Call it fate, irony, or a little bit of both, but the Spy House still stands in Port Monmouth, New Jersey, not being the victim of any apparent damage, at least not that I could see from the pier parking lot, as I could not get any closer yesterday due to the property being roped off. As I was passing through the area with a friend, I just could not help but ask him to take the drive down to see if the house was still there. Sure enough, just as I knew in my gut (call me crazy, but I don’t think the spirits there would allow for its destruction), the 262 year old establishment also known as the Seabrook-Wilson House and Bayshore Waterfront Activity Center was still standing tall, in the middle of an area that was completely leveled. To my amazement, though located about fifty feet from the beach, it did not appear to even have a broken window. This is obviously great news for history buffs and paranormal enthusiasts, as the house in rich in both history, lore, legends, and hauntings. I guess it is safe to say that the house is going to be here for a while longer, its survival being a testament to how great construction was back then.
Among the many readers of this blog are people who are lucky enough to live in historic cities and towns; Gettysburg and Fredericksburg to name a couple. As for the rest of us, well, we are relegated to living in normal, boring towns, where the history has been swept away by the sands of time…or worse, the plowing of a bulldozer. Most of you know that I live in Hazlet, formerly Raritan Township, if you were to look at an antique map of the area. What annoys me is that there is absolutely no history here (made even more depressing by the fact that nearby towns such as Keyport, Middletown, and Atlantic Highlands are steeped in Revolutionary War and maritime history)—any landmarks or historic sites we had (operative word, had) have been destroyed over time by our own doing.
We’ve reached that inevitable point in the middle of the summer months that dooms all bloggers. That is, the stretch of time where there is just nothing to write about. No movie or sports news—we are still waiting for a little bit of both. Because of that, I thought it was about time to finally set pen to paper on an idea I have had for a new television show, one that would combine history with the single item we can all find common ground on: food! There are an endless amount of documentaries on all time periods in history (though that number has been shrinking in recent years due to a mass-encroachment from mindless “reality”-based shows), but how many of them ever take the time to go into detail on the food consumed in whatever particular time period they are focusing on? The only one that comes to mind is one of my favorites, The Naked Archaeologist, hosted by Simcha Jacobovici, which I love for its simplistic, down-to-earth approach to archaeology, making it fun, interesting, and easy to learn for everyone. The reason why the show is titled as such is because he peels back the layers, so to speak, making the archaeology “naked”. Many times his shows will include little tidbits on food and lifestyles, which I always found fascinating. I think it is a topic that could do very well as a show of its own, because if there is one thing that can humanize a group of people who have been dead for hundreds or thousands of years, it would be details about, and demonstrations of how to cook the food they ate.
I know what you’re thinking: you’re the biggest Civil War buff on the planet, right? You consider yourself a hardcore fanatic, who eats, sleeps, and breathes Civil War. Well, maybe there are a few things for you to ponder before you declare yourself king. Reenactors notwithstanding, because those people really are in a world of their own, this list is designed to draw the line between the casual reader/enthusiast and the obsessed!
Historian, writer, and friend Kurt Epps is always fond of saying, “You got to hand it to the Sumerians. They invented writing…and beer!” As a former English teacher, he once told me it was imperative when teaching ancient cultures to modern students who could not care less that some comparison to what we have today must be made to keep them interested. This little quip, more often than not, always got the job done, drawing amused stares and question like, “No way! Really?” Yes, really kiddo. The same thing happened to me last week, when dealing with even younger students, and any mention of alcohol whatsoever never ceases to produce childish giggles. Nevertheless, the Sumerian line actually seemed to peak their interest. “Go home and tell mommy and daddy,” I said, “That the next time they sit down to have a beer, they are actually drinking something that is thousands of years old.” I then, in this politically correct world, quickly attached the disclaimer that I am not advocating the consumption of alcoholic beverages to underage students. We have an insecurity in this country when it comes to alcohol; adults can get hammered on weekends, but college students and those younger, well, they do to, but it is kept hush-hush (at least it was in the pre-Facebook “red cup” era of humanity).
