Thomas is the current editor of Vita Brevis. He writes copy and creates media for use across American Ancestors' digital platforms, and assists in communications strategy. He has been part of the digital communications team since 2017, having originally come to American Ancestors/NEHGS as an intern and freelance writer. Thomas has experience in writing, web design, and digital marketing, and holds a B.A. in English from Brandeis University with a concentration in creative writing. He is interested in genealogy as a method for understanding how ordinary people lived in the past, and as a way to contextualize one's personal relationship with the history of America.
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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.”
Are there ghosts in your family’s stories? Do you have a relative who enjoys telling a tale of the unexplained, an ancestral home that seems to hold some trace of the past, or another family mystery that you just can’t seem to lay to rest? We want to hear your stories! Your submission may be featured on the blog in an upcoming post this October.
Douglas Richardson’s Magna Carta Ancestry isn’t a particularly old or rare volume, but it is a frequently used resource in our collections. This massive reference book tracks family lines between medieval England and colonial America, making it a valuable source of information for researchers. Unfortunately, as our conservation technician Deborah Rossi discovered, the original binding of this book was too weak to support such frequent use. To help understand why, here’s some book anatomy 101: Continue reading Modern book conservation at NEHGS→
Editor’s Note: This is part three of a series on digitizing our special collections. The previous posts can be read here and here.
Good news! The next phase of our digitization project is under way. We’ve just received the first batch of images from our scanning partner, which means we can begin work on the next step: quality control.
In the last post, I talked about the organizational aspects of digitization – sorting and physically preparing the items, creating a finding aid, and adding instructions when needed to make sure all the documents are scanned correctly. One of the first things we did upon getting the Howard family papers back from our scanning partner was to make sure that the organization was honored and that all of the pages were scanned. Continue reading Quality control→
This is part two of a series on digitizing our special collections. Click here to read the first post.
Before we send some of the items from our R. Stanton Avery Special Collections to third parties for scanning, there is work we must do to make this digitization possible. Sally Benny, Curator of Digital Collections, is in charge of organizing and preparing the collections before they are sent to the scanner. Continue reading Preparing to digitize archival collections→
This is part one of a series on digitizing our special collections.
At NEHGS, the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections are a unique and treasured resource. Since 1845, we have provided access to our collections of manuscripts, typescripts, and photographs, including family histories, vital records, and original primary source documents. The items NEHGS has collected have immense value to researchers – not only for genealogists and family historians, but for students, scholars, and anyone looking for a window into the past. Continue reading Two new digitizing projects→