When I was writing my book Secret Jacksonville, the folklore of the region loomed large. Folklore is the unofficial culture of a community, and helps connect people to their city and each other. Jacksonville has no shortage of great stories of ghosts, witches, aliens, mysterious creatures and more; here are nine of my favorites.
Annie Lytle Elementary: The Devil’s School
Annie Lytle Elementary School.
Annie Lytle Elementary School, also known as Public School Number 4, has a reputation as the “most haunted building in Jacksonville.” An active school from 1917 to 1960, it later served as administrative offices until being shuttered in 1981. Being both spooky looking and highly visible – it’s easily seen from the I-95 interchange – the abandoned school subsequently became the city’s premier destination for legend tripping, the rite of passage in which young adults prove (or at least scare) themselves by venturing to frightening locations.
As all good legend-tripping destinations need a scary story to set the tone, Annie Lytle Elementary acquired several especially memorable, if totally specious, legends. Most commonly, the building is said to be haunted by schoolchildren killed in a boiler explosion or, more outrageously, by a psychotic janitor or cannibal principal. Inspired by contemporary hysteria over satanic cults, the school also came to be seen as a site of devil worship, earning the nickname “Devil’s School.” Unfortunately, all this attention has taken a toll on the structure. After years of vandalism, break-ins and fires, local preservationists worked with neighbors and police to shore up the building and protect it from further intrusion.
Ghost Light Road
Another popular legend-tripping destination of the past was the “Ghost Light Road,” alias Greenbriar Road. From at least the 1960s until 2001, this quiet dirt thoroughfare in then-rural St. Johns County drew visitors at night with a singularly disconcerting experience: a lone spectral headlight that appeared to approach cars before vanishing into the perfect dark. I can personally testify that the Ghost Light was a very real phenomenon. My friends and I saw it numerous times from 1997 to 2001, at least a few times without intoxicants involved.
Like any good haunted place, Ghost Light Road had an explanatory legend. According to the version I heard, the ghost was a young motorcyclist whose father had warned him about speeding on the dirt road. One day, the young man’s brother strung a rope across Greenbriar. This prank merely would have unseated the cocky rider had he heeded his father’s admonition, but tragically he gunned the engine and lost his head. Thereafter, his ghost shined his headlamp down Greenbriar in a nightly vigil. Non-supernatural explanations for the phenomenon that have been offered over the years include swamp gas, UFOs, and signals for drugrunners. More likely, it was an optical illusion caused by an unusual bend in the road, a theory supported by the fact that the ghost light hasn’t been seen since the road was reworked in 2001. The ghost story remains popular, but the light itself now shines only in the memories of legend-trippers past.
St. Johns River Monster
Wallace McLean’s drawing of the St. Johns River Monster, from The Tampa Tribune, January 18, 1976.
For decades, folks from Kissimmee to Jacksonville have reported spotting the St. Johns River Monster, also known as “Johnnie,” “Pinky,” or “Borinkus,” Florida’s version of the Loch Ness Monster. In 1953, Kissimmee reptile park owner Owen Godwin described a 30-foot horned beast on the river and offered a reward for anyone who captured it alive, sparking an explosion of sightings across Central Florida. Retired State Attorney J. W. “Jesse” Hunter claimed he’d seen many of the creatures in the 1910s, and that one citrus baron had even captured some to pull ferries. In 1976, sightings started in Jacksonville after a group of friends fishing on a Southbank pier reported encountering a huge serpent the color of boiled shrimp (hence the name “Pinky”); they also provided a rather unconvincing drawing. More reports followed and have continued sporadically since.
Wildlife experts believe the sightings can be explained as manatees, eels, or a line of otters playing, but true believers scoff at these mundane solutions. To them, the St. Johns is and always shall be the home of a legendary sea monster.
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