Friday, August 27, 2010

The Haunting of History

Ghost stories and urban legends sometimes mix and become interchangeable, but they’re general makeup is decidedly different. Urban legends often dance around a fantastic but possible situation, usually encompassing a warning for society (ie don’t pick up strangers in your car, don’t be a slut with your boyfriend in the woods, don’t pee in the sink at rich person’s house, ect.). But ghost stories, I feel, are more complex, and tap into something deeper than you garden variety fairy tale or urban legend. More than anything, ghosts are the manifestations of history. Whether real or imagined, the phantom represents something bygone and out of place, a reminder of our history that exists outside the books.

This was brought home to me this week when reading about the discovery at Duffy’s Cut, an area of tracks laid down in 1832 for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. An ongoing project to excavate and investigate the construction and subsequent massacre in this small stretch of woodland Malvern, Pennsylvania has yielded significant and sinister finds. Fifty-seven Irish immigrant laborers were hired to work on the railroad, and all perished within two months, allegedly victims of the cholera pandemic that was sweeping through the area in 1832. Pieces of a mass grave have been uncovered in recent years, with evidence that the dead were killed violently instead of virulently.

The site’s investigators, twin brothers Frank and William Watson, encountered the incident at Duffy’s Cut first as ghost story. Their grandfather, who worked for the railroad, spun yarns about ghosts dancing over the Irishmen graves. Other portions of the event reemerged with inaccurate faces in Malvern’s local folklore, but the ghost stories stayed with the brothers. After their grandfather’s death, the brother’s inherited his papers and began their investigation with the backing of Imaculata University, discovering bones and more evidence of murder than cholera.

What grabs me is how the ghost story operated as a marker for history. Where other portions of the story dissolved into inaccurate legend, the ghost story served as a historical marker which may in the end bring the closest interpretation of what really happened at Duffy’s Cut.

We see other cases of this in places like Gettysburg, and the plantations of the Old South. The Myrtles Plantation where the slave Chloe, accidental murderess, is said to have poisoned her master’s wife and children before being lynched by her own people. While historians can find so record of such a slave at the Myrtles plantation, the story serves to point out the valid and violent history of the antebellum south, and the realities of plantation life. We see it again at the Joshua Ward House in Salem, MA, where an alleged haunting marks the true history of execution, torture and corruption carried out by a town that turned on its own people.

Even more telling for me is where ghost stories do not appear, the very best example being the Holocaust. While there are vague reports of cold spots, feelings of overwhelming sorrow and fear for visitors of the Nazi death camps (who would not feel overwhelming sorrow there?), there are no popular stories of hauntings and no investigations are conducted there. This is mostly due out of respect for the dead and the sanctity of these memorials. Ghost stories, as well as being markers of history, are entertainment, and we don’t want to trivialize the holocaust by making it a source of amusement. But perhaps there is something deeper. Where such history is remembered and marked, no ghost story is needed. We don’t require a phantom appearance to remind us what happened at the camps and elsewhere to millions of Europeans. We remember well enough already. So perhaps, no matter what you believe about ghosts, their sightings and stories are representations of what we’ve left behind and, from time to time, need to remember.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Eerie on Etsy

I love weird stuff. I especially love weird handmade stuff, which is why I want to focus for a moment on the grand creepiness that can be found via, the handmade mecca of the internet Etsy. A romp through the poisoned garden there can yield some truly freaky finds. Here's some of my recent wishlist items

Hand Engraved Spooky Glass

These four lovelies are a great combo of traditional spooky images with just enough of the grotesque to make them seasonally elegant. I, however, wouldn't wait for Halloween to light up these pretties.

Sleepy Hollow Inn Primitive Sign

This artisan has actually moved off Etsy, but the work speaks for itself. There is no kind of spooky like the classical spooky. These works are a good mix of folk art and heritage that call to mind America's earliest haunts.

Vintage Sheet Music

I don't know about you, but vintage art and photography freaks me out rather nicely.

Boston Cemetery at Dusk
This one doesn't quite qualify for "wishlist" status, since I was able to purchase it. But the artist has a great eye for the sepia-ed macabre. What better subject than historic Boston.


