Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ghost Story #7: The Western High School Wraith and the Clark Park Demon

The Detroit Free Press, August 1, 1904
Boredom, mischief and criminal intent were the dominant forms of paranormal activity in the early 1900s. Tales abound of college campus pranksters and neighborhood ne'er-do-wells pretending to be poltergeists. Faux spiritualists created specters through prestidigitation and illegal moonshiners clandestinely built groaning stills that were meant for other ears to hear and watering tongues to partake of.

Still, credible phantoms existed. Whether they subsisted on human energy, superstition or otherworldly means is left to the Gods to sort out. We are only the switchboard messengers passing along their missives. The Western High School specter was one such caller.

Depending on who you talked to the building and premises were quite active with strange happenings. Doors were said to lock and unlock on their own. Windows rattled without cause. Noises abounded despite the presence of only the night watchman and his relief man. 

Despite having experienced all the aforementioned occurrences roundsman William Webber, of 691 McKinstry Avenue, blamed the activity on human endeavors. "We don't believe in ghosts--no such humbug." said Webber, though admitting that something or somebody was menacing the school and forcing officials to bolt the doors shut to keep out both the human and spirit world.

Neighbors of the school vouched for the weird phenomena and told Free Press reporters that Webber himself "has been scared out of a year's growth" due to the hauntings. While Webber most likely played coy to ensure his place among the employed he was clearly affected. 

The Detroit Free Press, August 29, 1904
The school grounds weren't the only ghostly hot spot in the summer of 1904. Clark Park, the adjoining park across the street from the high school was said to be inhabited by spirits as well. Where before the school incidents it was known as a serene place to take a night time stroll or to sit with one's beloved and converse,  it had become a source of fright for several park occupants. 

A couple sitting on a bench were dumped to the ground by what they described as an invisible hand. A girl with a group of friends was said to have fainted from the fright of various shrieks and groans which emanated from the park but seemed centered elsewhere below the terra firma.

A teenager named Elbert F. Smith, who lived on Scotten Avenue near the location of the school on the same street, was strolling past the structure late one evening and watched a dark figure exit the front door. Thinking it to be the janitor he paid no heed to the rapidly approaching subject until they were nose to nose in proximity. The man before him appeared to be an elderly gent much older than the janitor.

The spirit man walked north towards Dix before crossing the street and walking straight into a spring fed lake opposite his former path. Thinking that perhaps the man was suicidal, Smith darted to the pond and waded in, searching from end to end of the lighted pool for the apparition. 

Satisfied that the man was not in the lake he walked back to the school remembering the newspaper articles concerning the odd activity at the school. When he tried to open the front door it was firmly secured. Turning to leave he was belted across the face by what he believed to be the wraith as it returned to its place of refuge.

The Detroit Free Press, August 18, 1901
Even though the natural springs that afforded Springwell Village its namesake and Clark Park its lake are gone, many taken surreptitiously by the construction of the nearby I-75 freeway, some remnants of the past remain. Western International High School still stands and underwent a $28.3 million renovation in 2011. Clark Park likewise is an active rural retreat in the vast urban setting. 

Perhaps the phantoms are still there. Caged in only by the fear of modern uncertainties and the biding of their time to reemerge from their long repose to populate the nighttime air with the mystique of their ethereal presence. If Detroit's present situation, that mighty backwards slide into piecemeal ruralism, persists, it may well not take another hundred years before mere mortals feel the touch of their wispy, problematic fingers once more.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ghost Story #6: The Foxtown Moulders

The Detroit Free Press, February 20, 1861

If you've been to a Tigers or Lions game or caught a concert or play at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit then you've seen the iconic St. James Episcopal Church on the corner of Woodward and the Fisher Freeway.

Built in 1859 it is the oldest remaining church in Detroit. The skulking Victorian Gothic structure has seen the rise of the city into an industrial titan and its subsequent demise into a relative modern urban ghost town. What can't be seen is that which has been forgotten: it's haunted past.

Perhaps one recorded incident in 150 years doesn't constitute a history but regardless of the frequency of episodic events, the self-monikered Patriarch of Piety Hill continued to be built after its facade of rubble limestone was secured, the hammer beam trusses strung together and the adorning gargoyle heads were cemented in. Not just literally, as it has undergone several renovations and even been moved 60 feet to the east of its original site, but figuratively as well in the form of ghostly workmen.

Laymen, on the whole, have never been a quality source of great literature or story-telling so perhaps the "gentleman of veracity" mentioned in the Free Press article was somebody higher up in the occupational food chain. Which is hardly a measure of veracity but seemingly a proper gauge towards the right direction.

All castes aside, the story goes as such: from the beginning of 1861 to the article writing in February of the same year, noises of construction (i.e., hewing, planing, sorting, driving of nails) could be heard at various intervals of assumed building down times.

