Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Preserving the Ghosts of the Past—Amory Regional Museum

Amory Regional Museum
715 3rd Street South
Amory, Mississippi

By Mississippi standards, the roots of the town of Amory—in the northeast part of the state, near the Alabama state line—by comparison, are not very deep. The town’s history dates to 1887 in this state with history reaching back millennia towards Native American settlement and through recorded history back to Hernando de Soto hacking his way through the region and the local inhabitants in the 16th century. Amory owes its creation to the railroad as it began to wend its way through the state following the Civil War.

When the Kansas City, Memphis & Birmingham Railroad needed a stop halfway between Memphis and Birmingham, a location in Monroe County was chosen and named for railroad magnate Harcourt Amory. As town lots were sold, citizens of nearby Cotton Gin Port slowly abandoned their much older town—it was established as a base for French explorations of the region in the early 18th century—to settle in the brand new planned town.


Much of this regional history is recalled in the Amory Regional Museum. The building housing the museum factors into the history of the region as the birthplace of many locals including the museum’s director. The building originally served as the town’s hospital, the Gilmore Sanitarium, opened in 1916. It served as a hospital until 1961 when the hospital opened its current location. After that, the building served as a nursing home for four years. After the nursing home’s closure in 1965, the aging, though still vital building stood empty until it opened as a museum in 1976.

It’s unclear when exactly the tales of the building being haunted began to spring up. One tale concerns Dr. M. Q. Ewing, the hospital’s chief of staff around the time the hospital closed. Supposedly, he’s still keeping watch over the old hospital and has been seen and heard around the building. Of course, like any hospital, birth and death are ever present. In a way, these old medical facilities are places where the veil between life and death may be quite thin.

The activity within the facility is significant enough that the local paranormal investigation team, the Independent Paranormal Research Team, has hosted two public paranormal investigations in the museum. Just this month, the group hosted a benefit investigation for a local child suffering from a rare illness.

An August article about the museum states, “Exhibits at the museum showcase Amory’s earliest inhabitants.” That statement is even more literal now that investigators are uncovering evidence that those inhabitants may still be around. The director notes a bit later in the article that, “Every town needs to preserve their heritage, it’s who you are. It’s where you come from.”

Sources
Amory, Mississippi. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 31 December
     2013.
“Amory Regional Museum.” Monroe County Magazine. 2009
Barnett, Sheena. “Join paranormal team on benefit investigation.” Northeast
     Mississippi Daily Journal. 12 December 2013.
Cotton Gin Port, Mississippi. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 31
     December 2013.
Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA. Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State.
     NYC: Viking Press, 1938.
Garrigues, Jillian. “Video—Hidden Treasures: Amory Regional Museum.”
     WCBI-TV. 21 August 2013.
History. Amory Regional Museum. Accessed 31 December 2013.
Van Dusen, Ray. “Paranormal group hosts fundraiser for museum.”
     Monroe Journal. 22 October 2013.



Monday, December 16, 2013

Shushing rumors—Albertville Public Library

Albertville Public Library
200 Jackson Street
Albertville, Alabama

One of the classic images from libraries is the bespectacled librarian shushing anyone making noise within the solemn and sacrosanct confines of the library. In the case of the librarian at the public library in the small, north Alabama town of Albertville, she’s trying to shush rumors of the library being haunted.

“I find the whole thing embarrassing,” she told a local reporter in 2007. It seems the story started as a joke a few years previous but took on a life of its own. I even covered it in an entry called “Some Alabama Hauntings, Briefly Noted,” from January 16th of this year. The library entry has since been replaced with a link here. This is what I wrote:

Should my spirit remain on this plane after my death, it’s my sincere wish that I would remain in a library. The public library in Albertville, a small town in the north east part of the state, is typical of small town libraries throughout the country, but on one account is not so typical: it may be haunted. Built in 1964, the building replaced a much older home. Local legend indicates that spirits from that home may have taken residence in the library building. Apparently harmless, the spirits make their presence known by turning faucets on and playing on the elevator.

In 2010, Albertville was devastated by an EF3 tornado which damaged the library. I can find no word if the spirit remained after repairs.

I have discovered that ghost stories are like a garden, they must be regularly tended. They are forever evolving. More information is uncovered and released, though that information may not always be widely available. While digging around through newspaper archives, I uncovered a few articles about the library’s ghost.

