Civil War, Creepy history, Ghosts, Irvington Ghost Tours, Travel

Haunted Antique Mall.

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Original publish date:  October 5, 2010              Reissue / Updated: August 6, 2020

Here’s a one tank trip that might just help make your autumn season a little bit better. It combines many things that I like and perhaps a couple of things you might fancy as well; History, Antiques and ghosts! Recently my wife Rhonda and I took a trip down to New Albany, Indiana (just a stones throw from Louisville) to visit a place I’d long heard about but had yet to visit, Aunt Arties Antique Mall at 128 W. Main Street in New Albany.
Judy Gwinn is the owner of the old Ohio River Opera House and has turned the stately old building into one of the nicest antique malls in Southern Indiana. For antiquers, it is like stepping a decade back in time to a multi-dealer co-op with 3 floors of collectibles that would please most any collector. In short, it’s a mall full of quality merchandise the likes of which we all used to find in the days before Ebay.
“There are a lot of strange things that go on in this old building,” Judy says, “It has a vibe all its own.” Gwinn has operated the antique mall for nearly 10 years now and has witnessed many unexplained occurrences over the past decade. Lucky for Judy and her dealers, the ghosts of Aunt Arties aren’t poltergeists so breakage has not been a problem, “Although they sometimes move things around the building.”

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Woodward Hall New Albany, Indiana

The building, originally known as Woodward Hall, was built in 1853 and purposely situated a block from the river on the corner of State and Main, “J.K. Woodward built it so that his wife and kids did not have to deal with the drunks and neer-do-wells that often prowled the docks down by the river in the years before the Civil War. He wanted a safe place for his family to enjoy themselves.” said Judy. In its lifetime just about every famous person who passed through New Albany appeared on the 3rd floor Opera House including the famed Siamese twins Eng and Chang, P.T.Barnum’s diminutive protege Tom Thumb and his friend, Commodore Foote, Opera star Adelina Patti, Philosopher/Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and self taught former slave turned master musician Blind Tom who was billed as the “Negro piano prodigy.” Not every performer to grace the stage of old Woodward Hall was famous though. The venue attracted countless numbers of minstrel shows, political debates, religious revivals, social lectures and dramatic productions.
The lower 2 levels housed a dry goods / department store well into the 20th century in what was once the largest city in the state before the Civil War. Although Judy is responsible for its current look, it has been used as an antique store since the late 1980s. Along with the city’s reputation as a river community, New Albany also has a rich history as a factory town and will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2013.
z utc posterThe Opera House hosted the first performance of the inflammatory anti-slavery play “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and its location straddling the North-South boundary caused quite a stir in the days leading up to the Civil War. During the “War of the Rebellion”, the building was used as “Hospital No. 9” and soldiers from both sides of the conflict could often be found lying side-by-side within its walls. In April of 1862, the steamer “H.J. Adams” delivered 200 wounded soldiers to the converted Opera House fresh from the killing fields of Shiloh. In these years before sterilization set the standard of hospital care, a wounded soldier sent to Hospital No. 9, as with any hospital North or South of the Mason-Dixon line, might as well have been handed a death sentence. Many a soldier in Hospital No. 9 would write letters telling friends and family that he was on the mend from a minor battle wound one day, only to die unexpectedly the next day from disease.
Judy and the girls that work in the mall feel that some of these performers and soldiers have never left the building. “I never believed in ghosts until I bought this building. Neither did my husband, but after all of the strange things we’ve experienced in this building, We have changed my minds,” Judy Gwinn said. However, she is no longer afraid of being thought of as a crackpot because she is not the only person to witness these unexplained happenings.
z 5c05d88edef32.imageJudy recalls how in 2001, her youngest son David was down in the building’s cellar “fishing” for old bottles in a cistern that he had removed the concrete covering from. “He was laying on his stomach down there alone when he suddenly felt someone tap him on the shoulder” she says, “he looked around expecting to see the source of the poking, but saw that he was still down there alone. Since that time, David does not like to be in the basement by himself.”
Judy recalls one time when she and her sister were walking down the stairway from the second to the first floor when she suddenly lost her balance and began to fall. “Something pulled me back and saved me from falling and serious injury. I shook for several minutes after that one.” says Judy.
img485Spirits of a Civil War soldier and a woman in an old fashioned Antebellum Era dress have been seen lounging around the cafe area by a few folks. “Every once in awhile, we’ll get a psychic coming through here telling us that they see the spirits of several Civil War soldiers around the entire building and sense sadness in the basement area.” says Gwinn.
On one occasion, Judy was down in the cellar with a group of 4 people when the youngest person down there, an 11-year-old girl wandered a few feet away from the group. “We all watched as a bright white orb of light appeared and went right through that little girl.” she says, “I have seen shadows go through walls and felt the tapping on my own shoulder. Whatever it is, I’m not scared of it anymore.”
Judy Gwinn might not be afraid of the ghosts that linger within the walls of Aunt Arties Antique Mall, but others might have a different opinion. Judy confesses that some people have walked in the doors and turned around and walked right back out. She’s seen more than a few people start walking up the stairs only to suddenly stop and walk carefully back down the stairway. When asked about the basement, Judy says, “Oh my, I don’t think we could ever use this area for anything more than storage. Its just too creepy and I’m not even sure that the employees want to come down here.”

