Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 1 · October 2002
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"In their quest for spooky stories, ghost tour guides mine sources overlooked by most other heritage tour operators. We could do worse than a ghost tour for a lesson in local history."

Spooky Streets
Erik R. Seeman

Part I | II

Ghost tour guides like to present themselves as historians. Even the kookiest tour guide I've encountered highlights his scholarly approach to research. Jim Fassbinder of the San Francisco Ghost Hunt dresses for his tours in an all-black outfit that conjures the image of a nineteenth-century itinerant preacher—or maybe a patent-medicine huckster. Fassbinder has a goatee and flowing locks, a tall top hat, a long leather Dickensian coat, and a black bag with the words "GHOST HUNT" in silver studs.


Fig. 2. Promotional graphic for the San Francisco Ghost Hunt depicting Jim Fassbinder

He gets plenty of attention in this garb, even in San Francisco. But once Fassbinder begins his tour, he adopts a scholarly demeanor. He starts by assuring us, "all the stories you hear are very well documented." Later he re-emphasizes the thoroughness of his research: he knows a particular woman did not die in the Queen Anne Hotel because he "checked all the records."

And like professional historians, ghost tour guides accuse one another of plagiarism. Jim McCabe of Boston is one of the most affable fellows you're likely to meet, but his voice turns icy when he tells me about being ripped off by a rival tour outfit. According to McCabe, a more established tour group sent a representative to take his tour and, unbeknownst to McCabe, the man was a mole, complete with tape recorder. The rival group now runs a suspiciously similar tour—they even copied his promotions!

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Like historians, ghost tour guides are also outsiders to mainstream heritage tourism. Even though they are part of the heritage tourism industry, they generally have no chamber of commerce connections and no particular incentives to put their cities in a favorable light. Indeed, their focus on the paranormal requires them to delve into the seamier side of history. This means not just unsolved murders and grisly suicides, but slave pens and violations of Indian burial grounds. I suspect that for many tourists the resulting picture of early American history is very different from what they received in high school. For some tour guides this educational purpose is not merely incidental. As Elaine Flynn of D.C. proudly told our group of twenty-two tourists, such subject matter "is not just politically correct but correcting political history."

Consider the story told by Mike Brown of The Original Charleston Walks. Drawing on the lowcountry's culture of Gullah—a creole language with African and English elements spoken by slaves and their descendants—Brown gives tourists chills with his description of boo hags. These freaky vampires without skin enter your house through a keyhole or crack, sit on your chest while you sleep, and suck your breath. If successful, the boo hag inhabits your skin and causes you to hunt for more victims.

The climax of Brown's story is that the presence of boo hags is tied to Charleston's long history of racial inequality. Much of Charleston today is built upon reused land, some of which was colonial-era slave graveyards. Boo hags are most often found, Brown insists, above these displaced burial grounds. Tourists come away with a striking metaphor for how Charleston's past racial sins suck the life out of its present self-satisfied sense of heritage-based dignity.

Thirty-five miles west of Boston, Jim McCabe's "Colonial and Native American Spirits" tour likewise connects past injustice with present pain. In the Scratch Flat section of Littleton (immortalized in John Hanson Mitchell's 1984 environmentalist classic Ceremonial Time), McCabe weaves a tale grounded in millennia of Indian occupation. Many Indian spirits haunt the area, according to local residents. One reason for all this ghostly activity is the tragic history of Nashoba, a "Praying Town" of Christian Indians established by the Puritan missionary John Eliot. During King Philip's War of 1675-76, many Puritans saw Christian Indians as a dangerous fifth column. So the entire village of Nashoba was rounded up and herded to Deer Island in Boston Harbor, the infamous prison isle where hundreds of Indians were interned and dozens of Indian corpses were interred. One Nashoba Indian in particular, Tom Dublet, is said to have cursed Nashoba—now Scratch Flat—because of the shabby treatment he received.

