Brief back stories of L.B. Taylor Jr. and Roanoke
While writing about America’s space program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Lester Barbour “L.B.” Taylor Jr. began his career as a popular nonfiction author in 1966 with the publication of Pieces of Eight: Recovering the Riches of a Lost Spanish Treasure Fleet. The Lynchburg native moved to historic Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1974 to serve as public affairs director for the BASF Corporation for nineteen years, until retiring in 1993. His active retirement revolves around writing, especially on paranormal topics. L.B.’s psychic interest was sparked through research on Haunted Houses, which was published by Simon & Schuster in 1983. He has published twenty-five books on the ghosts of his native commonwealth. The Virginia Writers’ Club honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
Published in 2013 by Haunted America, a division of The History Press, Haunted Roanoke is the most recent collection of ghostly stories by the prolific author. Known as the Capital of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Roanoke is the largest municipality in southwestern Virginia. Renowned for its natural beauty in a valley ringed by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Appalachian Plateau to the west, the city comprises one of the fourteen major valley lowlands in the Great Valley stretching from southern Quebec’s Champlain Valley to Alabama’s Coosa River Valley.
Roanoke originally was named Big Lick by its first colonial settlers in the 1740s in recognition of large salt marshes, or “licks,” which had drawn Native Americans in pursuit of wildlife such as buffalo, elk, and deer to the pristine area for centuries. In the 1850s and during the Civil War Big Lick became a critical link between Lynchburg and the two Bristols on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, chartered on March 24, 1848, as Lynchburg and Tennessee Railroad.
In 1881, Frederick J. Kimball (March 6, 1844 – July 27, 1903) selected Big Lick as the junction of two major railroads, the Shenandoah Valley Railroad winding southwesterly from Hagerstown, Maryland, and the Norfolk and Western Railway shimmying easterly from Norfolk on the Chesapeake Bay. Virtually overnight the town grew into a city, reflecting another of its nicknames, “Magic City,” and changed its name to Roanoke, from Algonquian rawrenok (wampum), to honor another important natural resource, the Roanoke River.
As magic may refer to supernatural phenomena, the nickname of “Magic City” may be expanded to encompass the paranormal events which apparently have earned a solid reputation for Roanoke not only as one of Virginia’s most haunted cities but also as possibly one of the spookiest in the entire southeastern United States. Paranormalities include apparitions, blinking lights, electronic voice phenomena (EVP), and poltergeists.
Vignette from Haunted Roanoke: a woman in black
Haunted Roanoke judiciously opens with the “Phantom Woman in Black,” one of southwestern Virginia’s most alluring and most baffling mysteries. The phantom first appeared in Bristol, about 148 miles southwest of Roanoke on the border with its twin city in Tennessee, and she lingered there for weeks. On Tuesday, March 18, 1902, the Roanoke Times reported that the ten-day streak of no sightings in Bristol had now been broken with her re-emergence in Roanoke. Her beautiful dancing eyes were her only visible feature, as cloth from a turban masked the rest of her face. Tall, dressed in black from head to toe, with a low, musical voice, the phantom stunned those who saw her by the suddenness of her appearance late at night and her fervent insistence upon escorting them directly to their homes. Interestingly, she only materialized alongside married men, whom she called by name. A prominent merchant, a porter, and a telegraph operator numbered among those benumbed by her presence in Roanoke, where she stayed only a few days. Shortly thereafter her trail led to Bluefield, about 110 miles to the southwest, on the border with its twin city in West Virginia.
