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Blog # 24 – Ghosts VS Pandemics

With too many deaths due to the current Covid 19 crisis one has to wonder if any of their spirits will linger and question what happened? Certainly, their loved ones are grieving and trying to hold on the memory of their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, neighbors and colleagues ripped so cruelly away. And these innocent victims, held in isolation, never had the chance to say good-bye.

Sadly, this has not been the only instance of a pandemic wiping out hundreds of thousands, leaving too many lost souls left in limbo. In the decades between 1853 and 1905, Yellow Fever killed 10% of the residents of the city of New Orleans. The worst year on record was 1853 when 8,000 people died. And their deaths were gruesome. Initial symptoms included chills, headaches, convulsions, delirium . . . and bleeding. Victims bled through the eyes, nose, and ears before dying. Today, this horrible pandemic has mostly been eradicated from the United States due to advance techniques in mosquito control (mosquitoes spread the disease). An effective vaccine had been available since the 1930s but the Yellow Fever vaccine and its usage is still lacking in parts of Africa and South America.
One such victim of the Yellow Fever pandemic in New Orleans never made it to her fifth birthday. She was the daughter of Paul and Marie Gleises. In my book, The Haunting of Louisiana, I called her “Little Girl Lost.” Her fragile spirit haunts the Lafitte Guest House at 1003 Bourbon Street in New Orleans fabled French Quarter.

Tom Duran, a former curator at House of Detention Prison Museum, and a former tour operator in New Orleans, has an affinity for apparitions, especially the young ones. Duran shares the story of a confused child ghost caught in a time warp. The small female figure repeatedly exits a bedroom of the four-story townhouse, walks down the hall, and passes through a gilt-framed mirror mounted at the far end of the second floor landing. “People walk up the main staircase towards the mirror. They see behind them the reflection of a little girl. She’s normally crying and when she appears, she is as real as you or I. People turn around to look at this little girl behind them and when they do she disappears. And that happens time and time again.”

Duran shows a photograph as proof. The enlargement captures a pale form curling towards the doorway. Duran says, “In the photographs I’ve taken during my visits, the ghost is floating out of today what is called Guest Room 22. Rooms 21 and 22 where the former children’s rooms.”

This child ghost clings to the only home she has ever known. Like Alice in Wonderland, she becomes trapped in the mirror. On filming the documentary (on which the book, The Haunting of Louisiana, is based) this television producer and author was witness to an extraordinary incident. The young actress who had been cast to recreate the manifestation of “Little Girl Lost” burst into tears when she glanced at the mirror for the first time. She froze in place and refused to move further down the hallway towards the mirror. Prior to the filming she had been told nothing of the story prior to her arrival at the guest house. The five-year-old actress had only been told she was to portray a little girl and all she needed to do was walk out of a bedroom and down the hallway. She had no pre-knowledge of a mirror or its history. Both her parents were with her the entire time and she was familiar with the crew. While she waited downstairs, she had been happy and laughing. When she walked up the stairs, her entire demeanor changed.

Only when prompted by her father, who stayed out of camera range at the end of the hallway, did she finally walk out of the bedroom, down the hall, past the mirror, and into the waiting arms of her father. After filming (there was only one take), back down on the first floor, the frightened actress shared with her father that she cried because she was so sad at seeing the other little girl stuck inside the mirror. Cleary, she saw something the rest of us did not. Two children, centuries apart, were briefly united in a shared moment of grief.
The lasting effects of any pandemic will never be completely quantified. Stories of spirits will filter down through time. Perhaps, other little girls and boys, who have succumbed to an early demise, will be able to reconnect to playmates they will know only in those brief, inexplicable moments in time.
For more details about “Little Girl Lost,” read Chapter 12 of The Haunting of Louisiana.

Ghost Tales for All

Founded in 1824, Pilgrim Hall is the oldest public museum in continuous operation in the United State. Several years back, I spoke before a gathering of its membership. My knees were shaking. I was surrounded by historic artifacts: Myles Standish’s sword, the cradle of the first child born in New England, and massive paintings that soared from floor to ceiling. And in this hallowed hall I was about to give a talk about ghosts to a conservative, erudite assemblage of individuals dedicated to preserving the early history of our country. Thought to self: This is not a good idea.
One astounding hour later, I still had their attention. I began with a tale of a trio of ghosts at the Orleans Inn (The Haunting of Cape Cod and the Islands/Chapter 16). The inn was built by a sea captain in 1875 whose lineage traces back to Mayflower passenger Constance Hopkins Snow. However, the three ghosts who haunt the inn today sadly, have little in common with the Mayflower or the Pilgrims. It seemed to work as they even chuckled when I related that one of the ghosts, Hannah, a women of questionable virtue, is known to dance naked in the belvedere on top of the inn.

