“Are there ghosts in there mommy?” asked a little girl responding to her father’s comment about the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in St. Augustine, FL being “haunted as heck”. “Of course not, honey, there are no such things as ghosts!” The reality is, many people agree with her father’s comment about the place being haunted – believe it or not!
As a matter of fact, it is considered one of the most haunted locations in the United States. There are numerous reports from credible people who have visited or worked at the museum. There are cold spots; there are things that move and several places where people become extremely nauseous. Music has been heard, things are moved and a huge Buddha is found lying on its side. From time to time visitors report the smell of a smoky fire and hear crying and whimpering sounds.
To understand the haunting, a little history is in order. This spectacular construct with its’ unique Moorish revival design was built in 1887 by William G. Warden. A business partner of Henry Flagler and John D Rockefeller at Standard Oil, Mr. Warden was enamored by St. Augustine and although he did not participate in the ventures of Henry Flagler, he built this notable structure as a summer home for his family. The home was used by the family until 1925, after which it sat idle for nearly 16 years.
In 1941, it was purchased by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her second husband, a hotelier named Norton Baskin. Ms Rawlings was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and a well established Florida author who wrote The Yearling and Cross Creek (both considered classics today). They converted the home into a hotel called the Castle Warden Inn.
So where is the ghostly connection? Many believe the haunting began in April of 1944 with a fire that brought a horrifying end to the lives of two beautiful women – Ruth Hopkins Pickerman, 49, and Betty Neville Richardson, a young woman in her twenties.
Ms. Richardson had just checked in to the Castle Warden Inn. She had apparently driven from Jacksonville, where she owned a dress shop. She was in her room less than two hours when she rang for the Bell Boy, Bernard Young, around 11:00 AM and reported a fire in her room. Bernard and the Maid, Ann McGill, tried to put out the fire; but, after using a second fire extinguisher they could not put out the flames or get Ms. Richardson out of the room. The fire department was called at 11:25 AM. By the time they arrived, it was too late for Ms. Richardson.
Ms. Pickerman’s screams could be heard from the fourth floor penthouse, but the fire blocked any path to reach her – she retreated from the window and was never heard again. Both women were found in their bathrooms – their bodies indicating heat exposure. The fire had spread rapidly and the coroner’s inquest concluded the two women died from asphyxiation as a result of a fire from an unknown cause.
Rumors abound to this day about the women and the fire. Some say Ms. Pickerman was hiding from an abusive husband. According to my research, she was divorced from Jack Pickering – a newspaper man she met in Paris when he was working for the Chicago Sun. I was unable to discover why she was staying at the Castle Warden Inn. Evidently, she was a good friend of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. However she also had a home at the corner of Nelmar and Magnolia. Maybe she was staying there while her home was being built. I found Information about her home featured in a National Geographic article about the homes of St. Augustine. The home was designed by a famous architect she knew in California who gave it a unique look for St. Augustine. The architect, Wallace Neff also designed homes for Darryl Zanuck, Mary Pickford, Cary Grant and three of the Marx brothers.
Prior to the fire, Marjory Rawlings and Norton Baskin used the penthouse as a residence until Marjorie moved back to Central Florida and Norton went to Burma. Rumors persist that the fire was set to cover up a double murder, although no charges were ever made.
During the 1940’s Robert Ripley was a frequent guest at the Inn. He enjoyed the place a great deal and wanted very much to buy it. He thought it would be the perfect place to create a museum for his collection of oddities assembled from his world-wide travels. He was never able to close the deal during his lifetime. After his death in 1949, his heirs bought it in his memory and fulfilled his dream. St. Augustine, Florida is the home of The Original Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum where it still operates as a major attraction today. Is it haunted? Maybe Mr. Ripley is finally enjoying his museum. Come and see for yourself. We recommend the museum’s Ghost Train Adventure – then you can decide to – believe it or not!