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Tim Poynter delivering a presentation at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis.

Update: This article originally ran 10 years ago. Aunt Arties closed its doors on New Years Eve of 2014 and the remaining contents were auctioned off in February of 2015. After Rhonda and I visited the store in the Fall of 2010, we took another trip down with several intuitives, including Tim Poynter and Jill Werner. My decision to rerun this story came after the following facebook post from Tim: “Aunt Arties was once a stop on the underground railroad with a reputation of being haunted by a Lady in blue/gray. When we arrived the spirit of a young soldier started following one of the group around. He was very smitten with Jill and had big puppy dog eyes. I noticed the lady spirit on the stairway overseeing our groups investigation. We spent some time on each floor looking for spirits. Near the end of our visit I noticed several spirits of slaves that had been buried on the property still residing in the basement even after all those years. They has perished from injuries received from their perilous journey to freedom. They were still very afraid of our attention to their being there. I remember being overwhelmed with their fear and mistrust. The connection with spirit often comes with much more than we expect. After understanding that we were not a threat they became more forth-giving of their trip to freedom. Even though they had died, they died as free men. I helped them understand that the only thing holding them there was their own energy and off they went. We that were born to freedom seldom understand it’s true value. Those that restrict the freedom of others don’t understand the mark they leave on their own soul.” Well said, Tim, well said.

Ghosts, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Pop Culture

Little Orphant Annie.

 

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 Original publish date:  January 25, 2011           Reissue date: June 25, 2020

