HUNTSVILLE — It began on a brightly moonlit night many years ago when Jackie Bearden and her mother were sitting in the living room waiting for her father to get home. He had warned he may be late.
Bearden remembers hearing what they thought was him come in the back door. That was a little strange, though, since he usually came in through the front. She glanced at her mother who seemed equally as taken aback. He was early, too.
They heard him go into one of the rooms, come out of the room, then go into the bathroom but they did not hear the door close.
“It was so distinct, I heard what sounded like him rolling tissue off from the toilet paper holder,” Bearden said. “After a few minutes, he never appeared to let us know he was home, which was just weird.”
She and her mother looked at each other and got up to go check on him.
“Samford is that you?” her mother called out making her way to the bathroom, but there was no answer.
Walking into the bathroom, the toilet paper was rolled off into a pile on the floor, but her father was nowhere to be found. They searched the house and found no one.
“It’s funny how we sat back down again but neither of us talked about whatever that was that entered our home that night,” she said.
Later that evening, when her father walked through the front door, Bearden said her mother asked him, “Samford did you come in earlier and leave again?
“He looked at us both like we were crazy and said, ‘No Hettie, I just got home’.”
Today, Bearden is the staff photographer for her daughter and Southern Ghost Girls Tours founder, Lesley Ann Hyde. There is no one more familiar with North Alabama’s haunted public places than Hyde and her team of 12 faith-based historians first – and ghost hunters second.
The team conducts fundraising tours of some of North Alabama’s most notoriously ghostly establishments. The highly interactive ghost tours are based on deeply researched history of those places and the proceeds help preserve, maintain and sustain the rich history and architecture that make them legendary.
“This way we give back to the community in a positive way,” said Hyde.
She has agreed to team up with 256 Today to share the history and the evidence they have collected to show spirits – not demons – do roam the halls and grounds of North Alabama museums, banks, libraries, theaters (yes, the Princess Theater in Decatur is most definitely haunted, according to Hyde) and historic landmarks.
We will focus on four haunted establishments over the next four weeks leading up to Halloween, beginning this week with the “Weeping Widow” and “Lady in Blue” seen frequently at the Old State Bank in Decatur.
“I, too, started experiencing paranormal phenomena when I was about six years old,” said Hyde. “I was never scared; in fact, it was very calming, an almost soothing protective voice whose messages feel more like a guardian angel.
“All my life I have had what I think are angels or spirit guides that tell me things that I have been able to share with police departments to help them solve crimes. I really believe it is because good must prevail.”
However, Hyde did not start the tour company because of the ghosts, but because of her love of history.
“We do not go investigate claims of haunted houses,” she said. “We hold fundraising tours for places with historical significance and teach people about the history behind the location.
“On the investigative side, we use scientific approaches and have invested in over $5,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment, just like what you see on TV, for investigating paranormal activities.”
According to the Southern Ghost Girls’ male investigator, Benny Ledford, the team dresses in period clothing from the age they are investigating because it makes them “trigger objects” for the spirits they are investigating. They also use detectors and laser dowsing rods that allow the entities to respond to yes and no questions through movement.
But Ledford said their favorite approach is the Estes Method.
“One of us holds a ‘spirit box’, similar to a radio in that you scroll through channels and of course you are getting white noise,” he said. “We use a ‘ghost box’ to filter out the noise and someone else, usually Lesley, is wearing headphones and a blindfold so she can’t see or hear what the person asking questions is saying.
“We photograph and record everything and our equipment literally picks up voices plain as day, what is known as electromagnetic voice phenomena coming through.”
Bearden’s camera often captures images of apparitions in mirrors, like that of the Weeping Widow at Old State Bank that acts as evidence to prove the spirits reported to exist there, do.
“I have to stress that we do not delve into any demonic or negative energy whatsoever,” Hyde said. “We are unapologetically Christians, and we go into it with the protection of Jesus, prayer and St. Michael.
“If you believe in angels, you believe in demons, but we are all very sensitive to negative energy. We do not go in like people do with séances, calling for just anybody to show up.
“Only a couple of times have we experienced negative energy and we shut it down immediately,” she said. “On the other hand, ‘ghosts’ are different from human spirits. What I call grumpy ghosts, they tend to be slightly negative and have been known to touch people, pinch you or pull your hair. But that is not who we are trying to reach.”
She said they are reaching out to spirits who are “legends” that lived in the space. That is why they do their historic research, so they know to whom to ask questions to get them to respond.
Ledford said his sensitivity is with smell.
“I freaked out some people on a Huntsville tour one time over on Walker Street,” he said. “I often carry wrapped peppermint candy in my pocket, and I suddenly sensed a little girl who was attracted by the candy in my pocket. Suddenly, everyone in the group could smell an extremely strong odor of old-fashioned peppermint candy.
“They were afraid at first, but I assured them it was just the spirit of a little girl who loved peppermint.”
Other ways the spirits show their presence is by showing up in pictures and mirrors, as lighted orbs, and cold chills.
As Christians who believe in Heaven and an afterlife, what is the group’s theory on why these spirits are still here?
“It’s really strange,” Hyde said. “A lot of the spirits we communicate with are attached to the place or to a thing where the phenomenon seems to recur.”
She said if you ask anybody who has worked in a theater or a library, many will say unexplained things happen there and, in fact, one of the most haunted places in Alabama is the Talladega Public Library.
“We have done a lot of investigations at libraries and theaters and those two places are often very much haunted and get a lot of activity,” Hyde said. “But we think human spirits come back to those places because they enjoyed those places.
“And I think they are able to come and go to see their loved ones.”
Bearden added to that theory.
“I think we come into contact with them all the time, and some of us can feel it and some can’t feel it based on how you were raised,” Bearden said. “In my family growing up, you just didn’t talk about it. My mother and I were in the same room and experienced the same thing that night, and yet we never talked about it again.”
Ledford could not agree more.
“It’s just the way we are brought up,” he said. “I grew up in Florence as a Southern Baptist and you just didn’t talk about it.
“I was out with a friend in Huntsville one night several years ago and I smelled my grandmother’s cologne nearby and then I saw her passing. I called my dad and told him, ‘You are about to get a call, grandma just passed. He said, ‘No, you did not just say that to me,’ and sure enough, he got the call shortly afterward.
“You just did not talk about it at our house.”
It is common, Hyde said for people who have seen or experienced paranormal phenomenon to want a safe space to investigate what they have seen, but don’t usually have that. The Ghost Girls Tours give them that security.
“Let’s just say people come to our ghost tours for that safe space to confirm their experiences and others are just along for fun,” said Bearden. “But I will say that if they’re skeptics when they get there, they’re believers when they leave.”
Next: “Haunting of Old State Bank.”
Click here to book a tour.