Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Haunted Halcyon House

When Benjamin Stoddert built Halcyon House and named it after the Greek legend about a bird that brings calm seas and peaceful days I am sure he hoped as much for his new home. But alas this was not to be for Stoddert. Despite the fact he was the first Secretary of the Navy in John Adam’s administration he was not to have calm or peaceful days. Stoddert, originally a seafaring man established a shipping business that unfortunately fell on hard times. By the time he left his post as Secretary of the Navy in 1801 he found himself nearly destitute. In 1813 he died penniless. Does trauma in life mean one’s spirit lingers, this question remains unanswered but it seems Stoddert’s spirit decided not to leave the magnificent home he built.

Halcyon House is located in the Georgetown district of Washington, D.C. It is a lovely Georgian style mansion that sits on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River. The home was originally small and elegant. Stoddert had the renowned planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant design his terrace. The home’s garden was and is considered very beautiful.

In the years following Stoddert’s death this home passed through several owners hands. Some state this is because Stoddert’s ghost often made appearances during this time. His figure was often seen standing at windows looking out. Many witnesses described a man that fit his appearance: a short, stout man, older and balding. He sometimes was seen sitting in a favorite Captain’s chair in the home.

In the mid 1800s during the Civil War the home’s basement was connected to a tunnel that led to the Potomac River. This tunnel was part of the Underground Railroad and was used to hide runaway slaves that were headed north. Legend states that some of these slaves died in the home’s basement. It appears their ghosts haunt this area for their cries and moans can be heard to this day. At the turn of the 20th century the entrance to this tunnel was walled up but this did not stop the activity.

In the 1930s the home’s most eccentric owner moved in. Albert Adsit Clemons* at best was a very odd sort--at worst some state he was mad. It seems Clemons got the notion that as long as he added on to the house he would never die. This irrational belief led him to build doors that opened to brick walls, rooms without walls and a staircase that went nowhere. During the time he owned the house he also adamantly refused to have the home wired for electricity. Needless to say all this activity did not prevent his death in 1938. He did add on to the home’s square footage but he left a floor plan that was a collection of odd mazes.

After Clemons death the activity in the home increased. It seems his spirit joined Stoddert-- for both men haunt the house. The electricity when installed was erratic and never worked properly. Doors and windows were often found open when they were locked. One engraving that was hung on the wall would fall to the floor on a regular basis. Footsteps and strange noises were often heard in the home’s attic.

In the early 1960s Georgetown College acquired the land and turned the home briefly into a student dorm. This further ruined the structure. During this time Vice President Hubert Humphrey considered buying the home but he decided it was not cost effective—considering the work needed to restore it.

By far the most bizarre activity to be reported happened in the 1970s. This involved three separate occurrences of levitation that all happened in the second floor master bedroom. A male tenant and then a female guest on different occasions both awoke to find that they were floating above the bed they slept in. A couple around this same time who were caretakers for the home awoke in the same room to find that both their positions had been reversed—their heads were at the foot of the bed.

In the 1990s Halcyon House was on many lists as the most haunted house in Washington D.C. But its most recent owners who spent 16 years restoring the property claimed to never experience anything—but the many workmen that worked on its renovation did…

Halcyon House went up for sale in 2008. The home is not only restored to its original splendor –the property has been further improved. It has 30,500 square feet, which includes a new forth floor with a studio. The home also has a library, chapel, three living rooms and a ballroom. Outside there is a pool and an adjacent townhouse that has six luxury apartments. The home’s original entryway still commands a spectacular view of the Potomac River, harbor and the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Kennedy Center. At this time Halycon House was priced at 30 million dollars. The home is an historic site and has been used for many weddings.

* Clemons obsession is similar to Sarah Winchester’s obsession for her home-- Winchester House in San Jose, California. Albert Clemons was Mark Twains’ nephew.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Ghosts of Cedar Creek

On October 19, 1864 an American Civil War battle was fought in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s “Army of the Valley” troops launched a surprise attack at dawn * against the encamped “Army of Shenandoah” led by Union Maj. General Philip Sheridan. 