To most Hoosiers, nay Americans, the name Little Orphan Annie conjures up images of Sunday morning comic strips, ghost story telling nannies or a tiny prepubescent red headed girl singing “The sun will come out tomorrow” in a voice that could shatter glass. But to me, when I hear the name Little Orphan Annie I think of a lonely little graveyard a few miles from Indianapolis’ eastside between Cumberland and Greenfield on the Historic National Road.
Its in this forgotten little graveyard, known locally as Spring Lake cemetery, that you will find the mortal remains of an Indiana legend. On the west edge of the small signless boneyard, rests the gravestone of Mary Alice Gray with a plaque behind it identifying her as the inspiration for the 1885 poem, “Little Orphant Annie” by Poet James Whitcomb Riley. It is likely that you’ve driven past this innocuous little burial ground many times never caring it was there, much less aware of the story of its most celebrated internee.
Mary Alice “Allie” Smith was born the youngest of 10 children near Liberty Indiana on the 25th day of September in 1850. By all accounts, she lived happily on her small family farm until both of her parents died by the time Allie was about nine years old. What we know is that during the American Civil War in the winter of 1862, Mary Alice came to live with the Riley family in Greenfield. Allie was an orphan and the Rileys took her in to help with some of the work.
z Mary-Alice-Gray-tombstoneWhat we don’t know is how Allie came to the Riley home. Depending on who you talk to, Allie was; a friend of the family, a castoff of the Orphan Train movement (1854-1929), or she was brought to the home by her uncle, John Rittenhouse, who brought the young girl to Greenfield where he “dressed her in black” and “bound her out to earn her board and keep”. Ultimately, Mary Alice was taken in by Captain Reuben Riley as a servant to help his wife Elizabeth with the housework and her four children; John, James, Elva May and Alex.
At first, the Riley family referred to Mary as a “guest”, but soon she was as loved as any other member of the family. The good-natured Ms. Riley taught her young charge how to do housework so that she would have a trade to sustain her. Mary quickly developed a strong bond with young James Whitcomb Riley or “Bud” as the family called him. Mary became like an older sister and soon her tales of “fairies, wunks, dwarfs, goblins and other scary beings” became part of the budding poet’s life.
On her first night in the Riley home, Allie refused to go to sleep and kept returning to the front hall to walk up and down the curved, handmade staircase, talking to herself all the while. One of her duties was to polish these stairs and as she did, she would kneel down and place her face close to each step as she gently rubbed it and called it by name. She was so fascinated with the steps, she told the children that fairies lived under each tread and she made up names for each of the fairies.”This one’s Clarabelle, and this one’s Annabelle, and here is Florabell.”
Although the names of the steps have been lost to history, tour guides at the Riley home believe some of them may have been Biblical names because Allie’s mother so often read the Bible to her daughter. By all accounts, Allie was a bright, creative youngster who kept herself entertained during the drudgery of everyday common household chores by making her work fun. Allie was an ideal babysitter who made up wild tales about the world around her and shared them with the Riley children, who were both thrilled and horrified by her stories. Her tales had a huge impact on young James and the imaginative verses changed the way he looked at the world forever.
z bb6e86a01fddf9216a11d5ba05509d35When James was eleven, he asked Allie what he would be when he grew up. “Perhaps you’ll be a lawyer, like your father,” she suggested. “Or maybe someday, you’ll be a great poet.” Allie may have been the first to put this idea in James’ mind, but it is known that his mother and father were both gifted storytellers. Riley often shared his vivid childhood recollection of Allie climbing the stairs every night to her lonesome “rafter room” in the attic. And with every careful step leaning down and patting each stair affectionately as she called them by name.
Young Allie used her storytelling gift to entertain the Riley children as they sat around the fireplace at night “listening to witch tales.” She used her fertile imagination to invent characters for use in her whimsical stories that resonated with the Riley children for the rest of their lives . She left the Riley home after only a year and never saw James again. On October 2, 1868, when she was 18, Allie married a local farmer named John Wesley Gray and lived on his farm not far south of Philadelphia until her husband’s death.
Although gone from Riley’s life at a young age, Allie’s impression on the poet was undeniable and years later he wrote a rhyme to honor his former friend, which he titled “Little Orphant Allie.” Published November 15, 1885 in the Indianapolis Journal and first titled “The Elf Child”, Riley changed the name to “Little Orphant Allie” at its third printing. Ironically, the publisher (Indianapolis Bobbs-Merrill) made an error and the poem was released with a typo and “Allie” became “Annie.” But for that typographical error she would have been known throughout the world as “Little Orphant Allie.” But when James Whitcomb Riley’s famous poem about the little homeless girl who “washed the cups and saucers up” was published and Riley found out how well it was selling, he decided not to tamper with revisions and Little Orphant Allie became Little Orphant Annie forever.

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James Whitcomb Riley by T.C. Steele 1891

