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793: The Problem with Ghosts

793: The Problem with Ghosts

Sun, 12 Mar 2023 19:00

The ghosts that visit us, the ghosts that never do, and the ghosts that walk among us.

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Chantay is not somebody who believed in ghosts. When her mom died, it's past May. Do you remember seeing her lying there and feeling the finality of it? Like she's gone, she felt real. But three days later, this thing started happening. I was just laying on the bed, like scrolling on my phone. And it felt like somebody was suddenly there, like it was a surprise, I was like, oh. Oh, hi, hi. It was her mom. And my mom was like, oh, sorry. Sorry to scare you, but just make sure you get to the funeral early, so you get a good parking spot. And I was like, okay, thanks. That was it. No important messages from the other side. Not even an I love you. Yeah, that would have been great. But then she did always really care about good parking spots. She really didn't ask Vegas. You want to get a spot that's in the shade. That's key. And not saying I love you, typical. Like she wasn't a particularly mushy person. So if she had said something more emotional, it wouldn't have been her. And this was her just completely being herself. Can I ask, was it frightening? No, it was more funny than anything else. I was like, you're going to use all of your energy and power from the beyond to tell me about parking. To be clear, Shantay didn't actually see her mom. She just felt her presence, like a person sitting beside her, she says. She didn't do hard about whether it was real or not, unless she just liked it, her mom dropping in like that. She and her mom always really enjoyed each other, made each other laugh, like hanging out. And her mom died relatively young, 61 years old, from a degenerative disease. She was struggling to speak, she was in a lot of pain. It was nice to think of her past all that. And then it happened a second time, a few weeks later. Shantay was back home in New York City, over 2,500 miles from Vegas where her mom lived and died. How it goes would get from one part of the country to another is a question that I certainly would have if I believed in ghosts. Does it just jump on a commercial jet? In any case, Shantay is on a couch. I was again scrolling on my phone. I'm just like shopping for shoes or something. And again, she just pops up. Like, oh, you know, and it startled me. And it almost startled her that I saw her, like that I recognized her. And she apologizes for startling me. And I'm like, it's okay. Just figure out what you want to say. And she says, I don't want your dad to be sad. And I said, why don't you tell him that you don't want him to be sad? And she says, but he doesn't listen like you do. And then I thought about how, even in life, I was the translator between my parents. I was the mediator between them. She would give you messages to take to your dad. Yeah, yeah. Did you get a chance to ask any other questions? No, I just said, okay, you know, I'll carry the message. No problem. Wait, didn't you have questions like what happens to us after we die? Where are you? What does this experience like? Okay, if she visits again, I'll make sure to ask. It did not even occur to me at the time. Really? Yeah. You know, like all of humanity would want to know the answer. I mean, I'm speaking on behalf of myself, but also on behalf of all other living people. This is true. This is true. Okay, if she comes again, I will ask her and get back to you. Shantay did do the message to her dad. You told Shantay, yeah, her mom's right. He doesn't listen so well sometimes. The third and last time her mom showed up, again, Shantay was sitting on the couch. This time I was watching TV. And then she decided to appear while I was watching TV. So I had to like pause it. And I was like, okay, what is it this time? And she's like, oh, I just wanted to show you what I've been up to and why I haven't been talking to you. I'm like taking care of this girl. Like, she always liked taking care of kids. And so that's what she said she's doing right now. And the other realm is like, she's taking care of another kid. And I was like, okay, so you're hanging out with another daughter. I'm here. You can hang out with me. Wait, did you say that? I wasn't going to say it to her. Okay. I just thought it. Wait, did you have the feeling of like in some way she wanted you to give her permission to do that? Yes. She wanted to show me why she hadn't been around. And so that's a little bit permission, but it's also I'm doing this. So like, I'm busy. I'm busy. Yeah. It's actually how her mom was off in life. Off busy doing her own thing. And can I say, this is not what Shantay wants to hear from her dead mother. And she does know what she wants. She wants her mother to say something about her, what she meant to her mom. I'm super curious. Like, she was such an independent person. And she wasn't particularly expressive with emotion or affection. And so you always wonder like, who am I to you? Yeah, you're saying you're saying like you you want one more sign from her that she really loved you. Yeah. Yeah. And she's just not delivering. She is not delivering. You know, this is like a well-known psychological phenomenon that like after somebody dies, they appear in some form that seems very real to the people who are closest to them. Like, like, you'll see them. They'll hear their voice. They'll feel their presence. This is like a well-known thing going back to the 19th century, like Freud wrote about it and called it wishful psychosis. And there's a study in the 1970s of it was of 293 Welsh widowers and widows. And it found that nearly half of them said their spouse had returned. Yeah, that seems to be what has happened. And I'm like, is this some sort of self-suiting, is this some kind of glitch in my brain, glitch of grief or something like that? Like we want to be haunted. Oh, yeah. But if this is you're like trying to comfort yourself in some way, you're doing such a bad job. I mean, she's not saying the thing you wanted to say to comfort you. Not at all. Yeah, it's not working. Well, this is the problem with ghosts. Is that they don't do what we want them to. No, she's not at all. What are they doing in a program? The problem with ghosts. They expect such specific things from them and they so rarely deliver. We really do want them to be something they are not. Which frankly is so unfair, they're dead. And