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BY ERIN L. MCCOY
The crowd was fixated on two L-shaped rods gripped in the woman's hands just as they started to turn.
"Cross the rods, Antoine," Michael Wilhite asked again.
The rods turned toward each other, but the woman's hands weren't moving. Whoever - or whatever - moved the rods was invisible to everyone present.
Everyone, that is, save for Michael Wilhite. Her twin sister, Katie, was leading a tour group in the kitchen a floor above. We were in the basement of Wickland, the historic "home of three governors" off Bloomfield Road in Bardstown. Bare bulbs lit the stone walls and dusty floors. Michael Wilhite said we were surrounded by ghosts.
The Wilhite twins have been guiding ghost tours at Wickland for more than a year, and interest has grown. On this Friday night in mid-October, about 30 people showed up for the two-hour tour, so that they had to split into two smaller groups. The groups visit two spots in the house: the basement, which, the girls say, houses the spirit of a young slave named Antoine, and the kitchen, home to an older female cook, Waleta.
The first time the rods moved the 15 people in the basement gasped. As the rods moved around to "hug" the woman, she practically sobbed, "I swear I'm not doing anything, guys."
Michael and Katie Wilhite, both 20, have been hearing and seeing unusual things for most of their lives, since they were young enough that neither can remember when it all began.
Growing up, said Michael, they never actually saw ghosts.
"But we always felt like we were never alone, and were always being watched," she said.
"We were hearing things. Not just like the house settling - louder things," Katie said.
Their mother, Donna Wilhite, said she remembers the girls mentioning what they were hearing from the age of 5 or 6.
"It thought it was silliness between the two of them, twins," Wilhite said. "I told them to let it go, never thought twice about it."
And for a while, Michael said, they could let it go. They were active in school and in sports, and they were able to ignore the strange sounds in their house for a long time.
"Nothing really started happening until me and Katie hit our teens," Michael said. It was in their freshman and sophomore years of high school that they started trying to convince their parents to believe them.
"They were always afraid," Donna Wilhite said. "Especially Michael."
Michael almost always had to sleep in Katie's room.
"Even still today I still have trouble sleeping alone in my room. I keep my TV on, I have a night light ... a pillow over my head," Michael said. "Because I'm always afraid I'll wake up and have someone standing beside me."
"I wasn't scared to sleep alone because I knew I'd have to deal with it," Katie said. Still, she would sleep with her lights on, her computer on, the fan on full blast to drown out the noise.
And their parents began to believe. Katie said once her father jokingly asked her what the spirits were saying, only to hear her list off a slew of their relatives' names, people who died before she was born, and tell him stories from his own childhood.
It all came to a head, Donna Wilhite said, one hysterical night.
"Michael had a specific instance that convinced me that even if it wasn't real, it was real to her," Donna said.
Michael was lying on her bed texting when she heard what she thought was her father entering the room. Then she looked up.
"It was just a man staring at me," she said. "He didn't look happy to see me, and the feeling was mutual."
It was the first time she had seen a ghost, and he was angry. Donna and Katie said she was terrified, almost inconsolable.
That same night, after they had all gone to bed, Katie heard what sounded like fingers raking along the wall of her room and jiggling her doorknob. This time, it was Katie who had a panic attack.
Donna Wilhite took action. She invited a local psychic to the house to talk to the girls, talk to the spirits and "cross them over," and listened more to what the girls had to say. Once, she said, she was following Michael and a ghost she couldn't see when suddenly, she saw it.
"I saw them peek out from around a corner. It was just a cellophane-type person ... the outline of a man," Donna said.
She hasn't seen anything before or since.
"I was probably meant to see it, so I could finally give them some support," she said.
Katie and Michael Wilhite volunteered to hang up holiday decorations to support their project graduation in fall of 2008. Local historian Dixie Hibbs was helping coordinate the decorating.
Michael was on a ladder, Hibbs said, when she turned and asked whether Hibbs knew someone named Patsy. Hibbs didn't.
"I hear singing," Michael told her.
"I started hearing people talking about where to hang the greenery," Michael said later. It was, she said, perhaps the first time she had encountered spirits outside of her own home.
Hibbs at first was skeptical. But the girls started to spend more time at Wickland, and they spent summer 2009 moving through the house and grounds, Hibbs asking the spirits questions and receiving the responses the girls passed along to her. Much of the information the girls gave her, Hibbs said, were things they never could have known.