Though never forgotten, year after year, the anniversary of the RMS Titanic sinking passes without much more than an article buried in the back of your local newspaper, or maybe an internet posting from someone with a video clip of one of the myriad of films made about the worst maritime disaster in history. This year, however, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary, television specials and magazine editorials are coming with much-deserved regularity. The Titanic has always had a place in our hearts, as many tragedies do, because they illustrate moments in our history where something unexpected struck an innocent victim, or in Her case, more than 1,500 souls. Our history is rooted in tragedies and what-if scenarios. The calendar date of April 15 has two of these: the aforementioned Titanic, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and you can expect that in 2015, Lincoln will get the same treatment from the media, as it will be the ultra important 150th anniversary of the murder that shook America to its core.
Dear Big-Time Hollywood Financiers,
From this year, straight on through to 2015, the United States of America is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the country’s most important event, the Civil War. During those four years, from 1861-1865, nearly 600,000 men gave their lives for various causes, whether it was fighting to keep America united up north, or fighting for states’ rights down south. Never in our history was there more passion exerted over such a small length of time—the stories are endless, not just of the violent and bloody battles, but the individual soldiers that fought in them, and their loved ones at home, anxiously awaiting to hear from them. Though tactics and technology change, the overall scourge of war remains exactly the same. The phrase that we historians and enthusiasts use, “History Repeats Itself”, to which many roll their eyes, has become cliche, but it is true. It is for this reason that we strive to remember the past, however inconvenient or displeasing that may be.
I first came into contact with producer and screenwriter Michael Frost Beckner a few months ago, due to his work with the highly anticipated upcoming mini-series To Appomattox. Having written for their unofficial fan blog since August now, and knowing that MFB, as we call him, is very hands on, I thought I would ask him if he had any history-related ghost stories, during my quest to bring you some of the best from filmmakers and historians around the country. He agreed, and actually sent me two, the first of which occurred in historic Lexington, Virginia while on a research trip. It entails a very creepy encounter with what he believes was the ghost of a Civil War soldier. The second story involves the war as well, but has a slightly different twist. I hope you will enjoy these!
First story—Lexington, Virginia
In 2005, my wife accompanied me on a research trip for To Appomattox. We came into Lexington late one night (about 10pm) without reservations. No hotels available. We called all the Bed and Breakfasts…nothing in town. We found one way up on the Lee Highway. They had been under construction and weren’t reopening for another week, but I explained our predicament and they said they would give us a room for the night. We drove from town up that highway. My wife and I have been on windy, dark roads all over the world many times. Something about this one spooked her. Before we were even to this place, she said she refused to get out of the car, that something “bad” awaited us. I gently told her it was late, there was nowhere else, we were tired, the couple who owned the place were elderly and were opening their home to us late at night…and were waiting.
We arrived up the long dirt driveway (it still needed to be re-paved) and she refused to get out of the car. We argued for a moment. The couple was waiting on the porch and my wife wouldn’t budge. Embarrassed, I got out of the car, walked to the porch and lied that on the way my wife and begun throwing up and might have a stomach flu and we didn’t want to bring germs into their home. They didn’t really believe me, but that was that. Got back in the car. My wife said, “Get out of here as fast as you can. This is a bad place.” (By the way, that was a sweet, old couple and I still feel bad about lying; Anne wasn’t talking about them–just to be straight.)
The rental car was an Infiniti and had a rear-viewing camera with a monitor in the dash. A little more common now, but back then that was the first I’d driven with one of those and I was into the technology of it all. So I put the car in reverse and didn’t look over my shoulder, opting to use the cool camera/monitor. Anne did look over her shoulder though. Suddenly, I saw a figure (in the monitor) loom up directly behind me. It was a bearded man in Civil War officer’s uniform and slouch hat. Reenactor, I thought at the second it happened. Anne, looking back through rear window glass, shouted, “Stop! You’ll hit him!” I was already slamming my brake. I hit him. I must have. Yet he remained as though embedded in the bumper—I was still looking at the display, Anne still over her shoulder, then he “became” exhaust and dissolved. It was exhaust. I distinctly remember knowing, somehow, in the moment I saw him that he wasn’t “solid.” The exhaust dissipated in wisps.
