The Phantoms of North Fairfax Street

Panoramic map of Old Town Alexandria in 1963 (Photo source: Library of Congress)
 This 1863 panoramic map by Charles Magnus shows a bird's-eye view of Old Town Alexandria. King Street runs vertically through the center of the map. (Photo source: Library of Congress.) 

It was mid-summer in Virginia, June 27, 1868. That time of year when the sky almost blushes and stays light even as lamplighters shuffled through the streets that dice Old Town Alexandria into neat portions. Humid air swept inland from the Potomac River swirled through the city, dancing through the young oaks and dogwood trees, bouncing off of the cobblestones and brick sidewalks, and settling in the open Market Square at the center of town. Here, vendors would have boxed up their stalls just as proprietors of Gadsby’s Tavern began opening their doors to Alexandria for the evening.

Black and white photograph of the 100 Block of North Fairfax Street. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.)
A view of the North Fairfax Street in the mid-1860s. The Schafers' house is at the far end of the street. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.)

At the eastern edge of Market Square, Mr. William Phillips perched on the stoop of Alexandria’s confectionary shop on 107 North Fairfax Street, which doubled as the home of his in-laws, Christian and Susan Schafer. Given the time, half-past seven, he might have been headed to Gadsby’s for a brew or home to his wife to enjoy a perfectly languid summer evening. And then screams erupted from deep inside the house.

Two days later – on June 29, 1868 – the Alexandria Gazette published an account entitled a “Fatal and Melancholy Affair”.[1] This article, along with other contemporary newspaper reports, detailed how an ordinary summer evening on North Fairfax Street destroyed a family and provided Alexandria with one of its most persistent ghost stories.

The tragic tale went something like this:

When retiring for the evening in the living quarters above their confectionary, all seemed well. The Schafers likely washed up from supper after preparing fresh sweets to sell the following day, and, perhaps they discussed the upcoming family wedding. The youngest Schafer daughter, Laura, who was thought to be a great beauty, was recently engaged to Mr. Charles Tennesson, a favored young man in the Alexandria community known for his “kindness of heart and agreeable manners,” according to The Washington Evening Star.[2] “He had been her constant companion for years,” reported the Gazette, echoing her family members’ accounts that Laura often refused to have company beyond Charles.

As Laura readied herself for bed, her grandmother, Mrs. Ballenger, did the same, bustling around her granddaughter in their shared room. Laura, having “completed her toilet,” moved into her father’s adjoining room to grab a handkerchief. She used her kerosene oil lamp to guide her through the house’s cool, dark interior. Laura was barely into her father’s room when the glass on her lamp cracked.  

The burning oil splattered onto the skirt of her dress, and fire bloomed on the garment as the small flame in the lamp ignited the kerosene soaking into her clothes. With the “stop, drop, and roll” initiative about a century away[3], Laura had little hope of extinguishing the fire on her own that now crept up her dress. Her Victorian garb would have been no help, either. Bound under a corset, hoop skirt, and gathered layers of fabric[4], Miss Schafer was trapped, suffocating in her blazing ensemble. The flames quickly ate through her dress and licked at Laura’s skin. As her pain registered, panic set it, and Laura decided to run.

Throwing the lamp down in her father’s bedroom, which started a small fire in his quarters, Laura sped through the glowing hearth. She screamed “piteously for help” as she flew down the staircase in her home, effectively fanning the flames that were now biting into her flesh and leaping into her hair. Laura, in agony, was completely engulfed by the time the Schafer household was alerted to her cries. Her mother and brother-in-law, startled into action, met her at the bottom of the stairs and tried to extinguish the flames that “extended far above her head.” Laura wailed as her mother failed to put out the fire, severely burning her own arm in the process, as reported days later by the Richmond Dispatcher.[5] Turning to Mr. Phillips, Laura “beseechingly implored him to save her” as she continued to burn. He heroically threw his coat around her, and subdued “the fiery element.”

Upstairs, Mrs. Ballenger successfully used a blanket to quench the fire in Mr. Schafer’s room, and there’s a chance she could have saved Laura had her granddaughter not fled downstairs. But even with the flames extinguished, Laura’s agony was not over.

The pain of her burns radiated across her scorched skin while she waited for the arrival of the summoned doctor. “Every expedient that science could suggest…that might possibly prevent or hinder the approach of death was resorted to,” explained the Gazette, but Laura’s severe burns were beyond repair. While opioids and forms of morphine were available at the time[6], reports neglect to say whether Laura’s excruciating pain was managed. This means there’s a chance Laura lay awake for fifteen hours feeling the full impact of her vicious burns, which were “to the consistency of a crisp,” according to the attending Dr. Lewis. Perhaps the only relief to Laura’s suffering was that she spent the remainder of her life with her betrothed, Charles Tennesson, dutifully at her side.

