Phantoms of the First Coast: The Faces Behind NE Florida’s Most Haunted Tours

Phantoms of the First Coast: The Faces Behind Northeast Florida’s Most Haunted Tours

With several thousand years of civilization under its belt, the First Coast has experienced its share of trials and tribulation. Ghosts are big business for the curious and thrill-seekers alike, and October’s reprieve from the oppressive heat puts many in the mood for a haunted history lesson. One need not look far to find a ghost tour.

As you board a trolley or prepare to walk along darkened cobblestone streets, consider for a moment the storyteller’s tale. Four local haunted tour guides shared their story and personal experiences with EU Jacksonville. Whether you’re a supernatural enthusiast or a diehard skeptic, get ready for a wild ride.

Phantoms of the First Coast: The Faces Behind NE Florida’s Most Haunted Tours, Tolomato Cemetery, St. Augustine

The American Spinner’s Haunted History of St. Augustine

“When I drove by the cemetery, I swore I saw a little boy in the tree,” Dion Moore recalls, “He had dark hair, dark vest, light colored shirt, and a little black neck tie, just sitting as plain as day. My tour had 20 people and two horses to pull it. All 20 people saw the exact same thing.”

Months later, Moore was researching at the Historical Society when he came across a story that made his hair stand on end. Written in 1924, the article detailed the tragic tale of James Patrick Morgan, a 5-year-old boy who climbed an oak tree and fell to his death. Today his small white tombstone rests alone in a spacious family plot. Legend says he often appears to children, and may be spotted in the tree above his grave or running between tombstones at the Tolomato Cemetery. Moore eagerly shares a photo snapped by a 12-year-old girl on his tour several years ago. Peering from the darkness is a young boy’s stark white figure, dressed in a suit and tie, and perched in a Live Oak. “At that moment, I was hooked,” Moore says, “If it hadn’t been for that story, I probably wouldn’t be telling this story today.”

Dion Moore of Secrets of St. Augustine Ghost Tours prefers to be called The American Spinner because of the stories he spins. Born in New Orleans and raised in the hills of North Carolina, Moore’s been a magician, dancer, pro-wrestler, a stuntman, and even played a role in The Patriot.

Phantoms of the First Coast: The Faces Behind NE Florida’s Most Haunted Tours

Eighteen years ago, a newspaper advertisement caught his eye: horse and buggy drivers wanted in St. Augustine. A history lover looking for a change of pace, Moore took the job. He began working for a small ghost tour company shortly after. Interest in St. Augustine’s ghosts grew immensely after Ghost Hunters visited in 2006. Moore opened his own ghost tour company several years ago, and business is booming.

“You never know what you’re going to get until you are out on the tour. The basics of the tour stay the same, but the night makes all the difference,” he says, “There’s always something different going on. I just love what I do.” An entertainer at heart, Moore puts on a show. His Victorian costume, top hat, deep southern accent, and energetic style engage the crowd on this colorful walking tour through St. Augustine’s ghost stories, tall tales, and legends. Tours occur year-round and last for 75-90 minutes, starting at Matanzas Bay and meandering by multiple haunted hot-spots throughout the city.

Moore makes no promises of supernatural encounters. “This isn’t Disney or Universal,” he warns, “There’s no one staged to jump out and scare you.” But he does believe there’s something to the stories. “People call it ghosts, I call it energy,” Moore says, “I believe there’s something else. I just can’t accept that life is just 80 laps around the sun or 80 Christmases, 80 birthdays and then it’s over. I do believe—I feel—that it’s not over. There’s something else. Energy never dies.”

Amelia Island Ghost Tours,Phantoms of the First Coast: The Faces Behind NE Florida’s Most Haunted Tours

Amelia Island’s Folklore of Piracy, Plunder, and Death

Diane Blanton ambled past a stately old home in downtown Fernandina about six years ago when she felt something inexplicably drawing her toward it. The unlit residence appeared vacant. Yet the sensation was impossible to ignore. Blanton snapped a photograph of the house and was shocked to see an old woman sitting on a rocking chair with a white dog at her side. Startled, she shone her flashlight on the porch once more. Nothing.

