Although skeptics insist ghosts are unreal, there are many ghostly encounters that seem to present startling evidence to the contrary. One such incident is presented in the book The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales by Ruth Ann Musick (1965, 28–30). The story is indeed spine-tingling, but is it true as well? I first began to investigate the case for my book Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings (1995).
Musick’s narrative, titled “Help,” relates how “Doctor Anderson” was awakened by a knock at the door “just past midnight.” He found on his doorstep a girl of twelve or thirteen who was dressed in a blue coat and carrying a white muff. She implored him to hurry to “the old Hostler place,” where her mother was desperately ill, and then she darted down the road. Anderson picked up his doctor’s bag, quickly saddled his horse, and hurried on his way until “he saw the glow of a lamp in the old Hostler house.”
Finding a bedridden woman inside, the physician put wood on the dying fire and set to work to treat her fever. When she had rallied, he told her how fortunate she was that her daughter had fetched him. “But I have no daughter,” the woman whispered. “My daughter has been dead for three years.” Anderson described to her how the girl had been dressed; the woman admitted that her daughter had had such clothing and indicated where the items were hanging.
Thereupon, relates the narrative’s final paragraph, “Doctor Anderson strode over to the closet, opened the door, and took out a blue coat and white muff. His hands trembled when he felt the coat and muff and found them still warm and damp from perspiration.”
How do we explain such an event? Well, first we remember to apply an old skeptic’s dictum: before attempting to explain something, make sure it really happened.
As it turns out, a book by Billy Graham contains a remarkably similar story (1975, 2–3), wherein the implication is that the little girl in the tale is not a ghost but rather an angel:
Dr. S.W. Mitchell, a celebrated Philadelphia neurologist, had gone to bed after an exceptionally tiring day. Suddenly he was awakened by someone knocking on his door. Opening it he found a little girl, poorly dressed and deeply upset. She told him her mother was very sick and asked him if he would please come with her. It was a bitterly cold, snowy night, but though he was bone tired, Dr. Mitchell dressed and followed the girl. . . .
As Reader’s Digest reports the story, he found the mother desperately ill with pneumonia. After arranging for medical care, he complimented the sick woman on the intelligence and persistence of her little daughter. The woman looked at him strangely and said, “My daughter died a month ago.” She added, “Her shoes and coat are in the clothes closet there.” Dr. Mitchell, amazed and perplexed, went to the closet and opened the door. There hung the very coat worn by the little girl who had brought him to tend her mother. It was warm and dry and could not possibly have been out in the wintry night. . . .
Could the doctor have been called in the hour of desperate need by an angel who appeared as this woman’s young daughter? Was this the work of God’s angels on behalf of the sick woman?
Graham provides no documentation beyond the vague reference to Reader’s Digest, which in any event is hardly a scholarly source. In fact, I soon discovered that the tale is an old one, circulated in various forms with conflicting details. For example, as “The Girl in the Snow,” it appears in Margaret Ronan’s anthology of Strange Unsolved Mysteries. While Graham’s version is of implied recent vintage, that by Ronan is set on a “December day in 1880.” Whereas Graham states that the doctor was “awakened by someone knocking on his door,” Ronan tells us “the doorbell downstairs was ringing violently.” Absent from the Graham version is the suggestion that the little girl was a ghost, not an angel; for example, Ronan says the child looked “almost wraithlike in the whirling snow,” and that “at times she seemed to vanish into the storm. . . .” In Graham’s account, the doctor is credited with simply “arranging for medical care,” while Ronan insists Mitchell “set about at once to do what he could for her” and “by morning he felt that at last she was out of danger.” Although both versions preserve the essential element that the woman’s little girl had died a month before, Graham’s version quotes the mother as saying, “Her shoes and coat are in the clothes closet there,” while Ronan’s has her stating, “All I have left to remember her by are those clothes hanging on that peg over there.” Indeed the latter account does not describe a coat and shoes but states: “Hanging from the peg was the thin dress he had seen the child wearing, and the ragged shawl” (Ronan 1974, 99–101).
There are many other versions—or “variants” as folklorists say—of the proliferating tale. Of the five others I discovered, all feature the physician S. Weir Mitchell, but only two suggest the time period. Unlike the Graham (1975) and Ronan (1974) versions, which have the garments in a “clothes closet” and hanging from a peg, respectively, four of the other five variant tales say the clothes are in a “cupboard”; one has them in a “shabby chiffonier” (Edwards 1961, 52). There are differences in the clothes: Colby (1959) lists a “little dress” and “tattered shawl”; Edwards (1961) a “heavy dress,” “hightop shoes,” and “gray shawl” with a “blue glass pin”; Hurwood (1967) “all the clothes the child had worn when he saw her earlier”; Tyler (1970) that exact same wording; and Strange Stories (1976) “her shoes and [folded] shawl.”
No doubt there are still other versions of the story. Variants are a “defining characteristic of folklore,” according to distinguished folklorist Jan H. Brunvand (1978, 7), since oral transmission naturally produces differing versions of the same story. In this case, however, Brunvand notes that many of the variants are explained by writers copying others (Tyler from Hurwood, for instance) but adding details and making other changes for literary purposes (Brunvand 2000, 132). In any case, Brunvand (1981, 21) observes that when there is no certain original, the multiple versions of a tale provide “good evidence against credibility.” But was there an identifiable original of the Mitchell story?