The “Hoosier poet” wrote his poems in nineteenth century Hoosier dialect, the language he’d heard growing up in the wild frontier of Greenfield. “Little Orphant Annie” contains four stanzas of twelve lines each; the first introduces Annie and the following three are stories she is telling to young children. The stories each tell of a bad child who is snatched away by goblins as a result of their misbehavior. The underlying moral and warning is announced in the final stanza, telling children that they should obey their parents and be kind to the unfortunate, lest they suffer the same fate. It remains one of Riley’s best loved poems among children in Indiana and is often associated with Halloween celebrations.
During the 1920s, the title became the inspiration for the names of the Sunday Funnies comic strip character Little Orphan Annie and the popular Raggedy Ann doll, created by fellow Indiana native and onetime Irvington resident Johnny Gruelle. And of course, in more modern times, it was made into a stage play and major motion picture called simply “Annie.”
z 011I, like many fellow Hoosiers, am drawn to this particular poem because it was written to be recited aloud and not necessarily to be read from a page. Written in nineteenth century Hoosier dialect, the words can be difficult to read in modern times. Riley dedicates his poem “to all the little ones,” which immediately gets the attention of his intended audience; children. The alliteration, phonetic intensifiers and onomatopoeia add sing-song effects to the rhymes that become clearer when read aloud. The exclamatory refrain ending each stanza is urgently spoken adding more emphasis as the poem goes on. It is written in first person which makes the poem much more personal. Simply stated, the poem is read exactly as young “Bud” Riley recalled Allie telling it to him when he was a wide-eyed little boy.
z imgRiley wrote another poem about her titled, “Where Is Mary Alice Smith?” In this poem he depicts the little orphan girl falling in love with a soldier boy who was killed during the war which caused her to die of grief. In truth, after leaving the Riley’s employ, Mary Alice went to work in a Tavern on the National Road in the town of Philadelphia where she met her husband John Gray and their marriage produced seven children.
Mary Alice Gray never realized that she was “Orphant Annie” until years after the poem was published. Riley tried in vain to locate her during his final years, going so far as to advertise widely in newspapers all over the Midwest. All the while never knowing that she was living just a few miles southwest of the old Riley homestead, leading the quiet life of a farmer’s wife. Riley was near death in Florida when Mrs. L.D. Marsh, Mary Alice’s daughter, saw one of the advertisements and contacted Riley to let him know the whereabouts of her mother. But by this time, the poet was too ill to make the trip to see her before his death.
Mary Alice Gray spoke of Riley frequently and delighted in telling about young “Bud’s” habit of writing verses and drawing pictures on the walls of the house, the porch, and the fence. Mary Alice passed away on Friday, March 7, 1924. Funeral services were held at 1 o’clock Sunday afternoon in Mrs. Marsh’s residence at 2225 Union Street and her burial was in Spring Lake Cemetery in Philadelphia. When she died, Ms. Gray’s obituary made the front page of The Indianapolis Star. Above her photo the headline read, “Little Orphant Annie Dies Suddenly.” On October 7, 1922, two years before her death and on what would have been Riley’s 73rd birthday, Ms. Gray took part in the ceremonial laying of the corner stone of the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Hospital for Children. The legacy of “Little Orphant Annie,” however, has outlived both the poet and his muse.
The old Riley homestead in Greenfield is open to the public. The historic home is filled with lovely black walnut harvested from trees on the original property. After all these years, the deep brown, curving staircase still glistens in the morning sun making it very easy to imagine Allie sweeping the dirt off the steps and speaking to each one as she ascends. If you pause at the bottom of the stairs, you can almost imagine you hear the fairy voices.
12-6-09-GFR2Jut remember, as you travel out to the old Riley home on U.S. Highway 40 (the old National Road) you’re bound to pass through the remains of a little pike town called Philadelphia. The road starts to rise just past the Philadelphia signpost and there on the right is a small cemetery. Stop your car and walk towards the oldest headstones under the tall trees in back of the old burial ground. It is there that you will find the final resting place of Mary Alice Smith Gray, Riley’s beloved “Little Orphant Annie.” Its best you go before twilight though because should you delay past nightfall, “the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!”

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Christmas, Ghosts

Washington Irving-Father Christmas?

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Original publish date:  December 19, 2010   

Reissue date: December 19, 2019

