It was a good night for a ghost story.
It gets darker earlier now, making 7 p.m. on October 7 a perfectly creepy time to make one’s way across the dimly lit Cherry Street to the Milton Historical Society Museum, a still-warm breeze following.
Inside the church-turned-museum was a standing room only crowd, there to hear Milton man Jason Smiley’s retelling of the Eddy family legend, one of Vermont’s own ghost tales.
A Dealer.com employee by day, Smiley has invested hundreds of hours into his research on the Eddys of Chittenden, Vt., renowned world over for their professed ability to summon spirits from beyond the grave. He’s even working on a screenplay about their story.
To set the mood, Smiley switched off the lights and jokingly placed a flashlight under his chin in the classic campfire ghost story pose. His projector and laptop’s accompanying glow cast strange shadows from the museum’s artifacts of Milton’s past.
“Eighty percent of the time I do this presentation something funky electrical happens,” Smiley said, to laughter. “I’m not saying that it’s spirits. I’m just saying take it however you want to.”
A good setting for a story indeed.
Smiley began with an historical overview of the spiritualism movement, which started in Hydesville, N.Y. with the Fox sisters, who reported communicating with a spirit in 1848. The three women were even hired by circus showman P.T. Barnum to showcase their talents but later admitted they were frauds, Smiley said.
The Brothers Davenport and their “spirit cabinet” were also well known at the time, establishing a trend that speaking with spirits was a talent that ran in families.
The Civil War also set important context, Smiley said.
“The country at that time was experiencing death on a massive scale,” he said. “That attraction of being able to speak to your loved ones from the other side was too great for many.”
Enter the Eddy family, whose psychic lineage reaches back to the Salem witch trials. Many of Julia and Zephaniah’s 11 children claimed these spiritualist abilities that gained them worldwide attention. Some say they even performed for President Abraham Lincoln, though that was never confirmed, Smiley said.
For all their fans, they had many skeptics, though there are some undeniably weird happenings in both the Eddys’ lives and their performances.
Several of them predicted their own deaths, which they’d recorded in the family bible. Three family members died within months of a meteor that crashed on their lawn – on Friday the 13th, 1861, no less. That event was reported widely in New England newspapers, Smiley said.
In 1872, the family stopped touring and performed séances at home. Two years later Col. Henry Steel Olcott, a Civil War veteran and journalist, was dispatched on a weeklong trip to debunk Horatio and William Eddy’s séances for the New York Sun.
“It created a great sensation,” Smiley said. “Basically what the colonel saw, he thought was real.”
And the colonel was a trusted source: He was one of only three people appointed to investigate Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Smiley said. Another paper picked up the story and extended Olcott’s stay for 12 weeks.
This time, he brought illustrator Alfred Kappes, with whom he explored the house, inspecting for trap doors or windows to explain from where the spirits came.
The duo saw up to 400 phantoms during the séances of all colors, genders, shapes and sizes, refuting disbelievers who said the Eddys dressed as spirits in costume. They even asked the spirit Honto, a Native American woman, to step on a scale, which showed different weights on different nights.
Olcott mostly believed the brothers were mediums and communicated as such in weekly newspaper columns that later became a book.
The local media, however, wasn’t as kind, Smiley said. Both the Rutland Herald and Burlington Free Press chalked them up as frauds, and the story goes that one of the Eddy sisters confirmed this in an anonymous letter to the Herald.
Smiley said he generally believes in ghosts, despite calling himself a very skeptical person. He thinks the Eddys were probably illusionists rather than true mediums but lets his audience make their own conclusions.
“Whether you think they’re real or not, I think it’s a great story,” he said.
A story that went off without one electrical hitch this time.
If you missed Smiley’s presentation in Milton, catch him at the following locations:
- Wednesday, Oct. 21, Georgia Historical Society, 7 pm.
- Wednesday, Oct. 28, Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, Middlesex, 6 p.m.
- Thursday, Nov. 5, Fairfax Community Library, 6:30 p.m.