Galley Gossip: Flight attendant haunted layover hotel ghost stories (and a haunted plane!)

In the spirit of Halloween, I’d like to share a few layover hotel ghost stories from flight attendants I know…

At a hotel in San Francisco the water kept turning itself on during the night. After the 3rd or 4th time, instead of getting up and turning it off, I had a little talk with the ghost. I was thinking I must have lost my mind. Water went off automatically. Never came on again! – Vicki Howell

At our current Paris hotel, I had an apparition appear at the foot of my bed. At first I didn’t think it was anything until I felt somebody sit on my bed. I turned on the light near the bed and of course there was nothing there. – John Gonzales

On a layover in Miami, I felt someone/something pull the covers off of my shoulder and breathe cold air onto the back of my neck. I jumped out of bed, ran for the door, turned on the light… and no one was there. On the next trip another flight attendant couldn’t get into that same room with her key. Security couldn’t get in either. They had to change her room. Gives me the chills even talking about it. – Penni Reynolds Piskor

At a Sheraton in New Jersey in 1989, I kept thinking there was someone in my room. Woke up several times convinced. Searched the room. Nothing was there. Found out later the hotel was reputedly haunted, and one of the elevators was known to run all night, stopping at each floor even though nobody called it – Julie Meyer

I always clip my curtains closed so the light will not shine through and wake me up. In the middle of the night it was like someone used their hands to push both curtains back forcefully. I was lying there freaking out! Another time I woke up to find the decorative bed quilt folded neatly in the corner of the room. I don’t fold at home nor am I good at it, so I know I didn’t do it in my sleep. The third time we did a seance. We asked for a sign and all the elevators opened simultaneously. We jumped up and ran! – Lynne Smith

In Mexico a friend had similar experience as John did above. A guy sat on the edge of his bed in the middle of the night, but when he turned on the lights, no one was there. He mentioned something to the front desk and they sheepishly asked if he was gay. When he said yes, they said that Jorge always visited gay guys in their rooms (I was never visited!) I don’t believe in haunting and have waited for them every time! – Gordon Valentine

Lights, faucet and bathtub all turned on during my sleep at the layover hotel in New Orleans. Just asked the naughty perpetrator to behave themselves because I needed the sleep before an early roll out. – Alx Stellyes

It was an old hotel in Boston, next to an historic graveyard. I was having a crazy dream about a Nun. My room was in a corner and I woke up in the middle of the night to repeated pounding. Turned the lights on, it stopped. Asked the driver the next day what the deal was with the hotel. (Didn’t tell him about my dream) He said a certain floor was haunted ( mine, of course!) by a NUN. – Lori Polka

In Manchester England we used to stay at a hotel with huge vaults and all were opened except one where someone locked themselves in it hundreds of years ago. The skeleton key is still in the lock, from the inside, but nobody can get it opened. Then you go into the bedrooms and they are all different themes. Mine was very opulent. She (the ghost) Kept turning on the sink faucet. After getting up 2 times to turn it off I was getting pissed. The third time I just screamed “turn that effing water off! And it did. Never picked up another Manchester trip. – Daniel Koukes

At Tower Air there was an aircraft (604) we ferried a lot. A spirit would walk up and down the aisles and wake us up. It also would unlatch everything in the galley and open all the carts and bins. You would close them and tell her to stop. A little later you’d hear it happening again. – Lynne Smith

The hotel Jakarta is known for having all sorts of ghost stories, especially amongst female, Chinese, Japanese and Korean crew. They tend to sleep 2-3 in a room instead of alone in that hotel! – Sodwee.

There was an Eastern Airlines airplane that went into the Everglades. It was Flight 401. The airline finally had it dismantled and used parts in other aircraft – Vicki Howell

Eastern Airlines L-1011 #318 was a haunted plane. It had ovens taken from the airplane that crashed in the Everglades in the early ’70’s. So many sightings and occurrences were reported that the a/c # had to be changed. Who knows where it is now – Julie Meyer

I remember reading the book of Eastern flight 401 and all the happenings from that incident. Came to be they had to remove all the extra parts from the plane and any carts that were used on other flights had to be grounded as they were all linked to Flight 401 – Gordon Valentine

Photo courtesy of dantc and roeyahram

Alabama celebrates its haunted past with an entire month of events

alabama hosts scary events throughout octoberThroughout October, the state of Alabama in the United States will celebrate its haunted past with a variety of events, including ghost walks, story-telling festivals, and a moonlit tour of Old Cahawba, a historic ghost town.

