It was late in the evening, the manager of Talbott Tavern and a cook were making their way up the stairs towards the safe, when they saw the figure of a man in a long coat walking across the landing. Hurrying up, they reached the top of the stairs just in time to see the door close on the bedroom known as the Jesse James room.
Knowing the room to be empty, they hurried through the office to the back door, thinking whoever was in there would be heading for the exit. Sure enough, he had just passed through the door, a man in a long coat, such as the type worn in the 19th century, who turned to look at them, threw back his head and laughed, then disappeared down the stairs.
The manager, some days later happened upon a television show about outlaws of the old west, and found herself staring at a familiar face. The man on the fire escape she later swore, was none other than Jesse James.
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Fact has an unnerving way of sounding like fiction at the Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, Kentucky.Â That’s easy to do when the guest list includes Washington Irving, Henry Clay, Stephen Foster, John James Audubon, as well as former presidents Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison and Abraham Lincoln.
The exiled King of France, Louis Phillipe, Duke of Orleans arrived in the tiny village of Bardstown, Kentucky on October 17, 1797. After notoriously bedding his way across Europe and out of favors there, he decided to give the United States a visit, including Nashville, Tennessee, which led to his stopping at Talbott’s, where he took a suite of rooms upstairs. Some say it was Louis himself, others a member of his entourage who painted a series of murals of a French Garden on the walls. Louis was obviously quite taken with art, as well as Bardstown itself, as he donated a series of paintings to the local Cathedral.
The notorious 19th century outlaw, Jesse James, was known to spend a fair bit of time at the Tablott Tavern. He’s also the first person known to report a ghost under the roof.
Jesse has a reputation as a good man caught up in a bad situation, but that’s mainly legend. He took part in the Civil War era Centralia Massacre in Kansas, where he was among those who dismembered and scalped many of the victims, and is believed to have taken part in the Lawrence, Kansas massacre where 200 men and boys were killed without mercy. James was a southern sympathizer, and it was this cause, as well as an overly developed sense of vengeance which led him to kill a bank teller during one of his first robberies, mistaking him for the man who had killed one of his superior officers during the war.
He rode a wave of publicity, becoming tied up with the resistance to post war reconstruction, even donning Ku Klux Klan robes for his first train robbery. It was as a train robber which Jesse developed his reputation for being a modern-day Robin Hood, refusing to rob the passengers, and only helping himself to the contents of the safe. But it should never be forgotten, that Jesse James, despite some kindness in his nature, was also a cold-blooded killer.
And according to Bardtown legend, fond of his bourbon. Jesse James had several relatives in the area, including a cousin who worked as jailer at the Old Jail, next door to Talbott’s Tavern. James visited the jail more than once to hang out with his cousin, who went on to become a well-loved and respected sheriff, and was known to rest and drink safely next door.
One evening, when Jesse was well into his cups, after retiring to bed he was startled by something unusual in the room. Some say he believed he saw an intruder in the room, fired at him, only to see the figure vanish. In another, one of the murals painted by the French came to life, which caused Jesse to go for his gun and fire at the butterflies flittering over the plants. Regardless of what he thought he was firing at, the result was bullet holes in Louis’ murals.
The Jesse James room was closed when I visited, still not completed after the fire which severely damaged the inn in 1998, so I took the General’s Quarters room next door. Named for two famous generals who has visited Talbotts, the most recent was General George S. Patton, who for a while prior to World War II was commander at nearby Fort Knox. The other was George Rogers Clark, hero of the Revolutionary War, though unlucky in getting paid for his efforts by the new government of the United States, which led to him still having an unpaid bill at Talbotts.
There are other ghosts in the Talbott Tavern, but alas, none showed their ectoplasmic face during my stay. The inn fell into the hands of George Talbott in 1886, and by 1889, sixÂ of his children had died, all within the walls of the tavern. Two were particularly tragic, one tumbling down the stairs I had just climbed to get to my room, another a lovesick daughter who hanged herself. Mrs. Talbott herself has been seen many times, floating around the tavern and up the stairs, decked out in white. The ghost of a little girl is often seen scurrying around the dining room. At least one guest has reported feeling a child spooning her while she slept in the General’s Quarters room, where I was now staying.
As the door to the General Quarters room swung open, my first thought was the room was incredibly nice for the price. The second was “damn, it’s cold in here.”
It must be noted at this point that I was suffering from an infected tick bite at the time, and I can’t rule out the possibility that I had a fever, which could have intensified the chill. At any rate, the chill was soon relieved at Talbott’s bourbon bar, and then in the dining room, where I had a perfectly respectable dinner of fried chicken, traditionally prepared by frying in lard, mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans. This had been preceded with the Stagecoach fries, appropriate considering the fact that the Talbott Tavern is the oldest continuously operated stagecoach inn west of the Alleghany mountains. The fries, dripping with cheddar and laden with bacon cried out for more bourbon. Then for dessert, another trip to the bourbon bar for a nightcap. Or nightcaps, because after all, Bardstown lays claim to the title of Bourbon Capital of the World.
It’s customary at this point to make a pun regarding spirits and spirits. Claiming the high road, I will refrain.
