The World’s 10 Scariest Haunted Castles

haunted castles

From a Czech forest castle reported to house the gates of hell to a gargantuan castle right here in the United States, the world’s most haunted castles boast histories rich with frightening details. Specters haunt the halls of these old castles and travelers visit to experience brushes with the paranormal. Some of these castles possess secrets darker than a moonless night, and when darkness comes, the spirits stir.

These are the ten places to go and meet ghosts. Covering nine countries, each of these castles has a past that may just try and make a ghostly impression on your present.


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haunted castles

Edinburgh Castle
Country: Scotland
Built: 12th century
Haunting: Do you believe in ghosts? Edinburgh is one of those places where skeptics cross the threshold and start saying yes. A few years ago, Time Magazine set out to name the ten most haunted places in the world and included Edinburgh Castle on that list. For starters, a headless drummer has been seen and heard in the castle halls beginning around 1650. Lady Glamis, accused of witchcraft in 1537 and burned at the stake while her young son watched, is also known to prowl the dark halls. A ghost dog has even been seen delicately prancing through the misty graveyard.

There have been so many hauntings for so long that Edinburgh Castle attracted one of the most thorough paranormal investigations ever. In 2001, an English doctor enlisted roughly 240 volunteers to spend 10 days in and around the castle. The volunteers were all screened to insure that none of them knew anything about the castle. The findings? The place is a paranormal hot spot. Many of the volunteer experiences were consistent with past sightings at the castle. There were burning sensations, phantom gropes, shadowy figures and a specter in a leather apron seen in the same spot he was seen by unrelated individuals before the study. Its ancient dungeons and cobbled corridors are home to some serious creepiness.

Visiting: Fly to Edinburgh from London for under $100 round trip. Buy tickets to visit the castle here.

haunted castles

Chillingham Castle
Country: England
Built: 12th century
Haunting: The appropriately named Chillingham Castle is located in the northern corner of England and has been haunting guests for a very long time. The castle served as a fortress to repel attacks from the Scots in the north and has thus seen a great deal of bloodshed. Chillingham has been featured on at least six ghost-related shows, and the webs are rife with strange pictures of its ghosts and orby videos.

So what haunts this medieval castle that appears to be plucked from Westeros? Most notably a childlike ghost, called the blue boy. The blue boy is seen regularly in the pink room as a flash of blue light and also above guests’ beds as a blue halo following a loud cry. Perhaps most creepy is one of the castle’s ghostly apparitions who wanders the dank halls late at night – John Sage. John Sage has a terrifyingly ridiculous backstory and was hung by Longshanks during the war with the Scots. He can be heard dragging bodies here and there.

Visiting: The Chillingham homepage states, “Tours last about 2 hours, depending on psychic activity.” The castle also accepts brave overnight guests. To get there, fly into Newcastle or Edinburgh and travel 70 miles to reach the castle.

haunted castles

Houska Castle
Country: Czech Republic
Built: 13th century
Haunting: Located in the forests north of Prague, Houska castle was never a strategic battle location. It also appears to have no function of outside fortification. It was not built to repel attacks or to keep things out. It was built to hold something in. It was built to close the gateway to hell.

The castle is built upon a fabled bottomless pit from which winged creatures and half-man-half-beasts allegedly exited. Demonic activity persisted at this site and eventually, Bohemian rulers decided to seal up the gateway with a castle. Before sealing off Hell’s realm, it is said that nearby prisoners were granted pardons if they would agree to be lowered by a rope into the hole. The story goes that the first lowered prisoner let out a yell after entering the hole. When he was raised up, he appeared to have aged over 30 years. He died of unknown causes just days later.

Wait, it gets stranger. During the 1930s, the Nazis took over the castle to conduct occult experiments with dimensional portals. Hitler, a paranormal enthusiast, was known to dabble in the occult, and it is uncertain what the scientists learned from Housksa Castle. Years later, during renovations, several Nazi officer skeletons were found, and it appeared they were killed execution style.

The recurring ghosts at Houska are plentiful, and include a giant bulldog/frog/human, a headless black horse and a woman in an old dress who is frequently seen peaking out of the top floor windows. Beneath the cellar there is said to be some nonhuman remains of the beasts that emerged from the hole.

