into the keeper’s study. All color had drained from her face, and she exclaimed to the tavern-keeper that just moments before she had experienced the building’s wandering spirit. At that moment, the maid’s manager knew he needed to confront the ghost rumors once and for all. He shoved back his chair from his desk, picked up –perhaps– a lantern, and strode out into the shadowy hallway. What happened next would become an essential episode in Salem’s canon of spiritual sightings.
The tavern-keeper walked across the floor’s wooden planks and peered through the yellow glow of candlelight when, undeniably, a human-like figure appeared in front of him. As the keeper stood there face-to-face [as it were] with the ghostly apparition, the spirit spoke, reportedly saying something akin to: “I am the man you buried. My brother is in Texas. Please tell him I am dead.” The spirit then, reportedly, told the tavern-keeper his name. With that the haunt vanished, and the stunned manager of the tavern was left standing alone in an empty corridor.
Immediately, using the information the ghost had provided, the tavern-keeper began composing a letter to the man in Texas alleged to be the dead man’s brother. As requested, the keeper mentioned the deceased man by the name he had been told, and explained the circumstances of the traveler’s death. The letter was sent on its long journey west, and the manager of the lodge had no choice but to wait to see what would happen.
As miraculous as it was mysterious, the tavern-keeper was sent a reply. The gentleman in Texas who had received the letter from Salem did, supposedly, in fact have a brother who had traveled to North Carolina, from whom he had not heard since and of whose whereabouts he had no idea. Nonetheless, the brother in Texas did not, in fact, travel to Salem to recover his sibling’s already-interred body, nor did he question the way in which the Moravians had treated his brother when he fell ill, but he did make one request: he asked that his fallen brother’s belongings be sent to him in Texas. The tavern’s keeper –eager, of course, to eliminate any reason for the spirit to linger– gladly obliged, and had his brief guest’s clothes and saddlebags sent west. Upon doing so, the tavern-keeper never again beheld the apparition.
Many questions, obviously, remain. For one, was the recipient of the letter sent to Texas indeed the anonymous lodger’s brother, or just someone who saw an opportunity to act the part, and, in turn, collect on some unclaimed possessions? If that were the case, however, why would that have appeased the restless soul haunting the tavern?
With regard to the tavern’s ghost, was it more important that he communicate to his family his ultimate fate to save them from a lifetime of wondering; or, perhaps, did the spirit want his brother notified because there was something hidden in his saddlebags that he did not want falling into just any person’s hands? One wonders what that something might have been. For the brother in Texas to specifically request that his sibling’s left-behind possessions be sent all the way back half way across the country by horseback does make one consider what might have been so special about the contents of those saddlebags. If the dead man’s belongings were a factor in the tavern’s haunting, presumably they were sent to the right person, or one can imagine the restless soul would not have been satisfied.
If, conversely, they were sent to an impostor in Texas, is it possible the tavern ghost still wanders Old Salem, fitfully passing between the historic buildings while waiting for his possessions to finally, rightfully make their way back to one of his descendants? Thankfully for present-day ghost hunters it is easy enough to visit the historic district, and hope, on the off chance, that one might catch a glimpse of the traveler’s spirit. As mentioned above, The Salem Tavern Museum is open for tour as part of admission to Old Salem Museums and Gardens. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from nine thirty a. m. until four thirty p. m., and on Sunday from one p. m. until four thirty p. m., and will be open Halloween, though, even then, no ghost sightings can be guaranteed. For more information, including ticket prices, one can call 336.721.7300, or go to www.oldsalem.org/visit.
• For quadrust.com, I’m Guy Montgomery.
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