Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Haunted Night in the Morris-Jumel Mansion

As you've noticed, the blog has been overtaken by the serialization of The Double Life of Incorporate Things, which has been such a wonderful, fascinating ongoing experiment. But recent experiences ought not go unmentioned.

Fittingly on November 2nd, dia de los muertos, and All Saints' weekend, I spent the evening in the haunted and incredibly historic Morris-Jumel Mansion in Manhattan for a ghost investigation, thanks to dear friend Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, author of Scandalous Women, who found out about it in the first place and invited us along (on her birthday, no less!).
This mansion saw the likes of George Washington, Aaron Burr, Bonapartes, and least of all, the indomitable lady of the house, Eliza Jumel.

Paranormal is my normal. I believe in ghosts because I have seen, heard and felt them, all in various ways and capacities through my life. If you've read my work you know that spirits and spirituality factor in as the major themes.
So I don't NEED proof. I know what I know. I am suspicious of and generally dislike the idea of ghost hunting. I write about ghost-busters, I don't need to patrol them myself, because often if you go looking for things the wrong kinds of things are looking for you.
But in this case, the mansion itself was putting on the evening, billing it in a relaxed manner in which it would be a historical sleepover with tour guides availing themselves to our questions and giving us a whole night in the house to ourselves, what a neat way to live in that house for a day and get a chance to immerse myself in the history of it. If there was a haunting along the way, so be it.

What I wasn't prepared for was the amount of spectral activity that availed itself to us in the house as if it were another tour guide. The lady of the house was certainly active for her guests. Known to actively and unabashedly haunt the house, Eliza Jumel was a fascinating woman who led a fascinating if not oft controversial life. (For more about this amazing lady, please visit Elizabeth's fabulous blog post about her.)

The evening began with the group of about twenty participants interested in history and the spectral (my kind of folk), listening in the small ballroom to gentlemen from Acoustic Archives. They spoke with us about some of the amazing spectral activity captured and recorded in the house, showcased video and audio, and explained a little about what they'd be doing with equipment in the house that night. We continued with a tour of the outside and full inside of the mansion by very talented, knowledgeable guides.

Then we all gathered in the kitchen, the basement of the house and the official "ghost hunting" began. With this, I was skeptical. Ghosts don't necessarily like to perform on command. The questions to "show yourself" and "give a sign" as bidden by the gentlemen with the equipment weren't really garnering a response. But they were amenable to all of us asking questions and participating and the group got an interesting discussion going in the dark, talking about history and positing things the spirits might be feeling or hanging onto. It was a large sort of seance, in a way, but there was just too much activity, too large of a group, I thought, to get a specific response. However there were significant cold spots near me and my friends, and I saw that someone had taken a photo and there were a lot of orbs. I sensed we were not alone, but I knew it would take time before something responded, if anything would. I don't like to test the spirits, and had this not been a welcoming energy in the building, I would not have stayed there. I certainly don't tempt malevolence. A fascinating development began when we decided to split up the group by gender. Men went upstairs with equipment, we ladies remained downstairs and for the next hour. And we communed. Without any real need for communication with spirits (I can sense people's desperation about these things, proof of the paranormal drove a lot of very intelligent persons from Conan Doyle to Houdini a bit batty, so I try to steer clear of ever having expectations of the spirit world, for in expectations therein sets up disappointments), we talked to them anyway.

We all, taking turns, told them of what all had happened for women in the intervening time since women had been there in that basement as slaves or servants, young or old, all of them living a life of great toil and struggle and limited freedoms. We told them of laws, of suffrage, of rights, of careers they likely couldn't have imagined in their day. We thanked them. Profusely. For being our foremothers. For having visions that grew into our modern world. For having stories no one would ever know. We honored them. We tried to imagine what their lives would have been like. We all realized how lucky we are now. How much there is to be thankful for. How much there is still left to be done, in terms of equality. And then, when we wondered if the lady of the house had much hand in the kitchen, all the track lighting flickered on in a wave and then off. (No one was near the switch and it was not on a dimmer so the effect would have been impossible to create by hand). There were certainly spiritually charged feelings about house and housework.

When we rejoined others upstairs, they were taking our questions and comments further, with incredible results. With a small flashlight with its cap unscrewed so that any connective presence from a ghostly response would make it flicker on or turn it back off, the lady of the manor was answering questions.

With a directive to turn the flashlight on to full or off depending on a yes, no, or 'flicker if maybe' question, the lady told us she liked our presence there, was fond of men but never really loved one, had complex feelings about children, was very proud of her home, would like to have a ball in the ballroom (she was hesitant about this until I clarified for her if she would like it if it were a ball done in the style and dance of her day, and this was a resounding flashlight "yes"). And she really liked being spoken to in French. (Thanks to fellow writer and bookseller Stacey Agdern for helping provide insights and some French).

Perhaps the most striking answer to a question was the flashlight blazing in full when asked if she might linger on haunting her own home because of fear. Fear of what was next. Fear of the beyond. Fear of passing onwards...

It's something I muse on in every one of my books. The veil between our world and the spirit world is always very thin in my work. As I feel it is very thin in general if one but focuses upon it. Ghosts play prominent roles; are heroes, antagonists, love interests, plot twists, problems, saviours, complications. What I try never to do is answer those questions beyond what I feel the characters can safely say. What the strictures of my worlds dictate.

I was moved by our night in the mansion, both from a human level of what we accomplished as people, strangers drawn together merely by a very respectful interest in history and what might haunt it. And then from a spirit level as there was no trickery to the flashlight, (I'm enough of a skeptic to have queried the item but there was no incentive for the light to be rigged, no one was filming this, no programs were watching, and no obvious way it could have been rigged, so I simply took the item for what it was) and Lady Jumel's responses matched what we know of history, of her nature, with some surprises and nuance. She deigned to bring herself to life for us and entertain in her home once more. What an honour.

I don't come away from a night like that with any answers, or any different notions about ghosts or about an afterlife. I believe what I believe; that the spirit world is always there for us, but that we shouldn't rush desperately into its arms. As for the Great Beyond, that's the divine mystery. And we'll all find out when we do. I don't go looking for proof of the supernatural, in this case, I went looking to spend time in a historic mansion. I let instances happen to me and then I enjoy and respect them for the isolated incidents they are. Life and the spirit is an unfolding journey. I can be a very impatient person, but when I just trust in process, I'm happier and more likely to be presented with all that I need, moment by moment, experience by experience. For more poetic and lyrical musings of that nature, please read my books.

Soon I'll post another musing of visiting a building that helped define me and my mission in life and art.

Happy Haunting...


Ari said...

That's extremely cool.

EmpressRi said...

What you've said about going to look for things, only to find the wrong things looking for YOU.... I've said that time and time again. If someone or something wants to make themselves known to you, it will happen.

This was fascinating to read, and quite pleasant compared to other experiences I've read about, mostly from brasher folks that sort of tumble head first into things instead of treading carefully, if that makes sense.

Thank you for sharing with us!

houndstooth said...

That sounds like such a unique and fun experience! I agree, spirits aren't to be messed around with, and I've had a few of my own experiences to agree with your sentiments.