Two years later, Blanton volunteered at the same house selling ornaments as part of a local museum’s home tour. The estate’s newest owner was there. This was her family home. “I have a photograph that I took of this home several years ago, and I would like you to look at it and see if you recognize anyone,” Blanton asked the homeowner. “Do you recognize her?”

“Yes, it’s my Nana!” the woman replied, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Your Grandmother?”

“No, my great-grandmother, and I was named after her,” she exclaimed. The old woman had lived in the home for many years, and passed away in 1993. The new homeowner recognized her immediately and fondly recalled playing with the dog too.  

“It’s confirming when you’re able to take a photograph, and a family member can validate who that person you photographed is,” Blanton says. Her tour is all about forming personal connections, educating, and inspiring interest in local culture and history. “I’m not here to convince anybody,” she says, “It is what it is.”

Amelia Island Ghost Tours’ Diane Blanton stumbled into life as a ghost tour guide after retiring from a corporate job in Downtown Jacksonville, where she worked for 34 years. One day, the retiree picked up the local newspaper and noticed an unusual help-wanted ad: “If you can walk for 2 hours on Friday and Saturday nights for 1-1.5 miles, give us a call.”  

She called and was intrigued to learn that the job was as a guide for a small ghost tour company. Blanton had never seen a ghost in her life, though she’d always felt “energy” on Amelia Island. She loved local history too. “I was going to walk and make a little bit of money. It would get me off the couch,” Blanton laughs, “So I took the job, and I’ve loved it. I’ve met a lot of great people and taken a lot of great photographs. I’ve never experienced anything ugly in Fernandina.”

The retirement diversion turned into a job she loves, and she’s been leading tours year-round for over 14 years now. Blanton walks guests past Fernandina’s historic district, cemeteries, and homes, regaling the island’s rich history, paranormal activity, and local legends for 90-120 minutes. She enjoys sharing photographs she’s captured of spectral images with her guests.

“We get business, but we’re not overly commercialized like St. Augustine or Savannah. We really don’t get the traffic they get,” Blanton says, “We’re more up front and personal. Fernandina is a quaint little town, and it’s beautiful.”  Blanton encourages guests to be prepared for a night of walking and to bring a camera or recording device. There are no costumes, gimmicks, or special effects. “You never know what you’re going to see, hear, feel, or photograph,” she says.  

Ripley's Believe It or Not

Ripley’s Ghost Train Adventure’s Hair-Raising Experience

Charlie Hanneman’s most vivid supernatural experience occurred at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, and he truly believes it to be one of the most haunted buildings in St. Augustine. The former Castle Warden witnessed a mysterious fire and deaths in the 1940s when it was a hotel. It has been featured on Ghost Hunters several times. “We had a private group in the castle. We were in the room Mr. X—a violent spirit residing here—had rented out. He had attacked his mistress in that room. The room has a very heavy feeling to it,” Hanneman says, “The lady leading this investigation started getting really frustrated. She yelled, ‘If you’re here, let us know. We’re here for you! Betty, if you’re here let us know what happened to you. Talk to us!’”

A woman’s scream ripped through the silence. “There was nobody else in the building,” Hanneman says, “We were all in this one room. We all heard this with our own ears. This is one of two times I’ve heard a lady scream in that building. It is truly horrifying.”

Hanneman has been a paranormal enthusiast since early childhood. When the South Florida native visited St. Augustine several years ago, he fell in love with the area. Hanneman hoped to find work in the city as a bartender, but his job hunt took an unexpected twist when he spotted an intriguing help-wanted ad on Craigslist: Ripley’s was hiring ghost tour guides for their Ghost Train Adventure. Hanneman applied and began training. He quickly fell in love with the job and the people.

“Our guides are all so passionate, and our tour isn’t scripted,” Hanneman explains, “We don’t put on any fake accents or anything. The outlines are given to us by our bosses, but the other tour guides and I take such an interest in this stuff, we go out and research more. I try to really bring the stories alive and get people into it.”

Standing tall in the front car of the ghost train as it bumps and jostles along St. Augustine’s streets, Hanneman amuses and frightens the packed trolley with stories of the lingering past. Trains depart seven days a week from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. Guests use EMF meters and laser grid lights for hands-on ghost hunting at the Old Sugar Mill and Huguenot Cemetery. Tours wrap up at Castle Warden for spine-tingling stories about hotel guests who never checked out. The tour lasts 1.5 hours. Hanneman advises “Make sure your camera’s charged, come with an open mind, and take as many pictures and videos as you can.”  

