Engaging the Ghost: Digitization, Preservation, and the Lessons of a Haunted Library

This post was contributed by Sheila Liming, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Dakota.  We are excited to announce that Sheila is working on digitizing The Mount’s library!

Sheila Liming.

Sheila Liming.

A ghost story is, at its very core, a romance. On the surface of such stories, certainly, there exist all manner of sensate preoccupations: we hear footsteps, feel the chill touch of something we cannot quite describe, and see what we know cannot be justifiably seen. But embedded within such stories there is, more often than not, a sublime overabundance of emotion. When we tell each other ghost stories, as when we write or read them, we do so through a desire to access a form of emotion that is so intense that it transcends logic, reason, and the material demands of earthly existence.

Edith Wharton, of course, knew this. As a writer who dedicated herself to the study of human compulsions, she intuited the link – forged by a kind of lavish, larger-than-life tenderness – between hauntings and romance, and integrated it into much of her fiction. In her 1931 story “Pomegranate Seed,” for instance, that link binds Kenneth Ashby to his deceased, first wife, who appears to be writing him letters from beyond the grave. Whether the letters are, in fact, legitimately forged by a ghostly hand is actually unimportant: what matters is that they introduce suspicion and emotional conflict to Kenneth’s relationship with his second wife, Charlotte. In this story as in others, Wharton inscribes “haunting” as intense emotional havoc.

It is probably not surprising, then, that Wharton’s The Mount should also boast its fair share of hauntings and ghost stories. This summer, for the entire month of June, I was privileged to be working at The Mount while tackling the first phase of a multi-part digitization project that will, a few years hence, culminate in a searchable, online database granting both scholars and the public alike access to Wharton’s personal library materials there. Over the course of my four-plus weeks of digitization work, I was installed in various corners of the mansion, starting first with the attic, which holds nearly 1,000 of the more than 2,700 books owned by The Mount today and once owned by Wharton. And this brings me to a quick, but necessary, caveat: anyone who wants to learn more about the details of digitization project itself – about my methods, equipment, process, etc. – is welcome to get in touch and ask away. Because, in truth, those details are not the focus of what I want to talk about here: rather, I want to talk about the ghosts. Hauntings (both metaphorical and otherwise) inform much of my digitization work in the first place, as they no doubt inform other, similar digital preservation projects launched in recent years under the rubric of the digital humanities. They are part of what both compels and inspires our collective efforts to save and chronicle the past, and they are certainly an indispensible part of life at The Mount.

View from the fourth floor.

View from the fourth floor.

So, back to the attic, then: its fourth-floor location granted me a birds-eye view of the estate, from which point I could see visitors coming and going through the courtyard below. And it also put me right at the heart of The Mount’s rumored ghostly activity. Mind you, all of The Mount’s staff members have a story or two to lend where ghosts are concerned. One story I heard involved a mysterious metal rod that had been discovered lodged in the ceiling during attic renovation work; another concerned the Fox Hollow Room – a sort of exhibition and gathering spot for Fox Hollow School alumni located on the attic floor – and a chair that, when the speaker sat on it, felt “already occupied.” Nynke Dorhout, The Mount’s librarian, in her characteristically charming way, told me that when she approaches the fourth floor alone, she likes to call out “Hello, good folk!” as a means of announcing herself to the spirits who may or may not be residing there. I was tempted to take up this practice myself when I arrived in the mornings, as accessing the attic’s book storage room first involved navigating a long, dark, creaking corridor where every electrical wall sconce had to be lit individually, one after the other, forcing me further and further into the darkness.

Sadly, I did not come away from my month at The Mount with a ghost story of my own – at least not in the strict sense implied by such a phrase. But in handling Wharton’s books, I became increasingly aware of the ways in which books themselves demand that we interface with the past and, to a certain extent, engage the ghosts. Indeed, it is almost impossible to pick up a two-hundred year-old book and not consider the many hands that have touched it before you and all of the people, living and dead, whose very handling of it has made it what it is today. For a book is more than the just textual information it contains; it is also a compendium of human touch and interaction. In Wharton’s novel Hudson River Bracketed (1929), Halo Spear tells Vance Weston that “books have souls, like people” and instructs him to care for them gently – proof that Wharton, too, understood books to be containers of (and perhaps monuments to) their owners’ humanity.

