‘There are no such things as ghosts.”
As a little boy, if I heard my father say that once I heard him say the cliche a thousand times. Whenever he asked me get him something from the basement or attic, especially after dark, and he saw me hesitate, the words would roll off his tongue.
But in spite of spooky attics and basements, by the time I was a young man I was as adamant as my father on the subject. As I never heard or saw anything to change my mind over the years I only grew more firm in my conviction. So, when I took a volunteer job as a curator in the Plainsboro Museum and was shortly thereafter told the tale of “Catherine the Ghost” by the museum director I laughed and responded:
“There are no such things as ghosts.”
Catherine’s was a typical ghost tale. She’d lived in the house for most of her married life and raised her son there. When he was married he brought his wife to live in the house and there they raised their many children. Catherine’s husband died and she spent her widowhood with her son’s family. One day, when she was elderly, she was coming down the main stairs when she tripped and fell to her death, shocking her family and friends with her sudden passing.
The stories of Catherine the Ghost did not start immediately. They came after the family was grown and gone and, of course, after the house was empty for a while. As it went through its different phases, a rental, a municipal center, and finally a museum, stories came from each new set of residents. Catherine was allegedly seen from time to time slowly walking down the steps, hand on the polished wooden railing, carefully picking her way, methodically placing each foot on a stair. When spotted she would snap her head in the intruder’s direction — an angry glare indicating her fury with being distracted on her treacherous journey. Then she would fade into mist and disappear. Another story told how at night one could sometimes hear the radio shows of Amos and Andy or Jack Benny coming from Catherine’s room and her soft laughter following each skit. Another tale said that any object that had been owned by Catherine and was moved elsewhere in the house would be found the next day back in its original spot.
There were other stories as well, but I had no interest in tall tales. Every old house needed a ghost story, especially one converted to a museum, and if it brought people in the door to see real history I was fine with it. Our museum even had a mannequin with coiffed hair and a black dress that had once belonged to Catherine. Next to her head on the wall was a plaque depicting Catherine’s life, demise, and ghostly legend. She stood there in the living room day in and day out with her left hand raised in welcome and her right resting on a table set for afternoon tea. In late October she was moved to the top of the staircase to look down on superstitious visitors.
It was at Halloween time that I found myself working late several nights. I’d been asked to write a series of short historical pieces on some of the town’s founding families. I was currently researching the Wicoffs, Catherine’s clan. But I didn’t want to write a sappy article like those found in the late Victorian-area biographies where every family member was a saint descended from someone who had landed at Plymouth Rock. I wanted a true history. If the founder was descended from pirates, so be it. Maybe there was a skeleton hanging from Catherine’s family tree.
I’d been using the upstairs office for my work, which happened to be Catherine’s old bedroom. The idea that Catherine replaced anything taken was belied by the fact that most of her personal articles were long gone and in a display case downstairs. But her original books were still in the bookcase behind me, including her diaries. It was these I was researching now, looking for the real Catherine and family. For the most part the entries were dull. Then I happened upon something interesting.
“September 19. Homecoming day at Princeton University. Saw Marshall Churchill, but I don’t think he saw me. Eighty years old and still handsome. I wonder how life would have turned out had I married Marshall? Perhaps I should have accepted his advances, but there was so much to lose. Then he moved away so suddenly.”
A long-lost love! Had Catherine carried a torch? And what did that second-to-last sentence mean? Had Marshall approached Catherine after she was married? And why did he move away suddenly?
I had to know more. Maybe the answers were in early diaries? I had not been reading them in order. But it was too late now. It was after midnight. I’d have to follow the thread on my next visit.
I stood and through the window I could see the shadows of the bare tree branches dancing on the lawn. Their tips looked like fingers on scrawny hands grasping at the few remaining leaves on the trees. A branch tapped one of the back windows. The wind made an eerie, howling sound down the staircase.
The only light on in the house was the desk lamp I was using. I opened the middle drawer of the desk and tossed the diary there between a staple remover and a letter opener. Next to the letter opener, initialed “CW,” was a stack of Wicoff family photos I’d been working with earlier that week. The one on top was of the entire family taken just before Catherine’s death, posed on the front steps of the house. I slid the drawer closed.
