It’s Halloween again: The Real Ghost of Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale is remembered today as the 21 year old volunteer spy who was hanged in New York by the British in 1776. I often used to wonder how someone facing imminent death could come up with such last words as, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” After I joined the staff at the Hale Homestead Museum in Coventry, CT, where Nathan was born and grew up, I learned that, while a student at Yale, Hale studied ancient cultures and may have acted in the play “Cato”, by Joseph Addison, which is all about dying for one’s country. Nathan’s words were probably a quote or a paraphrase from that play, which would have been instantly recognized by any educated man, English or American. When Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death”, he was quoting from the same play.

Nathan was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City, the exact site of which is unknown to this day. While there are numerous little anecdotes about Hale family ghosts, I’ve never heard any about Nathan himself. But there is a kind of ghost or shade of him that can be easily seen by anyone on the 2nd floor of his family’s home. This is the story.

Nathan was not the only Hale son to die as a result of the War for Independence. Five of his 7 brothers also fought with the army, and his older brother Joseph, who was fortunate enough to return home and father 3 daughters, died several years later. Joseph had been a prisoner of war for a time, held captive in one of the infamous British prison ships anchored off New Jersey. Prisoners who survived often suffered lingering illnesses of various types, and it’s believed that Joseph brought consumption (tuberculosis) home, a disease that was notoriously contagious, and that killed him and, as the years passed, the greater part of the Hale family.

After Joseph’s early death, his widow came to live with her husband’s family at Hale Homestead, staying with her 3 little girls until her remarriage. At that time, for reasons unknown, one of the daughters, Rebecca, remained behind in Coventry. She grew up on the farm, leaving only at the time of her marriage around 1800. By the time she returned once more to Coventry, she was getting on in years. She left a letter telling an intriguing story from her childhood. Rebecca wrote that, on the back of her chamber door was a “shadow portrait” of her by-then famous Uncle Nathan. When she visited the house, now owned by strangers, she looked for the image, but, to her great disappointment, it had been painted over. Rebecca’s letter describes her disappointment and her belief that it was gone forever.

Some 70 years later, the man who restored the house to its 18th century style was shown Rebecca’s letter. Immediately he started hunting for this mysterious image, and when he had the paint removed from the door, (Rebecca described its location), a silhouette etched into the wood in pencil came to light.

It seems strange to modern thinking that someone would draw on a door this way, but it actually seems to have been customary among English families. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about a mother who took her son’s silhouette upon a wal, before he left for war.

But is this really a likeness of Nathan Hale? Who knows – you can draw your own conclusion. But I’m pretty positive that it’s either his likeness or one of his brothers’. At any rate, every time I show the mystery man to visitors, I feel Nate’s presence, at least in spirit.

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It’s Fall! A Little Halloween Reading

A list of some of my favorite books for getting into the mood of the holiday.

 

Five Mile House, by Karen Novak

In 1889, Eleanor Bly flung herself from the tower of Five Mile House after murdering her seven children. More than a hundred years later, her ghost reaches out to Leslie Stone, a New York cop who has killed a child murderer and is haunted by her actions.

 

Smile of a Ghost, by Phil Rickman

Or anything by Rickman, for that matter. Smile is an eloquently written ghost story wrapped in a mystery, and the suspense never flags. Also see  The Cure of Souls.

Vampire Legends of Rhode Island, by Christopher Rondini

Vampires are not just the stuff of legends and fantastic literature. In the 19th century, an outbreak of belief spread throughout New England and resulted in many bizarre incidents aimed at preventing vampires from preying on their relatives.

This little book is a well-researched account of the 19th century beliefs that connected consumption (tuberculosis) with vampirism in the minds of many New England residents.  Check it out if you’d like to discover what was done to prevent the dead from stealing away the living. And yes, it did involve stakes and hearts and burning. If reading this account doesn’t put you in the mood for creepiness and hauntings, nothing will.

Food for the Dead by Michael Bell

Scarier because it’s real……

New England folklorist Michael Bell spent some time in Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, interviewing people who still have direct connections to a little known outbreak of vampire beliefs a little more than 100 years ago. Food for the Dead, admirably researched, presents a series of case studies involving the (still-common) belief that the dead can be jealous of the living and return to spirit them away.

Solstice Wood, by Patricia McKillip

Sylvia Lynn comes from a family that has lived in Lynn Hall for generations. Several years back, she left home rather abruptly, moving across the country, but now she must return for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. Sylvia is stunned to learn that Lynn Hall is now hers, according to her grandfather’s will. She plans to stay only a few days, and on her last evening, attends the Fiber Guild, a women’s club that has met at Lynn Hall for a century. It becomes more and more clear that something peculiar is going on, for the guild members seem unusually intent upon their designs and stitches.

Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

When Jude buys the ghost advertised on an online auction, and opens the box it arrives in, everything changes in an instant, and life will never be the same for either of them (or for the dogs!)
Heart Shaped Box is a modern ghost story full of almost believable supernatural threats. Following Jude and Mary Beth as they scour first their intellects, then their instincts, and finally their very souls, trying desperately to evade the deaths that seem inevitable.

 

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

A classic, and still one of the most chilling, and psychological, ghost stories ever told.

The House of Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Another great classic. House of Seven Gables is an eerie ghost story based upon actual historical events. Hawthorne knew Salem and its history inside and out, and he also knew how to create a haunting atmosphere and a story that stays in the mind forever.

The Darkest Part of the Woods, by Ramsey Campbell

One one of those novels that is more atmosphere than adventure. If you allow it to proceed at its own pace, it will weave its web around your mind. Subtle but effective, it’s sense of threat and menace grows a bit with every chapter.  I’ll tell you, I sure wouldn’t set foot in that woods.

 

 

These should keep you busy – and nervous –  until the witching night is over!

 

 

The True, Lost Meaning of Halloween

Hallow’s Eve, Hallow E’en, Halloween, Day of the Dead, Samhain. By whatever name it has been called, this special night preceding All Hallows day (November 1st) has been considered for centuries as one of the most magical nights of the year. A night of power, when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest.As ubiquitous as Halloween celebrations are throughout the world, few of us know that the true origin of Halloween is a ceremony of honoring our ancestors and the day of the dead. A time when the veils between the worlds were thinner, and so many could “see” the other side of life. A time in the year when the spiritual and material worlds touched for a moment, and a greater potential exists for magical creation.

Ancient rites

In ancient times, this day was a special and honored day of the year.In the Celtic calendar, it was one of the most important days of the year, representing a mid point in the year, Samhain, or “summer’s end”.
Occuring opposite the great Spring Festival of May Day, or Beltain, this day represented the turning point of the year, the eve of the new year which begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year.

And while celebrated by the Celts, the origin of this day has connections to other cultures as well, such as Egypt, and in Mexico as Dia de la Muerta, or the day of the dead.

The Celts believed that the normal laws of space and time were held in abeyance during this time, allowing a special window where the spirit world could intermingle with the living. It was a night when the dead could cross the veils and return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family, or clan. As such, the great burial mounds of Ireland were lit up with torches lining the walls, so the spirits of the dead could find their way.

Jack-o-lanterns

Out of this ancient tradition comes one of our most famous icons of the holiday: the Jack-o-lantern. Originating from Irish folkfore, the Jack-o-lantern was used as a light for the lost soul of Jack, a notorious trickster, stuck between worlds. Jack is said to have tricked the devil into a trunk of a tree and by carving an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, he trapped the devil there. His pranks denied him access to Heaven, and having angered the devil also to Hell, so Jack was a lost soul, trapped between worlds. As a consolation, the devil gave him a sole ember to light his way through the darkness between worlds.

Originally in Ireland turnips were carved out and candles placed inside as lanterns lit to help guide Jack’s lost spirit back home. Hence the term: Jack-o-lanterns. Later, when immigrants came to the new world, pumpkins were more readily available, and so the carved pumpkins carrying a lit candle served the same function.

Festival for the dead

As the Church began to take hold in Europe the ancient Pagan rituals were co-opted into festivals of the Church. While the Church could not support a general feast for all the dead, it created a festival for the blessed dead, all those hallowed so, All Hallow’s, was transformed into All Saints and All Souls day.

Today, we have lost the significance of this most significant time of year which in modern times has turned into a candy fest with kids dressing up as action hereos.

Many cultures have ceremonies to honor their dead. In so doing, they complete a cycle of birth and death, and keep in line with a harmony and order of the universe, at time when we enter into the cycle of darkness for the upcoming year.

As you light your candles this year, keep in mind the true potency of this time, one of magical connections to the other side of life, and a time to remember those who have passed before us. A time to send our love and gratitude to them to light their way back home.

About the Author: Christan Hummel is  an international lecturer and workshop leader.

Monday Morning Poem: Haunted House

by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Here was a place where none would ever come
For shelter, save as we did from the rain.
We saw no ghost, yet once outside again
Each wondered why the other should be so dumb;
And ruin, and to our vision it was plain
Where thrift, outshivering fear, had let remain
Some chairs that were like skeletons of home.

There were no trackless footsteps on the floor
Above us, and there were no sounds elsewhere.
But there was more than sound; and there was more
Than just an axe that once was in the air
Between us and the chimney, long before
Our time. So townsmen said who found her there.

It’s Halloween Again: What is an angel but a ghost in drag?