Many of the books in Wharton’s library are in excellent condition, having been lovingly cared for and preserved by their varying owners and having been once originally constructed from high-quality materials with great cost, effort, and concern. These books – like many of the volumes Wharton inherited from her father, George F. Jones – retain a sense of that loving care: their spines are straight and stiff, their leather is unmarred, and their pages crackle with retained freshness. But other works in Wharton’s library invoke a different sense of the word loved: Wharton’s first American edition copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland wears the evidence of having been well-loved in its crumbling spine and tattered pages. Wharton clearly loved this book, for she read it to death. So, too, with her copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, where the binding has all but – and the pun here is intentional – given up the ghost so that the pages, if one does not handle them carefully, are likely to go tumbling to the floor.

The fourth floor.

The fourth floor.

Love, then, is inevitably part of what one encounters when they interact with old books. And love, accordingly, is written all over Wharton’s library materials: we see it in the caring inscriptions written by her father, her brothers, and yes, even by her mother, the indomitable Lucretia Jones; we see it in Wharton’s copies of the books written by her friends and associates, people like Henry James, Howard Sturgis, Bernard Berenson, Violet Paget (and, of course, Morton Fullerton); and we see the long arc of love and friendship represented through generations of successive ownership. Many of the books in Wharton’s collection, for example, feature her friend Walter Berry’s “signature” custom binding (half-blue Morocco leather with marbled interior pages done by Stroobant’s). And there are scores of books in her library that bare the marks of their previous owners – some of them famous, some perhaps less so, but all significant in their own right. I remember, for instance, when Julie Quain, a long-standing Mount volunteer who was kind enough to assist me with the scanning process, opened The Mount’s display copy of Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens and discovered the bookplate of a deceased friend – Wharton scholar Scott Marshall. When Julie held that book in her hands, I saw the soul of Scott Marshall reflected in her physical treatment of it. In this way, and in many others, books in particular and libraries in general anthologize and curate our interactions with the dead, which is why it is so essential that we seek to identify new ways for preserving and displaying them.

So while I did not come away from The Mount with a ghost story of my own, I did get the opportunity to engage the ghost of Edith Wharton through the books that she once owned and handled. More often than not, that kind of engagement, I find, takes the form of questions – questions you want to ask the object about the person, or vice versa. When I came across a postcard (completed but never sent, in Wharton’s hand, and featuring a picture of the seashore at Hyères on its front), I wanted to know: For whom was it intended? When was it written? And why wasn’t it sent? Likewise, when I would discover pressed flowers, or even human hairs, between the pages of a book, my mind was filled with questions. And even though the answers to these questions might be long in coming, I believe that Wharton’s library collection must continue to function as an accessible, useable repository for questions and answers alike.

Old books, in being made from organic material, chronicle the processes of death, but so too do they display life. Some of the books in Wharton’s collection bare evidence of decay or rot, while others sport living colonies of mold, or else the eggs of insects. All of this, I came to realize through my weeks of interacting with these texts, is completely natural. But the forces of life and death alike can work against the visions of permanence that we have for such things. We scholars try very hard to believe in and achieve permanence – the permanence of wisdom, for instance, or of information – even as we are confronted with inevitabilities of impermanence. Edith Wharton lives today inside of the books she touched, owned, and read. That is why it is so important that her library be properly preserved – embalmed, if you will – in digital format, so that future generations of scholars and Wharton fans may be permitted the kind of ghostly engagement I and others have experienced in working with these materials. I am crafting EdithWhartonsLibrary.org, the website that will eventually house and exhibit digital images files for all of Wharton’s books retained today by The Mount, in the spirit of access and allowance: I want contemporary and future readers to have the chance to interface with readers, writers, and book-owners of the past. I also, though, want to breathe additional life and energy into the physical library materials held today at The Mount, drawing scholars and readers to these haunted objects and enticing their continued interactions with them.

