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The Hidden Haunted History of 7 American Landmarks

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The stories of presidential ghosts in the White House are pretty well known. But plenty of other landmarks have their own ghost stories.

1. The Ghostly Curators of the Smithsonian Institution

With so many items and artifacts – let alone mummies and skeletons – it should come as no surprise that many consider the Smithsonian Institution to be haunted. Aside from the typical ghostly footsteps and shadowy figures, many night watchmen in the early part of the 20th century claimed to have seen members of the Institute long after their demise. Some of these ghostly curators and researchers include Emil Bessels, an arctic explorer; Fielding Meek, a paleontologist who lived and worked at the Institute; Joseph Henry, the Institute’s first Secretary; Spencer Baird, the first curator; and even founder James Smithson, who died long before the museum was even built.

If phantoms really existed, Smithson would be the most likely candidate. His remains have been kept at the museum since 1904. In fact, his body was disinterred in 1973 because of what James Goode, former curator of Castle Collections, called ghost sightings. Officially, though, the Institute just did a complete study of the contents of Smithson’s casket, including his skeleton, which was still inside, not out wandering the halls scaring people.

2. The Haunted Hollywood Sign

Peg Entwhistle was an up-and-coming actress on Broadway in the mid-1920s. However, when she tried to make the transition to Hollywood in 1932, she found that she was just another pretty face. After a single film role, her prospects dried up and she was out of work.

Around September 16, 1932, Entwhistle told her family she was going for a walk; it would be the last time anyone saw her alive. She traveled to the Hollywood Hills landmark, the Hollywoodland sign, where she took off her purse, coat, and shoes, before climbing a maintenance ladder to the top of the H (other reports say it was the last letter, “D”). There, she plummeted some 50 feet to the ground below. Her body and belongings – including a suicide note - were discovered two days later.

Since then, “LAND” has been removed from the sign, but the spirit of Peg Entwhistle still lingers. Park ranger John Arbogast claimed to have seen her ghost many times, usually in the middle of very foggy nights. He also claimed to smell gardenias in the area, Entwhistle’s favorite scent, even during winter when there are no flowers in bloom.

In 1990, a man and his girlfriend were hiking near the sign when their dog suddenly began whining and backing away from the trail ahead. The couple soon saw a blond woman in a white 1930s-style dress walking towards them. She looked confused and disoriented, so the couple tried to steer clear of her, but then she suddenly vanished before their eyes. They claim to have been unaware of Entwhistle’s suicide at the time of the sighting.

3. The Demon Pirate of Liberty Island

Since 1886, Liberty Island has been the home of the Statue of Liberty. But earlier in its history it was known as Bedloe’s Island, and was reportedly a favorite spot for notorious pirate Captain Kidd to bury his ill-gotten treasure.

As reported by the New York Times in 1892, two soldiers named Gibbs and Carpenter were stationed at Fort Wood, the military installation on Bedloe’s Island that would later form the pedestal for Lady Liberty. Hoping to get rich quick, the duo sneaked out of their bunks to dig for the treasure at a location that had been foretold to them by a psychic. Then, sometime after midnight, the entire fort was woken up by a blood-curdling scream. As guards headed in the direction of the noise, they encountered a hysteric Carpenter, who led them to the dig site, where Gibbs was found unconscious.

The men said they had only dug a few feet down when they found a wooden box. But just as they were about to claim their fortune, an otherworldly creature appeared. Gibbs described it as a typical depiction of a demon – black skin, horns on its head, giant wings, and a barbed tail. Carpenter, though, said it was red, didn’t have wings, and moved about without any visible form of locomotion. Carpenter ran, but Gibbs stood frozen in terror. He claimed that it was the spirit of Captain Kidd, who breathed sulfur in his face before throwing him into the bay. The guards saw no wooden box or demon pirate, so apparently Kidd took his treasure with him when he disappeared into the ether.

4. The Ghosts of the Rock

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Thousands of inmates passed through Alcatraz in its 100-year history, first as a Civil War-era military stockade and later a federal prison that housed some of America’s most dangerous criminals. Thanks to the isolation of the island, as well as the sometimes brutal treatment of prisoners, many men committed suicide, while others were killed by inmates who'd been driven insane. With so much blood staining the Rock, it should come as no surprise that ghosts are said to roam the halls today.

One allegedly haunted area is Cell 14D, one of the solitary confinement cells known as a “hole.” There, prisoners were stripped naked, thrown into a small, dark room, and were kept completely isolated for up to 19 days. By the time they came out, many suffered permanent psychological damage. In the 1940s, an inmate confined to Cell 14D screamed throughout the night that something with glowing red eyes was in there with him. The next morning, the cell was finally quiet, so the guards unlocked 14D to check on the prisoner. Inside, they found his body, strangled to death. An autopsy later revealed that his wounds could not have been self-inflicted.

