Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Ghost of Helena Blunden

Helena’s ghost is famous as the “Ghost of the Old Irish Linen Mill.” She died in the spring of 1912 in a tragic fall. 

Many people feel that her spirit haunts the linen mill where she worked. Today the employees at the printing company that is based out of this Belfast mill have reported eerie and unusual encounters with Helena’s ghost.

Helena Blunden was born in 1816 in Ireland, shortly after her family moved to England where she grew up. When she was 16 years old, her family moved back to Ireland. 

They settled in a small house in the old market area of Belfast. Her uncles arranged for her to work at a linen mill near their new home.

Helena was a hard worker and had a cheerful personality. She quickly became popular among her mill co-workers. Helena loved to recite poetry and plays while working. She also was an excellent dancer. 

Her favorite occupation was singing songs that were popular in London music halls at that time.

Helena worked a 60-hour workweek, Monday through Saturday. She kept her spirits up with the thought that one day she would work as an entertainer upon the stage. Her father encouraged her aspirations, but her mother frowned upon her eldest daughter’s ambitions. 

Her fellow mill workers especially appreciated Helena’s talents because she entertained them by reciting, dancing, singing, which broke up the monotony.

The mill that Helena worked for was new and struggling, so they went out of their way to impress. It was their double damask linen tablecloths that were used in the fancy first-class dining room on the Titanic. 

The mill workers to finish special orders for their employers often worked on Sundays. It was on one such Sunday in April of 1912 that Helena was working to help complete a special order for Argentina.

Helena was especially she was to attend a concert at the Grand Opera house that evening. In anticipation, she sang while she worked. 

At 2:00 p.m. Helena realized that her work would not be done by 6:00 p.m. Concerned, she realized that there would not be enough time between finishing her job and going to the concert. She kept her shoes on so she would be ready to leave as soon as her work was done.

In April the mill’s temperature would start to rise. In the spinning room on the top floor where Helena worked the heat was often intolerable. 

This heat resulted in condensation forming on the walls and floors. 

An older mill worker, Margaret Maxwell, who could no longer do her usual work in the flax house, was assigned in the afternoons to wipe and mop the moisture off the mill's walls and stairs. 

Margaret was a tough woman who in her youth had brawled with both women and men in the street.

She defied anyone who dared to walk on her floors as she mopped. She frightened the younger workers in the mill, and she had taken an immediate dislike to Helena’s optimism. 

She was often heard deriding Helena’s songs. The two women had clashed on more than one occasion.

On this Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Helena finally finished her work and headed down the flight of stairs joyfully, she didn’t see the mop that Margaret had left on the steps. 

Margaret listened to Helena’s shriek and watched as she tripped and fell over the banister and down to the ground floor. When Margaret approached, Helena was dead.

A printing company is housed in the mill’s pure Flax House today. One of the companies’ workers, Paul McAvoy started to hear thumps, boxes moving, doors opening with no one entering, and footsteps on the building’s wooden floors. 

At first, McAvoy did not think much about it, but then the ghost touched him. 

One Sunday morning as he ran the press, he heard what he thought was a co-worker entering the pressroom. He didn't look up from his work until he felt someone tap him on his right shoulder four times. Startled, he realized no one was in the room with him.

Since, he has heard a female voice call his name, especially in the mill’s basement. When he and fellow workers investigate, no one is there or outside. 

McAvoy feels the ghost is a woman because her voice is feminine, and she walks softly on the mill’s wooden floors. He has stated that this ghost does not frighten him. Many feel this spirit is Helena Blunden.

One eerie occurrence that happens regularly involves the printing company's lights and radios. 

Each evening as the company is closed down for the day the lights and radios are all turned off, but inevitably the next morning the lights are on, and the radios are blaring as the first employee enters. 

The sightings of Helena's ghost are so frequent a web camera was placed in the building and left on for 24 hours, seven days a week, for over a year. During this time Helena’s apparition was spotted between eight to twelve times a month.

One final note: a linen bundle was discovered by accident that contained a 100-year old recording with a newspaper review of Helena Blunden’s singing talent. This recording is Helena singing “Pie Jesu,” it was made in January of 1912 just three months before her tragic death.

Here is a link to the recording:

Monday, December 26, 2011

Northern Woods Legend: The Wendigo

The Wendigo, sometimes spelled Windigo, is a favorite campfire ghost story. I first encountered it when reading Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Schwartz's version is a shorter version than the story that was written by the horror writer Algernon Blackwood called “The Wendigo.” Blackwood didn’t originate the story. 

It was told for many years among the American Indians tribes that live in the Great Lakes region, specifically in Minnesota.

The story of the Wendigo is also told in Canada. In Ontario near the town of Kenora, traders, trackers and trappers have spotted this creature for many decades. 

Many hunters and campers in the Northern Woods of Minnesota have also told tales of their encounters with this mysterious creature.

The Algernon Blackwood version is considered by some to be the scariest version. The Schwartz version is a nice one to read if you are not familiar with this story. 