Visiting: Houska Castle is just north of Prague and day trips to this spot are easy.

haunted castles

Belcourt Castle
Country: United States
Built: 1894
Haunting: In adjusted today dollars, Belcourt Castle cost its owner over $100 million back in the 19th century. Oliver Belmont, namesake of the Belmont stakes, heir to the Belmont family empire and poster child for turn of the century trustfund champions, built this behemoth. On its completion, Oliver chose to instead travel the world, collecting artifacts for the castle, which sounds like a pretty cool thing to do after building a gigantic home. The years were not kind to the castle and disrepair plagued it for much of the 20th century. In 1956, the mansion was sold to the Tinney family for $25,000 ($200,000 in today dollars), or about a fifth of a penny on the dollar (adjusted for inflation).

The Tinneys got a beat-up fading mansion with massive infrastructural needs – and a few ghosts. The strangest thing about Belcourt is that the hauntings allegedly come from the vast assortment of artifacts rather than the actual house. There is a haunted 15th century set of armor that lets out a blood-curdling scream every March, said to be the time that its medieval owner took a spear through the eye. In the Gothic ballroom there are haunted chairs that many claim to have been pushed out of while sitting by unknown forces.

Visiting: The owner of Belcourt Castle gives ghost tours and this May, he will be giving them on Friday and Saturday evenings. It is also open for weddings and other events. Belcourt Mansion is roughly an hour-and-a-half drive from Boston down 95 South.

haunted castles

Brissac Castle
Country: France
Built: 11th century
Haunting: The stylish French château is over seven-stories tall with around 200 rooms and is considered the tallest château in all of the Loire Valley. After a rich history, beginning with the Counts of Anjou in the 11th century, the domain was purchased by a noble husband and wife named Jacques and Charlotte. Charlotte enjoyed tormenting her husband by having noisy sex with randoms. She would keep her husband up all night with her lovers and eventually her husband snapped.

The affair ended when both the lover and Charlotte the wife disappeared. Jacques was likely behind it, but after their death, the lovers’ moans did not stop – they grew louder. The moans persisted and Jacques was forced to sell the castle, tormented by the ghosts of his past. Today, it is said that in the early morning the lovers’ moans persist.

Visiting: Château de Brissac is open to tours and even has two suites and two rooms to stay in overnight. The price for the overnight stay is not cheap, starting at 390 Euros with availability from May through September. Reach Brissac from Paris by high-speed train, taking just an hour and a half to reach nearby Angers.

haunted castles

Eltz Castle
Country: Germany
Built: 1157
Haunting: A picturesque castle with one of the richest interiors in all of Deutschland, Eltz rises up out of the surrounding Mosel forest as if boasting its longevity to the surrounding environs. A testament to its strength as a stronghold, Eltz Castle is one of few castles in the region that has never been destroyed. It is also one of just a few German castles that is said to be haunted. Allegedly, the ghosts of medieval knights still patrol the castle, which, 33 generations later, is still owned by the same original family. Imagine living in the same house as your Great X 30 grandmother.

Visiting: Reach Eltz Castle by flying into Frankfurt Hahn airport and traveling by bus or taxi for the final 15 miles to the city of Cochem.

haunted castles

Castle of Bardi (or Landi Castle)
Country: Italy
Built: 900, ish
Haunting: Built on a spur of red jasper, Bardi towers over the Emilia-Romagna valley. Bardi’s etymological impetus began with Hannibal and his cavalry of war elephants. The last elephant, named Bardus, allegedly died here during the march to Rome. Unfortunately, the castle is not haunted by a menacing ghost elephant.

