In the long history of Beaufort and its people, some stories have rightly stuck around to make all the history books. Others belong in legend folk tale, and it’s those that we kind of whisper about on the street corners in summer and around the fall fire pits.
At this time of year, it’s that latter kind of story that concerns Beaufort native Dave Keener, now a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based businessman whose mind is easily brought back to an inexplicable encounter when he was a young man.
It was then, over 40 years ago, when Keener was living in a historic home downtown that doubled as a funeral home, that he experienced something that would be hard for any sane person to forget.
“I had the entire third floor to myself,” said Keener. “What an awesome experience for a 19-year-old.”
He’d been hired to help with the ambulance service, and as an apprentice embalmer and funeral director.
The only problem, it seemed, was that it wasn’t just “to himself” that the house belonged.
Yes, the house, built in 1820, had previously been a private residence and an inn, but even a funeral home generally only has living occupants during normal business hours. And yes, old houses — even of the best construction — naturally have wood floors that creak and lights that flicker and door hinges that aren’t well-oiled.
So when Keener was working late one night on his stereo system, darkness enveloping all but the lamps and lights on the third floor, his mind was preoccupied with getting all the electronics in working order.
Until, that is, someone or something caught the corner of his eye.
“I caught a glimpse of an old man wearing a black top hat and cape,” said Keener. “When I turned my head to get a good look at him, he had disappeared.”
His first thought, naturally, was that even this late at night, no one really ever broke into a funeral home.
“At that time, people didn’t even have burglar alarms, especially in Beaufort,” he said.
Then he noticed how out of place the man’s clothing appeared, an anachronism even among the bell-bottom jeans and open collars of the 1970s.
After what was likely a fitful night’s sleep, Keener told another funeral home employee the next morning about his experience.
“Funny you mention that,” she said. “I hear someone going up and down those stairs during the day when you are not here.”
Though their experiences were largely ignored by the owner, an incident several weeks later upped the ante.
Keener was again in his room listening to his stereo when the couch he was sitting on shook, making the hair on the back of his neck stand. Steeling his nerves, he asked the entity he was sure was present to make the couch shake again.
Once again Keener brought his concerns to the owner, who summarily dismissed the shaking as having been brought on by a large truck shaking the building foundation as it passed.
“He just didn’t want to believe the place was haunted,” said Keener.
So Keener went back to his daily work, performing duties for the deceased he called “an honor” to perform.
Having the entire third floor to himself also gave him the opportunity to entertain visiting friends, and one night he decided to have a little fun with the group he had over.
“I went to the basement where the master circuit breaker was and turned off the building power for about five seconds,” said Keener.
When he heard one of his female friends scream, he knew his joke had had its intended effect. Except upon his restoration of electricity and return to the room, he found out that the power blip hadn’t scared her at all. Instead, she told him she had just seen someone walk past the door to the room.
An old man, she said, wearing a black top hat and a cape.
She couldn’t have known about the man from Keener because, whether out of embarrassment or courtesy or just plain forgetfulness, he hadn’t told any of his friends about his “housemate.”
After that episode, Keener insists, he was still never scared to be alone, but “when I came home at night and all the lights were off, I would bolt up the stairs to my bedroom.”
Many years have passed since then, of course, and the house itself has been in its present incarnation of a bed and breakfast for several decades. Whatever ethereal presence that once resided has probably long moved on to another realm of existence. At any rate, the beauty and success of the inn shows there is no residual harm.
Keener himself, given years and distance, is reflective about that time in his youth.
“I realize how lucky I was to live in such a fantastic place,” he said. “It was a life-changing experience.”
Even when, that is, living among the dead proved compelling enough to forever become part of the local lore.