Today I Learned …

The word PEZ (as in the candy dispenser) comes from the German word for peppermint — PfeffErminZ.

Lights Out: Mars Hill Cemetery

Welcome to another Lights Out episode! If you knew about a church and cemetery out in the middle of nowhere, that was supposed to be haunted because of Satanic activity … would you go check it out? I did, and you can come along with me.


Today I Learned …

When John Adams became the second president of the United States, a rumor started making the rounds that he had sent a general to England to choose four women as mistresses, two for each of them. Adams refuted this scandalous rumor, saying, “If this be true, he has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.” (From They Did What!? The Funny, Weird, Wonderful, Outrageous & Stupid Things Famous People Have Done, by Bob Fenster)

Lights Out: Malvern Manor

Gather ’round the virtual campfire — it’s time for another episode of Lights Out! Malvern Manor, in Malvern, Iowa, was once a grand, gracious hotel, the pride of the town. Through the years it played host to a very different clientele: it became a nursing home, then a home for transients, closing in 2005. Do some of these lost souls still roam Malvern Manor’s halls and curl up on the mattresses in the abandoned rooms? Join me and find out!


An Extra Christmas Present

This holiday season, my friend Elizabeth Koelle suggested a return to the grand old Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories. She’s right — ghost stories are a great way to celebrate the darkest, spookiest days of the year. A roaring fire, good things to eat, a glass or mug of something lovely, and wonderful entertainment … I can’t think of a better way to spend a winter’s evening.

Here is a true ghost story from my collection Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays. Enjoy!

Footprints in the Snow

It was a cold winter afternoon early in the last century. A mother huddled in her cabin on the west fork of the Little Pigeon River in Tennessee. She held two of her children in a tight embrace … but one was missing. Her two-year-old son had wandered away from the cabin earlier that day. Since then, the temperature had been falling steadily, along with a heavy snow.

A neighbor came in, stamping the snow from his boots, to grab a few moments’ warmth by the fire. The mother looked up, hope dawning briefly in her eyes—then looked back down, defeated, at the shake of the neighbor’s head. She was grateful, of course, that all the menfolk were out looking for her precious lost little one. Word had been passed from cabin to homestead, from house to church, and soon the entire community was out looking. Her own husband was off in Europe in the trenches, fighting the Germans. All she could do was pray that one of the neighbors would find her little boy—and soon.

Dr. Thomas appeared at the door of the cabin. He’d dressed warmly for the trudge through the woods. He’d come thinking to help the young mother. One look at her stricken face, though, and he realized that he could best help not by doctoring her, but by finding her missing son. Pulling his heavy overcoat closed, he headed out into the snowstorm with the other searchers.

Dr. Thomas struck off in a random direction, hoping he was looking at ground that hadn’t already been covered. With the snow falling so thickly, the footprints of the searching men were soon being covered over. Dr. Thomas held his lantern high in the gathering dusk as he scanned the area.

The shadows of the evening crowded close under the pines as the last light of day slipped away. The doctor stopped for a moment, listening to the silence of the woods. Somewhere, he knew, men were searching for the little boy with dogs. But he hadn’t yet heard the deep bay of a hound on a scent.

All around him, the snow fell in a silent hush. The branches of the pines swayed with the wind, even as laden with snow as they were. As night fell, the snowstorm grew worse. Dr. Thomas trudged along the dwindling path in the woods, stopping every so often to look closely at any fallen log that might shelter a shivering little boy. His toes were beginning to go numb, even with the three pairs of thick woolen socks he wore. But he kept wandering the woods, his lantern held high in search of any sign of the boy. If he was cold, the toddler would be even worse off.

Dr. Thomas stopped and turned in a slow circle. He couldn’t give up hope, not while the boy was still out there lost in the storm. He held his lantern high … and there on the ground was one footprint. Dr. Thomas bent closer to study it. It wasn’t the track of a deer, or a dog.

It was the footprint of a child. A child who was barefoot.

The doctor’s heart leapt, and adrenaline spun in his cold fingers and toes, warming them briefly. Finally, here was some sign of the boy! The doctor looked around carefully for more footprints.

There was another one, and a third! The bare footprints were just visible in the hard-packed old snow, and as the doctor watched, more appeared, the feathery new snow blowing off of the old prints. Carefully, the doctor followed the prints. As soon as he passed the last one, the next one appeared, leading him further into the woods. The doctor no longer cursed the biting wind, because oddly enough, the wind seemed to be blowing the fresh snow off of the prints, revealing the path the barefoot toddler had taken through the woods.

