For this bonus Halloween episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to historian Paulette Kilmer about American newspapers’ fascination with ghosts dating back to the 1800s.
Paulette Kilmer is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Toledo. A specialist in the area of narrative non-fiction, Kilmer is the author of the book chapter, “Ghosts and Crime Stories Printed by the New York Times from 1851 to 1901” in After the War: The Press in a Changing America, 1865–1900 (ed. David B. Sachsman; Routledge, 2017).
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Featured Image: From William Mumler, spirit photograph, 1872, the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum and Allen County Public Library.
Paulette Kilmer (00:02):
I found ghost stories in hard news, poetry, short stories, advertisements. But in the hard news, they often would appear dealing with some crime.
Teri Finneman (00:14):
Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon (00:28):
And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward (00:34)
And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman (00:38):
And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
What is it that we find so interesting about ghosts? For a special Halloween bonus episode of the Journalism History podcast, we explore that question and trace back American newspapers’ fascination with ghosts to the 1800s. Even the New York Times was among newspapers back in the 19th century that published stories about crimes and included comments about ghosts. We have Paulette D. Kilmer of the University of Toledo with us discussing her book chapter, “Ghosts and Crime Stories Printed by the New York Times from 1851 to 1901.” The chapter is included in the book, “After the War: The Press in a Changing America, 1865–1900,” if you want to read more about this later.
Paulette, welcome to the show. How did you end up doing research on ghosts and newspapers in the first place?
Paulette Kilmer (01:56):
Well, many years ago when I was working on a project called “The Land Tomorrow” and using old newspapers to trace some multi-generation — like the farms went back 100, 120 years — so I would find articles about those families and their land. I also noticed ghost stories. And so for many years before I ever started doing anything about it, I noticed these ghost stories, and I decided that I needed to do something with it. So first I thought, I don’t even know what these mean. I have no idea how to approach some. I’ll just wait a while and eventually I’ll come back. And that’s what happened was I decided that what I study in the first place is words and narratives, the sacred stories, the myths that the newspapers pick up and repeat, and the way those stories become a form of social control and reinforce, unfortunately sometimes, some of our worst ideas, as well as our best ideals, but that’s how it happened. I just felt like there was more to them than just that they were something funny, because some of them weren’t funny at all.
Teri Finneman (03:43):
Why do you think people are so fascinated with ghosts?
Paulette Kilmer (03:47):
Well, you know, our society, everywhere you look, you go to the grocery store and ghosts are on cereal boxes, they’re in songs or in movies and books and Halloween, of course. But I think a more fundamental reason even than that is because ghosts offer hope. They offer hope that something lives beyond the grave. That’s probably why the interest in them started. And then they’re so mysterious that people I think are drawn in sometimes just because it’s not something that they can take a pin and stick to a piece of cardboard and put a label under it.
Teri Finneman (04:38):
You know, it’s interesting. I was thinking before our show today how even at such a young age we’re introduced to ghosts through Scooby Doo and, you know, Casper the Ghost. It’s interesting, isn’t it? How it’s really throughout our entire life that ghosts come into play.
Paulette Kilmer (04:53):
Well, you know what? Ghost stories were there when Neanderthals were telling them around their, their fire pits, and they’ll be there long after I’m gone. The ghost is like it’s part of us; whether we believe in them or not is immaterial. Little pun there, but it’s just a matter, I think, of the way our world works. There are so many things that we can, and we do, define, that perhaps people are attracted to some mystery. Then again, they might be like the train wreck. You know, if there’s a train wreck, everybody will stare. Even as they know they really should not stare. They should look away. They should go home. But a lot of people will stand there and stare. And the really well told ghost story is kind of like that.
Teri Finneman (05:55):
What made you select 1851 to 1901 specifically as the years that you studied ghosts in newspapers?
Paulette Kilmer (06:05):
I chose that time period because I wanted 50 years in the 19th century. I know the most about the 19th century, and I wanted to start a little bit ahead of the Civil War. And I wanted to stop when the new century started because the ghost stories are going to be there, but by the time the 20th century comes around, ghost stories move into all kinds of different popular culture venues that don’t exist in 1851. So I thought it would be fun to take a time period when newspapers really were important. And maybe for some people, the newspaper was all the media, really, that they used.
Teri Finneman (06:59):
So was there a period in there between that 50-year period when ghosts in stories were more common?
