I do not mind admitting two things:
One, that Key West is on my bucket list–less for its ambiance than for its ghosts. Key West has all the history and violence to be what it is–one of the most haunted places in the U.S. Its Spanish name, after all, was Cayo Hueso–Island of Bones, after the first Spaniards to land there found the beaches littered with bones from a battle between two Native American tribes, years before. The Anglicized name does the island no justice.
And two, the ghosts of children make me both overwhelmingly sad and furiously angry. So many of them, you see, are ghosts through no fault of their own; they have become so by some sort of violence perpetrated by adults, as in this Key West tale. I’d never heard the story of the murdered children who haunt the cemetery of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church until the other night, on an episode of Travel Channel’s Most Terrifying Places on Earth, but it makes me sad and angry, even though it has its beginnings more than one hundred seventy-five years ago.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is a magnificent one that’s been rebuilt no fewer than three times after it burned to the ground: once, if I recall the story right, in the 19th century, and twice in the 20th. The ghostly children who haunt its cemetery date back to that earliest fire. That fire was arson–and it was murder.
The contemporary pastor of St. Paul’s was not only a man of the cloth; he was that unfortunate and frequently violent creature, a jealous man with a beautiful wife. Jealous men of that sort are hell to live with, and if a woman gets away from him with her life, she’s a lucky one.
The minister’s wife yearned for gentleness and tenderness and consideration in a man. She wasn’t going to find those things in the arms of her husband, but she did outside her marriage, with one of the church’s deacons.
Their affair was a discreet one, but secrets are not easy things to keep in a small community, and her jealous husband learned that she loved another man.
And the knowledge drove him mad.
He didn’t go after her lover. He wanted to destroy his wife.
One morning, while she was teaching a Sunday school class, he took action, a very simple and deadly action:
He set the church on fire, not with his words, but with a flaming torch.
The fire was brutally fast; yet others were able to escape from it. Not so his wife, and not so–most horribly–five children who were trapped with her in a remote Sunday school classroom. They were all found dead.
The records do not seem to show, oddly enough, that the minister was ever charged with the murders of his wife and the five innocents who were with her that fiery morning. There are no records of his fate, save that he died some years later.
Wherever he rests, he rests in undeserved peace. Oddly, so does his intended victim, his wife, though surely she earned hers.
The five children were all buried in a corner of the graveyard, and though their names have been forgotten, their cruel deaths have not. They will not allow them to be.
They have haunted the cemetery almost from the time of their deaths–five children, huddled together, often in the corner where they lie buried, in a plot marked with the statue of an angel, a marble guardian, perhaps symbolic of the angel who wasn’t there to save them that morning, but who guards them now.
And, so the legend says, the children are still terrified of fire, be it from a torch or even a lantern. One Key West ghost tour director says that one night as he guided a tour through St. Paul’s, no fewer than a half dozen of his band of tourists begged him to get away from that corner–
The children were there, they said. They could see them. And they were all weeping in absolute terror–
because he was carrying a lantern, in which burned a kerosene-fed flame.
So little–and still, so afraid of fire.