Archive for April, 2010

“One of the most dangerous classes in the world. . .is the drifting and friendless woman. She is the most harmless and often the most useful of mortals, but. . .she is helpless. She is migratory. She has sufficient means to take her from country, to country, and from hotel to hotel. . .She is a stray chicken in a world of foxes. . .” Sherlock Holmes, “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”

So Holmes characterized one sort of Victorian “spinster”, but he never met Isabella Bird.

Isabella was a prim and proper woman in most respects, but she had an adventurous spirit. She traveled the world on her own, and it happened, in October of 1873, that she turned up in what would eventually become the Rocky Mountains National Park, determined to climb a mountain known as Longs Peak. For that, she needed a guide, and she hired one called Jim Nugent, who was also guiding two men up the mountain. When the men complained that a woman would slow them up, Nugent proclaimed he would get Miss Bird to the top or he would not guide them up at all.

And so began a platonically passionate romance that ended with the appearance of an apparition in an unlikely place.

Isabella Bird wrote, in a letter about her adventure in the Rockies, that Jim Nugent was “a man any woman would love, but no sane woman would marry.” He was an educated ruffian, tall, wide-shouldered, well-spoken, and would have been devastatingly handsome had he not lost an eye in an encounter with a grizzly bear. He also drank, and when he drank, he was violent.

The little party camped for two nights in a meadow that would be know later as Jim’s Grove. On the third day, they climbed Longs Peak—at least, Jim Nugent and the two men did. Nugent, for all practical purposes, carried Isabella Bird to the summit, a humiliating but exhilarating experience. It was possibly after this that Isabella began having surprisingly erotic dreams about him.

Still, their love might have remained a silent one had they not been caught in near-whiteout conditions during a snowstorm on November 18th, 1873. Struggling on horseback through drifts and high wind, Jim Nugent—possibly taking his nerve in his hands—confessed to Isabella that he loved her, and that his love was killing him. Cold, scared, and startled, Isabella burst into tears. When they reached safety, she wrote him a letter in which she primly rejected his advance, telling him “[our] acquaintance shall at once terminate.”

What followed, for both, was two weeks of torment while they traveled to the nearest town, where Isabella would catch a stagecoach and leave him forever. Jim Nugent handed her onto the coach with one final passionate declaration: “I swear I will see you again.”

Isabella returned to England, and thence went to the Continent. Jim Nugent returned to his cabin near the little mountain town of Estes Park (itself famous as the town nearest the notoriously haunted Stanley Hotel). On June 19th, 1874, Nugent was shot in the head by a neighborhood drunk named Griff Evans. Carried to a hospital in Fort Collins, Nugent lingered for three months.

In September of that year, Isabella Bird was staying in a hotel in Switzerland. One morning she woke from a sound sleep to find Jim Nugent, looking exactly as he had the last time she had seen him, months before, standing beside her bed. He was staring at her with sorrow in his eyes. Before she could get her wits about her, he said, “I have come, as I promised.” And then he was gone.

Isabella recorded this encounter as having occurred at six AM; Nugent, she learned later, had died of fever some sixteen hours, allowing for the time difference, after he appeared at her bedside.

Some would dismiss this sighting as female vapors; others would call it a “fetch” or a “crisis apparition”, the appearance of a distant loved one before or after their actual death. Sometimes they seem so real that the observer doesn’t realize they’ve seen a fetch until, as Nugent did, they vanish into thin air.

No matter what you call it, it seems that Jim Nugent kept that last vow: “I swear that I will see you again.”

Andrea Lankford tells the story of Miss Bird and the mountain man in her book HAUNTED HIKES (2006).

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I love old silent horror movies–the ones like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and NOSFERATU. The acting could be incredibly hammy, the dialogue (each sentence appearing in script in its own frame) stilted–but some of them are genuinely scary.

Of all those old silents, though, the one I love most is 1925’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, starring the legendary Lon Chaney, Sr.

Born Leonidas Frank Chaney in 1883 (his first name is often given, wrongly, as Alonzo), Chaney was the son of a deaf-mute couple, and his acting prowess is sometimes credited to his use of pantomime to communicate with them. After a successful career in the theater that was unfortunately cut short when his first marriage ended in divorce, causing a huge scandal, he went into the nascent industry of moving pictures.

Even more important than his gift of pantomime, though, was his innovative use of makeup to convey physical deformity. His greatest makeup effects probably are in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923, based on Victor Hugo’s novel NOTRE DAME DE PARIS) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (based on Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same name).

In THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Chaney was cast in the role of Erik, a disfigured music teacher who falls in love with a young soprano, Christine Daae, at the Paris Opera. The most famous scene–in which Christine (played by Mary Philbin) removes the mask which hides his dreadful face from the world–still has the power to shock, eighty-five years later.

Lon Chaney, in the estimation of movie historians, would have been able to go on to a successful career in the “talkies”; he, unlike many of his silent-screen fellow actors, had a good speaking voice. He only made one talking picture, however, before he died of a hemorrhage following a diagnosis of lung/throat cancer, in 1930.

Given that he played a number of memorable horror roles other than Erik, it’s only fitting that there should be a couple of ghost stories floating around Hollywood about Chaney. One revolves around a bench that once sat under a tree near the studios on Hollywood and Vine, that famed intersection. Young people hoping to be “discovered” often sat on that bench, hoping to pick up work as extras, and Lon Chaney frequently hired the hopefuls. It’s said that his ghost was often seen in the vicinity of the bench until it was removed from that spot, sometime in the 1940s, after which he was not seen again.

To this day, however, there are occasional reports of his ghost in the famed Stage 28 area of Universal Pictures’ backlot. The only set never “struck” (torn down) in Hollywood history, Stage 28 is the old opera house set seen in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and in other films as well. Chaney is one of two ghosts reported on the old set; he is recognizable because he is always seen wearing the long black cape and mask of Erik, his most memorable character.

I first saw the Chaney version of the Phantom during a Halloween silent movie marathon some years ago. I’ve seen it several times since, but it still chills me to the bone.

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The Haunted Organ

I was reminded of this story from Knoxville by my buddy Barry. It has always appealed to the music lover in me. 🙂

We’ve all heard of that crazed musician and would-be lover, the Phantom of the Opera, but he had a sort of cousin in a Knoxville church. The story was collected in Knox County by Charles Edwin Price in his 1995 book HAUNTED TENNESSEE.

Price does not give particulars that would identify the church, save to say that A) it is in Knox County (some fifty miles up the road from my little hometown) and B) it houses a truly magnificent pipe organ built sometime in the early twentieth century. From time to time this organ is heard to play in the wee hours of the morning, with no one at the console.

It was apparently in the nineteen-teens or twenties that the church vestry realized that their previous organ was about to wheeze its last. It no longer kept tune very well and was more likely to give out a blat than an actual musical note in the upper registers. So they voted to allocate funds to have a new one built, and hired an elderly organ builder from out of state to do the work.

The old man had, when he was hired to build this organ, already decided that this would be his last, and he was determined it would be the best he had ever built, the crowning achievement of his lifetime. He was quite a good organist himself, and would frequently slip into the church in the early morning hours and play. His favorite composer was Johann Sebastian Bach, and his favorite Bach work was the cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death”) in E minor. He was later to say that he constructed his organ around this cantata.

The construction, despite the consternation of the vestry, took five years, but it was worth it. It is said even now to have a richness and purity of tone that no other organ in Tennessee can match. Of course, no mere church organist could be allowed to play at the new organ’s dedication. The vestry hired a nationally famous one to come play it for the first time. When the man visited the church, the day before the dedication, he declared it the finest instrument he had ever played in his career. Unfortunately, he and the builder all but came to blows because the organist refused to play the piece around which the old man had built his mighty organ. He had played it so many times in his career that he flat out hated it, and walked out of the church when the old man tried to press the issue.

As fate would have it, the old organbuilder died that night of a massive stroke.

The next morning was a Sunday, however, and the congregation gathered to hear the organ played by a master at the dedication ceremony. He didn’t disappoint them; he played pieces by a number of composers, including Bach—but none of them was “Christ lag in Todensbanden.”

Quite possibly the most famous piece written for organ is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and the organist chose that as his finale. In our time, this piece has become a sort of generic background for anything spooky or even laughable; it’s been used at screenings of the silent film THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and was at one time used by Keith Olbermann as background music for his Worst Person in the World segment. In a concert setting, by a master of the console, though, it’s awesome still; it’s a mighty rumble of sound, and a true workout for both virtuoso and listeners.

The great organist flexed his fingers and was just about to play that unmistakable duhduhduh—duh duh duh duh, duhduhduh—when he jumped back from the instrument as if it had burned him, because IT WAS PLAYING BY ITSELF. IT WAS PLAYING “CHRIST LAG IN TODENSBANDEN.”

Shrieking, “It’s the old guy! HE’S IN THE ORGAN!” the organist led a stampede out of the church.

