Shameless promotion time here. My new book The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past is now available in Kindle e-book format on Amazon and is also available at most bookstores and online as a trade paperback. While I’ve written on Ohio ghosts, mysteries, and oddities for years, this is my first book on national paranormal and fortean topics.
First the table of contents so you can get a sense of what is in the book. (Or, if you prefer, you could have your eyes bandaged with dough and muslin a la Kuda Bux and do a spot of psychic x-ray vision-ing.)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: Resurrecting the Long-Lost Fortean Tale
1. The Ghost Who Wanted Her Hand Back: The Demanding Dead
2. Death Angels and Banshees: Tokens of Death
3. A Bowl of Bloody Water: Traces of Terror
4. The Hoodoo Hat and Other Horrors
5. The Men In Black: Unearthly Entities
6. Killed by a Specter: Jacks and Giants
7. The Devil Went Down to Kentucky: Fiery Phantom Devils
8. A Face Blue and Terrible: Phantom Window Peepers
9. The Spook on a Bicycle: Spirits of Road and Trail
10. A Vat of Acid: Homicidal Hauntings
11. The Wild Man of Stamford and Other Fortean Mysteries
12. Daughters of Darkness: The Women in Black
An epigram by Andrew Lang heads the introduction: “The stories continue to be told and our business is with the stories.” First and foremost, I was interested in a good story. This is also a book about the paranormal obsessions and preoccupations of the past. Just as today we ghost-hunt and ponder UFOs and Bigfoot trail-cam photos—and media is full of stories about these subjects–we find patterns in Victorian and Edwardian media: ghosts who want something or who leave physical traces, death omens, “hoodoos,” and a whole host of unearthly entities including the little-known Women in Black, who terrorized communities all over the country.
Another modern theme that runs throughout the stories is the conflict between “superstition” and scientific thought. Many of the narrators of these stories state: “I am not superstitious, but….” We find people wrestling over and over with the question of superstition vs. experience. “Superstition” is seen as the provenance of the poor, the uneducated and the unassimilated immigrant. The 19th century lauded the self-educated and self-made man. Reason was paramount. Superstition was equated with ignorance. While not wanting to be tarred with the ectoplasmic brush of the Spiritualists or the irrational, respectable people became baffled witnesses to the uncanny and inexplicable. It troubled them.
This book takes me a bit out of my comfort zone. While writing about Ohio, I criss-crossed the state, visiting nearly all of the places I wrote about. That was not physically possible with this book and I worry about not having first-hand local knowledge. I hope that those anomalists-on-the-spot will be kind if they spot any errors.
The biggest surprise in the research for The Ghost Wore Black was the many strange types of ghosts described—well beyond the traditional white-sheeted ghost. There were giant ghosts carrying clubs, black-cloaked attackers and Men in Black, fiery devils, phantom gnomes, and several completely unclassifiable creatures.
One of the more interesting chapters—that of the bizarre sightings of flaming devils in Bracken County, Kentucky–was inspired by that distinguished anomalist Theo Paijmans, whose article on the devils I found online. I was all excited about the vintage article I’d “discovered,” then, as usual, found that everybody else was way ahead of me. I’m a long-time subscriber to Fortean Times, but somehow I had forgotten reading Paijmans’s article on the devils, with its helpful list of references to similar cases. I don’t know that I have found a solution to the devils—but have uncovered some intriguing [devil’s] food for thought.
The road ghosts also stood out in this volume for their variety: a phantom prairie schooner driven by a skeletal driver through Richmond, Texas; a thrilling race between a living wheelman and a phantom bicyclist; a genteel lady ghost on a trolley car; the many faceless walkers of the road.
The ghosts associated with murders were lurid and fascinating: The Sausage King of Chicago who dissolved his wife in a vat of acid, the gentle Mrs. Druse, who was so handy with a knife when she needed to dismember her still-living husband, or a tragic story of a woman who murdered her children: a tale in which we can see the shift from truth into murder-ballad folklore.
There are some bizarre curiosities here, like a dead woman fussing over being buried in the wrong dress, a beloved daughter supposedly reincarnated as a partridge, the zombified corpse of a vengeful wife, a girl who married a ghost, and a variety of lethal hoodoos.
