Research for ghost hunters

A “real ghost story” is only as credible as the history that supports it.

When I hear a report of a significant haunting, I research the story before taking it seriously.

Here’s an overview of my research process:

1. Verify the age of the site.

castle-ruinsOften, in areas anticipating tourism, new buildings are designed to “old.”

I recently researched several Irish castles.  One of them is an old building, but it didn’t become a castle — complete with tower and “Medieval” embellishments — until about 20 years ago.

Likewise, Hollow Hill has received reports that seem appropriate for the apparent age of a building, but the building is a reproduction and has no significant ghostly history.

  • You can often trace a building’s history the same as title insurance is researched. Find out how that’s done in your area, and use the same records for your research.
  • Usually, the local city or town hall has ownership records and building permits to indicate the age of the site.
  • City directories — 19th-century listings, similar to phone books but before telephones — usually include a street-by-street directory. It lists each building, and who lived or worked there.

Use those kinds of resources to learn more about an address: Who was there, what the purpose of the site was, and more.

2. Verify the history of the site.

The most famous site I debunked  may be the supposed “Ocean-Born Mary” house.

The house was old enough, but something didn’t seem right. My  research revealed that Mary Wilson Wallace never lived in the house that she supposedly haunts. She only visited it once or twice, if at all.

Trace the homeowners’ histories.

  • Start with ownership records at the town or city hall. (You may need to check county or state records, as well.)
  • Also, examine historical diaries and other documents — especially civil court and probate records — to determine the reported ghost’s links to the site.

Likewise, if someone claims that an event took place at the site, check contemporary records. Look at newspaper reports from the time of the event, and verify the locations or addresses.

3. Verify the ghost’s personal history.

I often hear reports including the ghosts’ names and stories.

If a story sounds a little like an urban legend, it probably is one. However, whether the ghost story sounds real or not, homework is necessary.

First, be sure that the person really existed. Birth, marriage, and death records, as well as census records, should support the ghost story.

I routinely check the free and paid resources at Ancestry.com.

However, those same census and vital records are available to the public at no charge, especially if you live in the area of the reported haunting.

  • Your public library probably has census records that you can use.
  • Birth, marriage, and death records are generally kept at the town, county, and/or state levels, and may be free for you to examine.

Or, you can check online for helpful research materials. You’re doing genealogical research. The best single source for useful links is CyndisList.com.

For a quick search on ghosts from the early 20th century and before, I usually check FamilySearch.org. It may contain some errors, but it’s a fast way to gather information.

Before you share a “true ghost story,” be sure that there really is a ghost, and real history matches the tale.

Remember, the ghost may haunt because he (or she) had been forgotten, or he wants the story told the way it really happened.  Historical records can go a long way towards uncovering  the truth.

Identify Your Ghost

Sometimes you can find out who your ghost was, even if no one knows the ghost’s name.

It starts when you (or someone else) has seen the ghost, or received a fairly clear impression about the appearance of the ghost.

In addition to the obvious things (such as if the person wears a noose or has a weapon in hand), carefully observe the clothing if you can.  Usually, that tells you a lot about your ghost, including the era when the ghost lived, and his or her economic status.

With those insights, you may develop a “gut feeling” as you research, and soon conclude the most likely identity of your ghost.

Most ghosts respond to their names. They may act startled or angry, but you’ll almost always get a dramatic reaction to the correct name.

That’s your goal, whether you’re trying to confirm whether a place is haunted, or help the ghost to “cross over.”

Step 1: Start with the ghost’s clothing.

Fashions

You can guess the era when the ghost lived, based on the clothing he or she wears.

  • Researching a female ghost, you may narrow the time to a ten-year period, based on fashions.
  • Men’s styles vary less dramatically from year to year.
  • Children’s clothing can be more challenging. In most cases, only the upper class dressed their children fashionably.  Even then, little boys and girls were often dressed identically until around age four, and sometimes older.  So, “the little ghost in the dress” isn’t necessarily female.

A ghostly woman with a very large and extreme bustle extending over the back of her skirt (possibly a fairly narrow skirt to the floor), is probably from the 1880’s. Bright yellow was fashionable for both men and women — particularly for footwear — in the 1890’s.

