Mysterious Unsolved Ghosts

Lamy, New Mexico. June 2009. (Photo: Jonathan Woytek)

I watched a lot of the original series of Unsolved Mysteries this past month. Just to clarify, I am NOT referring to the recent Netflix reboot. I am talking about the original episodes hosted by Robert Stack (and still later, Dennis Farina). These are currently available to watch for no additional charge on Amazon with an Amazon Prime membership.

My favorite episodes are the ones about ghosts and urban legends.

Now, hold on to what I just told you. It’s going to sound as if I am now changing the subject, but I’m not.

I blogged last summer about my newly found love for Adam Selzer’s Facebook page for his tour company, Mysterious Chicago. As I explained on that blog post, Selzer is a Chicago-based author and tour guide who stopped giving live tours last year when Covid became a thing. Selzer pivoted to virtual tours that he makes available for free on his Mysterious Chicago Facebook page. He provides links to his online tip jar so that anybody who enjoys his virtual tours can pay what is within their means to help him keep his lights on. For now, Selzer livestreams his tours and keeps the video archive available to watch on Facebook later.

I enjoy Selzer’s tours about ghosts and urban legends.

(See a pattern?)

Now, from what I learned from watching Selzer’s virtual ghost tours, he started out working as a ghost tour guide for companies owned by other people. Selzer received local folklore from these companies. He researched the stories himself and found that many of these stories:

  • weren’t true;
  • weren’t completely true; or
  • didn’t have documentation to back up the story

In some cases, the stories were just completely fabricated, presumably by somebody else in the ghost tour industry.

So, in the Mysterious Chicago virtual tours that I have watched, Selzer pointed out what the local folklore said about a story and what other Chicago tour guides said and what documentation he actually uncovered about the story.

So, now back to Unsolved Mysteries.

The ghost of Julia Staab, a Jewish German American who died in 1896, allegedly haunted an upscale hotel (La Posada) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Julia died in the Santa Fe mansion that her husband, the merchant Abraham Staab, built for their family. She was 52 years old and the mother of eight children. Her youngest child passed away a few years before Julia’s own death. Julia allegedly spent a significant part of the end of her life shut up in her bedroom. She did not attend her own daughter’s wedding.

Decades later, this mansion became the La Posada de Santa Fe, a hotel and spa.

In the 1970’s, a La Posada hotel employee reported seeing a ghost. More ghost claims followed. Rumors and local folklore spread regarding Julia’s “real” cause of death and her existence in the spirit world.

From what I understand, Santa Fe’s own local ghost tour industry included stories about Julia’s alleged ghost.

The Unsolved Mysteries‘ Season 7, episode 2 (which aired October 2, 1994) included the story of Julia’s haunting. (In my opinion, the description of this episode on Amazon didn’t do a very good job of confirming that this story exists on this episode, but it’s there.)

The show included coverage of an actual “scientific” ghost hunt, complete with EVP recordings! 

Here’s the thing that I want to point out, though: this Unsolved Mysteries episode included an interview with a woman identified as on the screen as Betsy Sollitt, a “Local Folklorist.”

I Googled “Betsy Sollitt” and “Santa Fe.” According to her October 2016 obituary, she was born in Chicago. After several moves, she ended up living in New Mexico and she was highly involved in the arts and humanities scene there. (She also apparently lived and worked for some time on a tall ship. My husband will be excited when I tell him about that.)

Based on the obituary, I am under the impression that “local folklorist” Betsy Sollitt was a highly educated, well-meaning woman.

(The obituary also identified her under a different name. When I Googled her under this other name, I found several letters that she wrote to local newspapers regarding environmental concerns. Again, she comes across to me as a highly educated, well-intentioned woman.)

However, a little bit over a year ago, I read the family memoir “American Ghost” by Hannah Nordhaus. (This book was first published in March 2015.)

The author Nordhaus is Julia Staab’s real-life great-great-granddaughter. (Note that Nordhaus referred to Julia Staab throughout her book as “Julia,” which is why I chose to do so as well.)