still, they're supposed to put up with other people's expectations. Don't we at least get relieved from that in the great beyond? Today, on our program, we have stories of all kinds of ghosts. Ghosts have been ignored and misunderstood. Famous ghosts. The ghosts who have ghosted those who love them. Yes, they ghosted. Why do you think they call them ghosts? From WB Easy Chicago. It's this American life. I'm Eric Glass. Stay with us. Back to one, the ghost industrial complex. Where people want from ghosts in Savannah, Georgia, couldn't be clearer. They want a good scare. Ghost tours are a thriving part of the tourism business there. Still till this day, people passing by or what they do. They can occasionally still spot our ghost sitting there. Every night in Savannah, the historic district is packed with ghost tours. Guides taking people around with ridiculous ghost detecting equipment. Tours in open top. Horses. There's a lot of drinking on these tours. A gentleman with some podcaster that a bunch of us here at the radio show note, Chandra Ikumanika, recently heard from a friend of his, George. There's an eighth generation Savannah. That's something weird is happening on these ghost tours. George told Chandra that the guides actually talk about the brutal reality of slavery. Chandra Ikumanika really, on these tours, they're gone for that. Chandra was the co-host of the podcast Uncivil, which documented the typical ways that white southerners present the history of the south, and what they usually leave out, like the violence of slavery. So we went in to see for himself what was happening. I went down to Savannah. I went on a bunch of these ghost tours. My friend George told me to be sure that I went on one called the Spirit's and Scoundrel's tour. I pulled up on it about 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. It was being led by an older white dude dressed like a pirate, with baggy pants and a black scarf around his head, silver rings and daggers hanging from his waist. Kind of jingled when he walked. Well ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Spirit's and Scoundrel's tour. I guarantee you we will be walking on the dead this evening. And as far as I know, we may well be standing on some as I'm speaking. As we walked every once in a while, he would stop our group from funneling one of these large mansions and tell us about a murder and some kind of ghost sighting. All of this was totally predictable on a ghost tour and also part of why I'm not into ghost tours. But then the pirate pointed down to these bricks and said they were sunken down in the sidewalk because there were bodies of people buried beneath us. I told you I was going to have us walking on the dead this evening and dead night. Byg holly, I didn't monkey around by getting down on them either. These bricks we're walking on are the original bricks handmade by the enslaved folks in Savannah. You'll see these all over the historic district and when you do, take a moment to look at them closely because you can often find the indentations of the fingers of the brickmaker. You can see the pinky finger, the index finger, you know what finger. The small size of these indicates the brickmaker was either a woman or a child. Suddenly we weren't just talking about ghosts anymore. The pirate it snatched us into this kind of weird black history archaeology moment. Honestly it caught me up guard. Keep in mind, people are walking past us with beers in their hands. It's not quite New Orleans but it's definitely a downtown drinking vine. The pirate knelt down and held his fingers above the indentations in the bricks. When I find them, I always like to put my fingers in. I feel like it gives me a connection with the brickmaker. When white people acknowledge slavery, I'm not going to tell them don't do that. But at this moment, I'm not sure I'm buying this connection. This was a tour guide dressed like a pirate, leading mostly white folks who were here to find ghosts. The only other black guy on the tour was this dude who was maybe in his 30s and I couldn't help but notice him. Clearly we were not the target demographic for this tour. When we saw each other, he gave me the nod. I walked over to him. How you feel, bro? You feel like you just learned some black history? Come on man. He looked directly at me and scrunched up his face. Like if you look up seriously, bro? In the dictionary, this guy's face would be there. I couldn't help but laugh. We both did. His name was Greg. Soon enough, we had another weird slavery moment on the tour. We stopped in front of a big mansion called the Mercer Williams House. According to the story, the former owner of the property, Hugh Mercer, told eight of his enslaved people to stand in the front of the house. And then ordered him to face to the east, kneeled down. And before anybody knew what was happening, his alleged who had pulled his pistol from his pocket, walked behind them, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. Shot all eight of them in the back of the head. As the pirate imitated the sound of the gun, he also acted out the whole thing, pointing his fingers at imaginary black heads in front of us. He then is alleged to have taken two bodies and put them on each corner of the mansion. Their heads coming together at the corner and the foundation stones laid on top of them. This was likely some type of voodoo ritual. After that horrifying detail, he's on to the next thing. Like that was just another fun little story. I fell back from the group to walk next to Greg. Amen. So, what do you think about that, man? It skipped over a whole lot of s*** this time. You know what we did? I've seen a stuck on who built the house, the ground works. And that story about all of the slave people? They have names. You know, who were they? Why were they shot? That's what's the best of game. I wondered the same thing. I wanted to hear more about the black folks in these stories. Not just their deaths. And in every tour I went on, this happened over and over. Guides would breeze through these violent stories of enslaved people getting killed for pure shock value or laughs. Like when the pirate took us to what he said was a slave burial ground. He said the bodies were pretty much just thrown in the dirt. And then he kept that off with a joke. And that's why we think we have such lush, beautiful green grass here. Other graphic moments of terror and trauma got other punchlines. One tour guide told us about four runaway slaves who were