A Hideous Skeleton, with Cries and Dismal Howlings

Nina Auerbach

  • Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley by Judith Richardson
    Harvard, 296 pp, £19.95, October 2003, ISBN 0 674 01161 9

Judith Richardson begins Possessions by quoting a 1933 guidebook to the Hudson Valley: ‘How comes the Hudson to this unique heritage of myth, ghosts, goblins and other lore?’ By the end of her exhaustive chronicle of local history and legend the answer is self-evident: ‘Why is the Hudson Valley haunted? Perhaps a better question after all is: how on earth could it not be?’ Until I read this book, the Hudson Valley seemed remote from anguished, obviously possessed sites like ravaged towns in Mississippi and throughout the Deep South, the battlefield at Gettysburg, Hollywood or even the foggy menace of Seattle. The Hudson Valley’s hills are rolling, its farmland is welcoming, its mountains aren’t steep enough to be awe inspiring. Even Washington Irving’s famous Headless Horseman is swaddled by the name of his home in Sleepy Hollow.

Roughly an hour or two from New York City, depending on how deeply scenic you want your trip to be, the Hudson Valley feels like a reassuring antidote to the city’s friction. It may have ghosts, but it no longer advertises them. My tattered guidebook, for instance, unlike Richardson’s, describes Olana, the opulent and overbearing mansion once owned by the Hudson River artist Frederic Church, as ‘enchanting’, adding benignly: ‘The grounds beg you to stop and walk, or linger for a picnic.’ These grounds do not beg you to leave your picnic in order to follow the ghosts of Native Americans, headless Hessians, Dutch sailors, Revolutionary War victims, or African-American slaves, to enter the vortex of past (or even present) battles over the land. Richardson has added ghosts to a landscape I had thought was too cosy for them. She explains why they are there, but she can’t save them from being, as ghosts go, rather dull.

Richardson teaches in the English Department at Stanford University but her emphasis is folkloristic rather than literary. Her ghosts linger in archives, travelogues, guidebooks, letters, newspaper articles, and collections of local legends aimed at tourists. When she does turn to literature – Washington Irving’s tales and Maxwell Anderson’s 1937 play High Tor – she is concerned with its subsequent resonance in regional folklore and history. Irving, she shows, poses as a chronicler of the spooky beings who haunt the Hudson Valley rather than their creator, thus giving his ghosts an aura of timelessness. Tourist offices still direct visitors to the site of Rip Van Winkle’s cottage, and recently there was a move to rename North Tarrytown ‘Sleepy Hollow’ – an idea that seemed authentic to everyone except the people who lived there.

In the same myth-making spirit, Maxwell Anderson’s play places a chorus of ghosts on High Tor. His ancient Indian (the last of his tribe), equally ancient Dutchman (the last of his line), and the crew of a vessel from Henry Hudson’s fleet that disappeared in 1609, were so compelling to intellectuals that they inspired an international movement to stop the mountain (and presumably its ancient ghosts) from being quarried. None of this has much to do with Anderson’s play, which doesn’t believe in inviolate nature and broods on a sense of inexorable change. What Richardson shows is the way the Hudson Valley inspires fiction that caters to its political and economic needs.

In all these meticulously resurrected apparitions, I miss the nervous whisper of a human voice. Richardson covers such a wide historical sweep – from the 17th century to the present – that she couldn’t possibly have heard the twisting oral narratives that were probably the source of the more formal, even stilted, archival transcriptions she quotes from. Her ghosts are intriguing but abstract.

Richardson is good at unravelling the historical conditions that give rise to ghostliness, however. She sees her ghosts as products of disputed land ownership, and describes waves of nationalities advancing across the Hudson Valley and then receding. Before the Revolution, Native Americans, Dutch settlers and early colonists (which included, along with the English, ‘Germans, French Huguenots, Danes, Swedes, Belgians and Norwegians, as well as a significant number of African slaves’) contended with each other for the land.

The American Revolution further traumatised the Hudson Valley, through both the battles fought there and the divided loyalties it bred. After the Revolution, the original populations were swamped: droves of enterprising New Englanders (like Irving’s scrawny opportunist Ichabod Crane) moved in, as did the machinery of industrialisation (with its concomitant Irish, German, Eastern European and African-American immigrants). But the area was also appropriated by tourists, the rich, and artists. I’m not sure these ‘radical transformations’, as Richardson calls them, were more traumatic than the successive invasions that formed any other region of the United States, but there is little comparative reference in this study. Richardson is clear in her own mind: ‘the restless history of the region . . . created a sense of social and historical tenuousness that was critical to producing ghosts.’