Next, I hit them with a mysterious glassmaker, Adolph Bonique, who could conjure life into a glass flower; the flower would unfold with the rays of the sun and give off a sweet perfume. Adolph was one of the early glassmakers at the Sandwich Glass Factory opened in 1825. And on foggy nights in the town of Sandwich, Massachusetts, the phantom of a man can be seen walking the streets of old town carrying a golden glass cane.
I began to wrap things up with the tale of pirate Black Sam Bellamy and the wreck of his vessel off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717. Although, this true story has several alternate endings, each version concludes with the ghosts of Sam and his mistress wandering the beach near Wellfleet. I left my astute audience with the love story of Captain Ebenezer Linnell and his wife, the golden-haired Rebecca. In 1864, Eben met a horrific end; on his last voyage, a storm threw the captain into the ship’s wheel, a spoke from the wheel punctured his lungs. He was buried at sea. Rebecca learned of his death from a letter from the ship’s first mate. For the next sixty years, Rebecca climbed the steps of the cupola of the home Eben built for her. In the copula, she read and reread the letter describing her beloved’s death. She never remarried. Today, visitors to the Captain Linnell House Restaurant, swear they still see the figure of Rebecca in the cupola wistfully looking out to sea.

With that daunting talk at a prestigious museum successfully behind me, I didn’t flinch when the president of a Catholic women’s club asked me to speak before her group – at the church. Previously, during my production of the PBS documentary, The Haunting of Louisiana, I had been told unequivocally by a Catholic moral theologian, “There is no such thing as ghosts. Ghosts can’t just pop in & out like they are on some divine elevator.”
But, once again, I embarked on an hour-long presentation before a group who did not believe in the existence of ghosts. I relayed the quote from the Catholic moral theologian and his stance’s in opposition to the topic, and then countered with the belief of the Archbishop of the Israelite Divine Spiritual Church: “If you pray hard enough, and the Holy Ghost takes you. You can communicate with spirits; there are times you can see them and they can appear in many disguises.”

A statue in a tomb in Metairie Cemetry. New Orleans, Louisiana

Before there were any objections, I proceeded to share a tale of the reputedly very haunted 1716 Barnstable House. A fire in the 1970s brought out one spirit. According to newspaper accounts and the local fire department when the fire trucks arrived smoke was billowing from the third story attic windows. A fireman spotted a woman in the window with long white hair and rushed up the stairs to save her. He was unable to find her; the attic was empty. After the fire was contained, another fireman was wrapping up the hoses when he was approached by a woman. He thought it odd that she was outside without a coat on such a snowy evening. He was about to suggest she find warmer attire when he glanced down at her bare feet and saw the she was levitating about a foot off the ground.
Then I launched into one of my favorites: The Excessive Compulsive Exhorter ((The Haunting of Cape Cod and the Islands/Chapter 19). I was hoping my audience would relate to a religious figure who dedicated his life to urging people to give their lives to God. Exhorter Stephen Collins was obsessed with getting to church on time. The First Congregational Church in Truro sat on a hill, so Stephen got a horse to race to the top. On one fateful Communion Sunday, the frantic preacher was blind to others slowly making their way up. Consumed with anxiety, Stephen did not see a crippled young boy. He trampled Silas and raced on believing others would pick the boy back up. At the church, the congregation carried the crumpled body of the young lad to the front pew. At the end of the service, Stephen left never to enter the church again. On subsequent Sabbaths, Stephen would stand outside the church and then scurry over to the Burying Acre and kneel before the fresh grave of Silas. On his death the forgiving congregation buried him beside the church. His tortured spirit cannot rest. For even today, the Exhorter’s spirit returns riding a phantom horse. Locals claim they hear the labored wheezing of a horse and hoofs pounding. The ghostly rider dismounts and kneels before a worn headstone, the inscription now illegible to the human eye. His lips move soundlessly in prayer. He remounts and disappears into the night.

So many years apart, my audiences, both at the revered museum and at the church listened in quiet solemnity to these haunted tales. Through the question and answer periods that followed, I learned they were eager to learn more about those who walked the paths of Cape Cod before them. They acknowledged that such tales keep the past alive, and are meant to be shared.
A fervent Yea to the retelling of all such tales.

Blog #22 – Holiday Spirits

Holiday Spirits
Thoughts of Christmas past evoke memories. Memories call forth spirits of loved ones waiting in the wings to rejoin the festivities. At Merrehope in Meridian, Mississippi, brightly lit Christmas trees seek to dispel the gloomy days in the aftermath of the Civil War.
On property deeded to her from her father, Juriah Jackson and her husband built a three-room cottage, now the rear, ground-floor rooms of the current mansion. During the Civil War, Confederate general Leonidas Polk set up headquarters here. In February of 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, adhering to his scorched earth campaign, set the torch to Meridian because it had a Confederate arsenal. After five days, Sherman declared, “Meridian . . . no longer exists.” Juriah’s cozy cottage was one of only six homes left unscathed by the time the Union troops moved out.