Dr. Thomas followed the footprints as they led him to a patch of evergreens. The doctor lifted a low-hanging branch, and gasped. There, curled up on a soft bed of fallen pine needles, was the young boy. But the doctor had come too late. The boy’s skin was waxy-white, and his little chest didn’t rise and fall with peaceful sleeping breath.

The boy had frozen to death in the storm.

Dr. Thomas stifled a low moan, and gathered the child up in his arms. He unbuttoned his coat and his woolen shirt, and cradled the boy to his chest. The boy had died in the freezing cold. Although it was too late, the doctor could at least keep him warm for the sad walk home. He rebuttoned his coat and headed back to the cabin.

As the doctor approached the cabin, the young mother came out to meet him. Seeing her there, silhouetted against the yellow glow of the lit cabin behind her, Dr. Thomas felt his spirits sink. How could he break this woman’s heart?

The mother caught sight of the doctor, with his sad burden, and ran to him. Dr. Thomas reached the open cabin door just as the woman came out, crying joyful tears at the return of her baby. The doctor unbuttoned his coat and opened his shirt.

“I’m so sorry. At least I found him …”

And to his shock, the little boy blinked sleepy brown eyes at him. The child turned his head, hearing his mother’s cry of joy. “Momma?”

Stunned, Dr. Thomas handed the toddler to his mother, who cuddled him fiercely. She looked up, tears of gratitude standing in her eyes.

“Thank you, doctor, thank you so much. You saved my little boy. Please, come inside and get warm.”

The doctor followed her into the cabin. His analytical mind fumbled for an explanation. The boy must have been chilled to the point where his vitals had slowed, putting him into a state of suspended animation. The walk back, cuddled against the doctor’s warm chest and wrapped in the heavy overcoat, must have warmed the child slowly, enough for him to recover with no harm done. The gentle warming had brought the child back to life as surely as a violet blooms in the spring. Vaguely, he became aware that the boy’s mother was still talking.

“I’m so grateful to you for finding him!” She kissed the toddler, who sighed sleepily in her arms.

Dr. Thomas roused himself from his thoughts. “Yes, I followed his footprints in the snow. I’m amazed he was able to wander so far with bare feet.”

“Bare feet?” the mother said, puzzled. “But he’s wearing shoes.”

Frowning, Dr. Thomas lifted one of the boy’s feet. Sure enough, the boy was wearing sturdy brogans.

“I have to tie his shoes on tightly, with double knots, so he won’t kick them off,” the mother explained.

“Here, have some coffee, it’ll warm you right up. Good job!” a neighbor said, putting a tin cup into the doctor’s hand. Dr. Thomas accepted the congratulations and heartfelt thanks of his neighbors. The little boy was safe. That was all that mattered.

But the doctor’s scientific mind wouldn’t rest until he’d figured out the answer to the mystery. Several nights later, he woke from a sound sleep, sitting bolt upright in bed, reeling from a thunderclap of realization.

The wind hadn’t blown the fresh snow off of the child’s old prints. The bare footprints had been appearing in the snow, step by step, as he’d been following them. He hadn’t been tracking a living child. He’d been following an invisible child—a ghost, or an angel.


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day Twelve: Christmas Eve Shenanigans


Sandringham House, pictured above (courtesy of Getty Images), is where the royal family spends their holidays. The Queen usually arrives on the Thursday before Christmas, and the rest of the family join her there for the celebration. Sandringham was the favored residence of King George V, the queen’s grandfather. He gave the very first Christmas message broadcast to the nation over the radio from the manor in 1932, and Queen Elizabeth II gave HER first Christmas message there in 1957. The Queen hangs out there after Christmas too — she stays until February 6, to mark the anniversary of her father’s death in 1952.

And hey guess what? Here’s something People Magazine’s not going to tell you: like all good English country houses, Sandringham has its very own ghost — or maybe a whole bunch of them. Around the holidays, the house is plagued by a mischievous poltergeist, or more properly, a pooka. The shenanigans start on Christmas Eve and continue for about six weeks. (Hmm … roughly the time Her Majesty is in residence.)