The book’s last chapter, which may end up as a book spin-off, is “Daughters of Darkness: The Women in Black.” I wrote about these sinister apparitions of veiled women in mourning clothing in The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales, covering, of course, just Ohio cases. In “Daughters of Darkness,” I give some representative examples from around the country, but focus on a cluster of sightings in the Pennsylvania coal country. I’m not a sociologist or anthropologist, but despite my lack of professional credentials, I find widespread “panics” like this to be a fascinating study particularly with reference to the form of the entity. Why would ghost-like Victorian widows suddenly pop up all over the country? I’m sure that the many distinguished scholars of panics will say things about social stresses, societal tensions, etc. But why a widow? Why not a Grim Reaper or a Banshee or a standard white-sheeted ghost? In some ways the Women in Black are the female equivalent of panic-inducing entities like Spring-heeled Jack. The apparitions spread swiftly from village to village in the meme-like or viral fashion we talk about today and they generated fear that seems bafflingly disproportionate to their actual threat. I’ll be posting this week on another Woman in Black case to give you a sense of the panic.
In The Ghost Wore Black, you’ll find some stories you previously read in this blog: The Wild Man of Stamford and The Ghost Map of Gainesville, for example. A few pieces appeared in my Mrs Daffodil Digresses blog, like The Ghost Who Ordered a Hat and The Girl Who Married a Ghost. But the majority of the stories are new and, I hope, new to you. As usual I’ve tried to add context and explain contemporary references.
One frustrating aspect in researching books like this might be summed up as “All the good stories are fakes,” which sounds like it ought to be on a t-shirt. What I mean by this statement is that there are many semi-literary productions printed as true stories in the papers of the past. This can make verification hit-or-miss. I use various records like the census and cemetery logs as much as possible just to see if the individuals mentioned in a story actually existed, which isn’t foolproof, but it helps weed out some of the more egregious frauds. And, let us be frank, it is sometimes as helpful to recognize the patterns of fake Fortean stories as it is to identify genuine ones.
I expect there will be more books, both from the United States and around the country. Which one would you prefer first: When the Banshee Howls (world-wide coverage) or The Victorian Book of Death (morbid stories on burial alive, funereal oddities, and horrid deaths)? Or, another United States book that covers the states I’ve missed so far? Vote in the comments section or send a message to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. No banshees please. The neighbourhood has a noise ordinance.
Before I finish, I want to thank Dr Beachcombing at strangehistory.net for his encouragement to expand my Fortean horizons beyond Ohio. Here’s his review. Many thanks! (I’m coming for your country next…) And here are two more reviews, from The Magonia Review of Books and Strange Company
Here’s the blurb from the back of the book, just for additional info.
Ripped from the Headlines of the Past…
Chris Woodyard, author of the popular Haunted Ohio and Ghosts of the Past series, presents a new collection of all-American Victorian and Edwardian ghosts, evil entities, Fortean mysteries, and the paranormal panics and obsessions of long ago. There are apparitions of fiery devils, giant ghosts with clubs, Men and Women in Black, death omens, uncanny objects, ghostly murder victims, and ghastly phantom faces peering in windows, all resurrected from original 19th-century sources.
- · The sinister Women in Black who terrorized communities across the country
- · Fiery devils roaming Bracken County, Kentucky
- · The Wild Man of Stamford—madman or myth?
- · Banshees in Indiana
- · The girl who married a ghost
- · A phantom bicyclist who raced with the living
- · The bloody handprints left by a ghost in San Francisco
- · An angel of death who appeared at a Louisville insane asylum
- · And many more long-lost tales of ghosts, hauntings, and mysteries from across America.
States included and the number of stories from each: Alabama (1), Alaska (1), California (4), Connecticut (7), Delaware (2), Georgia (4), Illinois (8), Indiana (19), Iowa (5), Kansas (2), Kentucky (8), Maryland (5), Massachusetts (9), Michigan (3), Minnesota (3), Mississippi (2), Missouri (2), Montana (2), Nebraska (2), New Hampshire (2), New Jersey (2), New Mexico (2), New York (6), Ohio (8), Oklahoma (2), Pennsylvania (22), Tennessee (1), Texas (8), Vermont (2), Virginia (4), West Virginia (3),Wisconsin (2)
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.