In this season, more than any other, staff members at Liberty Hall Historic Site are asked this question: “Is Liberty Hall haunted?”
Perhaps you have asked the question yourself or maybe you have seen the Gray Lady of Liberty Hall yourself, maybe lingering on the stairs or peering through a window. You are not alone since I would guess nearly every person who grew up in Frankfort has a story about this 217-year-old house and its possible “otherworldly” inhabitant(s).
Whether you believe in the Gray Lady or other ghosts, the culture of believing in, and communicating with, the spirits of the dead, or “spiritualism” has a long history in America. The modern American Spiritualism movement dates back to the mid-19th century.
According to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC) website (www.nsac.org), “Spiritualism is the Science, Philosophy and Religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World.” Spiritualists believe in communicating with the spirits of deceased people. They believe that spirit mediums are humans gifted to do this, often through séances.
According to “Spiritualism,” the afterlife is not a static place, but one in which spirits evolve. Many members speak of spirit guides – specific spirits, often contacted, relied upon for worldly and spiritual matters. Members of the Spiritualist movement believe coexistence with the spirits is conveyed through “the phenomena of Spiritualism,” which include prophecy, clairvoyance, laying on of hands, trance, levitation, raps, automatic and independent writings, materialization, and photography.
'BORN' IN 1848
The birth of modern Spiritualism is marked as March 31, 1848, for it was on that day that the Fox sisters, spirit mediums in Hydesville, New York, reported receiving messages from the dead, in the form of a series of “raps.” (Later, the Fox sisters claimed their interaction with the spirits to be a hoax, but the NSAC still celebrates the date.)
It grew in popularity in the United States, and during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Spiritualism was a fashionable concept among many Americans, though most probably continued their belief in mainstream religions. Spiritualism was mainly a middle- and upper-class movement, and was especially popular with women.
American spiritualists would meet in private homes for séances, at lecture halls for trance lectures, at state or national conventions, and at summer camps attended by thousands. Many followers were those grieving the deaths of loved ones.
Surges in Spiritualist activity occurred in the 1860s and 1870s, after the Civil War, and again in the 1920s, after World War I.
Mary Todd Lincoln, who had lost two young sons, organized séances in the White House, attended by President Lincoln. After the 1920s, the Spiritualist movement fractured, though believers remain today, with churches operating in several states.
SPIRITUALISM AT LIBERTY HALL
Mary Mason “Mame” Scott, the last Brown family member to live at Liberty Hall, was a follower of the Spiritualist movement. Mame was born at Liberty Hall in 1867, the great-granddaughter of Sen. John Brown and Margaretta Mason Brown.
Though a Christian all her life, Mame practiced divining the future, by reading palms and tea leaves. She may also have held séances at Liberty Hall, attempting to contact the spirits of departed relatives. Like the many devotees who came to Spiritualism after the deaths of loved ones during the Civil War, Mame may have been drawn in by tragic loss in her childhood: her father died when she was just 8 years old, and her younger brother William died when he was 9 years old.
Mame Scott is likely the person responsible for Liberty Hall’s best-known ghost story, “The Gray Lady of Liberty Hall.”
It was in the 1880s that Mame first reported seeing a mysterious woman in gray in her bedroom. Here’s a story found in the LHHS files about the experience:
“Mame returned from finishing school in New York and was welcomed home to a newly-decorated room. That first night, she retired early.
“Near midnight, the family was awakened by shrieks and her brother rushed to her side with a shotgun, her aunt from across the hall with a poker. The girl related that she had seen an apparition, tall, veiled in gray. When she thrust out her hand to ward it off, it disappeared.
“For three successive nights, the same thing occurred.
“Some night later, when her experience was recounted in the presence of a kindly old friend, the visitor chuckled and with a wry smile observed, ‘So old Mrs. Varick is at it again.’ This was the first intimation the younger generation had of the ancient tradition.”
Mame connected her vision to the story of Margaretta Varick, the aunt of her great grandmother. Mrs. Varick died at Liberty Hall in late 1817 or early 1818, following a long journey from her home in New York. Liberty Hall was intended to be just a layover on the way to Illinois, but instead became her final destination. Today, while many believe Mrs. Varick’s spirit roams Liberty Hall, her earthly body lays at rest in the Frankfort Cemetery.
This year at Ghosts of Frankfort, Mame Scott returns to guide visitors through Liberty Hall where they will encounter the spirits of the Brown family. This revamped tour will take guests through the newly-restored first floor of Liberty Hall and then out to the gardens behind the house.
After the presentation, visitors will be joined by a soldier from the War of 1812 who will lead them to the Ward Oates Amphitheater for a special activity presented by Frankfort Parks, Recreation, and Historic Sites.
Here are members of the cast of Ghosts of Frankfort 2012: Mary Mason Scott: Janet Meyer and Joyce Albro; Senator John Brown: Andrew Casebier; Margaretta Mason Brown: Sarah Pence; Miles Stepney: Michael Ghant; Aaron Burr: Bill Payne; Mason Brown: Jared Winters; Euphemia Brown: Sydney Hayden; Dr. Humphries: Rick Paul; Dr. Brown: Ron Johnson; Mary Yoder Brown: Tina Hardin; Gravedigger: Edward Dean; Mourner: Kate Hesseldenz; Yoder Brown: Trey Hayden; Mary Brown: Kadie Adams; Eliza Brown: Caitlin Alcorn; Margaretta Brown: Carly Hedden; Madame Rosa: Nancy Atcher; and The Gray Lady: Mary West.
Ouija Board: A brief history
An artifact of late 19th century Spiritualism in America that has been both celebrated as a game and feared as a tool of evil spirits is the Ouija Board. Approaching the spirits of the deceased through writing was hardly a new idea when a “talking board” was patented under the name “Ouija” board in 1891.
For thousands of years, world cultures, such as those in India, Greece, and Rome used written words or letters to communicate with the dead. In China 1000 years ago, “spirit boards” were used for contacting dead ancestors. The practice was also known as “planchette writing,” named for the heart-shaped board that is used to spell out “messages” from the dead.
The modern Ouija board was created in late 19th century America for use as a game. Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard introduced the printed board and planchette to the board game market in 1890 and patented the design and name “Ouija” in 1891.
The source of the name “Ouija” is contested; its creators said it was from the ancient Egyptian word for “luck,” while a later manufacturer, William Fuld, claimed it was from the French and German words for “yes.”
The Ouija boards – in spite of the fact that it is intended as a game and scientists have determined that unconscious hand movements by planchette operators, not the hands of the dead, move the planchette – many Americans believe in the power of talking boards for reaching the spirits.
For this reason, some religious groups warn against the use of talking boards, which they believe may be tools of the Devil. Nonetheless, the Ouija board continues to appear in American television shows, movies, and literature – not to mention many teenage slumber parties!
At this year’s Ghosts of Frankfort, visitors can try their hand at planchette writing while waiting for their tour to begin.