I'm not sure what I like better, the display photo of the necklace. Sillycuts has fantastic jewelry, though some of it may not be for everyday wear (unless you're part of the goth community). The amount of detail and work is evident and I love the feelings the piece invokes. Both elegant and twisted

Monday, August 16, 2010

Grave Bells and Bombs

Taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, is common fear today, though often classified as irrational. Outside of murder and perhaps even the Lazarus Effect, there is little risk of premature burial in the era of modern medicine. Such was not the case in earlier centuries. Cases of premature burial range back to the 13th century and were exacerbated in the 18th and 19th century, where the prevention of such a grisly fate became an area of industry.

Historians credit the repeated cholera pandemics of the 19th century as compounding people’s fears about premature burial. Some of the earliest designs of preventative burial techniques, or safety coffins, were created in the late 18th century, and early 19th century. These early designs fitted coffins with signals attached to the corpse, a bell or a flag, that could be used to alert those above ground that the grave contained a live person. Many of these designs were imperfect, neither taking into account how decaying bodies shift and can set off the signal, nor providing oxygen to the person. Should someone be mistakenly buried, they weren’t likely to live long.

Those living in the 19th century had little left to the imagination when it came to the prospect of premature burial. Historic accounts of 13th century Johannas Duns Scotus, whose disinterred remains were found outside his coffin with evidence of clawing and torn fingers, and the imaginings of Edgar Allan Poe, whose work showed a particular preoccupation with the subject, easily fueled the public’s fear. Living in an era of mourning (One of Queen Victoria’s deepest influences on the period) and less than modern medical advancements, Victorians lived fairly closed to death. Poverty increased this familiarity in Europe and America. In the East End of London (notably during the reign of Jack the Ripper), approximately 50% of children died before the age of five. The many cholera pandemics of the 19th century caused such frequent and supposed “sure” deaths that many where buried alive, put in wooden coffins so expediently that they could be heard kicking to get out, and often left to die.

Industry and redesigns to prevent being buried alive ran through into the 20th century. Aristocrats and wealthy businessmen often financed elaborate devices to save them from the terrible fate. Safety coffins also spawned special burial vaults that could be opened from the inside by those trapped within. One created for businessman Martin Sheets of Indiana in 1910 was wired with a telephone inside, so he might call his relatives to open the vault should he be mistakenly entombed. The coffins themselves developed varied designs throughout the period, including ones where a tube leading down to the casket could deliver air to the imprisoned beneath and the smell of decay to the local pastor, who would be obliged to check for evidence of death. Other designs included a window and trapdoor that would give evidence of decay, and then drop the corpse down into the grave.

Though the fear is diminished today, there are still commercial solutions within the funerary business to allay the fears of any customer. If you are worried about being buried before your time, arrangements for an alarm system, probably more automated than its ancestors, can be installed.

While Victorians were concerned with being trapped in the grave, equally disturbing was the need to protect what was in the grave. Grave robbing, or more accurately, body snatching, was a problem in the 18th and 19th century. The burgeoning medical field needed a supply of study cadavers, but cutting up the human body was sacrilegious and decidedly illegal. Body snatchers, or ressurectionists, could make a good living off supplying medical schools with the dead for dissection. Demand and methods used to prevent body snatching led to murders, as ressurectionists were paid more for fresher corpses. The result was the Anatomy Act that was passed in 1832, allowing for dissection in Great Britain, before that supply was dependant on executed criminals.
The US took a different approach to deterrence, developing a grave torpedo. Post civil war, the number of medical colleges in the US nearly doubled and the competition between these programs increased cadaver demand, but the US was not the UK, and supplies were still satisfied by either by the legal use of executed convicts, or the black market. The public outcry spawned the grave torpedo, essentially a spring activated bomb buried with the coffin.

Filled with lead balls and gunpowder, moderate disturbance of the grave triggered the torpedo, and the body snatcher might find himself on the dissection table. Patented in 1881, the grave torpedo was in use until laws relaxed in the US and legal cadavers met the supply of the growing medical education market. But there is no telling how many bombs might be buried in 19th century graves across the U.S. Tread lightly.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Food for the Dead – Vampires in Rhode Island

The first case of New World vampirism I was ever exposed to was that of Nellie Vaughn, who died of pneumonia in 1889 at age 19. The loose facts of this case were given in the book The New England Ghost Files by Charles Turek Robinson; the entry mostly revolved around Nellie’s ghost supposedly haunting the West Greenwich Cemetery where she is buried.

