Official Dark Boots

How the awesome power of highly caffeinated coffee may continue to shape Union soldiers’ Afterlives.

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A Union soldier with his hardtack, salted pork, gun, and coffee pot, known as a “mucket.” Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

On a chilly, drizzly day in March 2018, my lifelong boon companion Julie and her daughter, my honorary niece, joined me for a day trip to Gettysburg. My niece had never visited the town or battlefield before. In addition to seeing the historical sites, she was keen to undertake some EVP/ITC recording with her “Weird Aunt,” as I’m known to her circle. That day, we combined the driving tour and the ghost hunting, practicing what I call a “drive-by”—rolling the vehicle to a stop, lowering the window, turning on an iPad ghost box app and digital recorder, and inviting anyone present to speak.

(Electronic voice phenomenon, or EVPs, are recorded human voices that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. Instrumental Transcommunication, or ITC, uses various forms of electronic devices, such as the so-called ghost box, to generate white noise or randomly generated phonemes from which it is theorized that spirits can shape speech.)

After purchasing an excellent driving tour CD with the marvelous Stephen Lang narrating, we set off, shortly reaching McPherson’s Ridge and the railway cut near the McPherson farmhouse, which saw heavy engagement during the first day of fighting. Before the battle, the area was excavated, but no rail tracks had been laid. This made a perfect spot for entrenchment by both sides as the battle lines shifted throughout the day.

What we captured there included the following:

Male voice one: What’s the coffee?

Male voice two: Official dark boots.

The audio file below repeats the sequence four times—twice at normal speed, once slowed, and once slowed with noise filtration.

Wait…. What?

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An unidentified ambrotype of three soldiers with a mucket, tin coffee cup, and hardtack. Collection unknown. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

At the time we recorded this exchange, I was unaware of the primacy of highly caffeinated coffee in the day-to-day lives of military men trying to get through the next chilly morning, the next hard march along muddy and rutted roads, or the next siphoning up of courage for a battle they might not survive.

“Coffee was often the last comfort troops enjoyed before entering battle, and the first sign of safety for those who survived,” John Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, wrote in a July 2014 New York Times article. Union quartermasters issued each solder 36 lbs. of coffee beans per year, which the men roasted and ground themselves. Some of them used a Sharps coffee grinder carbine to do the latter, wherein the normal cartridge box built into the shoulder stock was replaced by a grinder with a detachable handle.

“Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a ‘delicious cup of black,’ or fumed about ‘wishy-washy coffee,'” noted Grinspan. “For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as [one] diarist noted, ‘little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.’ Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans.”

To underscore exactly how much coffee meant to the average Union soldier, Grinspan tallied up how often the word coffee appeared in diaries and letters. The total was much higher than for words such as “war,” “mother,” and others that should have weighed on the mind of a soldier.

Confederates, on the other hand, used their ink and paper to complain that their coffee wasn’t worth a hill of Yankee beans (because it wasn’t coffee, but a grain- and vegetable-based, noncaffeinated horror show), and how annoyed they were that the enemy had the consolation of the good stuff.

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“Campaign Sketches: The Coffee Call.” Lithograph by Winslow Homer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1888, Union veteran John D. Billings wrote in his book Hard Tack and Coffee about the lives of Civil War soldiers, “What a Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often after being completely jaded by a night march—and this was an experience common to thousands—have I … made and drunk my pint or so of coffee and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night’s sound sleep!” Other soldiers referred to the dark brew as their “nerve tonic,” and when rations ran short, fumed that “no one can soldier without coffee.”

From the sound of things, they still can’t.

My friend, my niece, and I wonder whether we recorded two Union soldiers in conversation, one referring to the coffee aptly and humorously as “Official Dark Boots” in the same way we name our coffee blends—for example, “Wake the F$%# Up,” “Feels Like Flying,” or “Fog Chaser.” The beans, received from the quartermaster, were indeed official and boiling the grounds in a mucket would result in a black brew that provided them a figurative kick in the pants and give them the will to march. Ω

A Haunting of My Own

Mr. Grumpy’s seething was replaced with grudging tolerance. He was still watching me, but if I played it cool, he would, too.

