At 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, the streets of Palm Beach are empty. Palm fronds rustle in the howling wind. The semicircle moon sifts through the clouds. A black cat crosses the sidewalk.
“Water is an engine for ghost activity,” Damian Edwards, a guide for the company Ghosts of Palm Beach, says ominously. “And here on the island, we’re surrounded on all sides.”
The Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, and other designer storefronts lining Worth Avenue don’t look all that haunted. They’re lit and enlivened with mannequins decked out in chic clothes and thousand-dollar purses. There’s not a single cobweb in sight. And it’s been that way for the past century, since 1896, when oil tycoon Henry Flagler built the first ritzy hotel on the beach. Palm Beach Island became America’s first resort town for glitterati, hosting Humphrey Bogart, John Lennon, and, more recently, Joan Rivers.
Celebrity sightings are still common on the island, but ghost guide Edwards isn’t interested in the living. His job is to connect with energies left over from their earthly lives. “Ghosts don’t distinguish between a spooky house or the Neiman Marcus,” he says. “They’re here because something keeps them here.”
Edwards, a 39-year-old aspiring actor/comedian, has been running ghost tours on the barrier island for the past two years. Originally from Jamaica, he moved to New York to live with his aunt after his mother passed away when he was 2 years old. He didn’t believe in ghosts for most of his life. Then, on his 27th birthday, his mother appeared in the corner of his room in a brilliant halo of light. “I wasn’t scared,” he recalls. “I felt loved and just knew it was her.”
Most people on the tours have also had supernatural experiences, Edwards says. He rarely deals with skeptics. Tours last an hour and a half and happen Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. Edwards leads the pack — usually a dozen or so amateur ghost hunters — to various spots on the island.
Tonight, at Neiman Marcus, Edwards recounts tales of a bloody Spanish conquistador from the Ponce de León era spotted on the second-floor balcony. He says electricians can’t figure out why the circuits frequently falter. “Legend says he was greedy, and his comrades slit his throat and hung him from a tree at about the height of the balcony,” Edwards says. But now, there appears to be nothing but a diamond necklace glistening inside a display case.
The group stops by the Tiffany & Co. where a ghost in a flowing blue dress has been seen on Christmas Eve. “They believe she’s doing her last-minute holiday shopping,” Edwards jokes. There’s no woman in a blue dress now, but it’s an eerie coincidence that a blue light (presumably linked to the security alarm) shines from the second-floor window.
As far as anyone knows, no human is buried on the island. But Addison Mizner, the resort architect whose style left an indelible mark on South Florida in the 1900s, had a playful spider monkey named Johnny Brown, whom he buried in his backyard. The property has been transformed to an expensive restaurant, and Johnny Brown’s tombstone sprouts up in the courtyard. “Now there’s a lot of random nudging or pushing,” Edwards says. “Kids, really little kids, will say there’s a monkey that’s not there — or at least that their parents can’t see.”
At the eatery, Al Fresco, a diner stops the tour group. He’s says he’s a prominent businessman but prefers not to give his name. He’s staying at the property. “I saw a woman, kind of see-through, floating on the stairs,” he says. “I don’t know what it was, but I know I wasn’t dreaming.”
The tour continues, walking down Worth Avenue. A streetlight flickers. Edwards insists it’s ghost energy. Then the light inside a shop’s display case blinks off and on. “It’s not that these stores can’t afford to pay their electricity bill,” he says. “It got so bad that Gucci moved.”
The group passes Ta-boo another pricey eatery. It’s Edwards’ favorite spot on the tour. “This is the birthplace of the bloody mary,” he boasts. Legend has it that twin sisters went to the bathroom, played the creepy game, and came out covered in scratches. “One of the twins went mute and never spoke again.”
We keep walking until we reach the sea wall. While Edwards talks about mirages of old ships seen by sunbathers, I gaze out into the dark water, imagining a ghost ship. But something distracts me. I hear a faint wail coming from the apartment building behind us.
“Did you hear that?” I ask.
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Edwards doesn’t speak for a moment. He stares blankly at me as his eyes grow wide.
“That’s crazy,” he says finally. “You’re not the first person to say that. That’s the next stop on the tour: A little boy drowned at the beach, and now residents report hearing unexplained cries.”
I tell myself it was that black cat meowing.
Ghost tours cost $25 per person. For more information, visit ghostsofpalmbeach.com.