Monday, August 4, 2008

1881 New York Times Article on Ghosts

I came across this the other day and thought it was just too funny not to share. This text is from an 1881 article in the New York Times:

The prolonged and frequent rains of the last two months have evidently been favorable not only to the growth of comets, but to the development of ghosts. Like many noxious weeds, ghosts thrive wherever dampness exist. In dry, hot weather, or in localities where it never rains, ghosts are unknown, whereas underground dungeons or the damp and moldy apartments of mediaeval castles are notoriously infested with ghosts. There are neither dungeons nor mediaeval castles in Fourteenth-street, but after two months of rain we need not wonder that a Fourteenth-street boarding-house has produced a pair of active and thriving ghosts.

Rain responsible for comets and ghosts…No Shit?

The article then goes on to describe in detail the antics of the two ghosts, including the more disagreeable male ghost's favored method of scaring the old ladies residing in the boarding house:

When he visits a lady's room, he amuses himself by standing by the side of the bed and alternately growing large and small. Nothing could be more terrifying to a timid lady than to be visited in the dead of night by a man of six feet in height who suddenly contracts to the size of the late Commodore NUTT and then either shoots up again to his original height or vanishes as if he had been annihilated.

Now honestly, it's hard to know what to make of this. It certainly reads as tongue in cheek by today's standards, but if one studies the archives of 19th century newspapers you come across a whole lot of very strange stories, many of which seem utterly absurd today even though they were completely serious in their time. That makes the job of deciphering stuff like this a bit tougher.

I did a cursory look and found that during this period the Times reported on ghosts quite often, and usually seemed to do so in a serious manner. The pages are filled with tales of specters and spooks of various kinds from all over the New York area. Here's part of a typical story I found from January 11, 1873:

A HAUNTED SCHOOL-HOUSE - The Pale Boy with a Beautiful Face and Mild Blue Eyes - A Singular Story From Newburyport.

In Newburyport we have a school-house that the School Committee have been forced to advertise as closed to visitors because curious crowds waited within and without to see the mysterious form of a ghost boy, who has been trotting around there for more than a year, seen frequently by the teacher - who is not a Spiritualist - and by most of the whole fifty pupils, who are too young (primary scholars) to mystify and deceive the people.

Closing down the primary school because of a ghost! I somehow doubt today's elementary school kids would be nearly as successful at dodging class using the same tactic.

The story then goes on to explain the haunting in great detail before ending this way:

The teacher has spoken to him, and he only laughed from his happy face. The children looked at him, whom not one of them ever saw before, and he returns their glances with love in his soft, mild eyes: but as yet he has not told us who he is, whence he came, or what his mission. This comes nearest to a real ghost - a daylight ghost - of anything we have had in this city for years.

Well I'm glad to see Newburyport's ghost dry spell is over. They hadn't had a real ghost "in years" before this pale-faced lad came along and put the mystical back in everybody's lives - even those who are not "Spiritualists".

Here's a few other headlines I ran across:

SAW A GHOST ON A BICYCLE: Members of the Fenhurst Owl Club Saw It - Was of Tremendous Size and Awful Appearance.


AN ANCESTRAL GHOST - It Was a New York Apparition and Its Habitat the Van Cortlandt Manor House - NEW YORK WOMAN SAW IT - It Was the Old Housekeeper of the Manor, Unable to Rest Because of an Uneasy Conscience-She Had Taken Family Silver


VICAR SAYS HE TOOK PICTURE OF GHOST - Set Camera Hurriedly When Wife Saw Apparition by Luncheon Table - PLATE REVEALS OLD MAN - Wraith Has "Flowing Beard and Abundant Hair" - Vicar Supports Claim with Affidavit


A GHOST IN GUSTERIN'S FLAT - GROANS AND RATTLES CHAINS AND SCARES AWAY TENANTS - Mr. J Weller Not Afraid Till He Heard Awful Antics to the Accompaniment of Waves at Rockaway

Now these stories in no way prove that the "comets" story is not tongue in cheek itself, but it does at least give a snapshot of attitudes toward ghosts at the time. I'll keep digging and see what I can find about the comet article and its unlisted author, so stay tuned.

Looking into these old ghost stories has been fun. Perhaps we here at Xoom will start doing a weekly or bi-weekly flashback investigation and bring you anything interesting and/or funny that we find in these archives.

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