Last week I wrote of Irvington namesake Washington Irving’s connection to the author most associated with the Victorian Era, Charles Dickens. While nearly everyone is familiar with Dickens classic seasonal ghost story, “A Christmas Carol”, not many have experienced the magic of a Washington Irving Christmas tale. Although Irving lived a portion of his life as a European vagabond meticulously chronicling the customs, traditions and lore that was fast fading away from the centuries old landscape, he is best remembered today for his American folklore stories like Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane.
For decades, Irving’s description of traditional English Christmas celebrations that influenced nearly every author that came after him were thought to have been formulated and influenced by parties and gatherings he had personally attended. However, its closer to the truth to say that Irving’s Christmas stories were not solely based on any holiday celebration he had attended, but rather many were accounts intentionally created by the imagination of Irving himself. In other words, Washington Irving’s masterful prose influenced generations of experts and historians through the power of his superior skill of embellishment.
z $_57In 1808, Irving created an updated version of Old St. Nick that rode over the treetops in a horse-drawn wagon “dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites.” Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long-stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad-brimmed hat. Irving’s work also included the familiar phrase, “laying a finger beside his nose” some 14 years before a Troy, New York newspaper published the iconic children’s poem “Twas the night before Christmas,” which turned Santa’s wagon into a sleigh powered by reindeer.
Irving describes St. Nicholas’ holiday activities by saying, “At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.” These descriptions were first published as observances of New York’s old Dutch tradition. His “Old Christmas” tales, first published in 1820, are among the earliest popular accounts of 19th century English Christmas customs, many of which would soon be adopted in the United States and remain familiar to us today.
z CarteNoel_1906_3Irving’s stories are full of mistletoe and evergreen wreaths, Christmas candles and blazing Yule logs, singing and dancing, carolers at the door and the preacher at the church, wine and wassail, and, of course, the festive Christmas dinner. The description of Old Christmas as Irving experienced it in “Merrie Olde England,” helped to popularize these traditions in his native land.
The modern day reader might not realize it but Irving’s descriptions of his own Christmas vision were a subtle form of protest. In an era when our new nation was busy finding its own footing, barely two decades after the writing of the American Constitution, Irving’s first formations of the “New” Christmas were created in an attempt to pull the religious holiday away from the churches and government buildings and take it back where he felt it belonged, with the people. Irving describes it thusly, “Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly…the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the gossip knot huddled around the hearth, beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes and oft-told Christmas tales.” Irving, ever the bard, also wrote, “At Christmas be merry, and thankful withal. And feast thy poor neighbours, the great and the small.”
Irving’s work was our fledgling country’s first introduction to Christmas tradition and, although many of them survive to the present day, some have morphed into modern versions slightly different from those described by Washington Irving. The mistletoe is still hung in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.
z christmascardThe Yule-log is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house on Christmas eve, laid in the fireplace, and lighted with a piece of last year’s log. While it burned there was great drinking, singing, and telling of tales. The Yule-log was to burn all night; if it went out, it was considered bad luck. If a squinting person come to the house while it was burning, or a barefooted person, it was considered bad luck. A piece of the Yule-log was carefully put away to light the next year’s Christmas fire.
Washington Irving profoundly influenced the modern day American Christmas in two distinct ways. First, his reinvention of jolly St. Nick into a gift toting ambassador gave hope to every child across the land. Second, the timing of the Christmas holiday during an other wise bleak wintry season offered an emotional waymark to a cabin-fever populace, both young and old. Within a decade of the publication of Irving’s Christmas “Sketch Book,” Americans were greeting each other with “Merry Christmas” wishes, and stores on main streets across America extended their hours to accommodate holiday shoppers.
So remember, this Christmas weekend, as you gather together with friends, loved ones and family to celebrate holiday traditions, think of Washington Irving, America’s Father Christmas.z 2016_Fall_Irving Christmas_ cover tumblr_lwq13icXfI1qac76ro1_r1_1280

