Our five-person investigation team piled gear into the van on a cold and damp December morning. Though we were headed only a few miles away, none of could stand the wait any longer. We were about to be the first crew of paranormal investigators ever allowed into Richmond, Virginia’s Monumental Church and our excitement had reached its pinnacle. We were hoping to come away with enough evidence to either firmly support or squash the rumors of ghosts that have surrounded the Richmond landmark for centuries.
We parked curbside in the heart of downtown and topped off our bags with plenty of extra batteries and a few flashlights. After a short walk, we met our guide, Tom, who would be at our side during the entirety of the investigation. Tom was a gruff man of about sixty, Richmond born and raised, with a tuft of white hair and a stern expression. His purpose there that day was threefold: to allow us entry and show us around the building, to make sure that not even the tiniest speck of the fragile structure was damaged, and to act as a rigid skeptic. So far, he had the “rigid skeptic” part down exactly.
Tom unlocked the gates to the grounds and led us to a door at the rear of the building. He punched in alarm codes and held the door while we wrestled our gear bags into the tiny lobby.
We were all surprised to be greeted by sixty-five degrees of warmth inside the vacant structure. It felt great to shake off the December chill. Tom locked the door behind us to ensure no “monkey business” would be going on during our investigation.
“Are you ready to see it?” he asked. We were practically bursting at this point. “Watch your step,” he said as he started down the basement stairs and toward the crypt.
Every bit true to its name, Monumental Church was an Episcopalian place of worship built to memorialize the seventy-two Richmonders that perished in a theatre fire on the site in 1811. The church was designed and its construction overseen by Robert Mills, the only architectural student of Thomas Jefferson. It was completed and dedicated only three years after the tragic fire in 1814.
The victims’ remains were enclosed in gorgeous mahogany boxes that were then walled into an enormous brick crypt in the building’s basement. Without ornament, the legendary crypt resembles a giant loaf of bread with its arched top and stands only about four feet high in the center of the basement, directly below the church’s magnificent dome.
With its horrific past, it’s no wonder that Monumental and its grounds have more than their fair share of ghost stories. Disembodied voices have been rumored to plague the balcony since before the Civil War and unexplained noises such as slamming doors and crashes were even mentioned in George D. Fisher’s book History and Reminiscences of the Monumental Church, Richmond, Virginia in 1880. Others parishioners during the 19th Century also claim to have seen an apparition of an African American man who was thought to be a hero from the Richmond Theatre fire that had helped to pull dozens of citizens to safety.
Though the Episcopal bishops were rather tight-lipped about strange occurrences in the church, reports became much more frequent when the building changed hands in 1965. The Medical College of Virginia assumed ownership of the property and had maintenance staff in regularly to tend to the aging structure. The men told of tools going missing when they were put down for only moments that were then found in different areas of the building. Maintenance crews that worked on the old boiler in the basement, which needed frequent care, claimed that nearly every time they were called out they would hear heavy footsteps on the wood floor of the chapel directly overhead. It was spooky enough that several workers refused to return.
Tom showed us around and watched closely as we began unpacking electronics from their cases. We set up two video cameras, one on the eastern side of the basement facing west, and the other on the northern half of the basement facing south. An audio recorder was switched on and placed on the northwest corner of the crypt. By its side we sat an EMF meter with an audible alarm for spikes in the electromagnetic readings often associated with paranormal activity. Finally, we arranged three optic motion sensors around the enormous room. The first two sensors were aimed in the same direction as the video cameras and the third was placed looking over the crypt beside the audio recorder. We carefully recorded the location of every device, its field of vision, and then took dozens of still photos to help to document their placement on a blueprint later.
We only had an hour inside the building, so we left our stationary equipment running and ascended the stairs to explore the ground floor. Tom showed us the pews of famous Richmonders like John Marshall and Edgar Allen Poe. He then took a few moments to show us some of the expensive and time-consuming restoration the Historic Richmond Foundation had undertaken.
“This is where I had the heck scared out of me by a spook,” Tom added as we approached the western staircase. We all stopped in our tracks.
“What? I thought you didn’t believe in the paranormal?” I asked.
“I don’t, exactly. I’m not saying for certain that’s what it was, but I can’t really explain it any other way. The Foundation had the motion sensor alarm go off one evening and it was my turn to come out and reset it. Those things used to go off all the time. I never thought it was ghosts or even break-ins, rodents seemed like the most likely culprit.
Anyway, I went around and checked all the pews to see if anyone was trying to hide. I came out of the doorway by the stairs on the east side just as the doors slammed shut on the west. There’s nowhere to hide over there. I checked it out and found no one in the building except me.”
