Another Ghost Story That Didn’t Make the Book

I came across a few letters in the Duke Parapsychology Lab archives about a haunting in Virginia at a place called the Oakland Farm School. The letters were dated 1964 and they written to Gaither Pratt (a scientists at the lab) from Margaret Shepherd, who had founded the school on her family’s farm.

I looked into the story a little and for various reasons decided not to include it. The Parapsychology Lab didn’t investigate the case and although Gaither Pratt did later, when he was at the University of Virginia, he didn’t seem to think it was a strong case.

It’s not that Gaither doubted any of the accounts of what had happened there, but there was little he could do after the fact. He visited the farm once with parapsychologist Bill Roll, who was looking into the disturbances on behalf of the Psychical Research Foundation.  Bill Roll had British psychic Douglas Johnson with him. Among other things, Johnson said he could hear a woman sobbing, and when he looked out a window he said he saw men going below ground, where there used to be an icehouse they later learned, and when the men came back up they were carrying a coffin.  Johnson also kept getting the name Lily, which was the name of the grandmother who had given the Shepherds the farm.  From Gaither’s point of view there was no way of knowing if Johnson had gotten his information from the dead or the minds of the living via ESP.

There’s a small write-up of the haunting in a book Gaither wrote with Naomi Hintze called The Psychic Realm.  In many ways it sounds like a classic haunting: the distant sounds of music and a party were heard on several occasions (The Shining!) and foot steps, often heard walking down empty hallways and up to doors in the middle of night. In Unbelievable, I talk about how the lab discovered that ghosts, (or whatever is responsible for the phenomena) are seen more than heard, and this seems to be true here, although a few times when there was no one there to have made them foot prints were found in traces of pollen or plaster dust.

What stood out for me was Margaret Shepherd’s description of a photograph of a dead child that she found hanging on a wall when she was visiting the farm for the first time, after her husband’s grandmother had given it to them as a wedding present.  It was in a room on the first floor that had the “seldom-used look of an old-fashioned parlor.”

“Over the mantel, black braided hair made a frame around the picture of a dead child, a little girl about six or seven. The young face with its closed eyes was lovely.  The dark hair was long and flowing, as if it had been carefully brushed.”

“Someone told me that the child had died of diphtheria in this house.  I knew that in those days it was not unusual for families to have made photographs of children in death, since often they had no other likenesses of them.  That picture fascinated me.  How much they must have loved her!  I had a strong sense of identity with that little girl.  For a long time afterward I dreamed of her.”

I would have been the same.  And had I decided to fully research this story I would have begun with that photograph.  Where was it now?  Who was that little girl exactly?  Ha. Okay, now I want to research this story!

Although Gaither was not keen about the case, he did say that he felt ghosts were more common than we ordinarily suppose.  “As a scientist, I want to know, if it is possible to find out, what it all means.  What is the reality back of these experiences and of the thousands of others of a similar kind?”

He says that he shares Dr. Eisenbud’s opinion, which was quoted at the beginning of the piece.

“I am inclined to believe that they [ghosts] occur more frequently than is generally allowed, and are simply kept in the family closet, which, in our culture, is by all odds the safest place for aberrant creatures of this sort.”

The picture above is not the photograph Margaret described.  It’s from Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America, a book of photographs from Dr Stanley B. Burns, who has been collecting these kinds of photographs for years. The second photograph is of Margaret Shepherd and I got it from the website for Oakland School, which is still in operation today.

My Favorite Ghost Story That Didn’t Make the Book

On June 26, 1957, The New York Times ran a piece by Meyer Berger about a haunted house in the West Village called:  Ghostly Coincidences Puzzle Bohemian Couple in 125-Year-Old House in Greenwich Village.

Briefly:  Harvey Slatin bought the red brick house and was in the process of converting it from a rooming house into a single family home.  The Slatins and the constructions workers sometimes heard what sounded like a woman on the stairs.  At first they just figured they had an intruder, and they’d wait to hear the sounds and then run upstairs.  But no one was ever there.  Their carpenter wrote it off to the odd sounds you hear in old homes.

Slatin wasn’t particularly unnerved either, and instead tried to study the phenomena.  He timed her ghostly steps and noted that they began at 11 in the morning and continued off and on until dusk.  “I’d call them rather friendly sounds; a wee bit spooky, maybe,” he said, “but somehow not frightening.”

Later, when the carpenter was removing the ceiling on the top floor, a small tin about the size of a can of coffee fell onto his head.  The label read, “The last remains of Elizabeth Bullock, deceased.  Cremated January 21, 1931.”  Slatin called the crematorium listed on the container and learned that Elizabeth Bullock had been hit by a car on Hudson Street, and taken to a drugstore nearby where she died.  She had lived on Perry Street though, and no one could explain how she ended up in a ceiling on Bank Street, and they weren’t able to learn anything else about her.