Nordhaus researched family documents, letters, immigration records, etc. She interviewed family members who had personally known Julia and her children. Nordhaus is a direct descendent of Julia’s daughter, Bertha. Nordhaus obtained Bertha’s diary from the private collection of a cousin who was also a direct descendent of Julia and Bertha. Bertha wrote this diary during the final years of Julia’s life.

Nordhaus travelled to Santa Fe and to Julia’s childhood home in Germany.

Nordhaus discovered that some of the “local folklore” surrounding Julia Staab, as presented in this Unsolved Mysteries episode as well as stories shared by other local “folklorists” and ghost tour guides, wasn’t actually true. Including some of the more unsavory rumors about the events leading up to Julia’s death.

Here’s the blog post that I wrote previously about Nordhaus’ “American Ghost.” This other blog post includes my personal experience on my only trip to Santa Fe.

Now, after I read “American Ghost,” I asked myself:

What “right” did a self-appointed local folklorist have to appear on primetime television to promote a story that wasn’t fully verified from a historical perspective? Was this story even “hers” to tell?

Now, in the folklorist’s defense, this Unsolved Mysteries episode aired in 1994. Nordhaus’ “American Ghost” was published in 2015. From my reading of this family memoir, significant parts of Nordhaus’ research was based on records to which she had access (or at least, EASIER access) because she was a family member of her research subject. For instance, Nordhaus obtained Bertha Staab’s diary because she reached out to a family member with whom she had an existing relationship, and that family member reached out to a different family member.

Also, to be completely honest, would the book-buying public actually be interested in Julia Staab and her incredible real-life story were it not for the efforts of ghost tour guides and also “local folklorists” who promoted the tale of her ghost?

Would Nordhaus have even researched this particular great-great grandmother if this ancestor wasn’t already famous in her paranormal afterlife? (I have 8 great-great grandmothers and 8 great-great grandfathers. So, I assume that Nordhaus also has 8 great-great grandmothers and 8 great-great grandfathers.)

So, perhaps the ghost tour guides and the “local folklorists” did the Staab family (and their extended family) a favor by generating national (international?) interest in Julia Staab.

I am sure that I am not the only person who felt at times as if this January was endless. We are going into February in a few days. I intend to watch many more old Unsolved Mysteries episodes. However, I will do so while keeping in mind the lessons that I learned from Mysterious Chicago and American Ghost.



(Also, as a sidenote, Nordhaus mentioned in her book a few “rumors” about Julia Staab’s ghost story that weren’t presented in the Unsolved Mysteries episode. These rumors were reportedly told at some point by either Santa Fe ghost tour guides or by local people on a message board, or perhaps both. In my own personal opinion, some of these “rumors” in the Julia Staab ghost story were problematic for their anti-semitic tone. Nordhaus didn’t express this opinion in writing in her book. To reiterate, this is my personal opinion. In my mind, this is another reason to think critically about folklore before one regurgitates it.)

This is How Ghost Stories Get Started

For this tale, I changed almost all of the specific details, including names and places, in order preserve the magic of a small town’s ghost story.

Dad taught high school for about four decades before he retired. During this time he also worked a second and sometimes third job on evenings, weekends, and summers.  Spread over four decades, the jobs included: ambulance driver, chimney sweep, youth counselor, and seasonal law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). 

For this story, my family lived near a Central Pennsylvania farming town I shall call “Random Woods.”

Dad taught at Random Woods High School. He also held a part-time law enforcement job patrolling for illegal spot-lighters (poachers – you know, illegal hunters) in the woods outside the town. Now, dad worked many nighttime shifts. For these shifts, he often parked his patrol car in this little gap between the edge of the woods and Random Woods’ Civil War-era cemetery.

Then he shut off the car lights and sat for hours in the dark.

Whenever the topic of ghosts comes up, Dad says that he doesn’t see things that he can’t explain. One time he saw a glowing red disk in his mother’s backyard – which turned out to be a glow in the dark frisbee.

His countless nights spent next to a cemetery didn’t scare him. Ghosts did not matter. Physical, living humans mattered. In his job enforcing hunting regulations, just about every person that Dad approached also carried a gun.

So, on the night of this “ghost story,” Dad worked his law enforcement shift. He parked in his usual spot between the woods and the cemetery.

He sat for hours in the dark.