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St. Paul’s Lutheran Cemetery, Myersville, Maryland.

This Halloween, I will be the guest speaker of the Myersville-Wolfsville Area Historical Society, presenting on local ghosts and paranormal phenomenon. Whilst this part of Maryland is rich in folkloric creatures such as a flying monster called the Snallygaster, or the Veiled Lady—a sort of banshee who plagued the environs of South Mountain—neither these nor other similar tales are particularly believable or verifiable.

I will stretch as far afield as Antietam and Gettysburg for parts of my lecture, but one paranormal story, at least, will be from Myersville, and it is my own. I share it now knowing it could be as figmental as the ghostly forms that once circled above Frederick’s Rose Hill Manor, or the Christmas Eve Phantom Flutist of Emmitsburg, who purportedly plays, as he did in life, over his dead father’s grave.

The setting for this tale is the cemetery of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, directly across Main Street from my home.

My young family moved to Myersville in autumn 1995. Our house occupies a corner of two bustling roads that offer no on-street parking. Happily, across Main Street is the carpark of St. Paul’s, the use of which is kindly permitted for Myersvillians and town visitors. This is where I park.

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An early image of the second church building, circa 1900. The cemetery is behind it and today’s parking lot to the left.

The burying ground is at the rear of the church—a sunny slope oriented east to west. (For weeks in 1997, the Comet Hale-Bopp hung beautifully above that field.)  Approximately 800 past congregants are buried there. On Sundays, I leave my car at the rear of the lot by the cemetery to not inconvenience elderly churchgoers. Often my vehicle remains there on Monday mornings. Until recently, I left for work before dawn, with my car first glimpsed as a dark lump beside a field of silhouetted memorials.

Soon after moving in, I became uncomfortable during my pre-dawn trudge, as well as whenever I parked in the evenings. At first, I chided myself for irrational fear. However, I eventually understood that it was not merely the combination of the cemetery and the dark that frightened me. There was someone in the cemetery who didn’t want me there. Over time, I deduced it was an old man connected to a particular area of the graveyard. The feeling of targeted hostility grew until I was quite afraid to be alone in the lot between twilight and sunrise. In an effort to self-trivialize my terror, I joked with my family and friends about “Mr. Grumpy” who haunted the cemetery, always telling me to “Get out!”

One winter day, circa 2000, I picked my son up from his after-school care provider, pulled into the lot, and parked. Attached to my keychain was a 30-second micro-recorder that I used for spoken notes. As my son and I walked toward Main Street, I jovially said, “Let’s see if Mr. Grumpy wants to talk to us,” and switched on the recorder.

On playback, we heard my question followed by a loud male voice—most definitely not of my eight-year-old boy—quite close to the microphone, who shouted, “No!” My little daughter later recorded over it but neither my son nor I ever forgot about the afternoon when Mr. Grumpy spoke.

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Electronic voice phenomenon (EVPs) are recorded human or animal utterances—the meow of a cat, for instance—that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. As EVP research advances, communication continues to improve. Current results in both EVP and Instrumental Transcommunicion (ITC), which includes instantaneous two-way and visual communication, are being obtained by thousands of independent researchers and affiliated groups, including the University of Arizona’s VERITAS Research Program of the Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health.

Among the early EVP investigators were Raymond Bayless, a well-known writer, and a photographer and psychic named Attila Von Szalay. In the 1930s, Von Szalay claimed to hear disembodied utterances in the air around him. He had some success capturing them using a 78-RPM record cutter; he had better luck later with a wire recorder. In the 1950s, Von Szalay joined up with Bayless, who constructed a cabinet with an interior microphone resting inside a speaking trumpet. The microphone cord led out of the cabinet and was patched into a reel-to-reel recorder and loudspeaker. Almost immediately, they claimed to hear whispers originating from inside the cabinet and duly recorded them, but on 5 December, 1956, they taped the first voice which had not been audible over the loudspeaker. It was a male voice saying simply, “This is G.” The pair documented their results in a 1959 article in the journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.

