Thursday, November 2, 2017

True Ghost Stories III --Kids, Animals & Monsters

In honor of Day of the Dead, I'm re-posting a summary of the scariest true ghost stories I received from over 100 readers' letters when I was working for Country Living Magazine many years ago..  If you have any stories of your own to add, write me at:  joanpgage@yahoo.com .  This is the conclusion of my three-part summary of what I learned from the letters.


What are ghosts exactly and how do you know if you’ve got one?
As I mentioned on Halloween—I have a collection of 101 letters from people describing ghosts they have encountered in their homes. These letters came to me 25 years ago when I was working for Country Living Magazine and we asked for reports on hauntings. But because the subject proved so controversial with readers of the magazine—especially Christian fundamentalists—the editors told me to write a brief and up-beat article and not go into any frightening detail.

But I’ve saved the letters all these years because I thought they were an invaluable source of information about: What is a ghost? And except for one letter, they all seemed to come from responsible and sane people, who included a police officer, a librarian, a minister, a psychiatrist and a host of other evidently reliable correspondents.

Last year-- on Halloween day-- my local paper (Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette) reported on a nearby haunted house, where the owners invited a team of “paranormal investigators” to study their home while the family was away. They set up cameras connected to DVD recorders and digital audio recordings to capture “electronic voice phenomena”. Aside from some mysterious voices and the unexplained turning off of the recorder, and film showing two paper lanterns that revolved in opposite directions, these ghost hunters found nothing much, but I was interested that they later said, there are two types of hauntings — “intelligent hauntings” in which purposeful actions are observed—like rearranging the china cabinet—and “residual hauntings,” which pick up and relay random events, such as a radio broadcast from the 1930’s.

I had already worked out for myself, from reading my 101 letters, that “hauntings”, “ghosts” or “paranormal activity” (as in the blockbuster film) can represent many different kinds of phenomena.

Instant Replay Traumas--I believe that one kind of “haunting” is the re-enactment of some traumatic event that happened in that place long ago. It’s periodically re-projected—like an instant replay in a football game. One example of this was the reader from Fogelsville, PA who reported that every now and then in the middle of the night, they hear a horse trotting up, the locked kitchen door flies open and woman screams “Oh no!” (This reader has seen five separate ghosts in her house including a Civil War soldier “hanging” in their barn.”) I believe that these ghosts all qualify as “residual hauntings” and that they represent no danger to the living. The woman from Pennsylvania ended her letter: “Holidays are the most active seasons. Whether the ghosts like it or not, we’re staying.”

Lost earthbound spirits-- On TV programs like Medium, the ghosts encountered are usually people who don’t realize that they’re dead and they have to be coached to go on to the next world, or move toward the light or whatever is the next stage. Among the ghosts described in my letters, most of these lost souls were children and a few were elderly people who remained in the room where they had spent their last years of life. These old people, who don’t know they should move on, tend to get very angry at newcomers who have invaded their space. They get most irritated when renovations, restoration or re-decorating happens. One woman in Virginia used to encounter the voice and tricks of an elderly lady who once lived in the attic—where the reader would hang her laundry on rainy days. The “ghost” could often be heard rocking in her rocking chair . She opened doors and took a door off its hinges and leaned it against the wall , One day, in exasperation, she cried “Oh, just get out of here!” In many cases, according to the letters, angry lost spirits were helped to move on by a helpful priest, minister, exorcist or psychic.

More pitiful were the ten child ghosts who truly seemed lost and confused and often interacted with the living children of a household. (I learned that animals and small children are almost always more likely to see and interact with ghosts than adults. Often the small children don’t realize the spirits are ghosts and ask “Why won’t the little girl come back and play with me?” and “Why is that little boy playing with my trains?”) One reader from Wilbraham MA, called on ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren who contacted a “9-year-old earthbound boy who apparently died in the farmhouse in 1898, named Alfie. He told them he was concerned over his dog Dodo, and when he died his father was away from home in the army. Every year on July 16—the day he died—there would be a flurry of ghostly activity.” Visitors have reported seeing the little boy looking out the window of a front bedroom and waving good-bye.

From the letters I’ve read, I believe these earthbound child ghosts are unlikely to cause any harm to the inhabitants of a house, although they sometimes smash china and play havoc with electrical appliances—they have also been known to cover sleeping children with blankets and to close windows in a sudden rainstorm. Lucy Ensworth of Louisburg, Kansas who died in 1863 at the age of 12, has done both the pranks and the helpful gestures, stealing things and putting them back, and causing a visiting granddaughter to say, “It’s hard to sleep with that lady walking around—she’s sort of a big girl.”

In two cases ghosts have seemed to known and react to a sickness in the family: A reader in Sandston, VA wrote they have a woman ghost “seen only twice, both times in the fall when someone in the family had been hospitalized.” A man in New Berlin, Wisconsin wrote “As a pastor I’m not supposed to believe in ghosts, but I do.” He described the experiences of friends who live in a country barn house with a poltergeist. Ferns would spin and chairs would rearrange and a cousin who scoffed at reports of a ghost had a fork fly off the table and prick his cheek. “When Jennie’s mother fell down the stairs, her arm was held so that she didn’t plunge headlong, but slid down. On her arm were bruise marks of four fingers and a thumb.” They had a three-year-old daughter who had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia during an emergency appendix operation. The night Jenny died, her bedroom pictures on the wall—mattress, etc—were hurled all over her room. After that, there were no more messages from the ghost.