Crack!

He heard a noise.

He jumped in his seat and as a reflex he hit the patrol car’s headlights switch.

He saw a figure in the cemetery.

The figure crossed the cemetery, and then disappeared.

Dad thought all weekend about the “apparition” in the Random Woods cemetery.

Why did he see a figure appear and vanish in the cemetery late at night? A figure that did not present itself as being an illegal hunter?

Dad walked into Random Woods’ only grocery store a few days later.

He ran into his former student, Kurt.

My dad and Kurt chit-chatted.

Then Kurt said, “Mr. G, the graveyard is haunted!”

Dad said, “Really, Kurt? Haunted?”

Kurt said, “Yeah! I spent Friday night at my girlfriend’s house. On the way home, I cut through the graveyard. All of a sudden a huge glowing light shined on me. Oh my god, Mr. G., I hauled ass out of there!”

And that’s how my dad became a ghost story.

 

I Share a Birthday with Lizzie Borden: An American Hauntings Zoom Recap

Today is an anniversary: on August 4, 1892, Andrew Jackson Borden and his second wife, Abby, were murdered in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew Borden’s daughter from his first marriage, Lizzie Andrew Borden (NOT Elizabeth), was eventually charged, tried, and acquitted for the murders. Nobody was ever convicted of the murders.

(Fun fact: Andrew Jackson Borden was born in 1822. Andrew Jackson the POTUS won the Battle of New Orleans in 1812 and he was elected as POTUS in 1828.)

I learned just within the past year or so that Lizzie Borden and I share a birthday: July 19. So that’s special. I read Troy Taylor’s book on the subject, One August Morning. I now believe that Lizzie Borden did NOT commit the murders.

I discovered Troy Taylor in 2017. At the time, I was unhappy and stressed out about my job. I had an hour long commute each way, mostly by bus. Podcasts made my commute – and my work life – bearable. In 2017, I went on a search for new podcasts about the paranormal, specifically related to American history. I discovered Season #1 of American Hauntings, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck.

American Hauntings the podcast didn’t include advertisements for anything except for other American Hauntings products and services. Troy plugged the tickets for his in-person experiences, books that he wrote, and podcast merch.

The “Evening with” dinners that Troy promoted intrigued me. The approximately $50 per person ticket price for these included a catered meal at the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel in Alton, Illinois, followed by a live lecture given by Troy on that night’s topic. However, I live outside of Pittsburgh, so I don’t think that I will ever make it to Alton for an in-person “Evening with” dinner.

Then, in March 2020, most of the governors of blue states shut down everything fun. This included the in-person American Hauntings tours, ghost hunts, and in-person “Evening with” dinners. Troy posted Facebook Q&A livestreams on his Troy Taylor Facebook page. He added a virtual tip jar.

Then Troy scheduled several of his most popular “Evening with” dinner talks as Zoom lectures. I could pay $13 to receive a log-on link to a livestream talk over Zoom.

As of today, August, 4, 2020, I have attended four of Troy’s special Zoom livestreams. Here are the topics of these lectures: Bell Witch, American Spiritualism, St. Louis Exorcism, and – Lizzie Borden!

Troy held the Lizzie Borden Zoom lecture last weekend to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the Borden murders. At this lecture, I drank a Happy Birthday toast to Lizzie.

For each Zoom experience, Troy gave the full length talk that he gave at each in-person “Evening with” dinner in Alton. Troy sat in his spooky-looking American Hauntings office. I saw in the background lighted candles, the books that Troy wrote, and fake (I hope!) skulls. He shared his computer screen, onto which he pulled up photos of the people and places mentioned in his presentation. His partner, Lisa Taylor Horton, handled the requests for technical assistance. Lisa also moderated the Q&A sessions at the end of each Zoom presentation.

The Zoom participants all had the option of shutting off their own computer’s camera or leaving it on. So, when I participated in these talks, I saw some of the other participants. In last weekend’s “Lizzie Borden” presentation, the audience consisted of roughly 60 women and one man.

My husband, Jonathan, did not view the lecture with me. (Jonathan DID listen to the Bell Witch livestream with me!) He teased me when I told him that the attendees included only one man. He said, “Well, are you surprised?”