Of course it’s a bit disappointing to find that there’s little behind the legend, though I’m happy to be able to post a correction. The story also serves as a case study into how some folklore is created. According to the librarian, the rumors started when a local television news station ran a story about local businesses and institutions celebrating Halloween. “We were dressed up for Halloween and during the interview some of the girls up front started joking around about the library being haunted. Saying any time a book fell the ghost did it. Just joking around,” the library director continued.

From that local interview, the story has grown legs and made its way throughout the internet. The listing of the library on the haunted places list on the infamous site, Shadowlands, has most certainly helped give movement and credence to the rumor. The problem with Shadowlands is that the site is almost entirely user submitted with none of the information being properly vetted before it’s posted. While there is some truth to some of the entries, many of them are a chaotic jumble of fact and fiction or just pure fiction. I’ve seen Shadowlands credited in everything from blog posts to books and it’s given rise to many haunted legends.

Possibly using Shadowlands as a source, the library was listed in a 2006 article in the Sand Mountain Reporter, the local paper. The article, by Charlotte Christopher lists a number of haunted locations throughout north Alabama. An article detailing the fact that the library is haunted appeared in the same paper in 2007.

In 2008, the library was listed as part of an entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica Blog listing haunted libraries throughout the United States. With the name as respected as the Encyclopedia Brittanica behind the listing, it must be true, right?

The story was picked up on by Jessica Penot in her excellent Haunted North Alabama, published in 2010. Just after the book’s publication, an article appeared in the Sand Mountain Reporter discussing the library’s inclusion in the book and quoting both Penot and the librarian. “With all ghost stories, there is the possibility they are as much legend as fact,” Penot says in the article.

One of the issues she encountered in researching the library was the large tornado that struck the town in 2010. The damaged library was closed for repairs and she couldn’t find a proper contact to confirm the legends.

She continues in the article, “The fact that a legend surrounds a location like the library only underlines its importance in the community. Places that are central to communities are often the first to have ghost stories spread about them. Because people love these places, the stories spread more quickly.”

Sources
Albertville, Alabama. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed
     16 January 2013.
Christopher, Charlotte. “Haunted sightings in Northern Alabama.”
     Sand Mountain Reporter. 26 October 2006.
Eberhart, George. “Library Ghosts: Southern U.S.” Encyclopedia
     Britanica Blog. 29 Oct 2008.
Green, Lionel. “Albertville Public Library earns chapter in new book
     about haunted locations.” Sand Mountain Reporter. 1 October 2010.
Haunted Places in Alabama. Shadowlands. Accessed 15 December
     2013.
Leak, Clay. “A ghost in the library? Perish the thought.” Sand Mountain
     Reporter. 31 March 2007.
Penot, Jessica. Haunted North Alabama. Charleston, SC: History Press,
     2010.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

“But a walking shadow”—Birmingham, Alabama

N.B. This article replaces the 4 October 2010 article about the Alabama Theatre.
 
Sign for the Alabama Theatre,
Photo by Patricia Highsmith, 2010.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then in heard no more.
--Williams Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

The theatre world is full of superstition and spirits. In nearly every theatre I have worked, there are stories of ghosts. The theatre world is filled with mystery and mysticism, especially when it comes to actors. There is a ritual in preparing a character for his hour of strutting and fretting upon the stage before they are banished back to the world of fiction. Perhaps that may be a clue to why theatres are haunted.

While many haunted places may be locations of tragedy and death, that’s not always the case with theatres. As most theatre people are passionate about their profession, it’s not unheard of to imagine that they remain to rekindle that passion. In his Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans, Jeff Dwyer contends that one can be almost certain that a theatre will be haunted.

There are few certainties in ghost hunting. But when it comes to haunted places, ships and theaters offer ghost hunters the greatest opportunities for encounters with the spirit world. Theaters often harbor the ghosts of actors, writers, musicians and directors because something about their creative natures ties them to the place where they experienced their greatest successes or failures. Stagehands and other production staff may haunt backstage areas where they worked and, perhaps suffered a fatal accident. They may also be tied to room where props are stored. The ghosts of patrons remain long after death because they love the theater or, more likely, they loved an actor who performed regularly at that location.