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Frederick Jurgenson

The first EVP experimenter to really make headlines was Friedrich Jurgenson, a Swedish film producer, who claimed he accidentally taped his dead mother calling his name whilst he was recording wild bird songs. From that day on, he was able to regularly capture EVPs. Jurgenson held a 1964 press conference during which he played his recordings for a skeptical press. He went on to author several books on EVP.

In 1970, a Latvian-born psychologist, Konstantin Raudive, who was a protege of Jurgenson, released the book Breakthrough, detailing his own EVP research. It became an international bestseller. In the book, Raudive revealed that he had recorded thousands of discarnate voices, many of whom, but not all, communicated in a polyglot of languages. Raudive was the first to find that the voices gained in strength and number when he generated white noise. For this, he used a diode—a broad-band, crystal radio detector with a short antenna and a second wire directly connected into the microphone input of the recorder. (A recording of EVPs obtained by Raudive can be heard here.)

Sarah Wilson Estep of Severna Park, Maryland, also noticed the benefits of white noise. She detailed the results of her own EVP research in 1988’s Voices of Eternity. Before the book’s release, she had founded the American Association Electronic Voice Phenomena, a loose collective of experimenters in survival research. After her book, the organization grew to include hundreds of members in countries around the world. (Examples of her work can be heard here.)

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Sarah Estep with her EVP recording equipment in about 1985.

Estep made it her goal to glean from her non-corporeal guest speakers information about life in their post-mortem dimension. She was also the first researcher to publicly admit receiving EVPs from communicators in alternate universes, including extraterrestrials. Sarah was not alone in receiving “space” voices. The ITC researcher Frank Sumption, who invented the “ghost box” in wide use today, also heard from these types of entities, as have many others. (Warning: The link leads to an ITC recording session with a Frank’s Box that includes profane and racist language.)

My Mr. Grumpy, however, was all too formerly human. After receiving his angry EVP message, I knew I must forge a detente. When I walked to my car each morning, I repeated aloud that I was no threat to him. I was not there to evict him from his ground of mortal rest. All I wanted to do was drive to my job. As time passed, Mr. Grumpy’s seething was replaced with grudging tolerance. He was still watching me, but if I played it cool, he would, too.

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St. Paul’s Church Cemetery in autumn.

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Ezra Routzahn lived in the Middletown Valley his entire life. He was born on the farm of his father, Enos S. Routzahn, Sr. (1800-1850) on 25 March, 1836. Ezra was the fourth infant born to Emos’s wife, Lydia Schlosser Routzahn (1805-1882), and the third boy. Another three daughters and three sons would follow.

On 17 November 1858, Ezra Routzahn married Sarah Catherine Harp (1839–1926), daughter of farmer George Silas Harp (1808-1847) and Catherine Poffenberger (1812-1889).  They had three children, Laura Virginia (1859-1942); Franklin (1861-1943), and Mary Elizabeth (1865-1926). There are still Routzahn descendants in the valley today.

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The farmhouse on Church Hill Road, Myersville, where Ezra and Sarah Routzahn lived for many years. This photo was taken in 1992 by the Maryland Historical Trust.

Routzahn’s time on Earth was spent like that of his forefathers, farming the rich soil of the Middletown Valley. In 1870, he purchased from Josiah Harp, his wife’s relative, a 146-acre, well-established agricultural operation at 10412 Church Hill Road. Known as the Doub-Routzahn Farm, it has been surveyed by the Maryland Historical Trust, who reported it “exemplifies the transition of a mid-19th-Century farmstead from agricultural to private residential use in the mid-20th Century. It retains features from its possible establishment as a typical farm of the period of about 1840-1870 in the brick dwelling with domestic outbuildings and the frame and stone bank barn, with the additions of late 19th century outbuildings that reflect changes in agricultural technology such as the wagon shed/corn crib, the garage, and the proliferation of various sheds in the agricultural grouping.”

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Ezra Routzahn in about 1905.

Routzahn may have been interested in banking and financing from early in life. If so, as a local farmer of means, he was in a position to act on inclination. In January 1899, Routzahn helped found the Myersville Savings Bank, which by 1904 reported deposits of more than $120,000 and surplus and undivided profits of more than $5,000.