By 1868, the home returned to private hands. John Gary of Alabama did the first major expansion, adding porches to the front of the house with ruby glass in the main entrance. In 1881, J. C. Lloyd, his wife, and thirteen children began a twenty-three-year residence. In 1908, S. H. Floyd “modernized” the house, installing five bathrooms, electric lights, a stairway, and wainscoting. Floyd also pushed back Juriah’s original cottage to make room for a grand dining room. Owners number six, the Gossetts, took possession in 1915. Otto Tibbette reshuffled the floor plan in 1930 and turned the former lovely home into eight apartments. After seven owners and numerous configurations, the stalwart women of the Meridian Restorations Foundation arrived to face bullet-riddled rooms, glass shards from a former resident’s whiskey bottle rampage, and several cantankerous ghosts.

“If you want to know the truth,” says hostess Donna White, “when I first came to work here, they kept the whole haunted thing pretty quiet. It was kind of hush-hush; nobody told me anything.” The novice hostess had been on site less than three weeks when she realized things weren’t what they seemed. “First thing in the morning you make your rounds. I went into the Periwinkle room. I stopped dead in my tracks. There was the perfect imprint of a body on the bed. I ran downstairs and called one of the other ladies, and she asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told her what I saw, and she just mumbled something like ‘Well, this stuff happens.’” Donna was shaken; it was her first paranormal experience. She stayed downstairs for a while and avoided the upstairs bedrooms. Her reluctance prompted the manger to ask, “You are not going to quit are you?” Donna replied, “No, I’ll hang in here.”

In time, Donna adjusted to the weird quirks and habits of the resident ghosts, including the one who persisted in taking a midmorning nap. “I would open the door to the Periwinkle room and fuss at him. ‘I hope you had a nice rest, but I really don’t like cleaning up after people, so how about next time you straighten up.’” This specter had unresolved issues that ended in a gruesome exit.

In the 1930s, one of the renters in the former mansion turned apartment building was a schoolteacher with two deadly demons—drinking and gambling. The manic-depressive was out of control. “One night,” reports Donna, “he lined up some whiskey bottles on the wood mantle, shot them off, and then shot himself.” His reckless behavior continues in the afterlife.

“We were getting ready for a Christmas party. There was a really big crash upstairs like someone had knocked over an armoire.” Donna suspected that an intruder had gotten into the house. Outraged, she decided to trap the bumbling thief. “I ran around and locked the side door. I grabbed the telephone to call the manager and tell her I was going upstairs to see who ever it was and get them out of here. She’s on the phone and she says, ‘You’re not going up there.’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’” Donna marched up the front stairs to find nothing—nothing broken, nothing out of place, nothing fallen over. Realization dawned. Hands on her hips, the unfazed hostess planted her feet in the hall between the bedrooms. She barked out orders. “Don’t’ get upset. There’s a party tonight, so just behave. We don’t want to spook the guests.” She softened briefly and let the teacher’s troubled spirit know that if he behaved, he could “come down and join us.” He didn’t take Donna up on her invitation, but, says the pacified hostess, “It stayed quiet up there for the rest of the night.”

This holiday season set a place at the table in honor of loved ones lost, previous owners and their guests. As you ring in the New Year lift your glass and toast all those who came before. Let the past and present mingle and merge. Celebrate life in all its forms.

To find out more about the ghosts of Merrehope (there are more including the Lovely Eugenia who likes to float about the rooms) read “The Haunting of Mississippi,” Chapter 19.

Let the Spirits Come to You

The leaves are dancing on the trees and Halloween’s on the horizon. All things spooky: jack 0’ lanterns, witches’ brooms, and the requisite black cat are popping up on doorsteps, porches, and window displays. I’ll be the storyteller for the annual semi-scary “A Visit with the Night Watchman” event at a local museum. So let’s talk ghosts.
First and foremost, I like it when the dead come out and whisper their secrets. I like it when we turn inward to ponder the past. I like it when we embrace all those who came before. I like it especially when we dig beyond the facades of costumes and masks and understand the origins of Halloween as a sacred time, a time when the barriers between the natural and supernatural worlds are lowered and spirits are free to roam.

I am intrigued by the spirits of children long dead who come out to play. It’s not that they hide the other three hundred and sixty-four days and nights a year, it’s just that on the days leading up to Halloween we are more aware. The tiny spirits haven’t been napping in some spectral slumber; it’s us, the living, who have been too caught up in our daily tasks to notice.