Christmas, Ghosts

Washington Irving’s A Christmas Carol?

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Original publish date:  December 12, 2010       

Reissue date: December 12, 2019

Perhaps no single Indianapolis community has a stronger connection to the Victorian Era than Irvington. The Victorian era is defined as the period of British Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 until her death in 1901. Irvington was founded in 1870 at the height of the Victorian Era. The man widely acknowledged as the most prolific chronicler of this Era is English novelist, Charles Dickens. It is Dickens whom we look to when we envision a Victorian Christmas and it is Dickens beloved story “A Christmas Carol” that most Irvingtonians think of at Christmas. After all, it just wouldn’t be Christmas in Irvington without the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, now would it?

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Washington Irving Statue-South Irving Circle-Irvington.

However, Irvington’s ties to a Dickensian Christmas are stronger than you might think. Charles Dickens drew upon many personal memories and influences while writing “A Christmas Carol”; grim memories of his father’s imprisonment for debt, his depressing year spent working in the cellar of a shoe factory as a 10-year-old, his outrage over the condition of the poor and uneducated (especially the children working in the mines and industry), and remarkably the influences he found in the works of his literary hero, famed American author and Irvington namesake Washington Irving.
z 51Yrte403LL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_Dickens’s memorable descriptions of Christmas scenes in “A Christmas Carol” owe a great deal to Irving. In February of 1842, while attending a New York dinner hosted by Irving, Dickens amusingly revealed his devotion to the great American author when he rose his glass in a toast and said, “I say, gentlemen, I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.”
Dickens drew upon Irving’s, “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon Gent”, to recreate the joyful warehouse party scenes that the ghost of Christmas past reveals to Ebenezer Scrooge at the start of Dickens classic novel. Irving’s “Sketchbook” featured a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s influence can be found elsewhere in the novel as Mr. Wardle tells the party that it is customary for party guests to play games or tell ghost stories until Midnight on Christmas Eve.
Irving traveled extensively throughout Europe recording his experiences in notebooks, and he was especially fond of England and its old world character. He spent a couple of years living in Birmingham, where he wrote “Bracebridge Hall” in 1822, a blend of fact and fiction centered on an old manor house, its residents and guests, and their elaborate parties and tales. It was here that Irving enjoyed and later chronicled the grand Christmas festivities and rituals that had largely faded from English history. Irving’s descriptions of the Bracebridge Hall Christmas celebrations, with their dancing, singing, games, tales, mistletoe and holly clearly helped to shape those seen in Dingley Dell, site of Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, and at the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Not coincidentally, these Irving inspired Dickensian images are now the visions we dream of when we conjure up a Victorian Christmas.
z old-christmas-1Irving’s descriptions of the short and cold winter days in his story “Old Christmas” make their way into the moral landscape lacking in Scrooge’s character in Dickens “A Christmas Carol”: “In the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other’s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence upon each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.”
Irving’s romantic memories of Christmas clash with his characteristic dark writing style prompting Dickens to offer his own vision, shaped by personal painful childhood memories from his past and his sympathy with the suffering of children brought on by the Industrial Revolution from his contemporary reality. Irving’s ancient Christmas rituals were set in an idyllic country mansion populated by stage coaches crowded with cheerful travelers over a broad, snow-covered landscape. Dickens places his Christmas tale squarely in the heart of London. Dickens setting is a claustrophobic fog choked, bone-chilling city seemingly caught in the grip of a final ice age: “the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in the brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.”
z s-l500Dickens Washington Irving inspired story popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas” and introduced the name ‘Scrooge’ and exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ to the English language. However the book’s legacy is the powerful influence it has exerted upon its readers. A Christmas Carol” is widely credited with the “Spirit” of charitable giving associated so closely with the holiday today. Victorian Era examples can be found many places; in 1874, “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson vowed to give generously after reading Dickens’s Christmas book, a Boston, Massachusetts merchant, expressed his generous hospitality by hosting two Christmas dinners after attending a reading of the book on Christmas Eve in 1867, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey and in 1901, the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love.”
Historians claim that our modern day Christmas celebrations are largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by “A Christmas Carol”. Charles Dickens restructured Christmas as a family-based festival of generosity in place of the community-based and church-centered observations most prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries. Dickens Washington Irving inspired story influenced many aspects of current Christmas traditions found in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
Despite Dickens description, the cold London streets do not preclude the warmth of Christmas. Christmas, Dickens seems to be saying, can now be celebrated by anyone, that its rituals and joys are no longer the exclusive province of the upper classes in their country estates, but can be found in a London warehouse or in a simple London home, such as that of the Cratchit family. Because the population of London was growing exponentially its inhabitants could look to A Christmas Carol for much needed inspiration during a period of great economic and social stress.
z 4Speaking solely for myself, I often find myself drawing upon Dickens description of Old Fezziwig when I think of how others may observe me. In the novel, the Ghost of Christmas Past conjures up the memory of Scrooge’s old employer, Mr. Fezziwig, who converts his warehouse into a festive hall in which to celebrate Christmas: “Clear away. There is nothing they [Fezziwig’s employees] wouldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.” Thus the ledger books, the daily grind, and the cold give way to music, dance, games, food, and fellowship.
As the ghost observes Scrooge wistfully watching the spirit riddled vision from his past he remarks, “A small matter,” mocks the Ghost of Christmas Past, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” To which Scrooge replies, “Fezziwig had the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lay in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gave was quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” I’ve often thought of this passage when I lament the high cost of Christmas and marvel at the eloquence of Dickens prose. I’m even prouder to learn that Washington Irving’s talent for the turn of a phrase contributed to that eloquence.

Abe Lincoln, Ghosts, Politics, Presidents

Jeremiah Smith and Abraham Lincoln’s ghost

Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith

Original publish date: November 28, 2019

As Thanksgiving approaches, I must admit, I’m still stuck in Halloween mode. After all, despite the recent measurable snowfall, autumn is still in session and my thoughts always wander towards ghost stories at Christmas (remember friends, Scrooge is a ghost story). In a couple weeks, families will gather together to give thanks for all of the blessings bestowed upon them during the past year. While images of Pilgrims in high hats, square-toed shoes and plain brown clothing dance through our heads, it should be remembered that it was Abraham Lincoln who gave us the modern version of Thanksgiving. On October 3, 1863, three months to the day after the pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg, a grateful President Abraham Lincoln announced that the nation will celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday that November 26. Well, the nation north of the Mason-Dixon line anyway.
z 130043scr_06051f04c8db3d0Although Lincoln was the first to officially recognize the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, Halloween was just beginning to take root during the Civil War. Some historians credit the Irish for “inventing” Halloween in the United States. Or more specifically, the Irish “little people” with a tendency toward vandalism, and their tradition of “Mischief Night” that spread quickly through rural areas. According to American Heritage magazine (October 2001 / Vol. 52, Issue 7), “On October 31, young men roamed the countryside looking for fun, and on November 1, farmers would arise to find wagons on barn roofs, front gates hanging from trees, and cows in neighbors’ pastures. Any prank having to do with an outhouse was especially hilarious, and some students of Halloween maintain that the spirit went out of the holiday when plumbing moved indoors.”
z VintageHalloween_artSo it is that the origins of our two most celebrated autumnal holidays trace their American roots directly to our sixteenth President. And no President in American history is more closely associated with ghosts than Abraham Lincoln. However, where did all of these Lincoln ghost stories originate? After all, they had to start somewhere because one thing is for certain, they didn’t come from Abraham Lincoln. Many historians believe that most of those stories (at least the Lincoln ghost stories in the White House) came from a middle-aged freedman born in Anne Arundel County Maryland who worked as a White House “footman” serving nine Presidents from U.S. Grant to Teddy Roosevelt. His duties as footman included service as butler, cook, doorman, light cleaning and maintenance.