About one AM a huge thunderstorm broke overhead—entirely appropriate accompaniment for the wild, eerie music still playing inside the empty church. It was not for another few hours that some of the congregation got up the nerve to sneak in the back door. The moment they entered the sanctuary the organ stopped playing. They took a look at the console first—nobody there—and then searched the whole church. Nobody hiding in a dark corner; nobody in the closet with the choir robes; nobody in the bathrooms, the Sunday school rooms, the minister’s office. Nobody in the building but them. A bit shamefacedly they left, locking the door behind them—only to run for cover when the sound of an old man’s crazed laughter rang through the church. As they fled, they could hear the organ begin playing “Christ lag in Todensbanden”. It didn’t stop until sunrise.

And, to this day, there are occasional reports of the strains of that Bach cantata coming from the empty church in the wee hours of stormy mornings, to the astonishment and consternation of neighbors and police alike—for when they check, the church is always dark and empty as a tomb.

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Werewolf stories are not very common in the good ol’ US of A. In my rather scattershot reading I’ve only come across two cases. One is ongoing–that of the strange creature that has reportedly been haunting Bray Road, near Elkhorn, Wisconsin, sporadically since the 1930s; the other comes from Talbot County, Georgia. The following is based on an account from Nancy Roberts’ 1997 book GEORGIA GHOSTS.

The story of the Georgia werewolf begins in the 1840s, with a strange young woman named Isabella Burt. She was one of three daughters in the family, and she was so different from her sisters as to be almost a changeling: thick shaggy hair and eyebrows, small dark eyes, and–her most peculiar feature–teeth so pointed they almost looked as if they had been filed that way. One report says that her mother once asked the family dentist if something could be done to make her teeth look less odd, say perhaps by blunting them. His response was quite sinister in retrospect: “Her teeth are perfectly healthy. . .After all, aren’t we humans basically carnivores?” (Roberts, p. 175.)

Isabella had always been rather an invalid, and sometime after that visit to the dentist began suffering from chronic insomnia, which not even an opium tincture could ease for long. Isabella took to leaving the house at night, wandering the surrounding countryside and slipping home just before dawn.

Her sister Sarah had recently taken up with a young man of whom the family did not approve. This farming family kept a number of sheep, and one morning Sarah’s young suitor stopped by the Burt house with news that several of the sheep had been attacked by a creature that left wounds on them, but did not kill them. The shepherd had heard nothing. While Sarah and Mrs. Burt expressed alarm and wonderment, Isabella asked if the creature might have been a wolf. Wolves were, by that time, all but extinct in the eastern United States, so he found the question strange.

Each time the suitor came to visit thereafter, he brought news of more attacks by the strange creature.

No one was exactly sure when the locals began to suspect that the creature preying upon their livestock must be a werewolf, that shape-shifting creature most common in French folklore. Werewolves, say the French, are creatures who change from human to wolf. In France, there was an outbreak of werewolf cases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that led to hundreds of confessed werewolves being burned at the stake, for the process by which they changed shape–it involved a particular kind of ointment which was rubbed into the skin–was deemed witchcraft.

Things came to a head one night when the creature was spotted in the Burts’ own sheep pasture.

The neighbors were out that night, keeping watch for the wolf. One of them shot it with silver bullets, taking off its left front paw.

The next morning, Isabella Burt was laid up with a ghastly injury; her left hand had been taken off at the wrist by a gunshot. The story the Burts gave out was that in the excitement of the night before, she had somehow gotten in the midst of all the shooting and had been accidentally wounded.

When Isabella was well enough to travel, her mother sent her to France, ostensibly to visit relatives. While she was away, the attacks on sheep and cattle ceased altogether.

The legend says that during her stay in Paris, she was in fact treated by a doctor who specialized in the treatment of an emotional disorder called lycanthropy, in which the afflicted person thinks they have the power to transform into a wolf.

Reports that, after Isabella returned to Talbot County, there were a few minor attacks of the same sort could not be proven. She remained single all her life, and when she died–sometime in the 1890s–she was said to have been buried in holy ground, with the rest of her family.

Stories persist, however, that on certain nights her sad spirit can be heard roaming the Georgia hills, howling mournfully.

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Sarah Tillinghast

Stukeley Tillinghast, so the story goes, was a prosperous Rhode Island farmer around the time of the Revolutionary War. He and his beloved wife were the parents of fourteen children.

Stukeley had an apple orchard on his farm. One night in 1776 he woke from a horrifying dream. He told his wife, startled awake when he bolted upright, that he had dreamed half the trees in his orchard had died. He was certain the dream meant something, but damned if he could figure what. Comforted by his wife, he went back to sleep, still puzzled.

