American Halloween House
To prevent attack from ghosts, goblins, Barbies and spidermen, best to offer candy tributes to expecting neighbors and marauding children. You might attempt scaring away, though scaring is a losing tactic; each year the innocent grow less innocent, more jaded, neighbors more ravenous. Well, there are the dissuasions of plastic skeletons, fabric ghost, and witchy sounds from boiling, steaming pots, though these seem only to encourage the incorrigible. As we all know, candy is highly-prized booty, worthy of risk for reward. What’s to do.
Well, there are real spirits of the night whose pleasure is frightening smiling neighbors and little marauders; these will chase the unwanted away. Trouble is, ghosts, wraiths, phantoms, specters and tortured souls will chase you away, too. Just ask anyone with a house ghost. My house ghost (appearing half in flesh, half in grinning bone) inspired a grown man to take a full flight in several steps, crash through the glass screen to collapse on the lawn a-quivering and a-babbling. My current practice is a priest’s house blessing, Holy Water, daily prayers, and gifts of candy by the handful.
Likely, you know that Halloween is “All Saints Eve”, the night before All Saints Day, the day to praise and pray to saints who pray for us. 13 May 629 was our first All Saints, the day of the Pantheon’s rededication to the Virgin Mary and All the Martyrs (14 cart loads of Christian bones and relics from the Catacombs were reinterred in that church). All Saints was calendared on 1 November in the 8th Century and has since retained this date.
Some will say that Halloween is a Celtic holiday. Not true. Though the U.S. Irish did bring with them memories of the old Celtic, and that with scary movies inspired by Gothic poems and novels, and those with eager candy manufacturers, and the cult of children after WWII, created the Halloween we celebrate today. Yes, and too, childless adults whose spare income allows indulgence in adolescent ambitions.
This Halloween we look back to our very real, very scary Salem Witch Trials, our ghost stories including Icabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, Lizzy Borden (who took her ax-aluttle and gave her mother forty wacks-aluttle), to Lincoln’s Ghost, to frightening modern houses, to ghost towns, haunted tourism, and haunted cemeteries.
King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Boston, once the property of Bay Colony settler, the eccentric Isaac Johnson who asked to be buried in his pumpkin patch (this long before the jack-o’-lantern pumpkin). Thirty years later, 1660, the property was given over to King’s Chapel and forms today’s cemetery where a woman is on occasion seen walking about headless, sometimes over the grave of a man purposely buried alive. Also here, the inspiration for Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter: “Here lies the body of Elizabeth Pain, wife to Samuel Pain…,” from this the character Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman living in Boston who was accused of adultery and was publicly humiliated with the scarlet “A”.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Terrytown, New York, is near the site of Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane, an itinerant teacher who falls for the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, is night chased by the village’s Headless Horsemen (his disguised rival for Katrina’s affection, we suppose), and the story ends with a smashed pumpkin found where Ichabod disappeared … never to be seen again, except in Halloween costume. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord is the resting place of the famous and notable, including sculptor Daniel Chester French. At Sleepy Hollow’s Author’s Ridge, graves of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and others. Emerson inspired the cemetery’s design aesthetic (quaint transcendental), gave its dedicatory address, and was buried there 27 years later. As with all cemeteries, here faint voices, misty figures, and drifting shadows.
Abraham Lincoln twice (that we know of) had premonitions of his death, one recorded by a friend: “About ten days ago I retired very late…,” the President told his friend, “I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs … I arrived at the East Room. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer. ‘He was killed by an assassin.” Since his death, Presidents, first ladies, guests, and White House staff have seen Lincoln or felt his presence … so they report. Notably, Lady Bird Johnson, and Grace Coolidge who saw the specter fully present.
Long ago beneath spinning stars I suffered a cool night in Bannack, Montana, a ghost town near Dillion where that year the National Rodeo Championship was held. Founded in 1862’s Gold Rush, the city was a long time dying, being as it was the territorial capital and home to great wealth. Abandoned, alone and lonely, the last resident packed and left in 1970. Between 1862 and 1970 there were robbers, scoundrels, banishings, gunfights, lynchings, and over a hundred murders in the area … wealth and desperation, a deadly prescription. Bannack is now a historic district which each year celebrates its history, has a picnic, et cetera.
Each town boasts its haunted house, the Italianate, old and empty, the modern International, cold and lifeless are two of the haunted styles most common. Some towns are fortunate to have someone famous who died, worked, or wrote there. Many towns clamor for the remains of Edgar Allen Poe, most especially Richmond, Boston, Philadelphia. Baltimore brags that Poe died there, as he did from congestion of the brain, a common condition of alcoholics. Poe’s final words were, “Lord, help my poor soul.” On 19 Januarys from 1949 to 2009 three roses and a bottle of cognac were left at Poe’s grave. For 60 closely watched years the gift giver was unseen yet the gifts appeared. Baltimore’s Westminster Church historian claimed to have been the giver, though his story is inaccurate, and he is mostly disbelieved.
Waley House, San Diego, claims to be the most haunted house in America, and is a haunted tourism destination drawing thousands, including scientists, scammers, and television crews. As it happened, on 5 January 1882, Violet Eloise Whaley and Anna Amelia Whaley were married, not as these days ickily to one another, but Violet to George Bertolacci and Anna to her first cousin, John T. Whaley, son of the man who built the house. As sometimes happens, Violet’s husband George was a scoundrel with a sordid past, a con artist focused on the Whaley family fortune. George promised to reform, perhaps sincerely, but father Whaley severed all family contact with the lonely, eager husband. Violet, distraught, shot herself in the chest with a 32-caliber and died. Her suicide note reads: “Mad from life’s history, swift to death’s mystery; / glad to be hurled, anywhere, anywhere, out of this world.” The well-known verse was composed by the excellent Thomas Hood, a verse much admired by Poe who often referenced it in lecture and essays naming it an example of “painting with words”.
Right … I almost forgot the Salem Witch Trials and the “Witch House”, the Jonathan Corwin House, the only house connected to the 1692 trials which yet stands. Judge Corwin was called to replace Judge Saltonstall who resigned after the execution of poor, innocent Bridget Bishop, first target of the theatrical, diabolical girls. Perhaps you recall that the girls accused more than 200 people of witchcraft, 30 of whom were found guilty, 21 executed by hanging (14 women, 5 men, 2 dogs), 5 who died in jail, and one who died under torture.
Who needs horror fiction when girls thirsty for madness can be everywhere found. Why the five accusing girls were excused from their crimes, I cannot say … what I would say, I shouldn’t say … too close to the recent Covid malice and the Woke insanity growing everyday more wicked. The “Witch House”, the Corwin House, is now a museum of seventeenth-century furnishings and lifestyle.
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AMERICAN HALLOWEEN HOUSE
Featured image, The Jonathan Corwin House, Salem, Massachusetts, credit Sarah Jennie.
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