Friday, October 23, 2020

Shooting Ghosts


    No need to call the Ghostbusters, it’s not that kind of shooting! But would you be able to tell if you shot a ghost on film? It’s a question that has raged since the invention of the camera.

    Our ghostly story begins in 1860s Boston in the photography studio of William Mumler. The former ‘snake-oil’ salesman turned from selling homemade medical cures to try his hand at this new technology – photography. Allegedly, he was practicing self-portraits (the earliest selfies?) in his studio, alone, when he noticed something strange in the developed prints. Beside him was the ghostly image of a young girl! Local spiritualists (another craze during the period) confirmed it as a spirit captured on film!

Seeing dollar signs in his camera lens, Mumler took the opportunity to profit off the phenomenon.

Harry Gordon

Three for the price of one

Mrs. Tinkham

    As you can see in the images above, Mumler was prolific. But what did he really capture (spoiler alert: its probably not actually ghosts)? Even though it was still a new technology, and Photoshop was 120 years away, people had already figured out how to manipulate photographs. The simplest explanation is a double exposure of portraits to produce the ghostly effect. In one instance, a man recognized his wife (who was very much alive) in someone’s spirit photograph from Mumler. In fact, she had recently had her portrait taken in Mumler’s studio, fueling the double exposure theory.

    Like ghosts behind peoples’ shoulders, skepticism was never far from Mumler. Famed portrait photographer James Wallace Black and his assistant, on separate occasions, observed Mumler’s process. Both men left as believers, with Black even seeing his long-dead father! After relocating to New York City in 1869, Mumler was tried for fraud. His trial was sensational, drawing in famed showman P.T. Barnum – the man associated with the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute” – against Mumler. To show how spirit photography could have been done, Barnun commissioned a photograph of himself alongside the ghost of Abraham Lincoln:

Early Photoshop? 

    However, the court was unable to prove the Boston photographer was manipulating his prints. There was countless theories of how, but no proof he did. Still, believers flocked to Mumler’s studio.         Ironically, following P.T. Barnum’s photograph on Lincoln’s ghost, Mary Todd Lincoln, the 16th President’s widow, paid for a ‘spirit photograph’ by Mumler – with her late husband making an appearance! It would be the last photograph taken of the former-First Lady.

Mary, look behind you!

    A fascination with death, the afterlife, and all things spooky renewed following World War One. William Hope was an amateur photographer and member of the “Crew Circle Spiritualist” group in northern England. Similar to Mumler, Hope profited off peoples’ desires to capture the ghosts of a loved one and was attacked by skeptics.

An example of Hope's spirit photography


Another example of Hope's work. Spirits, take the wheel!

Another of Hope's photos that's definitely not nightmare inducing 

    While Mumler attracted P.T. Barnum and Mary Todd Lincoln, Hope drew none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories and noted spiritualist, and Harry Houdini, famed de-bunker of spiritualism, into a bitter feud .

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a "spirit". 

    The illusionist waged a public campaign against all claims of supernatural abilities (including spirit photography), arguing instead that his feats were pure illusions – Doyle was unpersuaded. So, Houdini responded with a now-well established debunking tool – a photograph of himself alongside Lincoln’s ghost!

Lincoln's ghost got around

    Convinced yet? Neither am I. Yet whether you prescribe to the ‘spirit photography’ phenomenon or not, they remain in archives and museums as physical reminders of the Spiritualism Movement and its die-hard believers. This begs the new question – can digital cameras can capture ghosts too?

The author and the "spirit" of John Henry Livingston

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Origin of The Headless Horseman


For The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving based several characters on real people. Ichabod Crane was based on Kinderhook, NY school teacher Jesse Merwin, with the name possibly
Washington Irving, 1809

coming from a soldier Irving met during the War of 1812. Katrina Van Tassel was most likely based on Serena Livingston with the name coming from a girl Irving knew of the same name. Brom Bones, may not have been based on a real person but may have represented all the descendants of Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley who resented the encroachment of "Yankees" from New England who were moving into the area in the early 19th-Century. So who then was the Headless Horseman based on?

