Last weekend, I headed to the edge of western Kentucky for Paducah’s River City Ghost Tour! Paducah’s Market House Theatre has put these tours on for years and they’re an absolute joy to attend. Visitors get to learn all about Historic Downtown’s historic and haunted past.
The various tour guides all place their own spins on the stories they tell, making each tour unique! The guides carry old school lanterns to set the mood and assure that guests won’t get lost. Our guide’s name was Kat and she was absolutely wonderful! Keep reading to read some of my favorite stories from the tour and learn how you can visit!
A Rowdy Riverside
Our tour began with a story about the Morning Star Saloon, which was once in the building directly across from the Market House Theatre. A man named Leon ran the place and rented rooms upstairs. One of his renters was Reuben, a man who apparently had some money because he never left his room. Reuben would just sit straight up in his chair at the window and watch the street below. Folks got to notice Reuben, and patrons from the bar below would often holler up and ask Reuben to buy them drinks. Reuben never would, he’d just sit and stare out his window.
One night, Leon realized that it was the middle of the month and Reuben hadn’t paid his rent. He walked upstairs to Reuben’s room and couldn’t open the door. He went back downstairs and grabbed 3 men from the bar to help. They finally managed to get the door open and found a big chest of drawers blocking the entrance.
The room was filled with smoke, but there was no evidence of flames. The men worked their way through the smoke and were shocked by what they found. Reuben was still sitting straight up in his chair, but he was completely charred.
Many years later, the room was converted into the wardrobe department for the Market House Theatre. Those in the room reported smelling smoke upstairs and those downstairs would hear footsteps walking around above them. They figure it’s just Reuben checking things out.
A Ghostly Fiddler
Another one of the stories that stuck with me from the River City Ghost Tour was that of Poplar Foot. Travelers to historic Paducah would often camp on the edge of town, and these became meeting places with all sorts of music. There was this traveling fiddler who had his head chopped off on the edge of town near the Johnson Bar. He was buried in an unmarked grave in a nearby grove of trees. The locals got to calling him Poplar Foot, due to his burial site and the fact that he would be seen dancing around the trees after his death.
The travelers continued playing music at the edge of town, and continued seeing Poplar Foot dancing away. One day, a fiddler named Clinton was on his way out of town when he realized that he’d left his fiddle behind. He turned around to get his fiddle and ran into a not so great group of guys. A voice came out of nowhere saying, “Clinton, play your fiddle!” Clinton raised his arms and mimed fiddling. Music started to play! The group of guys looked around and found Poplar Foot playing a fiddle by the campfire. Needless to say, they were pretty freaked out. Poplar Foot had saved the day and Clinton got his fiddle back!
An Honest Banker
Truth time: I’d been driving past the First National Bank Building for years and never once knew that it was haunted until this tour. The story goes that a former Bank President, Mr. Charles Pennebaker, roams the building and does good deeds. You see, Charles did everything he could to take care of the money of his friends and family when he was President. That all went wrong in 1929 when the stock market crashed. Charles did everything he could to recover, but found himself failing at every turn. He was so distraught that he walked down to Noble Park and drowned himself one night.
Fast forward to the 1950s. A night janitor was upstairs polishing a mirror when he noticed another face in the mirror with his. He looked around and found that no one was there. He didn’t think anything of it until the exact same thing happened again later. The janitor quickly surmised that it was the ghost of Charles Pennebaker and withdrew every cent that he had from the bank the next day. Charles was definitely looking out.
Did you know that Paducah is home to one of the most well known ghosts in western Kentucky? Well they are! Stories of Miss Stella at the old C.C. Cohen store have circulated the area for years. I was beyond thrilled to hear the story of Stella while on the River City Ghost Tour!