Animal ghosts—I believe that spirits often return to the place where they lived before moving on—this makes more sense than ghosts in a graveyard hanging around their remains. Many readers described animal ghosts, especially cats, walking on the bed—sometimes their own deceased pets or an unknown pet. I know when my own dog died at the age of 11 years (I was away at college), my mother, who had never liked the dog that well anyway, kept seeing it out of the corner of her eye in the kitchen. A reader in Willoughy, Ohio, described her terrier named Bonnie who would run up the stairs, her nails clicking. One night, several weeks after Bonnie was put to sleep, she was awakened by the familiar sound. “Bonnie just dropped in to let me know that, wherever she was, she hadn’t forgotten about me and our many cozy nights together.”

Evil and dangerous ghosts—Most of the writers said that they view their ghost as a kindly, rather than malevolent presence. Eleven of the 101 correspondents specifically said they consider the spirit a friend. But eight people said they felt their ghost was an evil presence, and a few described the kind of dangerous evil spirit of the type made famous in The Amityville Horror (a true story) —the kind of ghost that would make you immediately put the house on the market at any price.

In each case the spirit was specifically attacking a child in the family. A couple in Surprise, New York described a ghost named Sarah who started out being helpful—caught the woman when she fell down stairs, covered the babies with blankets, put old hand-stitched baby clothes in an empty trunk. But “She hates our oldest son Eric. She threw his bed around the room one night with my husband and myself on it. We have now moved him to a bedroom downstairs. One night she choked him as he was walking in the hallway. He had red handprints around his neck…whenever she comes, our room gets ice cold and a terrible wind comes up. There is a tin-lined closet in the hall where she lives. One night we locked her in with a chair propped up against the door and taped the entire door shut with masking tape. About three a.m. a crash woke us up. The chair was flung downstairs, and the tape wadded up in a ball.”

Instead of moving out the next day, “We were at our wits end and so finally we put a bottle of holy water in our bedroom. She has been back twice since then in the last two years, but both times comes and goes very quickly. We love the house and have now finished restoring it.”

Two more writers described some sort of “monster ghost” that would terrify and torment a child in the family, sometimes trying to bite him—and both used crucifixes and holy water to protect the child and keep the ghost out of the room (in one case it was still looking in through the window.)

I’m very tempted—now that these letters are 25 years old—to write back to the addresses of a few of the most interesting haunted houses to see if the ghosts still are active there. But that might be asking for trouble.

To sum it up—I think most of the paranormal activity described in the letters was NOT dangerous to the homeowners, nor was it directed at them. And in most cases I don’t think there was an actual ghost interacting with the living, but in some cases (of “intelligent response”) there was, sometimes from children or old people still haunting the place they lived. And these spirits (which are sometimes poltergeists) are particularly agitated by re-decorating, construction, moving furniture or illness in the family.

I was amazed at how many readers mentioned: odors and aromas (pipe tobacco, a horrible stench, perfume) and a pocket of freezing air when the ghost was near. And electrical appliances acting up! Clearly, whatever ghosts are, they embody some sort of electrical energy. Fourteen readers reported spirits that played havoc with electric lights and appliances, monkeying with water faucets and setting off doorbells, phones, stoves, radios, TVs—even after they were disconnected.

Here’s a reader from Brevard, North Carolina: “Constantly bizarre happenings: we would find all the lights ablaze, an empty dishwasher swishing away, doors opened or closed. The old turkey platter hanging on the wall was smashed in the center of the room, although the nail and wire hanger were intact. Shower water goes on and off, a vaporous form comes through the bathroom door. Smoke detectors go off constantly. As I write this the lights in the office have gone off and on twice.”

(And that was before computers—wonder if ghosts can type?)

So that’s my last word on what I learned in the Country Living letters--, although I’d love to hear anyone else’s theories on “What is a ghost?” I live in a house that dates back to (at least the oldest section) 1722. Daniel Rand, the first white child baptized in Shrewsbury, MA (in 1722) lived to be 80 years old and is buried nearby. We have his tombstone on our porch.

I’m happy to say that I personally have not encountered any paranormal happenings in this house—although others have—and I’d like to keep it that way. Hopefully the spirits of all the families who have lived here for the past three centuries (and I know all their names and stories) can continue to coexist peacefully, without any paranormal activity or things that go bump in the night.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

True Ghost Stories and One Ghost Photo

 Usually on Halloween I re-post my essay about Ronald Reagan's White House ghost story--originally posted in 2009--but to change tradition a little, I'm re-posting today part II of my original true ghost story trilogy, based on letters I received when I was working for Country Living magazine. I asked readers to share their supernatural tales and got over 100 letters.  (If you also have a paranormal experience to share, e-mail me at joanpgage@yahoo.com.) I'll tell more about what I learned from these letters in my next post. And if you want to re-read Reagan's tale of White House hauntings, here's the link: http://arollingcrone.blogspot.com/2009/10/reagans-white-house-ghost-story.html
  
When I was writing a regular column for Country Living Magazine in the 1980’s, I asked, in November of 1983, “Tell us about the ghosts in your country house…Write us a letter describing any experiences with live-in ghosts, poltergeists and things that go bump in the night.”