And it’s the living children most likely to interact with the dead: a two year old asks his mother to help get the little girl down that he sees dangling from the chandelier; a four year old is sad because she can’t free another little girl trapped in the looking glass; another four year old begs his mother to let him play with “the red-headed boy” that she and others on the tour cannot see.* Children under the age of seven do not have any preconceived notions or fears of “ghosts.” What they see is as real to them as their parents sitting in the next room.
*The first two stories are from “The Haunting of Louisiana,” and the third is from “The Haunting of Mississippi.”

A generation or so back ghost tales were all about blood and gore: disfigured and dismembered ghouls; knife wielding-chain-dragging monsters; and the walking-stalking dead, howling and screeching, seeking victims to devour. Ghosts were thought to travel the same byways as vampires and zombies. These gruesome figures gave spirits a bad rap.

If you’d like to see a friendly ghost, pay attention; they walk among us all the time. They are the flicker of movement caught mid-flight out of the corner of your eye. They are the curtains that stir as they float from room-to-room. They are the soft whisper in your ear. And for me, on one stunning occasion, the ghost was the voice of a child who gave me a predawn wake-up call.

During the research for my book, “The Haunting of Mississippi, I spent one memorable night at a bed and breakfast known as Linden Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. Jeanette Feltus, the owner, gave me the key to the South Room, the last guest room on the second floor of the west wing. In 1849 owner Jane Gustine Connor used it as a schoolroom for her children. Although small, the room had a lovely canopied bed, an antique dresser, nightstand, original plank flooring, and a fireplace. As with all the other rooms at Linden, the South Room has a private entrance accessible only by an exterior staircase in the courtyard. That weekday evening, I was the only guest. Jeanette retired to her room at the front of the west wing; we were as far apart as two bedrooms could be in the house. I climbed into the high bed, turned out the light on the nightstand, and pulled up the quilted coverlet.
Creak. The distinct sound of a floorboard as someone steps on it. I dismissed it as just the weathered wood rising back up after I clamored into bed.
Creak. Creak. I sat up and looked around. The moonlight pouring through the mullioned window was sufficient to see there was no one in the room but me. The creaking sound continued at irregular intervals as if someone was tiptoeing across the room. Eventually, I fell asleep. At 2:00 A.M., there was no creaking. Just a voice. A quiet little voice. A child’s voice.
“Hello!” Upright, I surveyed the room.
“Hello to you too,” I whispered back.

I waited. No response. I confess that I was disappointed that my little visitor had chosen not to pursue the conversation or make an appearance. She had limited her interaction to a one-word greeting. Yet, I felt privileged that she had made her presence known
In the morning, Jeanette joined me in the formal dining room for a Southern-style breakfast complete with homemade butter biscuits. I sheepishly shared my story. The gracious hostess of Linden poured another cup of tea and smiled, a satisfied smile. One more spirit had joined the ghostly entourage at Linden.

So this Halloween season, relax and let the spirits come to you.

Blog # 20 Out of Body

When I was just eight years old I had major surgery to save my life. My clearest memory of the operation was looking down at myself on the operating table. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that it dawned on me that this was an odd perspective. How could I possibly be looking down at myself? I began to question if I had had an out-of-body experience. Had I left my physical self to float above in the nether regions among the large covered globe lights suspended from the high ceiling? Had I taken flight? Was I on the verge of becoming an untethered spirit, a ghost of my former self?

This leads to several tantalizing questions: Can spirits of the dead or nearly dead decide where they want to go? Can they chose to be good or evil, naughty or nice?

Since, apparently, I chose to return to my sliced open body, or sucked back in, with limited first-person experience I can only provide brief commentary on the answers.

Let’s start with the whole death and dying situation. Other than those deeply troubled souls seeking to escape the pain of life, who actually chooses to die? Even those brave combat soldiers who risk it all to save a buddy are not actually choosing death rather their gut instinct is to save life. So, putting aside the tragically suicidal, and life’s heroes, if given the opportunity to extend our stay, wouldn’t we?

Knowing death is a given, knowing our shelf life has an expiration date, shouldn’t we all make plans? As a child of eight, clearly, I hadn’t given much thought to my options. Now that I have a few more years on me, it’s time.

For some a prepaid funeral plan and an accompanying will are all the necessary preparations for departure. For others, it’s all about the church service, the candles, the hymns, the prayers. I can forgo the details concerning the disposition of my body, what haunts me, however, is what happens to my essence, my spirit?

If I could choose, my goal would be to return as a kinder, gentler soul, a ghost, a spirit who comforts and coaxes a smile. So, can good intentions pave the way? I’d like to think so. I shall leave instructions that wherever my ashes are scattered, I would like a small cement statue of a young girl and her rag doll be placed near the site. This very statue graces the cover of my first book and the DVD cover of my first documentary, “The Haunting of Louisiana.” To this I would borrow a quote from the poet/essayist Flavia Weedn: “Life is brief and very fragile. Do that which makes you happy.”

