About two years ago I wrote about my experience with what some might consider the ‘paranormal’. I have decided to republish it on this blog (with some grammatical corrections along the way) and some afterthoughts as well.
As many of my readers might know, I’ve been fascinated with Civil War era history since I was a little kid. Growing up I used to sketch freehand from paintings or pictures of civil war battles and would spend long hours reading books about the men who fought them, and why they fought them (some came out better than others, as I never had formal training and just did them because I enjoyed doing it).
I say this because I once reenacted and did living history events at Gettysburg, sometimes every weekend, over summers, and in Virginia (the Shenandoah Valley). This was, of course, many years ago, when I was younger and less concerned about the larger picture. But even now as I read through ancient texts, sometimes in their original languages, thousands of years old, I don’t forget about my love of the era of the American Civil War and the fun I had (for what seems like) ages ago.
In 2011, I went back to Gettysburg on vacation and my connection with that part of the past (and my past) had been rekindled. And this is perhaps where my blog post really begins.
I had a rather interesting set of experiences that weekend. Many who know me know that I am not a believer in the paranormal. I have written of the fact that I believe Ghost stories, overall, to be cultural narratives, which are meant to teach life lessons; that is to say, while many people believe in them, the stories can be traced back to antiquity (not necessarily to ‘what happened’). The story of the improperly buried soldier dates back to the Iliad and the Odyssey, the haunted house back to Athens in narratives from Pliny the Younger and Corinth via satirists like Lucian, the stories where a ghost will attach itself to artifacts date back to ancient Greece as well and are repeated by Roman authors. So too, those stories of jilted lovers returning for revenge, or those spirits unable to rest because they have unfinished business. All of these have a link to the past. One can trace their history, their evolution; none stand free from their intertextual connections.
Knowing all of this, however, confuses me greatly; especially after that fateful weekend in 2011. Again, I stress that I am not a believer of souls living on after death or hauntings in general. While I’m an avowed deist, I don’t have any particular attachment to an afterlife–though some of my readers do (and I respect those who believe in one), the concept of living for eternity as an ethereal being has never made sense to me and I don’t find it at all particularly appealing. So the story I am about to reveal to the reader is about as confusing and specious to me as it is to you. But here it goes.
On that Friday night we were meandering downtown and I had been telling some of the ghost stories I’d picked up about the town over the years of camping out across from the old Wax Museum as a reenactor. We were fast approaching the George George House (yes, that is really the name of the owner at the time of the battle), the place where General John Reynolds‘ body was laid for the night after he had been killed on the battlefield during the first day’s battle. The body would be watched over by Mrs. George throughout the night and the following day his body had been transported back to his family in Lancaster.
Today the house is an Olde Tyme Photo place for tourists. As the original ghost story goes, about a decade back, someone was window shopping after the stores on the street (Steinwher Avenue) were closed for the night, and decided to peer into the George George House, thinking it might be a good idea to get a picture taken the next morning. For the two friends, they were quite surprised by what they saw inside. Rather than the typical assortment of costumes, they saw a bed with a man lying in it, who appeared to be in dressed in a Union officer’s uniform, and a woman rocking beside him reading a book by candlelight. The women were rather intrigued by this spectacle–thinking it was some sort of living history or wax display (as the wax museum is right down the street) and decided to come back in the morning for a better view. When they arrived early the next day, they were disturbed to find that the inside of the house looked completely different. When they approached the manager, they informed the two women that they didn’t have any setup like that and had not known why they’d seen what they had. Under distress, they left the building quickly.
As a reenactor in 2005-6, I had stayed about 50 yards away, encamped on Cemetery Ridge at the Quality Inn, for nearly every weekend during the season. I have known about the story since I was a teenager and watched a program on some station or another and had, occasionally, looked into the window, skeptically, and never experienced anything. Not a thing. Let me stress this again: I’ve been in full Civil War era attire, at night, in the summer, and never once had an experience.