In 1902, a brick bank building was constructed on Main Street “with a chrome-steel lined brick vault, a Miller fire and burglar-proof safe with a timelock and other modern fixtures,” noted the 1905 History of Myersville. “The officers and directors of the institution are careful and sociable men.” Routzahn was preeminent amongst them—the bank’s president. The only known photo of Routzahn shows him in his 60s, confident and competent, dressed for his important local position.

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The interior of the Myersville Savings Bank, circa 1905.

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The stained glass window before which Ezra Routzahn died. Photo by Jody Brumage.

Frederick News, Monday, 18 October, 1915

After helping with placing memorial windows in the in the Myersville Lutheran church and while looking at the window which was just completed in memory of himself and his wife, Ezra Routzhan, president of the Myersville Savings Bank and prominent resident of that town, fell to the floor of the church about 10 o’clock this morning … and died instantly. He had been in good health and was feeling well…. Death was due to apoplexy, it is thought. Mr. Routzahn was in his 80th year.

Being a prominent member of the church, Mr. Routzahn had taken much interest in the extensive improvements now being made, including the placing of a dozen memorial windows…. [He] had just completed the Routzahn window when he was stricken and fell over backwards. H. F. Shipley, who was working on the same window, was closest to Mr. Routzahn when he fell. Others in the church were G. W. Wachtel, Rev. James Willis, the pastor, and Carlton Smith of Polo, Ill.

Dr. Ralph Browning was hurriedly summoned, but Mr. Routzahn expired almost as soon as he fell. The news of the sudden death was a shock to the Community…. The memorial window on which Mr. Routzahn had just finished work contains this inscription: “A Living Tribute to Ezra Routzahn and Sarah C. Routzahn by Their Children.”

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The monument to Ezra and Sarah Routzahn in St. Paul’s Church Cemetery.

In 2016, I stumbled across the above article whilst engaged in other research. It took only a fast walk across Main Street and into the cemetery to confirm the potential epiphany I had just experienced: Ezra Routzahn’s impressive monument stood in the area I associated with Mr. Grumpy—an area I had frequently pointed out to family and friends. Could Ezra Routzahn still be tied to the church where he worshipped, in which he died whilst gazing on his own memorial window? Was he Mr. Grumpy?

The accumulated evidence of EVP, ITC, and other paranormal research indicates that some of the deceased remain in the place where they died. They may do this because they are in a muddled post-death state, or for their own reasons, such as anger with the Cruel Hand of Fate, or fear of eternal punishment for their sins.

If Mr. Grumpy is Ezra Routzahn, he might indeed be angry at the last hand dealt him, or is possessive of his fine memorials both in and outside the church. Also possible is that he may not be angry but protecting the graveyard—his aggression no more than the warning barks of a dog at a stranger. Maybe there are others from Myersville’s past with him and they don’t want to be disturbed. They want their life in the Middletown Valley to go on unimpeded. Who can blame them? Ω

Is the Past More Than Prologue?

In a cornfield by the old Pry House in Keedysville, Maryland, the walls between September 1862 and today can sometimes grow thin.

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Sean Byrne at Pry House Field Hospital Museum, Keedysville, Maryland, June 2018.

On Tuesday, 16 September, 1862, farmer Phillip Pry, Jr., and his wife Elizabeth, née Cost, found that the Civil War was standing on their doorstep. Since the summer of 1844, the couple had dwelt happily in their imposing home, high on a hill, which Phillip and his brother Samuel had built on their father’s land. The road between Boonsboro and Sharpsburg ran along the foot of the hill, and as Philip and Elizabeth could see from their front porch, it had become an artery for the Confederate war machine. Soldiers in grey, wagons, armaments, ambulances, horses—for a day and night they moved past the Prys’ house in a kaleidoscope of pending misadventure.

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Philip and Elizabeth Cost Pry, circa 1868. Courtesy Pry House Field Hospital Museum.

The next day, the road was crammed with soldiers in blue trundling along with the Union Army’s horses, vehicles, and ordnance. They were headed to attack the Confederacy at Sharpsburg—a bloodbath now known as the Battle of Antietam. Shortly, the Prys’ home would be commandeered as a headquarters and a field hospital by no less than the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer. From that moment, the Prys’ bucolic life on the hill was over.

