With more than 150 documented paranormal events, many of them experienced by credible witnesses such as rangers and scientists, Mammoth Cave National Park easily qualifies for the title “most haunted natural wonder in the world.” Park rangers Colleen O’Connor Olson and Charles Hanion have recorded many of the park’s creepiest tales in their book, Scary Stories of Mammoth Cave, a must read for anybody intrigued by the park’s supernatural history.
Over 100 years before Mammoth Cave became a national park in 1941, Dr. John Croghan purchased the cave for $10,000 in 1839. Among the “property” Dr. Croghan received for that price were several slaves, including a cave guide named Stephan Bishop. The National Park Service website describes Bishop as “one of the greatest explorers Mammoth Cave has ever known.”
Mr. Bishop’s athletic abilities and calm demeanor were legendary. He could converse about the various formations in the cave as well as any professor. He discovered many of the cave’s features, more than 20 miles of passages, and the blind, albino fish swimming in the underground Echo River. Visitors described Mr. Bishop’s cave tours as “enthusiastic” and “lively.” But while the slave was delighting people with his tours through the world’s longest known cave system, his master, Dr. Croghan, was coming up with bizarre ideas, like turning the cavern into a hospital.
One can hardly imagine a more dank and gloomy place in which to recuperate from a deadly disease, yet Dr. Croghan believed the cave’s constant 54-degree temperatures could cure consumption, an illness we now call tuberculosis. The doctor had 11 huts built inside the cavern and 15 patients moved in. Dr. Croghan’s “consumptive colony” was a dismal failure. Two patients died within the first year, all 15 got worse, and Dr. Croghan himself died from tuberculosis in 1849.
The remains of Dr. Croghan’s “consumptive cabins” can be seen while touring the cave. In front of one of the cabins is a slab of stone upon which the bodies of the dead tuberculosis patients were placed before they were removed from the cave. They call it Corpse Rock. Some say, if you listen long enough, you can hear coughing in this section of the cave.
In 1856, less than a year after gaining his freedom, Stephan Bishop died of an unknown cause. Along with several other slave-guides, he is buried in the Old Guide Cemetery not far from the labyrinths he so loved in life. Today, some park rangers suspect that Mr. Bishop and the other slave-guides are returning to the cave from time to time. Perhaps to check up on how the new guides are doing their jobs.
While on the Violet City Tour of the cave, park rangers give park visitors an idea of what it was like to visit the cave before there were light bulbs and flashlights. Rangers call this part of their program “a blackout.” During a blackout, one ranger turns off the electric lights while another ranger speaks to the tour group by the light of an oil lantern. Many park guides report having strange experiences during a blackout. Rangers have been shoved playfully by an unseen force. They have heard footsteps and turned to see no one there. They have been grabbed or touched in the darkness when there were no other people nearby.
During one blackout, guide Larry Pursell noticed a black family standing behind the rest of the group. Ranger Pursell was a bit surprised to see them, since he hadn’t noticed any black tourists in this tour group. The ranger noted that the father, who wore a white Panama hat, was watching the other ranger talk with rapt attention. When Ranger Pursell turned the electric lights back, he looked for the black family, but he couldn’t find a single African-American on the tour.
The room where the ranger saw the mysterious black family is called the Methodist Church because miners once held religious services there. During those days, if a black guide and his family attended those services, it was customary for them to stand back a distance from the whites in the group.
On another occasion, two park guides were taking a group through the Chief City room when a woman said, “Who is that up there among the rocks?” The guides looked where the woman was pointing and saw a man holding a lantern atop a formation called Sacrifice Rock. The man wore a long-sleeved shirt and old droop-style hat, like that worn by slave guides. Though the man could be seen from three different angles, the park rangers agreed that the image must have been created by a series of shadows.
VIOLET CITY LANTERN TOUR
Effort: Moderate Fright Factor: 4 Skulls
Trailhead: Buy tickets at the Mammoth Cave Entrance
Description: Fork up the $15 and take this guided tour of the cave. On the Violet City Lantern Tour, instead of flashlights, you’ll carry kerosene lamps to illuminate the cave’s steep paths, just as tourists did 150 years ago. Many of the cave’s spookiest spots are on this route, including Giant’s Coffin, Mummy Ledge (where the Lost John mummy was found in 1935 and near where he is buried today), the Tuberculosis Huts, and the Devil’s Looking Glass. To take this tour you must be able to climb a total of 160 steps.