Remember how I was planning to go to this ghost hunting seminar at the John H. Stevens House, birthplace of Minneapolis?   That was this Sunday, March 2, an unseasonably dreary, rainy day (and thus good for ghosts).  This is the third year Stevens House has done ghost seminars, and apparently it’s been a moneymaking program for them (3 seminars a year for $10 per person and 15 people per seminar=$450/year).  The presenter, Rick Hagen, is a professional ghosthunter and is incidentally on the Stevens House board.  He gave a long presentation with slides about his ghosthunting in England and Norway and was very commensensical and earnest about the presence of spirits.

Three things I learned:

  1. If you’re dealing with a poltergeist, don’t get out the Ouija board, since that lets low-level spirits into the house.
  2. Always wear a hooded sweatshirt when ghosthunting, so you have pockets to put your instruments in and a hood to put up when encountering cobwebs in catacombs.
  3. Spirits have to learn over time how to appear fully; I think there’s a lecture series on the other side.

In general, it was interesting, but pretty devoid of local history content, or even any discussion of American ghosts.  I’ve finally pinpointed, though, what I as a historian don’t like about ghost stories:  it’s the vagueness, the lack of specificity about what exactly happened and when, combined with the attribution of motives to the ghosts.  As historians, we “talk to ghosts” through archives and material culture, but we are careful to acknowledge our sources, and to accept an ultimate uncertainty about people’s emotions, motives, and intentions.  When we have an anecdotal source, we evaluate it differently than a well-documented source.  Unfortunately, ghosthunting is all anecdotal.  When we write on the history of spiritualism (for instance), it’s important to write from the perspective of our sources, report what folks who kept diaries said they saw at seances while fighting the urge to say that it was a miracle or a hoax, no matter what we might think.  But saying that several people saw a woman wearing old clothes and it must be the lady of the manor is not history.  That said, I might have been less critical if there was a discussion of Midwest ghosts, since anglophilia (things are so old over there!) bores me.

There was an opportunity to walk around Stevens House taking measurements, but we wouldn’t learn how to analyze the measurements till the next ghosthunting seminar, so we left early.  But I do think ghosthunting seminars can be a creative programming idea for a historic house museum if they don’t take themselves too seriously.