ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. — All decked out in soft blues, pink and white, The Myrtles plantation looks like the belle of a Southern ball.
Charming, genteel, beguiling, she dips the skirts of her great moss-draped oak trees in welcome. A period veranda, trimmed with wrought iron and dotted with fuchsia begonias, winds artfully around the hostess mansion.
On a broad expanse of back lawn, crepe myrtle trees stand tall, clad in pink blossoms. A gazebo on an island in a tiny pond beckons you to curl up in cozy seats, while porch rockers lure you toward their own special domain.
The pretty plantation hides her masque of horrors well.
Inside, among elegant antiques and crystal chandeliers, mansion walls harbor chilling tales of violence, sorrow and passion, of voodooism, poison and revenge. The Myrtles--scene of 10 gruesome murders--is called "America's Most Haunted House."
Unexplained clunks, creaks and cries, laughter, clinking and music penetrate its 18 rooms, leaving guests of this unusual bed-and-breakfast inn baffled and bug-eyed. Some have been so spooked during the night that they've scurried off before dawn, never to return.
It is said that locked doors fling open, paintings fly across rooms, candles leap from holders. Violins play tunefully in the night, broken clocks tick and beds rise in the air. And that's just the overture.
For decades visitors, owners and neighbors have reported seeing dozens of plantation phantoms: a naked Indian maiden with long black hair frequents the gazebo, two blonde girls dressed in white peer through windows, a Confederate soldier visits an upstairs bedroom, a shadowy voodoo priestess looms over the bed where a 9-year-old girl died of yellow fever--after voodooism failed to make her well.
Understandably, no other antebellum house captures the imagination of tourists like this place of ethereal boarders.
The Myrtles, named for the flower that blossoms so profusely from June to November, was built in 1796 by Gen. David Bradford, a Whiskey Rebellion leader who sought refuge in Louisiana from George Washington's army. The plantation lies just outside St. Francisville, a quiet bayou community of neat homes and antique shops about 30 miles north of Baton Rouge.
Taken with the beauty of the old estate, Frances Kermeen bought the property in 1980 with the idea of converting it into a guest home.
"It looked so pretty and feminine," she recalled. "But no one told me it was haunted!"
Miss Frances, as her staff calls her, isn't concerned about the mansion's supernatural effect on her guests. For the most part, nothing hair-raising happens during an overnight or in one of The Myrtles' mystery weekends. Still, enough guests have left abruptly so that she now requires advance payment for a night's lodging.
"The ones who flee are usually macho types," she said. "They boast, 'Hey, me? I'm not afraid of ghosts.' "
Debbie Sterling, who works part-time in the reputedly haunted house, said, "My mama she said just to do my job and forget about ghosts. But I've heard heavy furniture moving upstairs and--there weren't no guests there!"
Many of the eeriest tales stem from the plantation's earliest and most notorious murders. The year was 1829. The owner was Judge Clark Woodruffe, Gen. Bradford's son-in-law.