Recently, the Twitter of the New York Times archives shared an 1877 account out of a haunting in Ohio: “QUEER ANTICS IN A STAID QUAKER FAMILY’S PANTRY AND PARLOR,” it declared. This is far from the only ghost content you’ll find in the archives of America’s newspapers.
The tumultuous nineteenth century saw a surge in interest in the concept of ghosts. The spiritualist movement, which would last well into the 1920s, blossomed as seemingly miraculous new technologies shrunk distances and made communication easier than ever. It’s therefore fitting that newspapers were one of the means of propagating these stories, which might originally appear in the middle of the country before being picked up by another outlet several states away. For instance, this 1905 Boston Evening Transcript story, a reprint from the Indiana Sentinel.
And this 1905 tale, picked up from the Baltimore Sun by the Pittsburgh Press, about a railroad tunnel on the Virginia/Kentucky border. (Also prime territory for eerie old-time ballads, let the record show.)
In those heady days, even the ponderous, skeptical columnist types were forced to consider the scientific possibility that perhaps there could be spirits among us. From the Reading Eagle, 1880:
Word of a ghostly woman in black could travel all the way from Cleveland, Tennessee to Eugene, Oregon.
Or make a shorter hop, like New York City to Hartford Connecticut.
Jezebel’s annual scary stories contest appears to be part of a long journalistic tradition, too.
The spiritualist movement petered out around the time of the Great Depression, but the deep and abiding human fascination with the other side certainly did not. Hence, the ghostly headlines kept coming. Though, admittedly, sometimes they were in the vein of debunkery.
Not always, though!
What is it with the railroads? From 1951:
The more modern subgenre of the newspaper ghost story would be the real estate nightmare. For instance, this 1979 report, picked up off the AP wire by the Evening News.
Goes the copy:
“Does the ghost of Simon J. Schermerhorn hover in the handsome mansion he built in suburban Rotterdam in 1857 and reach out with skeletal fingers to rearrange furniture?
Yes, says a couple in defense against a breach-of-contract suit. That’s reason enough not to honor a June 5, 1978 agreement to buy the old house for $95,000, they say.”
“They say things sometimes go bump in the night—and in the day—at their rented home,” The Ledger reported. “And it has gotten past the point of being amusing. They tell of sudden chills, temporary body possessions, unexplained sulfurous odors, apparitions and a long-forgotten graveyard.” Never, ever tell me that clickbait is new.
Ultimately, however, there’s only one news story about ghosts that matters, and it’s this 1928 explainer from the Lewiston Daily Sun.
Hey, could somebody run down to the Octagon House and check for ghost cats? No reason.