“Are there ghosts there mommy?” a little girl asked in response to her father’s comment that the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in St. Augustine, FL is “haunted as heck.” “Of course not, honey, there are no ghosts!” The reality is that many people agree with his father’s comment about the haunted place, believe it or not!
In fact, it is considered one of the most haunted places in the United States. There are numerous reports from credible people who have visited or worked at the museum. There are cold spots; there are things that move and various places where people feel extreme nausea. Music has been heard, things are moving and a large Buddha is found lying on his side. From time to time, visitors report the smell of smoky fire and hear crying and moaning.
To understand the haunting, you need a bit of history. This spectacular building with its unique Moorish revival design was built in 1887 by William G. Warden. A business partner of Henry Flagler and John D Rockefeller at Standard Oil, Mr. Warden had a crush on St. Augustine and, although he was not involved in Henry Flagler’s ventures, he built this remarkable structure as a summer home for his family. The house was used by the family until 1925, after which it remained inactive for almost 16 years.
In 1941, it was bought by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her second husband, a hotelier named Norton Baskin. Ms. Rawlings was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and well-established Florida author who wrote The Yearling and Cross Creek (both considered classics today). They converted the house into a hotel called the Castle Warden Inn.
So where is the ghostly connection? Many believe that the heartbreak began in April 1944 with a fire that ended the lives of two beautiful women: Ruth Hopkins Pickerman, 49, and Betty Neville Richardson, a young woman in her twenties.
Mrs. Richardson had just checked into the Castle Warden Inn. Apparently she had driven from Jacksonville, where she owned a clothing store. He was in his room less than two hours when he called the bellboy, Bernard Young, around 11:00 am and reported a fire in his room. Bernard and the maid, Ann McGill, tried to put out the fire; But, after using a second fire extinguisher, they were unable to put out the flames or get Ms. Richardson out of the room. The fire department was called at 11:25 AM. When they arrived, it was too late for Mrs. Richardson.
Mrs. Pickerman’s screams could be heard from the fourth floor attic, but the fire blocked any path to reach her; she withdrew from the window and was never heard from again. Both women were found in their bathrooms, their bodies indicating exposure to heat. The fire had spread rapidly and the coroner’s investigation concluded that the two women died of suffocation as a result of a fire of unknown cause.
Rumors abound to this day about women and fire. Some say that Ms. Pickerman was hiding from an abusive husband. According to my research, she was divorced from Jack Pickering, a journalist she met in Paris while working for the Chicago Sun. I couldn’t find out why he was staying at Castle Warden Inn. She was obviously a good friend of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. However, he also had a house on the corner of Nelmar and Magnolia. Maybe he stayed there while his house was being built. I found information about their home in a National Geographic article about the houses of St. Augustine. The house was designed by a famous architect he met in California, who gave St. Augustine a unique look. Architect Wallace Neff also designed houses for Darryl Zanuck, Mary Pickford, Cary Grant, and three of the Marx Brothers.
Before the fire, Marjory Rawlings and Norton Baskin used the attic as a residence until Marjorie moved back to Central Florida and Norton left for Burma. Rumors persist that the fire was started to cover up a double murder, although charges were never filed.
During the 1940s, Robert Ripley was a frequent guest at the inn. I really enjoyed the place and really wanted to buy it. He thought it would be the perfect place to create a museum for his collection of rarities gathered from his travels around the world. He was never able to close the deal during his life. After his death in 1949, his heirs bought it in his memory and fulfilled his dream. St. Augustine, Florida is home to the Original Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, where it still functions as a major attraction today. Is it haunted? Perhaps Mr. Ripley is finally enjoying his museum. Come and see for yourself. We recommend the Museum Ghost Train Adventure, so you can decide, believe it or not!