beheading and joke that their ghosts haunt the square. And if you listen close, you can hear them singing, I ain't got nobody. I think I was expecting these tours to acknowledge slavery in a way that would check a woke box or something. A few somber sentences acknowledging that slavery was bad before they got back to ghosts. But this was more than that. They were really going in. A lot of this stuff was cartoonish and stereotypical. But intentionally or unintentionally, they were doing something I've called for many times, getting groups of white people to confront the violence and cold bloodedness of slavery. And while we're southern mostly white people paying to go on these tours, in their time off, it's almost like if you turn critical race theory into a book of ghost stories, all the white folks who hate it would love it. I talked to someone who had an explanation for why this is happening. Time miles is a historian at Harvard. And she stumbled onto a tour like this, kind of on a whim. I was visiting Savannah. It happened to have been a rainy set of days that I walked by a home called the Seryl Wheat House. As I walked by, I was called and beckoned in by a woman who was standing outside, trying to encourage people to come take a tour. This tour is presented to Taya as a historical tour, not a ghost tour. Taya loves going on history tours. I had never heard of this house before and I was curious. So I went in, I took the tour, and that's where I learned about Molly. Molly is the person at the center of which probably the most popular ghost story down in Savannah. Her story is the spooky climax of nearly all the tours. The tour guides all stop in front of a big orange mansion with palm trees and Spanish moss. In the way they tell it, this black woman Molly, who lived and died in the house, was owned by a wealthy and influential businessman named Francis Seryl and his wife Matilda. Molly's caught up in a love triangle. Francis is having an affair with her, that's the word they use. Only Matilda, his wife, has no idea. Then one night Matilda walks in on Francis and Molly and catches them in the act. Matilda is so distraught to learn that her husband is cheating, that she walks out on the balcony and jumps to her death. Some even believe she was pushed. A few weeks later, Molly is found dead, hanging from the rafters in the slave quarters. Francis is a suspect in both deaths. Tourists all over the city exploit this tragedy by claiming Molly still haunts the house where she was murdered. And remember, because these are ghost stories, they get told with a whole bunch of embellishments, and there's slightly different versions on different tours. I will say, though, what's interesting is Matilda. She was actually really close to Molly. Molly was kind of like an unofficial therapist for her, like a confidant. In some tours, Molly and Matilda come off as if they were lesbian lovers. Here's a letter Molly supposedly wrote. My beloved sister, Matilda, how I yearn for just the slightest whiff of your exquisite perfume. And one guy went as far as to add a detail about Matilda, holding a hot bowl of soup when she walked in on Molly and Francis. It goes up to stairs of the carriage house, opens the door with a bowl of chicken noodle at her hand, and there's France wall and Molly getting it on. The next thing anyone knew, they heard a terrible, cracking noise, and they rushed to the courtyard to go see what it was, and they found Matilda lying dead in the courtyard where they broke a neck. Molly was found hung in her room, a week later. There was only one tour guide who talked about it differently. Not coincidentally, the only non-white tour guide we had. A Latina guide named Sarah. Because of the power structure that this was someone who was owned by Francis, this was not consensual for both people. This was definitely a rape. That's how Tyah saw it too. Everyone uses this word affair. To my mind, the way I interpreted it was she had been exploited. She had been abused, and she had experienced terrible pain and suffering. After that first daytime tour, where Tyah learned about Molly, she came back for a nighttime tour, which takes you to the room where Molly died. And so the tour guide described, I can just tell you this, I feel my stomach tightening. The tour guide described that she had been found hanging from the rafters of the slave quarters of this particular room, and he took us to this room, and he invited us to go inside. Tyah stands frozen at the threshold of the door, while the other tourists brush by her. They just went on in, as if this was just any kind of story, but there was no way I was going inside. These were white dudes who were white, the other participants were white folks. Everybody was, but me. And they didn't seem to be having the same sense of the gravity of what, of where we were, where in the slave quarters of what occurred. They just went in. They didn't have a sort of reverence for the space or anything like that. No one seemed to blink an eye. And the tour guide was so, charismatic, he was always kind of joking, and he was certainly making light of the story. And he was narrating it as if it were some kind of horror show that people had entered into before fun, to get a Halloween scare by choice. At this point, the tour guide takes out a phone and plays this audio clip that he says was featured on the TV show Ghost Funners. They filmed an episode in the Surao Weed House. What Taya Herd was a woman's voice screaming, help, oh God, help, and the muffled sounds of her crying. Part of me was shocked and appalled at what I was hearing. And that same part of me that was shocked and appalled felt just a rush of a sense of protectiveness for Molly, for this young woman who really was a teenager who was just exploited, upused, used, and then blamed, and then killed. But another part of me, and this is, I think, the scholar inside, had a series of questions running the whole time. Questions about how does this person know what it is that he's telling us? How does he know about Molly? How does he know about the affair? How does he know about the suicide? What is the evidence behind this story? So what did you decide to do about all of this? I decided that I had to research Molly's story and the Surao family and this house and to find out who she was. She knew it wouldn't be easy. If, you know, a double death had happened related to a sexual scandal, related to an interracial sexual relationship in the 19th century, the White family would