Not long after Stukeley’s dream, his oldest daughter, Sarah, fell dangerously ill with tuberculosis in its most virulent form, the so-called “galloping consumption.” Characterized by shortness of breath, fever, weight loss, violent cough, and in its late stages by hemorrhages of blood from the lungs, it could kill within weeks.

So it was with Sarah Tillinghast. She died not long after her diagnosis.

In this form, tuberculosis can spread with lethal speed. By the time Sarah died, Stukeley’s second daughter was already ill. Soon five more were dead, and another was desperately ill. Now Stukeley saw his dream becoming horrible reality: not half his orchard, but half his children—and now his wife began to show the early signs of the dreadful illness.

And Stukeley had an idea why they were dying, for in her delirium his second daughter had complained that dead Sarah had come to her in the night and sat on her chest.

In broad daylight, Stukeley and a band of nearby farmers went to the cemetery where Sarah and her five siblings lay buried. They dug up each of the graves and inspected the bodies. Five showed normal signs of decay and were reverently reburied.

Sarah’s did not. Her eyes were open, according to one account, fixed in a stare, and fresh blood was found in her heart and veins.

Stukeley and the farmers knew what they must do. They cut out Sarah’s heart and burned it to ashes, then reburied her.

Although the seventh child died after the desecration of Sarah’s grave, his wife recovered and no others of his children fell ill.

Although this sounds like a vampire tale, particularly in details of the ritual that ended Sarah’s nocturnal visits to her siblings, it actually is about another type of legendary killer altogether: the nosferatu, a word often mistranslated as “vampire” but actually meaning “plague bearer.” Frequently in old lore these monstrous creatures bore such infectious diseases as bubonic plague; in this case tuberculosis was a plague of another sort. Nor was Sarah Tillinghast the only victim of tuberculosis so treated to save family members after her own death. The most famous of these cases happened in the 1890s, also in Rhode Island, when several family members of a girl named Mercy Brown were stricken following her death from tuberculosis. In Mercy Brown’s case the ritual went farther; the ashes of her heart were mixed with wine and her brother made to drink it in hopes of curing him of his own ailment or at least slowing the progress of the disease. It failed; he outlived Mercy only by a few months.

But I’ve always preferred Sarah Tillinghast’s story, because it began with a dream—a dream that came dreadfully true.

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Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, died on the morning of April 15th, 1865, nine hours after he was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth. After several days of lying in state and funeral rites in Washington DC, his body (and that of his son Willie, who had died in 1862 and rested in a borrowed mausoleum ever since) were placed on a train called The Lincoln Special. This train, consisting of nine cars, left Washington on April 21st on a long, sad, circuitous route through the northern states that ended in his adopted hometown of Springfield, Illinois on May 4th.

Lincoln himself has over the century and a half since his death become Washington’s most famous ghost. His favorite haunt, you should pardon the pun, is of course the White House. Less common are tales of the reappearance of the funeral train that carried him home.

The best known of these tales comes from Albany, New York. In 1865, the train passed over the Hudson River Railroad, later a part of the Hudson Division of the NY Central railroad, and later still part of the Conrail system. An account from an Albany newspaper, first cited in Lloyd Lewis’s 1929 book MYTHS AFTER LINCOLN, begins: “Regularly in the month of April, about midnight the air on the tracks becomes very keen and cutting. . .”

The account goes on to say that clouds obscure the moon, a black carpet seems to roll down the track, and all sounds are silenced. The engines–two; one for an escort train, draped in black crepe and crewless save for one flatcar carrying a band of skeletons playing black, noiseless instruments, the second bearing Lincoln’s coffin on a single flatcar–are oldtime woodburners, puffing out great clouds of smoke from huge smokestacks, covered in polished brass as many of the old engines were.

To add to this fantastic appearance, it is said that when real trains are on the track, the ghost train runs right through them, and that clocks and watches, all along the line where the phantom runs, will be five to eight minutes slow once it passes.

A very Gothic sort of tale, but what is interesting is the date when these appearances are said to happen. The ghost train has been reported without exception on the night of April 26-27. There would seem to be no particular reason why it should appear outside Albany on that night, although it did pass through that section about that date, except for this.

On April 26th, 1865, Lincoln’s murderer, John Wilkes Booth, was surrounded in a flaming barn outside Port Royal, Virginia, by Federal troops after a twelve-day manhunt. Orders were given to take Booth alive, but he was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett, who said God told him to shoot Booth. Hit in the spine, and paralyzed, Booth died three hours later on the porch of a nearby farmhouse.

By telegraph, after the War Department and others had been notified, word could have–notice I’m not saying it did, but it could have–reached Albany by midnight.