For centuries, ever since the house was built, servants have reported hearing footsteps along empty corridors, doors opening and closing with no one around, and lights mysteriously turning on and off. Christmas cards displayed with pride are moved from one wall to another. And, most annoying to the servants, beds that have been freshly made, in rooms that have been closed and locked, are often found with the bedclothes stripped off and thrown to the floor.

The hall on the second floor that leads to the footmen’s quarters, especially the sergeant footmen’s room, seems to be the most active area at Sandringham. One footman flatly refused to sleep in the room that had been assigned to him. And I can’t say that I blame him, either; he explained that “a large paper sack in this room breathes in and out of its own accord, like a grotesque lung.” Disturbing, to say the least!

I’ve never heard of the royal family admitting to anything like a haunting in any of their castles. But they wouldn’t, would they? Stiff upper lip and all that. But servants will talk, and they tell some pretty wild stories about Christmas at Sandringham House. (Now there’s someplace I’d love to investigate. Particularly when the Queen is hosting her Christmas Day buffet …)

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Sleep tight, and don’t let the kallikantzaroi bite. Be sure to leave some schnapps out for Krampus, and … wait, who IS that coming down your chimney?!?


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day Ten: Lights Out

Here’s my Christmas present to you guys; Episode 80 of Lights Out. We’ll visit the Villisca Axe Murder House, and spend the night. Just what everyone asks Santa for!


Lights Out #80: Villisca Axe Murder House. Over a century ago, 508 E 2nd Street in the small town of Villisca, Iowa, was the scene of a horrifying tragedy. On June 10, 1912, two adults and six children were hacked to death with an axe — an axe that belonged to the father of the family, Josiah Moore. This deplorable act left its mark on the small white house in the sleepy Iowa town. Are you brave enough to sleep here overnight?


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day Nine: Io Saturnalia!

You guys all know by now that I have a passion for ancient Rome. The Romans celebrated a midwinter holiday too; they busted loose and partied at Saturnalia. While looking for recipes to share with you, I stumbled on a post written several years ago by a historical fiction writer, Heather Domin. With her gracious permission, I’m reposting it here for you. Enjoy!

December used to be a month – now it’s a whole year. ~Seneca

I think many of us can relate to this ancient observation by Seneca. From its origin as a single holy day in December, the Roman festival of Saturnalia snowballed into a month-devouring extravaganza of parties, presents, shopping, eating, and funny hats.

Officially, Saturnalia was the festival of Saturn, the father of Jupiter and his siblings; he was a god of peace and plenty, and the Romans worshiped him at the winter solstice with a day of rest and feasting. Being Romans, that day became a few days, then a week, then almost a whole month of partying, gift-giving, and relaxation of the strict Roman social order into something kinda-sorta almost resembling equality. (But not really.) Augustus and later emperors tried to trim the celebrations back to a few days, but it never worked; the season eventually became so overblown that conservatives complained about too much secularization, too much focus on material goods, and that a holy day had become an excuse to quit work and get drunk. (Sound familiar?)

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in ways that would look very familiar to our modern eyes: decorating homes and shops with winter flora; exchanging gifts with friends and family; giving bonuses to employees and servants; even wearing gaudy holiday clothes. And of course, food – lots and lots of food. Saturn was an agricultural deity, and Saturnalia was the time to show him how thankful you were for his bounty by stuffing your face with as much of it as you could. Because Saturn was associated with grain, baked goods were a staple feature of his festival, but other than that any kind of festive potluck with friends and family would do. If you’d like to give your midwinter holiday get-together an authentic Saturnalia feel this year, here are a few suggestions to get you started.

  1. Start the Buffet

Focus on finger food: sausage rolls, deviled eggs, cheese, olives, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits would all be period-correct. The Romans considered raw vegetables unhealthy, so skip the crudités and serve your veggies in the form of pickles, chutneys, or relishes. Hummus would be fine, and those little miniature quiches are surprisingly authentic. Be sure to include lots of bread: rolls, rounds, and especially flatbread.

  1. Roast Boar, Anyone?

Pork is the easiest and most authentic choice for Roman meat dishes (if you’re fresh out of wild boar, sausages and bacon are both perfectly fine). If you don’t eat pork, go for poultry, lamb, or game; seafood would be OK if you can get it fresh, but most Romans rarely ate beef. If you’re not a carnivore, try legume or winter vegetable dishes that are thick enough to be scooped up with flatbread.