A sad old story explains the real ghosts of this incredible fortress. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, we have a tale of Moroello and Soleste. Soleste was the daughter of the castle’s lord, and she was in love with Moroello, the captain of the knights. During a long battle, Soleste waited for Moroello to return, perched on the edge of her family fortress, eyes locked on the distant horizon. Eventually, she saw riders galloping back from the battlefront. When the soldiers reached her eyesight, she noticed they were riding with enemy colors. She was overcome with grief at the possibility of Moroello’s death and threw herself off of the castle’s edge. In a sad twist of irony, the riders were in fact Moroello and his soldiers, and they were just wearing the enemy colors to boast. Moroello found his love dead on the ground and immediately realized what he had done and killed himself. The ghost of Moroello haunts the castle to his day, wandering the grounds searching for his lost love.

Visiting: Bardi is located in Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. The easiest way to reach the region is by plane to Parma or by train from nearby Bologna or Milan.

haunted castles

Dragsholm Castle
Country: Denmark
Built: 1215
Haunting: Some places are simply haunted by a ghost or two, but Dragsholm, located on an islet in Denmark, is allegedly home to 100 ghosts. How anyone came to take inventory on the ghosts and find such a round number was likely done with some relation to Dragsholm tourism development, but the place is wicked haunted, having functioned as both a prison and a battle fortification. Some consider it the most haunted castle in the world.

Of the many stories about Dragsholm’s ghosts, perhaps the most terrifying origin ghost tale involves the White Lady. Before she wandered the castle halls as a ghost, the White Lady was just a girl – a girl who was in love with one of the castle laborers. As a member of nobility, her father, and owner of the castle, condemned the relationship, but the affair persisted. Eventually, the father grew so angry about the ongoing affair that he imprisoned his daughter in the walls of the castle. She was not seen again until hundreds of years later. In the 20th century, during some routine castle remodeling, workers found a skeleton in one of the walls. The skeleton was wearing a white gown.

Visiting: Dragsholm Castle is open to overnight visitors, so if you want to stay in a really creepy castle this is probably the one. To get there, take a train from Copenhagen through Hillerød to Odsherred. The castle also has a restaurant.

haunted castles

Moosham Castle
Country: Austria
Built: 1208
Haunting: Built by the Prince-Bishops of Salzburg, Moosham Castle has a strange and sinister past. Hundreds of witches were beheaded within the walls of Moosham, and many still haunt the Austrian castle. Due to these hauntings, the castle is known colloquially as the Witches Castle.

In addition to being home to a coven of creepy witch ghosts, Moosham is also allegedly the lair of the werewolf. During the 1800’s, Moosham saw a sudden preponderance of mutilated cattle and deer corpses. As a consequence of this, several Moosham residents were tried and imprisoned as werewolves.

Visiting: Take bus #270 from the Salzburg bus station to reach Moosham. The trip takes about two hours.

haunted castles

Warwick Castle
Country: England
Built: 1068
Haunting: First built in the 11th century by none other than William the Conqueror, Warwick has seen more battles than perhaps any other castle in Europe. It has found peace in recent years, but the spirits still linger. Its eroded walls and faded battlements tell the tale of a long hard life for the spirits that now walk its halls.


The ghost tower is said to be one of the castle’s most haunted areas, as Sir Fulke Greville still wanders its interior. Murdered by his manservant in 1628, he is said to materialize from his portrait late on cold evenings. The castle dungeon, home to all sorts of past torment, also seems to be quite haunted. Many visitors complain of vertigo and nausea upon touching the dungeon apparatuses.

Visiting: Warwick Castle is very tourist accessible and is open every day except Christmas. Warwick Castle is located just 40 minutes from Birmingham airport.

Honorable mention:

haunted castles

Castle Bran or Dracula’s Castle
Country: Romania
Built: 1212
Haunting: In the heart of old Transylvania, deep in the Carpathian wilderness, is a castle named for a ruler from the 15th century – Vlad III Dracul. After Vlad’s father was assassinated and his brother was buried alive, he set out to become more ruthless than anyone in fiction could believably create. He makes pint-sized tyrants like Joffrey Baratheon look like equitable play dates.

It all began at an Easter feast when Vlad asked his nobles how many princes they had survived, insinuating that they conspired against past rulers. The story goes that he arrested all of them. He impaled the older ones and their families and made the younger nobles into slaves for a wave of ambitious improvements to the castle. All told, Vlad impaled tens of thousands of people, earning the nickname Vlad the Impaler, and the tales get so ridiculous that it is difficult to sift the myths from the truth. In fact, Vlad never actually lived in Castle Bran, though the castle has come to be associated with the “Son of the Dragon.”