Are the death of Booth and the sightings of the Lincoln funeral train on the same date coincidences?

You be the judge. I know what I think.

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Back in the days when the old Knoxville Journal newspaper was in existence, it carried the syndicated cartoon Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I was a huge fan of Robert L. Ripley’s collection of oddities, and of the 1982-86 television show hosted by the late Jack Palance. I loved the way he intoned, “The strange. . .the bizarre. . .the unexpected. These are the things a man named Robert L. Ripley challenged us to—” His voice was replaced by that of Ripley himself, who had done radio broadcasts as far back as the 1920s, saying, “Believe it–or not!”

Ripley was a fascinating guy in his own right. He began Believe It or Not! as a collection of sports oddities called “Champs and Chumps,” doing the cartoon pictures himself. He eventually branched out into the collection of other odd trivia. Although Ripley died in 1949, his oddities were continued by other collectors and cartoonists for many years. (Ripley was also the first to publish the work of a young boy who drew a cartoon about a dog with peculiar eating habits; that young boy was Charles M. Schulz, and the dog inspired the immortal Snoopy.)

In the 1970s, some of these strange stories were collected in comic book anthologies. They featured color art and many of the stories were about the paranormal. I first heard of the infamous British highway robber Lady Mary Ferrers, the strange alien being Springheeled Jack, and a host of others in these small books.

The one that has stuck longest in my mind, of all the tales in the Ripley anthologies, though, is one that the cartoonist called “The Devil’s Midget.” Although at least one online source reports that it’s a completely bogus tale, I’ve found that it has been retold in books published as recently as 2000, and is mentioned in Dennis William Hauck’s 1994 edition of The National Directory of Haunted Places.

The story goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, when a gang of international jewel thieves was operating on ships sailing between New York and the European mainland. The most accomplished thief in the bunch was literally a little person: a woman in her thirties who was no taller or more developed than a six year old and looked no older than one either. Born Estelle Ridley, she used the name Fanchon Moncare in her criminal enterprises. She traveled frequently by ship, escorted by her “governess,” an older woman named Ada Danforth. Fanchon would charm wealthy passengers aboard the vessels into revealing where they kept their jewelry; Ada would sneak into unattended staterooms and steal the baubles, and Fanchon would hide them in the doll she always carried. This doll had a removable china head and a hollow body cavity, in which the stolen jewels would brazenly be carried through customs—now what customs agent was going to upset such a sweet little girl by asking to search her dolly? I ask you!–and thence to Manhattan’s Chinatown to be fenced.

Once in Chinatown, safe from the prying eyes of the authorities, Fanchon Moncare dropped the sweet little girl act. She drank, cursed like a sailor, smoked cigars, and drove such hard bargains that the Chinese fences who resold the jewels and took a very small percentage of the proceeds gave her the nickname “midget of the devil.”

Fanchon and Ada made a fortune in the jewelry theft business, in their most audacious score taking a quarter million dollars’ worth of gold, silver and precious stones through customs stored in “Dolly’s” belly. Things began to go sour, however, when they took on an accomplice, a young woman named Magda Hamilton.

Some versions of the story say that Magda actually replaced the aging Ada Danforth as Fanchon’s “governess”; others, that she and Ada had a falling out over a man and Magda turned police informant for spite. The Ripley’s version, which omitted Ada from the gang altogether, maintains that Magda was angry because Fanchon, after initially promising to cut her into the enterprise fifty-fifty in a theft involving a Chicago businessman, gave her only a third of the profits they made, arguing, quite sensibly, that since Fanchon herself did all the work save the actual thefts, she should get the bulk of the profits.

Whatever the cause, Magda Hamilton turned state’s evidence. Her testimony netted her a short sentence; Fanchon Moncare was sentenced to life. The last time Magda saw Fanchon alive, Fanchon vowed that she would have her revenge.

Magda served her time, got out, and married a wealthy man named Dartway Crawley. They bought a mansion on New York’s Staten Island, and then Dartway Crawley left his wife and went to California.

Magda lived alone in the house.

In 1870, word came that Fanchon Moncare had died in prison, possibly a suicide.

Shortly afterward, Magda Hamilton Crawley was found dead in her bed. It appeared that she had died of suffocation. The legend goes that Fanchon Moncare returned from the grave, appeared in Magda’s bedroom, and killed her by shoving the china head of her beloved “Dolly” down Magda’s throat.

The Crawley house, according to Hauck, is haunted to this day—not by the hapless Magda, but by the ghost of tiny Fanchon Moncare, the Devil’s Midget. She has been seen both inside the old mansion and on the widow’s walk on the roof.

Believe it—or not!

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