Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Ghosts of Christmas

Charles Dickens from Wikipedia daguerreotype by Jeremiah Gurney

Hey, there's one undisputed master of the Christmas ghost story, Charles Dickens. Not only has he written the ultimate Yuletide tale A Christmas Carol with four co-starring specters, but he penned a series of Christmas novellas and also written many books based on the holiday theme.

Charles Dickens' fascination with ghosts and the macabre goes back to his childhood, to the ghoulish stories told him by his nanny, Mary Weller, whom he referred to as Mercy, "though she had none on me." And in justice, Weller didn't think Dickens was exactly an ideal charge, either. Maybe that's why she tried to scare the bejabbers out of him.

Not only did Mary's spooked out bed-time stories stick to young Charles, played back to him ad nauseum in his dreams, but reality added its lumps of coal, too. His dad was tossed into debtors prison when he was twelve, forcing him into the English factory system to earn his daily bread.

That was a sure nightmare maker, especially for a boy of the gentry who had none of the thick skin and street smarts of his brother urchins. He was humiliated by his circumstances, but drawn into the previously unknown world it introduced to him. The experience left him a champion of the underclass after he returned to the genteel life.

There were other influences on his sudden epiphany on the horrors of the Industrial Revolution on families, particularly kids, and the supernatural.

He toured the Cornish tin mines and Field Lane Ragged School for street orphans, visited the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, had a decade-long fascination on both sides of the Atlantic with spiritualism; and was a fan of satirist and social commentator Douglas Jerrold, whose Punch magazine article How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas featured a prototype Scrooge.

In 1843, Dickens published A Christmas Carol, partly as a social tract but mainly to relieve a money crunch. He wrote it in six weeks, hastened along by the memory of his father's time in gael - they should use the same concept for Wall Street - and a holiday deadline. It was a hit, critically and financially.

It was only the first of many holiday pieces; Dickens was nearly obsessed with the Christmas metaphor. He churned out other Christmas tales where the world weary were shown the light by spirit guides: The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Christmas Goblins, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, all borrowing various elements from A Christmas Carol.

All in all, he wrote at least sixteen stories centered around Christmas, though most passed on spooks and eventually ended their twisted trail with tidings of joy. Of course, some were written because the reading public expected a story from Dickens during the holidays because of A Christmas Carol. Others, well, because, in Dickens' words:

"I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

While most of Dickens' novels were along the lines of "Great Expectations," "Oliver Twist," and all his other caste-based classics, he was also quite a prolific contributor to the Brit magazine scene that thrived in his era. And he could write a ghost story as well as any of the popular tale-spinners of the day.

The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, collected by Peter Haining, contains all twenty of Dickens' spook sagas. And his tales of redemption brought on with the help of the netherworld still live on in movies and on the Broadway stage.

Dickens may not have left any personal ghosts to haunt the living, but he sure did his part to make sure that spooks became a mainstay of our holiday season by providing us with his own version of the herald angels.

It's a good season to be reminded that, as he believed, "We forge the chains we wear in life."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Maple Grove Inn

Inn at Maple Grove from the Morning Call

John Keifer built the Maple Grove Inn in Alburtis, Lehigh County, as a hotel in 1783, and it later became a stagecoach stop. Now it's a State Street restaurant called The Inn at Maple Grove, serving classic American fare...and a bit more.

It features the stories of two spooks on its' menu. The first is an Indian nicknamed Charlie who was hung in the Commons Room, now the dining area, in front of the fireplace for impregnating a white woman. It's said lighting the fireplace usually is enough to get a rise out of Charlie.

His supposed victim, it turned out, was a willing participant to the match, unbeknowst to the vigilantes and the kangaroo court jurists, and the Indian vowed to haunt the Inn to protest of the injustice of it all.

His footsteps can be heard, he shakes the fireplace tools, makes the chandeliers swing, plays with the lights & door locks, makes rapping sounds, whistles, and generally makes a nuisance of himself. He's sometimes seen as a mist or dove. His body is buried either under the fireplace's hearthstone or in the basement, depending on which version of the story is being told.

