Ghost chasers buy allegedly haunted castle


The news is enough to make Rosa Suit's ghost blanch in terror.

Berkeley Castle, a century-old West Virginia landmark where Suit's restless spirit is said to roam and occasionally engage in mischief, was claimed at auction yesterday for $360,125 by self-proclaimed ghost chasers.

The new owners plan to scan around the clock for "paranormal" activity using electromagnetic sensory equipment. They also hope to make money by giving an inside view to spirit-seeking guests willing to spend $250 a night to sleep there.

"There are a lot of haunted places where you can rent rooms, but nowhere is there a paranormal organization operating a facility where you can also stay," said Joe Holbert, whose investor group beat out 20 other bidders.

The 12-room mansion in the resort town of Berkeley Springs - built by wealthy Maryland businessman Samuel Taylor Suit for his young bride, beginning in 1885 - will be renamed the Berkeley Castle Paranormal Research Center upon completion of the sale.

Holbert, 50, plans to renovate the sandstone castle two hours from Baltimore and make it the headquarters for a three-member group he heads in Leesburg, Va., called Virginia Science Research. The organization leads ghost tours of that city's historic area and says it conducts free investigations of homes whose owners think they might have uninvited, otherworldly guests.

The new incarnation for Berkeley Castle should generate the most excitement between its walls since Rosa Suit, by then a widow, threw lavish parties around the turn of the century en route to burning through her inheritance.

For about a half-century, the building on a ridge overlooking the town of 700 residents has been a museum open to visitors for $5. But the Bird family, which bought it in 1954, decided to sell to help pay for 84-year-old matriarch Elva Bird's nursing care.

Her son, Walter Bird Jr., said the new owners will be good stewards of the corridors he explored as a boy after museum guests left. "They seem like nice people, seem like they're going to do right by the castle and hopefully will return it to its former grandeur," Bird said of Holbert and his associates.

Don Trask, who can see the castle from the front porch of his bed-and-breakfast, the Manor Inn, isn't sure what to make of his soon-to-be neighbors.

"I don't believe when you pass from this world to the next you're able to come back, so I don't know what to say about them," he said. "I wish them all the best, as long as they improve the castle. ... "

Trask would not mind a little spillover business, either. But it's too early to know whether the castle's rebirth will produce the kind of surge in visitation that overran Burkittsville, the Maryland town 63 miles to the southeast used as a setting for the movie "The Blair Witch Project."

As for Rosa Suit's possible reaction, Bird doubts the increased scrutiny of happenings inside Berkeley Castle will cause any "friction" on the ghost front. Indeed, Holbert, who says he has been chasing ghost-like entities for 10 years, says he isn't looking to drive out any spirits. "We're not ghost busters," he explained. "We don't capture them, take them away. We observe, we document."

Let him explain that to Rosa, who in real life was forced out of the house by creditors, endured extreme poverty and wound up dying out West.

Not long ago, when auctioneer Leland Little inspected the castle, he noted that not all of the home's contents were in top shape. When he turned on his laptop computer, it fried inexplicably, said Valaria DeVine, president of Great Estates Auction Co., the North Carolina firm handling the sale.

Then when Little tried to drive out of the parking lot, she said, his truck wouldn't start. After being towed to a garage, it worked fine - until Little drove by the castle and the engine sputtered.

Not that he's seen any apparitions. But some guests who had pictures developed saw a strange image that apparently wasn't just the flash, he said. And when a dining room mirror that had fallen was rehung upside down, someone reported seeing an image - not their own - staring back.

Holbert calls himself a "bio-psychologist" and says his resume includes a biology degree and a psychology minor from Fairmount State College in Fairmount, W.Va.

He said he hopes to open the center, with its eight or nine guest rooms, by mid-December. First up, though, is a big Halloween bash. None of it, he predicted, will bother Rosa or any other spirits that might be lurking about.

"I don't think they would even know we're here," he said, but added, "I guess we'll find out."

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