Tag Archives: Stories from the archives

A Secret Government Hideaway in the Allegheny Mountains

Photos courtesy of the Greenbrier Hotel.

It’s really hard for me to go on vacation without being tempted to do genealogy. I don’t mean my own family—that’s its own problem—I mean researching the history of the place I’m visiting, or the family history of the people who made it a vacation destination.

Case in point: I recently visited the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia with my family. Super fancy, very historic. The decoration style isn’t what you’d call modern—the bold colors, wallpaper patterns, bright carpeting, and ornate chandeliers could only work in that space. The sprawling campus is home to a hotel, three golf courses, a spa, horseback riding trails, a casino, and—most compelling of all—a former secret government bunker.1 Continue reading A Secret Government Hideaway in the Allegheny Mountains

The True Story of Young Willie McBride

Photo of the grave of Willie McBrideHave you ever wondered if a favorite song of yours had a basis in fact?

In the song “The Green Fields of France,” the narrator reflects upon the grave of Willie McBride, a young man who died as a soldier in World War I. In one verse, he asks Willie:

Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?

As family historians, we hate to leave photos of relatives unidentified. The more that I have played the song, the more I have wondered if there was a real Willie McBride—and I finally decided to do something about it. Continue reading The True Story of Young Willie McBride

Meet the Ghosts who Haunt our History (Part I)

Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband Abraham Lincoln behind her, circa 1872. Photo by William H Mumler.

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.”

Continue reading Meet the Ghosts who Haunt our History (Part I)

Discovering Caleb Dyer, the Only Shaker Ever Murdered

Caleb Dyer ca. 1863, via Enfield Shaker Museum

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

Mr. John Griffin and the Boston Common Treasure

Detail of 1814 map of Boston Common by John Groves Haley.

As anyone who as ever spent time doing genealogical research can tell you, searching through historical records can oftentimes feel like a little bit of a treasure hunt. When I noticed an unusual headline printed in The Boston Statesman on October 4th, 1852, I found myself immersed in a real-life treasure hunt.1 The article read:

Treasure Buried on Boston Common- A Mr. John Griffin petitioned the city government yesterday for permission to dig a hole on Boston Common six feet in diameter for the purpose of obtaining $1000 which he asserts his father, John Griffin, who served in the war of the Revolution, secreted during the “Troubled Times” preceding the war. Griffin says he is poor and wants the money bad. The petition was referred to the Committee on the Common.

Continue reading Mr. John Griffin and the Boston Common Treasure