Anne Palagruto and husband Tom only have three boys, ages 9 to 16, but at times they thought they had four.
The spirit of a little boy was often seen running around their house on the 2500 block of Warnock Street, she said. Although her husband saw the apparition, too, the little boy would usually appear to her.
The child was about 6 and dressed in early 1900s period clothing, wearing a little short pants suit lads wore back in the day, Palagruto said.
"It seemed like he would come around a lot on holidays or for a kid’s birthday," she said.
A neighbor once told Palagruto the home her family has occupied since 1987 was built in the late 1800s. With older homes possessing more history than newer ones, it’s quite possible the boy was a former inhabitant, but Palagruto said she isn’t sure.
The spectral child has not been seen in about six years, however.
"He just sort of stopped coming around," she said.
THE 42-YEAR-OLD Palagruto said she feels right at home with spirits. Not only has she been dealing with them personally, but professionally, too. Last Halloween, Palagruto founded the Philadelphia Institute for Paranormal Research (PIPR) after spending years as the co-director of South Jersey Ghost Research. PIPR is a nonprofit group dedicated to scientific investigations regarding claims of paranormal phenomena. Palagruto and her team offer investigative and research services to people who believe they may be the subject of a haunting in their home or other location.
The South Philly native is also the founder of Junior Ghosthunters International; the co-president of the International Committee of Spiritual Investigators; a field journalist for Ghost Advocate magazine; and has authored two books on the paranormal.
Palagruto also does volunteer work for Fort Mifflin in Southwest Philly, a site believed to be haunted. Throughout the fort’s long and troubled past, including a 1777 bloody siege by British troops, reports of paranormal activity have run rampant at the 225-year-old edifice. The fort has been the subject of several national documentaries, including the History Channel series "Haunted History."
PIPR spent two nights at Fort Mifflin earlier this month and during May to conduct sightings and gather recordings.
While in Casemate 5 – supposedly the most haunted spot in the fort – Palagruto and a few members of her group thought they saw a gray man’s figure. The director took a photograph, but nothing materialized. However, the audio equipment picked up something – rather eerie at that.
"You could hear a man’s voice say, ‘Get the keys, I’m getting old. Get the keys,’" Palagruto said.
To her, the command makes perfect sense since the casemate was a former prison that housed Confederate soldiers and Union deserters.
Palagruto founded PIPR because she wanted to explore the history behind the hauntings.
"Philadelphia – if you want to do that, this is the place to do it. You can learn a lot about history by studying the spirits. That’s why we got involved with Fort Mifflin – not only are you learning about [the] ghost, but you’re learning about the history behind it. Spirits are like a recording of history sometime," she said.
Palagruto’s grandfather was a history buff who always took her and her sister to the city’s historic sites. Many of the places, like Independence Hall, were supposedly haunted.
An electrician by trade, Palagruto’s grandfather worked in old homes in the Fairmount section, often taking his grandchildren on jobs with him so they could see and learn about the beautiful structures.
Palagruto’s sixth sense began to take shape while visiting some of these places, she said.
"I knew there were some places I didn’t want to be in and some places I just didn’t like," she said.
When she got older, Palagruto started reading books on haunted places and paranormal phenomena.
In her late 20s, Palagruto was hospitalized with meningitis. A near-death experience, she believes, sharpened her senses.
"I noticed after that, it would pick up more and I would see more things – not in my house, but walking around, I would see [spirits] walking," she said.
Most people think ghosts are restless souls who return to haunt the living, but Palagruto said, while that is certainly the case in many instances, it is not the sole explanation for specters.
"A lot of times it could be relatives just checking up on families. And I think there are other times when a spirit doesn’t realize they are dead," she said, adding a car accident might be an example of the latter.
Then there are those who have unfinished business.
Elizabeth Pratt, "The Screaming Woman" at Fort Mifflin, is a perfect example, Palagruto said. The wife of an officer, Pratt hung herself after her daughter died of typhoid fever.
"She was never reunited with her estranged daughter," Palagruto said.
Paranormal activity is not limited to ghost sightings, but includes what are known as "residual hauntings," where the same event is played over and over like a recording. An example of this would be a specter gliding down a staircase and walking out a door, simply going about its business, oblivious to its surroundings.
"It’s not a person so much as a playback of an event," Palagruto said.
Hauntings, no matter the type or form, do not spook Palagruto.
"Everybody thinks you’re going to run out screaming when you see a ghost. But your first instinct is to stare at it and you try to figure out who you’re looking at. By the time you really get a handle, it’s gone. That whole thing might be like five seconds," she said.
For more information about the Philadelphia Institute for Paranormal Research, go www.pipr.org.