Sure, libraries are quiet by nature. But tucked away on the third floor of Mobile’s empty Barton Academy is a library in a league of its own — abandoned, silent and still. A kind of stillness that almost makes you shake.
As it nears 10 p.m., almost three hours into the paranormal investigation of Alabama’s oldest public school, our little group huddles among the dusty shelves, which sit empty except for a few forgotten volumes. Having spent most of the night exploring the gloomy second floor, it’s something of a surprise to find the forgotten space bathed in florescent light — a careless mistake by the last person to visit, whenever that might have been. But the effect it produces is paradoxical: in a dark, abandoned building, the illuminated room seems to hold the most secrets.
Having completed yet another electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) test, one of the two lead investigators holds the voice recorder near her ear and presses play. The questions her husband and fellow investigator had posed to the corners of the room just seconds earlier begin to roll back out.
“What is your name?” the device echoes.
“What year were you born?”
“Did you go to school here?”
Silence … but then, something. She looks up at the group huddled around her. “Did you hear that?”
She presses rewind and passes the device to her husband. He holds it to his ear.
“Did you go to school here?” the recording repeats.
The investigator’s eyes brighten at what he hears next. He smiles triumphantly. “No way,” he says.
Construction on Mobile’s historic Barton Academy, white and stately as a rook piece, began in 1836, and in 1839, its doors opened to students. The following years brought hardship to the city, and the school, in the form of yellow fever epidemics and the Civil War. In her book, “History of Barton Academy,” Bama Wathan Watson writes of the war, “During the summer of 1864, while the Federal troops occupied the city, Barton Academy, only a few yards from their headquarters, was used as a hospital for the Union soldiers. Once before, during the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, part of the building had been used as a hospital to fight the invasion of an enemy. Now, it was forced to serve the needs of the enemy.”
There’s long been speculation of ghostly activity at Barton Academy, whose walls have borne witness to years of students and teachers, as well as the horrors of war and yellow fever. So when Mobile Bay was offered the opportunity to curate a ghost hunt at the former school, the decision was a no-brainer.
The night’s investigation begins in the Yerby building, located behind the main Barton building. As dusk settles on the city, we enter the basement. With its dirt floors and low ceiling, it feels akin to a catacomb.
The enterprise is led by a married couple who relocated to Mobile almost two years ago. As they wish to remain anonymous, we’ll call them Alex and Nancy. The pair spent more than a decade living in New England, where a coworker introduced them to the art of paranormal investigations. They joined the New England Ghost Project, the area’s “leading paranormal investigation team,” and helped search for spirits in some of America’s oldest and most haunted locales. Alex, an electrical engineer, accepted a job in Mobile, which is why he now finds himself poking around a spooky Port City basement with photographers and a magazine writer in tow.
Alex crouches on the floor and asks the group to switch off all headlamps. He’s been told about a fire alarm technician who visited this building in the past and encountered something he didn’t like. The technician said he’d quit his job before returning to the Yerby building, but he refused to speak with Alex about his experience.
“Did you do something to scare the man who came in here?” Alex asks the darkness. A delicate, chirping noise breaks the silence across the basement. On our way out, we locate the culprits — birds nesting inside a large piece of industrial equipment.
“About 95 percent of the time, we find nothing at all,” Alex says.
That’s definitely not due to a lack of spirit-detecting equipment: electric and magnetic field (EMF) detectors, motion sensors, voice recorders, thermometers.
“You don’t need heavy-duty, high-tech equipment for this,” Alex says. “Ghost hunting is very environmentally based. You’re looking for things like electromagnetic fields and changes in humidity and temperature,” he says. In other words, things that can be detected by relatively cheap instruments.
Of course, not all of the gear is so easy to come by; a thermal energy detector might set you back several hundred dollars, but for Alex and Nancy, it’s well worth it. The pair has started what they call the Paranormal Research Team of Mobile, and they see many more local investigations in their future.
Inside the main Barton building, the night’s investigation is focused on the second floor, where other paranormal societies in the past have detected activity. We slowly proceed down the hallways, stopping now and then as a group when the EMF detectors spike or if someone gets an eerie feeling. It’s an opportunity to observe the interior of the historic school, which closed its doors to students in the 1960s and became the central office for the Mobile County Public School System. In 2007, the school board relocated to an office in West Mobile, and in 2009, the abandoned building was named to Alabama’s list of “Places in Peril.” In 2015, the school system completed a $4.2 million exterior renovation, and today, the Barton Academy Foundation is less than $1 million away from its $10 million fundraising goal, needed to open the planned Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies. According to its website, “the school will provide a diverse, multicultural learning experience for approximately 300 students in grades 6 – 9,” with an emphasis on foreign languages, world geography and global economics.
Alex and Nancy lead the way to the former superintendent’s office. With windows gazing down on Government Street, this has been a room of high activity during past investigations. But tonight, Alex and Nancy find the room’s energy spotty and unreliable. Nancy brandishes her pendulum, a crystal on a gold chain, and dangles it across her index finger. An implement of the metaphysical, the pendulum, she explains is a way to communicate with levels of energy around the earth. The pendulum bearer asks yes or no questions, and the movement of the crystal can, sometimes, provide answers.
“Did you die here?” Nancy asks, watching the crystal intently. “Were you a Union soldier?” The pendulum swings lazily, and Nancy pockets it, unsatisfied with the room’s energy.
“I won’t tell you the pendulum is an exact science,” Alex says. “It’s all up for interpretation. But I’ve found that it’s good to incorporate metaphysical instruments, like the pendulum or dowsing rods, when the scientific equipment is going crazy. It’s just another checked box.”
Alex brings the voice recorder to the middle of our little group standing in the library.
“Listen closely after the word ‘here’,” he tells us.
He presses play, and we lean in, straining our ears.
“Did you go to school here?” the recording repeats. One second passes, then another. “Here…” repeats a faint, whispered voice that, somehow, only the recorder had managed to capture.
The effect on those gathered around is immediate, and, for a moment, the stillness of the library is shaken by a soft cheer.
“It’s common for spirits to mock you and repeat your question,” Nancy explains.
“Pretty cool, isn’t it?” Alex asks. “It’s things like that that make this so much fun.”
Beginning in 1906, every school year culminated in the singing of “Farewell, Old Barton” by the graduating class. With voices swelling, and perhaps tears in their eyes, generations of Mobile youngsters bid adieu to the school they loved so dearly, finishing the song, and their school days, with the following lines: “We are going home without you, dear Old Barton, no more we’ll see the school we love so well. In your halls are sleeping memories, dear Old Barton, where like brave soldiers we have fought so well. But e’er we pass away, you’ll hear us singing, our last goodbye to whom we love best. And as the shades of night are slowly falling, we turn our faces toward a larger world.”
Many people have entered the doors of Barton Academy, and just as many have left. But who’s to say some small piece of the past hasn’t decide to linger here … “here.”