Visiting: The easiest way to reach the castle is by traveling by train from Bucharest, Romania to Brasov, Romania. Many tour companies in Bucharest can arrange a day trip for well under 100 Euros.

[Top image of Brissac Castle via flickr image user @lain G]

Galley Gossip: Flight attendant haunted layover hotel ghost stories (and a haunted plane!)

In the spirit of Halloween, I’d like to share a few layover hotel ghost stories from flight attendants I know…

At a hotel in San Francisco the water kept turning itself on during the night. After the 3rd or 4th time, instead of getting up and turning it off, I had a little talk with the ghost. I was thinking I must have lost my mind. Water went off automatically. Never came on again! – Vicki Howell

At our current Paris hotel, I had an apparition appear at the foot of my bed. At first I didn’t think it was anything until I felt somebody sit on my bed. I turned on the light near the bed and of course there was nothing there. – John Gonzales

On a layover in Miami, I felt someone/something pull the covers off of my shoulder and breathe cold air onto the back of my neck. I jumped out of bed, ran for the door, turned on the light… and no one was there. On the next trip another flight attendant couldn’t get into that same room with her key. Security couldn’t get in either. They had to change her room. Gives me the chills even talking about it. – Penni Reynolds Piskor

At a Sheraton in New Jersey in 1989, I kept thinking there was someone in my room. Woke up several times convinced. Searched the room. Nothing was there. Found out later the hotel was reputedly haunted, and one of the elevators was known to run all night, stopping at each floor even though nobody called it – Julie Meyer

I always clip my curtains closed so the light will not shine through and wake me up. In the middle of the night it was like someone used their hands to push both curtains back forcefully. I was lying there freaking out! Another time I woke up to find the decorative bed quilt folded neatly in the corner of the room. I don’t fold at home nor am I good at it, so I know I didn’t do it in my sleep. The third time we did a seance. We asked for a sign and all the elevators opened simultaneously. We jumped up and ran! – Lynne Smith

In Mexico a friend had similar experience as John did above. A guy sat on the edge of his bed in the middle of the night, but when he turned on the lights, no one was there. He mentioned something to the front desk and they sheepishly asked if he was gay. When he said yes, they said that Jorge always visited gay guys in their rooms (I was never visited!) I don’t believe in haunting and have waited for them every time! – Gordon Valentine

Lights, faucet and bathtub all turned on during my sleep at the layover hotel in New Orleans. Just asked the naughty perpetrator to behave themselves because I needed the sleep before an early roll out. – Alx Stellyes

It was an old hotel in Boston, next to an historic graveyard. I was having a crazy dream about a Nun. My room was in a corner and I woke up in the middle of the night to repeated pounding. Turned the lights on, it stopped. Asked the driver the next day what the deal was with the hotel. (Didn’t tell him about my dream) He said a certain floor was haunted ( mine, of course!) by a NUN. – Lori Polka

In Manchester England we used to stay at a hotel with huge vaults and all were opened except one where someone locked themselves in it hundreds of years ago. The skeleton key is still in the lock, from the inside, but nobody can get it opened. Then you go into the bedrooms and they are all different themes. Mine was very opulent. She (the ghost) Kept turning on the sink faucet. After getting up 2 times to turn it off I was getting pissed. The third time I just screamed “turn that effing water off! And it did. Never picked up another Manchester trip. – Daniel Koukes

At Tower Air there was an aircraft (604) we ferried a lot. A spirit would walk up and down the aisles and wake us up. It also would unlatch everything in the galley and open all the carts and bins. You would close them and tell her to stop. A little later you’d hear it happening again. – Lynne Smith

The hotel Jakarta is known for having all sorts of ghost stories, especially amongst female, Chinese, Japanese and Korean crew. They tend to sleep 2-3 in a room instead of alone in that hotel! – Sodwee.

