Introduction and History
The notoriously haunted Peyton Randolph house boasts many titles, including the most haunted house in the US, the most original house in Colonial Williamsburg, the most haunted place in Williamsburg, and the most haunted house on the East Coast. The Randolph House is featured on every ghost tour in Williamsburg and boasts title of most infamous structure, next to the Public Gaol and Wythe House as the most haunted houses in Williamsburg. Since its construction in 1715, about 30 people have died in the house, from children to adults, due to freak accidents, murders, war, to mysterious natural illnesses.
One of the oldest and most original houses in Colonial Williamsburg, the Peyton Randolph house was built in 1715 by William Robertson. Sir John Randolph purchased the home in 1721, and later purchased the land next to it and built a second home on the east lot in 1724. Sir John Randolph, the only Virginia Colonial to be knighted by the English Crown, was highly respected and very wealthy. When he died in 1737, the house was under the care of his wife, Susannah, until his second of three sons, Peyton, turned 24 years of age. The first son, Beverley, inherited property in Gloucester County and the third son received land in the city’s southern edge. Susannah remained in the house until her death in 1754.
Peyton Randolph later expanded the home, building an elaborate center section, connecting all rooms and forming the current L-shape seen today that includes three main houses. The east wing of the house is not connected to the rest of the house, it serves like a modern mother-in-law suite. The main center section still contains some of the original and best surviving paneling in the historic district, including walnut paneling, fine brass hinges and locks, and a floor made mostly of the originally edge cut pine. On a tour through Colonial Williamsburg, one can see the attention to detail of the home’s interior, and some of the older aspects of the house on the second floor, where the Randolph family slept.
The Randolph House’s final form encompasses three structures forged into one by connecting walls and hallways, and several outbuildings. It has red panel siding, representing its original appearance. Sir Randolph purchased the home shortly after its construction and expanded the building to its large size seen today. Peyton Randolph is considered to be the first President of the United States, as he was the President of the First and Second Continental Congresses and played an important role leading up to the American Revolution. He chaired the meeting during Patrick Henry’s fiery “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, negotiated the return of the gunpowder to the Colonial Magazine from Governor Dunmore, and his home served as a meeting place for other revolutionaries like George Wythe and Thomas Jefferson, who was also his cousin.
Following Peyton’s death in Philadelphia in 1775, his body was pickled in a barrel and sent back to Williamsburg. Today, he is one of few buried under William and Mary’s Wren Chapel, in the Wren Crypt, with his father Sir Randolph, and brother John Randolph, a Tory. The books willed to Peyton from his father were given to his cousin Thomas Jefferson, who added the large collection to his own library. These books would later become the first in founding the Library of Congress. After Peyton’s death, his wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Harrison, resided in the home until her death in 1782.
In 1781, the house served as headquarters for the French Forces under the command of French general Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, until French and American forces moved in to field positions around Yorktown to surround General Lord Cornwallis. Following the death of Betty Randolph in 1782, the home was placed on auction and awarded to the highest bidder, Joseph Hornsby, in 1783. The home was later owned by the Peachy family in the early 19th century, namely Mary Monroe Peachy, who welcomed the French General Lafayette into her home during his visit through the US. He spent two nights in the house on October 21 and 22 of 1824.
A little known fact about the Randolph house is that during the aftermath of the Battle of Williamsburg, the Peyton Randolph House, occupied by the Peachy family, was used as a hospital to treat wounded soldiers. Nearly 30 other buildings were used as hospitals during this time. The home was purchased by the Wilson/Ball family in in the early 1920s, after having rented it since 1919. The land was divided into several smaller lots with two different buildings. Both buildings had basements, which according to the Colonial Williamsburg Report, “Both buildings had basements, destroying any archaeological evidence of previous structures or features.” (1988 report). Colonial Williamsburg purchased one of the main structures from Mrs. Ball in 1938, and completed their purchase of the rest of the original property in the 1960s, and both of the 1920s era homes ere removed in the early 1970s.
The first restoration on the property the house began in October 1939 and was completed in April 1940. A second restoration began in June 1967 and lasted for one year. The center and west sections of the house opened to visitors on July 1, 1968, while the east wing remained occupied.