Burning oil lamp. (Photo source: Pixnio, Public Domain.)
A burning kerosene oil lamp similar to the one used by Laura Schafer on the night of the accident.  (Photo source: Pixnio, Public Domain.)

Laura Schafer, who had so much of her life ahead of her, succumbed to her injuries at 11 o’clock the next morning, Sunday, June 29th. She was 26 years old.

Devastated by the loss of his dear Laura, Charles did what so many of us have done in times of heartbreak: he went out for a drink. Calling on his friend Mr. Henry Green, the two plodded down Ramsey Alley to the wholesale liquor store of Downham & Green, where Henry was a member. Having forgotten his key to the back door of the establishment, Henry left Charles briefly to go around to the front entrance on King Street. For Charles, being alone with his grief—even for a moment—was likely unbearable. His mind grew dark as his sorrows deepened.

Once inside, Henry drew ale for the two of them, and, with pints finally in hand, Charles managed a toast: “Here’s to you and I—God save us.” With neither knowing what to say, the two men sat in silence as they drank, likely relying on the comfort of their years of friendship to fill the barroom. So they remained in Downham & Green struggling to cope with Laura Schafer’s horrifying death, drowning their sorrows with suds.

When it seemed as though Charles had his fill, Henry collected their empty tumblers and turned toward the water stand to clean up. And while Green’s back was turned, Charles took out a five barreled Whitney revolver, brought it up to his right temple and unceremoniously pulled the trigger. Henry wheeled around when he heard the shot rip through the silence the old friends had left hanging in the air. Tennesson fell heavily to the floor.

Like his bride-to-be, death did not come quickly for Charles Tennesson. While the bullet tore through the “cavity of his skull and lodged upon the opposite side” of his head, Charles remained suspended between life and death while Henry desperately called for help. Surgeons were summoned immediately, but Charles’ wounds were “beyond the reach of the assistance to be afforded by earthly doctors.” He was taken to his father’s home, where he died at twenty minutes past three o’clock, only four hours after Laura Schafer.  

Photograph of what is believed to be the Schafer Plot at the Washington Street United Methodist Church Cemetery in Alexandria. (Photo source: Ruthie Cooney.)
One of two memorial headstones erected for the Schafer Family at the Union Cemetery of the Washington Street United Methodist Church. Although their individual headstones have been lost to time, this is believed to be the plot where Laura and her family were buried. Charles Tennesson’s gravesite is unknown. (Photo source: Ruthie Cooney.)

Although the pair was reunited in death, those they left behind were struck acutely with agony. Laura Schafer’s death, according to the Gazette, “deprived the city of one of its prettiest ornaments, and a family and large circle of friends one of their most cherished members.” Her accidental death and Charles’ “act of self-destruction” brought sincere sympathies from the community for both the Schafer and Tennesson families. A great hole was surely left by the loss of Laura and Charles.

But what if Laura never left her home on North Fairfax Street? And what if Charles, as he did in life, refused to leave Laura in death? Would it be too outrageous to believe that the tragic nature of their deaths anchored them to Alexandria? Laura Schafer and Charles Tennesson’s unfortunate fates have birthed ghost stories that live on today, and there could be some truth to the legend of their lingering spirits.

Regrettably, when the Schafer-Tennesson deaths are retold, details are often misconstrued or invented to heighten the drama of their story: Charles either dies of a broken heart[7] or is completely neglected[8][9][10], and Laura almost always dies in her wedding dress the night before their nuptials.[11][12][13][14] With the facts related to their deaths so often distorted, it’s hard to believe reports that Laura and Charles remain in the physical realm, but a string of the old Schafer home’s proprietors remain adamant that the 19th-century couple has stuck around Old Town. The site of Laura Schafer’s death has never been devoid of activity, as local businesses have continued to operate out of the townhouse, but does this activity include that of the paranormal variety?

More recently, documented claims from ghost hunters, ghost tours guides, tourists, and Old Town locals suggest paranormal encounters with both male and female entities in the house. Rumor has it that Laura is a friendly ghost, as paranormal investigators and business owners have been greeted by a gentle “Hello.”[15][16] But Charles might not be an amiable apparition like Laura, as an overwhelming male presence has been identified in the basement.[17] One business owner claims she was told, “Enough!” and “Leave!” while alone in the townhouse[18], and, according to employees of the Christmas shop, merchandise displays were partially knocked down by a displeased spirit.[19]

Signs of Laura’s presence on North Fairfax Street continue to appear. Cold gusts of air have also been felt on the staircase that Laura flew down as she burned[20], and a lantern within the house has been known to sway when Laura’s death is mentioned.[21] Children, who supposedly encounter her spirit more often than adults, have described seeing a woman weeping in a wedding dress on the property[22], while adults often sense unfulfilled longing or claustrophobia.[23] The most common report is the faint smell of something burning.