Anne asked, “Did you see him? Was it someone?”
I answered, ”Where was his hand?”
She said, “Holding the top of his sword.”
He had been—his hand resting on the guard of his sword in his scabbard. When I asked Anne to describe him she gave me the same details: beard, long Civil War coat with two rows of buttons, and a “cowboy” hat. A few years later, I remembered the event and went online to see if anyone else had seen him. There are LOTS of reports of a Confederate officer/spirit who harasses cars along that road.
Second story—Richmond, Virginia
Here’s another one…We were in Richmond (again, another research trip). Staying at small “historic” hotel—I don’t remember the name. The rooms were unchanged since the 1800′s. Bedroom, big living room, high ceiling, original/period furniture. Anne woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me “someone was in the room” with us. I looked around both rooms. No one there. I didn’t feel anything creepy. She said, there had been a woman who woke her up. I told her she had a nightmare, and went back to bed.
Shortly after, about 3am, about to fall back asleep, as we were lying there we began to hear children laughing and chattering and playing outside. It went on for about 30 minutes. It was very irritating. The next morning I complained to the management. They swore that there was no group of children staying there and that no one else had heard anything—the proprietors stay there as well. We checked around and, sure enough there were no children staying there; only two other couples, and I asked them—they didn’t hear any children.
A day later, at another hotel, I found an old Readers’ Digest magazine. There was an article in it about the place where we had stayed. Don’t remember the details, as in names, but it told the story of a young Richmond woman (with a “wild” reputation) who had a love affair with a Civil War officer that was somewhat scandalous—they would race horses up and down the streets. They got married the day before he went to the front. Lee gave her permission to visit him, but battle intervened. By the time she got to the front to see her new husband…he was dead.
The woman who’s husband died returned to Richmond and locked herself in her room for a year. Her house was the hotel we had stayed in–though not the room she’d locked herself in. When she ended her mourning, she converted the home into a school for war orphans.
I would like to thank Michael for taking the time to share these two fascinating stories with me. As we get closer and closer to Halloween, sometimes we do not realize how often history and the paranormal intersect with each other.
Let me just point out that it is no longer the History Channel, just “History” by itself, but to avoid confusion, I am going to refer to them by their older name.
Just last week, when I ripped into the Emmy Awards for giving the History Channel’s latest bust-documentary, Gettysburg, the award for outstanding non-fiction special, I mentioned that although this channel is slipping each and every day in regards to the quality and ideas behind their programming, at least one of their sister-networks was still around for us die-hards to relive the glory days of the mid-1990′s and early 2000′s. This network, as I have written about and lauded on several occasions, was History International, a network that replayed the older shows that put the History Channel on the map, before their obsession with aliens, the apocalypse, and reality shows took hold. However, just the other day, I realized that this channel has been renamed, changing to H2, and the amount of older programming has been almost all cut out.
Mornings on H.I were very enticing for me, as I would DVR most of the shows to watch later in the evening when I had free time. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Leonard Nimoy narrate Ancient Almanac from 1995 and a few years after, as the show covered various mysteries and amazing tales and stories from the ancient world. Next came Vanishings, a story about famous disappearances, then one of my favorite shows, the informative and quirky Naked Archaeologist, which made history and archaeology fun for everyone, no matter what their educational background. Lastly, History’s Mysteries, one of the main network’s most popular shows when they aired more than 150 episodes between 1996 and 2004, has been pretty much narrowed down into one day. The one thing I could never understand about that show, is that of all the episodes filmed, only the same 20 or 30 continued to air. Maybe this is something they can fix, if they are indeed going to keep them on the air. There were other shows too, a lot to name here specifically, but you can see how disappointing it would be if this lineup were to come to an abrupt end with almost no warning.
Just when I couldn’t get anymore closer to stop watching this network completely, they pull this stunt. Perhaps I am overreacting, but maybe I prefer the older greatness to this newer crap. The first show I just happened to view on this new network? Mega Disasters. Terrific. Want to know what is airing on Friday night at 8pm? Gettysburg!
