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Ghosts of Bourbon Country

*The following is a transcript of Season 1, Episode 2 of the Ghost and Grub Podcast.

In 1882, Jesse James was caught off guard when a member of his gang shot him in the back and killed him. James would go down as one of the most ruthless outlaws in American history. For approximately 16 years, he and his brother Frank committed dozens of robberies, murdering anyone who got in their way.

Born and raised in Missouri, James’ parents were originally from Kentucky. Folklore has it that James had many hideouts across the Midwest, and several locations in Kentucky played a critical part in his attempt to remain elusive to the authorities. One such location was Bardstown, KY.

It is said that James would frequent one particular tavern in Bardstown and often stay at its inn, while friends would help distract law enforcement. James would eventually die in Tennessee, but many are convinced his spirit is just one of several who haunt the tavern to this day, making it a popular place for those in search of a hearty meal, a smooth glass of bourbon, and a chance encounter with a ghost from America’s past.

Old Talbott Tavern

(Source: Ghost and Grub©)

Located southeast of Louisville, KY, Bardstown is steeped in rich history dating back to the latter half of the 18th century and is the second oldest city in Kentucky. Referred to as the Bourbon capital of the world, Bardstown is home to nearly a dozen distilleries in and around the city, welcoming approximately 50,000 visitors alone each year during its Bourbon Festival. However, Bardstown isn’t only about the bourbon. The town has often been credited for having the oldest western stagecoach stop in America. Although its name has changed over the years, as well as the people who have operated it, today, the famous stagecoach stop is known as The Old Talbott Tavern.


Built in 1779, The Talbott Tavern is located at what was once considered the crossroads of the American West. It’s thick stone walls have housed many a weary traveler hoping to enjoy a hot meal before resting under the tavern’s protection overnight. The Talbott is truly a time capsule, welcoming a number of prominent guests throughout the years, including politicians, civil rights champions, war heros, outlaws, and even the occasional royal figure.

After being connected with a plot to restore France's monarchy, Louis-Philippe, heir to the French Throne, fled France and remained in exile for 21 years. It was during this time that President George Washington prepared an itinerary for the future king to tour what was then considered the Western Frontier. Louis Philippe stopped in Bardstown and stayed at the Talbott, where it is said he and his brothers painted murals on the walls. In 1927, murals were uncovered at the Talbot and were examined by the Art Institute of Chicago, dating the paintings prior to 1820. What is left of the murals can still be viewed today.

Over the years, many other noteworthy individuals have passed through The Talbott Tavern’s threshold, including Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, Washington Irving, General George S. Patton, and even a U.S. President. In fact, Abraham Lincoln stayed at the Talbott Tavern with his family at the young age of five. Lincoln’s parents arrived in Bardstown to dispute an error in the title to the land they owned. According to several accounts, it was the outcome of the trial which caused the Lincolns to pack their bags and leave Kentucky for good, settling in Southern Indiana where Lincoln would spend the rest of his childhood.

If the Talbott Tavern’s walls could talk, they would certainly have incredible stories to tell. And, although The Talbott has plenty of light-hearted historical anecdotes, it has also witnessed challenging moments in American history.

Alexander Walters was born in the tavern’s pantry to his mother who was a cook and slave. It is said that Walters’ mother went right back to work after giving birth to him. Walters would later become Bishop Alexander Walters, moving from Bardstown to New York City as an adult and becoming the first president of the National Afro-American Council in 1898. He would later help assemble the founding NAACP conference, and go on to become the organization’s Vice President when it was incorporated in 1911.

Founding Father Patrick Henry’s great-granddaughter Sally wasn’t a slave, but she was nearly sold as one across the street from the Talbott when her nurse held her while on the auction block. The story goes that the family was selling some of its slaves to help pay off some debts and didn’t realize that Sally’s nurse was still holding her when the bidding began. At the time, any property a slave was holding during the auction would also become the property of the winning bidder. But, before the bidding was over, friends and family had swiftly collected enough money from those around, including people from inside the Talbott, to purchase back both Sally and her nurse.

Less than a decade after young Sally was accidentally placed on the auction block, the Talbott would experience the grim realities of slavery and a divided country when war broke out between the North and the South. Records show Confederate soldiers had taken over the tavern on at least two occasions, using it one time as a staging area for The Battle of Perryville: the single-most bloodiest battle of the Civil War in Kentucky.

The Old Talbott Tavern’s rich, colorful history wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the tavern’s ties to outlaw Jesse James. It is said that James and his gang had hideouts across the Midwest, including Bardstown and The Talbott Tavern. And, although he was related to the Town Sheriff of the county, James had no reservations coming into town. On one occasion, it is said James left the Talbott only to be confronted by U.S. Marshall George Hunter. However, realizing he was outnumbered by James and his gang, Hunter allowed James to exit and leave unapprehended.

Jesse James was also an overnight guest at the Talbott. One night, after having too many drinks, James retired upstairs to rest in his room. Folklore has it that James began to see birds moving about in the painted murals located on the walls - the very paintings reportedly done by Louis Philippe and his brothers. James took out his gun and began shooting, leaving over a dozen bullet holes in the wall. Those bullet holes are on display today for visitors to see.