(The picture above is the Bank Street building where the actual haunting took place. The one below is the Perry Street building where Elizabeth Bullock was living before she died.) 

Ghost hunter Hans Holzer (who died this year) read Berger’s piece and contacted the Slatins to offer his services.  During a seance conducted in the building, Holzer and his favorite medium, Ethel Johnson Meyers, came up with more (alleged) information about Elizabeth Bullock, which I have since researched.  I love fact checking seances.

This particular seance had an interesting mix of hits and misses.  One thing that came out of the seance was Elizabeth Bullock’s wish to have a Christian burial, which she had been denied because she married outside her faith.  Holzer’s account ends with his suggestion that they bury her in the garden. The Slatins say they’re going to keep the tin with Elizabeth’s ashes displayed on the piano, where she’s happy they insist, but also in case someone shows up to claim her.

In 2007 I tracked down Harvey Slatin, who turned out to be Dr. Harvey Slatin, a Manhattan Project nuclear physicist.  He was now 92 years old, and not terribly interested in talking to me, but he did tell me enough so that I could research the story more thoroughly.  More importantly, although Dr. Slatin doesn’t believe in ghosts he confirmed the unexplained events at Bank Street, so whatever the final explanation, they happened.

The seance at Bank Street took place on a weekday evening in July.  Mrs. Meyers went into a trance and immediately connected with a spirit named Betty who she said was paralyzed on one side and walked with a limp.  Slatin’s wife Yeffe was thrilled.  She told them that she’d seen a lady with a limp with her “psychic eye”.

The spirit named Betty told her story, but like many stories told via mediums, her narrative is confusing.  “He didn’t want me in the family plot—my brother—I wasn’t even married in their eyes … But I was married before God … Edward Bullock … I want a Christian burial in the shades of the Cross … any place where the Cross is—but not with them!”  Betty gave a few details about her life: her mother’s maiden name was Elizabeth McCuller, and they came from Pleasantville, New York.  When asked why her ashes were in the attic of Bank Street she gave an answer which didn’t clarify anything.  “I went with Eddie.  There was a family fight … my husband went with Eddie … steal the ashes … pay for no burial … he came back and took them from Eddie … hide ashes … Charles knew it … made a roof over the house … ashes came through the roof … so Eddie can’t find them.”

(This is where Elizabeth died.  It was a drugstore at the time.)

It’s all a bit impenetrable.  “Just because I loved a man out of the faith, and so they took my bones and fought over them, and then they put them up in this place, and let them smolder up there, so nobody could touch them …”  Who cremated you, Holzer asked.  “It was Charles’ wish, and it wasn’t Eddie’s and therefore they quarreled.  Charlie was a Presbyterian … and he would have put me in his church, but I could not offend them all.  They put it beyond my reach through the roof; still hot … they stole it from the crematory.”

A few more facts emerged.  She had two children, Eddie, who was alive and living in California, and Gracie, who died as a baby.  Also, “Betty” spoke the entire time with an Irish brogue.  Holzer said he could tell an actor from the real thing and this was the real thing.   The spirit’s last words were, “Lived close by.  Bullock.”

Hans Holzer and the Slatins didn’t have the benefit of the Internet and resources like to help them research Elizabeth’s history.  Also, enough time has gone by that Elizabeth’s death certificate is now in the public domain.  What’s interesting is how much Ethel Johnson Meyers got right.  Elizabeth’s husband was Edward Bullock.  In Holzer’s account he said her husband was Charlie, which was a reasonable guess based on the spirit’s rambling monologue.  The names Eddie and Charlie kept coming up and it was hard to tell who was who.  But in fact, Elizabeth’s husband was Edward Bullock, practically the first name out of the spirit/Ethel’s mouth.   And Elizabeth had a brother—his name was Charles.

After that, most of what was learned by both normal and supernatural means turned out to be wrong.  Elizabeth Bullock did not die as a result of being hit by a car.  The death certificate says “chronic myocarditis,” which is an inflammation of the muscle walls of the heart (but she did die in that drugstore).  She also didn’t speak with an Irish brogue.  Elizabeth was born in New York and her father was German and her mother, whose maiden name was Mary Schwieker, not Elizabeth McCuller, was born in the United States.

Elizabeth and Edward didn’t have any children that I could find, and New York does not have a death certificate for a child named Gracie Bullock.

What I was most curious about was:  whatever happened to the tin of ashes? (Pictured at left, scanned from one of Hans Holzer’s books.)