In this post I share a Native American version of the Wendigo, it is different than Blackwood’s and Schwartz's tales.

According to Native American legend the Wendigo once was human but was magically transformed into a strange creature. 

The Wendigo is described as being a giant spirit or ghost standing over fifteen feet tall. It is often stated that it has glowing eyes, long yellow fanged teeth, a very long tongue, and matted hair. It is also said the Wendigo is driven by an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

The legend states that the poor souls who have been turned into Wendigos are doomed to this form because they ate human flesh while alive in order to survive. In fact, some state that this legend is meant to be a cautionary tale warning against cannibalism. 

Over the years there have been a large number of sightings of this creature, which have resulted in the legend being kept alive.

Early western settlers often reported seeing a “banshee-like” creature, they feared its appearance because they believed this meant that there was to be a death in their community. So the Wendigo to them was a harbinger. 

Rosesu, a small Northern Minnesota town reported sightings of the Wendigo near their community from the late 1900’s into the early 1920s and each time right after these sightings an unexpected death would occur.

As recently as the last century, Native Americans still believed in the existence of the Wendigo. One Cree Indian, Jack Fiddler, stated that he had seen the creature many times in his lifetime. 

The beliefs that the Wendigo seeks human flesh, and that it is a portent of doom still persist today.

Here is one Native American tale about the Windigo.

It had been a long harsh winter with snowstorms that left behind large drifts. When the latest storm briefly broke a father sent his son to hunt for much needed food. The son keeping his spear and knife close looked for any trace of animal tracks in the snow.

The forest was oddly quiet, gleaming with snow and ice. As the son moved through the trees he heard a strange hissing sound. It seemed to come from everywhere. He spotted blood-soaked footprints in the path in front of him. He sensed the Windigo was watching him.

He knew about this creature because his father had described it to him as a child. It was as large as a tree, with a lipless mouth and jagged teeth. As it breathed it hissed. 

It had matted hair that was often covered in a long white robe. A star mark on its forehead. The creature's footprints always trailed blood. It was known to kill and eat any human that crossed its path.

The son knew if he didn't prevail he would die. He backed away slowly from the hissing sound. He gripped his spear in one hand and his knife in the other. 

A snow bank next to him erupted as the creature leapt at him. He rolled quickly through the snow to one side, the white snow that now covered him concealed him from view.

The Windigo whipped his massive frame around quickly looking for him. The son threw his spear striking the creature squarely in the chest. The Windigo grunted and easily shook the spear off. The son hid behind a small tree as the creature continued to search for him.

The Windigo approached his hiding place. His sharp eyes spotted the boy's outline against the tree. The creature bent toward him, its long arms reaching out. 

The son taking his last chance raced forward and embraced the creature at the same time thrusting his knife deeply into the Windigo’s eye. It screamed in pain as the knife twisted deeper into his brain. The creature tried to pull the boy off his chest but the son stubbornly clung to him stabbing one eye and then the other again and again.

The Windigo finally collapsed to the ground crushing the boy beneath him. The son pulled himself loose and stood staring down at the creature. Its form started to fade against the snow, only the blood pouring from its eyes and ears showing any contrast to the snow. The figure completely disappeared leaving just a pool of blood where it fell.

The boy, shaken, tired and still terrified headed for home. The fates were with him because at the edge of the wood a fat red fox appeared. With a prayer of thanksgiving the son killed the fox and took it home to his starving family. 

This meat lasted for several days. When the last winter storm had come and gone the son could once again hunt for food.

Friday, December 23, 2011

BBC Ghost Stories Aired at Christmastime

M.R. James, Montague Rhodes James, wrote several collections of short ghost stories in the early 1900s. He was a medieval scholar and for many years the Provost of King’s College. The ghost stories he wrote he shared with his students at Eton on Christmas Eve, which is a long standing tradition in England.

His tales unlike today’s horror stories were quiet in comparison. His stories did though amp up the horror quotient for his day. He wrote about demons, murderous zombies as well as spirits. He shared these bloodcurdling tales from 1918 until the late 1930s. One of his stories Casting the Runes became the 1950s film "Curse of the Demon," which in turn inspired Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell.”

The BBC adapted several of his stories for their annual television Christmas Ghost Story, which was aired in Great Britain from 1971 until 1978 in the month of December. They were shown under the title "A Ghost Story for Christmas." In 2005, BBC Four revived them during the Christmas season. Even today, these episodes are still remembered with fondness in the United Kingdom. Most are not available to buy or rent but YouTube has parts of many of them.

My favorite one first aired in 1976 and was the first non-M.R. James one shown in the series. It was adapted from a Charles Dickens’s story entitled, The SignalmanIt starred Denholm Elliott. It is about a railroad signalman who tells a curious traveller (I spell it traveler) how he has been troubled by a ghostly spectre (I spell it specter) that seems to predict calamity. This specter is a “harbinger”, which is a favorite theme of mine.
I like this story because the horror is subtle—it leaves it up to the viewer’s imagination, which in the long run is much more scary.