I received 101 letters from all over the country and, to my delight, only one sounded like it was from a nut (she had also been kidnapped by aliens), but the rest all seemed very reasonable, from people who included a psychiatrist, a police officer and a librarian (with a haunted library.} I thought these letters were beyond price—a treasure trove that would help me learn a great deal about ghosts and haunting and what they really are.

But along with these letters came complaints to the editors saying that our question was opening us up to the work of Satan, that we were in grave danger, that ghosts were just Satan’s demons preying on vulnerable people who had lost loved ones, and that these readers wanted their subscription to the magazine canceled at once.

This naturally rattled the editors, and they asked me to keep the eventual article short and up-beat and as inoffensive as possible to the religious right who thought even a discussion of ghosts was inherently evil.

I made notes on each ghost story. While I couldn’t detail in the magazine the scarier stories I received, at least the summary I did of the letters allowed me to learn what people experience when they encounter a “ghost”. I was struck by how many described feeling a sudden patch of cold air, and many described an odor—perfume or pipe tobacco or flowers. The presence of ghosts in fourteen cases played havoc with electrical appliances –lights, toasters and washing machines that would go on and off even when they were unplugged from the wall. Then there were the flying objects.

After reading all these letters, I came to the conclusion that what people perceive as ghosts are probably several different kinds of phenomena which they grouped under that one word. But I’ll tell you in my next post about that. Right now I’m going to give you the highlights of the letters.

The article that I ultimately wrote in Country Living began:

Imagine what you’d do if this happened to you:

You see the image of a Civil War soldier hanging from the rafters in your barn.

You climb the stairs only to find the way blocked by a wall and to feel someone pushing you down.

Periodically at midnight you hear a horse gallop up to your kitchen door, the locked door flies open, and a woman’s voice screams, “Oh, no!”

The antique blanket chest in your living room erupts with such knocking that you have to grab the television set on top to keep it from falling off.

You go to bed leaving a crossword puzzle unfinished and awake to find it has been completed in the characteristic left-handed script of assassinated president James Garfield, who once lived in your home."


I did not go into detail about the few letters that described truly evil spirits that seemed determined to harm someone in the family—those I’ll tell about in my next post—but for the most part, people felt comfortable with the supernatural beings in their house and 24 people believed they knew the real former identity of “their” ghost. Some who didn’t gave their live-in ghosts names.

Among the more than one hundred spirits mentioned, there were ten child ghosts, three Native American ghosts and four animal ghosts (two cats and two dogs) as well as haunted objects: a wicker wheelchair, a family portrait, an antique blanket chest, and a baby carriage.

Forty-one people out of 101 claimed they had actually seen their ghost —anything from vaporous shapes that would pass through a door to what seemed to be a flesh-and-blood person until it suddenly vanished. One reader saw her ghost in a mirror, two described ghosts complete except for having no face, and one reported only the top half of a man repeatedly seen crossing the dining room of her mother-in-law’s restaurant in Indiana.

In 22 cases, pets and small children reacted to the ghost first (like Ronald Reagan’s dog Rex in the Lincoln Bedroom), and children were much more likely to actually see the spirits while their parents saw nothing.

Four readers described being repeatedly pushed down a flight of stairs and two others started to fall down stairs, then were suddenly caught by an unseen hand that left a red handprint on their body. A woman who rented a house in East Kentucky wrote “My first trip downstairs after moving in was on my backside…tearing the muscles in my shoulder. Every time I was on the stairway, I had to hang onto the wall or I’d slip or stumble.’ After three weeks, she and her husband had their pastor come and command the evil spirits to leave, and they did.

Five readers described ghosts who showed concern for their children, covering up babies with blankets, putting toys in the crib, sitting by a bedside and rubbing a feverish brow. Lucy Ensworth, a 12-year-old girl who died in 1863 in Kansas, haunts her Victorian home (she’s buried in the small cemetery on the property).

Lucy has been known to tuck in the baby and to close all the attic windows—propped open with sawed off broomsticks—during a sudden downpour, but she also has emptied a glass of water on a napping adult, smashed dishes all over the kitchen floor, pulled the pegs out of a gun rack before the eyes of its owner, kept the four-year-old granddaughter awake by walking around and rapping on the walls, “just the sort of things a bored, restless pre-teen would do,” according to the woman who wrote the letter.

Ten people said their ghosts make small objects disappear and then reappear in the strangest places—like a flyswatter stuffed into a radio. People described watching flying teapots, mugs, candle snuffers and crystal vases that leaped off a table, rocking chairs that rock by themselves, a wicker wheelchair and a baby carriage that move their position every day. One told about a fork that rose from the table and pricked the cheek of a visitor who scoffed at hearing the house was haunted.

Ten readers told about being repeatedly startled out of sleep by a deafening crash; sometimes to find a scene of chaos, but more often to find nothing broken. (One woman and her daughter would leap out of bed at hearing the din and meet in the hall every night, while her husband slept quietly, never hearing a thing.)

A California woman woke up and found her bed shaking from side to side, while she could see that the prisms on the chandelier weren’t moving. Three people described having their bed shaken, and not by an earthquake.

I have lots more ghost stories from the letters which I’ll tell you about in my next post—including the scary ones that resemble the “Amityville Horror”, but I’ll stop now.

The photo above was sent in by a woman from New Jersey who wrote:
“While vacationing in sunny California this summer (1983) my husband and I came across an interesting small town in Northern California called Los Alamos. [She actually wrote "Los Alimos" but I couldn't find a town of that name.] …We came across this Victorian house...I snapped a photo. We certainly were surprised when we got our pictures developed. The image of a girl dressed in clothing not of this era was clearly visible…. I would really like to find out more about the history of the house.”

