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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019 4 months ago

Spooky Sarasota: Haunting tales of the city's past

Want to get creeped out in the middle of town? Here are a couple ghost tours that share the city's darker side.
by: Harry Sayer Black Tie Reporter

Maggie Deitsch has never seen a ghost. But she can tell you all about them.

She can tell you about the Crimson Sisters, two ladies of the night murdered by bank robbers. There’s the first postmaster of Sarasota, who was shot down in his prime. She can tell you about people’s experiences at the Players Theater, seeing a cast member who was killed by a drunk driver long ago but still wandering the halls looking for her boyfriend. The chandeliers moving and the cold pressure people feel on the back of their neck when alone in some rooms. Or the story of the man who witnessed small child's handprints pressing down on cloth in a dark, empty theatre. 

There’s even the many accounts of the long-departed John and Mable Ringling still roaming the Ca’ D’Zan in their finest clothes.

Even at its relatively young age, Sarasota is rich in history, and you can go on plenty of tours year round to hear stories of its progress and landmarks.

But like any place, there’s a darker side to Sarasota. The city has its stories full of horror and blood, of people who have died and the haunted things that stay behind. Deitsch knows all of these stories, and she’s happy to tell you them.

Sarasota Suncoast Tour’s Ghosts & Gruesomes walking tour is a 75-minute exploration of the downtown theater district’s seedy past, an exploration of the horror and pain that can linger throughout history. Deitsch, leading by lantern-light, walks crowds through Sarasota, telling them of the blood that has stained the ground on which they're standing. 

“Can we say they’re absolutely true? No, we weren’t there,” Deitsch said. “They’ve been told over and over again throughout the area where numerous people have had the same experiences.” 

Walk on the Wild Side

Deitsch, Sarasota Suncoast Tour’s tour director, moved to Sarasota three years ago and has been overseeing the company’s ghost tours for the past two years. 

Sarasota Suncoast Tour’s started its ghost tours two years ago after realizing there wasn’t a group really filling that need for spooky stories. The ghost tours go throughout the year but ramp up throughout October.

Maggie Deitsch leads audiences through Sarasota’s downtown theater district.

The tour’s many stories are a compilation of online research, consultations with paranormal groups, and personal stories from local shops and restaurants.  There are no scripts — Deitsch says they focus more on narrative — and the guides have  to be masterful storytellers.

The focus on ghosts and murder is designed to appeal to people who believe in the supernatural and people who are more frightened by human evil. 

“The (ghost) tour guides are entertaining people nonstop,” Deitsch said. “With food tours, you have little breaks … with a ghost tour, that guide is on.”

“We’re looking for more than just ‘I’ve heard noises’,” Deitsch said. “Paranormal experiences do replicate each other — things moving, doors slamming and windows opening — that’s very common. We’re just looking for a little bit more.”

Harry Higel, developer of Siesta Key, was found murdered in 1921 and represents one of the gruesome stories of the evening.

She gravitates towards the murder stories, something based in a historical event. But it’s all in the same family — she says murders lead to ghosts. 

While she’s never seen a ghost, many of her clients can’t say the same. People have come up to her after tours, wondering why there was a silent blonde woman staring at Deitsch. Others have seen fallen soldiers, sitting on bar stools that Deitsch can’t quite make out. 

It’s an odd experience for Deitsch, telling stories of the dead to an enthralled and horrified crowd  even though she can’t see the same things they sometimes do. Her favorite part of the tour is the end, when she asks guests to tell their own ghost stories and learns about the crowd’s own brushes with the afterlife.  

“People come and they believe,” she said. “They come and they believe … A good tour is when I turn around and see my crowd really listening to what I’m saying. Then I know I’ve got them.”

She understands their belief — sees the full shape of the thing — even if she can’t commit to the same level. Which isn’t to say she hasn’t had her own brush with the paranormal. Deitsch will never forget the day a medium friend approached her about a dead man, with the initials “JSK”, who was watching her, wanting her to pass along a message to her husband that “everything would be OK.” 

Her husband told her he had a friend with those initials, a local pastor who had died eight years ago.

“Two weeks later, I come home and my husband is having a heart attack and we get him to the hospital in time … I’m the last person in the world who would say there’s nothing out there,” Deitsch said.


Harry Sayer is the Black Tie Reporter for the Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and previously worked the Black Tie beat for the Observer newspaper in Winter Park and Maitland. You can catch him at one of Sarasota's fundraisers and shindigs. 

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