Let me begin by stating that the ghost seen by rail passengers leaving Coney Island in August of 1894 proved to be a hoax. A very cruel hoax, too, given that it occurred in the spot where the body of suicide victim Margaret Barning had been found only days earlier. But it was this suicide that spurred people in and around Mapleton, New Jersey, to believe that what they saw was indeed the lingering spirit of a young woman who suffered a tragic death.
On Sunday, August 5th, 1894, Maggie Barning shot herself near the Mapleton railroad station. She was twenty-six years old. An article in New York’s The Evening World explains that her body hadn’t been identified until Wednesday. On Friday, according to The Sun, “scores of people on the Sea Beach train which left Coney Island at 1 o’clock” witnessed an apparition while passing the spot where Barning’s body had been found. A “tall and shadowylike” figure approached, “gesticulating as one would do trying to stop a train.” Blowing the whistle and applying the brakes didn’t stop the ghostly figure from continuing into a nearby woods, all the while moving its arms as if frantically bidding someone to follow.
Word spread quickly, and the very next evening, an investigative team was organized to discover what had happened. The ghost was spotted yet again by the train crew, but this time, the panicked engineer decided to “pull open the throttle and outrun the thing,” according to the next issue of The Sun. That article also reports that, in the meanwhile, the investigative team embarked on a chase! They came up empty handed, though. They were hesitant to say much more than they were sure “an infernal big spook or something” was lurking along the tracks and they refused to be fooled by it.
Subsequent reports about the ghost took on a light-hearted feel. The Evening World, for instance, told readers about a plan to have about a dozen bicyclists poised to chase down the ghost at its next appearance. The instigator of this plan explained that “a bicycle can make better time than spirituality with a shroud on.” On the same day, The Sun cited Brooklyn Police Inspector William McKelvey as declaring that, “if the spectre wasn’t washed away by yesterday’s rain, . . . he would send out a corps of police armed with pistols loaded with silver bullets to run it down.” Bullets, even silver ones, might not have worked, though. A later issue of The Sun recounted how four men visiting from Montana encountered the ghost. One described it as “a woman dressed in white and her eyes looking like they were on fire.” In their astonishment, one man shot at the specter, but it rushed at them and chased them off. The shooter dropped his gun and assured the reporter that he had no intention of going back to find it.
About a week later, another ghost hunt was organized, this time by Mapleton residents worried that rumors of a ghost would lower their property values. After a long and fruitless night, some members of the team went home. But for one staunch skeptic, the remaining members are alleged to have seen the ghost mournfully standing over the spot where Maggie Barning killed herself. The shocked ghost hunters fled the scene. One looked back to see the ghost follow its usual route into the woods. The reporter for The Sun concludes the article by stating: “Mapleton’s ghost is still an unsolved mystery.”
That mystery remained unsolved for about three weeks. By then, the sightings had made a deep mark. “Nervous people refused to go out after dark, women spent sleepless nights, and when the men went out they armed themselves with either guns or clubs,” according to The Sun.
Eight men from Flatbush responded by walking the distance to Mapleton to settle the matter once and for all. Well-armed, they didn’t have to wait long before they encountered the ghost. It came right at them! Amid fear and gunfire, W.T. Tibbals managed to grab, punch, and kick the ghost. He also spotted the wire along which the phantom — comprised of crossed sticks, hay, and a sheet — had traveled, seeming to float with supernatural agility. Now knowing the secret of the Mapleton ghost, Tibbals next fired his pistol into the air, spurring two hidden men to rise and run away. “No one chased them,” that reporter for The Sun laments. The more succinct report in The Evening World says, “The two men who were manipulating the ghost’s movements escaped. The ghost is now on exhibition at the engine house in Flatbush.”
Though the Mapleton ghost was revealed to be a hoax, the fact that it was built upon the tragedy of Maggie Barning’s suicide reveals something I’ve been finding in many of the articles I’ve gathered for my Spectral Edition project. (I’ve now collected well over 200 articles, only a few of them ending with a natural explanation.) The notion that ghost sightings are interwoven with our profound longing to be assured of an afterlife makes a great deal of sense. Still, I’m struck by how often ghost reports in U.S. newspapers between 1865 and 1918 zero in on lives lost too soon, usually due to murder or suicide. Premature death is, of course, a universal human worry. Was it especially so in the States between the Civil War and World War I?
Or does the motive behind those many, many ghost reports lie elsewhere? To paraphrase the reporter from The Sun: It’s still an unsolved mystery.