I am looking forward to the summer of 2016 and to the second phase of this project, in which I will be collecting full-text scans of the texts that Wharton herself annotated, and to my continuing engagement with this collection and with the many people – living and dead – who have given their souls to it.

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Kicking Off a Spooky Ghost Tour Season

This post was contributed by Marge Cox, The Mount’s Assistant House Manager and Ghost Tour Guide.

Maline Thai, 7.1.15, faces in window

The July 8th Ghost Tour had everyone on high alert.  There was definitely some kind of presence in the house making itself known.  Doors opening and closing and footsteps in the servant wing were heard several times.  Could this have been Catherine Gross the Head Housekeeper, still on duty after all these years?  Our Tour Guide, Robert, was patted on the head.  Perhaps Teddy Wharton?  When the tour was in the drawing room several of our ghost chasers heard noises coming from the library.  The many photos taken revealed mysterious orbs around us and unexplained misty images.  This is my second year of “ghost hunting” at The Mount and I do believe that the spirits of the people who once lived here remain among us.

Right: It’s been a spooky season so far!  Maline Thai caught this strange figure in the Stable window on the July 1st Ghost Tour.

 

 

2014 Paranormal Recap

Happy Halloween!

The Mount had a wonderfully spooky 2014 season and, as promised, here is a recap of recent supernatural encounters.

Starting in September, tour guides began hearing strange sounds, specifically a big bang in the Main House and in the hayloft of the Stable. It may not have seemed out of the ordinary to those unfamiliar with the property, but our guides knew it was not a natural occurrence!

“As a ghost tour guide I try to stay open and aware to the different ways our ghostly occupants choose to communicate,” said guide Marge Cox. “On our last tour, while in Mrs. Wharton’s bedroom, I heard my name called right behind my ear.  I turned and asked my fellow guide Travis, ‘Did you call me?’  No, he said.  I knew then that it was one of our ghosts acknowledging our presence. “

Other unexplained encounters this season…

One a recent evening, a visitor caught someone peering out of the upstairs window of the Stable.

Another visitor felt her cane shaking under her hand for no apparent reason and she was filled with a very strange sensation.

And another visitor had just arrived at the top of the third floor staircase when she felt something, or someone, pushing her forward.

And last but not least, what we hear the most often from our Mount ghost tours, technical difficulties! Guests reported having trouble with their phones and cameras, being unable to take pictures. Maybe The Mount’s resident spirits are not ready for their close up!

Even though a good number of guests report problems with their cameras, there are a lucky few who have managed to capture a shot or two. Take a look below and decide for yourself, is The Mount haunted?

 

An outline of a woman above the tub in the Henry James Suite.  Photo by Colin Dermody.

An outline of a woman above the tub in the Henry James Suite. Photo by Colin Dermody.

A possible dog face in the clouds.  Photo by Robert Oakes.

A possible dog face in the clouds. Photo by Robert Oakes.

Orb in Edith Wharton's boudoir.  Photo by Stephanie Kolonkowski.

Orb in Edith Wharton’s boudoir. Photo by Stephanie Kolonkowski.

A possible apparition in the Stable.  Photo by Lisa Perkins.

A possible apparition in the Stable. Photo by Lisa Perkins.

A possible woman's face in the fireplace.  Photo by Maria Rudden.

Possibly a woman’s face in the fireplace. Photo by Maria Rudden.

Teddy Wharton lit up in the photograph on the wall.  Photo by Rene Brouillard.

Teddy Wharton lit up in the photograph on the wall. Photo by Rene Brouillard.

A shape in the Henry James Suite.  Photo by Merrybeth Lannon.

A shape in the Henry James Suite. Photo by Merrybeth Lannon.

Figure in Edith Wharton's bathroom window.  Photo by Laurie Sutherland.

Figure in Edith Wharton’s bathroom window. Photo by Laurie Sutherland.

Another figure in Edith Wharton's bathroom window.  Photo by Julie Williamson

Another figure in Edith Wharton’s bathroom window. Photo by Julie Williamson

Edith Wharton and the Lizzie Borden murder case

LizzieBordenhouse

The Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Edith Wharton authored numerous ghost stories, but did you know she wrote murder tales, as well?

