Family Ghosts: Bringing Back the Dead (Part II)

“Ghosts of St. Mark’s Place” by Eden, Janine and Jim (Wikimedia Commons).

In case you missed Part I of our readers’ family ghost stories: last week I talked about the history of ghost stories in the United States, and introduced you to some of the stranger spirits haunting the past. This week, I’m focusing on the ghosts of more recent memory—when and why we see them, and how our ghost stories can help us bring back the relatives and loved ones we have lost.

It must be acknowledged that not everyone believes in ghosts. Stories about ghost sightings say a lot about the people who tell them: some feel sure about the nature of what they’ve seen, while others may not be so confident. The more logical-minded among us will search actively for a rational explanation. For my part, I remain stubbornly agnostic. I’ve never seen a ghost myself, and I admit that I am skeptical by nature. But I can’t help but be fascinated by the possibility—and by the history and memories that ghost stories can unearth, whether or not they turn out to be entirely true.

One thing I noticed across your stories is that children, and especially very young children, are often the first to notice a ghost’s presence in a home:

“Alone in the house one day, I was dancing with my two-year-old daughter in my arms. She kept waving at something behind me and said, “Mommy, man.” I explained to her it was just the two of us here, and kept dancing. She continued to wave, then took her hands and turned my face to the doorway of the family room. Leaning against the doorway was a man, dressed in a suit with a fedora on his head. As soon as I saw him, he disappeared. My daughter saw a ghost that day, and she made sure her mom did, too.” Kate, Newburyport, MA

If you don’t have a young child around to check for ghosts, your family pet may be able to help:

“There is a ghost in our house, and our cats see it almost every day. We sit with our backs to the hallway, and the ghost evidently comes up the hallway and turns into the kitchen. The cats stop what they are doing and watch. Their heads don’t move, but their eyes dilate and constrict as they follow the movement and closeness of the ghost. Sometimes it stops for a minute right behind our chairs, and the cats stare at it. When it leaves the cats go back to normal.” -Carol Hummer, Beavercreek, OH

As in the above examples, many of you sent stories about ghosts whose origins you could not identify. But fortunately for this family history blog, some of your know exactly where your hauntings are coming from. Genealogist and Vita Brevis contributor Eileen Pironti shared the following story, about a ghost who stayed behind to look after her house:

“When my husband was a young child in the late 1960s, his parents purchased a single-family home which had only one previous owner, a recently deceased widow by the name of Davenport. Her husband had died in the 1930s, about a year after they built the home, and she never remarried. As the family settled in, they began to hear what sounded like footsteps at night, coming from the attic above their bedroom. My father-in-law checked the attic many times, but was unable to come up with a logical explanation. They continued to hear this sound for about a year. A friend suggested that it could Mrs. Davenport keeping an eye on her home, and recommended placing one of her belongings in a prominent location as a sign of respect, theorizing that it may put her at ease. My father-in-law was skeptical, but decided it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. They chose to display a conductor’s baton which they had found resting on top of a piano in the living room, which Mrs. Davenport had used while giving piano lessons to neighborhood children. Once they placed it on their coffee table, they never heard the footsteps again.”

Moving to another place is a common American experience, and the vast majority of our ghost stories tend to crop up when a family vacates a home, or relocates to a new one. Houses seem to hold on to the memory of their occupants—the living may agree to leave, but the dead are not so easily relocated. While many of you have encountered former residents in your new homes, some of you wrote in with stories of your own family members who stayed behind:

“Growing up, it was understood that my great-grandmother Anna Heighton’s home in Mount Vernon, Ohio was haunted by the spirit of Uncle Frank. He liked to move things around, and sometimes you’d hear somebody upstairs when no one else was there. One of my cousins said she saw him when we were eight, and he scared the heck out of us kids several times (with our help, of course). Granny (Anna’s daughter) said that he wasn’t evil, just dead. After (Great) Grandma Anna died, Granny rented the house out to a young couple not related to the family. They left abruptly after about a month—apparently Uncle Frank made them very uncomfortable. I’ve since learned that Frank Krafft, Anna’s paternal uncle, built and lived in that house. He was born in 1862 and died in 1936.”  Amy W., Bowling Green, KY

Some of you have even encountered family ghosts upon returning to your ancestral homes:

“I stayed at the home of one of my Minutemen ancestors, which is now a B&B. While there, I could hear footsteps on the stairs even though nobody was around. Then, the day that I had a DAR marker dedicated to him at his gravesite, a lamp that hadn’t been used for many years suddenly went on by itself.” -Andrea Hajducko, Allentown, PA

A number of you wrote in with stories about seeing the spirits of your recently departed family members and loved ones—in fact, this was the largest category of stories we received. Often these stories take place soon after the death of a loved one, most often a grandparent, and describe visions which bring the grieving relative comfort:

“When my grandfather Winthrop G. Dow died in July of 1970, I was twelve years old and inconsolable. His death shot through me unlike any that I have experienced since. The night after his funeral, sleeping in our summer cottage home where my grandparents had spent summers for 44 years, I had a visit. I heard footsteps on the rush mats in the hall, and wondered if my grandmother was awake. They continued for over fifteen minutes. I was wide awake, listening without much fear or curiosity, when a figure dressed in a white gown entered my room and stood at the foot of my bed. I was not able to see any clear features, but I knew it to be my grandfather. He opened my suitcase on the cedar chest behind him, and pulled out a sweater of his that I had chosen from his belongings just that day. He then pulled out a bundle of leather straps I was using to make a braided belt, which he had taught me to do that summer. He turned back, and though I could not see his face clearly, I felt the sense of a smile, a wish for a long life, a sadness. Then he vanished. I was transfixed, and have never ceased to think of that experience.” -Sally Dow, North Hampton, NH

Photo of Mary Ellen Gorman Hanophy

In other cases, the death of a relative can inspire a visit from another ancestor who might be looking after the family:

“My husband’s Uncle Jimmy was well-loved by family and everyone he met. As we were approaching the funeral home for his well-attended wake, I noticed one particular woman walking slowly toward us, away from the building. She caught my attention, not only because she was walking directly in the middle of the sidewalk, but because her appearance was a bit odd. She was noticeably tall, with a very long neck and grey hair pulled back from her face, wearing a buttoned-up trench-style rain coat. As we stepped aside to let her pass, she held eye contact with me, a Mona-Lisa smile fixed on her face. I had a sense that she looked familiar, but also that she might not be real. I asked my teenage son if he had seen her—he said yes, and thought her behavior was strange as well. We both wondered if she would still be behind us if we turned around. When we looked back, there she was, walking away. We all agreed that she seemed odd, and jokingly said she might have been a ghost, but then put her out of our minds. I thought about her over the next few days, and finally realized I had seen a photo of her recently. When I showed my son, he agreed that it was the woman we’d seen: Uncle Jimmy’s grandmother, Mary Ellen Gorman Hanophy, who died two days after Jimmy’s tenth birthday in 1957. I must have been researching her about a month or two before Jimmy’s death. According to family, “Nana” was not especially tall, but I believe she appeared that way to get my attention. Her face was unmistakable.” -Laurie Hanophy, Flushing, NY

A common variation is the prophetic sighting: people who are visited or have strange experiences at the moment of a relative’s death, which they only learn about after the fact, as in the following poignant example:

“My mother’s parents were both born in Norway in the mid-1800s. As young adults, they emigrated separately to America, met for the first time here, married, and had 5 children. My mother could speak Norwegian, as her parents spoke it at home, but she did not normally use it. When she was 23, her father became ill, and was hospitalized about 25 miles from where she and two of her sisters lived. One night she woke up in the middle of the night to find herself sitting upright in bed, reciting the Lord’s Prayer—in Norwegian. When morning came, my mother was told that her father had died at that exact time during the night. No non-paranormal explanation has ever been offered. To this day, almost exactly 97 years later, I choke up when I tell this story.” -Richard Larkin, Vienna, Virginia

Some of the most interesting stories we received involved an ancestor who comes back with a warning, and helps their family evade a tragedy:

“My mother’s mother, who was deceased, blocked the door to my parents’ bedroom and would not let my father leave. She called him by name and told him to go to my aunt’s house immediately. My Dad did not believe in anything supernatural, in any way, shape, or form. He called for my mother and told her, “Get your coat, we have to go to your sister’s house NOW.” They did not have a telephone, so they broke the speed limit getting there. They burst into the home without knocking, startling my older cousins, who told them that Aunty was taking a nap, so they were cleaning the house and fixing dinner to surprise her. My mom rushed into the room and screamed for them to call the operator for an ambulance (as there was no 911 in those days). Aunty was unconscious and barely breathing. The doctors who saved her life told the family that if she hadn’t had immediate medical attention, she would have died. After talking to my cousins, Dad realized that Grandma had visited him only minutes after Aunty laid down to rest.” -Shelley, Olympia, WA

In the next example, a relative close to death offers a bit of prophetic knowledge of a different kind:

“In 1950, my great-grandmother was near death. In fact, she had been resuscitated several times. She told my mother that her unborn baby would be a boy—she had seen it! Less than a month later, shortly after Grandmother died, my baby brother was born.”  Candy S, Fort Gratiot, MI

But be careful what you believe—leaving aside the question of whether ghosts are real, we know that family pranksters certainly are:

“My grandmother died in 1982, right after the movie Poltergeist was released. While gathering after the funeral at my grandfather’s house, the family heard a knocking on a wall which nobody could be standing behind. We investigated, and heard it again. We were momentarily convinced that MawMaw was sending us a message. As it turned out, one of the small nephews had somehow crawled under the divan, and was knocking on the wall to scare us.” -Sindi Terrien, Seekonk, MA