Lyric Theatre, 2006 by Andre Natta.
Courtesy of Flickr.
I can agree with some of this. Yes, the creative natures of thespians, writers, musicians, directors and other members of the creative staff may cause them to linger in the places where they happily created their art. As for stagehands and other members of the production staff, with the higher rate of accidents for such people, there are cases where their deaths have left them in limbo within the theatre. The haunting of the Wells Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia comes to mind. One of the spirits in this 1913 theatre may be that of a careless stagehand who became entangled in the hemp rope-operated fly system (a system that is still in use) and accidentally hung himself.

Within a modern theatre, I do have an issue with Dwyer’s contention that spirits may be connected to props rooms. Most modern theatres serve mostly as general performing arts spaces and unless they have a theatre company attached, they are not likely to have props storage. In my research, I cannot recall any stories of haunted props storage spaces.
 
The Alabama Theatre's Spanish Lounge.
Photo taken for the Historic American Buildings
Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library
of Congress.
As for lingering spirits of theatre patrons, there are a few love stories involving patrons and performers, though it does seems that most of the hauntings by members of the audience are apparently residual in nature with phantom laughter and applause sometimes being heard.

Contributing to theatres’ haunted natures, I would add the fact that theatres are often created in old buildings. These repurposed buildings may already be haunted and the spirits adapt to the new use of the location. Among the numerous examples of these types of theatres are the Baltimore Theatre Project in Maryland in an old building originally constructed for a men’s fraternal organization and the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville, Florida, formerly a post office and courthouse.

Regardless, some of these assertions can be seen in play with two haunted theatres in Birmingham, Alabama. Theatres that happen to be located directly across the street from each other, though they have wildly differing histories: the Lyric and the Alabama Theatres, located on 3rd Avenue, North.
 
Balconies of the Lyric Theatre. Photo
by Andre Natta, 2006, courtesy of
Flickr.
Standing in the shadow of the Alabama Theatre, its well-restored, gaudier and haunted sister across the street, the Lyric (1800 3rd Avenue) is finally coming into her own after many years of neglect. The Lyric opened in 1914 at the height of American vaudeville. Upon its now dusty boards passed many of the top headliners of B.F. Keith’s vaudeville circuit: the curvaceous and naughty humor of Mae West; the last Red Hot Mama, Sophie Tucker; the Marx Brothers with their goofily brilliant brand of comedy; Buster Keaton and his family of acrobats; and legions of hoofers, singers, comedians and other weird and wonderful vaudevillians.

With the opening of the nearby Ritz Theatre in 1926, big time vaudeville departed the Lyric leaving its stage to second and third tier performers. Films were shown, but even these were overshadowed by the Alabama Theatre. The theatre limped on until 1958 when its doors were shut. In the 1970s under the flashy name, the Roxy, the grand lady became an adult theatre. Legend holds that the last film shown was the infamous “Deep Throat,” after which the projectionist was arrested. The theatre closed its doors to sit quietly and crumble for a few decades.

Efforts to revive the Lyric have reached a fever pitch and activity now hums in its once forlorn halls. Soon, it’s expected that the Lyric will stand proudly across the street from the Alabama Theatre again. And the ghosts of vaudeville will have found a new life.

There’s no question why the vaudeville performers of old would want to continue gracing the stage of the Lyric. It may be one of the best preserved vaudeville houses in the nation and it is also known for its superb acoustics. Those same acoustics and its remarkably well-preserved interior are the very reasons that local arts groups are clamoring to see the theatre restored for live performance.

On recent investigations of the Lyric, paranormal investigators have witnessed much activity that can possibly be traced to the ghosts of vaudeville. A reporter observing an investigation in 2012 saw what she believed to be a man with a cane move across the empty theatre’s stage. The figure stood in the wings for a few moments before disappearing. Another group of investigators smelled the distinct odors of lit matches and cigar smoke.

The crown jewel of Birmingham, the Alabama Theatre (1817 3rd Avenue), was opened as the southeastern flagship theater for the Paramount-Publix chain in 1927. This most exuberant of theatrical monuments was named the Historic State Theatre of Alabama in 1993 and continues to serve the citizens of Birmingham and the region.
 
Interior of the Alabama Theatre before
restoration. Photo taken for HABS, courtesy
of the Library of Congress.
Designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Graven and Mayger, the Alabama Theatre is one of only two extant theatres they designed, the other being Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre which opened a year after its Alabama counterpart. The first air-conditioned building in the state of Alabama, the theatre features an opulent interior in the Spanish Colonial style that has wowed patrons for almost 90 years. A booming Wurlitzer organ still graces the auditorium and is featured in concerts and sing-alongs.

