My family moved into a new house when I was in high school. The land had once been farmland and there was a small pre-Revolutionary War graveyard nearby. This was the greatest news ever to a little baby goth like me. The house itself was lovely, an open floor plan with a family room that had tall ceilings and big windows like eyes on either side of the fireplace. Opposite these windows was an open walkway on the second floor that connected bedrooms on either side of the house. When it was dark you could see the railing reflected in the windows like strange funhouse mirrors.
One day I was sitting on the couch reading a book. It was winter and the sun had already gone down. I spotted what looked like my mother on the walkway upstairs in the weird mirror of the windows and asked her what we were having for dinner and when Dad would be home. She said nothing, just stood there, looking down at me. I noticed she was wearing an odd white shirt or nightgown and I ask if she’s feeling okay. I’d never seen her wear something like that before. It was at this moment my mother walked up from the basement, carrying a hamper of clean laundry, and asked who I was talking to. I turned rapidly to look at the walkway but no one is there.
So yeah, you could say I believe in ghosts.
Leanna Renee Hieber and Andrea Janes also believe in ghosts. Together they coauthored what might just be the best modern book on ghosts this decade and they did so with care, kindness, and respect for their spectral subjects. A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America’s Ghosts is a compassionate, well researched, and fascinating dive into the legends of women and the ghosts they became. Topics that would be salacious or tawdry (like the ghosts of sex workers or accused witches) are given thoughtful and respectful consideration, turning what could have been a blood-drenched penny dreadful into a work that is measured, masterful, and academic. Hieber and Janes know some of these ghosts intimately–they both have worked as ghost tour guides and spent time living in areas full-to-bursting with spirits and hauntings. Their practical knowledge shines through in the book, making every chapter feel like it’s being recounted to you live as you wander behind them down a suitably autumnal street in search of something otherworldly.
I had a chance to speak to Hieber and Janes about their work resurrecting the ghosts of America’s women.
What made you both decide to write a book focused on the history of primarily women ghosts?
Leanna Renee Hieber: I was approached by an editor who had taken one of my ghost tours, suggesting a book of ghost stories. I immediately dragged Andrea into this vortex because not only is she a stellar writer, but she built Boroughs of the Dead with such integrity, vision and specificity. I’ve always admired everything the company stands for in addition to how she crafts tours. Andrea and I have a complimentary approach to storytelling; while our style can differ in angle, we have passionate opinions underpinned by the same core respect. We aim at the heart of the story, the real people behind perpetuated tales and as many actual facts as we can determine. We were already bringing women’s ghost stories to the fore in our tours and so focusing solely on women naturally evolved while putting the book together. Our brilliant Kensington editor Liz May helped structure the book into tropes and sections. That helped us get our heads around what stories we curated.
Andrea Janes: While we were coming up with ideas for a book about ghosts, I had just finished creating a new tour called “Ghostly Women of Greenwich Village” for Women’s History Month, and that was what inspired us to use the lens of gender to really focus on a specific subset of stories.
And what an incredible inspiration that was. For a long time women ghosts have been used as everything from cautionary tales to capitalistic paydays, torn apart and disregarded in death just as so many of them were in life. Bereft widows and grieving mothers became wailing specters in white, whores and murderesses became ghoulish attractions and side shows, and unconventional women are forced into boxes they refused to be drawn into in life. Hieber and Janes use their book to take these legends and find the kernel of truth in the stories left behind and twisted by time. They pull back and examine famous women like Lizzie Borden and Sarah Winchester and the women killed in Salem branded as witches and they tear down the lies told about them, showing unflinching kindness and curiosity as they do so. The chapter on Sarah Winchester, grand architect of the Winchester Mystery House, was in particular incredibly fascinating. It made me loathe how modern pop culture remembers a, by all accounts, nice if reclusive woman as some nutty old madwoman building a house to escape “the ghosts of those killed by the famous Winchester guns”. It makes me sick, actually, and I’m grateful Hieber and Janes were so committed to telling her story and the story of so many others who frankly deserved so much better from history.
Do you think it says something culturally or societally that there seem to be more women ghosts and their associated tropes (women in white, etc) then male ghosts?
LRH: I couldn’t say what the actual breakdown is in terms of gendered numbers of ghosts. I do find it interesting that, speaking generally, if a ghost is somehow identifiably male, there’s usually a name associated with him and historically, it’s easier to find records sourcing the possible identity of a male spirit in a given place; property records, etc. There were just more spaces where men were documented. So, that gives rise to more generalization and generic stand-ins for women through time.
AJ: Ditto that. I would also add that women historically have always lived with a very intimate relationship to death. The act of childbirth, for instance, is one that involves hovering at the borderlands between life and death because of the precarity of pregnancy and childbirth and the possibility of maternal and fetal mortality. I’d like to say this is in the past, but as we have seen, it is an issue that continues to haunt us in the present. The process of caring for the sick and tending to the bodies of the dying was also, historically speaking, traditionally the women’s role in an average American household before the industrialization of the funeral industry. Women were also instrumental in founding the 19th century Spiritualist movement, because they were perceived as being more open to spirit communication because of the “inherent” feminine qualities of passivity, irrationality, and susceptibility to spirits; some Spiritualists would then go on to subvert those perceptions and utilize their voice and public platform to then accomplish such goals of the Women’s Rights movement such as abolition, voting rights or reproductive rights. And then there’s the idea of “invisibility” itself, which speaks to women in societal positions where they are not heard or seen, their stories not documented, their lives not in the “official” record, as Leanna alludes to above.