From outlaw bullet holes and royal murals, to presidential stays and echoes of the Civil War, The Talbott Tavern has seen a lot in its 242 year-old past, so it should be no surprise that the tavern almost has as many ghost stories as it does historical narratives. And, although the Old Talbott Tavern may attract hungry visitors, bourbon enthusiasts, and history buffs, it also has its fair share of those who check in as skeptics but check out as believers of the paranormal.

Ghostly Encounters

Over the years, many patrons and overnight guests of the Talbott have heard phantom voices within the building, calling out in the middle of the night, as well as footsteps echoing throughout the empty, quiet hallways. One of the more frequent sounds is from that of an old piano that is said to play a tune when no one, at least no one of the living, can be seen.

The tavern also has its share of visual encounters with the paranormal. Both guests and employees have witnessed doors opening and closing without anyone there, as well as furniture and dinnerware moving on its own. Others have seen shadows emerge from dark corners, only to slowly disappear as it enters the light.

One of the most terrifying encounters with the spirits of the Talbott Tavern involved a couple who woke up from their sleep to witness a lady in white, hovering over their bed. After staring back at them for a short time, she turned slowly and floated out the window. The couple was so frightened, they quickly packed their bags and left the Talbott in the middle of the night.

However, there are those who enjoy the thrill of getting an opportunity to come face to face with one of the ghosts who haunt The Talbott. After staying the night, a man came downstairs in the morning to ask the staff if the place was haunted. He proceeded to tell them about the light show he had witnessed in his room overnight. Apparently, bright balls of light in several different colors bounced around for some time in the man’s room. While he watched the lights dance, he could feel energy running through him. When the man was told he wasn’t the first person to experience this phenomenon, he excitedly asked to stay another night in the hopes to catch another glimpse of the lights or any ghost who might, by chance, pay him a visit.

And, last but certainly not least, we have the outlaw Jesse James, who was not killed in Bardstown but is as well known at the Talbott Tavern in life as he is in death. He is labeled as the tavern’s most famous and frequent ghost.

According to a former bookkeeper of the Talbott, she had been closing up the books and money for the day, when she was startled by an unfamiliar man in a long coat standing at the top of the stairs. She followed the man into several rooms, through doors and hallways. It appeared he was trying to make his getaway out of the Tavern before being caught. Convinced the man was an intruder, she followed him through a hallway and then a door to the fire escape. The woman opened the door to witness the man glaring back at her and laughing before completely vanishing before her very eyes. The woman was convinced she had just come face to face with the ghost of Jesse James.

Others claim to have seen the same man wandering throughout the tavern’s corridors throughout the years, knocking on walls, and being quite mischievous from time to time. While no one is sure why James would haunt the Talbott Tavern, it’s clear that many are convinced he still frequents the tavern’s space. Perhaps it continues to serve as a safe space for James, as it had for so many years for him and others, filled with the memories, emotions, and plenty of energy from centuries past.

What to Order

When in Kentucky, visitors are always encouraged to try the iconic Kentucky Hot Brown. A Hot Brown is a warm open-faced sandwich with layers of turkey, bacon, tomatoes, and Mornay sauce, layered on a thick cut of toasted bread. And, while I love a good Kentucky Hot Brown as much as the next person, Talbott’s Bourbon Walnut Chicken is a MUST. Imagine perfectly-seasoned, boneless fried chicken with a sweet, deep-flavored Bourbon-infused glaze drizzled over the top. It’s literally perfection on a plate. After dinner, slide over to the tavern to select from over 200 bourbons. Your tastebuds never had it so good.

Where to Stay

For an immersive experience into the Talbott’s history, I recommend renting a room directly above the tavern. And, if you’re in the mood for a ghostly encounter, The Jesse James Room is said to be a hotspot for paranormal activity. Weekends can get a bit noisy, though, with live entertainment downstairs in the tavern, and I like to be where the action is, but if you’re looking for a quieter stay, the Talbott Inn and Gift Shop, located in an adjacent building, is the perfect way to stay close to the original Tavern and Inn without the noise or spirits.

For those simply visiting the tavern for a meal and a few drinks, the staff welcomes you to take a tour of the inn upstairs so long as you are respectful of the living guests currently staying at the inn. Upstairs is where you will see what’s left of some of the murals Louis Philippe and his brothers reportedly painted, as well as the bullet holes reportedly made by Jesse James.

The Old Talbott Tavern is located in the heart of Bardstown. Advanced reservations are strongly encouraged, as the restaurant is often busy and typically doesn’t book same-day reservations. Overnight room reservations also fill up quickly, especially those located in the original tavern and inn. Therefore, if you’re planning to visit Bardstown and The Talbott Tavern, be sure to plan as far in advance as possible. The Talbott staff will make sure you have an unforgettable experience, and so will its ghosts.

My Old Kentucky Home

(Source: Ghost and Grub©)

Just minutes away from the Talbott Tavern stands a mansion on a hill, and like much of the area in and around Bardstown, has an extraordinary past.

