Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ghosts: A Neglected Genealogical Resource

In their haste to catalog the dead, genealogists often forget that some ancestors still walk among us, and can be invaluable sources of information.

A good place to start your specter-quest is The Shadowlands—a website which claims to have gathered "Over 10,100 true ghost stories." Such a claim cannot be made on the Internet without solid proof. With your family history in mind, choose a state or country from the haunting index, and browse the listings for familiar place names. If your ancestor's home or burial spot is listed, you may be in luck.

Take, for instance, Philip Jordan of Seattle. He found a reference on The Shadowlands to a ghost haunting St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Cumberland, Maryland. The website reported that the spirit of a "Civil War soldier who was executed for killing an officer is seen in the church rectory." Jordan immediately recognized the soldier as his great-great-grandfather, Ozias B. Jordan, who in 1864 shot a lieutenant in the back for pinching his tin of meat.

Jordan flew to Maryland to visit the church. After a brief interview with the ghost, he was able to identify his ancestor's first wife as Luella Martin—not Luella Morton, as family tradition had it. He was also able to put to rest another piece of family lore, which said that Ozias volunteered for the service.

"He let me know that wasn't true," Philip told The Genealogue. "He said he'd have shot the recruiting officers if they hadn't shackled him to a fence post. I got the feeling he'd have shot me if he weren't, you know, dead."

The chance of hearing disturbing family secrets should not dissuade you from tracking down and interviewing your own ghostly forebears. Here are some tips:

  • Visit them on their home turf, where they will be most comfortable.
  • Bring along a tape recorder, but don't be surprised if only your voice is recorded.
  • Ask questions that require more than Yes or No answers, as ghosts are known to be tight-lipped.
  • Be patient. Pushing for answers may get you slimed with ectoplasm.
  • Thank them for their time, and then run away screaming.

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