In case you missed Part I of our readers’ family ghost stories: last week I talked about the history of ghost stories in the United States, and introduced you to some of the stranger spirits haunting the past. This week, I’m focusing on the ghosts of more recent memory—when and why we see them, and how our ghost stories can help us bring back the relatives and loved ones we have lost.
It must be acknowledged that not everyone believes in ghosts. Stories about ghost sightings say a lot about the people who tell them: some feel sure about the nature of what they’ve seen, while others may not be so confident. The more logical-minded among us will search actively for a rational explanation. For my part, I remain stubbornly agnostic. I’ve never seen a ghost myself, and I admit that I am skeptical by nature. But I can’t help but be fascinated by the possibility—and by the history and memories that ghost stories can unearth, whether or not they turn out to be entirely true.
One thing I noticed across your stories is that children, and especially very young children, are often the first to notice a ghost’s presence in a home:
“Alone in the house one day, I was dancing with my two-year-old daughter in my arms. She kept waving at something behind me and said, “Mommy, man.” I explained to her it was just the two of us here, and kept dancing. She continued to wave, then took her hands and turned my face to the doorway of the family room. Leaning against the doorway was a man, dressed in a suit with a fedora on his head. As soon as I saw him, he disappeared. My daughter saw a ghost that day, and she made sure her mom did, too.” Kate, Newburyport, MA
Thank you to everyone who answered our call for submissions! I had so much fun going through the treasure trove of strange, poignant, and even funny stories you sent in. Ghosts abound in the history and popular lore of the United States—and as the selection of highlights I’ll be sharing illustrates, our ghosts have everything to do with our family histories, and our collective past as a country.
Modern ghost stories owe many of their common tropes to Spiritualism —a popular movement which arose during the mid-19th century in the U.S. and England, centered around the belief that the spirits of the dead can be communicated with by the living. Most accounts of the beginnings of Spiritualism point to the 1848 incident of Maggie and Kate Fox: teenage sisters from Hydesville, NY, who claimed they could communicate with a ghost in their home through a series of mysterious “rapping” sounds, and became known as the first Spiritualist mediums. Well-known figures of the 19th century, such as Mary Todd Lincoln and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were staunch believers in Spiritualism, and while popularity has declined, Spiritualist ideas remain embedded in our culture today.
Given this context, I was thrilled to receive a submission from genealogist Jerry Carbone of Brattleboro, VT, about a Spiritualist artifact he discovered in his research: letters written to a man named Edward Edwards from his deceased wives and relatives , as transcribed by mediums. Whether these letters represent genuine contact with the beyond or not, they clearly seem to have brought their recipient comfort. They contain reassurances that he is being watched over and guided, that his two deceased wives get along with each other, and even that his family members have come around to his Spiritualist beliefs, as in this message from Edwards’ brother:
“My Dear Brother, We are nearly all over here you are not coming to a lonely place/ Your two wifes seem to be so happy together. I do not know which will be the one who will be chosen to walk through spirit life with, but—I do know—they both care for you. Father laughs about the old ideas of religion.”
Plenty of people own Shaker furniture or have heard of Shaker-style craftsmanship, but it’s less common to find someone with Shaker ancestry. There’s good reason for that: the Shakers, or the United Society of Believers, were a Christian religious sect that believed in gender equality, pacifism, and complete celibacy—no marriage or children. They first arrived in the U.S. from England in 1774 and settled in villages throughout the Northeast and Midwest, where they lived communally, kept separate from “the world” of nonbelievers, and worshipped through song and dance.
Shakers didn’t hold with violence, so I was intrigued to come across the story of Caleb Marshall Dyer, believed to be the only Shaker murder victim in history. A respected leader in his community, he was killed in a dispute with a local man over custody of the man’s daughters, who had been entrusted to the Shakers of Enfield for a period of time. Ironically, I only became aware of Caleb Dyer because of his involvement in an earlier custody dispute—that time not as a community leader, but as one of the children in question. Continue reading Discovering Caleb Dyer, the Only Shaker Ever Murdered→
Even the smallest bit of nostalgia can set me off down a new genealogical rabbit hole. The other day, when I heard Cass Elliot singing Make Your Own Kind of Music1 in a car commercial on television, I knew right away that I was in trouble. Wouldn’t it be incredible to discover a genealogical connection with that legendary 1960s chanteuse? Okay—maybe it wouldn’t be for you, but for this aging flower-child, the thought of it was uber-cool. Curiosity piqued, I decided it was time to dig deeper.
Almost immediately, I saw that Cass Elliot, born Ellen Naomi Cohen in 1941, was Jewish by way of both her parents.2 Let’s face it—unless I’m ever able to find a 14th-century synagogue on the Orkney Islands , I have little chance of finding any similar lines here. This was disappointing, but I figured there had to be more to the story. I began to wonder who Cass had married, and if she had any children to whom I could establish a connection. Continue reading California Dreamin’: Looking for Connections to Cass Elliot→
A friend relayed to me this episode: an older individual was leaving a research facility when security, per policy, asked to inspect their bag. The individual declared to my friend working at the reception desk: “I find it insulting that security asked to check my bag, because I’m a Mayflower descendant!”
I recently went searching through newspaper records for information about the family of John Doane of Eastham for the next Early New England Families (ENEF) sketch. Newspaper resources about 17th– and 18th-century families are rare, but do exist for larger cities such as Boston. I happened upon the following abstract from the Boston New-Letter:
“Doane, Hannah, w[ife]. John, d[aughter] Capt. Joshua Hobart of Hingham, (twice a wid[ow]. when she m. Doane), at Eastham, apoplexy, Sept. 4, 1731.”1
Anyone who lived in Fall River, Massachusetts more than fifty years ago would recognize the Brayton name as a power family from the city’s glory days. A block away from my childhood home, the boundary of the baronial John Summerfield Brayton estate was marked by a substantial granite wall with a pointed cap, stretching along Highland Avenue and bending the curve to New Boston Road. What a great place for kids to play, imagining we were behind a medieval fortification. Not even in my flights of fantasy would I have contemplated kinship with this wealthy family. Continue reading A Tale of Two Brayton Descents→