Ghost Stories in Covington: Spectres from the Past May Loom in Historic Buildings
When Covington's population shrank dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, some steadfast residents stayed firmly in place.
Or, so some believe.
Known throughout the region for its enviable collection of restored antebellum mansions and Victorian structures, Covington might seem like the perfect place to call home for a poltergeist or two.
The ghosts that may or may not haunt the city's lavish historic homesteads and commercial buildings were the focus of a lecture at Northern Kentucky University during Northern Kentucky Regional History Day over the weekend.
Senior of Northern Kentucky Magazine Karl Lietzenmayer, also a board member at the Kenton County Historical Society, led the discussion and even he seemed somewhat skeptical toward the claims of ghoulish activity along the streets of Covington's Licking Riverside Historic District.
He bases his personal philosophy on faith on that of philosopher Pascal. "I'm not sure if there is a Heaven, but I am going to take on Pascal's wager," Lietzenmayer said of the sixteenth century philosopher as the course began inside NKU's new Votruba Student Union. "He simply says, if you live a good life and you die and there's no Heaven, what have you lost? A few good times? But if you are a debauched person and you sin all the time and run around with women and so on, and you die and there is a Heaven, you are screwed."
"So I take his wager seriously."
One's personal take on what happens after a person dies could play a significant role in whether one believes in ghosts.
Lietzenmayer isn't sold, but the Historical Society has been collecting ghost stories from throughout Northern Kentucky for some time and with Covington having some of the oldest homes in the region, it's a wealth of possible sightings, some of which involve some of the most prominent families from days gone by.
"We think in many cases, we cannot only identify the past activity that occurred in these dwellings but many times ID the actual person whom we think it is. Or they," he said.
The ghost stories are among the most popular features of the Historical Society's printed periodical, something Lietzenmayer credits NKU for helping to save through a connection fostered a decade ago. Lietzenmayer is also a student at the Highland Heights campus where he is a candidate for the master's degree in public history.
"If you're over sixty-five you can go free," he laughed.
Many of Covington's supposedly more permanent residents would certainly qualify for that special offer, if they ever chose to exit the buildings they have allegedly inhabited for many decades, or even more than a century.
The Grey Lady of the Carneal House
One of the most famous ghosts to lurk among Covington's residences may be the one that supposedly inhabits what is arguably the city's most famous homes.
She is known as The Grey Lady and is said to walk among the sprawling confines of The Carneal House (pictured above), the oldest brick structure in Covington.
Lietzenmayer takes exception to some of the more common claims surrounding The Grey Lady. He also takes exception with naming the home The Carneal House, the namesake of Thomas Carneal, one of Covington's founding fathers.
Though Carneal designed and constructed the home nearly two hundred years ago, he never lived in it. "Thomas Carneal lived in Ludlow. His house is still standing in Ludlow," Lietzenmayer said. Instead, the home should be called the Gano-Southgate House for two families that actually occupied it.
William Southgate purchased the home in 1824 from Aaron Gano and moved in with his new wife, Adeliza Keene, whom he met while attending Transylvania in Lexington. Adeliza was a member of the Keene family for which Keeneland Race Track is named.
With William's death in the 1840s, following a celebrated career as town clerk, US Representative, and creating Kenton Co. from Campbell Co., Adeliza was left alone with eleven children and another on the way, the first of a string of tragedies that would haunt the woman throughout the decades of the nineteenth century.
At a time when slave owners and abolitionists, Union warriors and southern sympathizers lived within blocks of one another throughout Covington, Henry Bruce was firmly in the Confederate camp.
The stunning federal-style mansion on Sanford Street that Bruce called home was originally built as a school for girls and was the only structure in the immediate area in the 1840s. Bruce purchased it in the early 1850s and moved his family there.
It is believed that John Roebling worked on his plans for the Suspension Bridge inside the mansion as the wealthy Bruce was the first president of the bridge company. But a piece of Covington's less proud history involves Confederate general John Hunt Morgan whose celebrated southern raid through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio landed him in a union prison.