In the late 18th century, John Rowan and his wife Mary purchased a farm with approximately 325 acres and a log cabin on the property. But, John and Mary had bigger plans for their farm. By 1818, a mansion was completed on the property, sitting on a hill overlooking the family’s now 1,300 acre plantation. It is said that John named the mansion Federal Hill in honor of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party.

John and Mary Rowan were no strangers to those in high places. In fact, Mary Rowan’s father, Captain William Lyttle, was part of George Washington’s elite regime during the Revolutionary War. In fact, it was Caption Lyttle who gave Mary and John the money as a wedding gift to purchase the initial 325 acres of land when they first married. John Rowan earned his law degree in Lexington and became a judge before becoming

Kentucky’s Secretary of State and later being elected to Congress of the United States.

John and Mary had nine children, and as the children grew, so did their family with much wealth and success. However, that all changed as the Cholera outbreak arrived in Bardstown and hit the family hard, killing three of the Rowan’s children, five other relatives, and over a dozen slaves who worked on the Rowan’s plantation. In a strange twist of fate, Mary Rowan would also die at Federal Hill from Cholera 16 years later.

When both John and Mary Rowan passed, Federal Hill was handed down to their son John Rowan, Jr. Unlike his father, John Rowen Junior opposed slavery and was a member of the anti-slavery faction in Kentucky. He also accepted the post of Ambassador to Italy under President James K. Polk.

But tragedy would strike the family again in 1855. While sleeping on a chair in his child’s room, John tragically leaned out the window and fell to his death. His wife Rebecca was left to raise their 10 children on her own.

Rebecca died at Federal Hill at the age of 84 in 1897. To this day, some say she never left, and her ghost can be seen walking the halls of the mansion, searching for her husband.

Another strange story often told is that of Judge John Rowan’s resting place at Federal Hill. Prior to his death, Rowan did not want a burial marker to honor his parents who were never given grave markers when they had passed. However, despite his request, his family installed an impressive pillar by which to remember him. Soon after, the marker fell over, and to this day, it occasionally falls and has to be re-installed. Perhaps John Rowan is communicating from the other side, letting everyone know he is not happy with the grave marker?

Today, Federal Hill is now known to many as My Old Kentucky Home State Park. While there, you can learn about the Rowan family and their slaves, take a tour of Federal Hill, visit the graves of the Rowan family, and walk the grounds. A few steps from Rowan's graveyard sits a marker filled with history behind My Old Kentucky Home and its namesake: the well-known official song of Kentucky written by Stephen Foster.

In the month of October, Federal Hill celebrates its macabre past by hosting guided tours of the mansion, encountering a different ghost in each room played by seasoned actors. As with many things in Bardstown, be sure to plan in advance if wanting to grab tickets for this and other events hosted at My Old Kentucky Home.

Jailhouse Pizza

(Source: Facebook)

To the west of Kentucky’s bourbon trail, stands a former county jail along the Ohio River in Brandenburg, Kentucky. Built in 1906 and decommissioned in 1976, the jail housed a variety of convicts, from petty criminals to dangerous felons. Listed in 1984 on the National Register of Historic Places, the former jail is better known today as Jailhouse Pizza.

Ghostly Encounters

Over the years, a myriad of experiences have been reported, including loud screams which can be heard throughout the former jail. Footsteps and the voice of what is thought to be a young girl have also been recorded. However, the most well-known spirit of Jailhouse Pizza is a ghost they’ve named Bigsby.

A rather mischievous spirit, Bigsby is known to move items around the restaurant. Employees at the pizza parlour know when Bigsby is around by the cold spots which leave as quickly as they appear. The friendly resident ghost’s disembodied voice can also be heard occasionally throughout the restaurant and former jail.

What to Order

Jailhouse Pizza offers a unique dining experience with an option to dine right in one of the building’s old jail cells. For first-time visitors, their pizza is a must. My top picks are the White Flag and Chicken Florentine. However, if you like things on the spicy side, order the Electric Chair. It’s topped with meats and cheeses, jalapenos, hot sauce, and Jailhouse Pizza’s specialty sauces, including its signature Deathrow sauce. Echoing the menu, order at your own risk.

For those who like food challenges, there’s also the Prisoner’s Pardon Pizza Challenge. Intended for two people, finishing the whopping 12 pounds of pizza in 60 minutes or less will earn you a picture with honors on their Wall of Fame. Lose the challenge, and you will be forced to pay off your jail sentence which conveniently happens to be your bill.

Jailhouse Pizza is typically the busiest on the weekends and attracts both locals and tourists alike. So, expect a bit of a wait. Once seated, I recommend ordering your food then taking a walk around the jail to pass the time until your food arrives. There is a lot to take in. Perhaps while looking around, you’ll run into Bigsby? If you do, be sure to invite him back to your table. I heard he likes pizza.

Tell Us Your Story

If you’ve been to any of the locations mentioned in this and other episodes, we’d love to hear from you! Simply send us a note at Your story could be featured in an upcoming episode.

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