To her it looks like a girl in old-fashioned clothes—to me it looks more like the Grim Reaper. What do you think? And have you had any encounters with the other world?

Monday, October 23, 2017

She Fought for Women’s Right to Divorce

At a moment when women are uniting to demand equal respect in the work place and under our legal system, I thought it was time to revisit this post from five years ago-- about Caroline Norton, who suffered a tragic life of spousal abuse and loss of her children under England's horrific laws regarding marital rights, but lived long enough to change those laws.  

 
 I’ve often written about fascinating historical figures whom I met through my passion for antique photographs (some of them are in the list at right under “The Story behind the Photograph”.)  This time I met Caroline Norton through a framed engraving I bought for a few dollars at a yard sale. 
On the back of the frame was a typed piece of paper saying: “Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan Norton was the granddaughter of [playwright] Richard Sheridan.  She was a major Victorian campaigner for women’s rights and a poet and a playwright.  She wrote several pamphlets on the property and custody rights of women in response to her divorce experience.  She was influential in the passage of the Infant Custody Bill of 1839 and later the overhaul of the divorce and property laws.”
When I turned to Google, I learned a lot more about this British society beauty’s tragic history, enduring physical abuse from her husband and separation from her young children in a time when no woman could sue for divorce for any reason, nor could she testify against her husband, because she belonged to him.  All the money of a married woman—even income that she earned herself—belonged to her husband.
Caroline Sheridan Norton (1808 – 1877) was the middle of three sisters in London society, all so beautiful and accomplished that they were called the “Three Graces.”  Although their mother came from titled aristocracy, their father died in South Africa  when Caroline was nine, leaving his family penniless.  His daughters knew they had to marry well as soon as they were launched into society.
Caroline’s sisters married a duke and a baron, but Caroline, at the age of 19, married the Hon. George Norton, a barrister and M. P. and the younger brother of a Lord. She was 19 and he was 26.
Caroline and her husband had opposite political views and he disliked the fact that she was clever, wrote poetry and prose and was known for her beauty, wit and political connections, yet he encouraged her to use those connections to advance his career. Thanks to her influence with one of her well-placed friends—the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, in 1831 Norton was made a Metropolitan Police Magistrate with an income of 1,000 pounds a year.
From the start of the marriage George Norton was given to violent fits of drunkenness and abused Caroline both physically and mentally.  She gave birth to three boys, but miscarried a fourth child after a savage beating.
She poured her energy into writing poetry and prose to find solace and make some money, and her novels in 1829 and 1830 were well received.
The beatings continued, and after she miscarried their fourth child in 1835, Caroline took her three young boys and moved in with her relatives while her husband spent time with a wealthy cousin of his, Margaret Vaughan. 
Caroline and Norton had a quarrel about where the children would spend Easter, 1836, and when Caroline left the house to talk to her sister, Norton sent the children to his cousin Margaret Vaughan and told the servants not to let Caroline back in.
According to the law of the time, the father had legal control of the children, no matter what the mother wanted, and he also by law owned the house and all his wife’s belongings including her manuscripts, clothing and personal correspondence.
On May, 1836, George Norton brought a suit against Lord Melbourne, who was now England’s Prime Minister, for “Criminal Conversation” with his wife. Norton planned to eventually sue Caroline for adultery and he also demanded 10,000 pounds from Lord Melbourne in damages.
The suit caused a scandal, tarnished Caroline’s reputation for life and almost brought down the Melbourne government.  It went to trial, but Caroline had no legal identity apart from her husband and could not attend the trial nor testify.
At the end of the trial, on June 23, 1836, the jury unanimously decided in favor of Lord Melbourne.  After the trial, Caroline talked to lawyers to see if she could divorce George Norton, but she learned she could not.  A husband could sue for divorce, but a wife could not, and the only grounds were the wife’s adultery.  Since the court had decided Caroline was not guilt of adultery, she could not be divorced from her husband.  Furthermore, George Norton had complete legal custody of their children.
Caroline decided to change the law and lobbied people she knew in government to reform custody laws. Parliament eventually introduced a bill to give mothers the right to appeal for custody of children under seven years old.  She also wrote political  pamphlets advocating change in custody law.  In 1839 Parliament passed the Infant Custody Bill allowing mothers to appeal for custody of children under seven and access to children under sixteen.
Nevertheless, her husband figured out how to keep Caroline away from her children—by  sending the  boys to Scotland where the laws of England didn’t apply. In 1842 their youngest child, William, fell from a horse while riding alone and eventually contracted blood poisoning, according to Caroline because his wounds weren’t properly treated.   When it was clear he was dying, Norton sent for Caroline but the ten-year-old died before she could reach him.
Caroline continued to write pamphlets advocating social justice for women and changes in divorce laws, and listing her own difficulties with her husband.   “An English wife may not leave her husband’s house. Not only can he sue her for restitution of ‘conjugal rights’ but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge…and carry her away by force,” she wrote, and “Those dear children, the loss of whose pattering steps and sweet occasional voices made the silence of my new home intolerable as the anguish of death…what I suffered respecting those children, God knows…under the evil law which suffered any man, for vengeance or for interest, to take baby children from the mother.”
Because of Caroline’s efforts, Parliament passed the Custody of Infants Act in 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870.
An article in “A Celebration of Women Writers” says of Caroline Norton, “In attempting to change the law, Caroline Norton was faced with making the case that women existed AT ALL in a legal sense.  For the position of married women under the law was that they were ‘NON-EXISTENT’. The properties, the persons and the rights of English women were all subsumed into and controllable by their husbands, by law, upon marriage.”  That is why Caroline wrote:  “I exist and I suffer; but the law denies my existence.
George Norton died on March 20, 1875, freeing Caroline, then 67 years old, to marry again.  Two years later, on March 1st, 1877, she married Sir Willliam Stirling-Maxwell, who had been a good friend to her for 25 years.  She took ill and died three months later.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Today is World Smile Day!--The Harvey Ball Story


