Researching Historical Fiction

When you want things to go bump in the night…

… they rarely do.

I found that out on my first ghost hunt last night (Friday the 13th) at historic Paxton Manor in Leesburg, Va.

The 32-room house, built for Rachel and Charles Paxton in 1872,

featured many decorative interior details such as silver hardware and elaborate plasterwork. The exterior reflects the influence of Second Empire and Italian Villa styles, and is considered an unusual example of Victorian architecture in northern Virginia.

Paxton Manor in Leesburg, Va.
Paxton Manor in Leesburg, Va.

Rachel outlived Charles—and her only daughter and grandchild. When she died in 1921 at the age of 95, she left the house, 50 acres of land and an endowment for the care of poor children. Since her death, the house has been a convalescent home for children recovering from illness or injury, an orphanage and a child care center. Though the house is no longer occupied, the property supports a full-service organization for children with special needs.

Paxton is near Ball’s Bluff Battlefield in an area almost completely overtaken by suburbia, and it sits on a giant limestone cavern, though the well that drew water up into the basement of the house has long since been capped and the underground river dried up in the 1930s.

About 20 people showed up for the ghost hunt at 7 p.m. After a brief orientation, we split into groups and headed off to “investigate.” By the time our group called it quits at 2 a.m., I had learned a few things.

First, those “Ghost Adventures” guys have a more grueling job than I realized. After five hours of traipsing through the manor house and another, newer building on the site, we were all starting to fade. We’d been wandering from one dusty, musty room to another in a building purposely made confusing by false walls set up for a haunted house attraction next month.

Around 1 in the morning, we got our first clear EVP (electronic voice phenomenon for those who aren’t hooked on ghost-hunting shows) — a faint but clear “no” in response to a question. I was so exhausted at the time that it barely registered. It wasn’t until I was typing up my notes the next day that I realized how cool it was.

And then there was all the zaniness with a flashlight turning on and off during a session in the shower — for some reason, one of the most active spots for us that night. Who haunts a shower? Apparently Rachel Paxton does, if our flashlight “communication” was authentic.

I also learned that ghosts are not scary. All the stuff you see in movies is just make-believe. After years of looking, most paranormal investigators have yet to see an apparition, and the likelihood that you’ll be tuned in to listen when a ghost is ready to talk is pretty slim. I walked through my pitch-dark house when I got home at 2:30 a.m. without so much as a twitch. I couldn’t do that after a scary movie.

It was exciting to see so many people wandering around Paxton with voice recorders in hand, eager for the chance to connect with the past. That enthusiasm bodes well for preservationists, historians and historical novelists.

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