Below are the YouTube videos in 4 parts that show the episode in its entirety.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Norway’s Christmas Ghost Tradition

Long before the idea of Santa Claus was imported to Norway by department stores that wanted to increase their year-end sales, Christmas in Norwegian folk tradition was a time associated with ghosts. Norwegians believed the ghosts of their ancestors returned to their earthly homes in midwinter. Until the late 19th century straw was left in many homes for these invisible “guests” to sleep on during the holiday season, bread was left out as well for them to eat.

In a popular fairy tale a family was regularly chased out of their home by a horde of invading Christmas ghosts. The ghosts were finally gotten rid of when a white bear outwitted them, the ghosts then left never to return. This folk tradition was so strong within the Norwegian culture at Christmas that even the Reformation could not dispose of it—even though the Lutherans tried.

This Christmas tradition was so solidly embedded within the Norwegian belief system that many Norwegians viewed Christmas with a sense of dread. The belief that ghosts and other normally hidden beings returned at Christmas scared so many that it drove many Norwegians to seek comfort in each other’s company on Christmas Eve. They would band together and share a bed of straw on a farmhouse floor.

Even though the Reformation failed to change this Christmas belief, the passage of years did. Norwegian apprehension finally subsided but the telling of ghost stories remained a favorite at Christmas, not only in Norway but in many other parts of the Christian world as well—including colonial and frontier America. The Norwegian folk tradition, of welcoming returning ghosts into the home, lasted from the early Vikings until the industrial age in the early 1900s.

The tradition of providing a comfortable straw bed for these ancestral spirits arose with the belief that if these ghosts were not kept happy they might take action against the homeowner. The straw that was used for these beds took on such magical qualities that it was not thrown out after Christmas. Instead it often was spread in the fields to improve the upcoming harvest or given to sick cattle as medicine. It was also woven into ornamental crosses.

In Norway today what remains of this folk tradition is decorating with straw ornaments at Christmastime. In particular, a mobile or crown is made out of several rings of straw, many diamond or angel shaped ornaments are hung from this. These are made from Yule straw, which is a throwback to the straw that each family laid out for their ghostly visitors.

Ghost Ship: The Flying Dutchman

The tale of the Flying Dutchman has been told for 100s of years. The phantom vessel in this story is always seen during stormy weather off the Cape of Good Hope or in the North Sea. 

The term “Flying Dutchman” actually refers to the captain not the ship he sails. There are many versions of his story. The two told most often follow.

One legend states that a very stubborn Dutch sea captain was struggling to round the Cape of Good Hope. He had fought a strong head wind all day, when other vessels asked if he would take refuge in the bay he laughed and shook his fist at the wind and swore he would not give up. 

His crew pleaded with him to head to safety but the captain appearing to be mad refused to change course.

The captain broke into obscene songs, before heading below to his cabin to drink beer and smoke his pipe. Monstrous waves pummeled the sides of the ship, howling winds bent the masts and tore the sails, but still the captain held his course. 

To the crew’s horror he even challenged the wrath of God by swearing a blasphemous oath.

His men feeling the captain was surely mad, mutinied. But the drunken captain was awakened by the clamor and shot and killed the leader of the rebellion. He threw his body overboard. 

Legend states that the moment the body hit the water a shadowy figure appeared on the quarterdeck of the ship. A voice stated, “You are a very stubborn man.” The captain insolently replied, “I never asked for a peaceful passage, I never asked for anything. So clear off before I shoot you too.”

The figure didn’t move. Drawing his pistol, the captain tried to fire but the gun exploded in his hand. 

The figure spoke once more, “for this you are accursed, because of your actions you are condemned to sail the oceans for eternity, with a ghostly crew of dead men. You will bring death to all who spot your spectral ship and you will never be allowed to make port or know a moments peace. Furthermore, gale should be your drink, and red hot iron your meat.”

Defiant to the end the captain replied, “Amen to that.”

The second maritime version of this story always leaves out a lot of details. Again, the captain has been fighting the storm all day and refuses to take refuge in port. 

In this version he makes a rash bet with the devil for his soul that he can make it around the cape. He loses the bet and is doomed to sail for all eternity. 

In sightings, the captain is described as being alone on the ship; he is often described as being slumped over, as if he carries the weight of the world on his back. 

Witnesses have even reported seeing him place the initial bet with the devil, by rolling the dice over and over. He is heard pleading for mercy.

In both versions the the captain and his ship become the classic harbinger. It is always stated that those seamen who encounter him are cursed or doomed. 

Each version of the Flying Dutchman has him named differently: Van der Decken, Fokkeis, Van Demien, and Van Straaten etc.

For centuries the Flying Dutchman has been seen by witnesses piloting his spectral ship, it is most often spotted during violent wind storms. 

Some reports state the captain and his ship have led other ships astray, onto rocky shoals and hidden reefs. It is believed sightings of this phantom turns other ships' food supplies sour. 