I think all of us could use a reason to smile about now, so I'm reminding you that today--the first Friday in October--is World Smile Day, started right here in Worcester by the man who invented the Smiley Face icon.   I'm re-posting the story of Harvey Ball, the artist who created the original Smiley Face fifty-three years ago and never made more than $45 from his creation.  Then, in 1999, disturbed by the crass commercialization of the Smiley, Harvey began World Smile Day--the first Friday in October every year--to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  So today, let's all try to do a random act of kindness--improving the world "one smile at a time." 



When three of Harvey Ball’s comrades were killed by a wayward shell as they stood next to him in Okinawa during World War II, he did not ponder if fate had saved him for a greater destiny.  Harvey, a tall, lanky, laconic Yankee from Worcester, Massachusetts, was not much given to introspection, socializing, talking, or even smiling.  But when he died in 2001 at the age of 79, Harvey had figured out his purpose in life.  As he told  People Magazine in 1998, “I taught the whole world how to smile.”
Harvey Ball, born and raised in Worcester, was the creator of the Smiley Face--that round yellow image that now beams out from Wal-Mart ads, Joe Boxer shorts and internet icons.  When, in December of 1963, he picked up a black pen and a yellow piece of paper and drew the world’s first Smiley Face, Harvey, a self-employed commercial artist, was working on an assignment from a Worcester insurance company suffering from employee discontent after a merger.  They wanted a campaign and buttons to raise company morale. They ordered 100 yellow Smiley Face buttons and then, when those disappeared almost over night, they ordered 10,000 more.
Harvey later figured out that his compensation for creating the Smiley Face button for the Worcester Mutual Insurance Company added up to about $45.   When the lawyers for the company tried to copyright the image eight years later, they learned that it was impossible, because the image, reproduced 50 million times in the year 1971 alone, was in the public domain.  By the mid-seventies, according to the curators of the Worcester Historical Museum, the image had fallen out of favor.
But Smiley made a significant comeback in the late 1980’s when interest in acid and other psychedelic drugs became a major cultural phenomenon. The icon was embraced by trendy downtown club kids.  Those who grew up in the 1970’s—today’s most desirable consumer demographic —view the image with nostalgia. (Some of them also think it was created by Forrest Gump, the fictional movie character.)  When votes were taken by the U.S. Post Office for icons to represent the decade of the 1970’s, the most popular image by far was Smiley, whose stamp was issued in 1999.
Brothers Murray and Bernard Spain of Philadelphia added the phrase “Have a Happy Day” and took in a reported one million dollars in sales of Smiley products in the first six months of 1971 alone.  In 1998, French Businessman Franklin Loufrani claimed that HE had created the image in 1971, and he proceeded to trademark the face in 80 countries.  When faced with Harvey Ball’s earlier creation, Loufrani replied with a Gallic shrug:  “I  don’t care if he designed the Smiley face.  We promote, we own, we market.” 
Riled up by “the France guy” as he put it,  Harvey in 1999 created World Smile Day—the first Friday in October-- to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  And he trademarked it. Harvey said, World Smile Day® is open to every person on the planet.  No matter what color they are, or who they might pray to, no matter what country they live in.  World Smile Day® simply asks each person to live the day with a generous heart, do one kind act, to help one person smile.  Acts of kindness and smiles are contagious."
Every reporter who interviewed Harvey Ball asked him the same question: was he angry that he never made more than $45 from the creation that could have made him very, very rich?  To every reporter he patiently gave pretty much the same reply: “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time.  I’m not ticked off about it.  I don’t mind getting up in the morning and going to work. They ask me why I’m not upset.  I just get satisfaction from it being so widely used and that it has given so many people pleasure.”
Even though he didn’t want to profit from it, Harvey Ball did want recognition for creating the image whose smile has been called more famous than the Mona Lisa’s.   He said  “Smiley is one of the greatest pieces of art ever created, as simple as it is.  It’s got a very, very positive message. Anybody can use it and reproduce it and it reaches everybody regardless of language, religion, nationality, all those things--as compared to some of the art you get today which you haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re looking at…I’m glad Smiley came from Worcester.  The city should make more of it.  Because no other city has this.”
After Harvey died in 2001 in Worcester, his son, Charles, said : “He was proud and pleased to have served his country and raise a family…He died with no apologies and no regrets.  His moral compass stayed on northh and never wavered."

And he left us the legacy of a smile.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Amalia’s Fairyland Birthday


When you’re almost six years old, nothing in the world is as important as the plans for your 6th birthday party.  Amalia had been planning her Fairyland Party all summer with her Mommy, who was busy researching and buying fairy-themed things on line and in nearby stores on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (especially Flying Tiger—a new store full of crazy stuff from Denmark.)