The other spook has been seen upstairs. He's the spirit of a man that was allegedly murdered in a closet on the second floor, and is most commonly associated with footsteps heard when no one's around.

Their tales are told in Ghost Stories of the Lehigh Valley by Charles Adams III and David Seibold and Haunted Places by Dennis William Hauck.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Landon House

landon house
Landon House from Architectural Concepts

The Landon House was built along the Rappahannock River in Virginia as a silk mill in 1754. It was relocated (by barge!) to Urbana, Maryland in 1840 where it became The Shirley Female Academy and then the Landon Military Academy & Institute.

During the first Maryland campaign of the Civil War, it was the headquarters of General James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart. Virginia gentleman that he was, Stuart hosted several social events at Landon, including the renowned Sabers and Roses Ball, a soiree for the rebel troops.

The ball was held on September 8, 1862. Twenty-four hours later, the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of combat in American history, erupted.

The house was a hospital for both Union and Confederate troops during the battle and still has the original signed and dated Civil War “lightning sketches” on its walls, drawn by Yankee and Rebel soldiers.

Portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, along with General Robert E. Lee, remain. Landon House, located on the Urbana Pike, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a stop on Maryland’s Civil War Trails program.

Since the hospital days, employees and visitors have witnessed many eerie events in the Landon House and on its property.

The house is reportedly haunted by the civil war soldiers who died in the building, seen by many Landon guests. Orbs are also common phenomena. Ghostly lights have been seen moving through the house late at night.

These soldiers are thought to be residual hauntings, energy that is left behind after an especially emotional or traumatic experience. Death would certainly qualify as one such experience.

Folks who have taken pictures sometimes find Civil War soldiers in the developed prints. One pair of reenactors allegedly have a snapshot of a ghostly apparition looking out of the windows, keeping an eye on them as they toured the house.

Construction workers told of a Union soldier who walked out the nearby woods, waved to them, and disappeared. There were no reenactors or anyone in costume on the site that day.

One reb soldier that has reportedly never left is Colonel Luke Tiernan Brien, an aide to Stuart, who has been seen sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, looking out over his property (he was a later owner of the Landon House). He died in 1912. More often, the chair is reported rocking by itself.

An old spirit is sometimes reported to roam the house halls; many assume it's Brien, still padding around his old digs.

One spooked-out part of the house is the basement area. It is believed to be home to the slaves who were once held there. If you visit this spot, it's said that you may encounter an icy cold sensation, the sense of being watched, and maybe a tap from an unseen entity.

The basement is also home to one of Landon's prized legends, the ghostly hounds. The cellar wall has unexplained scratch marks from claws on the wall, and the most common paranormal report from Landon is the howling of dogs, heard from the deepest level of the house.

They're supposed to be the remnants of an ethereal pack of dogs that were kept in the basement over the years by a variety of owners, used for hunting, as an early home-security system, and to keep the slaves from escaping.

Another famous pooch spook haunts Landon. The dog was accompanying its owner during the battle of Antietam, was wounded, and brought to Landon House, where it died. It's never left.

One photographer captured a ghostly woman and her dog in one picture; pooches apparently were a big part of Landon's early history.

And there are the more mundane reports, such as Civil War music playing, and rolling cannon balls. But not all the ghosties are from the Civil War. A couple of apparitions are from the Shirley Female Academy days.

There is a legend about a woman whose baby died at birth. The woman lost it; she sat in a rocker and rocked the dead baby for three days before admitting it was gone. Her spook has allegedly been seen on the balcony entrance of her room at night.

A ghostly woman in white is rumored to roam the second-floor rooms. And she's on a mission - it's said that she's doing a bedtime check, looking for children to tuck into bed. A kid or two have even reported her visit to their parents. There's nothing like the ministrations of a netherworld nanny to speed you off to dreamland.

The Landon House, now a wedding and events center, embraces its spookiness. "We are happy to include an historic tour or 'ghost walk' of Landon House with your special event at no extra charge" boasts its website.

A Landon House Ghost Walk is hosted every Friday evening from April through September. It even rents out to paranormal groups that want to spend an evening tracking down Landon House legends.