Here are some of the scheduled events:

7th Annual “Historic Haunts Walk”
Athens, Alabama (Oct 4, 12, 14, 19)

This spooky walk will begin at the Houston Library and includes stories about paranormal activity at twelve local structures. For instance, hear about the girl who fell to her death at Athens University and is still said to wander the halls. Each walk lasts about 90 minutes, with tickets costing $5. For more information, contact Limestone County Tourism at 1-256-232-5411 or Jeanette@visitathensal.com.

Storytellin’ Campfire Talk: Spooks in the Valley
Fort Payne, Alabama (Oct 22)

This free event takes place at the large pavilion in DeSoto State Park. Sit around a campfire and listen to ghostly tales and scary stories. For more information, call 1-256-782-5697.

Ghost Walk & Fall Festival
Thomasville, Alabama (Oct 23)

The Thomasville Arts Council will be acting out some of renowned storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham‘s famous scary stories. There will also be haunted tours, street dancing, a motorcycle poker ride, a car show, and a haunted house. For more information, call the Thomasville Chamber of Commerce at 1-334-636-1542.

To view the complete list of scary events for the month of October, click here.

The Ghosts of Alamos

The sun is relentless, stalking me along the narrow, cobbled lanes of Alamos, Mexico, as I return to my hotel. I unlock the heavy double doors and walk into the lush, untamed courtyard, where weather-pocked stone cherubs guard a center fountain and rocking chairs sit motionless beneath electric ceiling fans. It’s quiet inside. Quieter, in fact, than any hotel I’ve ever patronized, because I’m the only guest.

Which is not to say that I’m alone.

According to locals, my hotel is haunted by the woman it originally belonged to: Señorita Marcor, a beautiful spinster piano teacher who traversed Alamos only by underground tunnel because the streets back then weren’t cobbled, and she refused to muddy her boots and long skirts.

This doesn’t alarm me. For one thing, I like the sound of Señorita Marcor. For another, I’m traveling with my own ghost.

“I want to disappear,” I told my mother a few weeks ago, giving her a research project. My father had just died so I thought she could benefit from an assignment that would keep her busy, give her a purpose. As for me, I was desperate to escape San Francisco-the endless hustle, the cold summer weather, the impassive faces, and worse, the sympathetic ones. I wanted to retreat with my memories of my father to a place where no one knew us.

“Maybe Mexico,” I said. “Somewhere pretty but not touristy-a quiet village with a couple of small hotels and coffee shops. And bougainvillea. Lots of bougainvillea.”

It took her two days to return a verdict: Alamos, a seventeenth-century colonial town in the foothills of the Sierra Madres, one of Mexico’s oldest treasures and a national monument. A tourist destination in the winter, it would be disgustingly hot and accordingly devoid of visitors in June. I could take a first-class, air-conditioned bus from Tucson-where she lived-leaving at 6:00 p.m. and arriving at 6:00 a.m., for $80 round-trip.

“Alamos,” I said, rolling it on my tongue like a Mexican candy. “I’ve never heard of it. Sounds perfect.”When I step off the bus at 6:00 a.m., however, I’m less convinced. It’s quiet here, all right. The sun is just beginning its rise, exposing thin, dusty streets surrounding the station. Lifeless and bleak, they don’t promise much-no bougainvillea, no inviting B&Bs, and not a single coffee shop brightens the pale, nondescript rows of single-story dwellings. Of the few local characters lurking about, none speaks English, and I’m struggling with Spanish. I have only a few key words in my arsenal, and I’m hoping that if I can put them in the right order, they’ll lead me to caffeine.

“Restaurante?” I inquire of the driver. He’s leaning against the bus, pinching a cigarette tightly between his thumb and forefinger. No, he assures me, shaking his head once, definitively. No restaurantes. All closed at this hour.