It’s been said that one of The Rock’s most famous guests – Al “Scarface” Capone – never really left. Driven insane by syphilis, Capone feared that other inmates might kill him during the prisoners’ weekly recreation period in the prison yard. So Capone asked for and received special permission to practice playing his banjo in the prison’s shower room instead. Since the island became a national park in 1972, many park rangers have reported hearing the distinct sound of a banjo coming from the room, often near the end of the workday after all the tourists have gone.

5. The Widow at the Empire State Building

As one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Empire State Building has been the scene of over two dozen suicides in its 80-year history. There are many stories of people who have seen ghostly figures recreating their fateful plunge from the skyscraper’s 86th floor observation deck, but one story stands above the rest.

The story was first told in 1985, when a tourist went to the observation deck to get a bird's-eye view of the Big Apple. While there she met a woman dressed in 1940s-style clothes, crying into her handkerchief. When asked what was wrong, the woman said that her husband died in the war in Germany. Obviously distraught, she said she couldn’t live without her beau, so she walked through the suicide prevention fence that surrounds the deck, and disappeared over the edge.

Shaken by what she'd seen, the tourist went into the bathroom to splash water on her face. Suddenly, the same woman appeared next to her at the sink, touching up her makeup in the mirror, before heading to the observation deck to replay her final moments again…and again…and again.

6. The Haunted Confines of Wrigley Field

According to Mickey Bradley and Dan Gordon, authors of Haunted Baseball and Field of Screams, the most haunted ballpark in the country is Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

One of the most well-known ghost stories is retold by security guards who have heard the telephone in the bullpen ring in the middle of the night. But it’s not a wrong number, because the phone is a direct line to the dugout, which they say is haunted by the spirit of Charlie Grimm, a Cubs manager in the 1930s and 40s. Some guards have even claimed they’ve seen Grimm in the hallways, but as soon as they speak to him he disappears. But why would Grimm still be haunting Wrigley after all these years? Perhaps it’s because his ashes are said to be buried in left field. Or because Grimm was the last manager to take the team to the World Series in 1945. We can only assume he won’t rest until the Cubs are in the Series again.

Fans say they’ve spotted famed WGN broadcaster Harry Caray in the press box and in the outfield bleachers ever since his death in 1998. Others have even seen Steve Goodman, writer of the Cubs’ anthem, “Go, Cubs, Go!,” sitting behind the batter’s box, despite his death in 1984. Goodman’s ghostly box seat would be appropriate since its rumored his ashes are buried under home plate.

7. The Phantom Ship of the Golden Gate

Although over 1,000 people have committed suicide by jumping from San Francisco’s most famous landmark, the Bay’s ghostly past goes back well before the bridge was constructed in 1937. In 1853, the steamer ship, S.S. Tennessee, ran aground at a spot that has since been named Tennessee Cove in its honor. Thankfully, 550 passengers and 14 chests of gold all made it safely ashore before the waters of the Pacific tore the ship apart.

Since then, there have been many reports of a ghostly, antique ship passing under the Golden Gate Bridge before disappearing into the fog. Perhaps the most famous sighting occurred in November 1942, when the crew of the USS Kennison claimed to have floated right past the phantom Tennessee; so close the Kennison crew could tell that the steamer ship’s decks were unmanned. The Tennessee was said to leave no wake as it passed, nor did it show up on the Kennison’s radar.

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The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers
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After more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK's Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way, the BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death.

There is something of a myth surrounding Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast of October 30, 1938. As the decades have passed, accounts of how Welles used the H.G. Wells story to fool a nation into believing aliens had invaded have become embellished. Listeners had supposedly become so infused with terror that they leapt from windows and suffered nervous breakdowns. Major cities had streets crowded with people craning their necks and looking for signs of a violent galactic attack.

While it’s true a number of people may have been disturbed by the “accounts” of military forces being overwhelmed by aliens, it’s unlikely to have been as widespread as later accounts would have it. Newspapers eager to browbeat the competing medium of radio exaggerated the show’s effect, then quickly dropped the matter; it’s not likely all that many people were even listening in the first place, with the program going up against a popular comedy show airing at the same time.

As perpetrators of hoaxes go, only Stephen Volk seems to have lived up to the standard Welles is thought to have set. A screenwriter, Volk pitched the BBC on a six-part series in 1988 about a roving paranormal investigation crew that climaxes in a live tour of a supposedly haunted house.

The BBC, however, wasn’t that enthused about devoting that much time to the idea. Instead, the pitch was condensed down to the last episode—a kind of “mockumentary” take on a paranormal occurrence that the channel could air as a Halloween special.