This warning is always given-- even though this ship looks innocent other vessels should not draw alongside. The reason for this is if other ships accept letters to be delivered and these letters are opened by the living their ship’s will then flounder. 

Witnesses who have reported seeing the captain describe him as bareheaded, and clasping the wheel on the quarterdeck. He is always heard pleading to the heavens for mercy. 

Other witnesses have described in detail a crew of skeletons in the rigging, grinning miserably as they put on more sail. 

A recent reported sighting of the Flying Dutchman's ship was by a German submarine boat during World War ll. 

Yet another sighting occurred in 1835. A British ship spotted the phantom sails approaching them during a violent storm. The ship came so close that the British crew feared they might collide with the ghostly vessel but it vanished suddenly.

In July of 1881, the Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Bacchante was rounding the tip of Africa, when they spotted the Flying Dutchman's ship. A young midshipman, a prince who later became King George V, recorded that a lookout and officer of the watch both had seen the eerie vessel.

“A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which the mast, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief.”

The lookout succumbed to the curse for he fell from the mast and died.

As recently as March of 1939 the Flying Dutchman's ship was seen by dozens of sunbathers off the coast of South Africa. 

These witnesses supplied specific details and descriptions of the ship although most had never seen a 17th century merchant ship. Following is one account:

“With uncanny volition, the ship sailed steadily on as the Glencaim beach folk stood keenly discussing the whys and wherefores of the vessel. Just as the excitement reached its climax, however, the mystery ship vanished into thin air as strangely as it had come.”

The last recorded sighting of the this ghostly vessel was in 1942 off the coast of Cape Town. Four witnesses saw the ship sail into Table Bay and then disappear.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Haunted Bisbee Arizona

In 1825 Hugh Jones discovered a faint green line of copper ore in the Mule Mountains in southern Arizona. He was looking for silver, so he ignored this strain and went on. What Jones didn’t know was that he had stumbled upon the richest pocket of copper in the world.

George Warren
In the late 1870s a civilian scout by the name of Jack Dunn was on a scouting mission with the U.S. Calvary. He and this troop were camped for the night near a spring in the Mule Mountains. While taking a walk after eating Dunn picked up several interesting rocks near what is today Castle Rock. 

Too busy at the time to do anything about it Dunn later filed a claim and confided his find to George Warren, a prospector. The two men became partners agreeing Warren would search the area for more claims.

Warren on his way stopped to visit friends, he got drunk and revealed Dunn’s discovery. When Dunn checked back later he found that Warren had betrayed him, he and several other men were already working in the area. When Dunn discovered that Warren had filed additional claims and left him out of the deal, he sold his claim for $4,000 and left the area.

George Warren later bet one of his claims on a foot race, which he lost. This claim eventually became known as the “Copper Queen,” which over the years produced millions of dollars in copper ore. Ironically, Warren is cited as the “founder” of the mining industry in the Mule Mountains—Dunn’s part is lost to history. Warren’s image is on Arizona’s state seal.

As more claims were staked, several mining camps in the Mule Mountains were established, two of these were Mule Gulch and Brewery Gulch. These camps nestled amidst the mountains were later incorporated into the town of Bisbee, Arizona.

By the 1880s investors were sought for the area, one of these was Judge Dewitt Bisbee who purchased the Copper Queen Mine. The town of Bisbee was named after him. The judge lived in San Francisco and ironically never visited his namesake. 

Phelps Dodge Corporation became a dominant force among the investors and eventually took over the entire operation under the name Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company.

The Queen Mine was mined for almost 100 years, by the time it closed down in 1975 the medals it produced were valued at 6.1 million dollars. 

Besides 8 billion pounds of copper the mine also produced 2.8 million ounces of gold, 77 million pounds of silver, 30 million pounds of lead, and 371 million pounds of zinc.

While in production the Queen Mine attracted a melting pot of immigrant miners from around the world. These men labored beneath the Mule Mountains to feed the endless demand for copper and electricity. 

Bisbee’s Evergreen Cemetery reflects this human history. Italians, Hispanics, Serbs, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish miners all came to Bisbee looking for opportunity.

In the early 1900s, Bisbee was the largest town between St. Louis and San Francisco. The city and its surrounding areas had a population of 20,000 people. 

Unlike the rough mining camps nearby, Bisbee was cultured. It had Arizona’s first community library, opera house, ball fields, and golf course. Bisbee became known as “Little San Francisco.”

In contrast, Brewery Gulch one of the adjoining mining camps mentioned above had 47 saloons and its fair share of “shady ladies.” It was considered the liveliest spot between El Paso and San Francisco.

In 1951 the Lavender Pit was opened. It is named after the Mine Manager at the time, Harrison Lavender not the lavender colored hues that reflect off its walls. 

It was the first open pit mine in Arizona and was developed to increase yield. In this pit was found some of the most exquisite pieces of turquoise in the southwest. 

This by-product of the mine was for years carried out casually in the miners’ lunchboxes. This turquoise is much sought after today because of its extreme blue color, hardness, and rarity--since the pit closed in 1974.