  1. Sweets for Saturn

Dessert is where Saturnalia really shines – baked goods and sweet treats are what make this holiday special. Candied fruit, jams, and tarts would all be appropriate, as would sweetened nuts and seeds — but the real star of the show should be cookies and cakes. Gingersnaps, pfeffernüße, paprenjak, nut rolls, honey buns – your favorite holiday cookie is most likely quite appropriate for Saturnalia. (Just remember the Romans didn’t have chocolate. But who am I to stop you?) These cakes were often part of the religious offerings, so if you’re going to splurge, splurge on the cookie tray. Here are two Roman recipes you might want to try; both were considered worthy to be given as offerings, and they’re also quite tasty.

mustacei (spice cookies) ~

4 cups (500g) flour
1 1/2 cups (300ml) grape juice or sweet wine
2 Tbsp anise seeds
2 Tbsp cumin seeds
1/2 cup (100g) lard, cubed
1/3 cup (50g) cheese, grated
about 20 bay leaves

Grind the anise and cumin. Mix the flour with the juice, then stir in the anise, cumin, lard, and cheese. (I’d recommend a little salt if your cheese is bland.) Shape into small balls and flatten by pressing a bay leaf into each. Arrange the cookies on a tray, bay leaf down, and bake at 350F (180C) for half an hour. Makes about 20 cookies. Yes, you can substitute shortening for the lard; and if you want to increase the spice content, try poppy seed, cinnamon, ginger, or black pepper.

globi (cheese balls) ~

This is my absolute favorite Roman recipe, and I’ve tried quite a few. Tiny deep-fried cheesecakes – a treat truly worthy of the gods! Combine equal parts flour and soft cheese. I use spelt flour, and I like to toast it for a little more flavor; for the cheese I recommend a good quality ricotta – cow, goat, or sheep, it’s all good. (Again, if your cheese is bland, you’ll want to add a pinch of salt and/or sugar.) Let the dough rest while you heat up a big pot of lard (OK fine, vegetable oil). Form the dough into small balls and deep-fry them, turning with chopsticks, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Drizzle honey over the globi and, if you’re feeling frisky, sprinkle them with poppy seeds. Bask in the deliciousness.

Now make yourself a nice big batch of spiced wine, and you’re ready to set your Saturnalia table. Carpe cibum!

Recipe modernizations are from A Taste of Ancient Rome by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa based on texts from Apicius and Cato. If you’re into primary sources (and who isn’t?), I recommend Martial’s Epigram 14, Seneca’s Epistle 18, Horace’s Satire II,  Macrobius’ Saturnalia, and Cato’s De Agri Cultura.

Heather Domin is the author of the 2009 novel The Soldier of Raetia, putting her History degree to excellent use by writing fiction filled with gratuitous sex and graphic violence. A lifelong writer and nerd, she embraces the ability to publish her writing on the internet while remaining an anti-social recluse. She reviews fiction and nonfiction for the Historical Novel Society and can often be found skulking around on Goodreads; she also keeps a blog at Livejournal and has a Twitter where she doesn’t say anything interesting but at least she doesn’t spam you. —


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day Eight: Creepy Boston

Holden Chapel, at Cambridge in Boston, is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young woman who suffered a tragic loss. In the 1800s, a Miss Pickham was enjoying a sleigh ride with her fiance when the horse pulling the sleigh trotted onto a patch of black ice. The horse’s feet went out from under it, and the sleigh wrecked, flipping its passengers out onto the pavement. The hysterical bride-to-be crawled from the wreckage, only to discover her fiance lying motionless nearby. His neck was broken in the crash, and he died in her arms as she cradled him, sobbing uncontrollably.

The young man was laid to rest in the Old Burial Ground, which was nearby. But Miss Pickham never got over the loss of her love. She was well aware that “resurrection men” prowled the graveyard in search of fresh burials. The grave robbers would dig up the fresh corpses and sell them to Harvard for dissection in the medical school labs. The young woman spent the rest of her life at her family’s home nearby, lamenting the early death of her lover and the loss of a lifetime with him.  And with the first snowfall every year, her old paranoia and suspicion would be rekindled. She would escape the house and run shrieking to the door of the laboratory, pounding on it, demanding justice, until she was dragged away, sobbing and exhausted, by family members.

Even today, a female spirit is said to appear during the first snowstorm of the year. She howls and wails, still mourning her lost love, never letting us forget her pain.