In one instance, Hibbs said, Michael encountered a little boy who said he was 3 years old and whose spirit nursemaid identified him as William and his two older sisters as Maggie and Nan-nan. Hibbs looked back at the records, and indeed, a small boy named William had died in the house. He had two older sisters named Margaret and Nan.
"That was the first time that I found a real live dead person," Hibbs said.
Hibbs, a historian specializing in local history who has studied Wickland a great deal, said she has learned several things she didn't know before.
"There were things I didn't know until I went and looked them up," Hibbs said.
Another such instance occurred when Hibbs was trying to find a cemetery she suspected was on the property but didn't appear in any documentation. Katie said she was speaking to a ghost named Charles Wickliffe - not necessarily the Kentucky governor who lived on the property, since three different people by that name have lived there in the past. Katie said the ghost suggested she go left out the old entrance, toward an area that's now wooded, which Hibbs thought an unlikely spot for a cemetery. Katie also described a sunken place near the gravestones.
Hibbs went and asked around in a nearby neighborhood. Sure enough, a local who had grown up there said he did know a cemetery and took her to where it was, deep in the woods beneath a half-fallen tree. Five unmarked gravestones were in lines, and nearby, long since grown over, she found a deep hole with a small hillock to one side.
"It looks like someone started to dig a grave and never finished," Hibbs said.
Finding the cemetery went a long way toward convincing her. "Did I take two and two and make five out of it, maybe. But I had to have some direction. I had no idea where to look."
Whether Hibbs is 100 percent sure she's been following the guidance of spirits, she can't quite say. "This is a mystery. It's an intriguing mystery that the more I'm around it and the more things I see and hear, the more impressed I am."
But that her outlook has shifted is undeniable.
"To be perfectly honest, I feel a lot better about dying than I did two years ago, because it looks like you don't go too far," she told the tour.
Not so afraid
In the first three months of ghost tours at Wickland, Katie was in it alone. Michael was still afraid of the feedback she might get.
"Katie's more afraid of the dead people and I'm more afraid of the people that are alive," Michael laughed.
All through school, the girls told few friends what they were seeing and hearing.
"When you're in high school, or middle school even, kids make fun of what they don't understand. And I know that I would have gone through hell," Michael said. "Even today I feel that I'm being judged."
As fearful as the girls were, giving the tours started to boost their confidence.
"We both were scared about how people would think about us and then we started getting positive feedback," Katie said.
Part of the message both girls said they'd like to spread with the tours is that ghosts and spirits are not all bad. Interacting with them, they said, has boosted their Christian faith, since they've heard spirits talk about God and heaven.
"In the Bible, God promises life after death, and I'm seeing life after death," Michael said.
As a result, they think, of being more open about their powers, both girls' abilities have grown. Whereas at first it was hard to hear many spirits, Katie said, now she can have full conversations. And they see ghosts everywhere - in Walmart, in school. Katie said she drove her car into a ditch after looking into her rearview mirror and seeing a spirit in the back seat.
"They sit in the front seat now," she laughed.
In the past four months, Katie has experienced an additional change. She can "turn off" the paranormal experiences. Michael can't.
"My lights are off now," Katie said.
The Wilhite girls, like many twins, are actually quite different. Both have the same slight frame, and every once in a while they'll speak the same sentence.
"We'll be 21 in three months," they told the tour group simultaneously, then laughed.
But that's where the resemblance ends. One has straight hair, one has curly, their faces are distinct, and they want to do different things with their lives.
Katie is working on her associate's in counseling, and thinks she wants to be a spiritual counselor.
"I think this is what I'm supposed to be doing, is helping people cope," she said.
Michael is attending Jefferson Community College and wants to earn her doctorate in psychology - but not for the reason you'd think.
"I have ADD and I always felt like I wanted to help kids that have that, too," she said.
Whatever she does, she said, she knows the spirits will always be there. They're drawn to her.
"Some [spirits] say that Katie and I are like a light in the darkness, and like bugs they're attracted to it."
It took Hibbs almost half an hour, leading a friend and me through the woods, to find the cemetery again. It's in a wooded area behind Bard Homes, bordering on the lawn cleared around Wickland. The house wasn't visible from the woods.
We found the gravestones one by one. They were covered with moss and leaves, lined in wide plots. We cleared the brush away from the stones. No markings.
The "sunken place" indeed did look like a grave. Maybe it was just my imagination.
We counted the stones. One, two, three, four. We looked and looked but couldn't find the fifth. Some things remain a mystery.