The invitations—found on Evite-- went out announcing “Once upon a time, Amalia turned six!”  But two days before the party, Amalia burst into tears because “This place doesn’t look like Fairyland!”

Yiayia arrived from Massachusetts,  Eleni started unpacking her purchases, and by the time eight of Amalia’s girlfriends and their parents and siblings were due to arrive on Sunday August 6th, the apartment on the 14th floor had turned into a magical place.

The hallway was lined with flowers and on the door was a poster welcoming all to “Amalia’s Fairy Party.”  (Eleni bought the poster on Etsy, downloaded it and had Kinko’s print it.)

 Inside there were fairy wings and a floral crown for everyone.  And face painting by Jennie

 Here’s Amalia in full regalia and face paint.

 A banner over the table read "I believe in unicorns”. 

On the table was a pyramid of cupcakes from “Two Little Red Hens” in the following flavors: carrot, (Amalia’s favorite), red velvet, chocolate with vanilla frosting, and vanilla with chocolate ganache. And every cupcake had a fairy on top.
As soon as the guests got their wings and crowns, they set to making crafty mosaics of castles.

Eleni had set up a photo booth where she took a Polaroid photo of each fairy to take home. 

There was also “Pin the Wand on the Fairy”, “Fairyland Bingo” and cookies that Amalia had made of fairies and unicorns, for the girls to decorate.   Farinella's delivered their Palam pizzas, which are rectangular and nearly as long as the dining room table.

The climax, of course, was when the candelabra of candles were lit, everyone sang “Happy Birthday”, and Amalia blew them out.
Afterwards, all the girls closed themselves into a bedroom and tore into the pile of wrapped gifts.

And a parting favor for each fairy was a necklace with a small crystal bottle of fairy dust hanging from it, which could be sprinkled wherever fairyland magic was needed.  The necklaces are in this photo, hanging from the “wings” hanger.

The Fairyland Party was enjoyed by all.  Amalia is already planning a Mermaid party for her seventh birthday.  Or maybe a Gymnastics party…


Sunday, September 10, 2017

American Horror Story and the Smiley Face Killers


On March 3, 2016, I posted an essay titled "Are the Smiley Face Killers Back?"  It was taken  from my still-unpublished  book about the history of the Smiley Face icon--part of the chapter I wrote about various criminals (including O.J. Simpson) who have used the Smiley Face as a signature near the scene of their crimes.  The essay I posted last March turned out to be the most popular post I ever did. To date it has garnered 104,976 hits and 47 comments.  (If  you want to read the comments--most of them from people who believe the Smiley Face killers are real--click on this link to see the original post. https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=5488052677647528167#editor/target=post;postID=698528054600824693   )

Then, last week, I read an article in The New York Times about the new season of "American Horror Story: Cult."  The season begins with Trump's victory on election night and the horror involves creepy clowns and "a rash of murders, the crime scenes marked with crimson happy faces" according to the Times.  Clearly the writers of this season's episodes are familiar with the alleged crimes of the real-or-not Smiley Face killers.  So I decided to re-post this essay, to see if anybody out there has evidence for or against the existence of these murderers.

I stopped watching "American Horror Story" at the beginning of the second season because it got too gory for me, but maybe I'll find the courage to watch this season.  Or maybe not.


On March 15, an article appeared in the Boston Globe that began: “State Police on Tuesday pulled the body of a 22-year-old Central Massachusetts man from the Charles River, ending a desperate search by family members and officials after he went missing last month while celebrating his birthday at a bar in Boston.”

The name of the young man was Zachary Marr. He was a student at Mount Wachusett Community College.  As soon as I saw this, I wondered if perhaps his death signaled a return of the fabled Smiley Face Killers gang.  I described the conflicting theories about the group in my not-yet-published book “The Saga of Smiley” in a chapter called “The Smiley Face Murders, the Happy Face Killer and O. J. Simpson.”  (Last month I posted about O. J.’s “suicide letter’ which he signed with a Smiley Face symbol.)

Here’s the section I wrote about the Smiley Face Killers:

As much as he may embody the phrase “don’t worry, be happy,” Smiley has sometimes been used as a symbol of the dark underside of society, appearing as an anti-hero in music, movies, even comics. And when it comes to Smiley, life has imitated art, as the happy face has been co-opted by some evil criminals who are all too real.

Smiley’s most famous link with crime is his role as an identifying mark left near the spots where the corpses of more than 40 college-aged men were fished out of freezing rivers or lakes during the decade of 1997-2007.  Inevitably, the unknown instigators of these deaths were referred to in the press and by investigators as the Smiley Face Killers (SFK for short).

In 1997, when 21-year-old Fordham University student Patrick McNeill wandered off from a night of bar-hopping in New York City and was found floating in the Hudson River three weeks later, his death was ruled a suicide, but his parents refused to believe it. 

Five years after that, in a similar tragedy, University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins, also 21, was found dead, encased in the ice of the Mississippi River four months after he vanished from a Halloween Party. His death, too, was ruled an accidental drowning; yet another college student who had too much to drink and then fell into a body of water. 

But two retired New York police detectives, who had been investigating a large number of drowned college-age men for years, considered Jenkins’ body the missing piece in a puzzle that connected at least 40 victims, who, they believed, were victims of a gang.  The young men were all found dead in winter in a body of water after a night of drinking.