    Headless horsemen are a common ghost across Europe, from Germany to Scandinavia and England, Ireland and Scotland. But in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820, the Headless Horseman is described as the ghost of a Hessian Trooper who had his head carried away in "some nameless battle" of the Revolutionary War. 

Major General William Heath   
     For Irving's specific inspiration we turn to the Memoirs of Major General William Heath by Himself, originally published in 1798. The Battle of White Plains took place on October 28, 1776. General William Howe was pursing George Washington north having driven him from Manhattan. At the village of White Plains Washington turned to fight. After vicious fighting
Washington was forced to retreat further north.
Americans at the Battle of White Plains

    Rather than pursue in force Howe spent the next several days trying to draw Washington into another battle by sending out small parties to skirmish with the Americans. On November 1 Major General Heath recorded the following:

Hessians advance

  "The British artillery now made a circuitous
movement, and came toward the American right. Here unknown to them were some 12 pounders; upon the discharge of which they made off with the their field-pieces as fast as the horses could draw them off. A shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artillery-man. They also left one of the artillery horses dead on the field." 

American Gunners at White Plains

    On November 5, 1776 Howe turned around and headed back to Manhattan to clear the few remaining Continentals off the island. 

    Lets break this down shall we? We've got an unnamed battle in this little skirmish. We've got a decapitated Hessian, who by the way would never be able to find his head as a 12 pound cannon ball most likely reduced it to nothing but mist. We've got a dead horse by the Hessian, perfect for the Headless Horseman to ride for eternity.

    Though we will never know the exact inspiration for the Headless Horseman, the evidence strongly points to the dead Hessian in Major General Heath's memoir.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Peacock Feathers and The Scottish Play: Bad Luck Superstitions and Their Historical Origins


In the words of Michael Scott: “I’m not superstitious but I am a little stitious.”

While October is the time when the veil between our world and the next is at its thinnest, we find ourselves doing certain things all year round to avoid any bad luck from that realm. We cross our fingers for luck, we make a wish at 11:11, and we aggressively search the grass around us for four-leaf clovers. All of this is done to bring good luck to us and to ward off the bad. But there are also actions that CAUSE that bad luck. So today we’re taking a look at the history of some common superstitions.


1.       Breaking a Mirror – According to the superstition, breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck upon the individual. On our tour floor at Clermont there are 24 mirrors. That means if they were somehow to all break, we would find ourselves cursed with 168 years of bad luck. Most likely because we had brought down the wrath of our Curator. But where does this superstition come from? The fear

most likely goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It was a common belief at the time that the image you were seeing in the mirror was actually a reflection of your soul. Therefore, seeing it cracked and distorted was deeply terrifying to people. And to break it completely would bring misfortune. But why 7 years? We can thank the Romans for that, too. They believed that life was split into 7-year phases or ages and that 7 years was the amount of time it took for life to renew itself. So, you need to wait those 7 years for your soul to heal. Or you can just break the shards so completely that they never reflect anything else. That apparently works too.


2.       The Number 13 – For Robert the Builder, 13 was a lucky number. Okay, technically 13,000 because that’s how many acres of land he inherited but bear with me. Anyway, the number 13 actually represents misfortune and danger to many others. Lots of hotels don’t even have thirteenth floors because of the superstition. And it’s another superstition that can be traced WAY back. In the Bible, Jesus is seated at dinner with his twelve disciples when he reveals that one of them will betray him. This, of course, is Judas Iscariot who could be regarded as the thirteenth person at the table (Jesus + 12 Disciples), making number 13 unlucky. The superstition also has its roots in Norse mythology. According to the story, 12 gods gather for dinner at Valhalla. But then Loki (it’s always Loki) crashes
the party. Not only that, but he tricks one of his fellow gods into shooting an arrow at Balder, a deeply beloved god. Balder is killed and the entire world mourns. Once more, Loki ruins everything. One other potential explanation for triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) is that it is a number you cannot nicely divide. 12 is awesome – you can divide it by 2, 3, 4, and 6. 14 has the decency to be divisible by 2 and 7. Heck, even 15 is divisible by 3 and 5. But 13. That pesky 13 will ALWAYS leave you with a remainder.