“Has anything happened since then?” I asked.
“Not really. The motion sensors still go off, but we’re fairly certain all the rats were taken care of. When the Medical College tore down the building next door, all the critters decided to head this way. With the Foundation sinking so much money into bringing the Church back up, they couldn’t have rats over here chewing up all that work. The College was kind enough to set up an exterminator contract. We’ve not seen a single rodent or even a trace of one since.”
With that surprise still spinning in our minds, we split up to collect more data. Another team member and I took hundreds of still photos while two other investigators focused on audio recordings in an attempt to capture some of the church’s legendary disembodied voices. I paired up with Lee Ann and we made our way slowly up the western staircase towards the balcony. She was armed with a non-contact thermometer and I was filming her every move with a digital video camera.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped out onto the balcony was not the height or the remarkable view, but rather how dense and heavy the air seemed up there. Lee Ann’s thermometer registered the average air temperature at sixty-four degrees, the same as the ground floor, so I didn’t attribute the heaviness to heat. The farther we moved around the horseshoe shaped balcony, the worse the feeling became. Lee Ann finally asked, “Does it feel weird up here to you?” She couldn’t have phrased it any better.
We didn’t even make it halfway around the balcony pews before deciding to head back to the stairs. The odd feeling had started to make the shift toward threatening, so we decided to play it safe since we were thirty feet above the main floor. On the landing at the top of the stairs was an out of place metal folding chair. I couldn’t imagine why one of the workmen would have lugged it all the way up there with all of the pew seating just a few feet away. To each his own, right? Just as I was about to stop recording, Lee Ann caught my attention with a puzzled look on her face.
“Hey, look at this! Everything up here has measured between sixty-three and sixty-five degrees except for this chair.” We stood and watched the thermometer as it slowly climbed to seventy-one degrees – but only when directed at the seat of the chair.
“What? I thought we’d be looking for cold spots,” I said. “What about the back?” She aimed the laser dot at the back of the chair and we watched as it read a steady sixty-three degrees. I kept the camera rolling as we witnessed the peculiar temperature fluctuations on the seat of the chair for about three minutes. It eventually leveled out and fell back to sixty-three degrees. We were baffled.
After another fifteen minutes of photographing, recording, measuring, and just sitting on the antiquated pews observing our surroundings, we descended the basement stairs to collect our equipment. The first thing that caught our attention when we returned was the base station for our motion sensors — a tiny blinking red light indicated that the eye we placed on top of the crypt had been triggered. Close examination of the sensor and the base unit showed no signs of tampering and that the equipment was functioning properly. What sort of motion had triggered the sensor? We hoped to answer that question during the analysis of the data recorded during that one short hour.
We packed our gear, collected ourselves, and watched as Tom locked up behind us. Everyone was bubbling with the anticipation of what we might find in our recordings.
One hour of data took days of careful scrutiny to review. All videos were examined frame by frame. The audio recordings were listened to at least a dozen times and then fed through specially designed software to help pick out even the faintest whisper. What we found only puzzled us more.
Our two videos from the basement, though both were pointed across the same area seen by the tripped motion sensor, showed nothing that would have activated the device. No peculiar audio anomalies were found there and no spikes in the electromagnetic field were recorded. Still, that motion sensor saw something. They’ve been completely reliable in the past and have never given us a false positive.
Another puzzling find during our data analysis was a short segment of audio recorded in the balcony by our “Sound Man”, Clark. He had been sitting in a pew, simply recording the ambient noises the church. He made no verbal attempt to communicate with any spirits during the entirety of his stay on the second floor. As he stood up to leave the row he was in, an unidentified woman’s voice was clearly heard saying, “Come up here.” The only women present during the investigation were Lee Ann and me and neither of us was in the balcony at the same time as Clark. He had been monitoring the recording with headphones and said he heard nothing at all until it was amplified during playback.
Sure, two bits of suspect evidence, the tripped motion sensor and the voice in the audio recording, paired with the temperature anomaly that Lee Ann and I witnessed may not be enough for some skeptics to stand hundreds of years of legend on a firm foundation. Considering the short duration of our investigation, I feel I an speak for the other four investigators present as well when I say that the things we captured that morning were much more than we expected. We were all comfortable with the conclusion that there are supernatural events taking place at Monumental Church that could be recorded given more time.
Our team is extremely grateful for the opportunity presented to us by the Historic Richmond Foundation. The findings from that December morning, though, have only served to pique our curiosity and wet our appetites for more research of this solemn city landmark.