The account depicts the classic ghost rendering of a woman dressed in fashion from another period, interacting with visitors to the graveyard and generally behaving oddly before evaporating. The proposed impetus for the haunting is that Nellie was at the time of her death believed to be a vampire, and the ghost is trying to clear its name. The engraving on the headstone “I am watching and waiting for you”, adds an extra, sinister element to the atmosphere. But ghosts aside, there is actual history surrounding Nellie Vaughn, and what’s most interesting is not just that the accusation of vampirism is false; it’s also a case of mistaken identity.

Three years after Nellie’s death, in rural Exeter, Rhode Island, Mercy Brown, also age 19, died of Tuberculosis and was buried on the grounds of the Exeter Baptist Church. She was the third member of the Brown family to die of consumption in a handful of years. Both her mother Mary and sister Mary Olive had died in preceding years. At the time of her death, Mercy’s brother Edwin was suffering from the endemic disease. Prior to global acceptance of a vaccine in the 1940s, it was not uncommon for consumption to wipe out large portions of or sometimes entire families.

Though it was understood by the 1880s that TB was a contagious disease, it seems the folklore of Rhode Island won out in the case of Mercy Brown. To these good country folk, consumption was more of a spiritual disease, and when the sickness began working its way through a family, blame was placed on the already dead members of the family as opposed to the germ. Those already taken down were believed to be sapping the life force of those still living, causing their consumption from the grave. It was decided that this was what had killed Mercy, and what was now killing her brother Edwin, a literal vampirism.

There were prescribed measures for defeating this kind of vampirism, but evidence was needed first. George Brown and several other townspeople exhumed the bodies of Mary, Mary Olive and Mercy in March of 1892 (Mercy had been buried in January). Both mother and sister were in advanced stages of decomposition, but Mercy’s body showed little signs of it (hardly surprising since she was buried in winter and exhumed before the spring thaw).

Folklore states that the body had turned over in the grave, and the most telling evidence was that there was still blood in Mercy’s heart. It was concluded that she was a vampire, and responsible for her brother’s illness. To save Edwin, George Brown had Mercy’s heart cut out and burned on a stone. The ashes were then mixed with water and fed to Edwin. This was believed to end the vampiric hold Mercy had on the family. She was again buried in the church yard. Edwin followed her two months later.

In 1967, a Coventry school teacher told his students about the case, possibly without mentioning names or specific places. It’s likely that the students, in trying to locate the vampire’s grave, decided that Nellie Vaughn’s grave fit the bill (due to the sinister interpretation of the headstone engraving). Reports of ghostly activity vary, including no grass growing near the stone. This is hardly surprising considering the amount of traffic the grave receives thanks to the local vampire legend. The cemetery is now a hub for occult activity and vandalism. Because of repeated attempts by visitors to exhume Nellie’s body, her stone was removed. Area historians, caretakers, town officials and law enforcement do what they can to discourage interest (since it so often leads to vandalism) and to correct the inaccuracies in local history.

Mercy Brown’s grave is also frequently chipped and scarred, with objects littering the area around the stone. Her story is well publicized now, reported on by Yankee Magazine, and the subject of an (excellent) book by folklorist Michael Bell of Vampire Grasp (see Food for the Dead: On the Trail of the New England Vampire). Even more fascinating, Mercy isn’t the only Vampire in Rhode Island. There are other cases, even outside the New England area. Given the deeply rooted superstitions of rural America, there may be vampires everywhere in our country.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Amun Her Kepesh-ef of Egypt and Middlebury, VT

A lot of us have beheld Egyptian royalty, usual on display at a traveling or permanent museum exhibition. But most have never seen the final resting place of any of the Egyptian monarchy, Unless you’ve visited the West Cemetery in Middlebury, VT. While some pharaohs and their progeny are allowed to remain in their tombs, others lie in state under thick glass, viewable for admission.

