Sunday, August 8, 2010

Haunted Thoughts

I come from a haunted place. I was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where truckers still spot extinct Logan Indians in green prowling the edges of woods as early morning mists rise and fade. I was raised in Munster, Pennsylvania, where there are ghosts roaming the glens, dirt roads, and farmhouses, from the famous White Lady of the Elmhurst Estate to the lesser known that haunt houses less grand, places less storied.

Elmhurst, a Tudor mansion built by coal- and railroad-tycoon William Thaw’s wild son Harry K. Thaw, hosts both ghosts in the 20 room house and legends of a white lady drivers on nearby route 22 occasionally pick up. She asks to be taken home, directs drivers off the highway, over a railroad bump, and along a long dirt road that leads to Elmhurst, but mysteriously vanishes just as the car pulls up.

She’s supposed to be Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K. Thaw’s mistress over whom he murdered architect Stanton White in the rooftop restaurant at Madison Square Gardens, as memorialized in E. L. Doctorow’s book Ragtime, and the subsequent movie. Nesbit, a Gibson Girl, was known as The Girl On the Red Velvet Swing, and why she’d choose to haunt Elmhurst is unknown. Most likely the ghosts have nothing to do with more famous names.

I stopped by at Elmhurst once and talked to the then-owners about ghosts. They said that, aside from shadows and lights in the windows at times the only thing they’d seen was a misty figure standing down by the barn. They’d seen this several times, usually from the porch, and neither footprints in snow or mud or any other sign that anyone had been there ever showed up when they investigated.

We walked down toward the barn along a dirt path made up of two ruts created by truck tires. It was a warm summer day toward evening and as we walked and talked the light began to fail.

I got a distinct feeling I should not continue toward the barn. It wasn’t fear, just a sense of warning.

Deciding to turn around, we headed up toward the house again and as we did I glanced at an upstairs window in time to see someone gazing down at us. I pointed this out and the curtain twitched and the figure was gone.
“That’s what we see,” the owner said, smiling, assuring me there was no one in the house.

If you want a glimpse of the Elmhurst estate and a nice write-up, check:


So yes, I’ve seen ghosts. Yes, I can sense presences sometimes. Yes, I can be sensitive to place, so much so that I have broken leases to get away.

What ghosts are, I have no idea, but I know they differ from hallucinations. As Kingsley Amis pointed out in his ghostly novel, The Green Man, you can induce hallucination with drugs, but not the same one in groups, and not the same one over decades or centuries.

Some swear ghosts are spirits. Ghosts certainly often look like people known to be dead; a link seems sensible until we ask why only some people, or why an action is repeated mindlessly.

Ghosts do not seem alive. They seem more an echo of a past life. The video tape comparison makes sense.

Some in fact call ghosts recordings. The theory that places might take impressions from strong emotion only seems persuasive until you ask what place is, or why one place differs from another in any objective way.

Ghosts ignore such questions and don’t often interact with people. They tend to repeat one brief set of actions, such as descending a staircase, walking along a road, or pacing a castle’s ramparts. As we’ve seen, though, some are livelier, such as a White Lady who wants a ride home, only to melt away.

Very few, in fact, make a sound, Marley’s chain-rattling and moaning to one side.

There are more complicated hauntings, though.

When my cousin first married she visited my paternal grandparents in haunted Munster, Pennsylvania. This is a tiny hamlet only a mile or so from the Elmhurst Estate, by the way.

That night, as she slept restfully beside him in a bed in my great-grandmother’s old room, her husband was tormented by pokes, prods, and blanket-snatchings. He heard hateful whispers next to his ear, too. By early morning he’d had enough and insisted they leave just after dawn, refusing even an offer of breakfast.

This house, several years earlier, was the setting of a sighting by my sister and me. We were children, she about 8, I about 10. It was the Fourth of July, afternoon. A family picnic had the lawn filled with relatives but the house was empty. My mother, wanting to buy something from a relative, asked my sister to fetch her purse. Being competitive, I tagged along.