So noteworthy were the disturbances that guards on staff were alarmed enough to follow the sounds with a pistol only to come up empty-handed each time. The staff and the rector William Armitage and his family were greatly annoyed by the ruckuses but no culprits were ever captured and no source ever established for the occurrences. Perhaps the great thunderstorm at the commencement of ceremonies for laying the cornerstone served as the impetus for the busy spirit or maybe pathos merely took hold in both the human and ethereal realms.

The Detroit Free Press, June 7, 1860 (enlarge)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ghost Story #5: Le Nain Rouge or a Mere Rogue Spirit?

The Detroit Free Press, October 11, 1872

Synchronicity should never be dismissed as face value happenstance nor irony as anything but a working cog of the great Karmic machine. The fact that I re-found this article on the eve of the Marche du Nain Rouge is proof of that sentiment.

The legend of The Nain Rouge, a mythic and grotesque harbinger of tragic events, dates back to the days of Cadillac and some 300+ years of Detroit history. To re-hash the legend and the historical consequences of his appearances would be a greater tragedy than the catastrophes that followed the purported sightings of this gnomish devil, The Red Dwarf.

Instead, I'll try to add to the allure and mystery of an enduring and endearing folklore with a short addendum in the mythos, though minus a MacGuffin it sadly falls short.

Jane Dacy of East Elizabeth Street was at home performing errands on a Wednesday night in October of 1872 when she entered a dark room and saw what the Free Press describes as a ghost. However, the description of "blood-red eyes, long teeth and rattling hoofs" sounds more akin to the famed Nain Rouge. The fright of seeing the creature caused Dacy to faint and become bed-ridden the next day.

Even though I morbidly wished for some tragic event in the days after the sighting--it's not like I can change the past-- there were none to be found. Outside of the typical murders, assaults and the fact that a nearby suburban village, Farmington, nearly burnt to the ground the previous night, I can find no local disasters, tragedies or weather events that occurred to further support the legend. Though it should be noted that he has appeared before only to menace some unlucky person and not primarily to precede a cataclysmic event.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ghost Story #4: The Buchanan Street Spectre

The Detroit Free Press, June 1, 1922

I suppose that for every legitimate ghost sighting there are a hundred specious ones. This one seems to cross both realms in that it was seen by over a hundred people but was apparently as nefarious as a sock puppet, having been born in the vivid imaginations of moonshine imbibers and pranksters.

Today, only the empty husk of the Craig's Chapel Baptist Church remains along Buchanan street between 31st and 32nd. Where street cars and automobiles ran concurrently along the bustling tree-lined avenue now only a few straggler cars pass by every minute or so.

Road construction along Buchanan Street circa 1914
The block stone street of the early 20th century gave way to modern contrivances with much of the tedious labor of removing the moldy blocks from the road being accomplished by thrifty neighbors who filled their sheds with the useful bricks.

The alley behind the church is thick with underbrush and pockets of grass poking above the cracked and separating concrete pathway. Trash, weeds, broken tree branches and wildflowers fill the remaining landscape in the moribund area buttressed by W. Grand Blvd., Livernois, The Edsel Ford, Warren Avenue and Michigan Ave. a few miles southward.

But in the waning days of May, 1922 a spectre hung over the area. A ghost that is, which materialized, spooked and tantalized the residents along Buchanan street. It appeared only at evening hovering above the back fences in the alleyway as dusk fell into darkness. As word spread about the neighborhood, droves of curiosity seekers lined the street with only the brave daring to enter the mouth of the haunted passage.

Each evening the crowds grew for nearly a week. Being that it was dark and the hovering spectre moved quite rapidly it left merely a foisted shadow behind in the wake of each passing. Only the sober and the quick-sighted were able to spy the phantom in its fleeting flights.

Five days after the frenzy commenced it culminated in a whitewash of spectators clogging the street and stopping all traffic for half an hour. When the police finally broke up the party it was determined that a hoisted nightshirt controlled through clandestine means was as much to blame for the commotion as was the free flow of moonshine.

*     *     *

The Owosso Argus-Press - May 31, 1922

The Detroit Free Press, August 24, 1904 (enlarge)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ghost Story #3: A Spooky Tooth Bites No More in Palmer Park

Palmer Park is known today for containing the last standing log cabin in Detroit but in 1931 there resided a homestead which supposedly shook with ghostly fright. So bad were the shrieking noises that resident John Peterson and his family fled the home in terror.

The noises began in April of that year. After a few nights of haunted happenings the police were summoned to search and stake out the home. Situated in the spook enclave were patrolman Norbert Hoffman and three other Detroit officers. Around midnight there was a "shivering crash" and Hoffman in panicked flight rammed his face into a door, knocking out four teeth in the melee. The other cops retreated as well, quipping that "something funny" was going on inside.

Reinforcements arrived in the form of 10 patrolmen and 6 newspaper reporters. 20 minutes after their arrival another "shivering crash" rattled the building but once again nothing was found upon further inspection. While Hoffman spent the morning in a dentist chair his commanding office Lt. Thomas Kane scolded their cohorts and promised to bring an end to the mysterious events.