Those are easy to date.  However, don’t seize stereotypes.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • A woman with sloped shoulders and large, poofy sleeves plus a full skirt, may be from the American Civil War era. However, affluent women of the 1620’s through 1640’s would match this profile, too.
  • High-waisted gowns are reminiscent of the “Titanic” era. (The ship sank in 1912.)  High-waisted gowns were also worn during England’s Regency period, in the early 19th century.

By contrast, some fashion cues are sure things.

For example, in America, a powdered wig will usually be seen prior to the Revolutionary War, and even then, only among the upper class or those who aspired to appear influential.

When you see a female apparition (or perceive her, psychically), it’s usually easy to notice dramatic fashion details.

If your ghost is male, try to look for specific details in his clothing.  Here are some examples:

  • For men, hats and lapels are key points. The length of the jacket is also helpful.
  • Tricorns, the three-cornered hat usually shown on Patriots in illustrations of American Revolution, were worn from the late 17th century through the late 18th century, but were soon replaced by hats with flat brims and taller crowns.
  • Likewise, longer pants, also called “Irish trousers,” replaced breeches after the American Revolution.
  • Men did not wear “top hats” with tall crowns until around the 1820’s.
  • Men’s suits, as we know them today, did not come into fashion until towards the end of the American Civil War.
  • Gaudy fabrics in suits, including brilliant colors and plaids, usually represent fashions after 1885.

For more information on costuming, check your public library. I recommend illustrated guides by John Peacock.

Step 2: Match people to that era, at that location.

If you can narrow the time period using clothing or some other means, you can then learn who lived in the house, or what company was in the building.

Site and residents’ history

For houses, go to city hall and search property records.

Or go to the public library (or a genealogy library) and use the census records which are generally listed by state, then town, and then neighborhood. All the houses on one street are usually grouped on one set of pages, in order.

Census records from the mid-19th century will usually tell you the names, ages, and professions of everyone in the house, and their relationships to each other.

City directories listed homes and businesses. Before phone books, city directories listed, street-by-street, every adult in each household. Most included where the person was employed, too.

Those directories also listed businesses by street address. Businesses advertised in city directories, providing additional information.

Once you enter the era of the telephone book, look for “reverse directories,” which list names and phone numbers by their addresses. If the house was at 123 Main Street, you can look up Main Street and then find who (or what business) was in number 123.

Step 3: Use genealogical records to learn more about the most likely people.

With the location, a name, and a time period, use genealogical resources — such as civil and church records — to learn what happened to the occupants of the house, or the owner of the business.

  • Civil records include birth, marriage, and death records.  They’re usually kept at city, county, and state offices.
  • Church records may be at the actual church, or at a broader office, such as Catholic Archdiocese archives.
  • Many older records are online, and some are indexed.
  • Historical societies, family history libraries, and the historical collection at the public library may be helpful.

Other resources

Many newspaper articles are indexed. Newspaper obituaries are, too. They can provide considerable information. Once you have names to work with, you can look for articles about their lives. You may find clues in those stories or reports.

Court records can be useful. For example, you may find a series of lawsuits disputing a property line. That was common when property and income were closely tied.  A running dispute could explain lingering residual energy, especially at a site that never had a house on it… or never had a house on it, until now.

After a person had died, their will and probate records can provide insights into family relations. These records are usually at the courthouse.  Most are open to the public once the will has been read, after the individual’s death.

siseTown and city histories can provide colorful (but often fictional) biographies of leading citizens. No matter how much the person’s background was embellished, you can find clues to their real lives.

This is a simplified explanation, but hopefully it will help you identify your ghost, or narrow the possibilities to just a few people.

Remember that some ghosts wander. One famous example is the ghost of Room 214 in the Sise Inn of Portsmouth, NH. The Sise Inn — shown at right — appears to have no violence in its long history. However, the ghost may be a visitor from a house two doors away, where a murder was committed many years ago.

You may not identify every ghost, but — in many cases — you can narrow the possibilities to just a few real people from the past.