Today, underneath Bisbee and the Mule Mountains there are over 1500 miles of tunnels and shafts. Fantastic underground tours are offered. Guests don yellow slickers and miner hard hats and are escorted by guides who were once miners in the Copper Queen.

Bisbee is considered to be very haunted. Two hotels, in particular, have interesting resident ghosts. Along the Tombstone Canyon Road, there is a natural landmark towering over the road. It is a limestone formation known as Castle Rock.

In October of 1935, Mrs. Mabel Watters, age 34, was walking home alone. Attired in her favorite black dress, she strolled along the sidewalk on Tombstone Canyon Road. 

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon at 4:00 p.m., across the street from where Mrs. Mabel walked, was a large boarding house--today this boarding house is The Inn at Castle Rock.

As Mrs. Mabel passed, Norman Duke was sitting at one of the boarding house windows cleaning his gun, the gun accidentally discharged and a stray bullet shot across the street striking Mrs. Mabel in the back of the neck near her ear. 

Witnesses said she took a few steps and then fell over backward onto the sidewalk. She died instantly. This incident was declared an accident officially.

Ever since visitors to Bisbee have reported feeling a presence of a young woman as they walk past Castle Rock. Guests at The Inn of Castle Rock have witnessed a ghost of a women going from room to room searching for something. 

Over the years people have speculated that this is Mabel looking for her murderer. Limestone is known to help spirits manifest—it also retains memories that can cause residual hauntings.

Another haunted location in Bisbee is the Copper Queen Hotel. It was built between 1898 and 1902 in the Italian style. To build it, the side of the mountain had to be blasted away. 

The Phelps Dodge Corporation wanted a place where dignitaries and investors could relax in luxury. In its time the Copper Queen was considered the most modern hotel in the west.

Old Copper Queen
Three ghosts reside at the Copper Queen. The first is a gentleman who has long hair and a beard. He is always seen wearing a black cape and a top hat. 

Several witnesses have smelled the aroma of his cigar just before they see him or right after. He often appears in doorways or as a shadow in some of the rooms located on the fourth floor near the Teddy Roosevelt Room.

The second ghost is probably the most famous. In life, she was Julia Lowell. She is described as being in her early thirties. She was a lady of the evening from Brewery Gulch who often entertained her clients in the rooms at the Copper Queen. 

It is said that she fell madly in love with one of these clients but when she told him he no longer wanted anything to do with her. Julia then took her own life at the hotel.

Her presence is felt on the west side of the building on the second and third floors. Some male guests have reported that they hear a female voice whispering in their ear. 

At other times she is seen in rooms dancing provocatively. She is seen most often at the foot of guests’ beds. Several witnesses have reported that she seemed to enjoy playing with their feet. Yet other witnesses have seen a wispy white smoke they feel is Julia. 

The third ghost is that of a young boy aged eight or nine. It is said he hangs out at the hotel because one of his parents worked there. He drowned in the nearby San Pedro River. 

He is by far the most mischievous of the three ghosts. Guests who have stayed on the west side of the hotel on the second and third floors report encounters with him. He startles guests because he likes to move objects from one table to the next. 

Many guests have heard footsteps running through the halls. They also report hearing him giggle. Unlike the other two ghosts, no one ever sees this boy they only hear him. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Traditional Japanese Ghost Story: Okiku

The Japanese love telling ghost stories. One prevalent tale that has been shared since the 12th century is “The Story of Okiku.” 

This story involves a traditional Japanese ghost called a “yuurei.” Like many ghost stories that have been told from one generation to the next, there are several versions of Okiku’s story.

This story is connected to Japanese religious beliefs. The Shinto belief is that all people have a soul, which is called a “reikon.” When a person dies, their reikon leaves their body and joins the souls of their ancestors. 

The Japanese believe there are exceptions to this. For instance, if a person dies suddenly because they were murdered, killed in battle, or they commit suicide-- then their bodies are often not given a proper burial. 

These misplaced souls sometimes become revengeful ghosts called “yuureis.” Yuurei in Japanese means—the soul of the dead.

Many yuureis are females who in life suffered greatly. Causes for this suffering might be love, jealousy, sorrow, or regret. 

These ghosts usually appear wearing the traditional Japanese white kimono known as a Katabira. For centuries these kimonos were used to bury women in. 

Two more defining characteristics of the yuurei ghost is they have no legs, and they are seen between the hours of 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. 

One of the most famous yuurei ghosts appears in the folk story, Bancho Sarayashiki—The Story of Okiku. As stated above, this story has several versions. 

This story is about a young maid named Okiku, who works for a family whose master Tessan Aoyama is a samurai. One day while cleaning the families’ ten precious ceramic plates, she accidentally breaks one of them. The outraged Aoyama kills her and throws her body into a well. 

Every night, after this, Okiku’s ghost rises from the well, slowly she is heard counting out nine plates, and then she breaks into heartbreaking sobs over and over again. This torments Aoyama, who goes insane in the end. So Okiku gets her revenge.