not have been happy to disclose it, right? They would have tried to keep that quiet. So she started with the more accessible records and tracked down Francis and Matilda. And found evidence suggesting she did kill herself, though not in that house. But to confirm that they owned someone named Molly or anyone in that age range, Pai has started out by going to state and local historical collections. She combed through purchase records of people of the Surao's enslaved, dug through national archives and census records of enslaved folks in Georgia, scoured local newspapers from that time, found letters from neighbors. She even discovered a memoir by one of the Surao's sons. And at the end of the year of exhaustive research, there was no Molly. That's, that's, that's, that's, well hold on, that, hold on. That we got to just stop there because I mean after, I mean, you just described to me this whole drama about Molly and now you're looking in these records and you don't see any record like not, no. Like no name of Molly, no. No, no, not a single trace on a single crumb, nothing, nothing. If Taya had told me that Molly's story was exaggerated in certain ways, I don't think I would have been surprised. But no Molly? It's actually a fiction that somebody had created. And when I realized that, I felt enraged. I felt enraged about the notion that someone had made all of this up. What? Taya was so appalled that she decided to find out if this was happening anywhere else. Turns out, plantations and old mansions all around the South give tours like this. And she went on as many as she could. She discovered a whole industry built around fabricated stories. Historical sites ginned up with fake tales of murder and torture. And she wrote a book exposing this part of the tourism industry called Tales from the Haunted South. Hearing this, I thought back to my tour with the pirate. And that story he told about the shooting of Aitenslave people by Humursor. There's no evidence that happened. And those fingerprints of the enslaved and the bricks we walked on? Bricks like that do exist in Savannah, but probably not in that location. But it's not just that so much of this stuff is made up. The closer Taya looked at these ghost tours, the more she saw a disturbing pattern in the kinds of stories the tour guides told. There were stories where enslaved folks betrayed their masters or poisoned their masters or seduced their masters. The gore and sensationalism of stuff like this actually hides the realities of slavery by turning their victimizers, their masters into victims. If you look at them as little moral fables, the message of these stories is that everything would be fine if everyone just stayed in their place. Taya's book The Bunking Mali came out in 2015. But when we took the Surrell Weed House Night Tour, Mali's story was still presented as fact and it was the focus of the tour. I wanted to know how they could justify it. Why are they still telling this lie? The manager of the Surrell House agreed to talk. His name is Calvin Parker and I was surprised to learn that he's black. He's worked at the Surrell House on and off for 10 years and gives tours himself. But there are the historical tours that happened during the daytime and they don't mention Mali. These days he says Mali only gets mentioned in the nighttime tours. After we discussed some basics about the house, I got right to the point. When I took the tour, the stuff y'all are dealing with was so really some sensitive and intense stuff. But I got to say, it seems like this story about Mali that was a huge part of the tour I took is not true. What tour did you take? I took the night tours the one I'm talking about. I deal with more of the history portion of the business. We don't mention that whole story because we don't think it's as factual as most people think it is. Just so I'm clear, you agree that the Mali story that I heard at the tour is a lie. I don't know if it's a lie or not. I think it's something that's been said so many times it's just stuck. At this point, I realized that this conversation was going to go very differently from what I had expected. Because I thought Calvin was going to defend the Mali story like sight evidence and show me documents. In fact, I'd spend the night before preparing counter evidence like we were going to trial. Calvin told me he's changed the scripts of the daytime tours so they're factual. But he insisted that even as the manager, he has no control over what happens in the house at night. He says he was promoted to run the daytime tours four years ago and only the daytime tours. The ghost tour portion of this business has always been ran and managed by outside parties. He says this year, for the first time, they haven't had people from these outside companies running that business. So for now, Guides have continued giving the ghost tours with no one really supervising them. Calvin says he's de facto in charge and hoping for a big overhaul. I have to say, I feel for Calvin. As a black man, he's in a tough spot as someone stuck navigating a situation created by other people's lies. But I still have this very real feeling that what's going on here is wrong and I couldn't hold this back. If I'm being told that someone was hung in a room in a house, I believe that they should have some verification for that. I agree with you. But what I'm asking you is how many tours you take in a city? I lost count, maybe five. How much of those tours you believe are factual? How does that help us understand Molly? Because you have to understand tourism. You have to understand how these tour guides are trained and how they work. There's a lot of tours in this city that will say things that are not 100%. A lot of the tours in the south are folklore. A lot of the tours in the south are hand down, passed out several times. And sometimes those stories stick with people. If those stories stick with people, I can't help what they say. I can help what I say. I hear what you're saying, Calvin, about your role where you're at, how you approach history. But I just wonder if you can understand that it feels like folks have been making money. Like hundreds of thousands of dollars off of a lot about a black woman who was, you know, their saying is sexually assaulted for entertainment. And now there's like no accountability. I don't know what you mean to say to that because there are a lot of stories. There's a lot of tourism. This is what happens in this business. And all I can say is I don't