Ghosts linger above Scratch Flat, tormenting the locals and providing plenty of fodder for McCabe's tales. One of his favorites is that the ghosts seem to have disrupted several development attempts, including a massive office park planned but never completed by Cisco Systems. McCabe and residents seem to believe the story of the antidevelopment spirits, but a spokesperson for Cisco is less impressed by the ghost of Tom Dublet. "We don't have a policy," she says, "regarding predictions from medicine men."

Like Scrooge meeting Clio, Ghosts of History Past haunt these tours. In their quest for spooky stories, ghost tour guides mine sources overlooked by most other heritage tour operators. We could do worse than a ghost tour for a lesson in local history.

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This cautiously celebratory reading of ghost tours must be tempered, however, by the recognition that such tours ultimately reproduce some of the most troubling facets of early American society. Euro-American colonists, like tour guides today, were fascinated by the deathways of Others they encountered in North America. Whites collected Indian ghost stories, drew pictures of slave funerals, and recorded the deathbed words of countless Indians. Sometimes this Euro-American interest was respectful and driven by a desire for cross-cultural understanding. Experience Mayhew, an eighteenth-century Christian missionary to the Indians of Martha's Vineyard, immersed himself so fully in Indian society—spending his entire life on the island and speaking Wampanoag like a native—that he seems to have absorbed the Indian belief in ghosts' presence at deathbeds and forgotten the orthodox Protestant skepticism toward the same. He recorded without comment the appearance of "two bright shining Persons, standing in white Raiment" at the deathbed of an elderly native woman named Ammapoo.

Sometimes, though, there were darker motives in Euro-Americans' descriptions of nonwhites' deathways. African American funeral practices were often Exhibit A when authors made the case for slaves' alleged barbarity and lack of fitness for freedom. Such was the intent of British proslavery writer Bryan Edwards when he wrote about people of African descent in the West Indies in the late eighteenth century. According to Edwards "their funeral songs and ceremonies are commonly nothing more than the dissonance of savage barbarity and riot." Even antislavery authors like Frederick Law Olmstead betrayed their racism when they described African American funerals. In 1861 Olmstead was impressed by what he viewed as the primitive simplicity of slave funerals: "I was deeply influenced myself by the unaffected feeling, in connection with the simplicity, natural, rude truthfulness, and absence of all attempt at formal decorum in the crowd." Olmstead's condescending attitude turned downright hostile when he discussed the slave preacher at this funeral: "I never in my life, however, heard such ludicrous language as was sometimes uttered by the speaker."

In parallel fashion, Indian ghosts haunted early American literature, as Renée Bergland's The National Uncanny (Hanover, N.H., 2000) has recently demonstrated. From the beginning of the colonial period, many whites equated the Indian inhabitants of North America with a satanic presence. As Cotton Mather wrote in 1692, witches "generally say [the Devil] resembles an Indian." By the nineteenth century, dead and dying Indians—along with their spectral incarnations—helped perpetuate the tragic and romantic myth of the vanishing Indian. Many Euro-American colonists seemed most comfortable with Indians once they were dead; their very deaths seemed to prove Indians' incompatibility with the march of Euro-American civilization. Fictional Indian characters were often rendered speechless as they died, as was Uncas in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Wind-Foot in Walt Whitman's Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (1842). Granted no dying words by their white authors, Uncas and Wind-Foot were the epitome of the vanishing Indian.

Today, ghost tours aren't so obviously implicated in these patterns. But they do tend to exoticize all things Indian and African, including their dead. That tour outfits profit from the grim history of interracial misunderstanding is still another disturbing legacy.

And there's another, simpler reason ghost tours sometimes make my skin crawl. Despite the power of stories like the boo hag and the curse of Tom Dublet, tour guides feel the need to keep the patrons happy and the banter light. So they jump from deep reflections on the meaning of history to goofy jokes and magic tricks. History Dark, History Lite.

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Sit some day in Warren Square, one of Savannah's beloved little parks. Gaze across the street at the understated beauty of the early-federal-style John David Mongin House (1793). Admire its graceful entryway and its classic sense of proportion and symmetry. And then think of those in chains who toiled in the sticky heat to build this house, think of those who died in the fields at Bloody Point on Daufuskie Island to give the Mongin family its wealth, and try to keep the goose bumps from rising on your arms.

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