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Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith was a free born African American man born below the Mason-Dixon line in 1835. No small feat when you consider that, in 1850, 71 percent of Maryland’s black population was enslaved. Smith was an imposing figure, standing over 6 feet tall in an age when the average man stood 5 foot 8 inches in height. Although little is known about Smith’s personal history, by all accounts, Jerry had the manners of a country gentleman. During the Civil War, he served as a teamster for the Union Army, guiding vital supply trains made up of wagons, horses, and mules. It is believed that somewhere during the conflict, he made the acquaintance of General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, perhaps our greatest presidential horseman, no doubt appreciated Smith’s equine expertise.
At war’s end, Smith was working as a waiter in a Baltimore restaurant when his old acquaintance U.S. Grant came calling. After Grant was elected President, Smith went to work in the Grant White House and would serve from the age of Reconstruction through the Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era.
One of the few detailed descriptions of Smith comes from Col. William H. Crook, a White House Secret Service agent and onetime personal bodyguard of Abraham Lincoln. Crook, in a book detailing his nearly 50 years of service in the White House, said that Smith was “one of the best known employees in the WH, who began his career as Grant’s footman, and remained in the WH ever since, and still was one of the most magnificent specimens of manhood the colored race has produced. In addition to his splendid appearance, he had the manner of a courtier, and a strong personality that could not be overlooked by anyone, high or low.”

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Col. William H. Crook

Crook claimed that Smith was “incredibly superstitious and believed in ghosts the same way a five-year-old believes in Santa Claus – and no one could tell him any different. Since the WH has always been home to benevolent ghosts, Jerry Smith had a varied assortment of stories about the origin of the creaks and groans he heard, and happy to share them with all who would listen…he was always seeing or hearing the ghosts of former deceased Presidents hovering around in out-of-the-way corners, especially in deep shadows at sundown, or later.” Smith believed these ghosts had every right to haunt their former home and never questioned that right, “being perfectly willing to let them do whatever they wished so long as they let him alone.”
gettyimages-468377946Jeremiah would often spin yarns for visiting reporters. Most of these tall tales were pure Americana always designed to bolster the reputation of his employer and their families, but some of Jerry’s best remembered tales were spooky ghost stories. Smith claimed that he saw the ghosts of Presidents Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley, and that they tried to speak to him but only produced a buzzing sound.
However, when it came to White House spirits, Abraham Lincoln’s ghost grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines. Smith most often held court at the North Entrance (where the press corps came and went) with his signature feather duster in his hand and a fantastical story at the ready (if needed). Soon, newspapermen began calling him the “Knight of the Feather Duster” and routinely consulted Smith for comment on days when Presidential news was thin.

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The White House attic.

z attic 2One Chicago reporter said this about Smith: “He is a firm believer in ghosts and their appurtenances, and he has a fund of stories about these uncanny things that afford immense entertainment for those around him. But there is one idea that has grown into Jerry’s brain and is now part of it, resisting the effects or ridicule, laughter, argument, or explanation. He firmly believes that the White House is haunted by the spirits of all the departed Presidents, and, furthermore, that his Satanic majesty, the devil, has his abode in the attic. He cannot be persuaded out of the notion, and at intervals he strengthens his position by telling about some new strange noise he has heard or some additional evidence he has secured.”
Turns out that the noises in the attic were made by rats and the story of the devil was a ruse devised to keep young Nellie Grant and her girlfriends from playing up there. When McKinley was mortally wounded while standing in a receiving line at an exposition in Buffalo, it was Smith who first announced it in the White House by shouting the news down a White House stairwell, “The President is shot!”
Sadly, Smith was saddled with the social mores and ignorance of his era. Some members of the press derisively called Smith, a Civil War veteran with an inside track to his country’s chief executive, “Possum Jerry” and “Uncle Jerry” or caricaturized him as a “faithful old servant” and “Uncle Tom.” What was never in dispute was Smith’s grace, manners and deferential self-deprecating sense of service. Although highly intelligent, when quoted in newspapers, Smith always spoke with an overly exaggerated dialect. In one example found in a D.C. newspaper story about White House ghosts, Smith describes his communications with the deceased benefactor, President U.S. Grant as: “I done shore ’nuff hear de gin-al’s voice. I done shore ’nuff hear it jes de same as ef it was in dis room, so strong an’ powerful.””

