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Taking a walk on the haunted side

Published on: October 24, 2012


Joe Howden of the Official Ybor City Ghost Tour leads a walk on a street filled with stories and, apparently, spirits from the city’s past. Mitch Traphagen Photo

I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts. I use the word “necessarily” as a condition. While I don’t live in fear of bumping into disembodied spirits in my closet or bathroom, I also appreciate that we don’t know everything there is to know. In my life, I’ve had a few experiences that I simply can’t explain.

In a world of text messages and 140-character tweets, Joe Howden is something of an anachronism. Storytelling is becoming a lost art, it seems. Yet Howden is just that, a teller of tales, a raconteur, a performer and a man who believes in ghosts because, according to him, he has seen them. According to Howden, few places in the Tampa Bay Area are as active for otherworldly spirits as Ybor City. Howden is the guide for the living to hear about — and perhaps encounter — the no longer living. He runs The Official Ybor City Ghost Tour, a walk through the historic community that is more history than cheap thrills.

And the history is fascinating. Brought to life by Howden, a man wearing a worn bowler and carrying an old-fashioned, well-used doctor’s bag, his stories are of life and death in days long gone, far removed from smartphones and computer tablets. Life, even more than today, was often cheap, and if any place can stake a claim to haunting or to restless spirits looking for redemption or closure, it would be Ybor City. In the stampede of progress, innocents — and some not so innocent — were trampled. Perhaps some have business that remains unfinished even today.

A few years ago on a ghost tour of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, my wife and I, along with a guide, entered a dark hold at the bottom of the ship. During WWII, people had been killed in that hold and some consider it haunted today. Most of the tour group refused to enter, preferring to wait outside in the light. Four of us sat in the hold in a silence punctuated only by the occasional call from the guide for anyone who may be with us. I was carrying a digital recorder and had my hearing aids turned up on full. With the microphones placed behind my ear, I could distinctly hear whispering that appeared to come directly from behind, but I assumed it was from the guide sitting just to my right. Of course, I could see nothing in the complete darkness. As we left the hold, I asked the guide, “Erika, what were you whispering?”

She looked at me for a moment and said, “I wasn’t whispering.” Later that night, back in our stateroom on the old, majestic ship, my wife and I listened to the recording. We heard the guide calling out, but we also heard another voice — one asking the question, “Can you see words in the dark?” The voice on the tape was distinct and there were other words, including, “Tell her.” They very clearly did not come from the four of us who ventured into the darkened hold.

As a hearing-impaired person who relies on closed captioning, I took those words as a personal message to me. No, I could not see words in the dark. I have no explanation for that voice on my recording. I have no explanation for the smell of old-world lilac perfume that I frequently noticed outside of my stateroom door, as though someone were just there moments prior, despite seeing no one in the long hallway. I felt perhaps it was a woman waiting for a gentleman who may never appear.

Howden had so much to share, the two-hour ghost walk soon turned into three. We stopped at a purportedly haunted building that had been investigated by the SyFy television show Ghost Hunters, and as the hour turned late, we entered another building that many consider haunted — the Cuban Club. Upon entering the historic theater of the building, although I had no sense of an otherworldly presence, my newer, more high-tech hearing aids did pick up some odd whispering. It might have been other guests excitedly exploring the theater in the dark, or it might have been something I simply cannot understand. I will never know.

We then explored the basement of the historic Don Vincente de Ybor Hotel. In the early days of Ybor City, the building served many functions, including that of a clinic. But it also had the distinction of having a basement, a feature few buildings in this area possess. The basement, being a relatively cool place, became the morgue at one point. According to Howden, it was not only a place for the dead; it was a place for the dying. If a doctor thought a gunshot victim was too far gone, they were taken to the morgue alive, rather than carried upstairs to the clinic. If they survived, they would be cared for, and if they didn’t, well, they were already in the right place.

I heard no whispering in the basement of the building. I felt no presence of spirits, but I greatly enjoyed Joe Howden’s storytelling skills in bringing the history of the place to life. Some guests of the hotel, however, have had different experiences. On Howden’s Facebook page is a photo provided by one hotel guest of what appears to be the ghost of a man in a mirror floating above the beautifully restored grand staircase in the hotel lobby.

More than three hours after we set off on our ghost walk of Ybor City, Michelle and I walked back to our car, lost in thought about all that we had learned, about life as it was, and about things that we cannot understand. Life goes on in Ybor City, as it does elsewhere, but perhaps, just perhaps, for some it goes on a little longer than can be explained. Some of those who have passed before us may still have something to say; they may still have stories to tell. Joe Howden is the perfect man to help with that. He believes.

For information about The Official Ybor City Ghost Tour, visit or call 813-505-6779.

102512 Ybor City Ghost Walk – Images by Mitch Traphagen