But in the 19th century, archeology had more in common with grave robbing than it (arguably) does today. Many of ancient Egypt’s relics were plundered from tombs and sold in the West to museums, university, collectors, or anyone else who would pay. Henry Sheldon, the eccentric collector and founder of his own Vermont museum and house of attraction, was such a man. He became the owner of the mummified body of two-year old Amun Her Kepesh-ef (not to be confused with the second child of Nefretiti by the same name).

Purchasing the mummy sight-unseen in the 1890s, Sheldon was reportedly so disappointed with its condition that he never displayed it, but sent it to his attic archive where it wasn’t discovered until well after his death in 1945. It was discovered after years of fluxuating Vermont weather had caused the body to decompose. The then-curator of the museum George Mead had the remains cremated and given a “Christian Burial” in his own family plot in Middlebury. The headstone bears both the Christian cross and Egyptian ba and ankh. Mead was clearly playing both sides of the spiritual fence here.

In researching, Mead discovered that the King’s tomb had been raided by grave robbers in the mid 1800s, before archeologists could unearth it, and the child’s body had been pawned throughout the antiquities circuit until it reached Paris, and then to the United States. His father, Sen Woset III, ruled during the 12th Dynasty during the middle Kingdom some 4,000 years ago. The tombstone indicates that the child died in 1883 B.C, which was about six years before his father became Pharaoh. His mother is not officially listed as one of Sen Woset’s consorts, nor Kepesh-ef as one of his children, perhaps because he was born and died before his father’s reign. The tombstone reads.

Amun Her Kepesh-ef
2 Years Old
Son of Sen Woset III, King of Egypt and Hator Hopte
Died 1883 B.C.

And if you want to see it, you can just visit rural Vermont. No visa required.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Joshua Ward House - Salem, MA

1692 is an innocuous series of numbers to most, but what happened that year in American history still calls dread to mind. There is definitely a slight widening of the eye when the gruesome event is mentioned. I’ve seen people shake their head in shame for the small puritan village, wondering how piety could become so twisted. I’ve also seen others swear up and down that the Devil truly did walk in Salem. Whatever your belief, it’s hard to deny that both Salem and America are still haunted by the Salem Witch Trials, both figuratively and perhaps literally.

Salem has a reputation, one that it’s proud of. Today, it prides itself on its inherited spookiness, creating commerce out of its macabre history that has done well for community. The Salem Witch is a ubiquitous symbol throughout the city. It’s part of the city’s seal, and can be found everywhere from street signs to, ironically, the uniforms of the local police force. Even the high school football team is called the Witches, which is only appropriate for a place known as the Witch City.

New England itself being a bastion of the macabre and creepy, Salem has long served as its capital in all things other-worldly. But what is fact (as much as can be found on the subject) and what is marketing? It has a mystique that is ripe for ghost stories, creepy folklore and unexplained phenomenon. Combining its violent history with the inherent eeriness most North Shore towns in Massachusetts (or any seaside town) possess, and you get a place where every other building is reputed to be haunted.

A checklist of supposedly haunted spots in Salem will give you an idea of just how much this town has been transformed by a mere 15-month period in its ancient history. Among them are the House of Seven Gables, The Gardner-Pingree House, Ropes Mansion, the Customs House, the Old Town Hall, and the Joshua Ward House.

Stately in its federal-style architecture, the Joshua Ward House, a historical landmark since 1978, is one that can actually claim relation to the Witch Trials. While Joshua Ward himself made his wealth from Salem’s port and sea business, it’s the location of the house, not the man who gave it its name, which inspires the home’s notoriety. The Joshua Ward House is built over the site of the original home of George Corwin, the High Sheriff of Essex County in 1692. Corwin is notorious in Salem’s history as the man whose signature brought the arrest and execution of those in Salem village accused of witchcraft. Corwin also disseized many of the accused and condemned of their land, leading to his massive unpopularity following the hysteria. While this may not make him less culpable than the accusers and the ruling judges of the trials, Corwin is known for his cruelty in gaining confessions from the accused, most notably in the case of Giles Corey.