Morgan was released after the jailer was allegedly bribed by Bruce, prompting the federal government to seek the Covington man's arrest. By the time Union authorities arrived, Bruce was nowhere to be found, after having doubled-down on his Morgan sympathy by allowing the general's body to lie in state at the home after Morgan was killed.
Bruce was safely hiding out in Canada where he remained until the Civil War ended.
Now some believe that Bruce has returned. For good.
In the 1970s when Licking Riverside was seeing a rebirth as urban pioneers returned to the area to rehab the historic structures, one couple was working on a second home Bruce constructed. They were startled awake when a young nanny they had hired to look after their children sprinted into their bedroom afright.
The nanny claimed that a man with white hair dressed in a black old-fashioned suit riding a horse had jumped through the north window in her room, galloped through the door, and took off out the other side of the building.
When Henry Bruce fled Covington for Canada, another wealthy businessman from the city took over for him as president of the newly formed bridge company overseeing the construction of what is now known as the Roebling Suspension Bridge.
Born into poverty in 1818, Amos Shinkle became one of the richest men in Northern Kentucky after moving here in 1846 with a steamboat. He bought more steamboats, sold more coal, and bought property all over town. By 1854, he was rich enough to buy his landmark home on Garrard Street and two years later bought controlling stock in the bridge company.
Shinkle's wife adored her Garrard Street home but by 1869 Amos had gotten so rich that he wanted to flaunt his wealth a little more. He contructed a 33-room mansion, nay, castle on Second Street bringing along a very reluctant wife.
Spending most of her time with servants on the sprawling riverfront estate, Shinkle's wife longed for Garrard Street, which, by comparison, was much more modest and manageable.
Legend has it now that she has in fact returned.
In 1914, after both Amos and their son Bradford, for whom a commercial building on Scott Boulevard is still named, died, Sarah Shinke donated the castle to the Salvation Army. It would eventually be razed and replaced by the Booth Hospital, now a residential condominium complex and also believed to be haunted by some of its former patients.
The Shinkle House on Garrard still stands and spent the 1980s and 1990s as a bed and breakfast operated by former Covington Mayor Bernie Moorman and his business partner Don Nash.
On one occasion, Nash and an assistant were cleaning the Sarah Shinkle's former bedroom. Don was tending to the bed while the assistant was busy with the bathroom. Nash left the room momentarily after perfecting the bedding only to return to see what can only be described as a butt impression upon it.
Angry, he called out to the assistant and asked why she would disturb the bed. "What are you talking about? I've been in this bath the whole time," Lietzenmayer recounted the assistant as saying at the time.
"Did Sarah Shinkle pay a visit to her bedroom?"
Perhaps, but the Shinkle widow is not the only possible spectre roaming the grounds of the former bed and breakfast now occupied as a single family home.
Margaretta Baker Hunt left her property on the 600 block of Greenup Street to be used as an arts and cultural center in the 1930s. She had grown up on the property, the daughter of a wealth chandelier and silver businessman who married her mother, Henrietta Adams Porter, a Philadelphia widow with a daughter. Porter was a direct descendant of Benjamin Adams, cousin of the President.
Her daughter, Ann, married Sidney Scutter of Cincinnati and the home next to Baker Hunt is known as the Scutter House where that family lived. The Scutters raised a daughter Kate, who was close to Margaretta throughout their lives.
Before Molly Malone's opened as one of Covington's most popular destinations for revelry, it was known as the Hermes Building and housed a bar owned by a German immigrant.
"This is really an example of America, isn't it?," Lietzenmayer asked. "It starts as a German beer hall and is now an Irish pub. If that's not America, I don't know what is."
Hermes was a respected citizen who served on the city commission. After his bar closed a print shop operated by the Wolff family was inside. Now Molly Malone's, the building appears to have permanent customers - who still make purchases.