So I camp out at the station and wait for the town to open its doors to me, miserably watching the ticket agent sip coffee from a thermos. Wishing I knew enough Spanish to engineer a transaction that would result in my getting a cup. Wishing I had pesos to offer. Wishing I knew the whereabouts of my formerly travel-savvy, super badass self.

Finally around 7:30, I decide to strike out, following twisty cobbled roads into the center of town. For some reason, the sidewalks in Alamos are elevated a good three feet from the ground-almost shoulder height for me. Unsure of what to make of this, I decide instead to walk in the road, which means that each time a little pickup blows through I’m forced to press against the wall of the sidewalk to make room for both of us.

Within minutes my enthusiasm returns as I find myself surrounded by bright white Spanish colonial architecture, completely intact, and endless rows of tall, arched portals. I’m relieved by the absence of fast-food restaurants and scant suggestions of Western influence. No one is hawking blankets or tacky mother-of-pearl jewelry, or sipping Starbucks lattes while barking into cell phones. I see only a handful of locals beating dust from rugs, opening windows, calmly sweeping sidewalks. They cast shy looks my way, and something about them restores my confidence.

Soon I find myself at Casa de los Tesoros, a sixteenth-century convent turned tourist hotel. I spend the morning there, drinking Nescafe and nibbling on thick Mexican pastries delivered by clean-shaven servers in suits and ties. The manicured courtyard has café tables with umbrellas, a gift shop, a swimming pool, and an Internet station set up beneath massive, ancient-looking paintings of monks and saints.

Within an hour I’ve committed the very act I swore I wouldn’t-I’ve made a friend: Jean-Philippe, a Parisian toy designer who came here to purchase a million jumping beans to sell in the pages of French magazines. Alamos, he informs me, is the jumping-bean capital of the world.

“Only, for the first time since 1982,” he says, his face darkening, “they aren’t jumping. The rain came too early this year, ruining the chances for a crop.”

But he’s solved the problem, he announces, turning cheerful again as he reaches for one of my pastries. He’s invented a cardboard chicken that lays real, edible square eggs. This is exactly the sort of bizarre conversation I usually relish when traveling, but today it feels misplaced. I’m not in Mexico to make friends or conversation or be served poolside by well-coifed waiters. I’m not here to have a good time. I’m here for one reason: to lean into grief till I fall over and have no choice but to pull myself back up again.

My immediate problem is solved when I meet Suzanne, the owner of Casa de los Tesoros. After a brief conversation in which I explain that I’m a writer in search of simpler, quieter lodging (no need to tell anyone about my father), I find myself being led to her other hotel down the road where, if I stay, I’ll be the sole occupant.

From the outside, Hotel la Mansion appears stark and pedestrian, and I brace myself to meet the dumpy little sister of Casa de los Tesoros. But Suzanne casually unlocks the heavy double doors, and I step past her into a wild, tropical, secret garden-like courtyard. A central stone fountain bubbles, surrounded by palm and mango trees, white pillars and statues. Slanted beams of sunlight illuminate thick curls of pink bougainvillea hanging from white arches, and birds circle the tops of trees. Hummingbirds buzz and pale yellow butterflies flutter, and it feels like the doors have been sealed for a century. Suzanne offers me my choice of ten rooms, and then she closes the gate behind her.

My father would have been thrilled that I’ve come to Mexico to mourn him; he loved Latin American and Spanish culture. He collected Day of the Dead statues, Tarahumara pottery, and Mexican postcards of 1930s film stars; he devoured everything he could find to read about pre-Colombian history, the Mayans, the mummies of Guanajuato. But mostly he loved the music. A concert classical and flamenco guitarist, he studied in Mexico with Manuel Lopez Ramos and in Spain with Paco de Lucia, and he once performed at the palace of Alfonso the XIII for the Prince of Spain. And when he was diagnosed with terminal emphysema and advised that he could buy himself six more months by moving to a lower elevation, my father immediately chose Tucson- he wanted to go to the Mariachi Festival.

I spend my first Alamos afternoon in one of the old Mother Hubbard rocking chairs outside my room, reading and writing in my journal. Finally around dusk I venture out to find food. In the town square I buy a book called “See it and Say it in Spanish” from a woman named Marta at Terracotta Tiendas, a co-op in the plaza, and study it over a bowl of tortilla soup and a Corona at Las Palmeras, a quiet, low-key restaurant across from the plaza.