Of course, what ghost tour in Williamsburg is complete without the hauntings? Voices are heard inside, objects move on their own, and visitors, including the famous French General of the American Revolution Marquis de Lafayette, have felt hands touch them or even push them, sometimes down a flight of stairs. In 1824, Lafayette returned to Williamsburg, where he had spent some time during the Revolutionary War. During his tour through the US, he stayed at the Peyton Randolph house in Williamsburg. He wrote,
“I considered myself fortunate to lodge in the home of a great man, Peyton Randolph. Upon my arrival, as I entered through the foyer, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It nudged me as if intending to keep me from entering. I quickly turned, but found no one there. The nights were not restful as the sounds of voices kept me awake for most of my stay.”
When the building served as lodging house as recently as the late 1960s, guests would rush out in the middle of the night, claiming to have been physically and violently shook, their limbs tugged on, or to have seen apparitions over their bed. An interview from the book by Jackie Bernhard, the Hauntings of Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, recounts one guest’s experience:
“I was resting comfortable when awakened by the peculiar feeling that someone was tugging on my arm. Naturally, I assumed I was dreaming, so I rolled over and went back to sleep. A short while later, I was being shaken violently! As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see that I was completely alone. I darted out of bed and ran as fast as I could. I didn’t even go back to collect the things I’d left behind.”
One of the Peachy boys was climbing a tree in the 19th century, when the branch broke and he fell to his death. A young girl living on the second floor fell out of her window to her death. A confederate veteran attending the College of William and Mary suddenly and mysteriously fell ill and died in the house. Later in the 18th century, two men staying at the house entered a heated argument and shot and killed each other.
One of the more popular and more recent stories is that of a Colonial Williamsburg security guard, who became trapped in the basement of the house after entering through the shutter doors behind the house. As he was making his exit, he heard a large and terrifying growl and felt something grab his legs, as if holding his feet firmly down. He was stopped in his tracks and unable to move his legs. Then, suddenly, the shutter doors slammed shut and his flashlight turned off. He quickly used his radio to call for help. When his lieutenant finally came and pried open the cellar doors, he was released from whatever force was holding him. While some say he quit the next day, in fact the security left three months later for a higher paying job.
Others have heard the sounds of knocking coming from the inside of the house, furniture moving on its own, or the sounds of children playing inside. The second floor of the house is regarded as the most haunted, as many report feeling something malicious pushing them, usually down the stairs. A woman is occasionally heard singing in the backyard by security, as if she stands right in front of them. They find no one.
Another event tells of an alarm that went off at the east wing of the house, the house attached to the right side of the Randolph house, which used to be occupied by two women until they passed away. Security was unable to obtain a key to the property, so they found a way in through one of the windows in the inside. No evidence of fire or smoke was present. Upon entering, they found something very unusual. A fire extinguisher was resting in the middle of the floor, its contents completely emptied around it in what looked like a controlled circular pattern. Security then decided that the house had been infiltrated, so they called on more support, surrounded, and searched the house for intruders.
Strangely, the fire retardant material did not seep under the door and enter into the other section of the main house, as if it was stopped by an invisible boundary. More uncanny, was that the extinguisher was completely empty and the PIN had been removed, but never found.
However, the most startling discovery was what they found when they lifted the extinguisher. There was absolutely nothing- no extinguisher discharge-below the extinguisher. It was resting in the middle of the room as if it had been placed from the wall on to the floor, with the discharge nozzle facing downward, and had sprayed around the room in an odd pattern, while remaining in perfect position. No residue was found underneath the fire extinguisher, nor on its bottom. No intruders had been found, nor any signs of break-in. Furthermore, even if someone was involved, how could they achieve and control such an unusual spray pattern in the room?
Past Explanations Insufficient
Our inquisitive nature demands that we ask why. Why is the Peyton Randolph house haunted? We have explanations for hauntings at the Wythe House; the Wren Building, the President’s House, and the Brafferton House at the College of William and Mary; and the Bruton Parish Church, among many others. The explanations make logical sense in our minds, but the one explanation that has failed to convince is that of the Randolph House.
The typical explanation has been that the Randolph House was cursed by Betty Randolph’s slave, Eve, who in 1782 cursed the house after being forcibly taken away and split from her son when she was sold to different owners as punishment for running away with the British the previous year. The second explanation is that the house’s activities are caused by Betty Randolph’s cruel behavior towards her slaves, much of which is a mystery, possibly akin to New Orleans’s LaLaurie Mansion.