do it and I can try and change it. But bro, we're talking about the Surrell House. Do you think there should be some accountability at the Surrell House for the lie that they've been telling and making money off to sell it to white people? I don't think that's the... I don't know. That's a good question. Next year the good thing is I'm going to be taking control of a lot of that part of the business. And a lot of things will definitely change with me at the helm. Are you going to change that part of the... are you still going to tell the Molly story? No, no, not while I'm there. Why not? I can't find factual things about the story. It's so weird that any of the ghost tours are making this stuff up to shock people because there's no shortage of real harrants of Anna's history and it's hiding in plain sight. Slavery used to be the city's main business and you can still see the infrastructure around you. The boats came in at the dock. Negro Marts where enslaved people were sold are throughout the city. Don't picture an auction block. These were just stores whose merchandise was human beings. And there were brokers and bankers that funded all this. People came to Savannah from all over the south to buy and slave to people. The problem with these tours is not just the tours don't get a sense of the actual lives lived by real black people hundreds of years ago. It's also that they don't get any picture of the economic machine that built Savannah, they built this country and made so much of what we live in today. They tell us we're haunted but they don't say what's really haunting us. Tendrite Kummanika, he teaches podcasting and audio reportage at NYU's journalism school. History was produced by Elna Baker with Valerie Kipness, Esther Blesing and George Dawes Green. George writes about the ghost tours in his new novel, a surprisingly funny thriller called The Kingdoms of Savannah. Coming up, one of the most famous people on the planet tries to get in touch with his mother, who is dead. That's in a minute. I'm just going to go up a radio when our program continues. It's a American life in my reglass today's program. The problem with ghosts, the problem being, of course, that we expect all kinds of things from ghosts and they usually do not deliver. We've arrived at two of our program, act two, wedding crashers. So this next ghost story takes place at a wedding where an uninvited guest shows up. Elna Baker explains. The wedding took place on a cold night in February just one month ago. It was big, celebratory, there was an hour of light food and drinks, and then everyone walked out into the courtyard for the ceremony. The door opens, these like double doors, and the first people walking out is my dad holding the groom, and they're holding, not even holding hands directly, they are holding their elbows intertwined. This is Abby. It was her younger sister's wedding. The last of the kids to get married. So it felt like the end of an era. This wedding would be the grand family finale. You have the whole family, the immediate family, the extended family, the grandparents. It's like the closest people of my life as a child are all there. But Abby doesn't say hi to any of them. She can't. Abby is standing behind a fence, a little over 50 feet away on the sidewalk. The uninvited guest, it's her. Abby was disowned by her parents seven years ago. She grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the Hasidic community there. It's a tightly knit world of orthodox Jews in long dresses and black suits and hats. It's own little cultural ecosystem tucked inside New York City. Abby was standing pretty far from the ceremony, but just in case she wore a face mask, a big coat and a hat. So no one would recognize her. She thought the distance would make it feel less intense. But standing their meter feel like she was at the wedding. It totally threw her off guard. You can hear me, music playing. You can hear the person who is like running the ceremony, singing in the microphone and so on. So everything is very familiar. But at the same time, I know very consciously that I can just go down there and be part of it. When Abby first questioned and then left the Hasidic community at 21, it seemed like things would be okay. Her parents did buy her, which was rare at the time. But also made sense. Her family was really close. She'd still come home on weekends. But then, a few years later, Abby came out as trans. It was a concept so foreign, she says it took over an hour for her father to grasp what she was telling him. But the second he understood, he stopped making eye contact with her. Looking over his shoulder, he said, this means I'm never going to be able to talk to you ever again. Abby says she asked if she could at least say goodbye to her mother. He forbade it. Not talking to her mother was unfathomable. Before, they'd spoken almost every day. Even though Abby's one of 13 kids, her mom took a special interest in her. And when Abby broke away from Judaism, her mom loved hearing about her life in the outside world. In the weeks and years after Abby was cut off, Abby would call and call trying to reach her mother. One time, her mom picked up the phone. And I called and I said, hi, I just want to call you and wish you a happy new year and like whatever. And then she just asked me, are you coming back? Are you coming home? Which didn't mean physically coming home and like spiritually and religiously. And I said, I didn't call to argue just something. She's like, if you're not coming home, I can't talk to you. And she kept repeating that almost like a tape recorder. Like someone told her to say that. Abby was later told that her father consulted a rabbi about his decision to cut her off. And that this rabbi told him, your child is dead now. When she actually dies, you don't need to sit Shiba. Now, standing outside the wedding, Abby was being forced to watch all the people she'd lost parade in front of her. She studied her father's face. His hair and beard were finally turning white. But she knew that. She'd seen pictures of him online. It's this moment of recognizing that I recognize my dad from photos. My dad who is alive. I recognize how he looks, not because I know him. Or that I have seen him, but because I've seen photos of him. It is the moment of seeing a person who in my head has this personality of a dad in my childhood. I can't really grasp it. There's this person who is there, but isn't I am here, but I'm not. I am seeing him, but I'm not. I'm there, but