Directly across from me stands the centerpiece of town, a gloomy, shadowy church called Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción or La Parroquia de la Purisima Concepción or El Templo Parroquial de la Immaculada Concepción, depending on whom you ask. And right in front of the church, as if to cheer it up, is the Plaza de las Armas, with a delicate open-sided gazebo surrounded by flowers, a smattering of gangly skyscraper palm trees, and a wrought iron and white picket fence.

Like its church, Alamos has multiple names-the City of Arches, the Flower of the North, the Pearl of the Mountains, the Garden of the Gods, the City of Silver, and the Soul of the Sierra Madre-but Francisco de Vasquez Coronado first named it Alamos (or Real de Los Frailes de Alamos) in 1540. The northernmost of Mexican colonial cities, it became one of the wealthiest towns in the country after silver was discovered in the hills in 1683. By the late 1700s, the town had more than 30,000 residents, some of whom traveled north to found San Francisco and Los Angeles.

By 1790 Alamos was one of the world’s biggest silver producers and by the mid-nineteenth century, the capital of Occidente. But with riches came trouble; for two centuries, the people of Alamos suffered floods, droughts, plagues, and famine along with political unrest and continual Apache, Yaqui, Mayo and Tarahumara uprisings. Colonists, Federalists, Liberals, and bandits overran the town at one time or another. In the 1860s, under Napoleon’s reign, Emperor Maximilian’s troops occupied Alamos and drove away all the silver barons. Mexican rebels took it back the following year, and the Revolution drove away most colonial landowners. By the early 1900s the mines were closed, along with the railroad and the mint. The money was gone, and only a few hundred people remained.

But it still held some magic, because the story goes that when Pancho Villa’s troops arrived in Alamos in 1915, intending to pillage the town, he gave orders not to burn it, vowing to someday make it his home. Villa was killed shortly after, so he never returned. Instead, after World War II, Americans began immigrating and restoring the old adobe mansions. Now Alamos is a national monument, with 188 buildings on the national registry, and home to some 15,000 people, of whom about 400 are expats (Paul Newman, Carroll O’Connor, Rip Torn, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers all lived here). Still, it doesn’t feel like an expat town.

From the window of Las Palmeras, I watch people mill about the Plaza de las Armas, settling into benches around the church and gazebo. Two handsome old mustached men in matching cowboy hats lean cross-armed against the ornate white fence that frames the gazebo, and behind them, a teenage couple holds hands shyly in the shade of a jacaranda tree. A woman sets up a hamborgesa stand, and a man carries a guitar case across the plaza.

My father was teaching guitar right up until he died, still patiently explaining to his students how to do a tremolo or a rasgueado, jiggling their wrists to make them relax their hands, scolding them for hooking their thumbs over the necks of their guitars.

I studied seriously with him from when I was five until thirteen and again in my twenties and thirties, far less seriously. Now that he’s gone-and with him the opportunity to study-I’m already lost in regret for a lifetime of taking him for granted. It’s not a surprise. I knew I’d feel remorse; I just didn’t anticipate being so mad at myself.

My father left his guitar to me, but since he died, I’ve only removed it from its case a handful of times. I’ve held it in my arms, rested my cheek against the cool wood, played a few notes, and put it back. But suddenly I find myself wishing I’d brought it to Mexico. Perhaps here, in the haven of my hotel, I could make it through an entire piece of music.

The day he told me he was dying, I laughed at him.

“Dad, you’re not dying,” I said.

“Yes, I am. I have emphysema.”

“A doctor told you that?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know?” I asked.

“I Googled it.”

I told him he was silly, but Google was right. His health declined over the next two years; he coughed and wheezed constantly, eventually barely able to breathe. Finally he was put on an oxygen machine, which he dragged around the house with him. He quit smoking, reluctantly, after forty-five years.

The last time I talked to him, I was in a rush to get off the phone. I had fifteen spare minutes before I needed to leave for work, but trying to carry on a conversation with him had turned painful; he was too often incoherent and rambled on.

“I’ve got to go, Daddy,” I said.

“Well,” he answered lightly, “when you gotta go, you gotta go.”