“Wharton’s fixation on the woman who takes on a new identity to get away from her (supposedly) criminal past resurfaced…in a plan to rework the notorious Lizzie Borden story, a favourite American murder-trial,” says Hermione Lee in her biography of Wharton.

Lizzie Borden’s story has fascinated Americans ever since the news came out on August 4, 1892 that Abby and Andrew Borden were found murdered at the family’s home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Their daughter, Lizzie, was tried for the murders and it was this murder case that Wharton initially planned to turn into a play called Kate Spain.

Instead, the play turned into a short story, “Confession,” in which a New York banker falls in love with a young American woman named Mrs. Kate Ingram, whom he meets at a hotel in the French Alps. What he doesn’t know is that Mrs. Kate Ingram is actually Kate Spain, a woman tried for murdering her father (although Wharton had said of her original play idea, “My young woman could quite as well have murdered an intolerable husband”).

Lizzie Borden and Kate Spain were both acquitted of murder charges.  But while Kate Spain fled the country, procured a new identity, and married, Lizzie Borden remained in Fall River as a spinster and was never quite forgiven by the town folk.

This Halloween, visitors to Fall River can spend the night in the room where Lizzie allegedly killed her step-mother with a hatchet, and enjoy the same breakfast the family ate on the morning of August 4, 1892. Those who can’t get away can create their own eerie experience by reading Wharton’s murder tale that was based on a true story.

Letting Go: Ensuring a successful ghost tour experience

The following blog post was contributed by Ghost Tour Guide Robert Oakes.

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Robert Oakes.

If Edith Wharton lamented the damage done to the imagination by “the wireless (radio) and the cinema” back in the early part of the last century, if she was sad to think that our “ghost instinct” was in danger of disappearing among the distractions of modern life long before smart phones and special effects, I can only imagine how depressed she’d be today. With so many gadgets and so much information forever tugging at our attention, it’s nearly impossible to find the “silence and continuity” she believed was needed to go deep into “the warm darkness…far below our conscious reason (where) the faculty dwells with which we apprehend…ghosts.”

When I take a group of ghost seekers through the darkened hallways and rooms of The Mount during a ghost tour, I invite them to meet me “halfway,” as Wharton wrote, “among the primeval shadows…filling in the gaps in my narrative with sensations and divinations akin to my own.” I ask them to listen to the many tales we have to tell of ghostly encounters and to reach out into the dark with their senses, staying open to the possibility that they, too, might have an encounter of their own.

Even if nothing happens, I believe the experience is worthwhile. Whenever we reach out with our senses open and our imagination engaged, we do make contact with some mysterious presence that lies deeper than intellectual understanding. And making that connection reawakens a sense of wonder.

A possible dog face caught in thunderous clouds, by Robert Oakes.

Robert Oakes caught a possible dog face in these thunderous clouds.

That’s what I love most about leading the ghost tours at The Mount. Time and time again, I’ve seen visitors happily turn off their phones, forget the many distractions of daily life, suspend their disbelief, and walk with eager anticipation into the possibility of encountering something truly mystifying. I’ve seen people react with delight, even when genuinely spooked, as we pass the window through which a skeletal face has been seen or stand at the bottom of the attic stairs listening for faint footsteps.

I believe the ghost tours at The Mount help to keep these stories alive and the imagination engaged. And they help to keep us open to a sense of mysterious possibility. All of this, I think, might very well have renewed Wharton’s faith in us moderns.

I also have it on good authority that the ghosts, too, are happy that we are telling their stories. “For,” as Wharton wrote, “the ghost should never be allowed to forget that his only chance of survival is in the tales of those who have encountered him.”

Click here to hear Robert interviewed about ghost tours on the Apple Seed radio show!

Finding Teddy Wharton’s Grave

Teddy Wharton with three dogs

Teddy with three Wharton dogs.

Teddy Wharton with dogsI was surprised to learn that Edith Wharton’s final resting place is miles away from the place she called home. She is buried at Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, France. I was even more surprised to learn that her ex-husband, Edward Robbins Wharton (Teddy), is buried just three minutes away from The Mount, in Lenox, MA.