The interesting postscript to this story is that when Holden Chapel was renovated in 1999, archaeologists were allowed to conduct a dig in the basement. Their excavation turned up the usual detritus associated with a medical laboratory, broken test tubes and glassware and such. But the archaeologists also found human remains — including skeletons whose bones had been sawed apart, a sure sign of dissection.


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day Seven: Ghost Stories With Sylvia

Welcome to Day Seven of the Twelve Nightmares of Christmas! Today you can listen to me share spooky tales of the season with Ron Hood, of Ron’s Amazing Stories. And Ron has some news for you!

“I just learned that starting this week, Ron’s Amazing Stories can now be heard twice a week on the radio. The show will continue to be on Sunday nights at 11pm Eastern time. However, we have been added to the Thursday night lineup at at 10pm Eastern. I was told that with popularity growing for the show they decided to give it a second play.  My thanks to AMFM247 for this wonderful opportunity and we hope to do them proud.”


This Week’s Podcast: On the podcast, Sylvia is back with more ghostly fun and adventures. This time she digs into her personal archives and tells us four stories from her book Christmas Spirits. You can listen to this podcast on Thursday at Ron’s Amazing Stories, download it from iTunes, stream it on Stitcher Radio or on the mobile version of Spotify. Do you prefer the radio? We are heard every Sunday Night at 8:00 PM (PST) on AMFM247.COM. Check your local listing or find the station closest to you at this link.

Ron’s Amazing Stories is produced and hosted by Ronald Hood:
Blog Page:



The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day Six: The Kallikantzaroi

Kallikantzaroi – The Holiday Demons of Armageddon

The kallikantzaroi are Greek demons who can vary in appearance. Sometimes they are described as gigantic hairy demons with a pair of horse legs and boar tusks, and at other times they are just described as small black Satanic-looking imps. They are said to eat frogs and other adorable woodland creatures.

According to Greek folklore, the kallikantzaroi spend most of the year living underground, sawing at the trunk of the World Tree. The World Tree’s trunk connects the earth to the heavens, and keeps the heavens from crashing down onto the earth. In other words, the kallikantzaroi spend all year long trying to destroy the world.

They are usually nearly finished on Christmas Eve, but they are allowed to come up to the earth’s surface during the twelve days of Christmas. So at dawn on Christmas Day, the goblins come topside and wreak all kinds of havoc, mayhem, and murder (if they can get away with it). Fortunately for the world’s continued existence, the damaged trunk of the World Tree heals itself completely during the time the demons are away on the surface. On January 6, the demons return to the underworld and start their destruction of the tree trunk once more.

Any child born within the twelve days of Christmas ran the risk, when reaching adulthood, of turning into a kallikantzaros themselves. The antidote for this was to swaddle the baby in wisps of straw or braids of garlic, and to singe the child’s toenails.

Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself against the kallikantzaroi. One is to leave a Yule log burning for all twelve days of Christmas, so the demons can’t enter your house through the chimney. Another method is to toss a pair of smelly old shoes onto a fire. The stink of burning sweat and shoe leather repels the demons, possibly because it reminds them of the stink of the underworld.

Another way to protect yourself against a murderous kallikantzaros is to leave a colander on your doorstep. A kallikantzaros can’t count above two. Because three is a holy number, pronouncing it will make the demon explode. So it sits on the doorstep all night, trying in vain to count the holes in the colander, and completely forgetting that it wanted to get into your house to kill you. (Excerpted from Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays, by Sylvia Shults)


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day Five: Throwback … Um … Tuesday.

Welcome to the Dead of Winter! Today we’re going to revisit a couple of Lights Out episodes from years past.

Lights Out #66: Christmas 2018

Lights Out #52: Christmas 2017 — The Roving Skeleton of Boston Bay

Lights Out #51: Plymouth Courthouse

Lights Out #32: Christmas 2016


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas, Day Three: The Phantom Lighthouse

So when is a lighthouse not a lighthouse?

Off the coast of Delaware, a tall cylinder of stone rises from the rocks at Cape Henlopen State Park. This rock formation has been psyching out sailors for centuries. It’s even picked up a couple of names over the years; some locals call it the Corpse Light, while others refer to it as the Bad Weather Witch.