Valentine’s Day Rooted in Ghostly Lore

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love wrapped in a bouquet of romantic traditions. Yet, many of our most haunted tales have a tragic Romeo and Juliet heart-rending ending.

In the rolling hills of Madison, Mississippi, the ghost of a bride-to-be still mourns at the gravesite of her groom, a century and a half after his death. The marriage of Helen, youngest daughter of John and Margaret Johnstone to Henry Gary Vick was set for the spring of 1859 at the Chapel of the Cross in Madison. During their two-year courtship, Helen elicited a promise from often hot-blooded Henry that he would never again use dueling as a means of settling a dispute.
Four days prior to the wedding, Henry traveled downriver to New Orleans. While there he ran into a former classmate. Somewhere between the pleasantries and the reminiscing, a perceived slight escalated into an accusation sullying a man’s honor. They agreed to a duel. Two different versions linger on what happened at the duel. The first says Henry belatedly remembered his promise to Helen and shot his gun in the air, hoping his opponent would be honorable and do the same. The second report states that both men were lousy shots: Henry aimed for his classmate’s forehead and hit a tree; his classmate aimed for Henry’s body but the bullet hit his head. Henry Grey Vick lay dead on the ground. His body was placed on a steamer headed back to Mississippi.
A courier on horseback delivered a note to the bride’s parents: “Henry Vick killed in a duel.” The wedding decorations at the chapel were hastily pulled down and funeral preparations begun. Helen wore her wedding gown to the service. A grave was dug in the cemetery behind the chapel, and Helen had an iron bench installed next to the grave. On balmy spring nights, the ghost of Helen appears in the cemetery, and sits on the bench pinning for her lost love. pics of grave.
In Natchez, Mississippi, a young woman paid the ultimate price for loving the wrong man. In the 1930s, the skeletal remains of a teenage girl were discovered bricked up behind the fireplace wall of what is today King’s Tavern. Buried with her was a jeweled dagger. Somewhere between 1789 and 1820, a barmaid referred to as Madeline had an affair with Prosper King, the tavern’s owner and Mrs. King swiftly ended it. I was so moved by the tale that I penned the following poem:

Madeline. Alluring Madeline
Sweet Sixteen and a dimple in her chin.
Love for the tavern keeper sealed her fate
when the coy barmaid chose the wrong mate.

For the tavern keeper had a wife,
who knew too well how to yield a knife,
Now, alluring Madeline, a pretty little ghost is she,
haunting King’s Tavern for all eternity.

What is purported to be Madeline’s portrait hangs over the restored fireplace today in the tavern. Guests report that the picture occasionally swings violently back and forth. This attractive ghost is also blamed for water dripping from the ceiling, hotspots on the staircase, and tugging at the hair of female customers.

So, whether it be Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Helen, the almost bride, or the young barmaid Madeline, love does not always have a happy ending. For those of us who love a good haunted tale that endures through time, a love story with a haunted twist. More details about Helen and Henry or alluring Madeline can be found in my book The Haunting of Mississippi.

May all your Valentine’s celebrations be filled with love and happy endings.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

We all have a few unsettled spirits that haunt our holidays. As Christmas music dominates the airwaves, shoppers fill the malls, and we jostle merrily along, sometimes it is a song, a cinnamon-and-spice-filled fragrance, or simply the sight of a small child enthralled with the newest toys spilling into the aisles, these unbidden triggers often pull us back into an uncomfortable space. We are transported to a scene from our childhood, our youth, or even a relationship that ended poorly. We want to call it back, fix it, rewrite the script, go for the sugarplum-and-fairytale happy ending.

But we cannot control our ghosts. They smugly remind us: There are no do-overs, no second chances. The good, the bad, the ugly, we are part of who you are. We are why you linger here in this moment. We are why you choose the red sweater over the green, why you insist on turkey for Christmas dinner, why you open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, why you crave the magic of Christmas or run like hell if you spot another street corner Santa Ho-Ho-Hoing away.

Our ghosts have programed us to react. Like an overstuffed closet crammed with the flotsam and jetsam of life, open the door even a sliver and out it all tumbles. Big globs, little globs of memories stowed perhaps not so carefully away.

So how to handle the Holiday Blues delivered unceremoniously by annoying ghosts from the past?

First: Like the miscellaneous crap falling out of that closet, we can kick it all back in and slam the door. However, the disastrous fallout will happen over and over. So option number two would be to pick it all up, refold neatly and tuck back on to the proper shelves. The next time we open that particular closet, the ghosts of Christmas Past will still be there, but won’t tumble out and smother us. Ghosts or troubling memories are like that; deal with them thoroughly once, and they are less likely to catch you off guard.