Most versions of this story have Okiku counting from one to nine, and then she heart- wails and sobs. They also state she was thrown in the well after being killed. 

She is always portrayed as the innocent victim of an unreasonable master.

One variation of the story mentions Aoyama actually wants to seduce Okiku. When she refuses his advances, he hides one of the ten Dutch plates and states he will accuse her of stealing it, if she does not become his mistress. In desperation, she throws herself into the well. 

Yet another version has the samurai’s wife break the plate, then she throws it in the well to hide her deed, she tells her husband Okiku stole it, then he kills Okiku. 

One kinder ending to this story has Aoyama paying a family friend to hide in the well and wait for Okiku to appear. As she counts one to nine, he finishes for her by shouting “ten.” This finally stops the sobbing and allows Okiku to rest.

The Japanese state that the well that Okiku was thrown into after she was killed still exists. The most common location cited is at Himeji Castle, also known as the White Egret Castle. 

This castle located west of Kobe has kept its original form for nearly 400 years. It is considered Japan’s most beautiful castle. 

In Japan’s recent devastating earthquake and tsunami, it was not impacted. 

Another area cited for being the possible location of Okiku’s well is at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo that was established on land bought from the Aoyama family. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thailand’s Spirit and Ghost Beliefs

Thailand is Buddhist but they also have an animistic belief in ghosts. This belief is a hold over from before Buddhist times. So their Buddhism is mixed with a spirit based religion.

If you have visited Thailand you probably have noticed little toy houses near most of the buildings. I have a friend who inquired about the significance of these little houses. He found most of the Thai people would not discuss their Buddhist ghost beliefs with him. It is a closely guarded secret.

The Thai feel that spirits are everywhere; they feel strongly that some spirits can even cause trouble. Because of this belief they feel it is important to appease these spirits so they can live their lives in peace. One way they do this is by building or having a little home built for these spirits. Every day the Thai people make offerings to these spirits by leaving water, food, candles, incense, and flowers for them. They feel this pleases the spirits and at the same time keeps them away.

The Thai also believe that not all spirits are bad. They believe that some spirits if they are pleased and treated with respect will help the living by keeping angry ghosts and unwanted intruders away. They also feel these good spirits can help keep them healthy.

These spirit houses are not only outside Thai homes they are often placed outside hotels, hospitals, and office buildings. They can be seen throughout Thailand. They are placed on a post that is at eye-level or slightly higher. When a new house is built the average Thai has a Brahmin priest find the best location for their spirit house in their garden. These houses are always placed facing north or south--north preferably. The Thai people before improving their own homes will improve and enlarge their spirit houses.

The Thai routinely pray or ask these spirits for better jobs, greater wealth, good relationships, and protection. They feel as long as they treat them with respect the spirits will be good to them. In the same vein they feel if a person ignores these spirits they better be on their guard.

Most Thai people in general fear ghosts because of the ghost stories that their parents told them when they were little in order to keep them away from certain places. In Thailand spirits are considered higher in rank than ghosts. They belief ghosts can do horrible things to you: they can make you lose your money, or even your wife. They also can make you sick and even physically accost you.

The Thai believe that when a stranger comes to stay at their home this visitor must first ask permission and protection from the spirit in their spirit house. The homeowner then rewards the spirit for doing them this favor by offering them duck, chicken or a large coconut. If this is not done it is believed their visitor will have really bad dreams and the evil spirit "Phee" will sit on their chest making it hard for them to breathe.

Many Thai say they have seen these ghosts and the Thai media often report on these sightings. Again people from Thailand do not like talking about this but they feel in essence that a war is going on between spirits and ghosts. When questioned about this they evade answering. Despite this it is well known that every village has what they call a “spirit specialist” who looks for just the right spots to place spirit houses. This specialist conducts a ceremony where he chants the proper mantras in order to establish protection for the living.

“These Buddhist ghost beliefs still play a big influence in the lives of the Thai.”                                                                              
                                               --Buddhist Ghost Beliefs

Spirit Houses
Sino-Thai Tower

The only exception are the young Thai of the latest generation who live in large cities. This portion of the Thai population is the first to ignore this tradition.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New Mexico Legend: The Miraculous Staircase

In 1610 the Spanish founded Santa Fe, today the capital of New Mexico. Santa Fe was originally called the “Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi,” in Spanish-- La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi. 

Santa Fe remained under the control of the New Republic of Mexico for 25 years. In 1848 with the U.S. victory in the Mexican War the southwest was ceded to the United States.

Loretto Chapel
At the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail in the capital stands the Loretto Chapel. In 1850 Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy was appointed by the Catholic Church to New Mexico territory. 

Seeking to spread the faith and bring an educational system to the territory he sent out a plea for priests, brothers, and nuns to come preach and teach.

In 1852 the Sisters of Loretto founded in 1812 in Kentucky responded to Lamy’s plea. They sent seven sisters but only five arrived in 1852, their journey to Santa Fe was very difficult. 