Under the auspices of “Spectral Evidence”, Giles Corey and his wife Martha were accused of witchcraft by Anne Putnam and Abigail Williams. Refusing to enter a plea, Giles Corey was subjected to "peine forte et dure", or pressing to death, under the direction of Sheriff Corwin. Corey was stripped naked with a board laid over his body. Heavy stones were placed on the board, which slowly crushed him to death. The torture, which wasn’t abolished until 1772 in Great Britain, was customary when accused criminals refused to enter a plea. The folklore of the event claims that Corey answered each of Corwin’s calls for a plea with “more weight”. Robert Calef, who was a witness along with other townsfolk, later said, "In the pressing, Giles Corey's tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again."

Corwin was eventually crushed to death by the weight without entering a plea. According to the folklore, before he died, he raised a finger to George Corwin and said “I curse you and I curse Salem.” His wife Martha was found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill three days later.

George Corwin died at age 30 (a fairly decent life expectancy for the time and place) of a heart attack. Curse-wise, it is said that every High Sheriff since Corwin has either died in office of a heart or blood condition, or left on the same grounds. On the subject of the curse, I’ll refer anyone interested to Robert Ellis Cahill, a folklorist and former High Sheriff of Essex County who investigated the topic personally and professionally.

Following his death, Corwin’s body was not buried, a lien had been placed on it until one of the accused, Phillip English, had is disseized property returned to him. It was interred in the basement of his home on Washington Street by his family, who feared reprisals from the townsfolk who reviled Corwin and other collaborators after the hysteria passed. His body was quietly buried later in the town cemetery. Both surviving evidence and local folklore suggest that Corwin had used the disseized properties to house prisoners.

Today the house, now a historical landmark and home to Higgins Book Company, has been the site of unexplained phenomenon for some years. While it is not the subject of inspiration and tourism as the House of Seven Gables, the Joshua Ward house has seen its own fame in books on the collective hauntings of Salem and a comprehensive segment on the History Channel series Haunted History.

Reports testify to cold hands put on the backs of house employees, candles knocked over and twisted into S shapes, mysteriously locked doors, overturned furniture and cold spots. Pretty standard fare for many “ghostly activities”. But perhaps the most compelling piece of supernatural evidence comes from a Polaroid taken of a new agent when the house served as a real estate office in the 1990s. The new associate posed for a headshot at the bottom of the stairs. A few minutes later when the picture developed, a black-dressed figure of a woman was clearly visible standing at the top of the stairs.

Without proof of no photographic tampering, it’s hard to call this evidence. One has to decide for themselves.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Terrible Workings of Stephen Gammell

If you were a kid in the late 80s early 90s, your elementary school annual book fair was a memorable experience, especially if you picked up a copy of Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Many of the tales are hardly classics, and while many of us have moved on to more competent horrors, this series of books remains a hallmark of childhood for many who straddle the Gen X /Gen Y fence.

Why? The illustrations of course. Artist Stephen Gammell raised each little spooky vignette to a level that creates outright dread. The grotesque meets the atmospheric, and every corpse-like ink splatter made the reader feel less like they were reading a book than being watched, or even hunted. For me, these figures have lingered in the back of my mind well into adulthood.

His scenes are of a grim pastoral landscape (that must have been influenced by his childhood in Iowa) swarming with shapes that you innately know are sentient, savage and hungry. The figures are skeletal, rotting, and gape-mouthed; the art is enduringly physical, and it brilliantly marries with the spectral in these books. While the individual tales may be childish, Gammell reminds us why death frightens us.
The appreciation for this artist's contribution to American nightmares grows, as a Stephen Gammell fan page was recently launched on Facebook


It's true what David Thorne said. The Internet is a playground. But a better description for me is: "The internet is a graveyard", a place where fascinations both light and dark can play together. since I first got online 16 years ago, I've learned about mysteries, stories and intrigues that have kept me awake at night and hungry for more.

This blog will be a depository of all the dark things that I encounter and celebrate on my journeys around the internet cemetery. So come play in the narrow lanes, sit beneath the stones and watch the leaves turn. I hope you'll find a thing or two that lights up your own imagination, or darkens it.