The words stay with me.

The Plaza de las Armas is quiet tonight, but not so on Sunday evenings, when the age-old ritual of paseo is still practiced, as it is in virtually every small town in Mexico: teenage boys and girls promenading, walking in circles around the gazebo in opposite directions, eyeing each other openly. It reminds me of high school weekends spent at the shopping mall, except the laps these teens make around each other are much shorter, and the prowling more overt.

But the true distinction is the parents, sitting on sideline benches taking in the entertainment of their daughters walking arm-in-arm with girlfriends, being ogled by pubescent boys. I think of what Suzanne said about my hotel’s ghost, Señorita Marcor-that she had dozens of suitors but never married because her parents didn’t approve of any of them.

Maybe little has changed since Señorita Marcor’s day, and parents still preside over their children’s love lives here. I consider the scene in front of me. It’s fairly self-explanatory, but for one thing: I see no pairing off, no conversation or flirtation between the sexes. What comes next for these teens loosely upholding the culture’s dating traditions? Will they date? Get married? And if their parents disapprove, will they run off and elope as my parents did?

My mother first met my father at her art school graduation party in Boston when she was 23 and he was 17.

“That’s the cutest boy I’ve ever seen,” she said to a friend when my father walked in with his guitar, crashing the party. “I’m going to marry him.”

“I’d better introduce you then,” the friend said, ushering her over to him.

“Wally, meet Dolly,” the introduction went. “You’re made for each other.”

Six weeks later they stole my aunt’s car and ran off together, making it all the way to California. When they finally ran out of money, they called my grandmother and told her they’d eloped (they hadn’t, but pretending to be married meant they could cohabitate). The following June they drove a borrowed TR3 sports car from Boston to North Carolina, where it was legal to marry at the age of 18 without parental consent. This time they actually did elope.

Before my father got sick, he was the star of the family, the vibrant, handsome, brilliant performer, and we orbited his life, for better or for worse, like the gazebo these kids circumnavigate in Plaza de las Armas.

If the gazebo weren’t here, would they still walk the paseo every night? What do we do with the traditions and patterns when our center is suddenly gone?

During the day not a soul visits my hotel, and I sit and listen to mangos drop from trees. I drink coffee, write, read, study Spanish, and nap. Sometimes I cry. Time spreads, expands.

But for a few hours each evening Ruben, a worker from Casa de los Tesoros, comes by in case I need anything. Twenty-two and bored, Ruben likes to bring things to my door. First, chips and salsa. Next, bottled water. Finally, a mango from the tree outside my door. I’m determined to be alone, but he doesn’t know that, and his earnestness makes it impossible to resent the interruptions. Gracias, I say, again and again. Gracias.

An elderly security guard also comes at night. He sits on a chair just inside the main door, though to protect me from what, I have no idea. I can only imagine it’s the town ghosts, for I’ve come to learn that Señorita Marcos is not alone; legend has it Alamos is teeming with them. There’s the gray-robed monk who guards the treasures in the seven secret underground tunnels leading to the church, the ghosts of the silver mine workers, the politically incorrect “headless Chinaman,” the unfaithful bride, the violet perfume ghost.

I find being in a ghost town soothes me. There’s something about the way the people of Alamos so effortlessly preserve their past and coexist with their ghosts. I start leaving my hotel more frequently during the day, retreating to my air-conditioned room only when I get overheated. I strike up conversations with locals if only to ask them about ghosts. Everyone has a story. In this town, ghosts aren’t a concept one does or does not believe in; they simply exist, almost as lively a populace as the living.

Out wandering one day, I poke my head into Casa de Maria Felix, a hotel and museum. One of Alamos’s claims to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Maria Felix, an iconic film star sometimes referred to as the Mexican Marilyn Monroe. This is the property where she was born. It’s run by an expat named Lynda, who tells me she was unaware, when she bought it in 1999, that the film star was born there.

She was not, however, oblivious to Maria Felix’s existence. Coincidentally, she’d been collecting the Mexican film star’s photographs for thirty years. The casa now overflows with artifacts excavated during the construction of the hotel, and a room dedicated to images of Maria Felix runs the gamut from famous original portraits to what resemble middle-school art class sketches. Altogether, Lynda has about 400 images of Maria Felix.

