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Salem’s Spirited Tavern: Part One

(Last Updated On: October 11, 2017)

By: Jennifer Bean Bower

Haunted buildings are generally old, sometimes historic and always the scene of a tragic event. Coincidentally, The Salem Tavern in Winston-Salem—a structure that is over 200 years old— has these same things in common. Over the two centuries, the tavern has had its share of stories and accounts of unexplained sounds, peculiar odors and even an obscure face in one of the tavern’s windows. There were several sorrowful events, in which the deceased is eerily connected to the mysterious goings-on at the tavern.

The tale of the tavern ghost, like many traditions in Salem, has been passed from one generation to another and is the only longest standing ghost story that the tavern has produced. In the early 19th-century, an unknown man arrived at the Salem Tavern. He was gravely ill and collapsed the moment he dismounted his horse. The tavern keeper brought the unconscious man inside, placed him in a bed and summoned the doctor, but nothing could be done.

When the stranger died, the tavern keeper stored the man’s belongings and prayed that a relative would claim them. He was greatly burdened by the man’s death, as he had not been able to glean the stranger’s name or place of residence.

Then, late one evening, the dead man appeared in the tavern. The ghost told the tavern keeper the name of his fiancée and said, if he would write to a certain address in a distant Southern state all would be taken care of.

The tavern keeper composed a letter and mailed it without haste. Not long after, a woman arrived in Salem. She collected the stranger’s possessions and placed flowers on her beloved’s grave. The ghost was never seen by the tavern keeper again.

Like many stories that involve specters, the tale of the tavern ghost appears to have been based on an actual occurrence. In the summer of 1831, a sick man named Samuel McClary lodged at the Salem tavern on his way to Virginia. On the return trip, he checked-in again, albeit in a poor state of health. A Salem physician treated McClary but was unable to cure his ailment. On Sept. 6, 1831, McClary was laid to rest in the strangers’ row of the Salem Moravian Graveyard, “God’s Acre.”

The death of McClary—and perhaps the mysterious traveler—are not the only tragedies that took place in, or near, the tavern; and the ghost is not the only strange occurrence to have been reported in the building.

As the American Revolution raged on, a most horrible incident was documented in the Records of the Moravians in North Carolina. In August 1780, members of the Continental Army passed through Salem on their way to South Carolina. When they departed, William Brown, a soldier who likely suffered from gangrene, was left at the tavern. He was attended to but was eventually moved “from the tavern to the smoke-house, as the stench [of his body] was intolerable.” For six days Brown lay tormented by his condition and “while still alive his body…was eaten by worms.” On Aug. 17, 1780, Brown died and the following day, he was laid to rest in the Strangers’ Graveyard.

Could the unexplained noises reported in the tavern be Brown’s cries of agony? Could the strange odor be his rotting flesh? Perhaps, but another man—one who died in the midst of a loud and noxious calamity—could claim responsibility for the ghostly activities too.

Around 1847, Augustus Staub drifted into Salem. Born in Germany, he was a single, semi-retired man who made his fortune in the jewelry business and lived what many considered an easy life. As reported in his obituary, Staub was “a good, honest, industrious and useful citizen.” He made many friends in the community and was “an active member of the Sons of Temperance and the Young Men’s Missionary Society.”

Yet, despite his integrity, there were two things in this world for which Staub had an unhealthy interest—the Salem Female Academy students and chemistry. Of the first fascination, it is said that Staub lost all of his money, as he would invite the girls to his orchard and give “liberally of his fruits.” His second interest, however, proved more costly.

On the night of Aug. 2, 1857, Staub—who knew little about chemicals—combined a variety of substances in his Salem Hotel room. At around 11:30 p.m., the experiment took a deadly turn when Staub’s volatile chemical cocktail sent a shockwave through Salem. Residents cried “Fire!” and alarm bells clanged up and down the street.

When the firemen arrived at the hotel, it did not take them long to determine the location of the explosion. The article, “Mysterious Explosion,” which appeared in the Aug. 7, 1857 edition of the People’s Press, reported that upon entering Staub’s room, the firemen found him “on his bed, unconscious, surrounded by flames and the apartment filled with smoke, and the smell of powder and turpentine.”

The article further revealed that Staub’s body “presented an awful spectacle. His face, hands and lower extremities were all horribly burnt, his eyes closed, and his jaws locked.” A Salem physician came to Staub’s aid, but within three hours, the amateur chemist was dead. The coroner, along with a jury of men, was called to the scene. Together, they rendered the verdict that Staub had died as a result of wounds and burns “occasioned by the explosion of some unknown combustible material.”

The unidentified writer of the article “Mysterious Explosion” noted that Staub’s burial in God’s Acre “was attended by an unusually large audience.”

Staub, however, was not the last person to meet an untimely death at the Salem Hotel. Eighteen years later, the town of Salem would mourn again.

To be continued…