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Ulysses S. Grant & Julia Grant

Along the way, Smith’s close relationships with some of the Presidential Families added to his legend. For U.S. Grant’s wife Julia, Smith accompanied the First Lady on her rounds of daily “calls,” a popular tradition in Washington for several decades. Dressed in his finest navy blue uniform with silver trim, it was his responsibility to help the First Lady from the carriage and escort her to the door of whichever home she was visiting. If the lady was “at home,” he would stand by until Mrs. Grant was ready to leave and then escort her back to the carriage. If the lady was not “at home,” Jerry would take Mrs. G’s calling card from a silver case, and leave it with whoever answered the door.
Kind-hearted Julia Grant took a maternal interest in all the White House servants, paying special attention to Jeremiah. During the Grant’s eight years in the White House (1869-1877), real estate prices in the District were low, and affordable housing was available for the poor and minority citizens of Washington. Julia strongly advocated to her servants that they purchase houses as an investment for their golden years. At first, Smith resisted Mrs. Grant’s urging, and she is said to have scolded him, adding that if he did not make arrangements to purchase a house immediately, she would buy one for him, and garnish his monthly wages to pay for it. The result? Jerry bought a house.

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First Lady Frances Cleveland.

There is a well-known story about Smith and First Lady Frances Cleveland, about to depart the White House following Grover Cleveland’s first term loss to Hoosier Benjamin Harrison. On March 4, 1889, as Mrs. Cleveland departed her White House home, she told the doorman to “be sure to keep everything just the same for us when we come back.” When Smith asked the First lady when she would be back, she replied “four years from today.” Sure enough, Grover Cleveland defeated “Lil Ben” Harrison in a rematch and she returned to the White House on March 4, 1893. By then, Smith was such a fixture at the Executive Mansion that several members of President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet attended the celebration of his 25th (Silver) wedding anniversary at his home in 1895. On the couple’s special day, Jerry completed his doorman duties as usual, including lowering the flag, and quietly disappeared for a small celebration only to be surprised by the White House delegation arriving to celebrate with the couple.
According to Crook, “And to that home, that evening, wended a procession of dignitaries such as never before had graced its precincts. Everyone who came to the White House during Jerry’s service there of nearly a quarter of a century, knew the old man, and thoroughly liked him. So great was the general regard, that not merely clerks and assistant secretaries went to his silver wedding, but one carriage after another drove up to his door, containing Cabinet Officers and members of the Diplomatic Corps, sending in to him and his wife some personal gift appropriate to the occasion.” A pile of silver dollars were left on his table as tribute. Jerry was the envy of all his neighbors.
During the McKinley administration, Jerry Smith’s title was the “Official Duster” at the White House because it was less physically demanding and stressful. He retired due to infirmity in 1904 during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Months later, shortly before Jerry’s death by throat cancer, TR visited the beloved “duster” at his home and sat with him for a while. It was same little house that Julia Grant had insisted that he purchase all those years before.

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Teddy Roosevelt

When Smith passed away at age 69 in 1904, his Washington, D.C. obituary called him “the best gentility that democracy has produced.” A Los Angeles Times obituary noted, “He was not favored by position, for he was the dustman and the charman; but his dignity and his courtesy made him the most conspicuous and the most liked servant in the place. . . . He was not born to live a life of obscurity, for with dust broom he was as dignified in his bearing as a king on his throne. . . . For more than a quarter century he held his place, and the White House was more changed by his disappearance than by the architects who remodeled it.”
Luckily one photo survives picturing Jerry in his prime. Taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1889, Jerry is posed wearing a full-length white apron, white jacket, plaid necktie, and dark skull cap. Smith stands on the North Portico of the White House smiling sweetly for the camera, the thumb of his left hand tucked inside the apron, his right hand holds his ever-present feather duster at a jaunty 45-degree angle. Although perhaps viewed at the time as the perfect illustration of domestic servitude at the highest level, Jerry Smith’s self-confidence, dignity, and authority dominate the pose. So, whatever one thinks about the ghosts of the White House (Abraham Lincoln in particular), Smith was certainly a memorable character at the White House. And one helluva storyteller.