Lynda’s ghost story is that she came upon the ruin one night while taking a walk, during her first visit to Alamos. The moon was shining through a window, and behind the wall she could see mesquites and palo verde trees. Intrigued, she wandered to the back of the property, and turning to look at the ruins in the moonlight, saw the spirits of a woman and child. She bought the property the next day.

Later in the afternoon, I take a private walking tour with a man named Trini, who goes by Candy Joe (local kids gave him the moniker, he tells me, because he always has candy for them). We visit the cemetery, a study in shades of white and sepia. Elaborately carved statues of praying angels and weeping cherubs share sky space with towering, austere crosses, while beautiful old headstones are stacked on the ground like dishes in a cupboard. On one end of the graveyard, a tall block of aboveground family crypts all bear holes the size of grapefruits, evidence of a time when looting was standard practice.

Candy Joe also takes me by a mansion where a woman named Beatrice, a silver baron’s daughter, once lived. The house was a wedding gift from Beatrice’s father, he says. On the day she married, her father had the streets of Alamos lined with silver bars for a few hours. Leaving the church after the ceremony, though, the groom’s horse was spooked and reared up; the groom was thrown and his back broken, and several months later he died. Beatrice subsequently lost her mind, and for the next six months could be spotted in the cemetery late at night, digging up his grave with a shovel and pick. Because her father was the most important man in town, the cemetery caretaker left her alone. She died not long after and was buried beside her husband, but people continued to see her ghost, in front of his grave, praying.

I find that the stories all intersect, weaving around each other, cross-pollinating. Is it the virgin bride, the woman in white, or the unfaithful wife who haunts the beautiful mansion they call Las Delicias? Or are these spirits one and the same? The legends are fused, details blurred. They have been repeated so many times.

The night before I leave Alamos, I have dinner with Suzanne, Jean-Philippe, and a few other travelers. As we swap stories, I realize that for the first time, I’m not eyeing the door, waiting for a break in conversation so I can escape. I’m content in the company of others. I even talk about my father.

For a place I hadn’t heard of a month ago, Alamos has given me precisely what I wanted-gentle quietude and privacy, solitude without isolation, uninterrupted time and space to heal, no one asking anything of me. A summer season so slow and lazy that even the jumping beans won’t jump, so hot and muggy it holds no appeal to any other tourists.

It’s also provided what I didn’t want but somehow needed. When I walk through town now, I know people. Jose Louis, the bartender at Casa de los Tesoros, is teaching me to conjugate verbs, Lynda from Casa Maria Felix has given me a driving tour, Candy Joe hollers “Buenos dias” from his little tourist office, and Marta from the co-op waves exuberantly whenever she sees me.

I came here to be alone in my grief, but it’s the people of Alamos who have helped me move beyond it. Without even trying, they’ve taught me to remember the dead in a way that keeps them alive-by continuing to tell their stories.

Lavinia Spalding is the author of “Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler,” and the editor of the new anthology “The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011.” Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal, Sunset, WorldHum, Post Road, and Inkwell.

Flickr images via eflos and eflon]

Three nights in a haunted hotel room


The best thing about being an agnostic is that you don’t have to live your life fearing the unknown. The worst thing is admitting the possibility that there might be something to fear after all.

Instead of pretending to have all the answers, my belief system ranks things in order of likelihood, and ghosts are pretty far down the list. Not as low as Santa Claus or the “we never landed on the Moon” conspiracy theory, but a poor ranking nonetheless. So when I heard that my hotel room in England was supposedly haunted, my only thought was that I’d bagged a good story for Gadling.

Unlike a lot of supposed hauntings, this one’s actually based on a true story, related to me by local historian and folklorist Steven Wood.

Back in 1906, Haworth, Yorkshire, was holding its annual gala. Like in other years, brass bands played, entertainers wowed the crowd, and food stands sold all sorts of delicacies. This year, however, the people of Yorkshire had been promised something special. Lily Cove, a famed “aeronaut”, was going to do a death-defying parachute jump from a balloon. This was only three years after Kitty Hawk, so nobody in the area had ever seen an airplane, and balloons were a rarity too. Seeing a lovely lady jump from one and land safely was something of a miracle.