St. Augustine Lighthouse, Phantoms of the First Coast: The Faces Behind NE Florida’s Most Haunted Tours

Playful Ghosts at St. Augustine’s Haunted Lighthouse

A terrible accident occurred during the construction of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. On July 10, 1873, Hezekiah Pittee’s children were playing on a supply cart when something went awry, and the children careened into the bay. Three girls drowned. Pittee finished the lighthouse and moved on, but the young girls never left.

Joyce Duncan, who leads the Dark of the Moon Tour at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, says her experiences with the girls transformed her from a skeptic to a believer. Each tour concludes with investigation time. One evening, Duncan wandered to the Keeper’s House and found two young ladies from her tour there, EMF meters red. “We think we have the girls with us!” they said. “When meters start going off, we start asking yes or no questions. ‘Is there someone here with me? Spike the meter to red if you’re here.’ And the meter spikes to red in response to you,” Duncan says, “It’s communication. I mean, it blows my mind. We are communicating with something,”

The young ladies prompted the spirits, “Girls, you like to have fun, right?”

Their meters surged red.

“Do you like to play games?”

Red again

“Do you like to play hide and seek?”

Red…. Then nothing.

“Girls, where did you go? Ahhh…. Are you hiding?”

Duncan watched one of the women roam around the basement with her meter, chanting “I’m going to find you! I’m going to find you!” She wandered under the steps and her meter spiked red. “Oh, I found you! Do you want to play again?”

Red, then nothing. The game continued.

“I watched her play hide and seek with our girls—the three ghosts—I mean, that’s not just communication, that’s interaction. That happened over a year ago, and I’ve had multiple groups of people over the last year tell me, ‘We got to play hide-and-seek with the girls tonight,’” Duncan says, “And not just in the basement. We have a playscape on the grounds. I’ve had people play with them there, on the front lawn, in the upstairs of the house, on the nature trails. If you can find them, they’ll play hide and seek. It’s incredible.”

The St. Augustine Lighthouse has appeared on multiple ghost hunting shows. But the last thing on Duncan’s mind when she relocated to sunny St. Augustine three years ago from Michigan was ghosts. A help-wanted ad for a Museum Associate caught her eye. She was asked how she felt about doing ghost tours as part of the interview process. Though she’d always felt there was something else out there, Duncan admits she thought the whole ghost thing was a gimmick. “When I was in training, I would follow the other tour guides around and listen to them. Their meters would go off, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how they’re doing this.’ I tried to figure it out. How long did I have to work here before they let me in on the secret? How were they rigging this? Then I realized, ‘This is legit.’”

The Dark of the Moon Ghost Tour occurs year-round and lasts for 1.5-2 hours. Guides discuss the history and hauntings of the Lighthouse, visiting the Lighthouse Tower, Keeper’s House, and nature trails. Guests enjoy free investigation time at the end. People may rent EMF meters or often bring their own equipment. Investigation-Only and Private events are also available.

A storyteller at heart, Duncan loves sharing the Lighthouse’s past with her guests. “We try to be accurate. We’re not just making things up,” she says, “I tell historically documented stories from people’s journals, the lighthouse keeper’s logs, newspaper articles, and obituaries. We do try to be authentic.” Working at the lighthouse absolutely changed Duncan’s mind about the existence of supernatural beings. “We treat our tour seriously,” she says, “If you experience something, it’s legit. This is for real. All ghosts, no gimmicks.”

The First Coast’s history is rich with murder and mayhem, pirates and plunder. It’s no surprise that stories linger on. Whether you simply enjoy a dark story or two or actively investigate supernatural hotspots in your free time, there’s no shortage of talented storytellers ready to bring the past alive. An open mind and camera are all you need. Be sure to ask your guide about their personal experiences—sometimes their own tales are even more interesting than the spooky stories and legends they weave.

About Jennifer Melville

Jennifer Melville is a contributing writer for EU Jacksonville, South Magazine, Folio Magazine, Green Prints, Focus on the Family, and various other print and online publications. She’s a military wife, mother of four, and a leader in the NE Florida homeschooling community. You can check out more of her work on her website, Azalea Publications or follow her on Twitter.