Marie Delphine Macarty LaLaurie and her husband, Dr. Louis LaLaurie, were prestigious and prominent members of the New Orleans elite. Their status and wealth were shields, disguising a double life. The couple used their slaves to perform heinous medical experiments including sex changes, torture, limbs stretched out and rearranged to resemble a crab. A womans limbs were removed and odd circular pieces of skin removed as if to resemble a human caterpillar, faces were removed from others to resemble human gargoyles, and many other horrors. Once the public found out, they attempted to capture and lynch the LaLauries, who quickly fled to their native France.
An older slave ready to die is to thank for the discovery of these atrocities; without her sacrifice these acts would have been lost to history. This was less than 200 years ago, but it happened in our country, under the wicked monstrosity of slavery. It may be hard to imagine today, but slaves were property and had no rights. Owners could do whatever they wanted with their property, and no records of this level of barbarity would have been kept, especially if committed and concealed by an elite family. One cannot rule out that atrocities did not occur at the Randolph house, but there is little evidence to suggest mistreatment of slaves of this degree.
Connecting the Dots: New Theory Found, Lost History
The most likely explanation is that Indian burials on, and surrounding the house were disturbed at one or multiple points in history. This is a fact that has been overlooked by Colonial Williamsburg, written records, ghost tours, and ghost books written on Williamsburg. Most like to tell the tale of Betty Randolph and her slave, Eve, which has existed for decades, but this kafkaesque explanation falls short. We believe that the primary and original source of the haunting activity reported in the home pre-dates 1699 and Colonial presence in the area.
While evidence of pre-Colonial activity was scarce on the Randolph property, according to a Colonial Williamsburg report, they note that “Aside from a few residual or displaced projectile points and pottery, no aboriginal artifacts or features were located during the archaeological excavations of the 1930s, 1950s, or 1980s.” and “Indian remains specific to the Peyton Randolph back lot were virtually non-existent.” – 1988 report, http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR1538.xml
While this assumption contradicts a 1952 Archaeological Report conducted by Colonial Williamsburg of the Peyton-Randolph House, which stated that during an interview from the previous owner, Mrs. Ball, that “Indians are buried on the east side of the yard. Mr. Chorley and Mrs. Ball both agree they should not be disturbed” (Kocher and Duke 1952:69), the 1998 report does recognize that there is some inconsistency in the discovery of these Native American burial remains.
The “east side” containing the Indian Graves was first identified in the July 12, 1938. The “east side” refers to the area in front of or behind the small reconstructed addition to the Peyton Randolph House. The statement by Mrs. Ball was made on July 12, 1938, before the east wing had been reconstructed, and before the National Park Service built the Colonial Parkway tunnel under the Historic Area.
Sources for the information regarding the alleged burials are unknown, and no archaeology, other than uncovering the foundations of the so-called “east wing,” has taken place in that part of the yard. Construction of the Colonial National Historic Parkway tunnel in 1940 disturbed much of the east side of the yard (and the newly reconstructed “east wing”) where the Indian Graves were originally reported by the previous owners- graves that they both said should not be disturbed. In an interview with two owners of Lot 7 on the Randolph land, identified as Mr. and Mrs. Skillman, the government had condemned the east property where the Indians were buried to build the Parkway:
Mrs. S. They had several people. There was an army couple. After your daddy died  we were still renting. Where did you have your chicken house? He sold eggs.
Mr. S. That was behind the garage.
Mrs. S. The tunnel goes through there now. See, he owned that property…
Mr. S. That piece of property went all the way back. The United States Government had it condemned to build a tunnel for the Parkway, then let C. W. have it. Daddy was finally paid for it in 1946 or ’47. They came right up to the edge of the garage and took all the back part of it away, then covered [the tunnel] back over which you’d never know anything’d ever been done to it.