It’s clear that misfortune was not in short supply 150 years ago in Old Town, but the sources of mysterious sights, sounds, and smells at 107 North Fairfax Street are still shrouded in smoke. One thing is certain: either through ghostly manifestations or the memory of their tragic ends, Laura Schafer and Charles Tennesson continue to haunt Alexandrians today.

 

 

Want a more in-depth look at the hauntings on North Fairfax Street or around Alexandria? Check out Michael Lee Pope’s book, Ghosts of Alexandria!

Footnotes

  1. ^ “Fatal and Melancholy Affair,” Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, June 29, 1868, Library of Congress: Alexandria Gazette.
  2. ^ “Terrible Tragedy in Alexandria: A Young Lady Burnt to Death—Her Lover Shoots Himself,” The Washington Evening Star, June 29, 1868, DC Public Library: The Washington Evening Star.
  3. ^ http://blog.foremostpromotions.com/stop-drop-and-roll-history-and-teachi...
  4. ^ https://www.uvm.edu/landscape/dating/clothing_and_hair/1860s_clothing_wo...
  5. ^ “Distressing Affair in Alexandria,” the Richmond Dispatcher, June 30, 1868, Library of Congress: the Richmond Dispatcher.
  6. ^ Roger Collier, “A Short History of Pain Management,” Canadian Medical Association Journal News, December 14, 2017, https://cmajnews.com/2017/12/14/a-short-history-of-pain-management-cmaj-....
  7. ^ http://phantasticphantoms.blogspot.com/2012/05/old-town-alexandria.html
  8. ^ Michael Flynn, “Haunted Candy Shop’s Perfect for the Holiday,” NBC 4 Washington, October 30, 2009, https://www.nbcwashington.com/the-scene/shopping/Haunted-Candy-Shops-Per....
  9. ^ Erica Jones, “’A Chill Went down My Spine’: 3 of Alexandria’s Spookiest Stories,” NBC 4 Washington, October 18, 2017, https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/3-of-Alexandrias-Spookiest-Ghos....
  10. ^ Mary Beth Crain, Haunted Christmas: Yuletide Ghosts and Other Spooky Holiday Happenings, Morris Book Publishing, 2010.
  11. ^ Erica Jones, “’A Chill Went down My Spine’: 3 of Alexandria’s Spookiest Stories,” NBC 4 Washington, October 18, 2017, https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/3-of-Alexandrias-Spookiest-Ghos....
  12. ^ Michael Flynn, “Haunted Candy Shop’s Perfect for the Holiday,” NBC 4 Washington, October 30, 2009, https://www.nbcwashington.com/the-scene/shopping/Haunted-Candy-Shops-Per....
  13. ^ “House in the Country Christmas Store, Alexandria” D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers, http://www.dchauntings.com/id10.html.
  14. ^ Mary Beth Crain, Haunted Christmas: Yuletide Ghosts and Other Spooky Holiday Happenings, Morris Book Publishing, 2010.
  15. ^ “House in the Country Christmas Store, Alexandria” D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers, http://www.dchauntings.com/id10.html. 
  16. ^ Mary Beth Crain, Haunted Christmas: Yuletide Ghosts and Other Spooky Holiday Happenings, Morris Book Publishing, 2010.
  17. ^ Michael Flynn, “Haunted Candy Shop’s Perfect for the Holiday,” NBC 4 Washington, October 30, 2009, https://www.nbcwashington.com/the-scene/shopping/Haunted-Candy-Shops-Per....
  18. ^ Michael Lee Pope, Ghosts of Alexandria, Charleston: Haunted America, 2010.
  19. ^ Ibid.
  20. ^ Ibid.
  21. ^ Erica Jones, “’A Chill Went down My Spine’: 3 of Alexandria’s Spookiest Stories,” NBC 4 Washington, October 18, 2017, https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/3-of-Alexandrias-Spookiest-Ghos....
  22. ^ Chuch Hagee, “A Ghostly Walking History of Alexandria,” The Zebra, October 2011, https://thezebra.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Zebra1011Web.pdf.
  23. ^ Ibid.