Lily Cove stayed at The Old White Lion Hotel in Room 7, the very same room I had. While waiting for a day with good weather the glamorous aeronaut made many acquaintances in town and became very popular.

On June 11 the weather was fair and thousands gathered to see her performance. After she and her manager Captain Frederick Bidmead checked the balloon, she secured herself to a trapeze hanging from the bottom. The balloon soared into the air with Lily waving to the crowd with a handkerchief. The idea was that once she got to a good altitude, Lily would leap from the trapeze and a ripcord would open up her parachute. She’d then float gracefully to earth.

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The balloon floated over the fields. After it got up to about 700 feet Lily jumped. The parachute opened as planned, but one witness saw Lily shrugging her shoulders and a moment later she detached from her parachute and plummeted to the ground. Farmers rushed to the spot, but she was dead. Her broken body was carried back to her room, my room, and laid out until a coffin could be made for her.

The whole town went into mourning. Captain Bidmead, a veteran of 83 parachute descents, said he might never fly again. At the inquiry he gave the opinion that she’d deliberately separated herself from the parachute. He suggested that because she was drifting towards a reservoir and didn’t know how to swim, she decided to get to the ground early. She must have thought she was much lower than she was and could land without injury. Others said she committed suicide, but there seemed no reason for this. The court ruled that Lily Cove died of “misadventure.” Parliament soon banned parachute performances so such a tragedy would never happen again.

According to local ghost story collector and guide Philip Lister, it wasn’t long before guests began reporting strange happenings in Room 7. Some woke up with a start, thinking they were falling through the air. Others saw an attractive young woman standing at the foot of their bed. The sightings have continued to the present day, and everyone in Haworth knows of Room 7’s reputation.

I didn’t hear any of this until I had spent my first night in the room. Tired from a day’s travel from Madrid, I slept fine, although I woke up once, glanced at the clock, saw it was 4:10, and went back to sleep.

The next day one of my travel companions told me my room was haunted. She started telling me the story but I stopped her. I didn’t want to be subject to suggestion. I wanted to test Room 7, and not have my own mind play tricks on me. The conversation turned to ghosts stories in general, and over the course of the day four of my nine travel companions told me they’d seen ghosts at least once in their lives. I was amazed. These educated, quite sane travel writers were telling me in all seriousness that they’d seen spirits. Nearly half of our group had a story to tell, and I didn’t even get around to asking all of them! Apparitions from the beyond are more common than I supposed.

The second night I slept fine again, although I briefly woke up again shortly after 4am. I think it was 4:08, but I was too sleepy to be sure.

By my third night I’d heard the whole story. I even went on a ghost tour, which I’ll describe in my next post in this series. So when I tucked myself in I knew just what had occurred to that poor woman who had stayed in my room. Once again I saw nothing, except I briefly woke up and looked at the clock.

It was 4:11 in the morning.

Waking in the middle of the night isn’t unusual for me, but I never wake up at the exact same time three nights in a row. Is this significant? Well, by the third night I was wondering if I would again awake shortly after four, so that might have been autosuggestion. The time seems to have nothing to do with the haunting, since Lily did her ascent at seven o’clock in the evening.

So was Lily Cove waking me up? Probably not. The tricky thing about ghosts is they’re unprovable. Even if I’d awoken to see a spectral woman at the foot of my bed, that wouldn’t prove anything except I had a weird experience that could have been a hallucination. Yet ghost stories are found throughout history and in most if not all cultures. We seem to need ghost stories. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s life beyond death or that dead people occasionally come back to scare the crap out of the living, but it does show ghosts are a part of the human experience. What they signify is something we’ll probably never know, and not knowing is far more interesting than pretending you have all the answers.

Don’t miss the rest of my series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: The good old days were horrible!

This trip was sponsored by VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire, who really should have put someone more impressionable in Room 7.

The Purgatory Museum

I’m not sure what I’m looking at.

A rectangular slab of wood bears two burn marks–one in the shape of a cross, the other resembles a human hand. Nearby are other items–a shirt, a prayer book, a pillow–all with burns that look like they’ve been made by fiery fingers.

