October 18, 2014

Haunted History: Stetson, California

Dedicated in the Year of Our Lord 1893
In memory of those who perished by fire on this land.
Having suffered a terrible and unjust death,
may these souls find their way to God.
Dare not to disturb these dead.

What happens when you disturb those who are best left alone? Stetson, California, may well find out.

Stetson is a sleepy little neighborhood rubbing shoulders with the hills of the San Fernando Valley. The whole thing is a rare remnant of the valley’s early farm and ranching days. Most lots have been reduced to dirt, their buildings leveled and land stripped, waiting for developers.

San Fernando Valley
Like many parts of southern California, Stetson once belonged to a sprawling Spanish ranch. In 1798, Eduardo Luís Espadillo, the ranch’s first don, showed up with a land grant in hand bearing the King of Spain’s seal and signature. Despite protests of the local mission padres, Espadillo treated the native people like slaves, and his brutality became legendary. Thus, he enjoyed all the power and prestige of the landed gentry, farming the willing land; raising a large family and vast herds of cattle with equal ease; living and dying under the warm Western sun. For him and his family, life was good and just.

Then Spain’s grip on Mexico slipped, and in 1846, Mexico lost the land north of the Rio Grande. By this time, Rancho Espadillo was in the hands of Luis’ grandson, Vicente Gabriel. It seemed the height of good fortune when the madness of gold brought thousands to seek their fortune in the gold fields of California. The ranch prospered, shipping beef north to feed the hordes of ‘49ers pouring into the new territory. But, just like the Gold Rush, that prosperity was short-lived. The miners moved on or went home and the cattle boom went bust. Don Vicente, with the help of his son-in-law, Juan Adolfo Serrano, held on for awhile, turning from cattle to sheep—a smart move until the sheep market collapsed. Then, like vultures, the creditors moved in, and the Espadillo ranch, like all the others throughout the territory, was purchased and broken up into small farms and ranches owned by gringos. Slowly the Spanish speaking population was driven from the valley. The few that remained led poor, wretched lives.

One parcel of former Espadillo land was this pocket of the valley I now call home. Over the next few decades, it reverted to a sleepy, backwater region where nothing much happened and little changed. Then the township of Stetson was established.

Stetson was the brainchild of Thomas Winslow, a combined religious zealot, socialist, and Virginia chicken farmer who dreamed of establishing a pious, self-sustaining commune of like-minded devotees. Everyone would raise chickens, do a little farming, live off the land, and maybe conduct a bit of commerce on the side, selling eggs and fresh produce. So, in spring of 1892, Thomas, his wife Eva, and twelve families loaded their belongings onto carts and wagons then rail cars and made the arduous journey West, arriving in California just before winter’s first blizzards hit the Sierras.

Winslow’s utopian chicken farm cooperative did well, thriving for nearly five decades. But with the close of World War II, a cancer spread throughout the entire San Fernando Valley. Tract housing moved in, eating up the open land until little was left of the rural life. Shopping centers, strip malls, apartment mazes, and industrial parks crowded in where simple ranches, dairy farms,
grazing land, orange orchards, and wheat fields had once stretched. 

 Stetson caught the disease, but the little community died slowly, with its final gasp literally in 1986. Delia Davies—last descendent of an original commune family—took a faltering breath and died while reading her bible one evening in February. She left no family and had no heirs. Her land went to auction, then sat idle for years. The neat rows of chicken houses sagged with weather rot and age. Her tiny home was boarded up.

Well, it was next to this relic of Stetson’s past that I took up residence a couple of years ago. However, its history, as I knew it, didn’t explain why it felt so creepy to walk the grounds, or why the lot was shunned by neighborhood animals and children alike.

Thank goodness for dusty old historical accounts. Further research turned up that when the Spanish took over the area, there were still some Native American villages. One was right here in Stetson. When Don Espadillo showed up to lay claim the land, the people said, ‘Go away. It is ours. We live here, we farm the land to feed our families, etc.’ Espadillo said, ‘Fine; no problem,’  and left. Three nights later, the village burned to the ground. No survivors.

There were one hundred twenty-seven souls lost in that fire. Espadillo organized a mass burial of the remains, then marked it with a little fence and a headstone. That’s as far as his conscience took him.

It seems he was a good judge of land. Anything he planted grew. The difficulties cropped up—pardon the pun—around harvest time. The locals still knew their history and wouldn’t come near the place. Superstitious. So, it was hard to find laborers to work the fields and orchards.