I’m sorry that Covid-19 happened. I’m happy that I finally get to experience Troy Taylor’s live lectures. I’m glad that he laid out the case for why he believes that Lizzie Borden didn’t kill her family members. I can’t wait for Troy Taylor’s next livestreams this summer and fall.

(By the way, I learned from the American Hauntings podcast that Troy moved his in-person dinners from the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel to another venue in Alton due to social distancing requirements. So, I am not missing out on a dinner at this spooky landmark.)

If You’re Going to Sing for Your Supper on Facebook, then Train Your Cat to Perform as Well

Here is a photo of my own cat walking on a porch roof.

. . . or, if you don’t have a cat around, get a dog or a small child to ham it up on camera for you.

I mean it. I have watched virtual Facebook ghost tours by tour guides from two different businesses in two different cities, presented inside the tour guides’ houses, in which their cats crashed the presentations.

During a third tour guide’s virtual ghost tour, his adult daughter and young grandchild showed up in the middle of the tour to say hello.

Guess what? I virtually tipped all three of these guides.

One of these guides, Chris Staudinger from Pretty Gritty Tours in Tacoma, begged his cat to “earn her keep.” So of course I tipped. How could I deprive his furry friend of her catnip?

I blogged here about a bunch of the virtual spooky tours that I watched lately. I just remembered the cat thing this evening.

I think that the cat appearances started innocently for each of these guides. The cats showed up and realized that their humans paid more attention to the cameras than to them. The cats had to fix this by jumping on their humans. Then, then Facebook comments for each livestream veered from the topic of ghosts to multiple questions about the cats. So, these cats appeared in future home-based virtual tours.

Can’t say that I blame them. My cat is one of the few living, breathing things that I don’t social distance with these days.

In addition to showing off his cat, Staudinger does jump scares in his virtual ghost tours. He warns his audience at the beginning of each tour. Then, about ten or twenty minutes later, he shows a photo of a dark room. He tells his audience to focus on one of the corners so that they can “see the ghost.”

Then . . . well, you were warned.

Two Truths and a Lie

So, my manager at work has instructed her team that tomorrow we will play “Two Truths and a Lie” as part of a virtual team-building exercise. We will all need to log into our meeting prepared to play this game. That is, we all need to provide two things about us that are true and one thing about us that isn’t true. Our co-workers will need to guess the thing about us that isn’t true. If they guess correctly, then they win.

I’m brainstorming right now for this game. If any of my co-workers are reading this blog now prior to tomorrow’s meeting, then congratulations. You win.

Here is a bunch of stuff about me that is actually true:

I am the oldest of my parents’ five daughters.

I have a sister who is almost 22 years younger than I am.

I have an ancestor that was an American officer during the Revolutionary War.

My parents lived at their house in Somerset County for several decades before my dad realized that this ancestor from the American Revolution was actually buried only a few miles down the road from their house.

I have a great-grandfather that was a German soldier during World War I.

I have a great-grandfather that was a U.S. soldier during World War I.

My great-grandfather that was a U.S. soldier during World War I spoke German fluently because his family was German American. This great-grandfather was taken as a POW by the Germans. He overheard his German captors discussing in German their plans to shoot him. He protested this in German. His captors didn’t shoot him.

When I was a kid, my parents heated their house each Pennsylvania winter with a wood-burning furnace. My dad went to the top of a mountain each summer to cut our winter supply of firewood.

My dad kept me out of his woodshed by telling me that it was full of rattlesnakes.

My high school senior class trip consisted of a tour of a potato chip factory. (My high school sat down the street from the Snyder of Berlin potato chip factory in Somerset County. The entire senior class walked from our high school to the factory. We toured the factory. A bunch of my classmates waved to their relatives who worked at the factory. After the tour ended, we walked back to our high school. This was our entire “class trip.”)

My dad took me deer hunting, and I shot a doe on the first day of doe season when I was 17 years old.

I was in my mid-20’s the first time that I ever flew on an airplane.

I worked for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission one summer when I was in college. I got to visit abandoned tunnels that the Turnpike Commission now uses to store salt. I also got to paint parking spaces at a service plaza. I got to watch motorists drive across wet paint. I secured the job by writing a letter to Congressman John Murtha’s office.