Stan Rice asked the title question, and got me wondering about that myself. We’ve all told scary stories around the old camp fire, dressed as ghosts at Halloween, and laughed at “Ghost Busters”. Many of us believe we have had ghostly encounters of various kinds, close or otherwise. But what exactly IS a ghost? What’s the thinking about that age old question now, in the new millenium?

Well, the quick answer is, nobody know for sure. But reports of hauntings, apparitions, ghosts, and other “supernatural” experiences occur so commonly that many theories have been developed, and these occurrences have even been categorized.

Many religions tell us that we are all spirits, or souls, residing within a physical body. Perhaps the most prevalent theory today is the view that ghosts are the spirits of the dead that, because of some trauma, such as murder or significant loss, are trapped between the earthly plane of existence and the other, the place where souls are thought to go after departing the body. Many paranormalists think that ghosts don’t realize they are dead and simply hang around locations where they died in an untimely fashion, or where they were happiest during life. Psychics and ghost hunters say that these spirits need to understand that there is another place for them now, and when they achieve that realization, they will find “release” from earth.

Countless people through the ages have viewed death as a welcome release. Anne Boleyn, 2nd and ill fated wife of Henry VIII, is quoted as saying:

“O death, rock me asleep, bring me to quiet rest, let pass my weary guiltless ghost out of my careful breast.” Poor Anne.

In future posts, I’ll be writing about other ghost theories and maybe even telling some true stories and events.

Link to parts 2 and 3:

part 2
part 3

Almost Halloween: Superstitions

Superstitions are usually based partly upon fear and partly upon fact. Which of the following beliefs is true? You never know……..

Put your clothes on inside out and walk backwards on Halloween night to meet a witch.

A person born on Halloween can both see and talk to spirits.

If you see a spider on Halloween, it’s the spirit of a dead loved one who is watching you.

If you hear footsteps trailing close behind you on Halloween night, do not to turn around to see who it is, for it may be Death himself.  Looking Death in the eye is a sure way to hasten your own demise.

To release a person from ghost possession, throw dust from your footprint at them.

If a candles flame suddenly turns blue, there’s a ghost nearby.

Some believe that your image in a mirror is your actual soul. A broken mirror represents the soul being astray from your body. To break the spell of misfortune, you must wait seven hours (one for each year of bad luck) before picking up the broken pieces, and bury them outside in the moonlight.

Don’t look at your shadow in the moonlight or you’ll be the next to haunt a graveyard.

Owls swoop down to to eat the souls of the dying; if you hear one hooting, or see one perched in a tree, beware of impending death. Turn your pockets inside out to ward off that danger.

If a bat flies into a house it is a sign that ghosts are about;  perhaps the ghost let the bat in.

In the days before the gallows, criminals were hung from the top rung of a ladder and their spirits were believed to linger underneath. Therefore, it’s bad luck to walk beneath an open ladder and pass through the triangle of evil ghosts and spirits.

Witches, it was once believed, disliked horses, which is why they rode brooms and pitchforks instead. By placing a horseshoe over a door, the witch would be reluctant to enter.

Trick or Treat came from the ancient idea that you must be nice to your deceased ancestors on Halloween or they’d play tricks on you.

But never fear, you can protect yourself from all of the above. To ward off evil on Halloween you should walk around your three times clockwise and three times counterclockwise.

Grave Matters: Nathan Hale Cemetery Tours

Every Columbus Day weekend, and also by reservation during the rest of the year, I have the pleasure of leading a special tour at the Nathan Hale Cemetery in Coventry, CT. Graveyards, especially ancient ones, are full to bursting with stories of ghosts, accidents and incidents, history, catastrophic illness, derring do, and other anomalies of every day life. Sometimes the most interesting tales are about ordinary people rather than

the rich and famous. In a way, all cemeteries can be said to be haunted. It just takes some detective work to ferret out the details.

At Nathan Hale, tour participants learn about 17th and 18th century burial practices and beliefs, shrouds and epitaphs, and volunteers have the opportunity to check out the view for themselves at an intact grave site. Secrets in stone abound in this yard, and true tales of early near-death experiences, journeys to heaven, and kidnapping by Indians are among the many topics elicited by what is carved upon the grave markers. Discover where several of the ghosts said to haunt Hale Homestead are spending eternity. Learn about consumption and vampirism, but never fear, protection is always provided for all who enter here. Hear of the intriguing but little known connection between the Hale family and the Salem Witch Trials.

What was the leading cause of death among children? Why is Nathan Hale so famous and where do his bones repose today? Who carved these fantastic images, and where did they get the stone?

Tours of Nathan Hale Cemetery are available year round, and after -dark lantern light programs can be arranged as well. Fees very with size of group and length of tour. If you have an ancestor buried in Coventry, it might be possible to show you the grave, with advance notice. It’s easy to book a program simply by entering your request as a comment to this post , or by sending an email to

ost.uni@hotmail.com.