The theater served as a movie house until the owners declared bankruptcy in 1981. The theater had been sitting empty when Birmingham Landmarks, Inc. purchased the theater as a performing arts center. The theater edifice was fully restored in 1998 and hosts a wide array of events throughout the year.

Since reopening as a performing arts center, the Alabama Theatre has had varied reports of ghostly activity. One legend remembers a construction worker falling to his death during construction who allegedly haunts the balcony. A theatre staff member in the balcony checking sightlines did watch as a seat near her lowered by itself—the seats are spring-loaded to pop back up. Perhaps the construction worker enjoys watching the activity onstage?
 
HABS photo of the
Alabama Theatre's exterior.
Courtesy of the Library of
Congress.
Southern Paranormal Researchers were granted permission to investigate the theatre in 2006. They encountered a variety of activity. As one investigator ascended the stairs to the balcony, they encountered a force that pushed them down. While investigating the film room shortly after that two investigators heard something descending a staircase.

According to Dr. Alan Brown, the now retired, long time theatre organist Cecil Whitmire told of many encounters in the building. While rehearsing with a singer in 1986, Mr. Whitmire reported that the singer watched a shadowy figure emerge from behind the edge of the curtain just offstage and disappear. He believes the spirit may be that of one of the former theatre organists. The extravagant theatre and its “walking shadows” still surprise and delight theatre patrons and visitors today.

Sources
Alabama Theatre. Bhamwiki. Accessed 8 March 2013.
Brown, Alan. Haunted Birmingham. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009.
Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Jackson, MS: University Press of
     Mississippi, 2004.
Dobrinski, Rebecca. “Wandering the Lyric at midnight.” Weld for Birmingham. 17
     September 2012.
Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2007.
“Haunted Places: the Lyric Theatre in Alabama.” The Most Haunted Places in 
      America Blog. 21 April 2011.
The Heritage of Jefferson County, Alabama. Clanton, AL: Heritage Publishing,
     2002.
Huebner, Michael. “Birmingham’s Lyric Theatre: Heightened anticipation for long-
     awaited restoration.” The Birmingham News. 29 Spetember 2012.
Seale, Kathy. “Happy Haunting!” Birmingham News. 29 October 2006.
Southern Paranormal Researchers. Investigation Report for Alabama Theatre. 24
     November 2006.
Underwood, Madison. “Lyric Theatre set to host its ‘first concert in the 21st
     century.’" AL.com. 26 September 2012.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Blow to Identity--LeBeau House

Last month, a group of seven men dealt a heavy blow to Southern identity and to the reputation of paranormal investigation. In search of ghosts, these men broke into the historic LeBeau House in Arabi, Louisiana. Apparently frustrated by the lack of paranormal activity provided by the home’s resident spirits, they set fire to the ancient structure. By the early morning hours of November 22, a small piece of Southern identity lay in ashes, the reputation of paranormal investigation lay open to derision and seven suspects were in jail with their futures in question.

In an article following the fire in the The Times-Picayune, Richard Campanella remarked on the “exceptional nature” of the LeBeau House in Arabi, Louisiana. Architecturally, the home was a treasure that showed the mélange of influences at work—French, Creole, American—in the region at the time. But also in terms of identity, the house served as an identifying feature of Arabi and extending further afield to St. Bernard Parish, the New Orleans metro area, the state of Louisiana and the South as a whole.
 
The LeBeau House in 2006. Photo by Infrogmation, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Campanella continues, “the identity and economy of our region rest on the aged timbers and piers of our historical structures.” Indeed, the identity of the South rests on the many historic structures that dot the landscape like tombstones or mile markers to our history. While some of these places are protected, there are still many places like the LeBeau House that are unprotected and desolately waiting for a savior.

Though, it was not just the South’s identity that took a blow in the early morning hours of November 22, the pursuit of paranormal investigation also received a blow from a group of so-called “ghost hunters.” As the news of the home’s spectacular loss was splashed across newspapers from coast to coast some authors looked to blame paranormal investigation itself as one of the reasons for the home’s destruction.

Allegedly, a group of seven men broke into the LeBeau House in search of the home’s storied ghosts. Some of the men had been smoking marijuana and alcohol may have also been involved. An officer from the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s office remarked that the men became frustrated trying to summon spirits and decided to set the house ablaze. Within minutes, the 10,000 square foot mostly wood frame structure became fully involved and by sunrise had been reduced to smoldering ashes.