This was how I found myself joyfully piling into my old jeep on a perfect fall day, along with fellow Mounties Johanna Batman, Grace Leathrum, Patricia Pin, and Patricia’s little Pomeranian, Pipi. We were going to see Teddy!

We set off with only a tiny scrap of paper that said A Lot/96, which I believed was enough to tell us the location of Teddy’s grave. I suppose I expected that we would arrive at Church on the Hill cemetery and be magnetically drawn to his headstone, perhaps by an unseen guiding hand or by uncanny instinct.

I did not expect the cemetery to be as large as it was.

Equipped with our tiny scrap of paper, we searched for Teddy (along with his mother, whom he is buried near) grave by grave, eventually dividing the cemetery into sections and splitting up.  Besides Teddy’s mother’s memorial, we only found a stone cross in the back of the cemetery with a red ribbon tied to it. I pointed it out to my companions, wondering what the significance was.  Eventually we left, disappointed that Teddy would have no visitors that day. Back at the office, fellow colleagues confirmed that many people have difficulty finding Teddy’s grave.

Exactly one week later, we embarked on another journey to the cemetery, this time with Mount Librarian Nynke Dorhout and directions from Mount House Manager Laurie Foote and local historian Cornelia Gilder.

And that’s how we found Teddy’s headstone, flanked by the graves of his mother and sister. We placed three hydrangeas from The Mount on his grave and sat on crunchy fall leaves to take a group photo with Teddy. We shared favorite Teddy stories, remarked on what a magnificent view he had of the colorful Berkshire foliage, and mused about how hard it must have been for Teddy to suffer from bipolar disorder, at a time when there was no treatment and in an age where there was very little understanding of the disease.

As we left, I pointed out a particular detail on Teddy’s grave to everyone else. Why did it have a red ribbon?* Looking around, we saw it was the same cross with the same red ribbon from our first visit.

So we had found Teddy that day, we just didn’t know it!

*I later discovered that red ribbons on gravestones signify upcoming repairs. Click here to take a self-guided tour of Church on the Hill cemetery!

Visiting Teddy

All Souls: A special Halloween reading at The Mount

One of the best places to listen to a ghost story is at an allegedly haunted house. And that’s precisely what you can do at The Mount this Halloween! Join us in Picture1the drawing room on Friday, October 31, at 7:30 p.m. to hear Edith Wharton’s “All Souls” read by local actress Ariel Bock.

“All Souls” was Wharton’s very last story, written the year she died, and published posthumously. It’s about a woman who experiences a sinister sense in her home after her servants mysteriously disappear, all in a period of thirty-six hours.

Ariel came across the story while planning her 2014 Wharton on Wednesday series.

“I’ve never seen a ghost at The Mount – and I’ve lived there*!” Ariel says. “I do know people who’ve seen them, and you can feel the presence, not just of Edith Wharton and her contemporaries, but of other people who’ve lived at The Mount. It’s very eerie sometimes. I walk the grounds quite a bit – there are a lot of spirits here!”

This will be the first time “All Souls” has been read at The Mount. After attending the reading, visitors are welcome to join our ghost guides on a special witching hour tour of the estate – but hurry, these events will sell out!

*Ariel Bock lived at The Mount during Shakespeare & Company’s residency at The Mount.

Mrs. Wharton’s bathroom window

Various spots at The Mount are more haunted than others, but perhaps one of the most popular paranormal hotspots is Edith Wharton’s third story bathroom window.

Visitors’ photographs routinely catch strange shapes and faces in this window (check out these photos below!). “Perhaps somebody from outside is peering in?” visitors will sometimes suggest. We are quick to assure them that there is no balcony outside the window – only a three story drop.

There is no reasonable explanation as to why there is so much paranormal activity centered on this particular window. In fact, little is known about the bathroom. During Wharton’s occupancy (1902-1911), it appeared to be a simple room, functional rather than decorative, that was part of Wharton’s suite, along with her bedroom and boudoir. During The Foxhollow School era (1942-1976), the bathroom was used as a second exit from the attic, with a stairway dropping down from the fourth floor through the bathroom ceiling.

