Spring Hill African American Cemetery is hardly unique.
Granted, the sandy three acres are picturesque, with moss-draped live oaks, aging crypts and thick woods that bound it on all sides.
But that doesn’t set it apart from any other old cemetery in Brooksville, or even the Deep South, for that matter.
It’s the stories – whispered during class, circling on the Internet, embellished during sleepovers – that make it a legend.
Stop by at dusk and you’ll see a man hanging from the old lynching tree.
A baby can be heard crying at a certain hour every night.
There’s a shed in the woods with an ancient meat grinder where the Ku Klux Klan took their victims.
Jeff Cannon, author and local historian, specializes in cemeteries and spends his spare hours tracing the roots of burial grounds in Pasco and Hernando counties.
By its very nature, a graveyard can be considered spooky. But Cannon has found that Spring Hill Cemetery carries more of a haunted reputation than most other cemeteries in the area.
“People are attracted to the area because of the stories,” he said.
But what’s fact and what’s fiction is still subject to research and opinion.
The facts as they’re known
There are some substantiated facts. What is known as Spring Hill Cemetery is actually three different plots. All are collected on a shady bend off Fort Dade Avenue, about a quarter mile north of State Road 50.
The Lykes family were property holders in that area and are believed to be the donors of the African-American cemetery around the turn of the century.
Old family names like the Timmons, Ingrams and Mobleys are found here.
Across the street is the white burial ground, also known as the Ayers or Confederate cemetery. It holds the century-old remains of pioneer resident the Rev. Daniel Simmons. A small family plot is also somewhere on the grounds.
While the other cemeteries have gone almost forgotten, the African-American cemetery apparently has a long history of vandals. The most recent case occurred when two teens were arrested on charges that they broke open a crypt and stole a skull.
Records show in 1982 two men were arrested under nearly identical circumstances. Both broke a hole in a crypt and poked the remains with a stick.
“We’ve had nothing but trouble out here for 15 years,” Derrill McAteer, the cemetery’s caretaker, told a newspaper at the time.
It’s unclear how much truth there is to stories about hangings in the African-American cemetery. Hernando County has the dubious distinction of having the most lynchings per capita than any other in the state, even when mobs were winding down in the early half of the century, Cannon said.
But here’s where the story grows less certain. At some point, the factual trail grows cold and corroborating stories are based more on what one feels. Here is where the ghost hunters step in.
Bumps in the night
“Spring Hill Cemetery is most definitely haunted.”
Katie Ringelman is firm in her opinion. Sit down with her and her husband, Vern, for an hour and they can tell you why.
Founders of the Spring Hill Paranormal Society, the couple have made more than a dozen trips to the cemetery and documented their findings. They speak of invisible fingers poking and pulling shirts; apparitions peeking out from behind trees; the sound of a baby crying.
Vern Ringelman’s most solid evidence of paranormal activity is a snippet of audio he’s isolated from a recording. One night he heard something rustling in the brush and called out: “Is anybody there that wants to say anything?”
He heard no response.
When he got home and replayed that question, he says he heard a whispered response: “I’m a dead kid.”
Asked about the stories, they’ve found no evidence that one out of the numerous trees on the property is the fabled “hanging tree.” The stories get new life every time kids go out there on a dare and mistake a shadow or wildlife noise for a spirit, Katie Ringelman said.
Without scientific, open-minded investigation to rule out logical explanations, the stories will continue to live on, she said.
Added Vern Ringelman: “Suggestion is a very powerful thing.”
The couple have not returned since “no trespassing” signs were posted outside the private property.
Malissa Frederiksen, another paranormal investigator, believes she has found the so-called “hanging tree.” While she’s yet to see an apparition hanging from the branches, she’s snapped multiple photos of what she believes is a body lying at the base of the tree. There are also notches in the branches from the ropes, she said.
She, too, has recorded voices, one that sounded like “help me John,” followed by a sudden breath of disgust.
Fredriksen and her group always try to debunk what they see and search for possible explanations before classifying a noise or sight paranormal.
“But if you can’t come up with an explanation, there just isn’t an explanation,” she said.
Both the Ringelmans and Frederiksen stress caution when visiting the cemetery, especially after dark. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the secluded spot is popular with drug users and vandals. And if there’s truth to the stories, there’s a good reason for the deceased to be angry with people encroaching on their graves.
Fredriksen believed ghosts could not physically harm anyone until a colleague was kicked in the leg hard enough to leave a bruise.
While the investigators say they treat the spirits with respect, there are obviously persons who have no qualms about disturbing remains.
“If it was me laying there, I would be enraged,” Fredriksen said.
Head to hernandotoday.com to hear what one paranormal investigator believes is evidence of the supernatural.