So if you're planning to take the plunge or celebrate a big event and don't mind a couple of twilight zone gatecrashers, the Landon House is your haunt.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Southern Mansion

The Southern Mansion from Eras of Elegance

A wealthy industrialist, George Allen, built the Southern Mansion as a summer home for his family in 1863. Cape May was a getaway for the rich and famous, and the Italianate-designed Mansion was one of its featured homes (it's now part of Cape May's historic district).

The Allen's house sat on a acre and a half estate, lined with trees and dotted by Italian gardens, with mahogany woodwork, intricately carved crown moldings, fifteen feet ceilings, giant gilded mirrors, grand ballrooms, and 5,000 square feet of verandas surrounding it. Allen and his family summered there for 83 years.

George's niece, Ester Mercur, and her husband were the last of Allen family to call the mansion home. Ester loved the estate, and when she died, her husband, Ulysses, couldn't bear to remain there without her, and sold the whole shebang for $8,000. He was in an emotional rush to get out, and didn't vet the next caretakers very well.

The new owners turned the place into a boarding house. They painted the beige structure white, and converted the mansion into a rat's nest of small rooms to let. It gradually evolved into a poorly kept flophouse, and after 50 years, the hotel license was yanked because of the deplorable condition of the once-proud building.

In early 1994, the mansion was bought by its current owners, who turned it into a boutique hotel and event center. In just 18 months, after carting out 25 dumpsters of accumulated junk, the mansion was fully restored and renovated back to the spittin' image of its glory days.

The original owners must have liked the restoration. Some of them came back to enjoy their old home as yappy specters, while another had a complete attitude make-over.

First, voices and hushed conversations have been heard and reported from all corners of the Southern Mansion. It's thought that ghosts of the mansion's summer home era have returned, enjoying the building as in days of yore. Paranormal investigators have captured the spectral talk on EVP.

There's also one spooked out, but unidentified, room that weighs heavily on its mortal visitors. Folks claim that they get the feeling of anxiety and tension when they enter the space. There's never been a report of an apparition present, just a universal sense of angst.

It's believed that a highly emotional death occurred in the room, like a suicide, murder, or illness/accident.

But hey, the ghost of Southern Mansion isn't about the bad times. The star spook is Ester, and she's one happy lady now. It wasn't always that way; back in the boarding house days, she was often reported roaming the Mansion as a sad visitation, no doubt bummed to see how far her beloved home had tumbled downhill.

But now that the house has been restored to its heyday look, Ester is a joyful spirit, apparently delighted that the mansion is once again like home. And she's been seen all over the place, in different guises.

In the kitchen, staff members claim that a female apparition watches over them while they prepare the meals, cook, and clean. In fact, the elderly woman seems very much at home there, even trying to help out. That's Ester, tending to her homefires.

Visitors entering the Mansion reportedly hear a lady's laughter echoing off the walls with music playing, and see a beautiful woman dancing up a storm in various rooms. That's said to be Ester, too.

Ester's also been spotted as the image of a decked-out hostess, wearing a gown and wafting a trail of lilac perfume as she floats through the halls, with the sound of her swishing petticoat clearly audible.

So hey, scared of spooks? You'll get over that with one visit to the Southern Mansion. Ester is the happiest ghost this side of Casper.

Shanley Hotel

The Shanley Hotel

The Shanley Hotel is a turn of the century Classic Dutch Colonial in Napanonch, New York, built in 1845. It burned to the ground in 1895, was rebuilt the same year over the old foundations, and that's the structure that stands today. The hotel boasts of 35 rooms, hidden basements, and secret stairs throughout the building. Hey, it even has an old bordello.

Over the years, it acquired quite a history. While generally operated as a first class hotel - FDR and Eleanor stayed there, as well as Thomas Edison - there were also times when it was a honky-tonk house, featuring painted women, dancing, gambling, and the inevitable police raids.

It's had over twenty owners during the years, but the one we're most interested in is James Louis Shanley, who purchased his namesake hotel in 1906. He drew the public to his inn with card tournaments, social gatherings, high teas, a bowling alley and a billiards parlor. While it was a big hit with the locals and clientele who regarded the family warmly, there were several tragedies that struck the Shanleys.