3.       Peacock Feathers – This one is a little more obscure but since the Livingstons owned a peacock named Solomon it seemed fitting to include. Solomon was an odd choice for a pet. He was not very bright and, according to Honoria, not very friendly. But they still loved him. The rest of the world has a confusing relationship with the birds. For some, they are regarded as unlucky and for others they

represent peace and harmony. The first reason why peacocks make some people uneasy is that their feathers look like eyes. This may seem beautiful, but it also brings to mind “The Evil Eye”, which supposedly represents the eye of Lilith, a demon. If you believe that, seeing a bird strutting around with several eyes on its feathers might be a little disconcerting. The feathers also came to symbolize bad luck for many Eastern European countries in the 13th Century because the conquering Mongolians often wore them. Peacocks also came to be regarded as unlucky by Christians. They might be birds, but something about their heads didn’t sit right. Bartholomaeus Anglicus put it best in the 13th Century when he wrote, “and as one saith, he hath the voice of a fiend, head of a serpent, pace of thief”. For a religion that views the serpent as a bringer of evil, something was scary about a bird with a vaguely reptilian head. All of these fears contribute to the fact that, while gorgeous, real peacock feathers are virtually never seen onstage in costumes or furniture. The potential misfortune just isn’t worth it. Which leads me to my next superstition…


4.       Macbeth – The Livingstons own several complete works of Shakespeare. But even if they didn’t this would’ve made the list because I’m an actress. The superstition states that bad things will happen if you utter the name Macbeth in a theater. Unless you are actually performing Macbeth, you call it The Scottish Play. This is a theatrical superstition so ingrained in us that many theater folks never say the name at all. But why is this play supposedly cursed? The first strike it has against it is witches. A play featuring witchcraft in the year 1606 was bound to raise some eyebrows. When Shakespeare wrote it, he was appealing to the current monarch, James I, who very much believed in witchcraft. However, the

use of incantations onstage frightened the general public. And apparently offended real witches, causing them to curse the theater the play was being put on in. This “curse” is rumored to have caused the sudden death of the original Lady M. Not only that, but subsequent productions supposedly were doomed to have injuries, fires and, in one instance, the prop dagger replaced with a real one which killed the actor playing Duncan. In New York in 1849, Edwin Forrest (American) and William Charles Macready (English) were both playing Macbeth at nearby theaters. Their rivalry got so heated that a riot broke out and 20 people were killed, 100 more injured. As time goes on, it seems like the curse of Macbeth becomes similar to the chicken and the egg: is it actually cursed or did a few random bad things happen, causing people to be so nervous that they cause accidents that they then blame on the play? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter to me – I’m still not saying it.


5.       Black Cats – If you’ve ever toured Clermont, chances are you’ve heard about Alice Livingston and her multitude of pets. She owned at least 20 different breeds of dogs. We also know she had least a few cats. Her daughter, Honoria, went on to own several cats as well. But did the Livingstons ever own a black cat? Truthfully, we can’t be sure but there’s no photographic evidence that they did. So, did they

view black cats as unlucky? And how can such adorable creatures be evil? Once again, we’re heading back to the Middle Ages. At that time, cats became associated with witches because oftentimes women believed to have magic abilities also had cats. And black cats = black magic. None of this is scientifically sound (obviously) but for centuries black cats were believed to be familiars and often put to death along with accused witches. And as time wore on, they

became known as harbingers of death. The general idea was that animals with dark coats were evil. Think of the attitude towards ravens and crows. Black cats were no different. If one sat on the bed of your loved one, that was a sign of their impending doom. People began to believe that a black cat crossing their path was bad luck while a white cat was good luck. Even today, black cats are adopted less frequently than cats of other colors. Of all the superstitions on this list, this is the most ridiculous. Because LOOK AT HOW CUTE THEY ARE!



And now that you’ve gotten cat pictures - thank you for joining me on this journey through superstitions. And remember: no stepping on cracks, walking under ladders, or opening umbrellas indoors.

Man, there’s a lot to keep track of.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

From Enemy to Neighbor: British and German Soldiers who stayed in America


Many British and German soldiers stayed in America when the Revolutionary War was over. Some deserted from their regiments to take up a life in America or, in the case of officers, resigned their commissions to stay in the new United States. The prospect of land or relationships with women were too strong a pull for some of the men to return to their homelands.