For safety, Elizabeth Pry and her five children—all under the age of 15—were sent by army ambulance to Keedysville. When at last allowed to return, they found their farm devastated. Despite repeated attempts, the family was never compensated by the government for property damage and looted crops, domesticated animals, and stored supplies that totaled more than $60,000 in today’s money. Financially ruined, the Prys chose to start over again in Johnson County, Tennessee, but they never regained their antebellum prosperity. Before Elizabeth died in 1884, she begged her husband to take her body back to Keedysville to be buried where life was once sweet. He did as she requested. In 1900, he was laid to rest beside her.

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The Pry farm in September 1862. This photo was taken after the battle by Andrew Gardiner. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Surely no one would blame Philip or Elizabeth Pry for haunting the happy home stolen from them. Indeed, reputedly, there was a female ghost seen as she descended the staircase and also one who peered sullenly from an upstairs window when the house caught fire in the 1970s. One or either of these ghosts may be Elizabeth Pry. Lacking access to witnesses or recorded evidence, I must place these stories in the realm of lore. Not so, however, the following. The witness, actor Sean Byrne, was interviewed by me in June 2018 at the Pry farm—now a field hospital museum run by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

In 2005, when Byrne was 12, his Boy Scout troop engaged in a service project assisting the then-executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine George Wunderlich to restore Pry House. On a warm September day, Wunderlich, the troop’s leader, was in the Prys’ kitchen washing salt pork for the boys’ Civil War-inspired dinner. Byrne says that the Scouts—about ten in number—had time for mischief. “We wanted to go to the cornfield and start chucking corn at each other,” he recalls.

The stalks and corn in the husks were dry, waiting to be harvested for feed. “The corn easily came over our heads. I’m six-foot now, so I was probably like four-foot-something then, maybe,” he says. “I was in the middle of this field—it was probably right about there. I remember grabbing an ear of corn and turning around and there was a gentleman standing there.”

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Byrne points to the site of his encounter in the cornfield, now planted with wheat.

Byrne insists that the man, who stood just a few feet away and whom he could see at full-length, was a Confederate soldier. “He was wearing a grey uniform, buttoned-up jacket; he had a hat with a turned up brim, yellow gloves tucked under his belt.” There was a lantern hooked to his belt, too. The soldier also had a blonde goatee and hair long enough to be seen beneath the brim of his hat.

The expression on the man’s face was matter-of-fact—”stoic,” Byrne describes it. “I saw him, then he put up his hand. He said, ‘Stop. Wait. Be careful,’ then turned and walked away,” states Byrne, “but he kept a very straight line; he didn’t zigzag.”

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A Confederate gray wool frock coat with black facings and gold colored buttons, sky blue trousers, black leather belt with brass “CS” belt plate; leather cartridge box; bayonet scabbard; buff slouch hat. Byrne’s soldier wore grey pants but otherwise may have been garbed quite similarly. Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of American History.

It was then, Byrne remembers, that he consciously grasped the unapparent: “He was only about 50 percent there. I could see the corn through his body. He got no more than four feet before I lost him. He just kind of went into the corn. If [a living person] was walking through the cornfield, you could see them for say eight or ten feet—see portions of his body. But you couldn’t see him that far. He just disappeared.”

Stunned, Byrne let go of the corn. “I got a good gash in my finger, because dried corn is actually very sharp, and I ran back to the house where Mr. Wunderlich was. I told him I needed first aid, but also that there was this man there. And Mr. Wunderlich told me, ‘Wait, wait, let me guess. You saw a man with a lantern?’ I said, ‘Yes! How did you know?'”

Wunderlich knew because it was not the first time he had heard a such a story. Now with the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Wunderlich still remembers Byrne’s encounter in the cornfield. He was willing to speak about it and other similar instances of which he was aware.

