Under a red glow of fairy lights, a wagon full of ghost hunters and spooky sightseers bounced around Clearwater as the night sky darkened. We drove through old neighborhoods with manicured lawns and good lighting, through a cemetery where the silhouettes of Spanish moss covered trees still hung in the summer heat, then onto a busy road lit by red lights and neon signs.
Throughout the night, a low, deep voice shared stories about the ghosts of Clearwater from a recording on a loudspeaker.
It was history, hauntings, and a socially appropriate excuse for looky-loos. I happen to be in all three.
A few weeks ago I was invited to the opening night of a brand new ghost tour, not because I’m the author of a local travel book, “100 things to do in Tampa Bay before I die”, but because I helped tell the story of one of the ghosts. Gertrude Warnick died rescuing patients from a fire at a nursing home in 1953. She lies in an unmarked grave in Clearwater, and when he heard about it, Michael Helmstetter, CEO of Jolley Trolley, wanted to do something to help.
Helmstetter offered 50% of the proceeds from a new tour he was planning until Warnick got a headstone. (One is now in the works, and I’ll report more when I find out.)
Since 1982, Clearwater Jolley Trolley has been moving locals and tourists around the beaches and streets of Clearwater. They organize pub crawls, weddings and offer regular routes. When he was ready to add the haunted tour, Helmstetter went to the Clearwater Historical Society, he said, “to make this thing a factual, real, real story.”
Together they chose an itinerary for a southern tour, currently underway, and enlisted local author Joshua Ginsberg to turn stories into stories.
Here are three of the people you will meet on the tour.
Before the tour even leaves the parking lot of the Clearwater Historical Society and Museum, you’ll hear about Ivan Bormuth, whose presence still looms large in the old boiler room.
In 1947 Bormuth was a janitor at what was then the South Ward School. According to a report in the Tampa Tribune on February 7, 1947, the tragedy began when 55-year-old Bormuth attempted to relight the school’s furnace.
“Apparently a considerable amount of oil vapor had accumulated in the oven and it exploded when Bormuth struck a match,” the Tribune reported. The blast, which knocked Bormuth to the ground, burned his face and hands, and he was listed in critical condition at Morton Plant Hospital. The Tribune reports that the explosion could be heard three blocks from the courthouse and no one else was injured.
“The women came running from the houses in the neighborhood of the school, and a large crowd gathered.”
I couldn’t find any news reports on what happened to Bormuth next, but while researching for the tour, Clearwater Historical Society President Allison Dolan found he died of a heart attack that year there, causing the school to close for a week. The school officially closed in 2008 and in 2014 the Historical Society moved in.
“I won’t go into this building alone because when you walk into it you just feel that moment when someone is standing next to you and you don’t know why they are there. It’s kind of like a heaviness,” Dolan told tram-goers through a recording of the tour.
She often brings her dogs when she comes to the building after hours.
They refuse to enter from the side where the boiler room is.
One of the best parts about most ghost tours is that they take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise get to. Along with Haunted Clearwater, this includes the gated grounds of the Belleview Inn at Belleview Place.
Past sleek condos and stately mansions, you’ll see the old hotel that railroad magnate Henry Plant built as Belleview Biltmore in 1897. (It was moved here in 2016.) Plant’s son, Morton Plant, met Maisie Caldwell Manwaring, the Palm Beach Post reported in 1999, and offered her husband $8 million to divorce her.
“Used to get what she wanted, Maisie balked when Morton refused to buy her a chain of perfectly matched Oriental pearls from Pierre Cartier for $1.2 million.
Reports differ on this bit. The Post reported “Maisie traded her wedding gift from Morton — the Plant mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue — for the pearls. The Cartier house is still there today.
After her death, a 1957 column in the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned that the pearls were a gift to Maisie from her husband. Anyway, the pearls were exchanged for the mansion, and after her death, Maisie married several times.
When Maisie Caldwell Manwaring Plant Hayward Rovensky died, her famous pearls were auctioned off to an anonymous dealer, according to a United Press report. Reports from the time differ on the amount of pearls reported, but someone bought pearls worth $1 million for less than $200,000.
In 2019, Forbes published a detailed article about the transaction and the people behind it.
“And the pearls? After being auctioned off for a fraction of their original value, they seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. No one seems to have any idea where they ended up; the two strands may have separated or even broken so the beads could be used in other pieces. But if they’re somewhere intact – half-forgotten in a safe, or neglected in someone’s vast but disorganized collection – then someone is in possession, nearly a century after Mrs Plant got them. worn for the first time, from Cartier’s greatest memorabilia piece of all time.
The treasure, however, has not been forgotten.
In 2004, The Times reported a ghost sighting at the Belleview and listed Maisie as one of the reported regulars who “wanders the halls, looking for her pearls”.
The most recent tragedy on the tour took place at the Capitol Theater in Clearwater. There, in 1981, former theater manager Bill Neville was found murdered.
According to a report by the St. Petersburg Times, Neville and a business partner leased the theater in 1979 after it closed.
“They reopened it and showed old classic movies and live entertainment. The business failed, however, and closed less than a year later.
Neville’s mother told the newspaper that her son “loved this theater and put his heart and soul into it”.
Neville made headlines again in 1999, when the Clearwater Times reported on a series of strange things that happened at the theater. A few years after Neville’s murder, a group of actors rehearsed a show there. The producer told a crew member not to be alone in the theater. But the crew member had work to finish.
“Late at night, (Jim) Demetrius said he had a look at the balcony as one of the chair seats closed,” The Times reported. “‘If you know these seats, you know how heavy they are,’ Demetrius said. “They don’t close on their own.
Demetrius walked to the edge of the stage and called out to Neville.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you. I had nothing to do with it. Now I have to do this job.
“After that, it was like we had come to an agreement,” Demetrius said. “I could stay and work and he could leave me alone.”
Meet Tampa Bay
On the first night of the Haunted Clearwater tour, after more than an hour of stories, stories, and amazed stares, the cart came lumbering back to the Historical Society grounds. I wasn’t the only one there fascinated by where we live and the people who were here before us.
So many people see Florida as nothing more than beaches and theme parks, said Suzann Bex of East Lake, “and Florida has so much depth.”
“I love the whole concept,” agreed Rita Besser of Clearwater.
She is delighted with the trolley’s northern tour, which should take place in a few weeks and, naturally, includes a trip through the cemetery in Dunedin. I plan to be there and can’t wait to see who we meet next.
If you are going to
The 75-minute Haunted Clearwater tour is $29.99 for people 12 and older, $19.99 for kids under 12. Tours take place every evening at different times, depending on the day. For more information on Clearwater Jolley Trolley’s Haunted Clearwater Tour, visit clearwaterjolleytrolley.com/tour-item/haunted-clearwater.