Ghosts Of Jefferson: Skeptic Leads Convincing Ghost Tour
By ALLYSON REYNOLDS DIXON
Assistant News Editor
JEFFERSON -- Jodi Breckenridge doesn't mince words about who or what she is. She's a chicken and a skeptic.
Yet weekend after weekend, year-round, Ms. Breckenridge braves the streets of what is said to be the most haunted town in Texas to share the stories of some people she's grown to consider pretty special.
"I'm a chicken. I'm scared of my own shadow," said Ms. Breckenridge, director of Jefferson's Historic Ghost Walks. "And so people think it's kind of funny that I do the Ghostwalks. I drive myself home afterward -- and I live about 3 miles out of town -- and I'm checking the rearview mirror all the way."
Ms. Breckenridge came up with the idea for the tour in 1999, when some friends who own a bed and breakfast asked her to come up with something fun and exciting to do in Jefferson.
"I've always been a history buff and I love ghost stories even though I am a skeptic.
With all the history and ghost stories, I knew exactly what I was going to do," she said. "So, I started the Historic Jefferson Ghost Walk. Always, to me, it isn't a ghost story unless you have the history behind the story."
What she's learned is that in Jefferson, at least, the history does back up most of those stories.
Ms. Breckenridge and Mitchel Whitington, an author of books about the paranormal in North and East Texas, attribute the blanket hauntings to the town's location and history.
Historical accounts say Jefferson began as a river landing on Big Cypress Bayou between 1836 and 1840. Because Big Cypress was navigable by steamboat, Jefferson became a major port of entry from New Orleans.
The town thrived, buttressed by the lumber industry and the nearby discovery of iron ore. Jefferson was home to one of the state's first breweries and the world's first ammonia refrigerant ice plant. It also was the first in the Lone Star State to use artificial gas for street lighting.
"This is a small town with a big sense of community," Whitington said. "And there's so much history. This town was set to become one of the largest cities in the Lone Star State. There were all of these wonderful people who came here to seek their dreams and pursue their fortunes."
As the town grew, so did its potential for troubles. The boom brought wagon trains and saloons -- and gunslingers. Jefferson saw more than its share of death, Breckenridge said.
"Many of the stories go back over a hundred years," Breckenridge said of the ghosts. "There were a lot of saloons where it was documented that a lot of people were shot and killed, and things like that. And when a lot of tragic things happen ...?
A lot of tragic things, in Jefferson's case. For instance, it's rumored that a room in the historic Jefferson Hotel, built around 1851, is home to a young bride who hanged herself there when the groom sent word the wedding was off.
Then, there was the Mittie Stephens incident. The Mittie Stephens was a side-wheel steamboat that left New Orleans Feb. 5 with 101 passengers and crew -- and 274 hay bales, according to reports. As the watercraft churned along the night of Feb. 12, a breeze blew a spark from the torch baskets that lit the bow onto the hay bales, and the fire couldn't be contained. Although the boat grounded in just 3 feet of water, with its bow and forward part totally in flames, the pilot and engineer, according to reports, kept the wheels running, hoping to reach the shore. But accounts suggest the action pulled those struggling in the water to reach shore into them.
Sixty-one people perished that night. Although it initially was believed the boat burned on the Texas side of the Caddo Lake, it later was determined that the Mittie Stephens burned on the Louisiana side of the border. Still, the steamboat's bell sits in Jefferson. No one is sure whether a spirit or 60 came with the bell.
Another incident that led to Jefferson's reputation of being so haunted was the "Stockade Case," which involved George Smith, a northern carpetbagger or delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and four freed slaves. History suggests that Smith made an impassioned speech in which he said former slaves wouldn't be freed until Jefferson burned. So it did. Most of the town burned, according to The Handbook of Texas.
After it burned, the Union Army put Smith and the freed slaves in protective custody in the jail on Moseley Street (also home to Grove House, reportedly the most haunted house in Texas). Later, angry locals gathered, "disarmed the Union troops, entered the jail," removed Smith and shot him in the street. "The brutal act was completed when they took the four black men and either shot or hanged them along Moseley Street," according to the Handbook.
Many other things occurred in Jefferson in roughly that time frame. Whitington believes such a rich history has led to legitimate haunts.
"There are so many ghosts, so much paranormal activity," said Whitington, who has written several history books as well as "Ghosts of East Texas and the Pineywoods" and "Ghosts of North Texas."
Despite her skepticism, Ms. Breckenridge says she has seen and felt enough to believe that the stories she is sharing aren't just ghost stories.
In fact, it's the feeling that seems to matter most, she said.
"Most people want to see something, but it usually isn't like that," she said. "It's a different feeling. Some people describe it as goosebumps. For others, it's kind of a heavy feeling. Definitely, people feel a chill."
One example that immediately comes to mind was a hot, muggy East Texas night several years ago with a tour group in the old Kahn Saloon. The property began as a boarding house and later served as a saloon, a furniture store and a funeral home. It also was a popular place to die, with at least three recorded murders occurring there, she said.
But on this particular summer night, with the temperature outside about 98 degrees, the group, including a man from a paranormal investigation team, entered the old building. After a bit, "all of a sudden, someone said, 'Did you feel that?' And it was really cold."
The man with the thermometer went to where Ms. Breckenridge and another person were standing -- and the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees, she said.
It's stories like that, as well as less ghostly reflections and celebrations of the town's rich history, that keep people from all over the country coming to Jefferson, Witington said.
"This isn't just about the ghost things," Witington said. "The haunted history is only a fraction of what Jefferson has to offer."
But the hauntings -- and the belief that they're authentic -- are what have put Jefferson, a town that has diminished from 30,000 live folks at its peak to 2,024 -- on the map.
"We're not making these stories up to make it interesting," she said. "Most of this has been examined and documented."
Documented well enough that even a skeptic will confess she keeps an eye on her rearview mirror.