Doug Harwood and the Ghosts of Rockbridge County

Ghosts of Rockbridge Powerpoint -This attached powerpoint provides an array of pictures you can look at while listening to the podcast. It is timed to move with the podcast as you listen.


Many who visit, live, or attend school in Lexington, Virginia would describe it as a sleepy, truly timeless college town that is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Doug Harwood, founder, editor, and publisher of The Rockbridge Advocate, is not one of these people. Harwood came to Rockbridge County from Massachusetts almost forty-five years ago to attend school at Washington and Lee University. A journalism major, he told us that he found his way to W&L because he had heard both the town and school were fifty years behind the times, almost like stepping back into the 1920s. Even though Rockbridge County has changed dramatically and he sees any kind of change as bad, Doug chose to settle in the area immediately following his graduation.

For the next eighteen years, Harwood worked many jobs including bartender, dishwasher, disc jockey, and editor of a small paper based in Buena Vista before he decided to start his own paper, The Rockbridge Advocate, in 1992. Harwood told us that he is not in the business to make money, but rather because he loves what he does. Since establishing the paper, Harwood has been inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame and won first place in editorial writing and second place in investigative journalism in the 1977 Virginia Press Association Better Newspaper Contest.

Having lived in Rockbridge County for so long and having spent so much time investigating the life and culture of the area, Harwood had many stories to tell of the ghost and supernatural history of the area. Harwood noted in his interview with us that there are many ghost stories based in Rockbridge County that everyone knows, either through word of mouth or because they have gone on the local ghost tour. He believes that the commodification of these stories trivializes the content, taking away from the mystery and suspense of the tale. He believes the best stories are the ones that no one knows about. Included in this podcast are two of these unknown ghost stories. One is a personal experience of Doug’s that followed his graduation from Washington and Lee and the other is the story of the McChessney Ghost, a tale that has fallen through the cracks of Rockbridge ghost lore.

Harwood’s personal experience took place in an old farm house near Buena Vista. He lived in the house while a student at Washington and Lee and during the summer following his graduation. While living there, he and his roommates experienced many strange noises – including the sound of footsteps walking in the attic, and up and down the stairs. Describing these noises as a friendly presence, Harwood thought nothing of it until one night in the summer following his graduation when the presence did a little more than just walk around the old farmhouse.

As described to us by Doug, the tale of the McChesney plantation and its malevolent spirit began in earnest sometime in the space between 1825 and 1835 in Brownsburg, Virginia. The October, 1995 edition of The Rockbridge Advocate is the main source of information on the McChesney ghost. It contains much more information on the McChesney ghost, than is available on this page, but for the sake of brevity, we will only cover important segments of this saga as described to us by Doug during our interview. We begin with the day that marked the McChesneys and their slaves’ descent into a life wracked by fear and chaos. It was on this day that young Ellen McChesney, Dr. McChesney’s daughter, and her slave friend Maria, were in the plantation yard enjoying a book together. It was at this time that the two girls, fast friends by this time in their youth, were suddenly and without warning rained upon by “a volley of stones… apparently from nowhere”.

A week following this incident, the stones, purportedly as large as a grown man’s fist, “began falling again, red-hot this time, scorching the grass, falling through windows, breaking the window panes, and burning the heavy window hangings”. These “rock showers”, outside of the control or explanation of the McChesneys, became a commonplace occurrence on the plantation, but that did not stop the phenomenon from gaining notoriety in the surrounding area. Spectators frequently came hoping to catch a glimpse of the rock showers or the spirit thought to be the source of the activity, but the vast majority if not all left disappointed by the lack of action.

In response to the popular interest in the strange phenomena occurring at the McChesney plantation, two faculty from Washington College, Professors Preston and Radford, came out to Brownsburg to have a look for themselves. The evening of their arrival, while sitting with Dr. McChesney at the house’s dinner table, “a pile of hot bricks fell upon the table, breaking the dishes and smashing everything.” Immediately after this, Maria, the slave girl who had been rained upon with stone while with Ellen McChesney, rushed through the house’s door, “Panicked. Screaming. Flailing her arms to protect herself. Begging her assailant to stop beating her”, “But there was no assailant that could be seen”. Dr. McChesney and Professors Preston and Radford were helpless against Maria’s unseen attacker. She eventually succumbed to the pain and lost consciousness. When she came around, and continuously afterward, she cited “de ole woman” as the source of her torment. Aside from routinely chasing Maria around the plantation, “de ole woman” pricked Maria with pins and beat her with a “big stick” – evidence of which was found by Mrs. McChesney in the form of pin pricks and bruises all over Maria’s body.

Realizing that Maria seemed to be at the center of this supernatural activity, Dr. McChesney decided to experiment by sending her to stay with his brother-in-law, Thomas Steele. McChesney hoped that Maria’s stay with Steele would help ascertain whether or not she was truly the source of their troubles. Unfortunately for both Steele and McChesney, not only did the activity continue at the plantation in Maria’s absence, but Maria’s brief sojourn to Steele’s Tavern caused the rock showers to occur there as well. Indeed, one day when the McChesney family and friends were at the house sitting around a fire, “a stone, seeming to come from a corner of the room… struck Mrs. Thomas Steele on the head… her scalp was cut to the bone, causing profuse bleeding'”. This event persuaded Dr. McChesney to send her away again – this time to “grandmother Steele’s house up near Midway, several miles up the road”. Upon Maria’s arrival at the Steele residence, “‘A terrible noise as of the stamping of many horses proceeded from the house. Then a wild scream came from Maria… They saw her standing perfectly still, her face ashen and her eyes rolled up until nothing except the whites could be seen'”. When those present went to the house to find the source of the commotion, “All the furniture on the lower floor had been swept onto the large veranda as if by a whirlwind”.

For the rest of her time with the Steeles, Maria continued to claim that she was being beaten and pricked by forces unseen. As the seasons changed and Maria’s time with the Steeles came to a close, Dr. McChesney was faced with the prospect of Maria, and the terrifying phenomena that seemed to follow her, returning to the plantation. “Reports later say that he hated to do it”, but Dr. McChesney sold Maria to a slave-trader from Mississippi. “With Maria’s forced departure, the stones stopped falling from the sky, and the furniture no longer was piled high in the living room by some unknown force”.

Interestingly, shortly after selling Maria, Dr. McChesney ended up moving his family to Staunton. The article from the Advocate states that sometime in the 1970s, the “last heir” of the McChesneys came forward and told a Staunton newspaper that the reason the McChesneys moved was because “the ghost murdered one of his [Dr. McChesney’s] daughters”. Perhaps Maria was not the sole source of the horrifying activity at the plantation as Dr. McChesney had presumed.

Even though Rockbridge County has changed a lot since Doug was a student at Washington and Lee, please listen to our Ghosts of Rockbridge Podcast to hear more about the history and ghosts of which the area still holds on.

Mary-Frances Hall and Reid Gaede


Works Cited

Harwood, Douglas J. The Rockbridge Advocate. (accessed May 19, 2016).

Scott, Stuart. “The Ring-tum Phi: The man behind The Rockbridge Advocate.” The Ring-tum Phi, April 5, 2015. (accessed May 19, 2016).

“The ghost that rocked the farm.” Rockbridge Advocate (Virginia), October, 1995, 41-46.