Paulette Kilmer (07:06):
Well, I think that the ghost stories, really, we see quite a few of them in the last part of the century and some of them arise because, well, there are a couple of factors. People always say, “Well, the deaths and the Civil War.” Yes, there was a lot of carnage in the Civil War, and that certainly would have made people interested in ghosts, I think, but also the epidemics, the numbers of people dying in the cities because the unions hadn’t formed yet, and there were no safety precautions. So I studied disasters before ghosts, and I was just appalled: buildings collapsing and industrial accidents, and all of the people who were dying in those, and then the epidemics would come along and lots of children would die. And it would seem to me that those things, too, would make people very interested in ghosts. Although people still are interested in ghosts. It’s just now they have different places and different ways to talk about them and to share their stories. They don’t have to rely on the newspaper.
Teri Finneman (08:37):
Give us some specific examples of what these newspapers were writing about when they talked about ghosts.
Paulette Kilmer (08:44):
Well, the examples we find — I found ghost stories in hard news, poetry, short stories, advertisements, little snippets, sometimes from sermons or from editorials. But in the hard news, they often would appear dealing with some crime. There were crime stories, robberies, the court stories. Especially by the time that spiritualism is rising in the 1890s, we get more of the courtroom dramas, but even earlier, we get a few. And we also see these ghost stories as being stories about families, and they have a fight and they separate and they have all their problems, sort of like almost reminding me of a soap opera in a way, and there would be a ghost in that story. So the ghosts were kind of everywhere in the newspaper in that time. And they would just emerge, and sometimes it would be a few lines and other times it’d be nearly a page. Sometimes it would read just like a news article. Other times, the editors would have fun and make puns, and it would seem to me like, well, they’re making fun of this whole thing. So the range and variety in them I found to be very rich.
Teri Finneman (10:27):
Did you just look at the New York Times, or did you look at other newspapers, too?
Paulette Kilmer (10:31):
Oh, I looked at newspapers from all over the country. I did one academic paper about the New York Times because of its boast as being the place where we keep track of our history, but it’s supposed to be the most factual paper, so I thought it would be fun to just show that the New York Times ran ghost stories, too, so I did. But then, when I rewrote and kind of started over on crime and ghosts for my book, I found examples from all over the country, as I knew I would.
Teri Finneman (11:15):
Do you think that journalists and newspapers at the time actually thought that ghosts were real? Or were they just running this for entertainment?
Paulette Kilmer (11:23):
I don’t think they cared. I really don’t. I think they ran them because they were good stories and they were, they were very dramatic. Some of them were funny. Some of them were, were dramatic and scary and some of them were, were very sad. I don’t really think that it mattered that much to them. If you look at the newspapers back then, they ran a lot of stuff. And so I think that we, over time, the question of if they’re real or they’re not real, has become a focus for a lot of people. But I tell you what, that’s the least interesting question, I think, about ghosts and ghost stories. I think the better question is the one you started with. Why? Why is it that we all know what a ghost is? It’s a word in the dictionary. They permeate our culture. And one reason I think is that the ghost is an invitation to the imagination and the chance to relax and to think about other possibilities than we normally would.
Teri Finneman (12:49):
So you note that there are certain themes you found in discussions of ghosts, including the ghost who cannot rest and the ghost as a phony. So tell us a little bit more about these themes.
Paulette Kilmer (13:01):
Okay. Well, I will focus on the two that you mentioned. And the ghost that cannot rest, those stories, a lot of those stories deal with somebody who’s feeling shame or guilt and must walk on the earth because of the bad things that he or she did. One of my favorite examples of that is, think about it: it’s, oh, the year is 1874. It just happens to be October, really, truly. And Otto Umstott [actually, his first name is Jabez, which is confusing when I tell the story orally, and so I change it to Otto] is taking his evening walk. The evening walk always goes down to the old gas mine where people died, trying to turn it into a commercial venture, but the view there is just beautiful. It’s so awesome. So he always goes there. And this evening, just as he’s arriving, the leaves on this giant oak begin to shake and only the leaves on that tree. So he stops. And then there’s this whistling sound and mist forms like a little tornado in front of the tree. And as it dissolves, out steps this giant, transparent giant, and he’s 8, 9 feet tall. And on one arm striped the cadaver of a beautiful young with blood splattered all over her dress. And in the other hand, he’s clutching a bloody knife. And as Otto looks up, he notices the apparition is headless.