James' wife Beatrice gave birth to three children; none survived long enough to reach their first birthday. Her sister Esther died in childbirth at the hotel. James himself met his Maker after a heart attack at his inn.

The place is spook central. Oh, a lot of the phenomena is paranormal child's play: doors open & shut, footsteps are heard at all hours, people chat in an empty bar area, rocking chairs are seen swaying on their own, unseen clocks chime, cold and hot spots are all about, the scent of perfume wafts by, the sounds of children laughing are reported, ragtime music is pounded from an unattended piano, ladies' jewelry gets tugged on by invisible hands, the smells of breakfast come from a deserted kitchen, orbs abound, a sense of being watched is felt, an occasional moan fills the know, the usual stuff. It's a 24/7 ghost playground.

And that's just the opening act. The Shanley is supposedly home to 33 different resident apparitions, totaled up by the owners and the small army of ghost hunters that have swept the hotel halls.

Some sightings are attributed to the Shanleys. James is said to wander around the hotel in the form of a misty apparition, often whistling. A woman can be heard mourning; it's supposed that she's Beatrice, bemoaning the loss of her three children and sister.

Another story involving the Shanleys is the Al Hazen tale. Beatrice sold the hotel to him after James died. He had the same birthday as James (Halloween!), and eventually died on the same date, too, although different years. Probably just eerie coincidence that their signs lined up, hey?

The Shanley spooks aren't alone by a long shot. It's believed that many of the spirits that haunt the hotel are trying to share their tale with the living and receive a little justice, even if it's in the afterlife. Rumors teem that murders were committed and covered up there, along with the tragic deaths and fatal accidents sadly commonplace in an old hotel.

Some of the spirits interact with the guests, making physical contact with a poke or push, getting captured on film, or filling tape recorders with their EVP responses. Others just go about their daily haunts, happy to hang out in a place that's familiar to them instead of heading to the light and the unknown, like an ethereal lemming.

The ghosts cover the whole time span of the hotel, well over 150 years. A woman in a beautiful Victorian style dress can be observed on occasion. Men dressed in Roarin' Twenties outfits have been reported, as have girls in hippy uniforms from the sixties.

A spirit named Claire, a young woman who was said to have hung herself, haunts the third floor. She told psychics that she was murdered and isn't leaving until her true fate is revealed.

An 11 year old named Jonathan happily plays with toys left in his room to amuse ghost hunters; his rolling of a ball on request is featured on a You Tube clip.

Joe, a self-employed hit-man in life, also haunts the hotel. Unlike his earthly persona, he doesn’t seem to be a threatening presence at the Shanley, just another murderous boarder who is sometimes a bit surly.

In the old bordello, a photo was taken of a working girl gazing towards the Shawanugunk Mountains from her window. A penny for her thoughts! The room is supposed to be the most actively haunted in the hotel, and has a physical effect on its visitors.

People have reported feeling light-headed, suffering shortness of breath, a physical heaviness, and an overwhelming feeling of either euphoria or depression when they enter the Bordello Room.

Not that any of this bothers the owners, Sal and Cindy Nicosia. They embrace the spooky. Heck, their web site claims the Shanley is ghost-investigator friendly, has a blog roll of paranormal groups, hosts spook-hunting tours and ghost pajama parties, and offers a brief recap of the haunted history of the hotel.

They back up their tales, too, saying the reports "Have been documented with EVP's, photos, well-known psychics, paranormal investigators, news articles, eye-witness's (sic), and guests who have visited the hotel..."

They've earned a spot in Linda Zimmerman's Ghost Investigator series. Book #7 is called Psychic Impressions, and has a chapter on the Shanley Hotel along with other Hudson Valley haunts.

So if you want to break into ghost-hunting, head up to Napanonch and the Shanley Hotel. Hey, you don't need experience and don't even have to bring anything more than a camera and tape recorder; the spooks are eagerly awaiting your visit and more than willing to strut their netherworld stuff.