The Best in the Boo-grass
BY BRIAN S. POWERS
There’s a chill in the air, and as you turn around, you see them – hordes of the undead, marching towards you in the city center.
Or you hear a drumming sound, as if some large beast is coming for you, quickly; pricking up your ears, you realize that there are many of them, and the sound is deafening as they move towards you…
Okay, so Lexington is a pretty great place to be in October, between the Thriller parade and the Keeneland Fall Meet alone. Add in changing leaves and a multitude of local pumpkin farms for weekend family fun, and there’s nobody who does this time of year better.
It’s also when we dust off creaky spooky stories and turn our attentions to the Bluegrass macabre. As with any other location rich in history, Lexington is also steeped in supernatural lore, from older cemeteries where the dead continue to get their party on to the houses where prior tenants stubbornly refuse to vacate even a century or more later. Come with us as we take a break from checking out local haunts to check out some local hauntings. Just be ready to read this one with the lights on, mainly because it’s really hard to read a newspaper in the dark. (For those reading digitally, just pretend you’re reading on newsprint, and then click on one of our sponsor ads, willya?)
The Curse of Constantine Rafinesque
Constantine Rafinesque is an unofficial mascot of Transylvania University, with a week-long celebration in his honor leading up to Halloween and an on-campus eatery named for him. Rafinesque is celebrated on campus not only for his academic and scientific contributions, but also for his possibly supernatural ones.
Constantine Rafinesque was a polymath (fancy word for really smart guy) botanist and zoologist who came to Transy as professor of botany in 1819. At Transy, Rafinesque continued his work cataloging various flora and fauna, notably discovering a species of bat in Mammoth Cave that is named for him. By all accounts, he was somewhat controversial at the college and returned from a trip to Cincinnati in 1926 to find the president of Transy, Rev. Horace Holley, in the process of throwing him out. The opening scene of the first Ghostbusters when they get back from the library? Just like that. Except for the allegations about Rafinesque and Holley’s wife. Ghostbusters didn’t have that.
Rafinesque took his belongings and left Transy, on his way out cursing both the university and Holley in an ancient dead language. A year after leaving Transy, Holley, himself canned and now teaching in Louisiana, died of yellow fever. The year after that, the main building of the university (located in what is now Gratz Park) burned down.
Rafinesque died and was buried in Philadelphia in 1840, but his story doesn’t end there. When the cemetery containing Raf’s remains was set to be destroyed in the 1920s, several Transylvanians decided to perform a service for their beloved university and retrieved Rafinesque’s remains, bringing them – or what they thought was them – to Lexington and re-interring them in a crypt under the steps of Old Morrison. Because when you get belligerently thrown out of a place, what you really want to do is come back and spend eternity there. Also, as bodies in the Philadelphia were buried six deep, it’s likely the remains don’t belong to Rafinesque, but rather, according to some killjoy researchers, to a woman named Mary Passimore. It’s the thought that counts, though. The crypt is inscribed with the words, “Honor to whom honor is overdue.” Better late than never, right?
A note here: a university named Transylvania is the final resting place of a professor for whom a large-eared bat is named? And this somehow isn’t their mascot? How is that possible?!
The Haunting of Loudoun House
To call it a haunting makes it sound more dramatic than it is, but it meets the technical definition. The Loudoun House, a Gothic Revival villa, was custom-built for Francis and Julia Hunt in 1850 on a 60-acre plot of land given to them as a wedding gift. Julia named the house for one of her favorite songs, “The Bells of Loudoun,” much the same way this author’s sister named her 2011 Ford Edge for Iggy Azalea’s classic anthem, “Fancy.” The house was built by none other than local architectural rock star John McMurtry. McMurtry is known for designing several local landmarks, such as Floral Hall, known to locals as the ‘round barn’ next to the Red Mile. McMurtry was an apprentice to Gideon Shyrock, known for designing the Old State Capitol and Old Morrison buildings, as well as other buildings that probably begin with the word “old.”
While there doesn’t seem to be evidence of any violent occurrences or any Rafinesque-esque curses, the Loudoun house is said to be haunted by the ghosts of two women in Victorian clothing and one black cat. One woman is said to haunt the upstairs western portion of the home, while another is said to be in the dining room. This, of course, prompts the question – how do we know they’re two different women? It’s not like there are any pictures to compare. Couldn’t it just be one woman haunting two rooms? And what’s the deal with the black cat ghost? Isn’t that a little on the nose?
Either way, if you happen to be upstairs at the Loudoun House and run into a woman wearing unusual clothing with a slightly floral perfume, check to see what day it is. If it’s anything other than the fourth Friday of the month, run. Otherwise, just direct the art patron back downstairs to where the hors d’oeuvres are.
The Ghost of Ashland
Ashland, the Henry Clay estate, is reputed to be the home of the ghost of Henry Clay, which appears as a white-haired specter wearing a black coat in the old red parlor room. He is said to lean on the fireplace mantel, indicative of being deep in thought about why he isn’t haunting the Henry Clay Public House, where he could at least get a good drink and take in some local music. It’s a little too convenient, though, that of all the thousands of people who have been through Ashland, the one person who haunts it just happens to be Henry Clay. Who’s to say it isn’t another ghost dressing up like Clay for the notoriety? Nobody, that’s who.
This Halloween, make sure to grab a locally-grown pumpkin, give out only full-sized candy bars (these can be purchased in bulk at Costco for cheaper than you’d think), and contemplate that while there you probably aren’t likely the be the subject of some kind of actual hex, perhaps it is a curse of sorts in its own right that you will never have a name as cool as Constantine Rafinesque.
This article also appears on page 8 of the October 2017 printed edition of the Hamburg Journal.
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