The first disaster caused by the Corpse Light was on December 25, 1655. The captain of the Devonshire Man was piloting his ship through a storm, saw the glow of the stone cylinder, and steered right for it, thinking it was a lighthouse. The ship was wrecked on the rocky shore, killing nearly two hundred people. On May 25, 1798, the sloop De Braak was lured too close to shore and broke apart on the rocks. In 1980, the USS Poet, a 12,000 ton grain barge, vanished without a trace in the bay.

Local lore says that the phantom lighthouse is the manifestation of an old Delaware Indian curse that speaks of “a drum of stone signalling death” for all white men. The curse was invoked because British soldiers massacred a group of natives who were in the middle of a marriage celebration. The ghost of a Native American, standing alone on top of one of the rocks, was seen by multiple witnesses in 1800, right before an excursion barge smashed against the rocks, killing many of the people on board.


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas: Day Two

There is a haunted house in Church Hill, Virginia, ancestral home of the Throckmorton family. Generations have lived here, and one of the family keeps returning after death.

Elizabeth Throckmorton died soon after she was buried. She had wasted away after her father had forbidden her to be courted by an Englishman he didn’t find suitable as a match. Elizabeth had met William Taliaferro on a visit to London, and had fallen in love. Elizabeth’s father, however, thought that Taliaferro just wanted to marry Elizabeth for her money, and he intercepted the couple’s love letters. The young woman pined after her lost love, and after his letters stopped coming, she lost the will to live.

Everyone assumed that Elizabeth had died from a broken heart, but in reality, she had only slipped into a catatonic state. She was roused from her coma by grave robbers. According to lore, two of the family’s slaves dug up the casket to get at the jewelry on the corpse. They removed her earrings and necklace easily, then tried to wrench the rings from her fingers. When that didn’t work, they tried to cut Elizabeth’s half-frozen fingers off with a sharp hunting knife. The pain and shock woke the girl from her coma.

Frail as she was, Elizabeth managed to climb out of her grave and make her way up to the manor house. But there, her journey back to life ended. No one inside the house could hear her knocking on the massive front door, and she froze to death on the front porch, in the raging swirls of a vicious blizzard. Another slave found her the next morning, her body covered with the snow that had fallen overnight.

Now, whenever it snows, the family members that still live in the house are visited by Elizabeth’s spirit. Visitors to Church Hill have seen a trail of blood leading from the family plot to the front door of the manor house. Happily, another manifestation is more cheering. The family can hear the sounds of light footsteps running up the stairway to the warmth of an upstairs fireplace. It’s comforting to imagine that even though Elizabeth Throckmorton perished just outside the front door, her spirit made it safely inside.


Spirits of Christmas — For Free!

I’m delighted to tell you guys that Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays, is now available through Biblioboard, one of several library apps. It’s available for free to anyone in Illinois — you don’t need a library card. Heck, you don’t even have to log in or create an account. With Biblioboard, there are no holds, no waiting, and you can access any book any time you like. Just visit or, and search for Spirits of Christmas. When the book cover pops up, click on it, and it will download instantly to your device. (Seriously. I tried it. It’s instantaneous.) So give yourself the gift of Christmas ghost stories, and get something to read while you’re waiting in line to buy your Christmas presents!


The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas: Day One

Welcome to the Dead of Winter! I’ve got great stuff ahead for you guys for the next twelve days, a celebration of all things Christmasy and spooky!

We’ll start off with a look at the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. Be sure and read all the way to the end … there’s a surprise waiting there for you. Read on …

People of the early nineteenth century had only recently gotten used to the luxury of having dependable sources of light after nightfall. Gas lighting was invented in the 1790s, and gas lighting of streets and buildings began in the early 1800s. Most streets in London were lit by gas lamps as early as 1816. But gas as a means of lighting homes was distrusted for the first fifty years or so.

There’s also a theory that gas fixtures themselves contributed to the epidemic of Victorian ghost sightings. There’s a reason the bright interior decorating of the Georgian period, all that beautiful white and gold décor, turned dark and gloomy in the Victorian age. Dark Victorian wallpaper hid soot better.

Gas fixtures began to show up in city homes and manor houses in the mid-nineteenth century, and sometimes, they leaked gas and tainted the air with noxious fumes. A tightly-laced corset was only one reason for a well-bred Victorian lady to faint. Another reason was lack of oxygen in gas-lit parlors. There’s a theory in paranormal circles that gas leaks sometimes led to hallucinations of wispy figures or shadows seen out of the corner of the eye. This would go far towards explaining the explosion of ghost sightings in the Victorian era.