I really hope that these old shows will make their way back, and that this new lineup is just a way of ushering in the new channel. I am tired of apocalypse and how the aliens built everything on ancient earth. I am tired of all the speculative nonsense. I want straight-up history; is that too much to ask for? Please, give us back our network, and know that not everyone is captivated by Ice Road Truckers and Swamp People (see one episode, you’ve seen ‘em all), and not everyone is in a paranoid frenzy like Ancient Aliens.
When I read that the History’s Gettysburg documentary from this past May was nominated for six Emmy Awards, I wanted to laugh. Today, when I found out that they actually won four, I wanted to cry. Okay, so maybe tears did not really well up in my eyes, but that does not make me any less upset or angry that this travesty to American Civil War history was lauded on a world-renown platform, an Awards ceremony that is supposed to recognize the absolute best in American television. Gettysburg, as I noted when I reviewed it the night it aired, came with so much hype and promise, and it not only failed to deliver, but left history buffs and experts at a loss for words at how laugh-out-loud horrible the facts were. Special effects aside, because they were very good and their Emmy win was deserved, this documentary did more harm than good for those who knew little or nothing about the battle that changed the tide of the Civil War, and thus the nation, as a result.
When I spoke to historian and Gettysburg battle expert J.D Petruzzi back in August, I asked him about how it was possible for a major production to be so flawed, with so many resources available. This is an excerpt of his answer:
How something like that can air? I think much of it has to do with marketing and trying to appeal to an audience which today is pretty inflicted with ADD. And I also know that the writers and producers didn’t consult with the historical advisers and consultants beyond just their few minutes of speaking throughout the episode. If they had – consulted with knowledgeable folks like Garry Adelman and such – most or all of the garbage that aired wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It was filmed in South Africa literally on the cheap, so the terrain looked nothing like Gettysburg (unless Gettysburg is comprised mainly of acres and acres of sand and pine stands and I’ve somehow missed that). If you read my review of the show, you’ll see that I point out an error committed just about every minute, and I actually didn’t include most of them. The show was very, very hard to watch, and my wife kept running into the room thinking that I was screaming in physical pain rather than mental… All the CGI and graphics done by the Scott Brothers studio – which was brought onto the project only at the very last second in order to do the CGI and attach their names to it – couldn’t save that show from making everyone’s eyes bleed. The History channel can only do the right thing by burning all copies of that program and never allowing it to see the light of day ever again.
So, not only was the film not destroyed, but it actually won the award for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special, which is pretty ironic considering some of the scenarios they presented were either so distorted or misinformed that they could have been the work of a master fiction author. What they did not tweak to fit their own little docudrama, they made up out of thin air, my favorite part being when one of Rick Harrison’s “experts” from Pawn Stars came on the screen and told the audience with a straight face that the impact of firing artillery for long periods of time would cause the ear drums of the artillerymen to explode, and send blood oozing out of their ears, among other things that I have never heard of before (it is best to read J.D’s blow-by-blow description).
This is definitely my disappointment of the day, because this was a show that quite literally deserved to be disposed of. I have grown ever critical of the History Channel in recent years, because of their shying away from actual history and movement towards endless Doomsday and Apocalypse shows. But what upsets me here is not how bad this show was, but because it had the chance to reverse the nonsense coming from what used to be my favorite channel, and one that earned worldwide respect. This could have been the beginning of a new era of real programming, but instead, it just serves to insult historians even further, as if being told that every accomplishment in world history was because of aliens and flying saucers is not enough. I am thankful History International is still around, because they show the older, better shows, but as for History (as they are called now, omitting the word “channel”; it should be the other way around, I think) it is safe to say that all hope is lost. They do not care about facts, they care about money and awards, and that is evident after last night.
What scares me here is something that I have only recently thought about—the main reason why I hated this show is because I know enough about the Civil War to see how bad this was. But what about all the other documentaries we have watched over the years that we don’t know much about? How many facts did they get wrong with those that just went unnoticed? I watch a documentary to get the right information, and I don’t want it to be a guessing game. Thanks to this trash, I have this in the back of my head the next time I sit down to watch one of their programs…if I ever do again.