The Internet Can’t Help Solve This Vera Van Slyke Mystery

the-v-filesOne of the most interesting aspects of having edited the Vera Van Slyke chronicles is knowing that, with the Internet, I can do follow-up detective work in ways that Vera and my great-grandaunt Lida never could.

Take, for instance, the case titled “Dark and Dirty Corners,” which is found in Help for the Haunted. It involves an unusual house out on “the moors” of the Chicago-area hinterlands, a building known as Stickney House. A curious feature of this house is that it was built with rounded corners, both inside and out.

stickney-house
Stickney House in Bull Valley, Illinois, was built between 1849 and either 1856 or 1865, depending on the source.

Amid much misinformation on the Web regarding the house’s history, one reoccurring legend is that the odd architecture grew from Mr. and Mrs. Stickney being devoted Spiritualists. Supposedly, they held that traditional corners prohibit the movement of spirits. The couple wanted to provide any spirits with plenty of freedom to glide gracefully into conversations with Mrs. Stickney, a medium.  The house and its curved corners were designed to be conducive to séances, you see.

That’s the legend, anyway.

Vera grew leery, however, when she heard about this during her investigation of ghosts lingering at the house. She was something of an expert on Spiritualism, having defrauded a good many mediums, including her own assistant/my great-grandaunt Lida! But she had never heard anything about 90-degree corners hobbling or hiding ghosts. She had never read anything about this in the vast literature about Spiritualism that had been written since 1848. (That was the year that the Fox Sisters first claimed that they could contact the dead. Though they later confessed that it was a prank, the notoriety the Fox Sisters gained sparked the Spiritualist movement.)

spirit-house
Spirit House in Georgetown, New York, was built between 1864 and 1868.

Now, Vera did know about a house in Georgetown, a town in her home state of New York, that had been built with séances in mind. It was Spirit House (a.k.a.Wedding Cake House, Brown’s Temple, and Timothy Brown’s House). It has rounded corners, too — at least, on the outside. Unfortunately, Vera didn’t know if the corners were rounded on the inside, where the séances would be conducted.

Searching online, I managed to find a scan of a report on Spirit House saying that, in 1964, the exterior of the structure still had “rounded corners created by a series of scalloped 2″ x 4″ vertical planks arranged in a semi-circle.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell me if those corners were rounded inside the house. All I can say is that the two houses — which are both still standing — look fairly similar to one another from the outside.


I next decided to use the power of the Internet to see what I could discover about the belief that spirits prefer their corners rounded. Unfortunately, unless I’m simply not coming up with the right search terms — “Spiritualism,” “spirits,” “rounded corners,” “corners,” “corner,” “architecture” — Google Books, HathiTrust, and Making of America don’t offer a single scrap of evidence that any Spiritualists at all held to this belief.

george-stickney
George Stickney (1809-1897)

I more closely checked sources that were available to Vera: Willaim R. Gordon’s A Three-Fold Test of Spiritualism (1856), Benjamin Coleman’s Spiritualism in America (1861), Alfred R. Wallace’s A Defense of Modern Spiritualism (1874), Willaim Crookes’ Researches into the Phenomenon of Spiritualism (1874), and Ann Leah Underhill’s The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism (1885). Nothing there.

I also checked sources that were published after Vera’s 1901 investigation: J. M. Peebles’ What is Spiritualsim, Who Are These Spritualists, and What Has Spiritualism Done for the World? (1903), James Robinson’s Spiritualism:  The Open Door to the Unseen Universe (1908), Hereward Carrington’s The Physical Phenomenon of Spiritualism (1920), and Joseph McCabe’s Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847 (1920). Nothing there.

As Vera herself conceded in 1901, a lack of corroborating evidence doesn’t disprove the stories that George Stickney built his house to be inviting to roaming ghosts. But it is curious that such evidence is so hard to come by. It’s even curiouser in the Internet Age.

If anyone happens to have any relevant evidence regarding this, I would be very pleased to learn of it. I would happily admit that I missed something. After all, if I missed something, I’m in good company.  So did the great investigator Vera Van Slyke!

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