I'm not there. And like, what is happening? Even though Abby knew going to the wedding would be painful, she felt compelled to go. Because she'd always imagined being there. For years, after they cut her off, she told herself, by the time my youngest sister gets married, we'll have worked through this. I'll be back in the family. Throughout the ceremony, Abby kept waiting for her mom to come out with the bride. She knew about when it would happen. She'd been to many weddings. But still, the moment they actually walked out, it caught Abby by surprise. Suddenly, there she was, her mom, with her sister. They start to circle the groom and my mom is walking towards me. So to speak. And that was the moment when I remember crying. So she's standing to the right of my sister, holding my sister with her left hand. And like, in the right hand holding this candle, and almost like, imagine a statue of a liberary moment of like, almost felt like, thinking back in my head, it wanted to be that moment where she is holding the candle to me, or something like that. And to me, that was the most intense moment. Can I play that video, by the way? Because I think the sound, it gives a sense. Will you hold it up? They play this song that's been in the family for generations. The moment of standing there, looking into my, looking on the outside to my, close family, listening to a song composed by my great, great, whatever grandfather. I am suddenly feeling like I am a fly on the wall at a moment where you are supposed to be next to the bride and the groom, the most important people at the wedding, obviously, out their parents and their siblings. It's not like I'm not there. I'm there. But I don't have a body. We have a belief, a teaching based on the mystic teaching of the 13th century, that all the ancestors, specifically if they were holy, come down to their weddings. As souls, as ghosts, were the lack of a better term, and they're all there. I am suddenly feeling like I am one of those dead ancestors that is coming, that we believe, that we're told that is coming to the wedding. I am the ghost. So she watches through this chain link fence. It's this literal thing separating them, but even if it weren't there, there'd be no crossing from where she is to where they are. My life in general, my parents lived seven miles away from me, and it feels like they're so close, but they're so far away. And my dad, frankly, whatever, we're not going to, yeah, but with my mom, there's so many days I wake up where I just want to ask her what to do about my headache or what's a good dish that you think I can make for this holiday, or I'm having friends over, and I know she would have some great ideas. And like all of that comes to the forefront of that moment, where I wish I wasn't the ghost. I wish I was seen, not just seeing her. You know, the way you just said, you know, when I wake up, I imagine talking to her. I imagine asking her what I should cook tonight. That's the thing I've felt about people I love who've died. I don't want to talk to people, I don't want to talk over people who have literally lost a parent. But to me, it feels worse. I think that's a part where people use ghosts sometimes because it explains, it talks about something more intense than being dead. The fact that they are alive and I can't talk to them, the fact that they are like, it's like that moment of being so close to them that would have known it out. It's been easier if I didn't go. If I wasn't that close to them, it's so much easier. Why? Because I don't have to face it. Abby brought a girlfriend to watch the wedding with her. It was a strange moment for them both, a kind of bizarro, meet the family. These are the people from all the stories I tell you. This was once my life. What was the last moment of the wedding? How did you leave it? After the ceremonies over the bride and groom, hold hands and walk back into the venue. This is the only time that Hasidic couples hold hands in public. Is at the wedding as they walk off from the ceremony and never again. Abby takes one last look at her family and then she walks away with her girlfriend. I remember it was right away. I think we waited until we left Hasidic area because we didn't want to hold hands to women in the Hasidic area but once we left and we did. And I remember thinking that I have something none of my siblings do. I can hold hands with people I love in public. And I love that from me. They walk down into the subway together and get on the M train. Each stop taking them further and further away from Abby's old life and closer to the place she now calls home. On the Baker, Abby Stein has a memoir becoming Eve about leaving the Hasidic community and transitioning. At 3, Saiyan's Fiction. So this last story happens at a moment in history when lots of people were believing in ghosts. Those were the early 1920s. The 1918 flu pandemic had just killed some 50 million people worldwide, just for scale, that is way more than the number of people who died of COVID so far. And the number of people on earth was just a fourth then of what it is now. Add to that the millions of deaths in World War I. And well chances were pretty good that if you lived in America or Europe, you were mourning somebody you loved. All that gloss led to this peculiar moment that seems kind of a fathomable now, where the idea that ghosts are around us just within reach wasn't some far-fetched or fringy kind of thing. There's mainstream. Shanko expands. You know about spiritualism? It's this religion basically that's surged during this period. Believers thought that it's possible to talk to the dead. They attended Saiances, lots and lots of Saiances. Sitting darkened rooms, often pitch black, holding hands, furniture would move, your voices from beyond. I can't really even begin to describe how pervasive this spiritualist rage was. This is David Jair, History Writer, wrote a book that delves deep into this whole world. You had all these great American scientists who were trying to substantiate proof of psychic phenomenon, proof of an afterlife. The Harvard Psychology Department, we're all a bunch of ghost chasers. The head of Harvard Psychology was also the head of the American Society for Psychical Research. Charles Rochet was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who coined the term Ectoplasm. Ectoplasm, like that stuff in the Ghostbusters movies. Rache was actually a physiologist. And while you may not have heard of Charles Rochet or any of the scientists who