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.