Maj. General Philip Henry Sheridan

What happened next resulted in one of the most dramatic and bitter battles fought in the Civil War. This battle’s outcome changed the course of the war and helped Lincoln get elected to a second term. The Battle of Cedar Creek as it is known also left many restless spirits who still linger on this battlefield today.

Lt. General Jubal Early
In mid-October of 1864 the Union army no longer considered the Confederate’s Valley’s troops much of a threat. With half rations and sheer will power General Early marched his Confederate troops day and night so he could surprise General Sheridan’s Union troops camped at Cedar Creek. 

General Sheridan, himself, was staying the night in Winchester, he had just returned from a conference in Washington that morning when he heard the distance canon fire. He quickly dressed and jumped on his faithful black horse, Riehzi, and charged to the battle.**

Within thirty minutes he encountered his retreating men. That morning Early’s half-starved men had managed to drive back seven Union infantry divisions who found themselves bombarded by their own artillery. The Confederacy had managed to commandeer these guns. This sent the Union solders into retreat. 

This initial Confederate success was surprising considering these troops at first ignored their officers as they raided the Union supply tents in search of food.  

General Early gave up this early advantage when he made the decision not to pursue the Union troops north of Middletown--for the Union army was in chaos when they reached Middletown, having lost many of their leaders.

This Confederate mistake gave Sheridan, when he arrived, the time to quickly rally his men. The result was he was able to turn his Union troops around and launch several counterattacks. 

Sheridan's men spent the afternoon hitting various spots along the Confederate line, which ultimately broke down their defense. This turned the tide of the battle and the Confederate’s now were the defeated. 

General Sheridan became a famous hero*** and the Confederate’s loss effectively ended their invasion of the North. They were never again able to threaten Washington, D.C., through the Shenandoah Valley. 

They also could no longer protect one of their key economic assets-- Virginia. Sheridan’s victories in this Valley and Sherman’s successes in Georgia resulted in Abraham Lincoln being reelected as president.

The fierceness of this battle left 8,000 soldiers dead--many others were wounded. Within days of the battle the local residents started to notice activity they could not explain. 

A church that had been turned into a Union field hospital during the battle became the focus of much of this activity. Many of the dead were hastily buried here in the yard and then later these bodies were disturbed--unearthed and placed in pine boxes to be sent back up north. Residents felt this was the main reason that Cedar Creek was haunted.

Witnesses saw a light leave the church late at night and go over to where the pine coffins were stacked. One resident stated it was if someone was searching through them with a candle but no one ever saw a human figure holding this light. 

When the coffins were removed it was hoped the activity would cease but it continued. Late at night cries of pain, moans and footsteps were heard near the church but no one was ever seen. 

In recent times witnesses have heard the whine of shots overhead and the distant boom of cannon fire.

One farmer who was leasing a barn that was located upon the battlefield saw something that terrified him one night. He was up in the loft throwing down hay to his horses when he spotted a man wearing a threadbare uniform standing below him. 

He yelled at the man that he did not allow bums to stay in his barn. When the stranger did not respond or leave he became angry. He lurched at the figure with his pitchfork but the fork’s tines went right through this dark figure. He ran from the barn too scared to finish feeding his horses.

Another farmer saw a ghostly officer leading his troops down the road he walked along one night. He stated that at first he heard a bugle sound and then he saw these phantom men who walked right past him without noticing his presence. ****

One phenomenon that has been heard by many is that of a phantom band. Military style music is heard faintly in the distance. Residents state they hear first a horn, a drum and then the entire band starts playing but then it is abruptly silent.

* Some historians point out that this attack should not have been a surprise for one Union General by the name of Emory believed a Confederate attack was imminent due to information he received that the Confederates were spying on the Union position. 

Emory did report this to General Wright, who was temporarily in command while Sheridan was in Washington. Unfortunately, Wright dismissed it.