On October 17, 1777 General John Burgoyne surrendered nearly 6,000 men to American

Burgoyne surrendering at Saratoga

general Horatio Gates after the Battles of Saratoga. The Convention Army, as it became known, was marched from Saratoga to Kinderhook, NY and then east toward Boston and later to Pennsylvania.

At some point in that journey a British soldier named Richard Dickinson slipped away from the army. By 1783 he had married and had a child. They were living as tenants on Henry Beekman Livingston’s land. All seemed to be going well for Dickinson until he was in a tavern one night and a stranger bought him too many drinks. When Dickinson came out of his drunken stupor, he found himself enlisted in Captain Conner’s company of Marinus 
Willets Regiment of State Levies and on his way to the frontier.

            His family appealed to Henry Beekman Livingston to obtain his discharge. Livingston wrote to Willet and Governor George Clinton to no avail so he finally wrote to George Washington to see if he could obtain Dickinson’s release.[i]

Not that George Clinton

            In his response Washington informed Livingston that he believed the entire levy was to be 

Marinus Willet 

discharged soon. He also issued orders to Col. Willet to release Dickinson if he found that the recruiting officer had done anything shady in enlisting him. It is unclear when Dickinson was discharged.[ii]

            Frederick Augustus de Zeng was a Hessian cavalry officer who was born in Dresden in 1756. He joined the army of Hesse-Cassel in 1774. In 

1780 he was sent to America in one of the regiments rented to the British. When the war ended in 1783 de Zeng resigned his commission. He had fallen in love with Mary Lawrence of Queens.

            The pair were married and moved to Red Hook, NY probably because de Zeng felt comfortable in the large German community, the descendants of Palatine refugees, in the area. de Zeng was always on the

Frederick Augustus de Zeng

move though. Always looking for a way to gain wealth. He was naturalized in 1789 and by 1792 had moved to Ulster County to land that was owned by Chancellor Robert Livingston. In 1792 he was named major of the Ulster County militia.

            Again, de Zeng was always looking for a new deal. In 1796 he invested in a window making business in Albany. In 1798 during the Quasi -War with France he wrote to Alexander Hamilton to offer his services as a soldier to his “adopted country.” He listed his fifteen years of experience and offered to command or at least train mounted troops for America. He offered to do this without taking any payment, although being a gentleman he could do nothing less. It would be uncouth to ask for money.[iii]

            de Zeng continued to work his way west in the state. Along the way he and Mary had five children. de Zeng became very involved in the evolution of canals in New York including the Chemung Canal. He also owned a bridge over the Susquehanna River.

de Zeng lived until 1838 finally dying in the town of Clyde in Wayne County, New York near the Finger Lakes region, 4,021 miles from his birthplace.

Dickinson and de Zeng are only two examples of the hundreds of enemy combatants who stayed in America after the Revolutionary War. These two men made the best of the opportunity the new country gave them as did many of their peers.

[i] “To George Washington from Henry Beekman Livingston, 26 May 1783” Founders Online, National Archives

[ii] “From George Washington to Henry Beekman Livingston, 29 May 1783” Founders Online, National Archives

[iii] “To Alexander Hamilton from Frederick Augustus de Zeng, 28 July 1798” Founders Online, National Archives

Thursday, October 1, 2020

A History of Haunting: Ghost Stories Throughout History

    As the months turn colder and Halloween approaches, we stay inside more often and look for anything that might give us a little fright. So, ghost stories seem like a perfect fit. But before you curl up to read The Shining for the 100th time, let’s take a look at the history of the ghost story.

    The genre of the “ghost story” may be relatively recent (coming into vogue in the Victorian Era), but the notion of a tale involving ghosts goes back to ancient times. In an article for St. John’s University, Paul Patterson, P.H.D. is quoted as saying “We see a lot of these [ghost] stories start to emerge in ancient Roman writings. The ghosts are never really harming anyone, but they’re always showing up. A lot of the time, the hauntings are because the person was never properly buried. It’s tied to respecting the dead.” So, we have this idea of spirits remaining on the mortal plane due to circumstances surrounding their burial.

