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Haunted History: Spooky Tales From America’s Past

From bloody battlefields to 19th century hotel rooms, HAUNTED HISTORY investigates sites of notorious hauntings. The series examines the historical context that creates ghost beliefs and how they shape history in our public imagination.

Traditional signs of haunting include strange noises, lights and odors as well as the displacement or disappearance of objects and the ringing of musical instruments.

Queen Esther

In the early 1900s, a woman named Mary Esther was haunting a clock tower in Pennsylvania. Her ghost is rumored to open and close doors, and it sometimes peers through windows. It is also said that it can be heard wailing and gnashing her teeth. The ghost is believed to be a witch who was murdered during the Great Depression. During this time, the association of witches with broomsticks was popularized in popular culture, inspired by a pagan fertility ritual that involved rural farmers leaping and dancing around broomsticks or pitchforks during the full moon to encourage growth of their crops. This spooky story has given rise to the modern legend of witches riding broomsticks through the night.

According to the biblical story of Queen Esther, King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I, reigned 485-465 BCE) assembled a group of young virgins to be considered as possible replacements for his wife Vashti. Among these women was Esther, the daughter of Avihail and the cousin and adopted daughter of Mordecai. She won the favor of the eunuchs and quickly became a member of the royal harem (2:1-5).

But when she discovers that Haman, a prominent figure in the court, was plotting the annihilation of her people, she reveals her Jewish heritage to the king and convinces him to spare them. He then executes the conspirators, and the Jewish holiday of Purim was established to commemorate this victory (2:20-21).

Although many retellings of the story vary, all agree that Esther is haunted by a spirit that seeks revenge for her murderous attack on an Iroquois woman. The haunting supposedly takes place in woodland in northern Pennsylvania that straddles the state’s border with New York State, which was once part of the Iroquois’ homeland.

The Headless Horseman

The Headless Horseman is a scary figure that has been haunting America for centuries. This spectral being is said to travel between our world and the next, destroying everything in his path. He is a character from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and has been seen in numerous films and TV shows. The Horseman is also known for his fear of gold, and is believed to be one of the most powerful spirits in history.

The character of the Headless Horseman was first created by Washington Irving in his 1820 tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The ghostly apparition is believed to be the spirit of a Hessian mercenary who lost his head in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War. Irving’s story is a terrifying tale that has been retold many times, including in silent films and Disney cartoons.

In the story, a gangly schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane is menaced by the Horseman. He is pursued by the Horseman until he crosses the church bridge in the town of Sleepy Hollow. The Horseman is then said to vanish in a flash of fire and brimstone.

While the legend of the Headless Horseman is a frightening story, it isn’t entirely true. Irving’s ghoul is likely a combination of several different folklore elements, including Dutch and Irish legends of Dullahan and Gan Ceann, both of which featured a headless rider.

The Legend of the Headless Horseman has been adapted into several films and TV shows, including the 1999 Tim Burton film version, Sleepy Hollow. The movie features the headless Horseman as a rival for the love of a beautiful woman named Katrina Van Tassel. The movie has been criticized for its use of stereotypes, but the story still stands out as a frightening tale about the supernatural.

Jack-o-lanterns

If there’s one image that represents Halloween for many people, it’s the Jack-o-lantern. These spooky symbols bring smiles and excitement when they appear in stores at the end of summer, but they can also be frightening and even terrifying. Whether we think of the headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow or the burning eyes of the pumpkin King himself, there is something about this symbol that can send chills down our spines.

The origin of the Jack-o-lantern is believed to stem from an Irish folk tale. The story begins with a man nicknamed Stingy Jack. He tricked the Devil into turning himself into a coin to buy drinks for him and his friends, but then he changed his mind and kept the coin in his pocket, next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back to his original form. He trapped the Devil in a tree and only let him go after he promised to leave Jack alone for a year, and that he would not take his soul should he die.

Stingy Jack eventually died, and when he arrived at heaven’s gates, he was told by Saint Peter that he was ineligible for entry. He was sent to hell, where he is eternally wandering the Earth with only an ember from his turned-over turnip to light his way.

Throughout history, people carved demonic faces into vegetables like turnips and potatoes and placed them on windowsills and near doorways to ward off evil spirits. This practice was brought to America by Irish immigrants and eventually evolved into the modern celebration of Halloween.

Although the name jack-o-lantern may have come from the Devil, the tradition of carving pumpkins into grotesque figures began in Ireland and spread to Scotland, England, and then to America. When these Irish immigrants moved to the United States, they discovered that pumpkins were more pliable than turnips and easier to carve.

Witches riding brooms

When you think of a witch, the image that likely comes to mind is one flying on a broomstick. This is a familiar image that we see in art, movies, and even in stores during Halloween. But what is the history behind this iconic symbol of witchcraft?

The earliest depiction of a witch riding a broomstick was in a colorful illustration that was used in an enormous, 24,000-verse poem called “Le Champion des Dames.” The work extolled women’s virtues and condemned heresy and witchcraft.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, paintings of witches flying on broomsticks became more common in Europe. This coincided with a time when religions were changing and European societies were evolving in many ways. This change included the Protestant Reformation, which had many implications, including increased emphasis on domesticity for women.

Some anthropologists believe that the broomstick’s connection to witches started with pagan rituals. People in rural areas often leaped over sticks, pitchforks, and broomsticks in fertility rituals to encourage crop growth. This was a popular practice during these times, but when ill-informed bystanders saw these rituals, they misinterpreted them as witches flying through the night to attend orgies and other questionable events.

Other anthropologists think that witches embraced broomsticks as symbols of their power. Like magic wands or staffs of powerful magi, witches use broomsticks to cast their spells and fly through the air. The broomstick is simply an instrument that helps them focus their powers and does not carry any of the witch’s weight, just as it would be uncomfortable to ride a stick horse or a motorbike.

Haunted houses

Haunted houses are a part of Halloween traditions, but their origins actually go back centuries. Homes were seen as the center of hauntings because people died in them, says Owen Davies, a paranormal historian. The home also served as the place for family members to mourn and grieve. Davies adds that some homes acquired a reputation for being haunted because they were built over important cultural sites, like burial grounds. A prime example is the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, supposedly built right on top of a Native American graveyard.

The 1800s saw a revival of urban legends, thanks to writers like Washington Irving. His story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was based on local stories of ghosts that could be seen in the area.

After the Civil War, Americans became entranced with tools of spiritualism, including seances and Ouija boards. These helped reshape views on the afterlife and what might await them beyond the grave.

Many spooky houses date to this time, with New York City being particularly rich in ghost tales. The spirits of Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant and author Mark Twain are both said to haunt the streets of the city, with the former stomping around on his wooden leg in the East Village.

Professionally produced haunted houses began to emerge in this era, with commercial attractions outspending non-profit groups. However, tragedy struck when a fire at a New Jersey haunted house trapped and killed eight teenagers. This prompted politicians to enact tougher safety rules, which put the brakes on the industry.

Eventually, haunted houses started to be organized by parents, who would bring their children from house to house to experience the thrills and chills. By the 1970s, Disney’s Haunted Mansion opened and helped launch our modern fascination with haunted houses.

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