Hudson Valley ghosts thus cloak themselves as the land’s former inhabitants. Dutch and Native American ghosts are particularly common; according to many stories, these two original cultures exterminated each other, thereby exculpating the English colonists (who eventually became Americans) from accusations of cultural genocide. The persistence of these ghosts, she claims, is a symptom of both owners’ guilt and owners’ vindication. Dutch sailors and Indian chiefs materialise to claim rights of possession, but at the same time, as ‘mere’ ghosts (Richardson sees all ghosts as wispy and indeterminate), they display their deadness, and so buttress the land’s present owners.

Ancillary apparitions elaborate on this paradox of possession and dispossession. There is a fine discussion of Revolutionary War ghosts, who restage old battles at specific times (a trope familiar in Civil War hauntings as well). One who makes regular reappearances is the British spy John André, who was captured at Tarrytown and hanged at Tappan for his supposedly traitorous collaboration with Benedict Arnold. André was an attractive felon: even Americans called him ‘beautiful’, ‘manly’ and ‘noble’, and his charmed memory inspired commemorative sites associated with the last ten days of his life. A window he might have looked through in West Haverstraw became the ‘André window’; a well in Mount Pleasant from which he might have drunk was glorified as the ‘André well’, and ‘André Hill’ – where he was hanged – took life from his death.

André’s compelling apparition perhaps expresses the troubling ambiguity of concepts such as loyalty, treason, tradition and progress. Not only had the Hudson Valley’s residents experienced directly the violence of a war which had been remote to many Americans, but also an uncommon number of landowners remained British loyalists. Unlike, say, most New Englanders or Philadelphians, whose Revolution was dressed in the spangles of independence, the inhabitants of the Hudson Valley experienced the Revolution as a civil war, and thus, according to Richardson, as ‘a deep trauma embedded in both the actual and the imagined landscape’. Richardson is generally a little quick to find traumas in the land, but her discussion of the American Revolution, by distinguishing the Hudson Valley from the rest of the nation, finds in it ghosts who truly belong in the region they haunt.

One ghost has a chapter to herself. In 1755, a gentleman named William Salisbury killed his servant, Anna Dorothea Swarts, by dragging her behind his horse. The jury verdict was the evasive ‘ignoramus’, a term that either ignored the charge entirely or claimed ignorance of its legal merit. Salisbury escaped justice, but a wailing woman still haunts the region, dragged by a ghostly horse. Richardson traces with precision the changing attributes of this servant-spectre as she haunts various ages and reflects their ideologies. According to a journalist writing in the 1820s, Anna’s ghost is ‘a hideous skeleton . . . half enveloped in a winding sheet, with cries and dismal howlings’, or ‘a female figure . . . with a lighted candle upon each finger, singing wildly, or uttering a piercing cry, or an hysterical laugh’. This operatic ghost is accompanied by a white dog and a white cow, as well as the gigantic white horse who drags her. Subsequent tale-tellers see her more demurely, as a woman in white, or a blank with a name.

Throughout the 19th century, Anna Swarts’s racial identity and indeed name shifted; William Salisbury, whose descendants remained powerful property-owners, was in some accounts an incarnation of tyrannical power and in others a justly acquitted victim of an insubordinate servant. In Miriam Coles Harris’s The Sutherlands, an 1860 novel with abolitionist leanings, Anna loses her candles, her howlings and her ghostly cow and becomes a slave with mixed African and Amerindian blood. In more politically conformist accounts she is a servant who is alternately Spanish, German, Scottish or ‘poor white’: in fact everything but Dutch, presumably because the Dutch were too sturdy to be tormented servants, or to be dragged to death by a horse. Richardson argues that despite the changes in representation, the persistence of Anna Swarts’s ghost reminds us of the violent injustice that underlies the seemingly peaceful valley.

