It’s Halloween – perfect time for a spooky tour through the Ximenez-Fatio House in the heart of St. Augustine, Florida. Throughout the year, visitors are given tours that focus on the families that lived in the three-story dwelling since 1777 when businessman Juan Ximenez built the home for his new family. It was constructed on Aviles Street, one of the oldest streets in the continental U.S. and is known for being the site of “numerous archeological findings, centuries of history, and quite its fair share of death.”
Hannah was our tour guide and eager to share the creepy stories during the “Mortality & Mourning: A Century of Death” discussion this past weekend. Beginning in what was termed the lobby of the home, we learned that upon Ximenez’ death, his 100-page Last Will listed firm instructions for a strict Roman Catholic burial and so, as requested, his body laid in the home with local priests on hand for prayers and to apply herbs and holy water. The home was then sold and resold, becoming a boarding house first, and during the Civil War, a makeshift hospital, and military barracks. The last owner, Louisa Fatio, ran the boarding house for almost 25 years, and in 1939, her family sold the property to The National Society of the Colonial Dames of American in The State Florida where it was restored and opened as a museum.
The tour brought us the narrow staircases to see how folks lived during these times, and view the kitchen, bedrooms, parlor, and the like with a sprinkling of stories of burial rituals and the rise of spirituality. One story focused on how Florida was considered the best climate if suffering from illnesses such as tuberculosis and yellow fever. However, since a trip south was not a guarantee of restored health, it was not uncommon for a guest to arrive at the home with their own coffin in tow just in case things didn’t go well. (It was later discovered that Florida’s humidity was not the remedy for such illnesses after all.) And where would the coffin be placed, we asked, standing around the tiny bedroom.
“Under the bed,” Hannah replied. “Not only were they sleeping on a bed for the night,” she added, “but over what might be their bed for eternity.”
With the start of the Civil War, still considered the deadliest war in American History, the traditions of burying the dead changed dramatically. Typically, when a death occurred, the body would be at home, and placed in a family plot on the property. With so many soldiers dying thousands of miles north and buried in mass graves, the idea of embalming the body began to emerge as a new business, and those who took up the trade in the area found themselves very wealthy. President Lincoln was so impressed with this way of keeping the body looking lifelike after death that he commissioned the training of “embalming surgeons” to preserve the deceased soldiers for return to their families.
And it was at this time that the desire to contact the dead created a rise and popularity of mediumship, spiritualists, and seances. Queen Victoria was known to have had seances after her husband’s death, and President Lincoln conducted private seances in the White House. Seances were also held at the home, with witnesses saying they saw an outline of an old timey face in one of the large mirrors. Hannah ended the tour sharing that during the 1800’s, with the inventions of the telephone, the telegram and the typewriter, items that were seen as magical and miraculous, it was seen as plausible that if you can talk on this new contraption to someone across the street, maybe you can talk to someone who’ve….crossed over.
Photo by MJ Hanley-Goff