Hieber and Janes spend a lot of time in the book talking about not just the ghosts of women, but the society and culture that made them possible. As they mention above, being a woman has always been linked closely with death and the spiritualism that can often entail. There is equal time given to WHY these ghosts and their mythology persists and what created them. I think that’s part of what makes this book both so important and so compelling. Anyone can tell a ghost story, anyone can do a little digging to find if it’s true or not, but Hieber and Janes spend time explaining what may have caused them to become ghosts in the first place.
This isn’t just a book about ghosts, it’s fundamentally a book about the roles women have played all throughout history and what repercussions those roles had on our collective psyches. I often found myself putting the book down for a moment and staring at nothing as some detail or another sunk in, cutting to the bone. Victorian women trapped as “angels of the house,” wild west saloon girls and flappers turned into sex objects against their wills, and lost souls re-victimized even after death in heartless and cruel ways. I wept when I read about Kate Morgan, a woman from 1892 who committed suicide outside her hotel and whose body was left there for days as an attraction for people to come stare at.
The book can be genuinely scary as well, both because of the ghosts and because of the constraints of society and culture that caused them. I found myself utterly unable to sleep after reading about Lizzie Borden (you could not pay me enough to visit the scene of that crime) and the chapter about a malicious house that killed everyone who lived there, including its biographer, chilled me to the bone. Even some of the nicest ghosts still have a whiff of horror to them. Hieber and Janes are experienced ghost tour guides and they know exactly how to tell a ghost story in a way that’s both interesting and faintly terrifying.
What was your favorite ghost story in the book?
LRH: Oh, this is hard. I have to break that down into sections. I had the most fun with Mary Becker Greene, the first woman to earn a Steamboat Pilot’s License in the U.S. I was the most emotionally invested about the Sarah Winchester chapter because I just really wanted to get her story right. And I think maybe my most powerful and visceral chapter is my “Unreliable Narrator” chapter. While I will always feel unsettled by that address, I did want to do right by Jan Bryant Bartell, as it is her story, in the end, I want to champion.
AJ: My favorites were Joan Rivers and Lizzie Borden. Joan’s story is tender and sweet in many ways, and plus how can you not love Joan Rivers?! As for Lizzie Borden, well! I think a lot about whether or not she did it. After all my reading and research and wondering, I still can’t decide if she was guilty or innocent.
I think part of the reason why I loved this book so fervently was just how much Hieber and Janes understand their subjects. Each ghost and her story is approached with respect and love while not being coddling or too sugar coated. They talk about women like Mary Surratt, a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Lincoln, in terms that are frank and unflinching. There is care in it too, acknowledgement of the lengths a widow would have to go through back then to survive, but they don’t absolve her of her crimes either. It would be too easy to paint some of these women with a broad brush, turning them into overdramatic retellings without nuisance. Hieber and Janes make a continued, pointed effort to be as accurate as possible with what sources there are. Both authors also have incredible voices on the page, infusing each story with (if you will excuse the pun) vibrant life and warmth. There are moments of whimsy and comedy to break up some of the horror (the chapter on fake spiritualists is in particular hilarious) but no women or ghost is treated as a joke.
What ghost story didn’t make the cut for the book that you still really love?
AJ: Because we had so many New York City stories already, I couldn’t put in the story of Alva, the ghost of Melrose Hall in Brooklyn. How dearly I would have loved to, though! This story has everything, as Stefon from SNL would say: secret chambers, forbidden love, dastardly villains, a haunted house, a tragic and macabre ending. It’s like a real-life Edgar Allan Poe story, and it all happened basically right in my backyard.
LRH: There’s a striking, untitled statue in D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery sculpted by the Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It was installed in 1885 as the grave marker for Marian Hooper Adams, wife of a prominent academic, a talented photographer and a clever, active socialite. It’s said she was the inspiration for Henry James’ famed Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady. After a depressive turn in what had been an otherwise lively, notable life, at a point when her husband had been traveling for work, she took her own life. Her husband commissioned a beautiful, shrouded figure as her memorial. But neither name nor title of the piece was installed on it. He destroyed all the letters Marian had written to him and rarely, if ever, spoke of her, not even in his autobiography, though he’d admitted in private how much the loss pained him. The Adams’ part of Rock Creek cemetery bears a heavy weight of sorrow and visitors report a creeping feeling of being watched. I find it deeply unsettling that she was removed from her own story; an odd grieving choice that erased rather than celebrated her. While I didn’t get to place her into this book, I was able to write an essay for the amazing women’s journal The Feminine Macabre, Volume 4, titled “An Unnamed Sorrow where Marian Adams Should Be” and I hope to return to her again in the future, if nothing else but to keep naming and reviving her in a way history actively hid her.
That says it all, really. A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America’s Ghosts sets out to give these women in and their spirits closure and recognition. Hieber and Janes honor their memories and give them back the voices that were stolen from them, giving the ghosts back their autonomy and letting them set the record straight. It’s simply fantastic, both smart and scary in equal measures, and will keep you up at night with the dual horrors of spirits haunting the halls and the terrible wrongs committed against them that put them there. A Haunted History of Invisible Women will make you angry beyond words and sad beyond measure but ultimately grateful that these stories are being told, no matter how gruesome they are.