Museum people tend to be skeptical about the occult. Maybe, it's because of our methodical approach to processing information or our insistence on bullet-proof documentation? Whatever the reasons, when I posed the question, "Have you ever experienced ghostly happenings at a museum where you worked?", there were crickets from my professional colleagues--a group that usually has something to say about everything. Perhaps they were too embarrassed to admit to an unearthly encounter, or just as likely, these 21st-century souls had never been in the presence of an apparition. Regardless of their inexperience with ghouls, hauntings and unexplained happenings at museums are commonplace.
Take these sites, for example: At the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Manhattan, the site of General George Washington's headquarters, a woman named Eliza Jumel, regally attired in a purple gown is said to haunt the museum, as does an unknown Revolutionary War soldier and a young girl who committed suicide. Or how about the Edgar Allen Poe House, where it's rumored that the writer himself, author of such macabre tales as "The Raven" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," occasionally visits. And, there's the famous House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, which is the supposed residence of several ghosts, one called Susan Ingersoll who floats down hallways and peers out of windows as well as a mysterious boy whose footsteps can be heard echoing through the attic. At this same 17th-century site, museum-goers claim to have heard strange sounds . . . such as "toilets sometimes flushing on their own." Yes, that's one haunting I'd rather not experience. (Even ghosts have to relieve themselves evidently.)
While I've never experienced a haunted WC, I am reluctantly susceptible to the power of suggestion. Before coming to the Smithsonian, I worked for the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, Maryland, a massive 18th-century Palladian house that was built around 1774. I was sometimes the first person in the museum and, frequently, the one who returned to the house in the middle of the night when someone (or something) triggered the alarm in the building. It just so happens that the main part of the museum contained no light switches--rather a destructive modern convenience when faced with priorities of preservation--and staff had to walk through each room and switch on unobtrusive floor lamps to illuminate the spaces. That's great at noon, but not so reassuring at 2:00 a.m. with the entire site silent as a crypt and blacker than Dante's imagination. Picture yourself walking through a house--where generations of residents died, where mothers mourned the loss of their children, where slaves labored day and night, where, well, you can imagine what you will. It doesn't matter how rational you are, the malice of a 225-year-old house shrouded in darkness conjures up demons of unparrelled proportions.
"I know I never saw anything, but I had a couple of weird experiences," said SITES project director Robbie Davis, who like me, worked in several historic houses before coming to the Smithsonian. Davis even lived in one of them--the Redcliffe Plantation in South Carolina, built in 1859. "There were times I thought my mind was playing tricks on me," Robbie mused. He and I chatted about the eerie play of light and shadow on lumpy plaster walls and about exercising certain rituals upon closing the museum to ensure that the spirits were happy. "I would tell each of the portraits good night," he laughed, "almost in an effort to say 'don't come back to visit me tonight!'" We also exchanged memories of whispered stories, passed down from perfectly logical, perfectly sane people who swore that they had seen and heard things that defied explanation.
At the Hammond-Harwood House one afternoon, a rather alarmed-looking docent exited the main museum building just as I was coming out of my office. "Is everything okay?" I asked, not knowing if she was feeling well. She paused and stared down at the floor, hesitating another moment before answering my inquery. "I don't want to go back in that house again," she declared. My heart started pounding, and the expression on my face must have been one of desparate anticipation. "A man just walked in front of me," she breathed, "and he was wearing a yellow waistcoat and tricorn hat, slight askew." She went on to describe, with miraculous clarity, the appearance of a figure whom she declared had passed right by her in the dining room, as she was securing the original 18th-century shutters for the evening and locking up the museum.
I didn't know what to make of that event, and still don't to this day, but Robbie said it best, "I never had any personal experiences with the paranormal, nor would I want to."