Whether or not nineteenth century ghosts were the product of leaky gas fixtures, we have the Victorians to thank for a wealth of supernatural-themed literature. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw countless Christmas gift books published, that were entirely devoted to ghost stories. These weren’t cheap dime novels, either. These were classy, upscale publications, of quality design and prestigious writing. Contributors to these gift books and annually published anthologies included Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Rudyard Kipling. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually introduced the character of Sherlock Holmes in a story for a Christmas annual.

But the granddaddy of all Christmas ghost stories is, of course, A Christmas Carol. This most beloved of Dickens’s works was written for a most unsentimental reason—the author had bills to pay.

In October 1843, Charles Dickens was hurting for money. He’d gotten married in 1836, and he and his wife had already produced four children, with number five on the way.

Dickens had an almost pathological horror of being in debt. His father had been thrown into debtor’s prison when Charles was twelve years old. The grown-up Charles Dickens refused above all else to put his own family through such shame and degradation. He needed a project to raise some fast cash. He had an idea for a story of a miserly old curmudgeon whose grumpy outlook on life is changed by visits from three spirits.

Dickens was actually recycling material he had already written. In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens wrote “The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton”. This told the story of Gabriel Grubb (and isn’t that just the perfect name for a gravedigger), a drunken sexton who chooses to spend Christmas Eve digging a grave instead of celebrating the holiday. (I suppose someone’s gotta do it, but hey, Christmas is Christmas.) Grubb is dragged off by goblins, and has a change of heart after the Goblin King shows him a series of visions that prove his life is worth living after all.

Dickens took this theme and embroidered it. Instead of visions, Ebenezer Scrooge received actual visits from ghosts—first his late partner, Jacob Marley, then the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come. For good measure, Dickens tossed in a ridiculously sentimental subplot involving Tiny Tim Cratchit—the kind of sickly poor child the Victorians loved to weep over. He wrote the book in a fever of production; it was on his publisher’s desk in less than six weeks.

And the gamble paid off, big-time.

A Christmas Carol was released on December 19, 1843. The original print run of six thousand copies sold out within three days. Since then, it has never been out of print. Taking on a life far beyond the printed page, it has been produced as a play, a musical, and many movies, the earliest being a 1908 version by Thomas Edison.

Dickens kept up with this fashion of telling ghost stories at Christmastime. Until his death in 1870, Dickens produced a number of Christmas annuals, and invited other writers to contribute to these anthologies.

With the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens could pay off the debt that had led to its creation. Dickens was set for life. In fact, he was able to leave both his wife (from whom he had separated in 1858) and his mistress (an actress he met in 1857) independently wealthy for the rest of their lives. Not too shabby.  (Excerpted from Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays, by Sylvia Shults.)


And now for the surprise! I have a couple of copies of my new book, Fractured Souls: More History and Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital, that are sitting around not working too hard. Use the Contact Me button at the top of this page, and tell me who you’d give a signed copy of Fractured Souls to for Christmas. I’ll send them a copy — and you get one too, for being an awesome friend!


Lincoln’s New Salem

Welcome to another episode of Lights Out. The small village of New Salem, Illinois, was only inhabited for eleven years, from 1829 to 1840. But during that time, Abraham Lincoln called it home. Travel back in time to visit this flash-in-the-pan community. Some people may even linger there, still living their nineteenth-century lives.


Lights Out: Volo Antique Mall

Here’s another episode of Lights Out for your entertainment! Antique stores can be very haunted places, just by being the repositories of bunches upon bunches of family heirlooms. Come visit an extraordinarily haunted store with me; the Volo Antique Mall. Featured on Discovery Channel’s Ghost Lab, this sprawling complex houses over 400 classic cars, thousands of antiques — and a few spirits.


Silas Soule

We hear a lot around Thanksgiving about how the Indians really got a raw deal when the Europeans came over to the New World, and yeah, it’s true. The Wampanoag shared the first Thanksgiving feast with the Pilgrims — and provided most of the food — and less than a generation later, were embroiled in King Philip’s War and getting the worst of it. And that pattern, of Native Americans getting shafted by the immigrant Europeans, continued throughout our American history.