Second: Call upon memories that ooze pleasure and comfort and revel in them.

Christmas celebrations are too close to the dawning of a new year. We are inundated with remembrances of family traditions, obligations, layered with an overabundance of food and drink. We resolve to do better but there is no breathing room. No time to reflect. We may scribble a list of good intentions but they are lost in a flurry of Xmas cards, party invites, and bills to be paid.

My ghostly memories ramble about in my brain. They play an irritating version of hide-and-seek. I have lots of shelves in my closet and endeavor to keep it as tidy as possible. Yet, for some perverse reason, I cannot help peering into the closets of every historic home, museum, and hundred-plus-year-old structures I visit. I am disappointed when nothing tumbles out and overjoyed when it does for then there is another story to unravel, another haunted tale to tell.

I may have the occasional holiday blues, regrets and sorrows, but the new year will bring new chapters to fill, and new ghostly mysteries to explore.

May all your ghosts bring Comfort and Joy!

Blog #14 Halloween: The Backstory

Witch’s Altar

Ghoulies and Ghosties and all things scary are hard to avoid this time of year. As Halloween approaches we are inundated with horror movies, blowup ghosts waving from every front yard, tales of witches flying high on broomsticks, and pumpkins sprouting eerie face. We trek to haunted houses, reveling in the thrill of monsters jumping out at us. Our inner child as well as our inhibitions are set free. In the United States, Halloween means trick or treating, costume parties, and over-indulging that sweet tooth.

Yet, centuries ago, October 31, meant Duck and Cower. For according to the ancient Celts and Druids, October 31 was the feast of Samhain, the night when the barrier between the natural and the supernatural world was lowered, and spirits of the dead rose, free to roam and terrorize. All our present-day Halloween traditions stem from those beliefs.

The short, cold, dark days of winter were approaching. The Celts gathered (safety in numbers?) and built huge bonfires to ward off the deepening darkness. As evening descended and frost blanketed the ground, families hallowed out gourds and placed an ember from the dying bonfire inside. They held these carved out gourds aloft as they made their way down the winding paths to their homes. Many wore mantles of animal skins for their warmth and as a disguise. The hope was to hide their identities from the menacing spirits and escape unharmed. If they reached their doorsteps safely, they left treats outside to appease the dead. Do all of these practices sound familiar?

Today our hallowed out gourds of choice are pumpkins. The animal skins have become costumes from Walmart or Party City. Masks are worn when trick or treating in the hope that neighbors won’t know who is out there begging for goodies. So while we retain some vestige of the fears that haunted our ancestors, we have transformed October 31, Halloween, from a night of fright to an all-out party.

According to former priest and Catholic theologian William Maestri, the early Christian church saw the “pagan” celebration of Samhain (Celtic New Year) as an opportunity. They seized the day and made it their own. Samhain became All Souls Day, or All Hallows Eve. And when the sun rose the next morning, surprise, it was All Saint’s Day, a day to honor the dead. As then Father Maestri liked to point out, “It’s not the dead we should be afraid of, it’s the living.”

There is one other concept to consider. What if ghosts or spirits are not out to harm us? What if they are here twenty-four-seven because they never left? As ghosts they retain the same personalities they had in life. Grumpy in life, grumpy in death. Playful in life, playful in death. So while we may encounter some disgruntled characters, on average, the spirits we bump into are friendly. Think about it this way: if we are poking around in their space like an attic or abandoned building, we’re more likely to startle them awake then they are waiting to jump out at us.

So my advice is this: On Halloween, the Celtic Feast of Samhain, stay tuned. Stay Alert. The ghost you seek, may be standing right behind you.

Blog # 13 Why Ghosts?

After decades of writing books and magazine articles about ghosts – all things that go bump in the night – the question often pops up: Have you ever been afraid crawling around a reputed haunted house? My answer, surprisingly is: Not really. I’ve been unnerved a few times, and when I have I simply choose not to linger further in a place where I am not welcome. I listen to my instincts, my gut, saying now may not be the time or place to investigate all things paranormal.

For example, I spend a fair of amount of time in old cemeteries, kneeling in front of decaying headstones trying to decipher inscriptions, dates, and when I am very, very lucky, read the epitaphs. I freely talk to the dead. I apologize for stepping over their final resting places. The headstones of the young, those who never truly got to walk the earth before their time here is up, these monuments fill me with grief and weigh heavily on my heart. I do my best to learn their stories and reassure the deceased that they are not forgotten. I do not believe the dead or their spirits are out to do me harm.

