The Life and Ghosts of Vera Van Slyke: The Timeline

This timeline covers the history behind the hauntings investigated by Vera Van Slyke as well as key moments in her own life. It will continue to grow as I unearth more relevant information.

Links to related historical evidence appear in brown. The titles of my great-grandaunt’s chronicles appear in violet. All of these tales can be found in Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909).

1763

Colonel Henry Bouquet commanded the British Fort Pitt, strategically located where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet. (The site is now near downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.) Bouquet drew plans to have his soldiers carry smallpox-infested blankets to the indigenous tribes attacking the fort, telling his commander that “it is a pity to expose good men against them. . . .” The consequences of this plan were long-lasting and are explained in “A Burden that Burns.”

1832

An epidemic of cholera was brought via the ship Sheldon Thompson to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn. The victims of the deadly disease were buried side-by-side — without coffins or headstones — at a site that later became the corner of Lake Street and Wabash Avenue. In 1906, this mass grave would have a deadly effect on a group of tunnel diggers working far below that spot, as detailed in “Vampire Particles.”

1846

The March 19th issue of Scientific American (1.27, p. 3) reported “the discovery of a monstrous wild man in the swamps about the Arkansas and Missouri line.” The brief article says the creature’s track measures 22 inches but concludes: “We are of the opinion that either the ‘wild man,’ or the man who raised the story, is a great monkey.” Despite such jibes, in 1851, several newspapers reprinted a report in The Memphis Enquirer, regarding a “Wild Man of the Woods” spotted in Greene County, Arkansas. The human-like creature “was of gigantic stature, the body being covered with hair. . . .” It fled “with great speed, leaping from twelve to fourteen feet at a time.” This early version of Bigfoot reappeared yet again in this same region of northeast Arkansas in 1908, and Vera Van Slyke had a role in investigating it. The truth is revealed in “Monstrimony.”

1848

The Night Side of Nature; or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers, by Catherine Crowe, was first published. This became Vera’s most prized book in her library of works on ghosts and related phenomenon.

The Fox Sisters from Hydesville, New York, claimed to be able to communicate with spirits of the deceased through a series of raps. They became a sensation that ignited the Spiritualism movement. The date of this event became important to Vera’s 1901 investigation of the haunted Stickney House, chronicled in “Dark and Dirty Corners.”

1849

George and Sylvia Stickney began construction on a brick house in Nunda Township, Illinois. The structure was built to avoid standard right angles; almost all of its corners are rounded. Though there are alternative theories, some claim this design grew from the Stickneys’ Spiritualist belief that regular corners hinder free communication with spirits. In 1901, Vera pursued ghosts lingering at the Stickney’s curious house, as told in “Dark and Dirty Corners.”

1850

The Fugitive Slave Act was passed, holding all U.S. citizens — including Northerners, be they abolitionist or apathetic — responsible for returning runaway slaves. This law is often cited as having changed many minds regarding slavery, steering the nation toward eventual Civil War. Its impact resurfaced in 1907, when Vera and Lida went to Philadelphia to deal with the ghosts of slavery in “King Midas Exhumed.”

1855

An account of a supernatural investigation conducted by Harry Escott was published in Harper’s Magazine. Titled “The Pot of Tulips,” this chronicle was written by Fitz-James O’Brien, who feigned Escott’s voice to narrate the case. O’Brien did the same four years later with “What Was It? A Mystery,” which also notes that Escott smoked opium. These artistic choices opened Escott to charges of fabricating falsehoods. Escott later became Vera’s mentor in ghost-hunting, and he taught her this hard lesson in publicizing one’s cases. As explained in “Houdini Slept Here,” this is why Vera does not write about her own supernatural investigations despite her being a journalist. Escott’s case involving the pot of tulips and his opium usage are both mentioned in “Ghosts and Other Immigrants.”

1857

A mutiny occurred on the Junioran American whaling ship sailing off the coast of Australia. Second-mate Henry Thorn Lord survived the ordeal, went on to become a ship’s captain, and eventually retired on Cape Cod by 1903. His was not a restful retirement, though, and Vera and Lida investigate why in “An Unanchored Man.”

1868

Vera Van Slyke was born in a rural town in New York State on July 9.

1882

Ludmila Prášilová, better known by her pet name Lida, was born in Prague, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) on May 6. This detail is first mentioned in “The Minister’s Unveiling” and referred to in later chronicles.

The U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, significantly restricting immigration from China (and setting a precedent for placing strict restrictions on newcomers from almost all of Asia in 1917 and those from Eastern and Southern Europe in 1921 and 1924). The Exclusion Act has a bearing on the strange events chronicled in “Ghosts and Other Immigrants.”

1887

Lida emigrated to the U.S. at five years old, settling in Chicago. This detail is first mentioned in “The Minister’s Unveiling” and referred to in later chronicles.