Richardson’s analysis makes unsurprising sense. Most good horror stories change with the times. Dracula has shed and assumed more skins than any vampire deserves to have. In the 1950s, a modest black-and-white film called Invasion of the Body Snatchers was read as a terrifying vision of small-town conformity, or perhaps of a Communist takeover. When the film was remade in colour in 1978 and transplanted to San Francisco, it became an indictment of the counterculture, or perhaps of the counterculture’s enemies. I am not surprised that Anna Swarts is different every time she appears, but I wish Possessions had talked less about her significance and more about her. The chapter in which she is featured is promisingly titled ‘The Colourful Career of a Ghost from Leeds’. I assumed that Anna was a transplant from Yorkshire, giving the author a chance to show a British ghost acquiring American characteristics; but Anna’s Leeds, alas, is a village in New York. A national and international frame of reference would have thrown the ghosts of Possessions into vivid relief.

Most Victorian ghosts, in Britain and the United States, called attention to their own uniqueness. In fiction, they return warts and all, aggressively themselves. In Charlotte Riddell’s popular story ‘The Old House in Vauxhall Walk’ (1882), an appalled young man sees, not a wispy white-clothed phantom, but ‘a woman with white dishevelled hair, clad in mean garments, ragged and dirty’. Conan Doyle was certain that a medium sent to him ‘my mother and my nephew, young Oscar Hornung, as plainly as I ever saw them in life – so plainly that I could almost have counted the wrinkles of the one and the freckles of the other’. If the Hudson Valley ghosts lack wrinkles and freckles, messy hair and dirty clothes, Richardson might have discussed their transcendence of idiosyncrasy.

Ghosts in Possessions seem by definition to be wispy mementos of ruined or vanished settings, but the most spectacular haunted places haven’t vanished; they are still standing and continue to be possessed. Anne Boleyn is still carrying her head around the Tower of London; I suspect that Marie Antoinette still wafts around Versailles, stunning select visitors; in the United States, the Amityville house in Long Island probably still houses swarms of spectral flies and flying pigs, though I suspect only believers can see them; and the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood continues to claim the ghosts of Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, despite its recent renovation. (Clift was staying there when he learned to play the trumpet for his role in From Here to Eternity: apparently he still returns to practise.) Possessions offers nothing as weird as a dead movie star coming back to an old hotel to play the trumpet, but quirkiness is what gives ghosts their life.

The Hudson Valley in Possessions often seems as insubstantial as its ghosts. Though Richardson comes from the area, she sometimes seems to be reconstructing, from the archives, a lost medieval village, instead of looking around her. She makes much, for example, of the opening and eventual closing of the Catskill Mountain House, implying that there were no other grand hotels in the region. In the mid-20th century – a time, according to Richardson, full of ghosts – lavish singles resorts, notably the palatial Grossinger’s, invaded the Catskills. Did the hordes of marriage-hungry singles disturb the Catskill ghosts or cause them to alter their form? Are the ghosts of the woman or man who got away even now haunting the old Grossinger’s?

My own favourite hotel in the area, Mohonk Mountain House in the Shawangunks, has lasted longer than most of its rivals. Founded in 1869, it is a national landmark and must remain fundamentally unchanged, and yet it continually mutates: as I write, the owners are constructing an indoor swimming-pool and a skating-rink, thereby making a ghost of the beautiful glacier lake around which the hotel was originally designed. Richardson probably doesn’t find Mohonk as interesting as I do and she is likely to see it as an example of the sort of pseudo-historical conservation that destroys as much local history as it preserves; but focusing exclusively on the defunct Catskill Mountain House gives a misleading sense of the region’s urge both to preserve and to build.

Richardson makes much of the Hudson Valley’s vanished Dutch founders, but what about that fine old Dutch-English family called Roosevelt, which continues to haunt the region with far more immediacy than Richardson allows? She does, glancingly, mention Franklin Roosevelt’s conservationist programme, but the Roosevelt estate and archive at Hyde Park; the paradoxical amalgam, in both President Roosevelts, of the plutocratic and the progressive; the continued presence of the family in American history and iconography: all these seem still to animate, and to be animated by, the New York State that bred the dynasty. The ghosts of the Roosevelts cannot be reduced to their ancestral origins. The thinness of the book’s portrayal of the Hudson Valley comes, I think, from its tendency to patronise ghosts as tenuous creatures. In fact they are not as perishable, or even as mutable, as Possessions suggests. They pose as the dead, but they remain stubbornly, vividly, perpetually alive.