Brooksville, Florida – The room upstairs looks like any child’s. Toys are carefully arranged, ready for tiny hands. Downstairs a doctor’s office waits for patients, a room is filled with wartime memorabilia, and a schoolroom waits for students. But the people who roam the halls are not the people for whom the rooms are intended. They’ve been dead for more than 150 years. But if that’s so, then who moves the toys? Whose cries are heard from the doctor’s office? Why is there such a feeling of unease? Because, dead or not, many of them never actually left.
Museums are fascinating places. For many, modern structures hold displays of everything from art to relics of the past, stimulating the intellect and providing a way to remember times that were. Others, however, are history. Housed in historic homes, they provide more than carefully arranged displays of broken pottery and mannequins dressed in period clothes. Stepping through their doorways is like stepping into a living time capsule, where it’s easy to see how people really lived. And died.
In 1855, a man named John May purchased a large parcel of land in what would become Brooksville for himself and his wife, Marena. It took a year to complete the home. When finished, May donated fifteen acres of his land to the county for use as a county seat. May, however, didn’t live in his home for too long as he died of undisclosed causes. His wife, Marena, remarried a man named Frank Saxon. Life was fine for a while, but Marena died giving birth to Saxon’s daughter, Jessie May. He was heartbroken, but consoled that his child still lived. Tragedy struck, however, when little Jessie May died at the age of three. By some accounts, there was another daughter, either with Marena or from a previous relationship, who also died. Jessie May was buried in the front yard in an unmarked grave, next to her mother. Saxon remained in the house for a short time before moving away.
The house was bought by Dr. Sheldon Stringer, who not only lived there, but treated patients in the downstairs room he added. He also used the home for a period as a sanatorium, treating diseases such as smallpox and yellow fever in the home’s bedrooms. Why the Stringers left the house is unknown, but the house sat empty and abandoned for many years. Looters destroyed much of the home before letting it sit and decay.
A fire in 1877 destroyed all the records of the home, including documents pertaining to whom the house belonged. It was adopted by Hernando County, and the new courthouse was built next door. After a period when no one knew what to do with the home, the decision was made to turn the Stringer House into a window back onto Florida’s frontier days, and the Hernando Heritage Museum was born.
Though there are believed to be at least eight resident spirits that haunt the museum, most of them are remnants of the time when the home was used to treat those dying of disease. Believed to be former patients of Dr. Stringer, their presences felt by way of feelings of being watched, general heaviness, and the occasional tortured cry. At least one ghost was caused by Hernando County’s first “drive by” shooting, which was actually committed on horseback. A seventh, reputed to be a World War II soldier who hung himself in the master bedroom after his fiance married another man, has never been proven. But of the eighth, there is no doubt.
She’s been seen, heard, felt and experienced by countless visitors, employees, and guests. She is one of the most tragic ghosts in the world, always sad, and just wanting her mommy. She is Jessie May Saxon. Though she never knew her mother, she longed for a mother’s touch. According to reports, she would wake in the middle of the night and walk around the house crying out for her mommy. According to some, she willed her own death so she could follow her mother into the world beyond.
While everyone who has encountered her claims she’s mostly harmless, she does have her moments. Toys that have been moved from her favorite spot have been found scattered, moved, or rearranged. She also has a favorite doll, and is reputed to throw tantrums if anyone removes it from the crib, hers, in which it lays.
One year, while setting up for a Mother’s Day celebration, volunteers set up a display of several teacups. When they returned the next day, there was one extra teacup added, though no one had entered the house. The next day, another was discovered, and another the next day. The cups were left on the table after it was discovered that unseen hands were moving them from the china cabinet. Some theorize that Jessie May wanted to add as many teacups as she could maybe her own mother would have a place.
The most disturbing, and frequent, phenomenon attributed to Jessie May is the sad child’s voice calling out to her mother, followed by sounds of her crying. Heard by visitors from all over the world, the sound is reputed to be heart-wrenching to any who hears it.
The museum is run today largely by volunteers from the community, all of whom are well versed in the history and lore of the old house. It sports a full doctor’s room, telegraph room, and a war room that holds memorabilia from wars as early as the Civil War through World War II. It offers both guided and self-guided tours during the days and haunted tours on weekends. They also hold a great many events. But there are a few things about the house that never changed. Still virtually the same as when Dr. Stringer left it, the house contains more than 11,000 pieces of Florida history. And, as if anyone had to wonder, Jessie May is still making her sad presence known. Hardly a day goes by without some strange thing going on in the house.
The Hernando Heritage Museum is open from Tuesday through Saturday, from noon to 3p.m. They offer tours to any age group, but if one wants to go on the “ghost tour,” one has to be eighteen years old. It seems, then, if one is looking to encounter the sad little ghost, one should plan for a weekend visit, during which the staff is happy to allow visitors to carry cameras, EMF Meters, digital thermometers, and digital voice recorders. Quite often, visitors on a tour take a recorder, and get an EVP for a souvenir.
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