    As we take a giant leap forward into the mid-16th Century, we see the recently deceased sticking around due to events leading to their deaths. Hamlet’s father appears to his son in order to inform him of his murder at the hands of Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In his Macbeth, the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth himself to remind him of his own murderous deeds. Both ghosts seek vengeance on their murderers. Hamlet’s father puts to the titular Dane the task of avenging his death. In haunting

Macbeth, Banquo drives the titular Thane to the brink of madness with guilt over his crimes. While neither of these spirits are physically able to exact revenge, their presence as specters allows them to influence the minds and deeds of the living. A fun fact is that, despite Hamlet featuring a ghost, just like Macbeth it’s only bad luck to say the name of the latter in a theater. That’s (at least partially) because audiences weren’t nearly as concerned about invoking the wrath of ghosts as they were of witches.

    We now take another jump forward in time to 1764 when Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto. Believed to be the first example of a gothic novel, this book created precedent for many of the traits we associate with ghost stories. There’s a castle (obviously), full of secret passages. Doors fly open with no reason. A giant helmet is dropped on a young prince by an unseen force. While the gothic novel and the ghost story are different – the former doesn’t always include the presence of the supernatural – the genre paved the way for the haunted houses frequently seen in ghost stories.

    One thing we see a lot of in ghost stories/gothic literature is a female character seeing visions and being put in her bed to rest and get better. This is something that would happen in the real world as well. And, more often than not, the visions would only increase with bedrest. That’s because a lot of the time these visions were caused by hazardous materials within the home – lead paint, asbestos, mold. Keeping a woman in her room would only make things worse. Strangely enough, in both stories and reality, she would often show a marked improvement if taken away from the house and brought to, say, the seaside. Go figure.

And now we enter what is known as the “Golden Age of the Ghost Story” – the mid-19th Century until the start of WWI. In 1843, Charles Dickens combines the supernatural with the festive spirit of giving and good will towards men, creating A Christmas Carol – possibly the most confusingly themed ghost story of all time.

    During this time, the ghost story was also finding its foothold in America. Of course, we have Edgar Allan Poe telling his tales of the macabre and uncanny. And Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has long been regarded as one of the most classic ghost stories. In fact, it’s been modernized or adapted at least three times in the last couple of years (the film The Turning, Ruth Ware’s novel The Turn of the Key¸ and Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor).


 But one of the most iconic examples of an American ghost story is from right in our backyard: Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It tells the story of young schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, who arrives in a small town in New York. The town is rumored to be haunted by the Headless Horseman, the spirit of a Hessian soldier from the Revolutionary War. But is the Horseman real or a ploy to scare Crane away from the town and his pursuit of the beautiful Katrina van Tassel? This question has been posed since Irving wrote the story in 1820. Irving’s tale holds special sway in the Hudson Valley because of its extremely local nature. We can visit the sites mentioned and hunt for the Horseman ourselves. The story also has a connection to Clermont because the aforementioned Katrina van Tassel is rumored to be based on Serena Livingston, niece to Chancellor Robert Livingston and object of Irving’s affection.

    Obviously ghost stories continue beyond their Golden Age. Stephen King has been writing tales (so many tales) of hauntings since the ‘70s. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) saw a resurgence of popularity due to its being adapted by Netflix in 2018.  And kids still tell stories of ghosts to scare their friends in the woods.

    But why do we tell these stories? Why did the ancient Romans write of such encounters and why do we continue the tradition? There’s a couple of possible answers for that.

1)         1. Mankind has ALWAYS tried to reckon with the concept of mortality. Telling ghost stories is a way of reassuring yourself and others that there exists something after death. Those who have passed can provide us with guidance or let us know if they need something.

2)          2.The reason we most likely see an uptick in the creation and popularity of ghost stories in the Victorian Era is because that is a time defined by change. With new inventions and scientific discoveries, more and more was being explained about our world. And the possibility that there were some things left unexplained was appealing to our sense of both spiritual need and magical wonder.    

    By that logic, ghost stories will continue to be with us as long as there are humans in doubt of what lies beyond. Now go grab those spooky books, some cocoa, and enjoy the Halloween season!