The Haunted House of Captain Watlington

Posted by junketseo in Key West Ghost Tours
The Haunted House of Captain Watlington - Photo

The golden sands of Key West attract tourists, all looking to make the most of Florida’s beach weather and the bright cobalt-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Little do many of them know that a relic older than the state it was built in is nestled near the most southern point of the keys, just beyond the bustle of Midtown. 


The Oldest House is an unassuming, quaint structure that, if not for the sign advertising it as a museum, you’d assume was just a normal residence. Located near the corner of Eaton and Duval Street, the structure has survived Florida’s coast’s humidity and salty air for over 150 years. Once the home of the captain of a wrecker and his large family, the Oldest House captures a piece of Key West’s fascinating history. 


For most, that history is told through the remnants of the old captain’s lineage; much of the decor has remained untouched for generations. Others can sense the home’s long history through a presence tied to the old structure. Benevolent and welcoming, the spirits of the Oldest House make it feel lived in and warm, as if every visitor to the Key West museum is a guest invited over by the spectral residents.


Why is the Oldest House in Key West haunted?

For over a century, one family held onto the old home, imbuing it with lifetimes worth of memories. Uncover more of this Florida hotspot on a chilling Key West ghost tour.


Building What Would Become the Oldest House Museum


Nearly two decades before Florida joined the growing union of states, a Bahamian immigrant traveled to the Island of Key West, looking to make an enterprise out of his eye for carpentry. Believed to have been an apprentice carpenter on a ship, the 20-something Richard Cussans had the skills — and the slave labor — needed to erect several buildings across the Keys for sale or rent. 


What would become the Oldest House was constructed from South Floridian lumber, which lent to the structure’s longevity, even in harsh weather conditions. Cussans employed a nail-free technique that used timbers and pegs to hold the house together, a common practice on ships where nails would stress the wood, rust, and grow weak. The home boasted several unique features, such as a separate cookhouse that minimized the risk of fires in the main building.


Despite having his sweat (and likely blood) poured into the Oldest House, it’s not his story that remains attached to the New England Bahama architecture. Shortly before (or shortly after, depending on the source), the building was moved from Whitehead Street to its current home on Duval, where a wrecker and sea captain, Francis Watlington, moved in with his family. 


Captain Watlington Makes a Home in Key West


Captain Francis Watlington was a man of the sea, having served as a harbor and coastal pilot before working as a wrecker under his future father-in-law, Captain Charles Johnson. His career took him all over, but he decided in 1828 to settle down and call Key West his new home. While Watlington was settling into Key West, Johnson faced ten counts of fraud relating to the wreck of a brig named Hercules


The Johnson name was poised to be shamed forever. Though initially unrelated to Captain Watlington, he eventually married into the family, taking the hand of Charles’ daughter, Emeline. Their marriage ultimately restored faith in the Johnson name, especially as favor was given to Watlington for the achievements he earned after moving to Key West. 


During his time on Florida’s southern coast, Watlington was more than just a wrecker. He worked as a customer inspector and was appointed a member of the Florida House of Representatives. When war broke out in 1861, he enlisted for the Confederacy and earned the rank of First Lieutenant, serving his people well even as the Union Army occupied his home region.  


When the war started to wind down, and the Confederacy submitted to defeat, Watlington surrendered and became a prisoner of the Union for his part in the conflict. His sentence didn’t last long, and he returned home to Key West, where his wife and seven daughters were waiting. 


The Watlington family kept ownership of the home for many years, even after the former Captain passed in 1887, four years after his darling Emeline’s death. For over 80 years, Captain Francis Watlington’s family kept ownership of the Oldest House, eventually selling it in 1974 to Mrs. Robert Austin of Islamorada.


To preserve the home’s history, Austin handed the deed to the Historic Key West Preservation Board to ensure the structure remained in tact over the years. What the board likely didn’t expect was that the home would come with a menagerie of spirits.


The Haunted House of Captain Watlington      


While many know it as the Oldest House, the all-white building plopped in the middle of the bustle of Duval Street will always be known to some as the Haunted House of Captain Watlington. These aren’t your malevolent specters or dastardly ghouls, though. The home still very clearly belongs to the Watlington family, particularly Emeline, Francis’ dearly beloved. Captain Watlington may be one of the many ghosts that give the abode a homey feel. 


According to the museum’s live-in caretaker, Charles, the floorboards creak, and the rocking chair makes its own music as its former owner still finds time to relax, even between tours. Apparitions in period garb are no stranger to Charles’ eyes.


Visitors may be stunned at the full-bodied figure of a young child seen running through the antique home, but there’s nothing to fear in this casual haunt. The Oldest Home embodies the same lax attitude you’re sure to experience throughout Key West. Its spectral inhabitants are curious about their frequent visitors but never put off by the presence of the living.


Care to visit more of South Florida’s most active hotspots or want to know more about the spirits still tied to the soft sands of the Gulf Coast? Visit our blog and check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Don’t miss out on an unforgettable evening — book your Key West ghost tour!