There was an Eastern Airlines airplane that went into the Everglades. It was Flight 401. The airline finally had it dismantled and used parts in other aircraft – Vicki Howell

Eastern Airlines L-1011 #318 was a haunted plane. It had ovens taken from the airplane that crashed in the Everglades in the early ’70’s. So many sightings and occurrences were reported that the a/c # had to be changed. Who knows where it is now – Julie Meyer

I remember reading the book of Eastern flight 401 and all the happenings from that incident. Came to be they had to remove all the extra parts from the plane and any carts that were used on other flights had to be grounded as they were all linked to Flight 401 – Gordon Valentine

Photo courtesy of dantc and roeyahram

Ohio State Reformatory continues to spook guests with overnight ghost hunts

Exotic animals may have terrorized a small town in Ohio, but guests looking to get really scared should head to the infamous Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield–one of the ultimate places to go for a ghost hunt. For the Halloween season, the reformatory is offering a haunted house-style “Haunted Prison Experience,” but next spring the real frights will begin when the facility that housed over 154,000 prisoners over its lifetime will host ghost walks and overnight ghost hunts for those with serious interest in paranormal activity.

The spooky facility was made famous by the film “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), and has been used in a number of other films and TV shows–including a long list of paranormal investigation shows such as Ghost Adventures, Scariest Stories on Earth and Scariest Places on Earth. Ohio-born Marilyn Manson also did a photo shoot at the reformatory, as well as Godsmack and Lil Wayne.

Built between 1886 and 1910, the reformatory remained in operation for 94 years until a federal court ruling ordered the facility to be closed. Five years later, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society was formed to turn the prison into a museum and conduct tours. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Place, the prison boasts the world’s largest free-standing steel cellblock.

Those looking to book a tour through the dark halls and corridors of the reformatory–which, by the way, are led by tour guides well-versed in the eerie history of the prison–should book now, as the tours are extremely popular and sell out months in advance. All proceeds go directly to restore the architecture of the reformatory.
The Central Guard Room at the Ohio State Reformatory


An Aerial View of the Ohio State Reformatory


Just a sampling of the spookiness that awaits at the Ohio State Reformatory.

Hawaii’s living ghosts: Retelling of lives at Hawaii cemeteries

In Hawai`i, everything in nature-trees, rocks, wind, rain-evokes a chicken-skin ghost story. It’s in the air, our blood, and retold on dark winter nights. The hair on the back of your neck will rise and prickle when you visit these spots.

Nuuanu Pali Lookout and the Old Pali Road

I grew up in Nu`uanu, the luxuriant valley that leads up to one of the best views of O`ahu, the Nu`uanu Pali Lookout. In 1795, King Kamehameha I united the Hawaiian Islands and drove O`ahu’s defending warriors up our valley. Rather than surrender, O`ahu’s warriors leapt 1000 feet from the Pali to their death. When the Pali Road was constructed in 1897, crews found the skulls and bones of over 800 men at the base of the Ko`olau Mountains.

During World War II, a few servicemen emboldened by alcohol leapt off the Pali. Powerful gale-force winds pushed the drunks back to safety. Lucky, they said. Our ghosts and gods, locals said.

Since ancient days the Old Pali Road was the only land route between Honolulu and the Windward side of the island. It was, and still is, a spooky road. Eerie winds whistle through the tree tunnel, waving vines drape from arching branches of the jungle forest, and leaves dart in the darkness like nervous fingers. At night we hush our voices and hold our breath until we emerge into the lights of Honolulu.

hawaiiMy grandparents warned us, “Never carry pork on the Old Pali Road.” The unwise who did told how their car would die. Attempts to restart were futile. Sometimes an old woman or man would appear at the side of the road. If one offered them a ride, their passenger, and the pork, would disappear before they got to town.

When I was in college my boyfriend and I returned from a party in Kailua via the Old Pali Road. The police stopped us so they could carry up from the ravine below the bodies of four young Hawaiian men whose skin shone unusually pale in the moonlight, victims of an accident. At a beach bonfire with fellow students a year later, two brothers, Harvard medical students, told us they had just returned to Honolulu along the Old Pali Road and at a certain curve they heard knocking on their windshield, as if someone wanted to get in. The brothers immediately backed up. Unnerved, they slowly started forward but each time they reached that spot in the road, they heard knocking, and retreated. The fifth time, the younger brother shouted, “Just drive! No matter what, don’t stop! Go!” His older brother floored it back to Honolulu.

