Ghost tour debate; spirit photography; photos of the dead; headless corpses; the Fox Sisters; grave robbing at Harvard; Civil War cemeteries may be contaminating water


Today is my last day of posting Halloween fun, but before I begin, here is perhaps the most disturbing (although not at all surprising) news of the day: Mississippi’s governor has called for a referendum on the state’s Confederate symbol bearing flag, but a new poll shows that most of the state’s residence support leaving their flag alone.

So what do you think about “ghost tours” at historic sites? A new book just out by University of Michigan Professor Tiya Miles (that I just started reading, and so far love) makes a compelling case that while it is positive that they often draw our attention to disturbing elements of our history (the book focuses mostly on slavery), it does so in a way that distorts that history and facilitates our placing of the sin of slavery into the same category in our minds as other folklorish tales. Ultimately making slavery seem as “unreal” as a ghost story. It is an interesting argument, and a timely one considering the rise in popularity of these ghost tours at historical sites.

And while we are on ghost tours: anyone that has ever visited Gettysburg knows that the town has a cottage industry devoted to the paranormal. Many businesses sponsor nightly ghost tours, and even sell “ghost detectors.” (If you go near the battlefield at night you will see people all over the place, especially in the Triangular Field and the Devil’s Den, carrying these little lighted up gadgets trying to find a ghost. It is really rather ridiculous). I’ve taken one before (and in other places) myself and consider them mostly harmless and goofy fun. Last year, however, the Civil War Institute’s Kevin Lavery passionately roasted the tours and called for “common sense and common decency” to end them. His post has generated a couple of responses. This one by Jules Sippel, a former employee of one of the tour companies and currently a fellow of the Civil War Institute, and this one by Jen Simone, also a fellow there who took time to interview some of the tour participants to draw some conclusions about why they take the tours. These are all fairly good (though sometimes flawed) arguments. What do you think?

But enough about ghost tours, let’s get into some real history:

One of the creepier things to come from the 19th century spiritualism movement was “spirit photography.” Here’s a short piece on the dude that started the fad, and a small collection of some of his work. Yes, it is all a fraud, but the pictures will still give you the creeps.

No Victorian pictures are more creepy than those that people took of (and often with) dead bodies. It was definitely a weird fad, and I dare you to look at some of these pics without getting freaked out. Here’s a good collection. 

Oh, and then there was the Victorian fad of manipulating pictures by creating images of headless corpses. Don’t worry, in this case the photographer’s subjects aren’t really dead. They were just having some photoshop-like fun.

For me, the most interesting story from the 19th century spiritualist movement is that of the Fox Sisters. I have used them for years to intrigue and fascinate students in my classes when discussing 19th century cultural history, and their story would make such a great movie. Why has no one done this yet? Here from the Smithsonian is a good article that scratches the surface of the Fox Sisters’ spooky narrative of spiritualism and fraud.

In the 1700’s, Harvard had a secret club that robbed graves in order to use the bodies for scientific experiments. Check out the clandestine and macabre history of the “Spunker Club.”

Of course, Americans are not the only ones that have some spooky traditions. From Mexico’s “Dia de los Muertos,” to Asia’s “Hungry Ghost Festival,” check out the history of some spooky traditions from around the world.

And perhaps we can add this one to the list: was Stonehenge used by ancient pilgrims to honor their dead and then to have a massive outdoor barbecue? Some new evidence suggests that might be the case.

Yikes! This is probably the scariest thing I have posted. Are Civil War-era cemeteries leaking toxins once used in embalming fluids that are now contaminating drinking water as the corpses rot?

And with that one, I bid you a Happy Halloween!!


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