But I was delighted to discover, a while ago, that one of my own ancestors, a fellow named Silas Soule, made it a habit to stand up for the rights of Native Americans. Born in Woolwich, Maine on July 26, 1838, he was also an abolitionist. The Soule family was friends with John Brown, and the Soule house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Members of the Soule family read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and were inspired by the tale. Silas’ sister Annie was convinced that it was this inspiration that led her father, Amasa, to move the family from Maine to Kansas to help make Kansas a free state. In November 1854, Amasa and his oldest son William arrived in Lawrence, Kansas, and staked a claim at nearby Coal Creek. The next fall, Mrs. Soule and the rest of the children (Silas, age 17, Emily, age 15, and Annie, age 13) came to join Amasa and William. Soon after this, the young people of Coal Creek decided they needed some fun, so they founded the Coal Creek Social Library Association. They met every two weeks in someone’s home for games, socialization, and reading, and they collected money to found to Coal Creek Library, which still exists today. So one of my ancestors started a library. How about that?

But that’s not Silas Soule’s only claim to fame and remembrance. He followed his brother William to Colorado to work in the gold fields, and when the Civil War broke out, he joined up. The war started in the spring of 1861, and by December, Silas had joined the First Colorado Volunteer Infantry, and later became cavalry. He rose through the ranks, ending up as captain. He was appointed commander of Company D of the First Colorado Cavalry, which was stationed at Fort Lyon in southeast Colorado.

Over the summer, there had been issues with Indian raids. That fall, Silas was present at a conference between chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and Governor Evans and Col. Chivington. In September 1864, Captain Soule and Major Edward Wynkoop participated in the Smoky Hill peace talks with Chiefs from the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations. The peace party met with the Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs John Evans and Colonel John Chivington in Denver. Silas’s presence at both of these important peace meetings reinforced his personal beliefs. The talks gave Silas a deep respect for the Native American nations and hope for a peaceful resolution. The Indians believed they had made peace and were camped on Sand Creek several miles from Ft. Lyon, when, on the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, Col. Chivington, with elements of the First and Third Colorado Cavalry, attacked. Some of the officers joined him, but Soule did not. As soon as Soule learned of the plan, he went to a room where some officers were assembled and told them that any man who would take part in the murders was “a low lived cowardly son of a bitch.”

Silas, knowing that the Indians were peaceful, refused to give his company the order to fire on them. But in spite of Silas’s courage, the Sand Creek Massacre was one of the blackest episodes in American history. At dawn on November 29, 1864, approximately 675 U.S. soldiers commanded by Chivington attacked a village of about 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory. Using carbines, pistols and cannon fire, the troops drove the people out of their camp.

     Some managed to escape the initial onslaught. Some women, children, and the elderly fled to the bottom of a dry stream bed. The soldiers followed, shooting at them as they struggled to escape death. Women and children frantically scraped at the sandy earth along the sides of the streambed to protect themselves.

     Over the course of eight hours, the troops killed over 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people composed mostly of women, children, and the elderly. That afternoon and following day, soldiers mutilated the dead before departing on December 1.

     Silas and most of the other officers at Fort Lyon were appalled. Silas and Lieutenant Cramer wrote letters to their former commander, Major Edward “Ned” Wynkoop. The letters condemned the leadership of Colonel Chivington who ordered the attack. These letters led to investigations by the Army and two congressional committees. The Army’s investigation began in January 1865, and Silas was the first to testify against John Chivington. Chivington was brought before a US Army court-martial. Following the investigations, an Army commission changed history’s judgment of Sand Creek from a battle to a massacre of men, women, and children.

     Chivington was condemned for his actions, but not punished. He resigned from the Army in February 1865. He died penniless in 1894.

     After this, Soule returned to civilian life. He moved to Denver, and on April 1, 1865, he married Hersa A. Coberly. But the honeymoon was to be cut tragically short. On April 23, less than three months after testifying at Chivington’s court-martial, Silas was gunned down in the streets of Denver. His murderer was Charles Squier, a soldier who was loyal to Chivington. Squier was never brought to justice.

     On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m really proud to say that I’m related to Silas Soule, a man who stood up for what he believed was right, even though it cost him his life. And how are we related, you ask? Well, Silas’s ancestor was George Soule, who came over on the Mayflower, and who shared that first Thanksgiving feast with the Wampanoag. And George is MY ancestor too.

Silas S. Soule web 72
Silas Stillwell Soule. A stand-up guy, and a relative of mine.