Their Mother Superior died in a cholera epidemic as they traveled by wagon and another sister became too ill to continue and returned to Kentucky. 

These sisters opened the “Academy of Our Lady of Light (Loretto) in 1853. In 1855 several more sisters joined them. Their school grew to over 300 students with a campus that covered a square block with ten buildings.

Despite the challenges of the new territory, which included: smallpox, tuberculosis, leaky mud roofs, and a brush with rowdy Confederate Texas soldiers during the Civil War the Loretta Sister’s school thrived. Their student’s tuitions were paid through donations, and from the sister’s own inheritances from their families.

Bishop Lamy brought architect Antoine Mouly and his son from Paris, France to Santa Fe to build what is now St. Francis Cathedral. It took them ten years to complete the construction. 

During this time Lamy encouraged the Loretta Sisters to have the Mouly’s design and build their dream chapel as well. The sisters again pooled their own inheritances to raise the $30,000 required to build the chapel.

Work began on the Loretto in 1873. The Mouly’s fashioned the chapel after the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The stain glass used was purchased from the DuBois Studio in Paris. It traveled to Santa Fe by sailing ship, paddleboat, and wagon. Construction on the chapel was completed in 1878.

During the time the Loretto Chapel was completed it was standard practice to use a ladder to get to the choir loft in churches. The Loretto Sisters found their long habits prevented them from climbing this ladder. 

Carpenters were called in to address the problem, these craftsmen all stated that a staircase would take up too much floor space in the small chapel.

Legend states the sister’s in an attempt to find a solution to the seating problem, made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. 

He used a square, saw, hammer, and water and worked in privacy. Six months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed, and the carpenter who built it by himself disappeared without thanks or collecting his pay.

The sisters searched for this carpenter, they even put an ad in the local newspaper. When they found no trace of him the sisters concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come to answer their prayers. 

Many still believe in this legend. In recent years several people have tried to debunk it but the more recent Sisters of Loretto have not accepted any of the new explanations for the mysterious carpenter.

When I was little the staircase was still open for visitors to walk up and down—it was originally built without the handrails that adorn it today and it is extremely steep. 

The staircase design was not only innovative for the time but this structure also enhances the aesthetic appeal of the entire chapel. The Gothic Loretto Chapel as a whole is a very beautiful place.

“It has been surmised that the central spiral of the staircase is narrow enough to serve as a central beam. Nonetheless there was no attachment unto any wall or pole in the original staircase.”

Some of the design elements of the Loretto Chapel’s staircase still perplex architects, engineers, and master craftsmen today. The staircase makes over two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20 feet tall and has no center support. It rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. 

The risers of the 33 steps are all the same height. It was made from a wood that was not found anywhere in the region. Where this lumber came from is a part of the mystery for no one saw any deliveries. Glue and nails were not used in its construction just wooden square pegs.

Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Loretto Chapel over the years to view The Miraculous Staircase. The Loretto Academy was closed in 1968—the chapel was put up for sale. In 1971, the chapel was informally deconsecrated as a Catholic chapel. Today it is run as a private museum.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Shirley Plantation: The Ghost of Aunt Pratt

The Shirley Plantation, located in Virginia's coastal region, is the states oldest plantation. It was founded in 1613, just six years after the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown. 

During its long history Shirley has been the home for eleven generations of the same family, today this family continues to own, operate, and work this grand plantation. 

The Shirley Plantation is a National Historic Landmark.

Through its history, this southern plantation managed to survive Indian uprisings, Bacon’s Rebellion, the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. 

One story about the Plantation’s main house called the “Grand House” took place during the civil war. 

Around 2000 Union soldiers camped around the plantation. The Shirley women turned the Grand House into a hospital where they tended to both Union and Confederate soldiers, it is believed this is why the house was not burned down.

The descendants of Edward Hill I, the original owner, still reside in a private residence on the plantation. The Shirley Plantation is the oldest family-run business in North America. 

Edward Hill I established the farm in 1638, and construction on the Grand House started in 1723, when Elizabeth Hill, the great-granddaughter of the first Hill married. The house was completed in 1738. 

The Shirley Plantation is known for its resident ghost. 

Martha Hill Pratt was known to the family as “Aunt Pratt.” She was the daughter of Edward Hill III, 17th-century owner of the Shirley. 

Her manifestations occur through a portrait of her that hangs in the Grand House.

When Martha Pratt finished her schooling, she left an unsigned portrait of herself at the Grand House. She traveled to England where she married an Englishman by the name of Huge Griffin. The surname Pratt is a family pet name.

Originally this portrait was hung in a bedroom on the second floor. When Martha passed away, the family moved her picture to the third floor. After this, the family noticed the portrait started to shake and rock on the wall. So they moved the painting to the attic. 

Then the family began hearing knocking sounds all over the house. Yet later, when they moved the portrait to the first floor, it continued to tremble and shake. 