Over time, our perceptions of ghosts as menacing creatures patrolling the earth in search of their next victim has changed, and rightly so. Previous generations believed ghosts appeared rattling chains, clasping daggers dripping blood, and made menacing threats. Basically ghostly apparitions were akin to the “invasion of the body snatchers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are certain celebrated cemeteries where a healthy fear of the living is required. Muggings had gotten so bad at St. Louis Cemeteries #1, #2, and #3 (on the outer edge of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter) that visitors to these popular tourist attractions were banned from going in alone. Entry now to see the grave of the legendary Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, for example, is by escorted group tour only. As former Catholic theologian Father William Maestri once wisely said, It’s not the dead we need to be afraid of, it’s the living.”

Many legends tell us that ghosts started out as protectors: When the pirate Jean Lafitte buried his treasure on Ile Phantom, a small sliver of land in Bayou Barataria, it is said he cut off the heads of two of his pirate cohorts so that their spirits would stay behind and guard the treasure trove from future human predators. Jeannette Feltus, owner of Linden Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, offers the same rationale for the lack of armed guards at her bed and breakfast operation. Feltus believes that even when she is alone at night in her sprawling mansion, the spirits of her husband’s ancestors provide a protective circle and prevent anyone from doing her harm. Underwater salvager Barry Clifford believes that one of the reasons it was so challenging to find the wreck of the Whydah, sink in 1717, was because the ghosts of Captain Sam Bellamy and his crew, who went down with the ship in a terrible storm off of Cape Cod, guarded their horde of gold, silver and jewels. According to Clifford, “Stealing another man’s treasure is never supposed to be easy.”

Many historic sites have found that having a resident ghost or two is a bonus when it comes to luring tourists. In South Louisiana, it’s called Lagniappe, a little somethin extra. Journalist Lyle Saxon in his seminal work, “Gumbo Ya Ya” collected and edited folktales. Saxon stated unequivocally that “Every old plantation house has to have at least one ghost or hang its head in shame. Today that’s not problem. Some historic sites like the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana even put up giant billboards, proclaiming “America’s Most Haunted Home.” Visitors line up hoping to catch a glimpse of the main attractions, the ghost of Chloe, but will just as happily settle for any of the other ghosts who roam the property, from tiny spirits of children to adults who allegedly stroll about the grounds. Having bragging rights to a ghost often equates to economic gain.

So, whether they are guarding treasure or enticing visitors ghosts have proven to be a welcome sight. I encourage all of you to look and listen. Most importantly allow yourself to feel their presence. Ghosts, spirits of the dead, have one very human trait in common; they just want to be remembered. If they approach you, feel flattered for they are letting you know that they believe they have found a sympathetic soul willing to listen and share their story. There are so many spirits out there waiting to be adopted. No paperwork required.

The Madam Who Won’t Lie Still

I am often asked, WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE GHOST?  I have to admit that the ghost of Josie Arlington goes right to the top of my Haunted Hit Parade. Josie Arlington was the reigning Madam of New Orleans’ former Red-light district, known as Storyville. In its heyday from 1897-1917, vice flourished and prostitution had a place to call home. The ghost of Josie Arlington now visits former clients near her grave in Metairie Cemetery.

Born Mamie Duebler somewhere around 1864, her parents were certainly distraught when their seventeen-year-old daughter ran off with Philip “The Schwarz” Lobrano. For the next nine years, gentlemen callers could find Mamie working under the name Josie Alton or Josie Lobrano  within the darkened rooms of some of New Orleans’ most notorious brothels. Josie was a fiery beauty with a temper to match. Finally, shedding her previous aliases, she adopted the name she would keep until her death: Josie Arlington.

She built an elaborate four-story brothel on Basin Steet. Her brothel was considered the “crème de la crème” of bordellos and Josie Arlington was regarded as the “snootiest madam in America.” With her steady cash flow, Josie purchased a mansion on Esplanade Avenue smack in the middle of respectable society. Her shocked female neighbors tried to ignore her presence. Josie swept by them smug in the knowledge that she would soon be entertaining their husbands in her business establishment on Basin St.

Josie was the “First Lady of Storyville,” but a fire in 1905 rocked her world. Trapped in the fire, she narrowly escaped death. The fear of passing on to the next world without sufficient preparation tormented her. Josie’s concerns were not for her immortal soul, but rather she became obsessed with the disposition of her remains. She wanted her final resting place to reflect her sense of style and a signal to all that little Mamie Duebler had made it on her own. She purchased a two-thousand dollar plot in Metairie Cemetery surrounded by the tombs of the social elite. She summoned Albert Weiblen, the leading designer of tombs, who immediately hired a small army of workers to erect her tomb in record time. As a reward for meeting her deadline, Josie hosted an extravagant champagne supper for the workmen.