For a number of years, he says, an academic conference on banjos was held in the barn on the Pry property to “discuss the importance of banjo music during the Civil War and things of that nature, and we had guys camping there. Doug Harding, a National Park Service employee from St. Louis, told me he got up to use the portajohn, looked out [across the property], and there was a lantern moving by itself through the cornfield.” Together, they went to the spot and determined that the light had followed the path of the old road once traveled by both the Confederacy and Union. “They moved the road away from the house many years later when they built the bypass around Keedysville,” Wunderlich states. Today, Pry House sits at the end of a long drive, perhaps a quarter mile from the modern road.

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The approach to Pry House in May 2018. The cornfield is at left, the barn to the right.

According to Wunderlich, the second encounter concerned “a Boy Scout from another troop who mentioned the same thing—a lantern walking through the corn. I pointed out to him where it had occurred and he asked, ‘How did you know?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s happened before.'”

Several years later, at another iteration of the banjo conference, two men saw the lantern traveling the same route. They told Wunderlich that a human form was visible, but only where the lantern cast its light.

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Amongst paranormal researchers, there are several schools of thought concerning ghosts and hauntings: First, ghosts can be discarnate persons who are completely or partially aware they are dead. They may have chosen to remain in a place or with loved ones they are loath to leave, stay behind because of unfinished business, or possess other motivations we cannot comprehend. The second possibility is that events are captured by wholly natural but unknown mechanisms and—when conditions are right—they replay themselves. In this latter scenario, whether or not there are human observers is irrelevant, and any persons within the replay have no more consciousness than digital images projected on a screen.

If not for the other sightings of the lantern in the cornfield, Byrne’s encounter could have been the intervention of a concerned spirit still tied to the place where he died, as it is all but certain that the Union field hospital at Pry House treated Confederate wounded. By themselves, the sightings of the lantern moving down the old road could be the replications of the past. However, in tandem with Byrne’s encounter, a lifeless replay makes no sense.

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After Byrne encountered the phantom soldier, he ran up the hill from the cornfield (right) to the white door at left. There he found his Scout leader inside the Pry House kitchen. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Confederate soldier appeared to see Byrne within his presumably 16 September, 1862 surroundings, playing in a roadway that was actively funneling elements of Lee’s army to Sharpsburg. The soldier also recognized it as daytime, for the lantern the others saw ablaze was not lit and was hooked to his belt. Concerned for the boy’s safety, he told Byrne to stop, wait, and be careful, presumably so that the Byrne would not be injured by whatever the soldier saw happening in the 1862 road.

That day, Byrne, who is now in his mid-20s, wore a Boy Scout Class B uniform—green pants and a red troop tee-shirt. Despite what would have a seemed strange attire, the soldier did not look surprised at Byrne’s appearance; he issued his warning, turned, and was gone. Perhaps there was so much activity within the soldier’s view that he did not critically register the weird garb worn by the boy in harm’s way.

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An ambrotype of an unknown Confederate soldier dressed and coiffed similarly to the man seen in the cornfield. Collection unknown.

So, is there another explanation—one that better fits the facts of the case? Could, for example, the time-space membrane between September 1862 and September 2005 have thinned enough to rupture?

In a bowl of hypotheticals, nothing can be proven, but we may speculate that a recipe for a time rupture was fully concocted on 16 September, 1862. First added, on 14 September, was the frantic and terrifying energy produced by the nearby Battle of South Mountain, in which the two armies fought for control of multiple Blue Ridge mountain gaps. Next added was the psychic trauma of 5,000 dead, wounded, and missing, including Alabamian Drayton Pitts, of whom I wrote earlier this year. Third, stirred in on the 16th was the mounting fear of the men of both armies and the region’s citizens, who knew a larger fight than South Mountain was imminent.

The Confederate soldier may have been stationed along the old road to help facilitate movement or to supply intel after barely surviving the Battle of South Mountain two days before. His consternation, determination, exhaustion, suppressed grief over lost comrades—all of these may have been the final ingredients that ruptured time.