I took a rainy stroll around the neighborhood afterwards, enchanted by a picturesque downtown, as well as an admirable collections of colonial era/early 19th century architecture, seldom found in this part of the country. I even gave my server from dinner a jump, which I relate to show that while certainly feeling no pain, I wasn’t blind drunk. This will become important later on. I spent a bit of time visiting with some other residents of the tavern, whom I met earlier at the bourbon bar and were staying next door in the Lincoln room. In fact, they gave me a tour of the room, which was even nicer than my own, and decidedly not chilly. Not was the landing outside the rooms, where the ghost of Jesse James has been spotted.
It was George Talbott that gave the tavern its current name, as it was originally the Hynes Hotel and later the Newman House. The oldest part of the hotel is build of stone walls two feet thick, with heavy, aged ceiling timbers, utilizing a construction technique known as Flemish bond masonry. George also built a new wing, of brick, and broke up the two main rooms from the colonial era – one for men, another for women, into several smaller ones.
There were two couples in the newer wing, middle aged, perky and slightly older than myself, both of whom turned in early after dinner in the dining room. Other than those four, and the two next door, we had the tavern to ourselves. From what I was told, the staff leaves for the night, hence each of us having a key to the front door.
In short, there were no rowdies in Bardstown’s Old Talbott Tavern this night.
That wasn’t what was on my mind when I woke up at 3:35 in the morning, soaking wet from fever and freezing. My first thought was that they never bothered to turn on the furnace, as the weather had just recently turned chilly and very wet. But with a few startling clangs, a bevy of taps and a click, the furnace did kick on, and continued running for quite some time. In fact, when it did kick off, it was less than five miserable minutes before it came back on. The air rushing out was certainly warm, but it had no effect on the room, and I lay under three blankets, shivering like a dog in the cold. It didn’t help that I was soaking wet, and my head was a bit worse for the wear from the bourbon. I got up, fetched some aspirins and a drink, and climbed back into bed, surprised that I couldn’t see my breath in the cold air of the room. I barely noticed the sounds of people coming up the stairs and going into their room, but the more footsteps I heard, the more doors that closed, the more I found myself reconsidering it.
As I said, there were only six of us in the building, with only one other couple staying in the old part of Talbott’s Tavern. But the noises were frequent, and unmistakable. And that’s when I realized, the only other open room in this part of the hotel was the Jesse James room, which as I had made sure of for myself, was securely locked, and according to the hostess, not for rent. Honestly though, I felt too bad, and was far too cold to care.
A few days before I had been asked by someone, if I was sensitive to ghosts and spirits. I answered “no, not particularly.” But on the the drive to Kentucky I rethought that. As a child, I was certainly sensitive to their presence. As a teen and young adult they weren’t likely to go unnoticed either. But over time, you realize sensitivity is sometimes just paranoia. Watching paranormal investigation shows, as well as reading the literature on the subject, one can’t help but come to the conclusion that many times sensitivity to spirits is nothing more than wishful thinking, to give them the benefit of the doubt, or deception, which is often the case.
I was reminded of Roddy McDowell’s character in The Legend of Hell House, who after finding himself under attack from the house on his first visit, decided to go into the next visit blocked, or closed off. And I thought perhaps I’d done that myself, because as a child in particular, I got really sick of being scared shitless. So I reminded myself before arriving at the Talbott Tavern, to not block myself off from the possibilities.
Now I began thinking this might have been a mistake, as the more I thought about it, the more I felt under attack myself. My room was certainly freezing, despite plenty of heat. There were voices outside my door, footsteps up and down the stairs, doors slamming, and I was filled with fever and a lethargy of mind and body both. Otherwise I might have investigated further.
Instead I opted to try the other bed. Which was surprisingly warm and cozy. The chills subsided, and within a few minutes I was starting to doze, only waking when a door would slam. Eventually I switched on the television to drown that out, perhaps subconsciously turning it to a religious channel. And so I slept pretty well for the rest of the night. Most curious, I awoke in the morning without fever, without headache, and the room was nicely warm, despite it actually being colder outside than the night before.
In the dining room I found the two perky couples, who helpfully instructed me to ask the cook for biscuits. Thankfully there was fresh orange juice, as the bourbon and weird night left me feeling a bit drained. But otherwise, the hotel was as quiet as the night before, with only the cook and a cleaning lady representing the staff on premise.
So, what the hell happened the night before? Could it have been the fever responsible for the chills? Absolutely. Could I have been delirious and so the slamming doors, footsteps and voices been audible hallucinations? Can’t deny that either. There could have been other guests coming in late at night which I didn’t know about. My neighbors in the Lincoln room could have been doing an impromptu ghost hunt in the hotel, though when I had last seen them a couple hours before I turned in, they seemed well on their way to bed themselves.
In short, who can say? I had come to the Old Talbott Tavern looking for an adventure, and certainly found that. I’m pretty content leaving the science of it to the scientists.
Gothic Travel Ratings
Great history, great price, good food, good room and more than enough chills. That said, my bathtub wobbled, there’s a bit more self-promotion around the place than necessary, which gives the tavern a bit of a tacky feel at times, and some of the antiques are a bit more like 20th century Americana kitsch. Still, the bourbon helps one ignore that.