By the time Thomas Winslow got his cooperative going, much of that history was forgotten, and the fence and marker had disappeared. I imagine it was quite a shock when Delia’s grandpa unearthed the headstone. Well, he started asking around and found an old timer who’d heard the tale from his granddaddy. When Delia’s grandma found out, being a good Christian woman, she insisted that the area where the marker was found be set aside, consecrated, and never used. The oak was already there—maybe planted by Espadillo. So, Delia’s grandma had a metal marker made up and nailed to the tree, where it couldn’t be lost or buried again. It read:
Dedicated in the Year of Our Lord 1893
In memory of those who perished by fire on this land.
Having suffered a terrible and unjust death,
may these souls find their way to God.
Dare not to disturb these dead.

Last week, J.S. & Sons Construction put up signs on the chain link fence around the property. Someone’s planning on doing some building, and they’ll clear the land for starters. Makes you wonder what trouble they could possibly stir up. I’ll keep you posted.

Stetson, California, is the setting for “The Lot on Winslow Street”  a new ghost story in Tales from the Dead of Night II, due out in 2015. 

October 9, 2013

A Dead Queen's Strange Tomb

It seems that, even when dead, some women enjoy a spirited jest. Long after her death, Queen Nitocris of Babylon slapped the hand of a Persian king while serving up a lesson on greed. I first told this dark little tale on my blog Gryphon Gold. It seems equally at home here.

The glory days of Ancient Babylon
This mischievous lady was queen of Babylon in the 6th century BC. Daughter of famed King Nebuchadnezzar II, she was riding the crest of her power around 550 BC. At the time, she was married to Nabonidus, the last ruler of Babylon.

In that same year, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, was taking the first step towards carving out his empire by conquering the Median Empire. Next he would set his sights on the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian. 

Nitocris was both ambitious and clever. According to Herodotus, she implemented a number of diversions of the Euphrates, making it more difficult to navigate and improving its potential usefulness in defense of the city. She also had a stone bridge constructed that crossed the river, which cut the walled city in half. Herodotus also claimed that Nitocris ordered construction of an artificial lake basin outside the city. (Note: The site of the queen’s bridge has been uncovered by archaeologists.)

Perhaps the queen’s most memorable contribution to history was her tomb. Wishing to perpetuate her name after death, she had arranged for her tomb to be built above one of the many gates of Babylon. Engraved on the outside of it was an inscription that said in essence: If one of the rulers of Babylon after me is in want of money, let him open my tomb and take however much he likes. But if he is not in need, he should beware and under no circumstances open it.

Babylon fell under Persian rule in 539 BC. The queen’s tomb went undisturbed until Darius the Great came to the city (around 520 BC).

According to Herodotus, the tomb was a source of tremendous aggravation for Darius. First, its epitaph was tantalizing and encouraged its plunder. Second, Darius could not walk under the gate because he could not walk under a corpse. Finally, he ordered the tomb to be opened so that he might take possession of Queen Nitocris’ treasure.

Imagine his annoyance at finding nothing but the body of the dead queen and this finger-wagging rebuke: If you had not been insatiable after gold and eager for shameful gain, you would never have violated the asylum of the dead.

The clever queen had the last word and, if she was still hanging around in spirit, a good laugh.

Not even the ghost of of a treasure

Happy Hauntings!

October 18, 2012

The Haunting Life & Death of Edgar Allan Poe

"There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell... Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful… they must sleep, or they will devour us—they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish." (from The Premature Burial by Edgar Allen Poe)

Poe daguerreotype
In rare cases, no post mortem appearances are required to forever link an individual to that World Beyond the Grave. Even in Life, he (or she) seems to be an intimate of Death—not just the Idea, but that dreadful, dark Being who hunts us all.

Of course, I’m speaking of Edgar Allan Poe, who gave Death a form and face in haunting tales like The Masque of the Red Death.

In this chilling story, Death makes an appearance amidst the torch-lit, barbaric splendor of a nightmarish masked ball. Secure behind the walls of his castellated abbey, a prince and the privileged hold their bizarre and magnificent revel, while pestilence ravages the populace without. But Death will not be denied. Tall, gaunt and wearing the ghastly face of a stiffened corpse, he enters as a guest, with inescapable consequences: 

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

What an image!

On October 07, 1849, Poe took a final walk with Death. He was only 40 years old. Four days earlier, he’d been found outside a Baltimore, Maryland, tavern, disheveled, delirious, and in dire need of medical help. Though theories abound, the actual cause of his condition and subsequent demise remains a mystery. Equally uncertain are the days leading up to his mortal illness. Here are some of the puzzling details:

·         Poe leaves Richmond, VA, on September 27, arriving in Baltimore on September 28.
·         His movements and whereabouts over the next few days are shrouded in mystery, even for his Baltimore cousin, Neilson Poe.
·         Separate reports claim that Poe was carrying a sum of money ranging from a small amount to as much as $1,500. As no money was found on him, some people speculate that he was mugged.
·         When Poe was found by Joseph W. Walker on October 3rd, 1849, outside of Gunner’s Hall, his clothing had been changed. In place of his customary, tasteful suit of black wool was one of cheap gabardine, faded and stained. He was also wearing an uncharacteristic and decrepit palm leaf hat.
·         Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness, unable to reveal the cause of his condition.
·         His last words, according to John J. Moran (author of A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, 1885), were “Lord help my poor soul.”
·         Poe died on October 7th.
·         The Baltimore Clipper reports Poe’s death rather oddly, stating cause of death as “congestion of the brain.” No one is certain what that means specifically.
·         No death certificate seems to have been filed.
·         Poe was buried in the Old Western Burial Ground in Baltimore, next to his young wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe.
Poe's beloved wife, Virginia, dead at age 24

Whatever the cause, Poe’s death was tragic, pointless, and a loss to the world.

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
As an author, Edgar Allan Poe profoundly influenced literature. His genius transformed the short story from simple anecdote into works of skill and imagination. He’s credited with inventing the detective story and modern mystery with such tales as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” As an early pioneer of science fiction, he often threaded his writing with the scientific theories of the day. He was also a poet, weaving hauntingly romantic elegies such as “Annabel Lee” and conjuring unforgettable scenes of terror in works like “The Raven.”

But, of course, above all, Poe was a horror writer, drawing the reader into gothic realms where the rational mind encounters its most irrational, atavistic fears. Here the dead return and the living die grotesquely or, worse, are entombed alive. Death stalks the land, animate, dreadful, and merciless. Madness and despair among the living often follow in his wake. Surely, to craft such tales, Poe had to draw on his own wild and desperate fears, personal tragedies, and private demons.

So, here’s to a literary great who lives on through his work. R.I.P. Mr. Poe. I hope you’ve found the answers and rest that you seemed to seek. 

The Pit and the Pendulum by Clarke
"And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave." The Pit and the Pendulum

For more fascinating insights about Poe, be sure to visit the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore www.eapoe.org

If you happen to be in Baltimore, check out the society’s “Halloween at the Poe Grave” on October 31st. Who knows who you’ll encounter. As Poe said, “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”

"A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment--I trembled." The Cask of Amontillado

Happy Hauntings, eveyone!

September 2, 2012

Winchester Mystery House™: Sarah Winchester, RIP

September 5, 2012, marks the 90th anniversary of Sarah Winchester’s passing. Creator of the most splendidly bizarre house in the world—the Winchester Mystery House™—Sarah passed away peacefully (we hope) in her sleep in 1922. But her legacy lives on in a house that many visitors will swear is haunted.

A rare photo of Sarah Winchester
Briefly for those of you unfamiliar with the story: In 1862, Sarah Lockwood Pardee, known as the “Belle of New Haven” (Connecticut), married wealthy William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle (“the gun that won the West”). Life and marriage were blissful until the unexplained death of her infant daughter in 1866, followed by the untimely death of her husband fifteen years later.
Stricken with grief and depression, Sarah turned to a Boston spiritualist for relief and a possible explanation for these heart-rending misfortunes. Through the medium, it was revealed to her that the spirits of American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others killed by Winchester rifles were behind these tragedies, and Sarah herself could be their next victim. However, there was a way to appease the angry spirits: move west and build them a great house. As long as construction continued, Sarah would be safe.
Feeling haunted and hunted, Mrs. Winchester took the advice to heart, came to California, and found the perfect spot for her project in the Santa Clara Valley, just three miles west of San Jose. Beginning with an unfinished farm house that she purchased in 1844, she spent the next thirty-eight years overseeing the non-stop construction that produced the "eerily eccentric" Winchester Mystery House™—"an extravagant maze of Victorian craftsmanship."

According to the official site for the Winchester Mystery House™ (www.winchestermysteryhouse.com): “At the time of her death, the unrelenting construction had rambled over six acres. The sprawling mansion contained 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. Carpenters even left nails half driven when they learned of Mrs. Winchester’s death.”

With miles of twisting hallways, secret passageways, staircases to nowhere, doors and windows that lead to unexpected places, not to mention the famously spooky Séance Room, the wild, weird, and fanciful Winchester Mystery House™ is a must see and a memorable experience.
There’s so much more to this fascinating story, and the official site has done a stellar job laying it all out for you (www.winchestermysteryhouse.com). I’ve toured the house myself, and I would gladly return. Admittedly, I encountered no ghosts, but like so many history-haunted places, it’s the stories behind the location that make the impression and linger on in memory. Besides, there are plenty of people who have had a ghostly experience and will swear the house is haunted. You’ll find their strange tales on the website, also.

Sarah Winchester is buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, beside her beloved husband. RIP

For the rest of you -- Happy Hauntings!