“Where exactly did you hear that knocking?” I asked. They were athletes and fraternity men, not easily frightened. They described the curve in the Old Pali Road and the ravine below, the exact spot where the four boys had crashed the year before. We Hawaiians gasped; the dead youths were looking for someone to take their place.

Hours: Daily during daylight hours; no entrance fee. $3 parking; portable toilets; trash cans; food concession; interpretive signage; no drinking water.

O`ahu Cemetery

O’ahu Cemetery offers one of the finest collections of 19th century graveyard art in Hawaii and is one of the known ghost haunts. Through the Sailor’s Home Society, seamen from New England, Australia, Scotland, Peru, and even Iowa were buried here in the 1800s alongside the most distinguished and powerful landowning families such as the Campbells, Castles, and Dillinghams. The only full-sized statue, of Maria Kahanamoku, sister of Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, looks gently down among the palm trees lining the interior road.

Take one of the occasional tours. Step back into Hawaii‘s culture and history marked by marble statuary, granite obelisks, sarcophagi, ornate Celtic crosses and cryptic symbols. These landscaped grounds from are one of the most important historic sites in the islands and at night, alive with voices.

In the early 1900s, my grandmother’s uncle told of returning to Honolulu after his round of deliveries on the Windward side. Whenever his horse and cart passed O`ahu Cemetery late at night he encountered ghost seamen, probably from the 1800s whaling days, playing cards right outside the cemetery wall on the corner of Judd Street and Nu`uanu Avenue. The salty spirits, furious at being disturbed, would yell at him. “Go away! Leave us alone! Begone!” Leaves whistled through their bodies when they rose and chased after my great-grand uncle, hurling stones and curses as he urged his horse, ‘Faster!”

To this day, my aunts and uncles drive out of their way to avoid this corner which is on their direct route home. www.O`ahuCemetery.org 2162 Nu`uanu Avenue, Honolulu, HI. Phone 808-538-1538

oahu hawaii

Pu`u o Mahuka Heiau

High above the beach where surfers flock to surf the legendary 30 to 60 foot waves on the North Shore sits Pu`u o Mahuka Heiau, the largest religious site and temple on O`ahu. It covers almost 2 acres. As you drive up Pupukea Homestead Road off Kamehameha Highway you head up into the mountains through wild shrubbery. Nothing prepares you for what you are about to see.

Constructed in the 1600s, stacked lava rock walls from 3 to 6 feet in height define three walled enclosures. Within the walls were thatch and wood structures. It is conjectured this heiau was used as a sacrificial temple, perhaps for success in war. Situated on a ridge with a commanding view of Waimea Valley and the northern shoreline of O`ahu, signal fires from here could be seen as far as Kaua`i.

Stay outside the walls to avoid further damage to the site. You will see offerings of stones wrapped in ti leaves on the wall.

I’ve noted that at these Hawaiian heiaus, the air feels unusually still and no birds sing, as if it is still imbued with the sacredness of long ago. Everyone I bring here gets chicken-skin; the hairs on their neck and arms prickle as if the spirits of those who died here still roam. This is the ancient side of Hawaii, a layer most tourists miss.

More information here. Hours: Daily during daylight hours; no entrance fee; trash cans, interpretive signage & walkway; no drinking water.

Pam Chun’s award-winning first novel, The Money Dragon, was named one of 2002’s Best Books in Hawaii. Born and raised in Hawaii, she has been featured on NPR and has spoken at the Smithsonian. Read her blog on Red Room.

The good old days were horrible


Ah, Merry Olde England! A time and place with happy people, clean streets, and scenes that looked just like they do on BBC historical dramas.

Not!

Premodern England was a grim place of death, filth, and general misery. Actually that can describe pretty much everywhere in the nineteenth century, but the town where the Brontë sisters lived was especially nasty. Some authors write novels to escape reality, and the Brontë sisters had a lot to escape from. Two of their sisters died in childhood thanks to the neglectful conditions at their boarding school. Then the Grim Reaper took the remaining sisters and their brother one by one.