In the end, I think that ghosts are memories. Whether you believe in the presence of a literal spirit or not, memories of our loved ones can conjure some of our most powerful emotional experiences:

“As a science teacher and advocate for clear, logical thinking based on facts, I dismissed stories of ghosts and the paranormal as superstition and wishful thinking. I still do, but my attitude changed just a bit a few years ago. My dad worked in a machine shop, with a lawn mower repair business on the side. I sometimes worked with him during summers. He had a particular odor that I would recognize anywhere: sweat combined with machine oils. One day after his death, I was working in my own clean, oil-free shop on some project on my bench, when I got stuck on a problem. Not knowing what to do next, I asked myself, “What would my dad do?” At that moment, I had a powerful feeling of his presence, pressing gently against me as he looked over my right shoulder, as he had done so many times before. I could feel his touch, smell that smell, and even hear his voice. The sensation lasted only two seconds at the most, but it was incredibly powerful. It was strong enough for me to look back over my shoulder to make sure he was not there. Of course, he was not. This was a deep memory aroused by the moment, and by the feeling of the loss of my dad. But the sensation, that image, was real enough to remember years later. No, my dad was not there to help me with my work, and I missed him. But for those two seconds I brought him back, and that was enough for years to come.” -Robert Hall, Nantucket, MA

Thank you once more to everybody who submitted a story. It was a pleasure and an honor to get to know your family ghosts. If you happen to be visited by a spirit tonight, remember that they likely don’t mean you any harm—it’s probably just Uncle Frank keeping an eye on the place. Happy Halloween!

About Thomas Grebenchick

Thomas is the current editor of Vita Brevis. He writes copy and creates media for use across American Ancestors' digital platforms, and assists in communications strategy. He has been part of the digital communications team since 2017, having originally come to American Ancestors/NEHGS as an intern and freelance writer. Thomas has experience in writing, web design, and digital marketing, and holds a B.A. in English from Brandeis University with a concentration in creative writing. He is interested in genealogy as a method for understanding how ordinary people lived in the past, and as a way to contextualize one's personal relationship with the history of America.

4 thoughts on “Family Ghosts: Bringing Back the Dead (Part II)

  1. The Dearly Departed have been appearing to me since I was 15, livibg in abodes since I was fifteen, and for years as an adult, I lived in abodes that were haunted. So ghosts weren’t a cause for alarm. But the most memorable were the two times my dad appeared to me when I staying with my now widowed mother in my old bedroom. The first time was only a few months after he passed, and I almost laughed bc he only appeared from the waist up at the end of my bed. Out loud I muttered “Hey, Dad”. But before turning over and going back to sleep, in my mind was the thought that he hadn’t been gone long enough to master appearing fully formed. Not to worry. A few weeks later I was again awakened when my bedroom lit up as if a light had been turned on. The light came from the glow around Daddy standing fully formed, dressed in his after work clothes of jeans, white T-shirt and house slippers, grinning ear to ear, quite proud he’d finally mastered the appearing thing. Again I muttered “Hey, Dad”, this time with a thumbs up, and turned over and went back to sleep. Never mentioned either visit to my mother because it was understood they were our little secret, and this post is the first time I ever told anyone about it.

  2. Those were all just great! It’s so comforting to learn of similar happenings around the globe and over the centuries.Thank you for sharing.

  3. We have many ghost stories in our family.
    A week before my father died he told me my mother kept appearing at the foot of his bed telling him it was time for him to join her.
    In my son’s house there is a playful ghost who hides things and them makes them reappear. I thought he just misplaced things but about a month ago an order for one of his business products came in we were unable to find the product and searched the house top to bottom. The next day when i came into the product room, there were three of the product laid out on a table. At another time he and his partner saw a floating white garment and white feathers falling down which they found on the hallway floor.. When my son bought this house the former occupant had slips of paper with prayers on them tacked all over the house in each room. The house was built in 1945 and I would love to know its history as there is a presence there.
    Shortly after my husband died, I came home to find the whole stack of his obituaries with a poem on the back had fallen off the desk in the kitchen. I picked them up and put them all back. The next day when I arrived home only one was on the floor and that one had a poem which ended in the sentiment that he was waiting for me and we would be together again. I keep that one posted on my fridge.. A month later when sound asleep I felt someone touch my back as he used to do. I woke up screaming. A month ago my son called me at 3 in the morning and said his dad had appeared to him and engaged him in conversations for many minutes. He was very unnerved.
    I find many pennies from heaven from a friend at whose funeral I said I would say the devotional prayer she requested on her mass card but she had to send me a sign there was an after life. She constantly sends me pennies so I am trying to be very good. Another friend sends quarters. He was such a show off about his money!
    Once in my mother’s family a man was crossing a bridge on his way home when his brother appeared before him and told him to hurry home. Then his brother disappeared. He hurried home to find out his brother had just died.
    Believe in ghosts? You bet!

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