were spiritualists or who ran with spiritualists, there were these two guys you definitely have heard of, both incredibly famous back then, and even today, who got swept up in this movement in a way that came to really define their lives. The first is the world-renowned magician and escape artist Harry Houdini. At the time of our story, he was grieving the loss of his dearly departed mother. And this was no ordinary mother-son relationship. He wrote romantic letters to her. He used to rest his head on her bosom when he was anxious, and when he was 35 years old. This, by the way, was before the whole world was talking about the whole edible complex thing. And he would never refer to her as his mother. He would always refer to her as a saint-tid mother or his beloved mother. He, all Dr. O'Call, who Dini the last of the great mother lovers. So Houdini identified with all the bereaved who were seeking contact with dead loved ones. Identified with, but he had a really hard time believing in spiritualism in the same way. And for very, very good reason. Houdini, before he became a magician, he actually made a living as a fraud medium. Like a fake medium. Yeah. Oh no kidding. So he knew all the tricks. He was in a sense the world's expert on psychic fraud. But yet, he was also seeking that one psychic who he could believe was generally in touch with the spirit of his mother. And this is when he befriended Sarathur Conan Doyle. Yes, the guy who wrote all the Sherlock Holmes stories. He's the other famous, emic, famous guy in our story. Conan Doyle lost his son, his brother, lots of the men in his family, either in some World War I battle or in the flu pandemic. And during the war, he believed he was in contact with the spirits of his lost loved ones through his children's nanny, who supposedly had psychic powers. And she would hold these sayances. And he became a believer. And not just a believer, but really the de facto leader of the spiritualism movement. You might be familiar with this part. He traveled all over the place giving presentations and lectures about the virtues of spiritualism, which lent the movement a lot of credibility. Here was this guy who had invented this character who was the pinnacle of rationality and deductive reasoning. Of course, you were going to give him the time of day. And Conan Doyle acknowledged, yeah, there are a lot of fake mediums out there. But there were legitimate ones too. Houdini's mom had already been dead for the better part of a decade when he met Conan Doyle. He presented himself to Conan Doyle as a seeker after the truth. And Conan Doyle thought he could help him talk to his dead mother. They came to really like each other. In 1920, Houdini traveled to the UK to do some shows. And Conan Doyle sent him around to all these mediums that he trusted. But with every one of them, Houdini could see the puppet strings. Because again, he had pulled the same stunts himself once upon a time. And he claimed to have attended 100 sayances in England. Right, like one a day or something like that? Houdini had a tendency to exaggerate. I doubt very much if he attended 100 sayances. But he did see a number of these mediums that Conan Doyle recommended. And he struck out. And he told Conan Doyle that. And Conan Doyle thought it was because Houdini's mental state was so turbulent that he basically blocked Houdini's mental state. And he basically blocked any kind of possibility of psychic communication when he participated in these sayances. And he told Houdini, you know, you can't pursue a spirit the way a terrier pursues a rat. Right. You've got to come in, quiet and receptive. And so he thought Houdini was to blame for this. Which of course is a conversation you hear in a lot of spiritual houses. If you can't get in touch with a spirit, whether divine or just your cousin, it's because you don't believe well enough. Fast forward a couple of years, 1922, Conan Doyle comes to the States to give some spiritualism lectures, brings his wife along, and they hang out with his new best bud Houdini and Houdini's wife. And toward the end of the Conan Doyle's time here, the four of them are at a resort in Atlantic City, just hanging out at the beach or whatever. And the Conan Doyle's surprised their magician friend with a suggestion. Conan Doyle's wife, Jean Doyle, is also a psychic medium. And she has an inspiration this weekend that Houdini's mother is going to come through and present a manifestation of her presence. She just comes up with that on her own, like... Apparently. She's, you know, hit with this psychic bolt. Okay. And so Conan Doyle invites Houdini for a seance. And unbeknownst to the Doyles this weekend was Houdini's mother's birthday. Sort of in theory coincidence already. And Houdini is agreeable. Actually, eager. He wrote about this, saying, quote, I was willing to believe, even wanted to believe. They go up to the Conan Doyle's hotel room. Sir Arthur closes the curtains and puts a writing tablet and pencils on the table. This was to be Lady Doyle's mode of mediation. Automatic writing. So the idea she's in a trance and she spontaneously possessed by the spirit that takes hold of her hand. And she's just rotting unconsciously. Oh, it's like a Ouija board where the spirit takes your hand and moves it. Yeah, that's a good way of looking at it. It's, you know, a very intimate scene. Conan Doyle says a prayer. They're holding hands. It's just complete silence. Then Lady Conan Doyle starts writhing around, making all these jerky movements. She pounds on the table, which is the sign that the spirit is present. Lady Conan Doyle asks the spirit. Do you believe in God? And then pounds the table three times, which means yes. So she puts a cross at the top of one of the paths. She asks, are you the spirit of Houdini's mother? Again, she pounds the table three times. And then Houdini kind of lets out this gas and says, Mama, are you here? Just thinking about Houdini saying like, Mama, are you here? It's really moving. It's really moving. And I think, I don't know. I can't picture him saying that in any other sayons. I think that's expressly something that he was vulnerable enough to say at that moment. Lady Conan Doyle starts writing furiously. Every time she gets to the end of the page, Sir Arthur tears it off the tablet and hands it to Houdini. Luckily, Houdini held on to the pages after all of this. So we know what's on them. I asked David to read some of what Houdini's dead mother had to say. Oh my darling, thank God. Thank