Slatin told me that The Washington Post did a piece about their ghost in 1981.  A few months later the Slatins got a letter from a northern California priest named Devereaux.  Father Devereaux offered to have a service for Elizabeth and to bury her in St. Patrick’s Cemetery at Table Bluff, in Humboldt County, California.  “Elizabeth will be resting with many of her own countrymen, in a very beautiful little cemetery,” he wrote.  Some of the tenants at Bank Street didn’t want to see her go, she was a New York ghost after all.

I asked Slatin why they never arranged for a Christian burial before this since this was what the spirit said she wanted. He said they’d taken Elizabeth’s remains to a Catholic church in the city, but the church refused to bury her because she had married outside her faith.  I hung up the phone, but then it hit me.  Not only was this church being rather uncharitable, if what Slatin said was true, they were basing their decidedly uncharitable decision on information gained from a seance!  This whole marrying outside her faith thing was never confirmed outside the seance.

The Slatins decided that laying her to rest as she desired was the right thing to do, and so over their neighbor’s objections they shipped her ashes to California.  Fifty people attended the funeral mass at Father Devereaux’s church in the town of Loleta.  Like a movie, it poured the day they buried Elizabeth. During the seance Betty had said, “I want a Christian burial in the shades of the Cross.” And so they very kindly buried her beneath a cedar cross.

Update: Nancy Wallace sent me pictures of Elizabeth’s grave which I posted here.

How Elizabeth ended up in a ceiling at Bank Street when she was a resident of Perry Street remained a mystery.  But 21st century technology is a wonderful resolution-provider.  According to Edward Bullock’s World War II draft registration card, now available online, sometime after Elizabeth died, Bullock moved out of their Perry Street apartment and into smaller, more affordable accommodations in the rooming house at Bank Street.  Why her tin of ashes were stored in the ceiling, I can’t say.

During our brief phone call Dr. Slatin, who doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife, nonetheless admitted to me, “I felt her presence.”  The air in the apartment filled with cheap perfume whenever she made her appearance known.

NOTE:  There’s no point in banging on the door of this building with the hope of experiencing a haunted house.  Whatever was causing the disturbances, they stopped decades ago.

AND: Here is a picture of the Bank Street Building in 1942.

AND:  If you like the kind of research and writing that went into this piece, you can buy my book … here!

Finally, here’s a short movie I made of the site described and pictured above.

Raymond Bayless and the Spook Light

Some stories are just more fun than others. I picked a few people who crossed paths with the scientists at the lab to write about, and one of them was an amateur researcher named Raymond Bayless.  (More below.)














I wrote about Raymond’s work recording what he believed were the voices of the dead and briefly mentioned a 25 page report he sent to Rhine about an Ozarks legend called the Spook Light (that report was ultimately published in Fate Magazine).

Briefly, the Spook Light is a golden-amber glowing light that has been appearing at the end of a lonely road near Joplin, Missouri for more than a century. From my book:

… the exact location has changed.  Throughout the years it’s been spotted on various stretches of road on the northern edge of the Ozarks, along the Missouri/Oklahoma state line.  The source of the light has never been found.  The Army Corps of Engineers looked into it during WWII and rather dryly concluded that the spook light was a “mysterious light of unknown origin.”  Most researchers ultimately decide that it’s just the reflection from headlights on a nearby highway.  But when Raymond wrote his report in 1963, he included evidence of sightings going back to at least the 1800’s, years before headlights and highways.  In Ozark Superstitions, author Vance Randolph also found people who saw the Spook Light “long before there was any such things as a motor car.”

Ever since I read Raymond’s report I’ve been dying to go there. One day Art Silverman, from NPR’s All Thing’s Considered, was in the area with Doualy Xaykaothao working on a story.  I said they had to look into the Spook Light, and they ended up doing a piece about it called Halloween in Missouri: The Devil’s Promenade!  There’s also a current picture of the light from NPR’s website (taken by James E. Smith) which I’m copying here, in order to do a little then and now thing.

The Spook Light then:

The Spook Light now:

I love that it’s still an unpaved, dirt road.

The Best Poltergeist Case

This is a Life Magazine picture of the Herrmann family in their home. I thought people who’ve read Unbelievable might appreciate seeing what they looked like.  (It’s also a pretty great shot.)  I gather the objects at the boy’s feet are some of the things that flew or fell around the house.  For those who haven’t read my book, this is all from a Seaford, LI poltergeist case that the Duke scientists looked into in 1958.  It was pretty dramatic and the Duke investigators concluded that at least some of the events in the house were not the result of a hoax.

Eliza Jumel Ghost Story

A ghost story I’d head about as a kid is what ultimately led me to the former Duke Parapsychology Laboratory and writing this book.  I include the story at the end of Unbelievable, mostly to contrast the kind of research that was going on at Duke with, well, everyone’s love of a good ghost story.  I went up to the Morris-Jumel Mansion recently and made a short movie about the ghost of Eliza Jumel.  I apologize for the noise, it was a very windy day.