In fact, we raced. We slammed into the house, through the porch, through the kitchen, and stopped shoulder-to-shoulder in the dining room doorway. I’m not sure what stopped us but that is where the oddness began.

When we heard the stairs behind the wall across the room creaking, as they always did, we waited to see who was coming down.

An old women, perhaps in her 70s, heavyset, with grey hair in a bun and wearing the kind of floral dress my great-grandmother -- who was out on the lawn -- wore, came down into the doorway framing the bottom landing. She looked up as she turned toward us to enter the dining room, smiled at us in a calm, reassuring way, with much kindness, and in no more than three seconds faded first to a mist and then away.

My sister and I continued behaving uncharacteristically. We looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, then crossed the dining room. We walked past the bottom landing where she’d vanished and we entered the living room to fetch my mother’s purse, all without a qualm.

Neither of us said a word about what we’d seen until much later, in the evening, as we were driving home to bed. We never really talked it over until days later. We’d both seen it and neither of us had any kind of fear. Our surprise was even muted.

Note that in this sighting there was, or seems to have been, at least minimal interaction; the ghost looked up, saw us, and smiled at us. Or so we interpreted it.

Now, it’s possible we only thought she saw us, but the feeling of warmth and kindness, almost of affection, convinced us otherwise. She saw and liked us.

In either case, we looked into a few things over the years after that glimpse. My great-grandparents had built that house and no one had ever died in it. For many years it served as a restaurant; it stands on what is now Old Route 22 at the top of Munster Hill, beside the old truck garage my great-uncle Art ran.
They’d had a nice dual business back in the days of broken truck drive-chains and overheated engines.

No structure and no known grave ever stood on that property prior to the house and garage. It is, as mentioned, close to Elmhurst Estate, which was built in the robber baron era when the rich wanted places with fresh air where they could escape from city pollution. Back then Pittsburgh, PA was known by Andrew Carnegie’s famous phrase: Hell with a lid on.

So where do the ghosts along that killer old Route 22 come from? Crash victims?

My grandparents’ house on Munster Hill offered another haunting; it chased my grandfather out a year or so after my grandmother died. He fled, selling the house at a loss to a neighbor, who had changed my great-uncle’s garage into M & M furniture, an antique and junk shop supplied by estate sales. Last I heard, the house is used as overflow storage for excess furniture.

My grandfather told me he’d been hounded from the house by my great-grandmother’s ghost, upset, he thought, because he’d failed to protect my grandmother from death. He said she poked, prodded, and pestered him, yanking at blankets and hissing angrily at him night after night. She followed him around the house and wanted him gone, he said.

I suspect he mistook the ghost my sister and I saw for my great-grandmother. They looked very similar, but we’d seen the ghost while my great-grandmother sat outside alive and well.

In the years since, I’ve heard that another cousin, one who lives in Cresson, one town and only five miles or so from the house, has been visiting and talking to the ghost on lonely nights. Yes, my family’s like that. How she gets in, knew about the ghost, or what she says I don’t yet know, having fallen out-of-touch with her branch of the family due to deaths and world travel courtesy of the military. I’ve got inquiries in via other cousins and hope one day to learn more.

Hoping one day to learn more is where parapsychology, or ghost hunting, has stood from the beginning. It’s where we all stand as we think about the shadowy corners of life. Hailing from a haunted place puts me perhaps more at ease standing here, even if no better informed. I can’t wait to find out more.

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1 comment:

Hugh Brady Conrad said...

Interesting. I am researching the Thaw-White-Nesbit story.

Two things. Harry Thaw's mother and father built Elmhurst, not Harry himself, and Evelyn was Harry's wife, not his mistress. She was Sandford White's mistress for part of her teenaged years, but calling her Harry's is a stretch.

In still enjoyed your ruminations.