Josie’s design choice stirred an epoch of controversy that continues until this day. Her polished red marble tomb had matching pilasters or columns framing the immense double bronze doors of the crypt. These columns are capped with two matching urns each holding carved renditions of the eternal flame of life. The flip side of this somber interpretation is that in the early days of prostitution in New Orleans, flambeaux or torches were lit outside of small hovels along the river to let potential customers know that the prostitute was open for business. And the term “Red-light District” beame part of the world-wide lexicon. But Josie’s urns were just minor issues compared to the life-size bronze statue of a voluptuous woman standing on the steps leading to her tomb.

The controversial statue is draped in a flowing Grecian gown. In her left arm the female statue holds a bouquet of roses, but it is her right arm that generates the most gossip. The hand is raised as if she is about to enter. Those who live near Metairie Cemetery swear the statue of the woman comes back to life and “angrily pounds on the door with her fist, a din that can be heard for blocks.” They believe the statue symbolizes “poor young Mamie, locked out by her outraged father and she is banging trying to get back into her home. These Josie sympathizers think Josie (Mamie) did not run away at all. Like most teenagers, she stayed out one night beyond curfew, and her father wouldn’t let her back in.

But all sides ignore the facts. Josie personally selected every detail of her crypt. A closer look at the statue
finds that she is neither pulling on the large ringed door knockers nor pounding with her fists. If the statue occasionally comes to life, it is more plausible that this self-assured sensuous woman is simply returning from a stroll among the cemetery’s gardens, eager to fill the interior of her lasting abode with the fragrant aroma of freshly-picked flowers. The rumors persist that the “Maiden takes walks.” At night the statue turns, travels down the five granite steps and walks the grounds; Josie making a few “house” calls in the afterlife? It seems the Storyville Madam, who spent her life in the company of men, never intended to lie still.

Josie died on February 14, 1914. Despite her well-laid plans, her funeral and the aftermath were a fiasco. The evening of her burial, a passerby was awestruck by the phenomena before him. The two granite flambeaux atop her tomb were blazing red.  Crowds gathered nightly to witness the spectacle and shouted, “Look, Josie’s open for business!” Hordes of people converged on the shell road next to the cemetery. Cemetery officials were mortified.  The police were called to maintain order. Finally, one astute cemetery worker noticed a recently-installed light at the toll barrier next to the shell road. As the beacon swung in the breeze, it bounced off Josie’s tomb. An order was quickly given to plant a line of shrubs to block the reflection and a large cross was also etched on the back of the tomb – a little Christian gris-gris (voodoo) to ward off the devil’s work. Neither the shrubs or the cross had any affect. Josie’s tomb continued to send out its scandalous signal. So, after a little negotiation with the owners of the toll road, the signal light was extinguished, effectively pulling the plug on the nocturnal display.

End of story? No. Josie did not rest easier. A new wrinkle arrived in the form of Josie’s niece and Josie’s former manager. In her will, Josie had bequeathed her considerable assets to her niece and business partner, knowing nothing of their clandestine affair. The pair squandered their inheritance and then the financially-strapped couple sold her mansion, and when that wasn’t enough, Josie’s tomb went on the auction block.

A prominent family purchased the tomb, naively believing the prostitute’s notoriety and association with the tomb would magically disappear. And naturally, the new owners wanted her body removed. It must have been quite a site to see workmen in the dead of night pull open the heavy bronze doors and whisk Josie’s body to an undisclosed location. As gruesome as this might sound, moving bodies about is a standard burial custom in New Orleans still practiced today. According to the late “Irv” Zoller of Metairie Cemetery, “It’s called the Year-and-A-Day Rule: ” “Anytime after one year has passed, a burial can be disturbed. The casket is taken out of the vault, the remains are taken out of the casket and put in a small pouch or body bag . . . and put on a shelf in the back of the tomb.” In New Orleans there is always room for one more.

In Josie’s case, however, this was not a viable option. The new tomb owners had no inclination to share. And given Josie’s propensity to attact attention in life and in death, cemetery officials were not about to risk a repeat performance. Josie’s new burial site is one of Metairie Cemetery’s most closely guarded secrets. For a clue to where she might be buried read the final chapter of my book, THE HAUNTING OF LOUISIANA.

And Josie’s story may still have a happy ending for her spirit refuses to be contained. The ghost of the Storyville Madam seems well-suited to inhabit a statue and propel the seductive figure forward as she makes the rounds of  “special” friends buried nearby in fashionable Metairie Cemetery. At the end of the book, I created an epitaph for this indomitable woman: ” . . . her life and death remain glittering beacons in New Orleans’ storied past.”

Let me know what you think about Josie or tell me about your favorite ghost. Click on REPLIES and share.