Retired detectives Anthony Duarte and Kevin Gannon were on the track of what could be the biggest serial killing in U.S. history, which they attributed to a gang they called the Smiley Face Killers. In many of these cases, Smiley graffiti was found painted on a wall, tree or sidewalk near the point where each man was believed to have entered the water.



Duarte and Gannon claimed that the Smiley Face Gang had struck in at least 25 cities in 11 states in the U.S. since about 1997.  Virtually all of the 40 victims were athletic white college males; all were last seen leaving a party or bar with alcohol in their systems, then found dead in rivers or streams. Many attended colleges along the Interstate 94 corridor in the Midwest—in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa–and in 22 cases, a Smiley graffiti was scrawled nearby.  Each death had been ruled accidental by police.

Jenkins’ corpse convinced the detectives that his death was not accidental, because, when his frozen body was dredged from the Mississippi, his hands were folded across his chest in an odd pose that they said was inconsistent with an accidental drowning.

The parents of each of the 40 victims were convinced their sons had not died accidentally.  The press played up the story and detectives Gannon and Duarte appeared on television to discuss their theory.  “We believe they [the killers] were specifically leaving a clue for us or anyone who was paying attention to these drownings,” Detective Gannon told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He added that these were almost perfect crimes because the water washed away physical evidence.

In life, as on Law and Order, serial killers often like to leave a calling card, and criminologists told ABCNEWS.com that the sadistic Smiley is an example of the kind of signature typically left by psychopathic killers who derive sexual arousal from their killings and are so proud of their murders that they’ll do anything they can to get credit for them.

But Smiley aside, not everyone was convinced there was a pattern here. Police forces investigating the deaths disputed the “Smiley Face Gang” theory that the deaths were linked.  Criminal profiler Pat Brown scoffed that the Smiley faces found near the water were nothing more than coincidences.  “It’s not an unusual symbol,” she said to a reporter for a Minneapolis paper.  “If you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face.”

 On April 29, 2008, the F.B.I. issued a statement “regarding Midwest river deaths” which said in part: The FBI has reviewed the information about the victims provided by two retired police detectives, who have dubbed these incidents the “Smiley Face Murders,” … we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.

Their word may be law, but in this case, the FBI’s statement was not the final pronouncement on the Smiley Murders. On June 21, 2008, ABC News reported that Bill Szostak, whose son was found in the Hudson River, had written a petition aimed at getting elected leaders to call on the FBI to investigate not only his son's death, but also 43 similar cases in nine states; college men whose deaths had been ruled accidental drownings. He got 900 signatures on his petition the first day.

The FBI has not reopened their investigation, but parents of possible “Smiley Face” victims still maintain a number of web sites that post information about the nearly 100 young men who have died in similar circumstances.  These sites include a Facebook page called “the Smiley Face Killers,” which on April 24, 2013, posted an article from the Daily Mail saying that, “Police found the body of Brown student Sunil Tripathi, falsely accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber, in the Providence River in Boston.”

And just last week, a statement posted on the Smiley Face Killers Facebook page read:
March 15th, 2016, the body of Zach Marr, age 22, was pulled from the Charles River in Boston Massachusetts. Zach went missing on February 13th, 2016, and the circumstances are all too familiar. Zach was "Last Seen leaving the Bell in Hand Tavern, where he was hanging out with friends and family" only to disappear into the night without warning. One month later, his lifeless body is pulled from the river. We see the pattern time and time again, young male, out with friends, dead in water. Marr was a student at Mount Wachusett Community College, and Zach deserved a lot more out of a life that was cut short by the Smiley Face Killers. RIP Zach Marr.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Yiayia’s Travel Emergency Kit


Eleni, Amalia and Nico on the roof of their apartment building in Manhattan

Tomorrow  I’m headed to Kennedy airport  to travel with daughter Eleni and the grandkids Amalia (6) and Nicolas (2 ½) on our annual summer trip to Greece—a nine-hour overnight flight. (Eleni’s husband Emilio will be coming later and my husband—Papou Nick-- is already there.) 

Last year’s flight was the worst ever—none of us slept, our fellow passengers hated us and the flight attendants kept asking if there was anything we could do to stop Nico from crying.  That emergency was ended by showing him his favorite TV show-- "Lion Guard"—on my smart phone.

What I didn’t know last year was that both kids were getting over Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (also called Coxsackie Virus).  It hits children, usually under five, and goes away quickly, but in adults it's worse, especially  in older people with a compromised immune system—a good description of me last year by the time we got on the plane. Soon after arriving in Athens, I came down with fever, chills, blisters on hands feet and face, and by the time we left Greece, all my fingernails had come off.  (Eventually they grew back.)

This year’s flight to Athens has got to be better than last year’s, during which Nico, sitting on my lap and on his Mommy’s lap, watched the same Mickey Mouse cartoon five times.  Now that he’s over two, his parents have to pay for a seat for him.  


Amalia will be carrying a very clever travel aid designed for children between 40 and 80 pounds.  It’s called a Boostapak.  It looks like a backpack strapped to Amalia’s back, but turned over, it serves as a booster seat in a plane or car (secured by the vehicle’s seat belt.)  Inside the  Boostapak, Eleni keeps a change of clothes, a neck pillow in case Amalia falls asleep sitting up (Nico has one too), a vomit bag in case she throws up (which often happens on long car rides), a coloring book and some markers. 

