By Jacqueline Rupp, the Times
A cloaked man with ghostly white skin and signs of decay stands, hunched over with a cane, on the corner of Mill and Radcliffe streets in the heart of Bristol.
Dusk has turned to complete night as he stands recounting the tale, for all who will listen, of a young girl who mysteriously appeared to a visitor over one hundred years ago at this exact spot.
The girl’s “fiery eyes” and long red hair struck the man — not to mention that, in those times, young girls didn’t just roam the streets alone at night.
As quickly as she appeared and locked eyes with the stranger, she disappeared into the night. Some say they still see her to this day…
That’s just one of the scenes visitors on the Historic Bristol Ghost Tour will get to experience as the tour, which began last Wednesday, haunts the streets of the town every week through Halloween.
Tours begin at the Lions Park Gazebo just behind the King George II Inn. Here, the cast gathers and sets the stage for what visitors will get to experience.
Running approximately two hours, it’s definitely a good idea to wear comfortable shoes for this outing, which extends about 12 city blocks.
Although a full cast of actors participate in the production of the tour, Allen Cross, who plays the long-dead David Landreth, the wildly successful Bristol seed mogul and founder of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, is the tour guide leading the tales.
Now in its sixth year, Cross said that the participation of Bristol High School students has helped greatly (Yes, this does count as community service hours, kids).
Cross, 60, who, when not channeling the spirits of the undead, works as a business development manager for an energy analytics firm in the area, has been a driving force of the tours since its inception.
He first got the idea when he was sitting in Maryanne Lalli’s coffeeshop in town and read about a similar event running in an adjacent suburb.
“I asked her if there was a ghost tour in Bristol and we both looked at each other and said, ‘Gee, we should do something like that,’ ” he recalled.
Before they knew it, Cross said he was researching the town’s history and digging up all sorts of well-documented ghastly tales.
In a town with as much history as Bristol, you obviously don’t have to make things up.
Cross wrote up a script while Lalli rounded up friends to act, and the ghosts of Bristol’s past were brought to life.
The tour begins on the darkening streets of Bristol, through falling leaves and amidst the Victorian homes, most elaborately decked out for autumn.
Assuming his character, Cross morphs into the undead Landreth for the crowd. If the channeling is any indication, Landreth was a wise-cracking curmudgeon with a penchant for whiskey and even more fondness for growing his bank account.
He jokes with the crowd about “being vertical again” after decades in his eternal slumber and grabs a “cockroach” out of his aged coat to munch on.
It’s not all chills and scares on this tour, there’s many moments of humorous cracks and puns from this group of amateur actors who rarely take themselves too seriously.
Guides with lanterns keep everyone on the right path while strolling through the neighborhood, and you never know when you might turn a corner and stumble on a ghoulish surprise.
“Mind those modern carriages,” they warn, just one of the times the actors joke about modern technology they just don’t quite fully understand.
Cross stops the crowd at a stately but unassuming house on Radcliffe Street and reveals that inside this home’s portico lies a hideaway chamber for those seeking refuge while trying to escape slavery via the Underground Railroad.
He silenced the crowd while explaining the plight of runaway slaves who had to remain hidden during daylight and travel on a night like this to their next safe spot…in this case it was all the way in New York.
At the cemetery of the Church of St. James the Great, one of the oldest cemeteries in the region, Cross stopped to pay tribute to the now deceased. He reminded visitors that many buried there met an untimely death and that as mortality rates were high, people had a different appreciation for living
“Here is a memorial to hard lives and well-lived lives,” Cross said, before the snarky Landreth character comes out to add, “Lives that you people would probably find intolerable today.”
Each year the tour has grown, becoming more elaborate with additional effects and stunts. There’s no gore or fake blood on this Halloween-themed outing, and no one will grab you. Cross says it’s less Chainsaw Massacre and more old-time radio theater.
So do expect winding tales of unrequited love, murder, suicide, spectral visions — and a special appearance by the Jersey Devil.
“It’s more theater of the mind. You get to imagine things and not see everything,” he explained. “We try to encourage that with some strange effects in the cemetery, with simple jump scares, the occasional shriek. It’s enough to make you a little nervous.”
The Bristol Borough Ghost Tours take place on Oct. 12, 19, 26 and 27 at the Wharf at Mill and Radcliffe streets, at 7:30 p.m. For information or to purchase tickets, visit historicbristolghostwalk.com.