Brownsville’s old city cemetery a hotbed for paranormal investigations

Debbie Villarreal of RGV Ghost hunters takes pictures with cell phone attempt to capture paranormal evidence at the Brownsville City Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Brownsville. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

BROWNSVILLE — Is there anyone here?

A tombstone of a child who died of yellow fever in 1858 next to a other graves at the Brownsville City Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Brownsville. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Thomas Hotcaveg repeatedly called out to Daisy in the dead of night Tuesday, surrounded by gravestones more than 100 years old, anticipating a response from a 4-year-old girl who has been dead for over a century. He carried with him items that any self-respecting paranormal investigator would have on-hand: dowsing rods, audio recording devices, and courage.

“Daisy … Do you want to talk to us?” Hotcaveg said to seemingly nobody.

Slowly, the dowsing rods began moving further and further apart.

The moon revealed the emptiness of the historic old city cemetery in Brownsville, a South Texas destination that’s both beloved for its gothic beauty and historic value, and feared because … well, it’s an old, spooky cemetery. Silhouettes from the hundreds of crucifixes, obelisks and statues linger, like silent spectators of the evening’s happenings.

The cemetery was established in 1853 next to a resaca. The graveyard’s inhabitants include Israel Bonaparte Bigalow, the city of Brownsville’s first mayor, and Hiram Chamberlain, who established the city’s first Presbyterian church, as well as veterans of the Civil War, and victims of yellow fever, cholera and warfare.

Amid the stillness of the night, Hotcaveg continued attempting to communicate with the spirits of the departed.

“Can you point the rods in your direction?”

The rods began to move again, stopping in the direction of a gravesite covered with soccer balls, basketballs, dolls and marbles. The white tombstone on the grave reads:

“DAISY STARCK … BORN DECEMBER 1ST, 1874 … DIED JULY 13TH, 1879 …”

She had not yet turned 5 years old at the time of death.

Janie Hotcaveg of RGV Ghost hunters investigates at the Brownsville City Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Brownsville. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

A marker by Daisy’s gravesite identifies her as the first pedestrian on record to be killed by a horse carriage. Thomas describes her as a benevolent spirit who is known to look after the cemetery security guards.

“She was the first traffic fatality, in 1879. She jumped out onto the street and was trampled by a horse and wagon,” Hotcaveg said. “Everybody that knows anything about Daisy, they come and visit Daisy’s grave, and everybody seems to bring her little toys.”

“Security used to say that sometimes at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, they would see a couple kids on the main road here kicking a ball around,” Hotcaveg continued. “Whenever they would go check it out, after they would get close to them, the kids would disappear and hide. He’s looking for them with a flashlight and he’s not finding them. A lot of the security guards that they put out here were rookies who knew nothing about the cemetery. They put them out here to experience it on their own.

“Then they go back to the office and say that they experienced something pretty strange.”

The children are believed to be the spirits of Daisy and her cousin, Freddy, who is buried right behind her.

THE HUNTERS

Hotcaveg is accompanied by his daughter, Janie, and their friend, Debbie Villarreal. Together, along with Bonnie Salazar who wasn’t present at the time, they make up RGV Paranormal Investigations. What started out as a hobby with his daughter 17 years ago has blossomed into a popular ghost hunting operation throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

Gravestones from the 1800’s lay on the ground at the Brownsville City Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Brownsville. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The paranormal investigators host ghost hunts at local historical sites at least two times a month throughout the year, but the month of October is especially busy for them.

The old city cemetery is one of the more popular destinations for their numerous ghost hunts due to the interest from the community and what Hotcaveg refers to as an abundance of paranormal activity that investigators claim to have documented.

Among the evidence that the investigators have accumulated over the years include a photo which appears to show a young girl in a blue dress sitting behind a tombstone. Another shows a man, purportedly a priest from another time, looking down at his gravestone.

The dowsing rods are another tool the investigators use to collect evidence. Originally used to detect metals and underground waterways, the rods are now used by paranormal investigators to communicate with ghosts.

Hotcaveg explained that the rods react to electromagnetic fields (EMF), which is what spirits use to gain energy. People may be familiar with them because of their notable use on popular ghost hunting TV shows.

“They always ask me if I watch those shows, and I say no. I live it,” Hotcaveg said.

STRANGE THINGS

As Hotcaveg and his daughter continued to try to communicate using the dowsing rods, he told the story of a man who attended one of their ghost hunting events and got more than he bargained for.

Mausoleums rise above the ground at the Brownsville City Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Brownsville. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

He said that he observed the man taking a couple of the marbles from Daisy’s grave. He then saw him take a pocket bible from another gravesite.

“Everybody was getting mad at the guy. He was like, ‘Nothing’s going to happen to me,’” Hotcaveg said. “I said, ‘Just leave him alone. At the end of the night, he’ll be sorry.’”

Hotcaveg said he received a phone call from a friend of the man in question claiming that he began feeling sick and vomited as soon as he left the cemetery, and was eventually sent to the emergency room.

“At that point, I’m busting out laughing because I already know what happened,” Hotcaveg said, attributing the man’s sickness to taking things from gravesites.

Hotcaveg said that the man’s friend returned the items to the gravesites that night, and soon after the man in the emergency room miraculously recovered. Hotcaveg advised the men that they were never allowed to attend another one of his ghost hunts.

Other peculiar instances included strange sounds, like creaks and voices, which could be attributed to nighttime noises, and a reporter’s cellphone malfunctioning during Hotcaveg’s efforts to communicate with Daisy. While taking video, the reporter’s cellphone flashlight turned on inexplicably and couldn’t be turned off for about 10 minutes.

CEMETERY GATES

As the investigators prepared to leave the cemetery, Hotcaveg mentioned the group’s upcoming ghost hunts at Fort Brown, a place where he claims to have been kicked in the back by the spirit of a Confederate soldier as he played Yankee Doodle on a harmonica.

The investigators will be hosting the ghost hunts on Friday and Saturday.

“Pretty much every place we investigate, something happens,” Hotcaveg said.

A taratula crawls across the walkway at the Brownsville City Cemetery on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Brownsville. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

As he said this, a group of people were seen walking among the old graves.

“You see them, right?” Janie asked, as a member of the group responded in the affirmative.

“Oh OK, just making sure,” she said with a nervous laugh.

As the investigators left, the group was seen wandering through the historic gravesites, or “time capsules from another time,” quipped a photographer as he exited through the cemetery gates.

For more information on RGV Paranormal Investigations’ ghost hunts, visit their Facebook page.

Monitor staff writer Emily D’Gyves contributed to this report.