Ghost stories

By October 3, 2008

So, you?ve hunted down the latest eerie photograph of dead prisoners of war once held in Salt Lake City?s Fort Douglas. You?ve stumbled backwards over the rough ground around Emo?s grave more nights than you can remember, and you?ve shaken your head in patronizing amusement when George fiddles with the lighting in the Capitol Theatre. You?ve even made the trip down to Utah Valley to poke around the old Lehi Hospital, where the elevator does not always work as it should, and the chief resident once murdered his lover, the unlucky head of nursing.

Weirdness, in short, happily abounds. You are indeed lucky to be a ghost hunter in Utah.

But you?re bored. Possessed hospitals, theatre poltergeists Рyou can find these things anywhere. They?re pass̩. You want your hauntings to be distinctive, memorable, and atypical. You want ghosts that you?re not going to find in New Jersey or Cedar Rapids or Sacramento ? and this means that your wandering soldiers and your demonic tombstones no longer cut the mustard.

Why, you wonder, why can?t you hear Eliza R. Snow reciting poetry in the dead of night in the Lion House? Why have you never caught a glimpse of Brigham Young muttering to himself as he stumps his way up Ensign Peak? Why doesn?t BH Roberts wander through Temple Square clutching the rejected manuscript of The Truth, the Way, the Life, and how dare Matthew Cowley never send his voice echoing through the Tabernacle these days!

Abraham Lincoln still roams the White House. Why do Mormon ghosts sleep so peacefully?

Where are you, the discriminating Utah ghost hunter, supposed to go?

In her interesting book Possessions: the history and uses of haunting in the Hudson Valley, Judith Richardson posits that hauntings occur along the troubled fault lines of culture and society. It is the spirits of the marginalized, the troubled, the distressed in life and death that return to remind us all that, like Faulkner said, the past is not dead; it?s not even past. We tell and retell these stories to scare ourselves, but also to cope, in some uneasy way, with the challenges of a history that we may not yet have fully forgotten.

The official story of Mormon history is one of progress; a slow majestic march toward victory guided at every step by the hand of God. Each prophet has handed over a kingdom better than that he inherited to his successor, our challenges have been dealt with just as God has desired. There is not much space here for unresolved tensions, for fallen prophets or murdered nuns or the other sorts of religious characters that tend to make for good hauntings.

And yet, on the periphery, there are traces. On Fremont Island in the Great Salt Lake, the ghost of Jean Baptiste , a Salt Lake grave robber exiled by Brigham Young ? and a non-Mormon in a city still reeling from the Utah War and the Mormon Reformation ? still roams. And there is one location in the Valley teeming with Mormon ghosts ? Old Deseret Village, a reconstructed community of transplanted pioneer-era homes, buildings and meetinghouses located at the This is the Place State Park on the eastern side of Salt Lake City.

Who haunts the Village? Most famously, Ann Eliza Webb. Brigham Young?s disgruntled wife number 19, as she put it, still lingers in the home to which Brigham exiled her before she divorced him. Down the road, Mary Fielding Smith, Hyrum?s first wife and widow, still expresses similar emotions, emerging from nowhere to berate startled passerby. At first glance, her angst seems to be of a much more mundane cause than that which inspired Ann Eliza?s towering discontent. Rather than the sad restiveness of dissatisfaction with polygamy, Mary Fielding seems piqued about the sloppy job done in the rebuilding of her home.

Still. Is it at all significant that Ann Eliza and Mary drift through the Village, while Brigham and Hyrum and Joseph Fielding sleep peacefully? That Jean Baptiste rather than Jacob Hamblin still roams the Utah wilderness? Perhaps not. But perhaps these spirits can still tell us something about the unquiet nature of Mormon pasts.

This post originally appeared here.

Article filed under Cultural History Current Events Popular Culture


  1. I immediately thought of Jean Baptiste when I saw the title. As I recently gathered with family at the funeral of a relative, I couldn’t help but mention to them Brigham’s sermonizing that if the news of the grave robbery were too disconcerting, then one should consider burying the recent corpse in family the garden until such a time that confidence returned.

    A couple of years ago, Justin had a nice write up about a haunting.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 3, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

  2. Thanks Matt. I’m interested to know more about how Mary Fielding Smith got on the malcontent ghost list since she’s generally seen as a heroine of the restoration.

    Comment by kris — October 3, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  3. What about the legend which holds that the ghost of Ernest Wilkinson still roams on the 1st floor, (old north end), of the HB lee Library?
    Those who dare to hide inside after closing, and spend the night within, have spotted him moving between book stacks.
    It?s said he is still looking for students who are in violation of the “no beards” rule.

    Comment by PJD — October 4, 2008 @ 11:23 pm

  4. Thanks, folks. I love this sort of stuff.

    Stape – ha ha. Awesome.

    Kris – That is a really good question. I wonder if Mary is experienced here less as a particular individual and more a symbol of a particular set of social anxieties. Like having your house face the wrong way.

    PJD – I had not heard that one. Excellent. I’ll file it away. In my file of this sort of thing, which I have.

    Comment by matt b — October 5, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  5. Nothign substantial to add, but this was a fun read. Thanks, Matt.

    Comment by Christopher — October 6, 2008 @ 12:23 pm


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