At least 60 people died in what’s known as the Havana Hurricane of 1846. Are their spirits still haunting the island of Key West?
The aftermath of the Hurricane of 1846 in Key West can only be described as grotesque.
The land was littered with the bodies of victims who drowned or were hit by flying debris. Among them was an army of coffins and corpses.
The storm had unearthed the old cemetery on Whitehead Point, hurling bones and depositing them in unexpected places throughout the island.
The number of deaths and disturbed graves from this one disaster alone could explain many of the phantom mysteries of Key West.
Dead bodies are occasionally dug out from under the ruins, and no one can tell how many there are remaining. - New Orleans Daily Picayune, 1846
During the storm, two lighthouses fell and crumbled, killing the people who sought refuge in the towers. Both locations are now haunted by apparitions, disembodied voices, and supernatural activity.
As is often the case, with a disaster of this magnitude, the storm left a significant paranormal imprint in Key West.
We’re going to dig a little deeper to tell you who the ghosts of the Hurricane of 1846 are.
The way people view treasure hunters is complicated.
Picture Dr. Indiana Jones storming in with his legendary line,
That belongs in a museum!
Back in the 1800s, people didn't feel much different. Seamen considered those who salvaged wrecks and sold their findings to be on the same level as pirates.
The thrill of the hunt beckoned one man from New England, Captain Joshua Appleby. The Captain moved to Key West and became one of the island's first white residents, making money from things he found in shipwrecks.
However, the method behind his success gets a little murky.
The government noticed Appleby was a little too good at treasure hunting and accused him of conspiring with pirates to intentionally run ships aground.
Officers couldn’t secure concrete evidence, so he was released.
Then Appleby made a surprising career transition. He started protecting ships from the disasters that had made him rich. He became the keeper of the Sand Key Lighthouse, five miles off the coast of Key West.
In October of 1846, Appleby’s daughter and friends came to visit Sand Key Island.
The group of adults and children had no idea an unsurvivable storm was heading right to them. In the end, 16 people lost their lives on Sand Key Island in the storm.
Many believe they tried to ride it out in the lighthouse. What happened to them is a mystery, the entire light station washed away without a trace.
Their bodies were never found, but their spirits are said to remain.
When a new lighthouse was built in 1853, the new keepers claimed to hear the sound of the Captain's voice - as well as the voices of children. Sometimes the voices were happy; other times, they sounded agitated.
Despite his controversial past, Captain Joshua Appleby is remembered today for his courage and dedication to protecting ships.
The keeper of the Key West Lighthouse, Barbara Marbrity, was also an unconventional choice for the job.
Her husband was initially hired, but died of Yellow Fever a few years later. Maybe it was grief that bound Barbara so tightly to her position. She took over and dedicated the next 38 years of her life to keeping the light on.
However, the grief of losing her husband was only the beginning. When the Hurricane of 1846 hit the Key West area, she and her six children took refuge inside the tower.
The family was joined by a handful of other panicked residents, desperate for shelter amid the unforgiving winds.
Sadly, the walls of the tower didn’t hold up and the entire structure collapsed. After the storm passed, bodies were found littered throughout the area where the tower once stood.
But somehow, Barbara survived the storm. Her six children did not.
If grief tied her to the land before, there was no leaving this place now. She had lost her entire family in the lighthouse.
A new tower was built near the former site years later and Barbara continued her post until she was fired for comments she made that were deemed disloyal to the Union.
It was a crime she adamantly denied, but was still removed from the job and died three years later.
It didn’t take long for people to start seeing Barbara back at the lighthouse - only this was after she was dead.
Reports of hauntings at Key West lighthouse continue to this day, and many believe the spirits of the victims of the hurricane also roam the area in their afterlife.
Read more about the haunted Key West Lighthouse here.
We don’t have an exact number of deaths caused by the Hurricane of 1846, since it happened before the census was created. It’s believed, however, that about 1,500 people were settled in Key West at the time.
Stories from survivors paint a devastating look into what happened that day. Of the nearly 500 buildings on the island at the time, only 8 of them survived the disaster.
The people who lived to talk about the storm braved death-defying feats to live another day. Some residents detailed how they were forced to swim through flying debris and floodwaters in 150 mile per hour winds to make their way to higher ground.
But surviving the storm was only the beginning.
The storm surge had washed out what was left of the community, flooding streets with six to eight feet of water. The floodwaters took over the beach cemetery, hurling bodies with the current and lodging them into trees and wreckage.
Ships not totally destroyed in the initial storm were stuck grounded in shallow water on the island. An unknown number of sailors died at sea in vessels that were too far from the island to hope for the same fate.
Facing insurmountable odds, the survivors made an incredible comeback.
Despite the obvious obstacles of rebuilding a community on an isolated island, they were successful and the population grew 300 percent in the next ten years.
It’s not unusual for people to find bits of bones or old caskets in the sand of Key West today from when the storm unearthed graves during the mid-19th century.
A new cemetery, still in use today, was founded after the old burial site near Higgs Beach was flooded out. Bodies are buried above the ground to prevent the dead from taking an unscheduled voyage to sea in flood water.
Countless other powerful and deadly hurricanes have hit Key West since the Havana Hurricane. The Hurricane of 1846 may have one of the first major hurricanes in American history to hit Key West, but it certainly won’t be the last.