Paulette Kilmer (15:10):
And of course, the editor tells us other people in town, the most respectable people in town, have seen the same thing. So he’s not making it up. But the, the story itself, what does it mean? Well, the specter has to be enormous because of the crime he committed, the enormity of the crime he committed. In a fit of rage, he murdered the woman he was engaged to. Innocent, lovely young girl. And he murdered her because he was jealous. That’s why he’s headless. He lost his head in one moment of passionate anger. And now for the rest of eternity, he must walk the earth and materialize to warn others against the evils of envy and jealousy. Now, that story is, unfortunately, like stories we read to this day. Where angry and jealous, envious or jealous men kill their sweethearts or wives. So some of these ghost stories contain within them universal lessons that can help us become better people if we listen.
Paulette Kilmer (16:59):
Now, that was all in the ghost who must return. We don’t have time, so I won’t tell you this one, but there are stories, lots of stories. about mothers who come back as ghosts seeking their dead children or lovers or husbands or wives. So separation and they will come back. And those stories are really upbeat, and they carry the message that love transcends the grave. And if we truly love and are truly loved, not even death can end that kind of a bond with another person. Now let’s see. So those were the ones, those were the side of it where we were talking about ghosts who came back, who were searching. And then the other example, you wanted examples?
Teri Finneman (18:04):
The ghost as a phony.
Paulette Kilmer (18:04):
Oh, the ghosts as phonies. Oh, this is really fun because in the 19th century, very few of these stories emphasized that what mattered was that the ghost wasn’t real. What they did think was important was the consequences of somebody being mean enough to try to fool someone else that way. And so we get stories where, one of the most graphic and short I can tell you is two young men in Michigan, rich farm boys, love the same young woman. And while this young woman liked to play with them, the same way a cat plays with a mouse, and she would not choose. So one night at church, the older boy asks her and she says, yes, she’ll walk home with him. The younger boy runs out the door. Now the couple are walking down the lane when, all of a sudden, they hear a whistle and a scurrying and they look up and there’s this white mass running at them. And the young lady screams, “Ghost!” and she collapses, handily into the arm of her escort. And the escort grabs a rock, and as soon as the ghost is in range, throws it as hard as he can and hits him on the head. The apparition collapses. And when they get over to the fence and pull back that sheet, the woman and the man cry because there on the ground, with a surely fatal wound in the head, is the younger brother.
Paulette Kilmer (20:15):
So these stories warned again, this is another one, I think that deals with jealousy and love triangles, but they warn that trying to fool other people, it can get out of hand and someone can get hurt. Somebody can die. Or it can be extremely embarrassing for the perpetrator. We would expect all of these stories about the phony ghost to just hammer in on the “ghosts aren’t real, ghosts don’t exist.” But I found that in many of these stories, certainly that’s the reason for telling the story probably is that it’s an example of where people made mistakes or where, but mostly, it’s there about what happens if you try to play ghost and scares someone else. Another subset of that, I think is really fun, is the sleepwalker stories. And the sleepwalkers will be walking along the edge of a building. There’ll be all kinds of places they shouldn’t be. They’ll be sound asleep. And it’s almost always a young woman in a white night gown that’s fluttering in the wind. So those are some examples of those two motifs.
Teri Finneman (21:45):
You end your chapter in this particular book noting the “ghost motifs in the crime stories of 19th century newspapers offered a paranormal agency for restoring conventional morality and order to a technical world out of spiritual balance.” Talk a little bit more about what you mean.
Paulette Kilmer (22:05):
Well, I think the ghost stories provide a safe territory where people can read them. And then, of course, especially in the 19th century, they become fodder for conversation, but they offer a territory where people can look at the issues they raise, as well as the plot of them, and consider, just consider, what’s going on and how they might be happier, what they could do to make their situation a little bit better. I don’t think that one story alone can do this, but it’s what I have noticed in stories about other things. The repeated narrative becomes a form of social control in some ways, because it tells people what they should be, how they should act, and moreover, what’s going to happen if they don’t follow these rules. So I’ve been doing some work on that issue. And the ghost stories got me started with it because in the ghost stories, we see the consequences of people who care far too much about material things and not enough about the human relationships or the other people around them.