It slid open.
I slid it closed.
It slid open.
My eye caught the photo stack. I shook my head. The photo on top now was of Catherine. I told myself it must have been in the back of the drawer and slid forward to the top of the pile. In the photo Catherine was a young woman, sitting on a porch swing, cloaked in a full length, high-necked dress, with coiffed hair, a piece of which she was twirling by her right ear.
Tongue-in-cheek I said aloud, “Cut it out Catherine, I have to go home now.”
I slid the drawer closed and this time I turned the key, hearing the lock catch. I turned to walk away. As I did I heard the lock click and the drawer slide open.
The expression “my blood ran cold” means nothing until you have experienced it. My veins and arteries felt as if pumped with ice. My stomach fell down to my bladder then jumped back up to my sternum. I looked into the drawer and the photo of Catherine had shifted so that her eyes were staring into mine.
The damn drawer could stay open I decided. I pulled my jacket off the back of the side chair. As I did my eyes caught the Catherine mannequin in the mirror on the wall. She was in her Halloween place at the top of the stairs. When I passed her on the way in she had, as always, had her head tilted downward at the stairs. Not now. Her head was turned. She was staring directly at me.
“Nonsense,” I started to say, but only got out the first syllable. The rest of the word caught in my throat. I grabbed my notepad off the desk and flicked off the desk lamp, plunging the room into sudden darkness. I shrugged into my jacket as I walked out the door. The hallway was dimly lit with moonlight from a large picture window. I could see the mannequin at the head of the stairs. She was looking down again.
I moved quickly to the head of the stairs, gave the mannequin a wide berth and headed downwards, holding the railing tightly in my left and my notepad in my right. Midway down the stairs I heard a soft, commanding, female voice come from behind me.
I dropped the pad and flew down the remaining steps. The foyer door was in front of me. In the lock was an old skeleton key. The porch light was on so that through the light from the transept I could see it clearly. The key was decorative, but functional, though it had not been used in years. Just as I got to the door and was reaching for the doorknob the key turned, the lock clicked and then the key flew from the lock, bouncing of the doormat Lord knows where.
Behind me I heard a footfall on the staircase.
Every fiber in my being said do not turn around, but I had to turn. I saw no mannequin. What I saw was Catherine. She was dressed exactly as she had been in the photo, her hair and makeup the same, and she was moving slowly, gracefully down the staircase, with one hand on the railing and the other holding my notebook. Her eyes bore into mine.
Catherine was not translucent. She looked as corporeal as I, maybe more so, since I was certain I must be as white as milk. Catherine arrived midway down the stairs and stopped. She raised my notepad in front of her. Her eyes flared and I heard that soft, feminine, but firm voice say again, “Don’t!”
With that Catherine flung the notebook at me. It burst into tiny pieces and filled the air with snowflake like confetti. Then something hit me in the chest. I fell and slid across the wooden floor until my back hit the door and my head cracked on the frame.
I looked up at the steps. Bits of paper covered the stairs, but that was the only evidence of what I had just seen. Catherine was gone. The mannequin was back at the head of the stairs, but there was no doubt in my mind that the slight smile on its face had changed to a smirk.
I suddenly realized that my hand was resting on the skeleton key. I wasted no time. I put the key in the lock, opened the door and flew outside. I didn’t stop to set the alarm or even close the door. God help the burglar who went in there anyway. Besides, I was never coming back because I was never going to write that story!
“There are no such things as ghosts,” my father had told me, and my father had never lied. But there may have been a time or two in his life when he was mistaken — perhaps badly mistaken. As for me, I make no such declarative statements. On the matter of ghosts I am silent.
When the museum director asked why I was resigning I told her that something had popped up. As I turned to leave she nodded knowingly and gave me the same smirk as the Catherine mannequin now wore. Walking from her office I’m sure I heard her mumble something. It sounded like:
“No such things as ghosts, my ass.”
Bill Hart has lived in Plainsboro for almost 30 years and has been a long-time member of the Plainsboro Historical Society. He is the author of “Plainsboro: Images of America.” Bill works on Wall Street as a project manager. He notes: “While Catherine Wicoff was a real person, any references to her here were born of my imagination.”