For Volk, it represented an opportunity to explore what he felt was the relative comfort of a television broadcast. Audiences went to horror films, he believed, knowing what to expect, consenting to being scared. But television was more intimate and less predictable. Viewers who tuned in anticipating a spoof or anticlimactic, tongue-in-cheek exploration would be in for a surprise—and not a pleasant one.

To add to the program’s credibility, Volk and director Lesley Manning structured it so two BBC presenters—Sarah Greene and Craig Charles—would be installed at the Early house, while highly regarded broadcaster Michael Parkinson would anchor from a studio. (Both Charles and Greene frequently popped up on BBC children’s programming, which would prove to be a lure when it came to an adolescent audience.)

Actors portrayed members of the Early family: single mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim all reported instances of strange activity in their home, including rattling, mysterious cat noises, and smashed dishes. Suzanne would sport odd scratches on her face, which she claimed to be the work of Pipes, the ghost who refused to leave their home.

(In a testament to Volk’s commitment, he petitioned the BBC to allow him to try and insert a high-pitched warble on the soundtrack that would be audible to animals near televisions, hoping their bizarre behavior would unsettle viewers more. It proved to be technically impossible to do.)

Various ideas were batted around to reinforce the disclaimer, but few made it to the air. Mike Smith, Greene’s real-life husband and an on-air BBC correspondent who appeared on the special, once told the Radio Times that he suspected things might go south. “We had a meeting with the BBC days before transmission,” he said. “And we told them that this was going to cause a fuss. They told us not to worry because it was being billed as a drama in the Radio Times complete with a cast list. But we felt that wasn't enough."

By the time Ghostwatch premiered at 9:25 p.m. on October 31, 1992, the special had already been filmed, showing Parkinson reacting to segments and taking calls—all staged—that invited the audience to discuss their experiences with paranormal activity. In the interests of fairness, he also included an interview with a (fake) skeptic dismissing the Earlys’ claims.

Only highly observant viewers would have done the same. While the show began with a title card indicating it was written “by” Volk, the graphic was onscreen for only a split second; the presence of established and familiar faces to BBC viewers added to the verisimilitude. So did the program’s slow burn. At 90 minutes, it took its time, showing only fleeting glimpses into the Early family’s experiences that were left purposely ambiguous.

In the show’s second half, things took a turn. A viewer called in to tell them that someone had once committed suicide in the home; a mutilated dog corpse was said to be recently found nearby; the Early children were depicted as increasingly upset over the home’s disturbances. Around an hour in, Parkinson even advised viewers they’d be pre-empting scheduled programming to remain with Greene due to the "extraordinary" events taking place: Suzanne speaking in a baritone voice, and unseen cats mewling behind the walls.

Ultimately, Greene disappeared in the crawl space under the home’s stairs while a paranormal expert proclaimed that the television audience had unwittingly participated in a mass séance that had further emboldened Pipes. At the end of the show, Parkinson was seen being apparently possessed by the ghost’s spirit.

The finale laid it on a little thick, but not everyone made it that far in. By the time Ghostwatch signed off, a not-insignificant portion of the show’s 11 million viewers were either convinced ghosts were real, extremely upset at the BBC for traumatizing their children, or both.

The broadcaster had just five operators standing by its phones [PDF] once the show went off air, a number that was quickly overcome by the thousands of calls that flooded in. One woman reportedly went into labor due to the stress caused by watching the program; another reported her husband had soiled himself. Within hours, the BBC aired a brief segment that reminded viewers the show was fictional. It was a little too late.

Public discourse—including on the BBC’s own viewer feedback show, Bite Back—criticized the station for using its reputation to fool viewers into thinking harm had come to both the Earlys and to their hosts. Parapsychologist Susan Blackmore later said that “It treated the audience unfairly. It can be exciting to play on the edge of fantasy and reality, or stretch the accepted norms of television conventions, but this was neither true to its format nor fun. It was horrid to watch the distress of the girls, real or faked. I found it over-long and occasionally disgusting … The lack of adequate warnings was irresponsible.”

Greene quickly appeared on children’s shows to reassure younger viewers she had not been abducted or murdered by Pipes. Volk and Manning offered their own apologies, feeling that the BBC considered them pariahs. They had simply wanted to pay homage to Welles, never imagining the program could have the kind of effect it did.

In a report published in the British Medical Journal 18 months later, doctors in Coventry reported cases they classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder” from consumption of media—in this case, Ghostwatch. Two 10-year-old boys were suffering from panic attacks and sleep disturbances as a result of the broadcast. When the piece appeared, the Journal received correspondence from other doctors relating similar cases.

If not for his reported learning disabilities, 18-year-old Martin Denham might have been more psychologically equipped to deal with some transient nerves from the show. When he became distraught in the days following the broadcast, he began to grow concerned he might make contact with ghosts and committed suicide. His parents, Percy and April, blamed Ghostwatch, leading the Broadcasting Standards Council to rule that the show had been improperly labeled, with too few warnings that it was a fictitious premise.

