The Library of Congress & I (& also ghosts): A Torrid Love Affair

This spring break I decided to temporarily put down Virginia folktales (provided by my past love—The WPA) and give some attention to the Library of Congress’s digital newspaper collections (I am going to make this very obvious, the federal government does great things for my education, WPA, the LOC, the grants and loans I got as a Undergrad, all good things, thanks Uncle Sam). My searches in the LOC have been so productive I feel like I finally got on Nickelodeon’s Super Toy Run, and I am running through the isles pulling down newspapers clippings instead of sweet toys and bikes. Its really great. There is so much to read! So much to consider! So much historical hilarity!

OLD THINGS

As many of you know I am researching historical themed hauntings in Virginia. I have read a lot of ghost stories collected by the WPA in the 1930’s that tend to not talk about historical places or people. The 1930’s stories are usually about someone staying in an abandoned or disused house, finding a ghost, asking it “whats up” (in so many words) and finding out the ghost’s mortal body needs to be property buried or their murder needs to be brought to justice, once the protagonist fulfills the ghost’s needs, our spectral friends tells him where the ghost’s human self hid a treasure. The other stories I have read are more recent ones in ghost-tourist-books, there are published in our millennial period and tend to look at historical places. Two things happen here 1) the historical ghost keeps doing what they always did like Fielding Lewis (Kenmore) who walks around worried about his finances or 2) the historical character knows is 2013/14 (whatever) and wants to talk to you.

 NEW THINGS

Now thanks to my LOC findings I have a new category (?). The LOC has newspapers from the 1830s-1922. Here I have found that Virgins love ghost stories, some stories about VA, but mainly stories about other places. Originally I was very disappointed that the VA papers featured so many non-VA ghost stories, but now I realize this illustrates a love of ALL ghost stories, and gives me the idea that VA started celebrating their hauntings later than I thought.

On the other hand, two papers have been especially productive: The Clinch Valley News and The Richmond Dispatch. The Clinch Valley News was published out of Jeffersonville, VA which is now called Tazewell and is located in the south west tail of the state. The Richmond Dispatch is printed in, you guessed it, Richmond Virginia. It is now called Richmond Times-Dispatch.

My favorite from Clinch Valley News is a 1896 story called “Claudius Smith’s Boots” which is about the haunted or cursed boots of a “bloody Tory cowboy who, withhis following of cutthroats and robbers, terrorized the Schunnemuck and surrounding country for years.”[1] Each subsequent wearer of Smith’s boots meet their end by way of a snake bite right through his boots. This is the most historical ghost story I found, which I not saying that it is VERY historical at all. I like this story because it shows how material items are infused with historical and ghostly meaning.

My favorite article from The Richmond Dispatch made me so happy I nearly exploded! This one is called “Virginia Ghosts” (WHAT! Perfect right ?!). What makes this so perfect? This quote:

It has been alleged that Virginia people can tell more ghost stories than those of any other state…“Every neighborhood has its story of the supernatural, its haunted houses, its lonely road, where strange sights and sounds have frightened the nocturnal wayfarer.

UGH THANK YOU The PAST.

The author goes on to explain how African Americans created the ghost story culture in Virginia. He says :

It is difficult to find a negro who does not believe in ghostly visitations. Perhaps therein lies the explanation of the fact that Virginia has more than her share of ghostly tales. The Negros have fed upon stories of local ghosts for generations.

He goes on to explain how black children tell white children ghost stories that they tell their parents and neighbors.Next, In what I am assuming is in true-Virginia fashion he then tells two ghost stories that have nothing to do with Virginia and end by saying “I want to specially tell Dispatch readers about some of haunted houses of the Old Dominion.” Which I have yet to find, but want to.[2] I love this article because it gives evidence to the ideas about Virginia and her relationship to ghost stories and haunting culture that I suspected.

My second favorite  article from The Richmond Dispatch I will save for another time but I’ll give you this these two quotes:

It always struck me that is would eminently appropriate for the Capitol building to have two or three respectable, dignified ghosts in it, who could appear on stated occasions, like the 4th of July and 22nd of February, and get off something appropriate to the occasion.”

“Ghost, as I said, are in great demand among parvenus and “powhite” folks who have recently made money, but are still lacking in genealogy and ancestors…as they buy a handsome mansion, that it should savor of antiquity (just as eggs should when they are to be thrown at offending persons), and so they forthwith proceed to buy up old portraits, and then they try to resurrect a ghost.…”powhite” folks have a hard time coaxing them, and are never successful unless they can purchase some old, historical hall, full of classic memories and cockroaches.

There is a lot here to work with, and I am very excited to cobble together something to present at a conference next year ( I did not present anything anywhere this year, and let me tell you I feel lazy as hell).


[1] “Claudius Smith’s Boots” Clinch Valley News, July 10 1896, Whole No2, 67? (These are messy footnote…I know)

[2] All these quotes are from “Virginia Ghosts,” The Richmond Dispatch, Dec 9 1900

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