He didn’t want to be a pirate, even though they were known to pillage and plunder the shores of St. Augustine.
Nor did he consider wearing the “funny looking” outfits sported by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.
In the end, Doug Stenroos settled on the ghost of St. John’s County Deputy Sheriff Guy White as his persona when he became what he says was the first ghost tour guide in historic St. Augustine.
Now, he says, he’s got fan clubs in Sweden, Japan and the United Kingdom, and, on a good night, he can make $400 in less than two hours on one of his walking tours.
It’s a pretty sweet side gig for a 71-year-old retired history buff.
Ghost Tour Hosting Is Big Business for This Retiree
As the owner and sole guide of the Sheriff’s Ghost Walk Tours, Stenroos assumes the ghostly apparition of White, who was killed by inmates in the line of duty in 1911.
If you want an up-close-and-personal account, look no further than the short film Stenroos produced with the help of a Flagler College television station manager in 2011. (Warning: The film is a little graphic at points.)
The tours last about 90 minutes, with Stenroos cajoling patrons into playing characters in the tales he weaves. He remains in character as White, of course.
There are plenty of other walking ghost tours and trolleys in the historic town, but, according to most TripAdvisor rankings, one thing stands out about this one (besides the fact that a “ghost” is the host): historical accuracy.
“If you start making this stuff up, it’s going to come out eventually,” Stenroos said.
To that end, he spent nearly six months poring through the St. Augustine Record’s archives and through city documents. He also visited every graveyard in the area and took detailed notes before launching the tour in 1996.
Stenroos also found plenty of ghostly fodder while interviewing local business owners and residents, including the story of a 5-year-old boy who fell from an oak tree in 1877 and died in what is now the Tolomato Cemetery. A young girl on a 2016 tour took a picture of the tree and swears his ghostly apparition is visible.
There was one notable deviation from history: White’s attire.
Historical pictures had the sheriff in drab clothes. So Stenroos took some liberties and went with Western cowboy look — complete with the fancy six-shooter spinning and spurs.
From the Florida Keys to Historic St. Augustine
When Stenroos was around 9, he lived in St. Augustine for a year while his dad helped build B-25 bombers at a nearby airfield.
He fell in love with the town, which boasts 17th century fortresses, the impressive Castillo de San Marcos fort and the oldest street in the U.S. After moving down to the South Florida, he returned as often as possible.
“Every time I got a new girlfriend we’d come up here,” Stenroos said.
He settled in the Florida Keys, where he owned body shops, repairing and detailing Corvettes and other antique cars.
But then Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida in 1992, leaving Stenroos wondering if he should head north. Further, his doctor was telling him his lungs couldn’t handle much more auto body paint.
Two years later, he and his wife Rhonda sailed his boat — which they would live on for several years — to St. Augustine. They’ve never looked back.
After moving to St. Augustine, he worked for one of the historic trolleys. This was the 1990s, before the historic town had much of a nightlife, and he heard constant complaints from tourists about a lack of entertainment when the sun went down.
He saw a niche, and decided to launch a walking ghost tour.
Launching a Ghost Tour in Historic St. Augustine
You’ve got to have charisma to maintain the attention of two dozen distracted tourists, especially in the muggy dregs of Florida summers. And if you’re playing the role of a ghost murdered in cold blood, you’d better have acting chops.
So how did Stenroos, a Vietnam veteran who spent most of his life working on classic cars, take to this role so well?
Well, there’s the fact that he says he was an extra in the 1980 action film “The Dogs of War” and did some modeling for Burger King advertisements in his youth. But his time spent as a bell captain at the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, Florida, brought him in contact with new faces nearly every second.
“I’ve never met a stranger,” Stenroos said. “I can walk up and talk to anybody.”
In his years playing the ghost sheriff, Stenroos has learned to read the crowd and to respond accordingly.
“You’ve got to like people, you’ve got to have the voice and you’ve got to make people feel like they’re involved,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for so long I can tell by the expression on their faces whether they’re enjoying it.”
Twenty-one years later, the ghost sheriff isn’t ready to ride off into the sunset quite yet.
“I’ll be doing this until I can’t walk or talk anymore,” Stenroos said.
Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. He’s a ghost-tour fanatic who believes in the paranormal, the Skunk Ape and all things that go bump in the night.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, one of the largest personal finance websites. We help millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. In 2016, Inc. 500 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the No. 1 fastest-growing private media company in the U.S.
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