Truth haunts newspapers' old ghost stories


Like their purported subjects, media accounts of spiritual beings often lack meat

By David Flick

10/31/07 - The Dallas Morning News

Should the Griffin Street ghost return to its original haunting grounds this Halloween, it will find the neighborhood changed and at midnight largely empty.

The only people around to scare at that hour, in that part of downtown, may be office cleaning crews. But 120 years ago, the now-forgotten apparition caused a sensation in Dallas.

On March 9, 1887, The Dallas Morning News greeted readers with the headline: "The Supernatural A Thrilling Ghost Story from the Second Ward."

The story, one of many that appeared in the local broadsheets in the late 19th century, is included in a recently published book, Hidden Headlines of Texas, by Chad Lewis, a Wisconsin-based paranormal investigator.

"For some time back, a good Christian family, who have an aversion to seeing their names in print, have heard unaccountable noises in their house at night," the 1887 story said.

Based on interviews with the family, a tale was told of clammy hands passing over the faces of family members, a bed whirling across the floor, the noise of pistol shots in the night, unearthly groans and whispers, and a visit from a mysterious woman in a white gown.

After a particularly harrowing night spent huddled in prayer, the family vacated the premises before sundown the next day.

Mr. Lewis, who said he is not sure whether such psychic phenomena exist, began the compilation while he was researching old newspaper files for a road guide to haunted places. He kept coming across bizarre stories that seemed more at home in the Weekly World News than in mainstream publications.

"They were just so weird, I was fascinated by them," he said.

Mr. Lewis spent some time in libraries looking through microfilms of Texas newspapers and reproduced the stories verbatim in the book, which was published in the summer by Mr. Lewis' company, Unexplained Research LLC.

The Griffin Street ghost was one of several Halloween-ready stories from the Dallas area. The stories are sometimes skeptical, sometimes nonjudgmental and always written in the ripe prose typical of the era.

A Nov. 5, 1885, story in The News recounted rumors of strange noises in a Grand Prairie farmhouse:

"The report gained strength as it traveled, and by the time it had reached the margin of the woods that skirt the prairie, the spook of Caesar in the tent of Brutus was a mere shiver compared with the congestive chills that, like ice water, ran down the spines of the good religious people in that highly respected community."

The noises, the paper went on to report, were caused by an opossum.

In 1892, The News told of a ghost that in the early mornings would roam the city's streets and "blow out the electric lights."

An account the previous year chronicled the fears of a family in which the father of the house, initially skeptical, apparently saw an apparition and moved the household within hours. Neither the family nor the location of the house is ever named.

Mr. Lewis suspects the lack of specifics was no accident. The lack of detail made it impossible to verify the story or, more to the point, expose it as a fraud.

"One thing that's interesting is that they would often report on something in another town that was never printed in that town's paper," he said. "It was like, 'Let's write about a ghost story in San Antonio. Who's going to check?' "

Dallas' ghost

And most ghosts were chronicled in a single news story that was never followed up.

That was one aspect that distinguishes the Griffin Street ghost story from others of the day, he said. It was published in its hometown paper over the course of several months.

And, by the standards of the day, the stories contained verifiable details. Although The News did not name the family, another newspaper identified the head of the household as a deputy U.S. marshal.

Whether any ghosts were present, the hubbub chronicled by the paper was clearly real.

The day after the initial report, The News recounted the local reaction in a story headlined, "The Phantom Excitement."

The incident caught the imagination of the city, the story reported. Streams of visitors crowded the house. Policemen patrolled the premises. Two leading residents one was a former gubernatorial candidate spent a night in the house.

"But either the ghost did not care to entertain such distinguished guests, or it may have been its off night, as it came not," the newspaper said.

The mystery was never solved, and interest quickly died.

Less than a week later, The News reported, "the Griffin Street ghost has lost its grip as a sensation. Since the family fled in terror from the house, there has been no one to report the acts of the shadow, and the people have turned their attention to more substantial things."

About three months later, the Galveston Daily News reported that the ghost had made a brief return. The story was under a headline that must have pleased boosters, "A Veritable Ghost Dallas Boasts of Having the Only First-class Sensation in the State."

A family, named this time as the household of W.P. Meeks, a tailor, moved out of the Griffin Street house after hearing groans, seeing a white apparition and dodging moving furniture.

'Pure fiction'

Did the readers believe it? Did the writer?

In both cases, probably not, said Karen Roggenkamp, author of Narrating the News, a study of sensational reporting in the late 19th century.

Although literate people had long since ceased to believe in ghosts, superstitions still lingered in some ranks of 19th century society, she noted.

Newspaper editors, who wanted to sell their publication to as many people as possible, would not have wanted to offend less-educated residents, said Ms. Roggenkamp, an assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Nor did newspapers of that era feel they were risking their credibility even if the majority of readers thought such tales were baloney.

"The expectation wasn't the same," Ms. Roggenkamp said. "You'd get a piece of pure fiction side by side with investigative reporting. People back then didn't mind. They loved it. They looked upon it as a form of entertainment."

Dallas historian Darwin Payne noted that the era was one that saw a fascination with the paranormal. Even the eminent psychologist William James sought proof of life after death.

Today, the Griffin Street ghost is so forgotten that Mr. Payne has never heard of it.

But he welcomes its eerie presence.

"Other than the Lady of the Lake, we don't have many ghost stories in Dallas," he said. "I guess we've been remiss."

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