So, what is it about Mrs. Wharton’s bathroom window that attracts spirits? That is anyone’s guess.

Photo by Shelly Negrotti.

Photo by Shelly Negrotti.

Photo by Ellina N.

Photo by Ellina N.

Stephanie Wilga 8.12.13 II

Photo by Stephanie Wilga.

Photo by Laurie Sutherland

Photo by Laurie Sutherland

 

 

 

Party like it’s 1899: The Mount’s first masquerade ball!

Victorian BoudoirHave you ever partied like its 1899? Whether you have or haven’t, you won’t want to miss The Mount’s first ever masquerade ball on November 1st!

Berkshire Shenanigans and The Mount will give guests an immersive experience by turning The Mount into a haunted Victorian mansion for a night of dancing and partying with DJ BFG. Eat, drink, and be spooky!

Grace Leathrum, The Mount’s Special Events Coordinator, says the goal is for guests to experience a glamorous Gilded Age party from the past.

“I think The Mount represents Gilded Age hospitality so well, when you read about all the effort that Edith Wharton went through to make sure her guests were comfortable and having a good time through their whole stay,” Grace explains. “It’s a great place to entertain a party of this magnitude just because it really fits in with the idea of the luxury of the Gilded Age party. Plus The Mount has such a great history with its ghost stories and [Wharton’s] interest in the macabre.”

Wharton specialized in small dinner parties and although a Halloween ball with 250 guests may have been out of her comfort zone, Grace believes Mrs. Wharton would have enjoyed a party like this: “Dare I say, she might have gotten dressed up, too!”

Speaking of which, there will also be a costume contest! To present a fair and unbiased outcome, Berkshire Shenanigans will randomly pick a guest to be a judge and the winner, who will be announced at the end of the night, will receive a prize.

The Mount will be dressed up with jack o’ lanterns and red lighting, but what costume will Grace be donning for this party? We won’t spoil the surprise, but it may be a Wharton character.

This event will sell out. Be sure to get your tickets early!

Visitor Spotlight: The Woman in White

The following blog post was contributed by Laura Eden.

Throughout the mid to late 80’s my family periodically vacationed during their spring break at our timeshare at The Ponds at Fox Hollow.  My children were in elementary school so we spent a lot of time outside – often in the mud and muck along the horse trails.

One afternoon I was walking with my three daughters along the bridle path at the base of the lawn at The Mount.  Shakespeare and Company had just begun to use the house for performances in the summer but the house looked closed up.  No one was around so, to escape the mud, which was becoming too onerous for my youngest child, we walked along the edge of the lawn. It was getting rather dark so I decided it might be best to skirt around the house and nip down the drive to the road.

The Terrace.  Photo by David Dashiell.

The Terrace. Photo by David Dashiell.

As we began to do just that, a woman abruptly opened the French doors onto the Terrace overlooking the rear lawn and charged over to the railing. She had very dark hair pulled up on her head and was wearing a white dress which I took to be a maid’s or housekeeper’s uniform. She was furiously shaking a tea towel or dust cloth over the railing and, from her manner, I gathered she was very annoyed by our presence.

Embarrassed at being caught trespassing, I hustled the girls along mentally rehearsing an apology as we rounded the corner of the house and headed down the drive.  A battered old station wagon was approaching and stopped alongside us. As I suspected, it was the caretaker checking on the house and I explained why we were on the property.  Having had a good look at the bedraggled state my girls were in, he was very gracious about the whole situation.  I asked him to please give my apologies to the housekeeper who had seen us from the Terrace and had seemed so annoyed by our presence.

He seemed puzzled by that and told me that no one was in the house and he was the only one with the key.  I insisted we had seen a woman and he said that he didn’t doubt that. From our description of her, he said it was probably the ghost of Mrs. Wharton!  He kindly added that she had been seen by others so, not to worry, we weren’t necessarily crazy….true story with four witnesses with no prior knowledge of ghostly goings on at The Mount.