Later, the handheld-camera, raw-footage approach would unnerve cinema audiences that flocked to films like The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series. While those films rarely resulted in any claims more serious than motion sickness, Ghostwatch successfully married the BBC’s credibility with an effective ghost story to create an experience that’s unlikely to ever be duplicated.

Not that the network wants to try. Since its original airing, the program has never again been broadcast in its entirety in the UK. (Though it is available to stream via Shudder.)

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8 Famous Séances
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For centuries, séances have provided entertainment for skeptics as well as solace for people hoping to catch a glimpse of their deceased loved ones. Here are a few notable times mediums have tried to contact the dead.

1. THE ANNUAL HOUDINI SÉANCE

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Before magician and famous skeptic Harry Houdini died in 1926, he said that he would send word of the afterlife, if there was one, once he was gone. He and his wife, Bess, even devised a code word that only they knew. Though Bess held séances on the anniversary of his death for 10 years, hoping to hear their secret word, nothing ever happened. Still, a variety of magicians, Houdini enthusiasts, and spiritualists have continued the tradition ever since.

2. JANE PIERCE’S WHITE HOUSE SÉANCES

Even if you don’t believe séances can produce spirits, you can’t blame First Lady Jane Pierce for trying. She had already lost two young sons before her husband, Franklin Pierce, was elected president in 1852, so she was particularly protective of Bennie, the only surviving child. Unfortunately, it didn’t do her much good—two months before Franklin Pierce was inaugurated, the family was involved in a train derailment that took 11-year-old Bennie’s life.

She wrote her deceased son a letter not long afterward, asking him to appear to her so she could apologize for failing him. To help him find his way, she hired the Fox sisters, famous mediums who did much to popularize séances. There’s no record as to what happened at the White House séance, but we do know Jane reported that Bennie had appeared to her in her dreams shortly thereafter.

3. LEVITATION SÉANCES

Starting in the 1880s, Daniel Dunglas Home convinced some people of his supernatural ability by levitating during séances. Though the stunts certainly generated publicity, Home's "abilities" were called into question when insiders said he simply stood between closely placed balconies or stood outside on wide windowsills. Home counted many celebrities among his fans, including Queen Sophia of the Netherlands, Napoleon III, and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but he didn't impress everyone. Houdini wasn't fooled, calling Home “the forerunner of the mediums whose forte is fleecing by presuming on the credulity of the public.”

4. THE SÉANCE THAT “RAISED” A JUDGE

Judge John W. Edmonds died on April 5, 1874. A month later, he allegedly gave a speech in London, thanks to medium Cora L.V. Tappan, a young woman who had been giving spiritualist performances since the age of 15. The eloquent speech helped bolster the medium's successful career; she became the pastor of a spiritualist church the following year, and helped found the National Spiritualist Association.

5. THE MARY TODD LINCOLN SÉANCES

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Like Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln’s interest in talking to the dead is pretty understandable. And, also like Pierce, Lincoln employed the Fox sisters to help her reach a loved one taken too soon—specifically, her assassinated husband. There are no reports as to whether she was satisfied with the result, but the Fox sisters later admitted that their method of communicating with the dead—rapping on tables and other objects—was created by cracking their joints and making noises with their feet.

In addition to Abe, Mary also tried to contact her sons via séance, using a variety of mediums—and was quite happy with how those turned out. “Willie lives,” she once reported. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.”

6. MUSEUM-WORTHY SÉANCES

Georgiana Houghton was an artist who became interested in spiritualism in the early 1860s after the death of her younger sister. It didn't take long for Houghton to combine her two interests, channeling creative spirits during séances to create watercolors and other works of art. Though she originally said that dead family members helped guide her hand, Houghton later claimed to have contacted Renaissance artists Titian and Correggio. Whether or not her works were the result of the afterlife, they're still relevant today—her art was exhibited at a prestigious London gallery just earlier this year.

7. THE BLACK HAWK SÉANCES

In 1913, Mother Leafy Anderson founded the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Association in Chicago, an organization partly founded on the messages she brought from her spirit guide, Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk tribe, during religious séances. Anderson never knew Black Hawk—he died in 1838, nearly 50 years before she was born. Anderson herself died in 1927, but the word she brought from Black Hawk stuck—some faiths still channel Black Hawk to this day.

8. THE PAY-PER-VIEW SÉANCE

Lest you think that séances are ancient history—a silly diversion for people unenlightened by technology—consider Spirit of Diana, a 2003 pay-per-view event in which British mediums Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker claimed to have contacted Princess Diana. The things Diana "revealed" weren’t exactly shocking or personal: The mediums claimed she said she was “having fun” in the afterlife, chilling with Mother Teresa. She had planned on marrying Dodi Fayed, and was still watching over her sons.

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