This may have been due to the horrible health conditions in their town of Haworth, Yorkshire. At a time when all towns were unsanitary, Haworth took the prize. Haworth stands on the side of a steep hill with much of its water supply coming from natural springs near the top. Also near the top of the hill is the town graveyard. So crowded was this graveyard that the coffins were often buried ten deep. Water flowing through the graveyard contaminated the public pumps and ensured a steady supply of more dead bodies, which would rot, seep their juices into the water supply, and start the cycle anew. The Black Bull pub contributed to this by using this spring water to brew its own beer. One wonders what it tasted like.

%Gallery-104759%This wasn’t the only spring in Haworth, but the locals managed to ruin the others by placing open cesspools next to the pumps. Although the connection between cleanliness and health was only imperfectly understood, Patrick Brontë, local clergyman and father of the Brontë sisters, realized a place where 41 percent of the population died before age six had some serious issues. In 1850 he brought in Dr. Benjamin Babbage (son of Charles Babbage, who built the first computer) to make an inspection. Babbage was horrified at what he saw and his damning report of the local squalor made reformers take notice. If it wasn’t for Babbage, Haworth probably wouldn’t get so many tourists. People tend not to like smelling open cesspits and drinking decayed bodies while on vacation.

If natural causes didn’t bump you off, the Haworth poisoner might do it for you. John Sagar ran the local workhouse, the place where the poor were forced by law to live. There they were underfed, overworked, and slept in rat-infested little rooms as a punishment for the cardinal sin of poverty. Sagar was a “short, dark, vulgar-looking man” who only had one arm, which he used to beat his wife Barbara mercilessly. Everyone was too afraid of him to come to her aid. When she finally died it wasn’t by beating, but by arsenic poisoning. Sagar was the obvious suspect. Questions were also raised about the deaths of their nine children. Yet Sagar got off due to lack of evidence, and he lived to the ripe old age of 78, a small miracle considering the conditions of the town. Strangely, his is one of the only graves in the cemetery that shows signs of weathering. Some locals say nature is serving justice where the courts did not.

Links to the eerie past still linger. On some old buildings, strange stone faces stare out onto the street. They look like ancient Celtic stone heads, but researcher John Billingsley says they were a continuing folk magic custom that experienced a rebirth of popularity in the area in the 17th and 19th centuries. They were used to ward off evil, and as late as 1971 a head was placed over the front door of the Old Sun Inn to stop a haunting. It’s said to have worked! If you had witch trouble you could also carve a “W” into your door frame, or put pins into a bullock’s heart and bury it beneath the floorboards. Special witch bottles could be used to trap witches. I’ve seen pinned hearts and witch bottles at the West Highland Museum in Ft. William, Scotland, and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, so the practice was widespread

With all the death and tourists, it’s not surprising that Haworth is full of ghost stories. Not only did I stay in a haunted hotel room, but every single bar I drank at or restaurant I ate in had a resident ghost. Phantom drinkers, gray ladies, even haunted carriages all prowl Haworth at night. There are deeper mysteries than ghosts, however. Witchcraft and folk magic abounded. Fear of witches was so great that local “cunning man” Old Jack Kay, a contemporary of the Brontës, would lift curses for a price. He also told fortunes and could show you your future spouse in a mirror or bowl of water. He and other “cunning men” brewed cures for the sick. Some were herbal medicine that might have been effective, while others had dubious ingredients. The urine of a red cow supposedly cured cancer. I suppose it would be unscientific to dismiss red cow’s urine as a cure for cancer with testing it, but good luck getting volunteers for the clinical trial.

So the next time you’re in some charming historic locale, think back on how things used to be, and be thankful that they’re not like that anymore!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Hiking the Yorkshire moors!

A special thanks to local historians Steven Wood and Philip Lister for all the great stories that contributed to this article, and all the great ones I couldn’t fit in.


This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire, who would have a lot less to brag about if Dr. Babbage hadn’t fixed a few things.