Though they had already broken the tenants of responsible paranormal investigation by breaking into the secured house for an unauthorized investigation, their abject stupidity led them further to destroy the landmark. Even if the fire was set without the intent to destroy the home, the men were obviously too dense to think through the possible consequences of doing such a thing in an old wood structure.

The circa 1854 home was one of the largest unrestored antebellum structures in the New Orleans Metropolitan area. The Mereaux Foundation, which owned the property, had been looking for ways to preserve the home and had done basic work to shore up the decaying structure. They’d also secured the structure with a chain-link fence and by boarding up the windows and doors.

According to the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff, Jimmy Pohlmann, “we all heard ghost stories [about the LeBeau House] while growing up.” Those same stories drew the seven suspects to the house where they may have tried provoking the spirits before destroying the house. Most stories involve a very typical woman in white who is seen within the ancient structure.

In an article from Mother Nature Network, the author derides paranormal investigation by describing it as “harmless (and fruitless) fun,” that can have a “dark, dangerous side.” It continues by recounting a few recent incidents where ghost hunters have been injured or even killed while pursuing ghosts. Among them, a 2010 incident where a ghost hunter was killed by a train while investigating Bostian Bridge near Statesville, North Carolina, the scene of a tragic, 19th century rail disaster.

These seven men—it’s interesting that they come in a sacred number—have, with their selfish actions, wounded the reputation of paranormal investigation as well. Granted, the reputation was not the greatest to begin with, but as this story has spread the reputation has been furthered sullied.

To hopefully begin the process of repairing our public image I have two proposals.

First, there is a need to rebrand ourselves a bit. To accomplish this there is a need for us to retire the phrase “ghost hunting” in describing what we do. It’s an issue of implications. By describing what we do as “investigating,” we are implying a methodical, organized search that may involve evidence—exactly what a detective does. “Hunting” on the other hand, implies seeking out and killing, certainly the opposite of what we’re intending to do. Therefore, “paranormal investigation” is the best choice. We’re seeking to understand spirits, not destroy them.

Second, there is a need for a code of conduct. I would suggest an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath taken by health professionals. There are a number of points I think should be included:

  • “First, do no harm.” The Latin phrase primum non nocere does not actually appear in the Hippocratic Oath, though often it is thought to be adapted from it. Most certainly, this sums up in four words what paranormal investigators need to consider: the further implications of what they do. There should be no harm to the locations, the spirits, the property owners or the investigators. Hikers often use the phrase “leave no traces, only footprints.” This is much along the same lines.
  • Respect above all. This is respect for everyone and everything. While we’re trying to protect everything and do no harm, holding everyone and everything in high regard is also important. This includes not provoking the spirits. If we hold them in high regard then bullying them should be out of the question. But also respect for other investigators and their findings.
  • Pay heed to cultural norms. Investigators may often encounter cultural and religious norms that may be opposite of or contradict their own staunchly held beliefs. If we are to respect everyone, spirits included, there is a need to understand and tolerate these differences in others.
  • Respect for history. Not only is it important to be respectful of history in its physical sense, but being respectful of historical facts. Do the research and have respect for the sources. Too often legends are taken at face value while actual historical facts are ignored. Historical research is not a simple task and does not end once the investigation begins. It is an ongoing process.
  • Keep an open mind. Not only that, but keep what a friend of mine called the “Eleventh Commandment: Do not take thyself so f---ing seriously.”

This is a rough outline. If something else should be added, please let me know. Of course, I understand that an oath does little to prevent people from straying, it does instill a sense of honor, something that will help immensely with creating a cohesive sense of identity.

Sources
Alexander-Bloch, Benjamin. “Seven suspects in LeBeau Plantation fire were looking
     for ghosts, sheriff says.” Times-Picayune. 22 November 2013.
Campanella, Richard. “In LeBeau House’s ashes, a lesson in carpe diem.” Times-
     Picayune. 25 November 2013.
Monteverde, Danny. “Historic LeBeau Plantation in Arabi burns to the ground.”
     New Orleans Advocate. 27 November 2013.
Radford, Benjamin. “Ghost hunters burn historic mansion near New Orleans.”
     Mother Nature Network. 2 December 2013.