My grandfather allegedly rode down the Pennsylvania Turnpike (uninvited) on his motorcycle before the turnpike had actually opened to the public.

The summer before my senior year of high school, I attended “Keystone Girls State,” a week-long program about politics for Pennyslvania high school girls hosted by the American Legion Ladies’ Auxillary. On the last night of the program, we had a banquet. A bunch of people left the banquet early to go watch live television footage of police chasing O.J. Simpson down an L.A. highway in his white Bronco. A little over a year later, I went to college. A bunch of my fellow college freshman skipped our mandatory seminar about alcohol abuse so that they could watch live coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial verdict. Other people wore headphones to the alcohol lecture and listened to the verdict on the radio. Someone stood up in the middle of the lecture and announced the verdict. The college’s dean stopped the alcohol presentation and repeated the verdict over the podium microphone.

I think that I have enough material to play “Two Truths and a Lie.”

Jonathan’s New Desk

Here is the blog post that my husband Jonathan wrote about the new desk that he built for himself.

Jonathan set up a new work area for himself because we have both been working from home since February / March. (Jonathan’s employer instructed him to start working from home in late February. My employer told me on Friday, March 13 to only come in to work every third day. My first day on this new schedule was Monday, March 16. A few hours after I reported to work on March 16, I received instructions that I was to start working from home full time effective immediately. Jonathan and I both take public transit to Pittsburgh. Jonathan has his own office at work. However, I work in a cubicle in an “open office.” Don’t even get me started about the “open office” concept!)

So, now Jonathan has a brand new desk to use in our living room. I have use of two desks that we already owned, including a desk that my mom and I picked out together at a furniture store on my 16th birthday. As I mentioned in the previous post, we both have “new” chairs. So, we’re all set to continue working from home together!

“Man Proposes, God Disposes”

“Man Proposes, God Disposes” by Edwin Landseer, 1864

I didn’t take any art history classes in college. So, maybe my post is about something that everyone who actually took art history learned in Art History 101.

But now I kinda want to learn more about art history.

This image is of an 1864 painting titled Man Proposes, God Disposes by the British artist Edwin Landseer. (I found this image on Wikipedia. Wikipedia advised that this image is in the Public Domain. I’m thinking of just starting a blog titled Things that I Learned from Wikipedia.)

This is a painting of two polar bears eating human remains in the ruins of a ship. You can see the bloody sails and the mast. The polar bear on the right stands over a ribcage.

Man Proposes, God Disposes was Landseer’s interpretation of what happened to the British explorer Sir John Franklin’s 1845 trip to the Arctic. You can read all about it on Wikipedia.

I learned about the painting today on the podcast Haunted Places from Parcast by Cutler Media. If you listen to this podcast on Spotify, you get to learn about a haunted place every Thursday AND you also get to learn about an urban legend every Tuesday. Today’s urban legend was about this painting.

This painting graces a wall at Royal Holloway, University of London. And the painting is HAUNTED, guys. Haunted. The painting is so haunted that the university covers it with a Union Jack when students are taking exams in the same room.

By coincidence, I listened to the podcast about this haunted polar bear painting RIGHT AFTER I listened to a completely different podcast about a real, 21st century guy who lived among grizzly bears every summer for a decade until one of the grizzlies ate the guy. We know the fate of the grizzly bear guy because a pilot flew over and saw a grizzly standing over a ribcage.

I wish that my mother-in-law, Fran, were still with us so that I could tell her all of these stories about bears. Fran loved bears – in theory. The local news reported that a black bear visited homes in the neighborhood next to Fran’s. Fran said, “Everybody gets a bear except me.”

(For the record, I pray that I NEVER see a bear in the wild. I will be perfectly okay if everybody gets a bear except me.)

So what?

Well, this whole global pandemic reminded me YET AGAIN that we’re not in charge. And I didn’t actually need ANY reminder that I’m not in charge.

So, it comforts me to read that the British Empire wasn’t actually in charge in 1845 when Sir John Franklin may or may not have gotten eaten by polar bears.