On that Friday night in 2011, after I finish telling this ghost story, I jokingly looked into the window again, expecting to see nothing as usual. But what I actually saw really shook me and I have no explanation for it. When I looked into the window, I saw two figures standing on the inside of the doorway, leaning against the door frame, staring into the room. I could make out faint light, like candlelight, but nothing more beyond them. I didn’t bother to look any closer because I had already jumped back. The two figures remained there. My first thought was that the employees were there at the door, but it was already after 9:30 in the evening and the store had been closed for hours at that point. My next thought was that maybe the owner had placed manikins at the door; not with the intention to scare someone, but perhaps he had them outside displaying some of his uniforms.
I refused to accept what I had seen and made a note to return the next day to find out what it had been. I’m not one to just accept anything at face value, after all. So the next morning, I did go into the shop and looked around, including in the back room, and didn’t see anything. All of the uniforms were on hangars and on display racks. I also noted that in order for there to have been manikins, the owner would have to move them into place after closing the door and locking it (assuming he used the rear exit and not the front door–though he assured me that the front door was exclusively used by everyone, including him). I asked anyway, and of course the owner knew I was asking because I had seen something. He explained to me that people experience things all the time in the house; it was just one of the odd things about the place. He didn’t offer any explanations or suggest anything supernatural; simply that people often see or hear things they can’t explain. I told him my story and he wasn’t at all surprised. I was still uncomfortable with the experience.
Skip ahead to later that evening. I had to see if the owner was telling the truth; by my very nature, I’m a curious sort, and who isn’t to say he hides the manikins and brings them out after hours before he leaves. So I went back around 9pm again. The store was closed, the lights were out, but we could all see flashes of light inside the building through the windows. It looked as though the camera flash was going off; but when I mustered up the courage to look in, it looked more like light that was moving throughout the inside of the building. Yes, that’s right–a blue flash of light that moved from the downstairs, to the upstairs, back downstairs, from one side to another. That was all I needed to see and I booked it. I’m still a little freaked out about the whole ordeal two years later. I have never had an experience like this before and I had been on the battlefield, at night, with full authentic gear on, and never had a single experience. Yet this one weekend, it was as if a plethora of events occurred around this house all at once. And I had been the witness to it.
Some clarifications: The street was dark, I was not seeing reflections from other light sources outside the building. I am positive. I started looking around when I first saw the flashes. The company with me (including two couples walking on the opposite side of the street who I did not know) also witnessed the flashes, though they did not look in the window on the night I saw the two figures. It is possible that this is all part of a grand scheme by the owner (though I don’t want to accuse the owner of that since that could be taken as slander); there might have been a set-up on Friday night inside the door and there might have been a light set to go off at certain intervals in the building on Saturday night. It’s possible; of course it is. Maybe there had been someone in there taking pictures after hours on both the top and bottom floors. Who knows (I don’t), but I looked in and what I saw didn’t look like any sort of camera flash I’ve seen (and I actually have experience with flash photography, as my father ran a one-hour photo processing business many years ago and I used to help work the store when I was younger). I have considered, for the past two years, what might have happened. I have second-guessed myself continuously. I just don’t know what to make of it.
I don’t accept, however, that what I witnessed was spiritual–I don’t believe I witnessed a ‘soul’, and I don’t think that what I saw was anything paranormal, in the sense that I could interact with it and it with me. But I did see something and I saw it clear enough that it has really left an impression on me.
In a few weeks I will be back at Gettysburg. I’m trying to decide if I am courageous enough to look into the window again after hours or if I’m going to avoid it. Occasionally, I’ve had the time to really consider what had happened to me and my co-witnesses over those two nights. And every time I think about it I feel myself reaffirming that I had seen something. I think it is pertinent to make clear that what I saw was not akin to the ghost story I had told to my company–I did not seen Reynolds in a bed with a woman next to him. What I saw was not from a story that I had heard. It was, to my knowledge, a completely unique tale. No one that I know has ever claimed to have witnessed a fast-moving blue orb of light and I’ve never heard a story about two figures standing in the doorway of the house. It legitimately creeps me out–to this day, two years after I witnessed this event. So time will tell, sooner rather than later, if what I saw had been seen by others. Please share your experiences, if you have them. I’d love to hear what you, the reader, has to say. It doesn’t have to be limited to Gettysburg.