Published Sunday, June 9, 2013
Every Halloween, visitors to Fort Knox on the Penobscot River get the ectoplasm scared out of them during “Fright Night at the Fort,” a haunted house fundraiser that helps fund the preservation of the historic site. But according to Liza Walsh, a 39-year-old writer who has visited the fort many times, ghosts live at the spooky fort year round. Among them is ordnance sergeant Leopold Hegyi, caretaker of the fort from 1887-1900. Hegyi served in the cavalry and helped train Custer’s army in Missouri before moving to Maine.
“He was from Hungary, and he was alone for 13 years, mostly, except for the Spanish American war when there were a few people there” at the fort, Walsh said. “His story was very compelling to me. He seemed like such a character and an engaging man. His wife lived in New York. She wouldn’t come be with him. And every day, twice a day, he patrolled that fort all by himself. And then he would go and have a beer at the Prospect store.”
Many people think Hegyi is the ghost in the duster coat that’s often seen wandering the dark, wet pathways of the stone fortress.
“People get scared, but now that I’ve read his story and learned about him, I don’t think he’s someone to be afraid of,” Walsh said. “I think he’s keeping an eye on the fort like he’s always done.”
Walsh tells Hegyi’s story in her new book, “Haunted Fort: The Spooky Side of Maine’s Fort Knox” (Down East Books, $15.99), which also explains the history of Fort Knox, shares the creepy experiences of visitors who have had a brush with the supernatural, and documents ghost hunters’ excursions into the fort.
Walsh has also written books about Maine fairy houses for Down East, and has a book on Maine coon cats coming out this fall. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Camden.
Q: Have you always been interested
A: in ghosts? You know, I really have. I grew up in Nantucket in the summers, and there are a lot of ghosts in Nantucket. My cousin and I, from a very early age, read Blue Balliet’s book “The Ghosts of Nantucket,” which was also published by Down East. We’d actually investigate and find as many of the houses as we could, and we’d interview people. I think I was probably about 11. The rest of the year we lived in New York state, and we lived close to a graveyard, and my neighbor and I would always kind of poke around in the graveyard. And I got a Ouija board at a certain point in my childhood, and I got completely obsessed with it. So yes, I actually have always been very interested in ghosts and ghost stories. That was why this book was fun to write.
I also love history, so the combination of history and ghosts was a real sweet spot for me.
Q: Has the fort become as much of a haunt for ghost hunters as it is for people interested in history?
A:I don’t know if they’re neck and neck. I think the history of the fort and the craftsmanship of the building and location – it’s so beautiful there on the bank – and the story it tells about Maine, I think that will always be more than the haunted part of it. But people are certainly interested in the spooky element, and with “Ghost Hunters,” the national show, coming, I think it put it in peoples’ radar even more. I think even people who aren’t big believers in ghosts do feel that there’s something a little bit, when you’re in those dark caverns, there’s something kind of creepy.
Q: Only three people have died there.
A: Why is it so haunted? There is the theory that granite is a conductor for ghosts, and that much granite attracts spirits. Also, there’s the “theory” that the confluence of swirling water and massive amounts of granite are conducive to ghosts. There’s theories that it’s like a vortex, that it’s some kind of an energy field that makes this place ripe for haunting. And then I think it’s the layout of the fort, all those dark tunnels. It’s dark and wet so much of the year, and cold. Apparently spirits are more active in that kind of climate and environment.
Q: How much time did you personally spend at the fort going ghost hunting?
A:I went to the Fright of the Fort three years in a row, and I went on countless ghost hunts. I went every time they did it for a couple of summers. I developed a really nice rapport with the East Coast Ghost Trackers, and they would just let me come with them. I would bring my husband because I didn’t want to drive alone (laughing) back all the way from Prospect down to Camden, so it turned into our date night. One time we went up there, it was the first ghost hunt of the season. The fort had been closed all winter. It was the end of April, and they were going to open on May 1. My husband and I arrived, and we had had dinner, and the ghost hunters had set up all their equipment. They said “We’re going to run into town and get dinner. Do you guys want to come?”
We said “No, we already ate.”
So they said “OK, we’re just going to go, but we have to lock you in.”
So we were locked into the fort by ourselves, with no fort employees, no one else was there. My husband had this little flashlight on his cellphone, and he wanted to go into every single nook and cranny. I kept thinking what if something happens? We’re all by ourselves. That was really scary.
Q: So, did you have any experiences
A: of your own there? You know, sometimes I feel that I get a little scared, like a little creepy feeling, but I don’t have that ability that some people do to see things. So I never saw anything. I definitely,through the ghost hunters when they had their equipment, I witnessed the same things they did. I would hear the talking through all their various technology. Some of it seemed pretty accurate, like something was happening.
Q:A skeptic would say they can do whatever they want with their equipment. It’s not like the people who said a ghost was holding their hand.
A: Right, the touching, although sometimes I questioned that too, actually, because it’s like that mass hysteria feeling. All of a sudden someone gets touched and then everyone thinks (they’re getting touched). I have to say I’m completely open to it. I definitely think something’s happening.
Q: Would you say you believe in
A: ghosts? Oh yes, I definitely do.
Q: What was your spookiest experience there? Was it being locked in?
A: I think so, and then my husband making us go into all the little rooms that I think were store rooms, but they don’t have any light and then you step into them. They’re almost like a little dungeon. I did hear things. We did hear footsteps when I was on various ghost hunts. We would hear things upstairs, and everybody heard it. And then (we heard) things through their equipment. They use these radio frequencies – a ghost box, it’s called – the radio frequencies apparently allow the energies to talk through. There were things said that you could pretty clearly hear, like a soldier talking about the Civil War, little snippets that just seemed like someone was trying to communicate. It would be hard to kind of create that.
Q: It seems like your experiences have been mostly auditory. Would you like to see something yourself sometime?
A:I don’t know. I think I’m good (laughing). I’m not dying to see anything.