Every long trip with little ones is a learning experience for this Yiayia.  Below in italics is an excerpt from a column I wrote in May of 2015, when I traveled with Eleni and the two kids to Florida on the book tour for her novel “The Ladies of Managua”, which she launched while on maternity leave from her job. Back then, Amalia was three and Nico was only seven weeks old.  The things in my emergency travel kit that applied to Amalia then are now more appropriate for Nico, but I’m happy to say that, although he was breastfed until he was two, he never had any interest in a pacifier, so losing the pacifier is no longer a cause for panic. 

(Written in Florida in 2015)
First emergency today: I pulled out a bright red and orange Indian print cotton dress to wear in the Florida heat. On the front was a white spot — the result of bleach or spit-up? From Amalia’s set of mini colored markers, which I carry for drawing pictures on napkins, I matched the color — the spot is gone until the next washing.

Yesterday, I noticed that the toes of my rope-soled espadrilles were starting to flap. Out came my mini-tube of Super Glue gel. I’ve used the stuff for everything from temporarily reattaching an automobile part to re-gluing acrylic fingernails.

Amalia has enjoyed more restaurants at three than I had at 18. She behaves well, aside from bellowing at the waiter, “I want bread and butter and water!” When her restaurant behavior gets too annoying, I hand her my smartphone, which has a series of animal puzzles  which I downloaded for free. She moves pieces with her fingers and is rewarded with electronic balloons to pop. For a real emergency, her mommy has kiddie TV programs downloaded to her phone.  (Update:  Nowadays Nico loves doing the animal puzzles and Endless Alphabet while Amalia has graduated to Berry Rush, Duolingo (for Spanish and English) and Peppa Pig’s Paintbox all loaded onto our phones.

Here are some more emergency tools from my toiletry case:

Band-Aids. Nearly any kind of boo-boo immediately feels better when you apply Band-Aids with a familiar character like Dora the Explorer, Doc McStuffins, those sisters from Frozen.  These character Band-Aids are more expensive, but can provide hours of fun—with kids sticking them on willing family members. Once, in a restaurant, a young mother complimented me on my colorful “bracelets” applied by Amalia, adding that she often wore the same.

Entertainment. Each child has his own favorite shows, whether it’s about trucks and trains, dinosaurs, or the beloved (by me and Amalia) “Doc McStuffins”, a girl who treats ailing toys while giving out health tips. Update:  Amalia now scorns Doc McStuffins as babyish, but longs to watch “P.J. Masks” and “Shimmer and Shine”—both of which her parents don’t allow.  But as I told her the other day, “The reason God invented Grandmas is to let children do things their parents don’t let them do--when the parents are out, or in case of emergency.”  Recently, when I was babysitting the two, I let them watch an episode of a certain taboo cartoon, and when the parents came in, Amalia stayed mum, but Nico, who rarely comes out with a whole sentence, burst out with “I do watch P.J. Masks!”  As his mommy observed, “Loose lips sink ships.”

One TV cartoon show that never fails to absorb both kids and yet has their parents’ approval is “Lion Guard.”  Nico knows the names of all the jungle characters, but I still can’t keep them straight.

Diapers. Most toddlers, at a certain age, become obsessed with the subject of poop. I generally travel with a flat, fold-up plastic potty seat for both sanitary and convenience reasons. But lately, Amalia scorns it, saying she can use a regular-sized toilet seat. When I bought the delightful book “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi and Amanda Mayer, she made me read it over and over. As for babies in diapers like Nicolas, there seems to be a growing trend toward cloth diapers and diaper services. Eleni and Emilio used them in both Manhattan and Miami (better for the environment and for the kid, etc). But even the most adamantly environmentalist parents have to use disposable diapers for travel — so eco-friendly parents insist on Naty and/or Seventh Generation organic diapers. 

Snacks. Whether headed to the South Pole or to Grandma’s house, we pack a supply of juice boxes and Amalia’s go-to snacks—Cheerios and Goldfish. She’ll eat strawberry yogurt as long as there aren’t chunks of strawberries(!) and it tastes best if Dora and Boots are on the container. I make sure that her flip-top plastic water cup really is watertight. (General rule for all things plastic—if it doesn’t have “BPA free“ printed on it, avoid it like the plague. )

An extra pacifier. The essential in every Grandma’s travel emergency kit is an extra pacifier. With first grandchild Amalia, I didn’t realize that pacifiers come in different sizes, and a panicked dash to the nearest pharmacy ended in disaster when I bought the wrong size. Wise grandmas know to get one of those straps that attach the pacifier to baby’s clothing and to carry an extra, just in case.  (Update: No more pacifiers, hallelujah!  One clever Mommy had a “farewell party” for the pacifier, tied it to a balloon and let it sail away while everyone waved good-bye.)

We also travel with a small bottle of children’s Tylenol, a thermometer for kids and small packets of hand wipes and baby wipes

And, of course, an iPad that allows us to access programming for kids when needed. Parents inevitably quote the rule about letting toddlers watch no more than one hour of screen time a day or their brain will be destroyed. As soon as you, a grandma,  realize that a TV set or computer screen will turn your granddaughter into a hypnotized zombie and give you some precious quiet time, you’ll start to feel like you’re her drug dealer. But you’ll do it.  

Now if only someone would invent barrettes for toddler girls that actually stay in.

Update: I promise to report on how the nine hours to Athens on an airplane goes this time, and if you have any tips on how to stay calm and in control when traveling with children, please pass them on!