I’m in Rome’s smallest and strangest museum, the Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio, the Little Museum of Purgatory. Housed in the church of Santo Cuore del Suffragio, which is dedicated to relieving the souls tortured in Purgatory, it stands barely ten minutes’ walk from the Vatican. Small it certainly is, just one long case along a single wall, but the questions it raises are at the center of an increasingly acrimonious debate that’s dividing Western civilization.

Purgatory is a halfway point between Heaven and Hell, a place for the souls of people who lived good enough lives to avoid eternal damnation, but not quite good enough to join the angels. In Purgatory these souls suffer torment for enough time for their sins to be forgiven, a sort of celestial spanking with no Child Protective Services to intervene.

But there is hope. Prayers by the living can reduce a soul’s time in Purgatory. Faithful relatives offer up prayers or even pay for entire masses to be said for the departed. Others neglect this spiritual duty, and it is said that sometimes a tormented soul will return to Earth and ask for help.

During the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries these visitations happened fairly often and took on a common pattern. A spirit would appear to a relative or friend, reveal it was in torment, and ask for prayers to shorten its time in the cleansing fires. As proof that the spirit had been there, it would touch its burning hand to a nearby object. These events were one of many types of miracles common in the Catholic world such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary and bleeding statues of Jesus.

The Purgatory Museum collects these soul burns and tells their story. The hand and cross that I am seeing was left on a table by Fr. Panzini, former Abbot Olivetano of Mantua. In 1731 he appeared to Venerable Mother Isabella Fornari, abbess of the Poor Clares of the Monastery of St. Francis in Todi. He appeared to her on November 1, 1731 (All Saints Day) and said he was suffering in Purgatory. To prove his claim, he touched his flaming hand to her table and etched a burning cross in it too. He also touched her sleeve and left scorches and bloodstains.

%Gallery-101999%I have to admit I’m skeptical. I am an agnostic, and while I can’t disprove the existence of some sort of deity, I’m having trouble believing this story. The hand doesn’t look quite right. I take several photos, including the negative black and white image shown here. On this image details become clear that aren’t easily spotted with the naked eye. The burnt hand and cross are made up of a series of circular patterns as if they were made with some sort of hot poker. Other objects, whose images and stories can be seen in the attached gallery, appear more convincing but could still easily have been made with a bit of flame and ingenuity.

This doesn’t dissuade the two guys I’m seeing the museum with. They are a devoutly Catholic gay couple here in Rome on pilgrimage, something I find far more mysterious than a few burns on a nightcap. They go from object to object with wonder in their eyes. Looking at that same hand they don’t see its shape as odd, and they don’t see the circular patterns that make it up as a sign of forgery. A burning hand, of course, would have flames coming out of it, which would distort its shape and lead to some areas of the imprint being more scorched than others.

And that, I realize, is what the Purgatory Museum has to teach. For the faithful, it is yet more proof of Divine Judgment. For an atheist, it is proof of the gullibility of religious people and the nasty web of lies that supports organized religion. For the agnostic standing between two fundamentalisms, it proves nothing. Personally I think these objects are the products of overzealous fraudsters wanting to make converts by any means necessary, yet debunking them doesn’t disprove the existence of spirits any more than showing there’s no life on Mars would disprove the possibility of aliens on other planets.

As I stand there wondering where the whole debate over religion is going to lead, an attractive young American nun walks in, hands me a pendant of the Virgin Mary, and hurries off before I can ask her what the Latin inscription says. This sort of thing happens a lot in Rome. The inscription reads, “O MARIA CONCEPITA SENZA PECCATO PREGATE PER NOI CHE RECORRIAMO A VOI” and bears the date 1850. Translation, anyone?

So I leave the same as I entered, “knowing” nothing but insatiably curious about everything. That’s a pretty good place to be, I think. Walking down the nave I see one of the gay Catholics gazing upon a reclining figure of the crucified Jesus. His face is transfixed with reverence, wonder, and sadness as he bends down and kisses the statue’s feet. His visit to Rome will be very different than mine.

This starts a new series called Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. I will be looking at the Eternal City’s obsession with death, from grandiose tombs to saints’ relics, from early Christian catacombs to mummified monks. Tune in tomorrow for The Tombs of Rome!