** After the battle General Sheridan changed his horse’s name to Winchester.

** Two future American presidents fought in the Battle of Cedar Creek-- Col. Rutherford B. Hayes and Capt. William Mckinley. Hayes was elected to office in 1876 and Mckinley in 1896.

**** This is typical to battlefield phantom sightings where the haunting is most likely residual in nature as opposed to an intelligent haunting.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Evil Ghost: Yuki-onna--Snow Woman

This traditional ghost legend is the subject of many books, comics, films and animation in Japan. Lafcadio Hearn’s definitive book written in 1904 about Japanese ghosts includes the tale of Yuki-onna—meaning snow woman. This particular ghost traditionally freezes or kills her human victims.

Up until the 18th century Yuki-onna was always betrayed as evil, a ghost that preys upon unsuspecting humans. 

More recent tales focus upon her beauty. She is betrayed with more humanlike traits. Even more recently she is betrayed as having vampire like characteristics. But it is the more traditional tales that are fascinating.

She appears at night during bad snowstorms. She is described as very beautiful and appears wearing a white kimono. Other legends state she actually is nude with only her face and hair standing out. She is often described as being very pale or even transparent for her figure blends in with the snow that surrounds her.

Despite her beauty it is said her eyes terrify mere mortals. She is seen as she floats across the snow never leaving footprints. In yet other tales it is stated she has no feet—a trait common to female Japanese ghosts. 

It is believed that at any sign of danger she just turns into a cloud or mist or even snow. She is associated with snow because she died in a snowstorm.

In many tales Yuki-onna appears to travelers that find themselves trapped in snowstorms. She does not help these unfortunate souls, instead she turns them into frost-covered corpses. Or she simply leads these lost travelers astray so they die of exposure. 

In other stores she is described as holding a child. When her victim takes this child in order to help her they become frozen in place. It is said parents looking for lost children often fall victim to this tactic.

Even more frightening tales are told about Yuki-onna. In these stories she invades homes, blowing in the door. It is said this chilly gust of wind kills the mortals inside while they sleep. * 

Being heartless she enjoys watching her victims die. Other tales state she kills her victims to take their “life-force”. Yuki-onna is even sometimes betrayed as a kind of succubus that preys on weak males in order to drain or freeze them through sex or a kiss.

She is sometimes betrayed as having a softer side. In the popular Lafcadio Hearn version she actually spares one of her victims. She then takes on a mortal appearance in order to marry him. Most surprising is when he betrays a promise he made to her she still spares his life.

Hearn’s story starts out with two woodcutters becoming lost in a particularly bad snowstorm. One woodcutter is young—Minokichi, the other is old—Mosaku. These two men come upon an isolated hut in the mountains where they take refuge and sleep. 

Mosaku is awakened to find a very beautiful young woman wearing white clothes gazing down upon him. She breathes on him and he freezes to death.

She then approaches the young Minokichi to breathe upon him. But she stops struck by his “beauty”. She decides she will not kill him but as he wakes she warns him that he must not tell any living soul that she has spared his life. She then explains if he betrays her she will return and kill him.

A few years later Minokichi meets a very beautiful young woman named Oyuki—yuki meaning snow. He falls in love and marries her. She is a good wife and the couple have several children. They manage to live happily together and Minokichi notes his wife does not appear to age. 

One night after their children are in bed Minokichi tells his wife that she sometimes reminds him of a mysterious woman he had met years before.

He describes the beautiful woman to his wife and states he didn’t know if his memory was just a dream or if this woman was a “Yuki-onna…” 

After he finishes his tale Oyuki stands up abruptly. “That woman you met was me! I told you that I would kill you if you ever told anyone about that incident. However, I can’t kill you because of our children.” 

She then starts to melt, “Take care of our children…”** Then she just disappears. It is said Minokichi never saw her again.

* Some legends state she must be invited in first. 

** This version states that Minokichi was saved because he was a good and kind father.