The Scouts had been working on the property for two days and had both stirred up and become in simpatico with the energies of the estate, Byrne posits. His brief meeting with the Confederate soldier was “very simple. It wasn’t scary. I wasn’t waiting for something. I wasn’t invoking something. It was nothing blood-curdling—just a man doing his job.”  Today’s visitors to the Pry House may yet see the soldier following his orders during the 24 hours before Antietam. Ω

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This photo taken by Alexander Gardner during the Battle of Antietam shows a Union lookout stationed near the Pry House and undeployed Union reserve artillery in the field beyond. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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Apparitions of the Aperture

In the second half of the 19th Century, at the height of the Victorian Age, the union of photography and the supernatural spawned strange and enthralling results.

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Cased tintype spirit image by an unknown photographer, circa 1868. Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection. (Unless otherwise noted, all images in this article are courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus.)

By Beverly Wilgus and Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Early in the practice of the photography, ghostlike images appeared on daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. The explanation for them was not supernatural: Because of the need for long exposures, in some cases of more than a minute, anything that moved whilst the camera lens was open went either unrecorded or appeared transparent in the final product. In 1856, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), an important figure in photography’s evolution, described in his book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction the method by which amusing extras could be created in photographs. Brewster advised that sitters should be posed and after the majority of the plate exposure was finished, a new person should move into the scene and stay for the final seconds. This would result in a “spirit” presence.

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This English stereoview card from the early 1860s titled “The Ghost in the Stereoscope” noted that it was “kindly suggested by Sir David Brewster.”

Whilst Brewster clearly promoted this method for what it was—a trick—others with an interest in the expanding religion of Spiritualism saw ghost images as proof of life after death. It should be noted that the Victorians were not the only folk taken in by the callow exploitation of technology they did not fully understand.

With the first affordable digital cameras in the 1990s came a veritable epidemic of “ghost orb,” “rod,” “vortex,” “portal,” and “skyfish” photos on the new World Wide Web. The promulgating of them, in some case, led to recognition and profit. These types of images were, and still are, the result of the compact distance between the flash and the lens of digital cameras illuminating dust, water droplets, bugs, camera straps, individual hairs, fingertips, human breath, and more. In 2018, we generally accept this explanation, but in 1995, the debates between believers and skeptics were as inflamed and impassioned as they were a century before, in the age of spirit photography.

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The back of this 1875 carte de visite (CDV) states, “This picture was made December 25th, 1875, in Cincinnati by Jay J. Hartman under the most rigid test conditions, in a gallery he had never visited before … all manipulations of the plate being done by a skeptical photographer … and all the time closely watched by 16 respectable, intelligent gentlemen.”

William Mumler (1832-1884) of Boston is the best known of the many 19th-century American spirit photographers. Mumler claimed to have stumbled upon his miraculous ability by accident, but “as word spread, Mumler’s hobby became a lucrative business, and soon he was taking spirit photographs from dusk till dawn, summoning lost loves beneath his skylight, and dispensing solace to a public addled by the rising death toll of the Civil War,” wrote The New Yorker‘s  Dan Piepenbring in an October 2017 review Peter Manseau’s book, The Apparitionists. “The images retain their intimate, macabre tint even now. His subjects assume stately, almost catatonic poses—the process required them to sit still for a full minute—their expressions pensive and inscrutable, their arms stiff and expectant. As for the spirits, they have the denatured texture of blighted leaves. Translucent smudges against a sooty backdrop, they sometimes coalesce into personhood only under scrutiny, in the same way that faces emerge from clouds. Stare at enough of them in sequence and you’ll fall into a loop of cognitive dissonance: they look so fake that they must be real, and then so real that they must be fake.”

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Mumler’s 1872 CDV of Mary Todd and the ghost of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

Arguably, Mumler’s most famous image is of U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, wearing widow’s mourning, taken some seven years after the president was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Mumler claimed in his autobiography that he hadn’t recognized Mary Lincoln when she came to his studio wreathed in a black veil, yet he duly produced an image showing the president gazing lovingly upon his wife. Whilst 99.9-percent sure today that the image is a fake, we can hope without hypocrisy that it comforted Mary then.

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Two CDVs by William Mumler in the Wilgus Collection. Left: A young spirit girl holds a flower under the nose of Captain R. Montgomery of Hodgsdon Mills, Maine. The child was recognized as his dead daughter. Right: A ghostly cleric presents Henry C. Gordon, an American medium credited with levitation, with a crucifix of which he appears aware.