Exorcist To-Do

In one of the chapters in Unbelievable, I talk about the actual case that inspired the book and movie The Exorcist. I had intended to try to track down Dr. Mabel Ross, the child psychiatrist who examined the boy at the center of this case.  

Dr. Ross had two interviews with the child, and there was supposed to have been a third, but the family never brought him back. Dr. Ross, if still alive, would be in her eighties now, at least.  I see that she is depicted in a 1997 movie about this called In the Grip of Evil.

Rev. Luther Schulze, the clergyman who contacted the Parapsychology Laboratory, didn’t think this was a case of possession and neither did J. B. Rhine, the head of the lab. (This is a picture of Father Walter Halloran, by the way, who assisted at the exorcism. I don’t have a picture of Rev. Luther Schulze.)  

Rhine and Schulze were skeptical about the cause.  Schulze, for instance, wrote Rhine about the words that were purported to have appeared on the boy’s body.  “My physician and I saw no words,” Schulze wrote, “but we did see nerve reaction rashes which had the appearance of scratches.”  

Schulze did witness some very bizarre events involving the boy, which he couldn’t explain, but he didn’t think the answer was possession.  They thought perhaps it might be psychokinesis or a poltergiest, but they also thought it was also just as likely that there would be a psychological explanation.

Poltergeists in Virginia

A few years before he died, Gaither Pratt was once again called to a scene of poltergeist activity.  It was 1974, and it involved a family in the small town of Powhatan, VA.  The police had been contacted just as they had been in Seaford in 1958 [another poltergeist case I wrote about], and after determining that a prowler hadn’t been involved they reached out to Gaither who was working at the University of Virginia.  Nothing much happened when Gaither first arrived. (More below …)

Then, on a Sunday evening, like the Reverend Schulze all those years ago [another case], Gaither found himself standing frozen while he watched a “chair tilt backward, gathering speed as it went, and slam its back against the wall.”  For the next three hours it was as if the house was enchanted.  A ghost-like hand was seen at a window.  A closet door opened with a loud bang when Gaither walked past, and a tobacco pouch, a book of matches, and a magazine flew through the air.  Members of the family ran back and forth to report other dreamlike flights of objects.  Two weeks later when the family called begging for someone to come to the house immediately Gaither’s colleague John Palmer was there to take the call.  The house had once again erupted. Among other things a stove was moving back and forth they told him, and doors to appliances and drawers were opening and closing by themselves.  Just before Palmer arrived a stool slid across the floor, “pinning the grandmother and granddaughter into a corner.”  They were able to escape and run outside.  As Palmer’s car came up the drive the grandmother “felt a hard slap” and then a voice saying, “Go away.  Go far away!”  By the time Palmer reached her she was in tears. 

Over the course of the investigation both Gaither and Palmer found evidence of intentional trickery on the part of the children, but the children said they did it to please the scientists, thinking they’d want to see even more things move unaided.  In any case, their admission didn’t weaken Gaither’s confidence about the events he had witnessed directly when the children weren’t around.  

When giving his opinion about the investigation Gaither spoke with greater conviction than he had in 1958.  This was a genuine case of psychokinesis, he said.  He later published a report saying that a large number of the disturbances happened under circumstances that made it possible for him to say, “with complete assurance that no normal explanation could be given.” John Palmer wasn’t so sure.  

The next year, in the small town of Pearisburg, VA, a nine year old boy was placed into foster care with Mrs. Beulah Wilson, a widow.  The two got along well, and the child was looking forward to having his first real Christmas.  The disturbances began on December 19th.  A neighbor ran over while everything was still happening and he was able to confirm with Mrs. Wilson that the boy was with them when things flew, fell or tipped over.  It wasn’t the child acting out, not consciously at least.  Mrs. Wilson said she thought the hand of the Lord was behind it, but she didn’t know why.  Things erupted again on Christmas Eve and the police were called to take the boy away.  Sadly, he spent Christmas Eve in a the police station and was picked up later by a social worker.  “I personally have no doubt that this case was paranormal in nature,” Gaither wrote, while noting that a dozen presents for the boy remained unopened under the tree.  Two days after Christmas the boy was placed in another foster home. 

This story broke my heart a little.  I just can’t get over the fact that this little boy thought he was going to have his first real Christmas and instead spent Christmas Eve in jail and Christmas right back wherever they put kids until another foster family took them.  He never got to open those Christmas presents for him, which he must have been so excited to see.

(The house in the picture is from the Seaford poltergeist case I wrote about.  I didn’t have any pictures from these stories.)