Brunvand (2000, 123–36) followed up on the tale (with some assistance from me). Eventually he turned up a couple of versions that supposedly came from Mitchell himself. One was published in 1950 by R.W.G. Vail, then-director of the New York Historical Society:
One day in February, 1949, Dr. Philip Cook of Worcester, Mass., while on a visit to New York City, told me this story which he had heard the famous doctor and writer S. Weir Mitchell tell at a medical meeting years ago. (Dr. Mitchell died in 1914).
“I was sitting in my office late one night when I heard a knock and, going to the door, found a little girl crying, who asked me to go at once to her home to visit a very sick patient. I told her that I was practically retired and never made evening calls, but she seemed to be in such great distress that I agreed to make the call and so wrote down the name and address she gave me. So I got my bag, hat, and coat and returned to the door, but the little girl was gone. However, I had the address and so went on and made the call. When I got there, a woman came to the door in tears. I asked if there was a patient needing attention. She said that there had been—her little daughter—but that she had just died. She then invited me in. I saw the patient lying dead in her bed, and it was the little girl who had called at my office.”
Brunvand (2000, 123–36) also turned up an interesting letter from the Mitchell papers. Dated November 2, 1909, it had been written to Mitchell by physician Noel Smith of Dover, New Hampshire. It read:
S. Weir Mitchell, M.D.
My dear Doctor:—
Please pardon my intrusion upon your valuable time, but—as I should like the truthfulness, or otherwise, of what follows established, I have taken the liberty of addressing you.
A travelling man, a stranger, accosted me a few days since at one of our principal hotels, knowing that I was a physician, asking me if I believe in the supernatural, communications with the spirits of departed friends, etc.—I assured him that I had never experienced any personal observations or manifestations that would lead me to any such belief. He then related to me the following story, vouching for its authenticity.—He was a member of some organization, I think, in N.Y., and they had lectures now and then upon various topics. One evening it was announced that prominent men were present who would in turn relate their most wonderful experiences. You was [sic] the first called upon, and you stated that you could tell your most wonderful personal experience in a few words. You went on to say that you were engaged in writing late one evening in your library when somebody knocked three times upon the library door. This was thought to be very strange, as electric bells were in use. Upon opening the door, a little girl, about 12 years of age stood there, having a red cloak for an outer garment. She asked if you were Dr. Mitchell, and wished you to go at once to visit her mother professionally, as she was very ill. You informed her that you had given up general practice, but that Dr. Bennett lived diagonally across the street, and that you would direct her to his door, which you did. In a few moments the raps upon your door were repeated, and you found the girl there a second time. She could not obtain Dr. Bennett’s services, and urged you to accompany her home; and you did so. She conducted you to a poor section of the city and up a rickety flight of stairs into a tenement house. She ushered you into a room where her mother lay ill upon a bed. You prescribed for the sick lady, giving her some general directions for future guide, and assured her that it was only at the very urgent and persistent efforts of her daughter that you were prevailed upon to come to her. The woman said that that was strange: that she had no daughter—that her only daughter had just died and her body reposed in a casket in the adjoining room. You then looked into this room & viewed the remains of a girl about 12 years of age, while hanging upon the wall was a red cloak.
I am curious to know, doctor, whether you ever had any such experience, or any approach thereto. Hence these words. Let me say right here that Mrs. Smith & myself enjoyed very much the reading together the “Red City” when running in the Century Magazine.
Thanking you in advance for your reply to this inquiry. I am
Mitchell wrote the following at the top of Smith’s letter in his own handwriting: “One of many about an early [illegible] ghosttale of [mine?]”—a seemingly tacit admission that the ghost narrative was pure fiction.
Indeed, Mitchell must surely be alluding to this very matter when, in his novel Characteristics ( 1909, 208–209), the protagonist, North, observes:
It is dangerous to tell a ghost-story nowadays. . . . A friend of mine once told one in print out of his wicked head, just for the fun of it. It was about a little dead child who rang up a doctor one night, and took him to see her dying mother. Since then he has been the prey of collectors of such marvels. Psychical societies write to him; anxious believers and disbelievers in the supernatural assail him with letters. He has written some fifty to lay this ghost. How could he predict a day when he would be taken seriously?
So there we have it: Mitchell’s oblique confession that he had simply conjured up a ghost tale, filled it with literary verisimilitude (semblance of truth), and sent it forth. Later, as Brunvand (2000, 129) notes, Mitchell was “chagrined to find the public believing that he was presenting the story as the literal truth.” Mitchell—like the Fox Sisters whose phony spirit communications spawned the modern spiritualist movement (Nickell 2007, 39)—discovered that the genie could not be put back into the bottle.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1978. The Study of American Folklore. New York: W.W. Norton.
———. 1981. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: W.W. Norton.
———. 2000. The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story! Chicago: University of Illinois.
Colby, C.B. 1959. Strangely Enough (abridged). New York: Scholastic Book Services.
Edwards, Frank. 1961. Strange People. New York: Signet.
Graham, Billy. 1975. Angels: God’s Secret Agents. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
Hurwood, Bernhardt J. 1967. Strange Talents. New York: Ace Books.
Mitchell, S. Weir. (1891) 1909. Characteristics. New York: Century.
Musick, Ruth Ann. 1965. The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
———. 2007. Adventures in Paranormal Investigation. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.
Ronan, Margaret. 1974. Strange Unsolved Mysteries. New York: Scholastic Book Services.
Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. 1976. Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association.
Tyler, Steven. 1970. ESP and Psychic Power. New York: Tower Publications.