Another notorious spirit photographer was Frenchman Edouard Isidore Buguet (1840-1901). Also a medium, Buguet rocketed to fame in the early 1870s, but his success was short-lived. Frank Podmore wrote in his 1902 book, Mediums of the 19th Century, Vol. II, that in June 1875, “Buguet was arrested and charged by the French Government with the fraudulent manufacture of spirit photographs. When put on trial Buguet made a full confession. The whole of his ‘spirit’ photographs were, he stated, produced by means of double exposure.”

A plethora of witnesses testified favorably about the photographer and when “these witnesses were confronted with Buguet, and heard him explain how the trick had been done, one after another they left the witness-box, protesting that they could not doubt the evidence of their own eyes. . . . [I]t came out in the evidence that a very clearly defined head … which had been claimed by M. Leymarie as the portrait of his almost lifelong friend, M. Poiret, was recognised by another witness as an excellent likeness of his father-in-law, still living at Dreux, and much annoyed at his premature introduction to the spirit world,” noted Podmore.

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Buguet carbon prints, circa 1874. Left: “The Count de Medina Pomar with the spirit of his father, General the Count de Medina Pomar.” Right: “Sitters: Mons. Leymarie and Mons. C. Spirit: Edouard Poiret.”

In his 1911 book Photographing The Invisible, James Coates devotes two chapters to English spirit photographer Robert Boursnell (1832-1909). The first begins, “It appears that before Mumler got his first picture in 1861, Mr. Boursnell got curious appearances on his plates, not only spoiling them but leading to disagreements with his employer, who accused him of not cleaning the glass properly. These splotches came at intervals. For a long time, there was a lull. Boursnell was a medium; that was the trouble.”

The lull Coates mentions lasted 40 years. When Boursnell again picked up photography as an older man, the same results allegedly manifested, leading to the appearance of spirit faces and figures. As a spirit photographer, “He was strikingly successful and in 1903 the spiritualists of London presented him with a signed testimonial and a purse of gold as a mark of their high esteem. A hundred chosen spirit photographs were put on exhibition in the rooms of the Psychological Society at Portman Square,” stated Nandor Fodor in 1934’s, An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science.

“Like every other spirit-photographer, he also was accused of fraud,” Fodor continued, noting that evidence of the fraudulent production of Boursnell’s images was presented to the London Spiritualist Alliance. “Duplicates, triplicates, and quadruplicates of Boursnell’s spirit pictures were numerous. A tracing could be made from one form in one photograph to the form in another, and not the slightest difference in detail could be discovered.”

Despite this, Boursnell—like Buguet—never lost the faith of his followers and was still considered by Coates to have been a genuine medium. In one example, Coates’ argument against the swipe of Occam’s razor seems particularly tortured. During the first decade of the 20th Century, an Australian man called Barnes sat for Boursnell in London. One of the ghost extras in the resulting image was conclusively proven to be a blurry reprint of a published portrait of assassinated Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Instead of viewing this as evidence of fraud, Coates saw it as proof that mental images from human minds might appear in spirit photos. Barnes, Coates explained, had read a book with the same image as its frontispiece sometime before visiting Boursnell.

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A 1902 cabinet card of Robert Boursnell posed with spirit extras.

Both the Spiritualism and the technology of the 19th Century required faith. In the 20th Century, the late Arthur C. Clark professed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For the average Victorian, the arcane processes of early photography were tantamount to paranormal occurrences. To today’s average folk, the Internet and technology-driven VR realms we inhabit are effectively the same. What is constant is this, as expressed by songwriter Roy Harper:

“That we both may share
The hope adhering
That we’re not just
Spirits disappearing.” Ω 

 

Olivia
There is no photographer’s name or studio on this circa-1895 cabinet card, but “Olivia Sheppard” is handwritten on the reverse. There are references in the literature of the period to a female dress reformer and spiritualist Olivia F. Shepard, and likely this is the same woman. The “spirits” surrounding her include two Caucasians, an Arab, and two American Indians.