Vignette from Haunted Roanoke: room 606 in “Virginia’s Most Haunted Hotel”
L.B. Taylor Jr. describes the majestic ten-story, eight-bay Patrick Henry Hotel as Virginia’s most haunted hotel, reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film The Shining. Designed by renowned hotel architect William Lee Stoddart (November 3, 1868 – October 2, 1940), the brick and limestone Colonial Revival Patrick Henry Hotel featured a gala opening, with dinner for 2,000 attendees, on November 10, 1925, even though work was not completed until January 1927. Construction costs totaled $2 million (equivalent to almost $26 million in 2013). A distinctive feature was an enclosed, four-bay, cast-iron balcony extending over the sidewalk of the hotel’s main entrance at 617 South Jefferson Street and overlooking Elmwood Park across the street. After several changes in ownership, the property was auctioned in 1968 to the Monterey Corporation of Parkersburg, West Virginia, which converted its 300 original rooms into 121 hotel and apartment units. Two ownerships later the Patrick Henry underwent a $20 million historic renovation, opening in June 2011 as a mixed use building with 134 apartments, a restaurant, and retail/office space.
Throughout its history the building has been plagued with paranormalities, such as evaporating apparitions, incongruous cold spots, disembodied footsteps, lights mysteriously flipping on and off, and electronic voice phenomena (EVPs). The most chilling manifestation centers in former Room 606, where a young airline stewardess was stabbed viciously to death in the early 1980s. Her body was dumped in the tub in the blood-splattered bathroom. During a visit to the infamous room by L.B. Taylor Jr. in January 2002 along with astrologist and expert parapsychologist Deborah Carvelli and her class, students sensed vivid details of the bloody struggle. With no background on the room’s history, students also strongly felt that the killer was known to the victim and had hidden in the closet. Both details had been suspected by the police as well.
Another apparitional occupant of Room 606 was described to the author in an interview with Doug Hall, a former front office manager. A guest awoke to witness an opening in the ceiling from which descended a wrought iron spiral staircase with a dark-haired woman in old-fashioned dress with a magnolia blossom at her waist. Gliding over to the bed, the ghostly visitor began stroking the hair of the guest, who fled to the lobby, where she remained all night. This exact staircase and its female phantom were also sensed by Deborah Carvelli’s students. The author learned that a staircase had occupied the designated space in previous years when the building was operated as an apartment complex.
Vignette from Haunted Roanoke: a rag doll
L.B. Taylor Jr. wisely ends Haunted Roanoke with “The Little Rag Doll.” The poignant legend concerned the haunting of an unnamed rural schoolhouse in the greater Roanoke area in the early twentieth century. The principal instructed a new teacher to leave promptly from the schoolhouse no later than 2:30 every afternoon. Two months later, the teacher, absorbed in plans for the upcoming Thanksgiving play, lost track of time until her deep concentration was broken by the strange call of an unfamiliar bird along with a sudden coldness inside. Looking up from her desk, she noted that it was 3:00 p.m. and that a pale eight- or nine-year-old girl holding a book was in the room. In a faint whisper, the girl asked after her homework and her rag doll. As the startled teacher stood up, the pale visitor dropped her book and ran away. The teacher discovered that the girl’s book dated from the 1890s. In silence the principal listened to the teacher’s account.
That evening the teacher made a rag doll, and the next afternoon she intentionally lingered. Again the quartet of events occurred in succession: eerie bird call, strange coldness, sudden materialization of little girl, concern about her homework and rag doll. Returning the girl’s book to her, the teacher told her to read the first three pages and handed her the doll. The girl, along with the book and doll, then vanished.
After this account, the principal led the teacher to the nearby woods, explaining as they walked that years previously a nine-year-old student had drowned in a creek after school. Their walk ended in a small graveyard before a tombstone, decorated with a tiny angel, and with the inscription, “Emily Caldwell: Born 1902 – Died 1911.”
Well-chosen vignettes open and close the twenty-eight chapters of Haunted Roanoke. The entertaining, informative book provides a plethora of paranormal encounters and legends as convincing proof of Roanoke as one of the most haunted places not only in Virginia but also in the southeastern United States.
1. “Inflation Calculator.” davemanuel.com . 2014. Dave Manuel. Web. www.davemanuel.com
2. Taylor, L.B., Jr. Haunted Roanoke. Charleston SC: Haunted America, 2013.
3. Whitwell, W.L., and Lee W. Winborne. “Patrick Henry Hotel 1991 Final Nomination.” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. April 29, 1991. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Web. http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/register_Roanoke.htm