A team of ghost hunters spent last Saturday evening looking for spirits in the Russ House, and plan to come back soon to see if they can spot the "burning bride of Bellamy Bridge."
She is the central figure in what may be Jackson County's best-known ghost story.
Saturday's trip to Marianna, though, was a search for recordable evidence that the refurbished Russ House is inhabited by unseen residents as well as serving as home to the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
The Big Bend Ghost Trackers team has come to the conclusion that, while paranormal activity was not particularly high that night, "there is without a doubt something there," according to group founder Betty Davis.
The team used a variety of devices. One was an electronic magnetic field detector, which picks up "fluctuations in magnetic, electric and radio/microwave energy levels. Paranormal investigators believe that anomalous readings in those energy fields are a sign of a ghost," Davis explained in an e-mail about the visit.
According to Davis, the device registered a "medium-high" reading just after an "ectoplasm" was seen floating in the room. An ectoplasm, Davis explained, is "a misty, slightly foggy substance" that is considered by believers to be "residue left over by a spirit who was recently in an area."
This substance was seen where the Russ family nursery used to be, Davis reported.
Whether one believes in ghosts or not, there have been eerie reports at the Russ House over the years. The elevator is said to move up and down the floors when no one's aboard to push its buttons. The sound of footsteps have been reported in empty rooms. Objects are said to have inexplicably moved from place to place, seemingly on their own.
Davis said the team came to the Russ House based in part on a chance meeting with Mary Pettis, vice president of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
Pettis recently went on a "ghost hunt" sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in Monticello, where she has family. In fact, her uncle, the late Ben Ervin, had been instrumental in getting the old Monticello Opera House back in operation and was active in other community affairs there.
Pettis still has other family members living in the area, and visits from time to time.
At the end of the ghost tour that Pettis had learned of by chance, the guide asked whether anyone had had a paranormal experience.
Pettis had heard stories from others about the Russ House, and she's had some spooky experiences of her own as she worked late into the night on one Chamber project or another.
Sometime last year, she and her daughter saw something they still can't explain. Pettis's daughter was keeping her company in the otherwise empty house one night and put a soft drink can on her desk.
All of a sudden, it started to move. It shifted about a foot, with no "sweat-stream" trailing behind it that might explain the movement as the result of condensation.
Wide-eyed, Pettis and her daughter left immediately.
Pettis sad she has also witnessed the elevator moving from floor to floor with no one aboard.
She said she's talked to elevator experts who told her that, because of its particular operational style, it shouldn't be able to move? even if it were to malfunction ? without someone there to push the button.
She's also heard footsteps on the upper floors when she was there alone.
And there there were the peculiar reactions of her dogs on separate late-night visits to the Russ House.
Her male mastiff weighs more than 150 pounds and cuts a formidable figure as a guard dog when she's there alone. She typically lets the dog make a run-through of the house to make sure no intruder is lying in wait.
One night, he came to a skidding stop near the back staircase and refused to go further. Growling deep in his throat, the dog seemed uncharacteristically afraid, and his eyes started glinting with a silvery glow.
Her large female mastiff reacted similarly at the same spot in the house on a different outing. Both were anxious to leave, and Pettis was ready to oblige.
While she's not ready to say she believes in ghosts, Pettis acknowledges that she's seen some things she hasn't been able to explain away.
And she's not the only one. Many visitors to the house have reported odd experiences to staff, and some people swear that the ghost of Joseph W. Russ resides within the walls of the house he built.
Russ committed suicide in his bedroom there on Feb. 7, 1930, around the time of the infamous Wall Street crash and as the Great Depression had descended on the country.
News of his death appeared in the newspaper a few days later, and one item reads, in part, that "in a fit of despondency last Friday night, Joseph W. Russ, leading citizen of Marianna and one of Jackson County's largest property owners, fired a bullet into his brain."
Davis explained various theories that would fit with this belief.
Some believe that the spirits of those who die unexpectedly tend to stay behind in their familiar and favorite environs, and may not realize they're dead.
The "burning bride of Bellamy Bridge" has had multiple reported sightings through many decades and various incarnations of the tale abound.
Davis and her group are working out the details of a return visit to Jackson County in hopes of getting what they would consider evidence of her presence at the old iron bridge.
They'll be traveling with Dale Cox, a historian who lived here for many years and has written extensively of the local past.
By DEBORAH BUCKHALTER
Jackson County Floridan