In a separate interview conducted withTom and Leah McCaskey regarding the lots they occupied, lots 5 and 6, they recounted their experiences with the construction of the Parkway Tunnel and excavation. In it, they note that the graves of one of their dogs was destroyed during construction, a piece of Indian pottery was removed and kept by one of the family members, and that the first excavation was shallow, in that it only reached the colonial foundation, overlooking any possible further Native American discoveries underneath in favor of reconstructing the Colonial Peyton Randolph House:
Lots 5 and 6: Tom and Leah McCaskey (1982)
Mrs. M. I don’t think [the front yard was excavated]. The excavations went right up to the big hedge that divided our house from the Skillmans. They went right up to the edges there and did not go over. Mrs. Skillman, I don’t think, would let them do it.
[The excavations were] after Tom and I were married. He remembers too. He was the one who persuade mother to do it. He was working for Colonial Williamsburg. They asked him to ask her [if they could cross-trench]. But they didn’t go very deep. They were diagonal. I just remember Jimmy being around with his crew.
Mr. M. They dug about eight inches around the foundations and left them for several weeks, took photographs, and filled them up again and that was it. It was private property they were working on. They did a good job fillin’ and packin’ it. That whole area your mother used for her parking.
Mrs. M. Yeah. It sunk and they would come back and fill it in … . Every time it would rain.
Mr. M. You should have a lot of gravel down there.
Mrs. M. Different kinds of gravel.
Mr. M. They used all kinds of gravel.
Mrs. M. It was muddy and then they brought the red clay to put in where the parking lot was.
Mr. M. Enough to drive any archaeologist crazy.
Mrs. M. You know the round thing that they think was the still? It was under the big trees, exactly where you are digging now [in December 1982].
Mr. M. It was a round brick foundation.
Mrs. M. They thought it was a still. I had a picture of that and the main artifacts —- the ones that were valuable.
Mr. M. They were in the archaeological library at one time. These copies were made from those pictures. I’ve got some out in the yard in a couple of boxes.
Mrs. M. Mother was so mad. They dug these trenches right up to the basement. Those trenches filled with water and all the water poured in the basement. And the foundations of the house shifted. The house was all about to fall in. Mother had to have big wedges put in there to hold the house up.
Mr. M. Cost us a lot of money to shore the house up.
Mrs. M. Anyway, mother was upset and called them up and said the artifacts belonged to her and she wanted them back. They told her that anything they dug up she could have. Ed Kendrew called and said there were several very valuable finds.Could he keep them? I think they were some coach buckles, and some Indian pottery. She said, “Yes. The valuable things.” So, this other stuff, they brought and put in the garage. Mother, when her tourists came… were allowed to go out and pick out what they want and take away. When the house was destroyed all that stuff was there. We just brought it along.
Indian pottery was discovered on the land. According to Figure 79 of the 1988 report:
The graves originally discovered in 1938, disturbed in 1940, and again mentioned in 1952, were destroyed when the National Parkway Tunnel was built in 1940. The National Parkway tunnel runs underneath the grounds near the Peyton Randolph House. When it was constructed, the nearby Indian burial site was disturbed and lost to history. We believe that this is a more credible explanation to the hauntings in the Peyton Randolph House, a cause which would pre-date Betty Randolph and Eve, and one that would offer stronger evidence of paranormal activity. The many strange deaths and occurrences in the house over the past 300 years only serve to compound the activity likely caused by disturbed Native American burials on Randolph House grounds.
Pre-Colonial history of this area may have been overlooked or underreported, especially when many of these buildings were originally built in the early 18th century, and as these sites are not representative of the Colonial Period for which Colonial Williamsburg emulates. Native Americans inhabited this land for thousands of years. They lived on it, they died on it, and they were laid to rest in it. It’s reasonable to assume that their spirits, possibly resulting from disturbed resting places, also inhabit the area just as the ghosts of our Colonial ancestors. The influence of Native Americans on our history must not be forgotten, and their rightful place in our ghost stories and on our ghost tours must not be overlooked. Our ultimate, extended, and regular ghost tours of Williamsburg recount these events as a primary explanation for the hauntings and activity surrounding the Peyton Randolph House. We hope you enjoyed this article and look forward to seeing you on one of our ghost tours! Visit colonialghosts.com for more or subscribe to our newsletter and blog.
(Note the Parkway tunnel overlaid and shown on the satellite map view running through the center of the photo. It rests to the right side of the Randolph House’s east wing, and directly under the neighboring Ludwell Tenement. Graves disturbed on the east wing of the house are likely to have extended under the Randolph house, not just in the area where construction occurred in 1940.)