1894

After the death of her father, twelve-year-old Lida was coerced by her mother to earn a living by posing as a psychic medium. At some point, she renamed herself Lucille Parsell. This detail is first mentioned in “The Minister’s Unveiling” and referred to in later chronicles, especially “Shadows Cast from Behind Me.”

1899

In Boston, Vera exposed Lida as a fake Spiritualist medium at the mansion of Roderick Morley. Afterward, Vera interviewed Lida for a book about the tricks of mediums. The two wound up investigating a haunted Catholic confessional outside of the city. Their first shared ghost-hunting adventure is chronicled in “The Minister’s Unveiling.”

1900

Vera traveled from New York to Chicago to investigate poltergeist-like activity occurring during rehearsals of a production of Macbeth. She rejoined Lida, who tells the tale in “The Ghost of Banquo’s Ghost.”

Vera and Lida discovered how to illuminate the ruptures that guilt tears in the membrane between the physical and spiritual dimensions. The details are found in “Skittering Holes.”

1901

Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze: A Decade of Defrauding Mediums, by Vera Van Slyke, was published. The title refers to one of Vera’s methods of debunking psychic mediums. She secretly swapped the séance candles with specially made ones whose upwardly wafting smoke induced sneezing in anyone not sitting around the table. The sneezing, then, revealed any confederates posing as spirits to be embarrassingly corporeal.

To promote her new book, Vera and Lida traveled to Nunda Township, Illinois. This led to their investigation of ghosts in Stickney House, a “prairie mansion” built with virtually no right-angle corners. The mystery of why the house was so designed and its relation to the supernatural is probed in “Dark and Dirty Corners.”

1902

Vera’s newspaper ad offering “Help for the Haunted” sent her and Lida on a trip to Pittsburgh. There, they investigated a series of fires that ignited inexplicably on a single piece of land for over a decade. The duo learned that the cause of the fires goes back over a century. Details of the investigation can be found in “A Burden that Burns.”

1903

The duo returned to the same mansion in Boston where Vera exposed Lida as a fake Spiritualist medium. After investigating the ghosts lingering there, they took a rest on Cape Cod. They met an elderly sea captain whose seaside cottage was being attacked by nocturnal, invisible “marauders.” Vera and Lida’s startling discovery of what haunts the captain is revealed in “An Unanchored Man.”

1904

Rick Bergson, first introduced in “Skittering Holes,” ran into Vera and Lida again. He ended up taking Lida to see something new: a motion picture projected on a screen. But Lida saw something from her troubled past enacted on the screen, too — and Vera was too busy reporting on a meatpackers’ strike to help her investigate the vision. Whether or not Lida was able to solve the mystery herself is revealed in “Shadows Cast from Behind Me.”

1905

Vera returned to New York to help an up-and-coming magician named Harry Houdini. The King of Handcuffs found himself being blackmailed by a Spiritualist medium — and a spirit from his own past. Lida tells the story in “Houdini Slept Here.”

Before leaving New York, Vera introduced Lida to Wou Sankwei, who joins Vera in telling Lida the tale of how they met. It had been in San Francisco during the mid-1880s, when Vera was on a case with her ghost-hunting mentor, Harry Escott. The story-within-a-story is told in “Ghosts and Other Immigrants.”

1906

A group of workers digging freight tunnels far below the streets of Chicago died from something that spurred them to “live life” with such mania that their hearts and kidneys failed. Suspecting the supernatural, the coroner for Cook County, Peter M. Hoffman, brought the mystery to Vera and Lida. Vitellius Berry, introduced in “A Burden that Burns,” was summoned to dig up a historical explanation for the strange deaths. The case is chronicled in “Vampire Particles.”

1907

Vera and Lida traveled to Philadelphia in response to a Greek-immigrant tavern owner who wanted them to “install” a ghost. He figured it would attract customers. With the help of Vitellius Berry, the team discovered the bar had a history related to runaway slaves — and, once they publicized this, a real specter appeared. But it wasn’t at all the kind the Greek businessman wanted! The ghosts of slavery rise and an important secret about Vera’s heritage is revealed in “King Midas Exhumed.”

1908

A “wild man of the woods” — a creature that later would become known as Bigfoot — was seen outside of Paragould, Arkansas. Afterward, Vera was called upon to aid in investigating the sightings by a part-time cryptozoologist named Geoffrey Wallace Livingstone Adams. He believed these creatures are really the ghosts of an extinct, evolutionary human ancestor. Whether his theory was validated or not is revealed in “Monstrimony.”

1909

Over 250 boys and men lost their lives in Cherry, Illinois, when fire and fumes swept through a coal mine. This tragedy might help explain the coats that dance with nothing in them, a phenomenon observed in a secondhand-clothing store in Milwaukee. One witness claimed that the coats were being worn by invisible — yet physical — beings. Vera and Lida investigated whether or not these so-called “hard ghosts” were really ghosts at all, a pivotal case with a significant loss for Vera and an even greater loss for Lida. The chronicle is titled “Beyond the Great Beyond.” 

1941

Vera Van Slyke died.

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