C.C. Cohen’s was a dry goods store owned by Ike and Hannah Cohen. They had a few kids, one of which was Stella. When Ike and Hannah retired, their son Carl took over the family business. Stella married a jeweler from Houston and moved off to live with him. When Stella’s husband retired, they moved back to Paducah to help Carl with the store. One night, the store was robbed. Carl ran after the men and was beaten so harshly that he was severely disabled. This left Stella to run the place. She lived upstairs with 10 cats and 2 dobermans (#goals).
One week, the stockboy came by to deliver Miss Stella’s groceries and found the last week’s groceries untouched. He tried to get in and found Stella dead, leaned up against the door like she’d been trying to get out. While her body left the building, her spirit still lingers. Stella often dumps salt and pepper shakers out, makes a lot of racket on the second floor, and is even known to throw things at restaurant guests. I basically want to be just like her once I’m gone.
A Witch in River City
We eventually made our way down to the River Walk and learned that Paducah was the site of an attempted witch burning (yes, you read that right!). It all started with a man who claimed that a mother and daughter had bewitched him. He convinced enough people to believe him and the ladies were sentenced to death. *sigh* Men.
The ladies were tied to the pyre and right when it started to burn, a wind came and blew the fire out. The man demanded justice, so they tried to light it a second time. Again, the wind blew it out. The townsfolk decided it was divine intervention and let the ladies free. Naturally, they got the heck out of town.
The man who accused the ladies of witchcraft was M A D. He would tell anyone who’d listen about how he didn’t get the justice he wanted. One night, he was sitting at a bar complaining to the bartender when a waitress bumped in to him, causing him to spill his drink all over himself. He complained to the bartender about the waitress and found out that the bar hadn’t had a female waitress in years. He went outside for a smoke. A gust of wind came right when he was lighting up and caused his whiskey-soaked clothes to catch fire and he died. Don’t mess with witches!
A Devilish Story
The final stop on the River City Ghost Tour was at the Carson Center, which stands on what used to be the city’s Hell’s Half Acre. This shantytown area was home to some sketchy folk, the worst being Devil Winstead. Devil had a girlfriend named Vinny who lived in a shack in the area. She never knew when Devil would show up, and they fought a lot.
One night, Devil came by and asked for a cigarette. Vinny didn’t have any, which infuriated Devil. Devil attacked Vinny and stabbed the heck out of her. A crowd of people had gathered outside the house, but let Devil pass because they were so scared of him. Devil made it all the way to Mayfield before he was caught and brought back to Paducah.
He was sentenced to hanging and the gallows were built at the corner of what’s now the Carson Center’s parking lot. Devil’s last request was for a full set of clothes since he’d never had a set of his own. They decked him out in his new clothes and took him to hang. The hangman cut the rope too long, so when Devil dropped, he caught himself on a boulder with his feet. Since there wasn’t a clean break, they held his legs up, moved the boulder, and dug a hole under him. When they let him go and he dropped, all of the area bats flew over Vinny’s shack in Hell’s Half Acre. Now, the bats still hang around the area!
Take a River City Ghost Tour
The Market House Theatre’s River City Ghost Tour walks visitors through Historic Downtown on October 12th and 19th! Tours embark around every hour and fifteen minutes. Tickets are $15 for adults and $6 for children over 8 years-old (maybe leave the younger kids at home). Tours max out at 20 people, so I recommend getting those tickets soon!
The Market House Theatre is switching it up the 25th and 26th with a walking tour of Oak Grove Cemetery! They tell different stories at the cemetery, including that of Della Barnes, the Mausoleum, the owners of Fischer Mansion, Reuben Saunders, and the tragic 1937 flood. The cemetery tours are a little bit longer and on uneven ground (I mean, it’s a cemetery), so wear sturdy shoes!
These were just a few of the ghosts we learned about on the tour. Hearing all the spooky stories was seriously such a pleasure. The Market House Theatre has truly done their research and has put their all into their annual River City Ghost Tours. They truly made the ghosts of Paducah come back to life through their tales. It was a marvelous tour and I really hope you get to experience it for yourself this fall!