You know, one of the major ghost stories of the century, and even of our own time, is “A Christmas Carol”. The lessons that are in these ghost stories, they aren’t there just because it’s a fluke. The ghost stories are about the things that matter the most to human beings. And this is not necessarily true at all of slasher movies or some of the real modern takes on ghosts, but in the 19th century newspapers, those ghosts serve double duty. They amused people, I’m sure of that, that people enjoyed them. That’s the first reason to read it is because it is enjoyable and it lifts people. If they’d been working hard all day, it’s an escape and they can forget about their troubles. But also, at the same time, shows them the complexities of life. The ones about the railroad ghosts really do a good job of showing the problems with the working conditions that those men have to deal with.
The ones about the women in white really show us, and show the people reading the story, some of the usually unconsidered kinds of consequences of making women stay home all the time and accept those limited gender roles. So again and again, these stories show us how we could be better people. And I think if truly — you know, I went to the bookstore when I started working on my book and what did I find? I found that the ghost section was divided – one side believers, the other side skeptics. And I thought, if that’s all there is, I’m not doing it. I’m just not. It’s not interesting enough to me. So then when I got home, I read a bunch of them again. And I thought, “Well, you know what? The real question here is why are these narratives written this way, and how do these narratives reflect what’s going on in the world?” And I found that those stories did indeed. And they, and in fact, if ghosts do not exist, well, then we invented them because we needed them. They give us that license to use our imagination and our heart to step out of the box we’ve created for ourselves of rules and the constraining things that we think are essential. Give us a shot at seeing the world from a different perspective.
Teri Finneman (27:21):
Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit more about this book that you are writing, wrote, that you’ve mentioned a little bit now. Give us an overview of how you’re structuring your book.
Paulette Kilmer (27:31):
Well, the book is called “The Repulsive Charm of Ghosts,” and I’m structuring it so that, after I do an introduction about the ghost and ghosts in culture and why we would have invented them if they don’t exist, and my stance is the world’s more interesting with ghosts and Bigfoot and Nessie and all of it, aliens, all of it. So I leave the door open. There are far more things in this life than I will ever understand. So I’m not going to say that they aren’t real. I’m not going to go out tomorrow and start looking for these things, either, but I just think that the world is a richer place if we have room for all these kinds of things. So when I was working on the book, I thought, what I want to do is line up each chapter with some kind of social problem or issue from the 19th century.
And so I did. So I have the chapter about labor, looks at the railroads and railroad ghosts. I think my most creative one is when I wanted to look at prejudices, I lined that one up with the stories about the sea captains and the ocean ghosts. And I think that one will surprise people. And then I have, I look at women and women’s issues, and I look at crime, all kinds of stuff. I guess I’ve got like eight chapters, seven chapters and an epilogue or something. It’ll be under 200 words — under 200 pages — because there’s no need in repeating and repeating examples or evidence. I sent it to Llewellyn. And the woman there said it’ll be published because of the meticulous research. And then she said she liked the storytelling in it, too, but that the research is very impressive, so we’ll see. You know, to write something like this, there had better be a lot of research in it because when I say stuff, I better be able to show it.
Teri Finneman (30:16):
Well, you’ll definitely have to let us know when your book comes out. I’m sure our listeners will be very interested. So be sure to check back with us on that.
Paulette Kilmer (30:24):
I will, I will.
Teri Finneman (30:26):
So before we let you go, we always ask our guests a final question of why does journalism history matter?
Paulette Kilmer (30:35):
Well, there’s, there’s the comment usually made that it’s the first draft of history. Although I sometimes think it’s like a fun house mirror draft of history, but it is very important for what it tells us. It’s also — journalism history matters because it shows us where we’ve been as a society and helps us figure out what we’re doing right now. And it shows us the way into the future if we study the history. I think another thing that journalism history does is it shows us, through the narratives that appear in the paper at the various times, it shows us what the people were feeling and what values, what values in the culture were being honored. And those kinds of things that are the territory of the heart, and you really can’t get at them all that easily, so I think that the newspapers are vital to us.
They, they show us the broad things like how technology changes our whole way of seeing the world and telling our stories. But they also show us the power of hope and the constancy of the altruism and the values that stress cooperating and working together. So I think that the newspapers are a vital source and that we need journalism history. And then we need television and radio and internet and all of those things studied as well because a culture can be no better than the stories it tells. And if it doesn’t tell the truth when it’s reporting the news, then it’s doomed.
Teri Finneman (32:49):
Well, this has been a great show. Thank you so much for joining us.
Paulette Kilmer (32:53):
You are welcome.
Teri Finneman (32:55):
Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R Murrow, “good night and good luck.”