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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.

Or three.

Or more.

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.

But who haunts the house?
Lietzenmayer claims that evidence disputes the common theory that the Marquis de Lafayette, during his farewell tour of America in 1825, attended a party at the Carneal House, even though the historical marker outside the residence posits such. 
Lafayette, legend has it, was asked to dance by a young woman dressed in grey. He declined.
Later that night, the young woman in grey was found dead by an apparent suicide. Is she the one who causes doors to slam and creates a cold chill that lingers on the stairway?
No, Lietzenmayer insists, because there was no party for Lafayette at the Carneal House.
Oh, the Southgates hosted a party for Lafayette but at Adeliza's parents' home in Lexington, a truth discovered when the Historical Society acquired the Southgate family papers from the University of North Carolina.
"Lafayette did not stop anywhere in Covington which was only six hundred people as he was anxious to visit you know what, Cincinnati," Lietzenmayer said, "the namesake of his revolutionary society."
He believes earlier research was screwed up because of newspaper accounts that identified the Southgates as hosts. Also, Lafayette would have had a good excuse to decline a dance offer from a young woman regardless of how attractive and tempting she may have been. The French hero of the American Revolution was known to walk with a cane having broken his femur bone in France. He was sixty-seven years old and walked with a severe limp.
And there was no suicide ever reported in the Carneal, er, Gano-Southgate House.
So if there is in fact a Grey lady who haunts the estate, Lietzenmayer believes it to be Adeliza herself. She outlived ten of her children and suffered many heartbreaks in between, including her own eviction from the home when a son-in-law no longer desired her presence there.
"If there is a Lady in Grey it is Adeliza," Lietzenmayer said. "And it has nothing to do with Lafayette."
Lafayette is not the only famous "guest" to the home whose visit is disputed, however, despite also being noted on the historical marker outside the Second Street mansion. 
"There is no evidence that (President) Andrew Jackson visited the home either," he said. "The marker needs to be corrected but it takes two thousand dollars to do that."
Henry Bruce House

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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.

Though the story seemed ridiculous, the couple investigated. They only found that a window was open but noticed that nothing had been harmed and chalked up the nanny's account as a teenager's nightmare. 
Later though, the couple found an old painting crafted by one of Bruce's descendants. It depicted Bruce fleeing from the rear of the house as the federal investigators arrived at the front. He looked exactly as the young nanny had described.
"So what are we to think of that?," Lietzenmayer asked the packed room attending his lecture at NKU on Saturday. "The only thing I can say is, it certainly confirms the history of the house, doesn't it?"
Years later, residents of the home, now a multi-family residential dwelling known as The Rugby, report mirrors falling from walls without breaking.
"I've never seen anything like that so I'm only telling you what I hear," Lietzenmayer joked.
Amos Shinkle House

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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.

Incidently, a paranormal convention was underway in Cincinnati years ago and some of the guests stayed at the Shinkle House, spending the night in the carriage house in the rear. The next morning, they all came into the main house with eyes wide and their skin white as a sheet. They expressed feelings of sadness, fear, and despair, and even saw a hoard of faces on the second floor.
In his day, Amos Shinkle was a staunch unionist and cooperated with the Underground Railroad and hid runaway slaves in the carriage house. "Bernie Moorman swore he never shared these stories with the visitors," Lietzenmayer said.
The Baker Hunt

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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.

Families on this block of Greenup Street in this era were ones who sought a country escape as the road ended around Seventh or Eighth Streets. "It was essentially a dead-end street. I know that's hard to imagine," Lietzenmayer said. 
Margaretta would eventually marry a doctor by the name of William Hunt who would move his medical practice into the home. 
Doctor Hunt's medical expertise stopped short of being able to save their daughter Henrietta who died of spinal meningitis.
Staunch Episcopalians, the Hunts donated a substantial sum of money to Covington's Trinity Episcopal Church, funding the entire renovation of the front of the historic church and placing a stained glass window inside depicting an angel carrying Henrietta to Heaven.
More sadness would follow for Margaretta, particularly in the 1890s when her parents died, Doctor Hunt died, Kate Scutter's husband and mother died. By 1900 only Margaretta and Kate were left.
The pair of widows bequeathed the structure in the 1930s and it has been an arts and cultural destination ever since.
But not just for the living, some would have you believe.
At one point in the years that followed, the foundation hired a locksmith to deal with a problem with the building's doors. While fixing a lock at the base of a spiral staircase, he looks up and sees a woman peering down at him in a white dress with her hair in a bun. He didn't think much of it. Wen the locksmith finished his work, he asked the secretary in the office whether anyone was living upstairs. The secretary responded in the negative but took the man to a parlor where a painting of Margaretta was on display.
"Is that her?," the secretary asked the man.
"I was told today that he never wants to come back there again." LIetzenmayer said.
The upper floors, however were rented out as apartments at one time. A woman renting a unit was awakened once by a silhouette in the doorway and as she rose the figure moved away. It had started to rain so she closed some windows that she had left open. Touring the house, she determined that no one else was there.
It was her belief that a male figure emerged to wake her to close the windows to prevent the rain from coming inside, Lietzenmayer recounted. 
Mr. Baker has also been seen wandering around his former bedroom and the Scutter House next door has proved fruitful for paranormal investigators who leave with visible orbs on photographs taken inside.
Hermes Building - Molly Malone's

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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.

When the building was owned by the Wolff family, apartments were rented out on the upper floors. In one of the units, a wife did not take kindly to discoering her husband in bed with another woman so she shot him.
Now, servers report various phenomena, such as lights going on and off and an elevator operating on its own. The first floor is busy with possible paranormal activity, too.
Servers report a sensation of being followed and once a bartender was convinced that he watched a server being followed by someone no one else saw.
On a slow Thursday night, some tables were closed off by a waitress but at the end of a shift, when cashing out, a waiter noticed several bills charged to those tables.
Newport Barracks

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Perhaps the most terrifying tale told by Lietzenmayer happened on the other side of the Licking River at the Newport Barracks site. 
The site was constructed when Ft. Washington in Cincinnati needed to be relocated. It served important roles in the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
Since the time of its military activity, night fisherman have frequently reported sightings of strange images there but no one got as close to horror as a young couple on a date that decided to park there for a few. 
"In the slightly foggy night, the young woman looked out and saw several shadowy men walking toward them and thought they were busted by the police," Lietzenmayer said. "The closer they came, the more tattered and ghostly they appeared. The couple was frightened half to death."
The Newport Police did eventually bust the young couple but only after the man driving the vehicle bolted from the scene and headed the wrong way on a one-way street.
"The policeman said he wouldn't give them a ticket but said, that's what they get for necking at the Barracks. Apparently the police had heard other stories like that."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News