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.

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