God, at last I'm through. I've tried also often. Now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy, my own beloved boy. Friends, thank you with all my heart for this. You have answered the question. How is Houdini seeming through all of this? Is he like emotional during a disease? According to Conan Doyle, he was completely silent. He seemed on the verge of tears. He looked like somebody who had finally found what they were looking for to having just beheld the miracle in this life of mine. It is so different over here. And we see our beloved ones on Earth. That is such a joy and comfort to us. Tell them, I love them more than ever. The years only increase. That's Conan Doyle's version of the story. Houdini is left pale and trembling, a new believer. Houdini's feelings about it become evident about four months later. He writes an article for the New York Sun saying he's never seen any evidence that anyone can communicate with the dead. Quote, I don't know of any medium who is not, at some time, been detected in some fraud. Conan Doyle sees the article and writes a letter to his friend Houdini saying, I'm paraphrasing here, dude, what the hell? I watched you tear up in front of me. Also, my wife is not a fraud. Houdini writes him back like, dude, that was not my mom. The fact that his mother could only read, write, and speak in German, Houdini can't understand how the message from his mother could sound like some Victorian platitude. It's not her voice. Victorian platitude in English. In English. And there's also, it sounds like a spiritual assermon. God bless you too, Sir Arthur, for what you are doing for us, for us over here, who so need to get in touch with our beloved ones on the earth playing. If only the world knew this great truth, how different life would be for men and women, go on, let nothing stop you. Great will be your real love. There's no biographical reference to anything between Houdini and Houdini. Including no reference to the fact that it was her birthday. I think she would have mentioned that. Plus, that cross that lady Conan Doyle put at the top of the page when she started channeling. Houdini's like, ehm, would you wish. Now, Conan Doyle has responses to all this stuff. First off, there's no language in the afterlife, he says. Maybe a transmedium would come through uttering the exact words of your loved ones in their native tongue. But automatic writers are more translating their thoughts and feelings. I'm not taking dictation. And as far as the cross goes. Conan Doyle says his wife does that. Unfortunately, presents any kind of spirit writing because it's, we're tacked from lower influences from the cross on top of the page. Well, of course, I mean, you don't want dark spirits infiltrating your saiyan. No. And, you know, taking hold of the medium of Houdini. No, it'll be terrible. No, it'll cross-pervents that. And Conan Doyle maintains, look, you told me you were walking on air. You told me you were deeply moved. I can't reconcile what you're saying now with what I saw with my own eyes at the time. How you responded. And the things that you told me since, which indicated that you were convinced. So, he's, so, Conan Doyle's pissed at his friend. Conan Doyle is very hurt. The Atlantic City saiyans was the last straw for Houdini. From then on, he wasn't just a skeptic of spiritualism. He was an all-out crusader against spiritualism. He would sneak into darkened saiyances and disguise, trying to flashlight on Huckster mediums as they pushed furniture around that was supposed to be moving on its own. He devoted a big chunk of his touring show to just bashing spiritualists, demonstrating exactly how Shysters pretended to channel your dead relatives. He even testified before Congress in favor of a bill that would outlaw fortune telling for hire. Didn't go anywhere, but the hearing devolved into total mayhem. Mediums and other spiritualists flooded the Capitol, gearing Houdini as he gave his testimony. Security was called in to keep them from laying into each other. He screamed at them. Tell me the name my mother called me when I was born. The way Houdini saw it, these so-called psychics, they were just fleecing money from the bereaved. People who were so greased, stricken, of course they were ready to believe anything. It wounded him, because he knew how they felt. Shunko is one of the producers of our show. David Jaros spoke about Houdini's war against people who claimed to speak with the dead. It's called the Witch of Rhyme Street. There's a ghost in my house. The ghost of your memory. The ghost of the love in the twenty-five years. Where I love used to be. All these shadows for the past I see. Time can't seem to erase. The vision I go smiling face. Though you pass on your view, I can't give you all the deep. There's a ghost in my house. I hate eyes. What problems produced today by Elna Baker. People put together today's show and could see a Benin's early chase. If you could cornfield to Bonlo, Elma Mustafa, Stone Nelson, Captain Raymond, or Nadi Reimind, Charlotte Sleeper, Ike Sriskandaraja, R.S. Sturk, Chesky, Francis Swanson, Chris Rosortala, Matt Terny, Nancy Optik, Joey Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor, Sarah Abduramon, our senior editors, David Kesson and Baum. Our executive editor is Emmanuel Berry. Special thanks to Dr. Jumal Torre, Clyde Washington, Brad Dilling, Jessica Osborne, Joe Pasnansky, David Eugumann, the folks at 1790 in Savannah, and all the tour guides in Savannah who helped us understand the ghost scene there. Our website, You can listen to our archives over 700 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is to go to public radio stations by PRX, the public radio exchange, celebrating its 20th anniversary. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torre Malatir. And our last weekend, I took him to his first rave. He was so excited to finally try MDMA. And then, we got there, and he was so disappointed. There was no Molly. I'm Eric Glass. Back next week, with more stories of this American Life. Next weekend, the podcast of this American Life. Imagine finding a new hobby and realizing to do this hobby right, according to the ways of the masters, there's a pretty good chance that you're going to have to bend the law to get the materials that you need. If not, break it. Yeah. To break international laws. The hobby, making words for fly fishermen, and what may be the greatest feather heist ever. Let's thank you for the podcast for your public radio station.