Some concluded Martha's spirit was attached to the picture, and she was apparently not happy with the moves.

The portraits strange behavior led to it being put on display in New York. While being filmed for a television report, the camera caught it shaking. 

Over the years, the portraits’ shaking and rocking caused its frame to break down. While in a shop being repaired workers stated that they heard bells tolling, but there were no bells in the area.

When the portrait was returned to the house, it was hung in its original place on the second floor. It seems to be finally at peace. 

School groups that tour the Grand House are encouraged to stand to the side when viewing Aunt Pratt’s portrait because she does not like to have her view out the window blocked. Her dark eyes and stern mouth dominate the room.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Crows Connection to Death

Crows for centuries have been closely connected with death. The main reason is this bird feeds on carrion-- the flesh of the dead. Because of this, many cultures associate crows with death and dying. Some cultures in the past believed that crows were messengers of death. How this reputation came about is certainly understandable but is unfair.

If we look at examples in history around the world, it becomes clear why so many cultures have a tradition of associating crows with death. In early times, mans'  bodies were not buried; it was a common sight to see crows feasting upon human corpses. 

For centuries crows during times of war have been observed following soldiers onto battlefields where they wait patiently for the battle to be over so they can feed upon the fallen. In medieval Western Europe, during an outbreak of the Bubonic plague, people noted crows feeding upon the victims’ stacked bodies.

Because of this association with death, crows over time gained a bad reputation. But not all cultures viewed them in this light. 

Some Native American cultures see crows as a positive symbol because they believe the crow acts as a communicator or liaison between this world and the next. They are viewed as assisters that help the deceased cross over. 

The Tibetans held a somewhat similar belief-- they once placed pieces of bodies on top of temples so that crows could carry them to the next life. 

The early Celtics viewed crows as the mediators between the human and spirit worlds. They believed that crows were oracles that god used to speak to them. This belief probably came about because crows can be trained to talk. So to some cultures, crows are spiritual or supernatural in nature.

Over time this belief that crows were connected to death was used to teach lessons.

In the 13th century Talmud, a vast collection of Jewish laws, there is a story where a crow teaches Adam and Eve to bury the body of their son. Adam and Eve, being confronted with this first dead body on earth after creation, did not know what to do with it. The story states the crow then kills another crow and buries it in front of Adam and Eve as a demonstration.

In an early Buddhist tradition, monks would sit in a graveyard and concentrate on decomposing bodies, again in time before bodies were buried correctly, later this was done through imagery and meditation. At one point during this guided meditation, the monk would see the image of a crow feasting upon his own corpse. The idea behind this was to keep death always in the forefront.

In a similar western tradition, the Benedictine monks founded by St. Benedict, who once claimed a crow saved his life by warning him about a piece of poisoned bread, believed death should always be kept before the living. 

The reason these two groups used the crow and its scavenging ways was to remind them that the presence of death is a part of the natural cycle of life. When we can see and understand the ephemerality of our lives, we learn to appreciate life daily.

The false belief that crows bring death has resulted in a variety of myths and superstitions being passed down from one generation to the next. One of the most prevalent of these myths is about crows in graveyards. People say they hang out in them because of their connection to death. After all, crows are big, black, and spooky. 

In reality, crows just find graveyards an ideal habitat. There is a lovely mowed expanse of lawn where they can easily spot earthworms to eat etc. There is abundant water with plenty of trees to keep watch from, and graveyards are quiet which crows like. There is another myth about crows flocking together in cemeteries; they do this for protection, not for any supernatural reason.

The Greeks felt that crows were a negative omen, often foretelling death. Because of this belief, they would say to the birds, “Go on your way, and bring me the good news.” One term used for a group of crows is “murder” this comes from Greek mythology as well. 

The Irish for generations believed that when a crow caws three times, they are announcing the death of an individual. It was also believed if a crow flew in a house and couldn’t get out, it was a bad omen.

Some superstitions state that a crow must fly into the house to foretell death. If the bird flies in a home in the morning, the person will die in a better manner than if the crow flies in at dusk. If the crow is covered in mud or injured, the person will have a long illness.

Today in our urban world, it is still almost impossible to avoid seeing crows near the highway picking at roadkill. This could be the reason why so many myths and superstitions persist about the crow being a symbol of death. 

In reality, crows are not to be feared. In fact, when they are observed carefully, people note they are vibrant and alive. They are always doing something creative, and they are very playful, which is an indicator they are intelligent. 

In a recent Nature episode entitled “A Murder of Crows” on PBS, it was shown crows make tools that help them retrieve food. Research recently indicates they are among the brightest animals in the world.

What is impressive is that crows seem to understand their own mortality. When one of them dies, people have observed the following phenomenon. They often fly around the deceased bird cawing; in fact, they seem to hold their version of a crow funeral. They are seen landing and forming a circle around the dead bird’s body. They stand still and silent for anywhere from a few minutes to over thirty minutes. 

The people who have witnessed this event state that it shocked them, for it was evident to them these crows were not just standing around.