My Life with Ghosts: The Civil War Twins

Here’s the next installment of “My Life with Ghosts,” a series of stories written about my experiences while living in a haunted house (the home that had been in my husband’s family for generations).  Once again, with our efforts at cleaning and purging the house, we had stirred up the “psychic dust.” This time, the  ghosts we encountered dated all the way back to The Civil War…

Ambrotype found in the coal dust…

One of my earliest memories of visiting “The House” was from when I first knew my husband some twenty years earlier. At that time, his father’s house was heated by a furnace fueled by coal, and on colder days, that coal would have to be replenished several times. I remember Lee taking me down to the basement where I would watch from the stairs as he opened the furnace door and shovel little pieces of shiny, black coal into a hopper, which then delivered the coal into a red hot flame. It seemed an antiquated process but a romantic one.

Years later, my father-in-law, Harold, replaced the coal furnace with a gas one. But in his typical style of neglect, the mountain of coal remained in the basement for many years after. In fact, the coal was still there when we eventually moved in following his death. Realizing that we might as well be living on top of a keg of dynamite, we hired a couple of workers to remove the coal–it took three days of shoveling and bagging before it was finally gone from our lives.

Not long after, Lee and I went down to the basement to clean up after the workmen. Lee was just about to empty his dustpan, when I saw by the bit of daylight that was creeping in from a dirty window the glint of something in the black coal dust. “What’s that?” I asked. Lee, of course, inwardly groaned. “Yet again,”  I could hear him thinking,.”She’s going to save another piece of junk.” But I ignored him. I picked the object up out of the dustpan. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, I saw that it was a photograph of a man, whose face was barely discernible in the dimness of the basement’s light. The effect was eerie.

We carried the photograph over to the window where we could study it closer. The picture’s frame served also as a carrying case, with the back side made of a black material, perhaps leather, and embossed with a decorative floral pattern. The front side of the case was missing. The old photograph itself, only a couple of inches across, was under glass and surrounded by a decorative gold border. The man in the photo was clearly a civil war soldier, and was dressed in full uniform with a rifle at his side.

Curious to know what we had found, we took the photograph to a local civil war shop to be appraised. They identified the object as an ambrotype, an early style of photography on glass from the 1850’s. They estimated its worth at several hundred dollars. But in order to give us more exact information about the soldier, the experts at the shop needed the man’s name. With the identification of the soldier, they explained, it would be worth much more. Lee knew that he had ancestors, twin brothers, that had fought in the war. Perhaps this was one of them. And our priority suddenly shifted from potentially making money from selling old junk, to seeking out a family’s story.

We returned to the basement and searched the site of our discovery, hoping to find clues to the identity of the soldier. There, immediately next to where the ambrotype had been swept up from the coal littered floor, were two trunks, both brown, dirty, and old. I had passed by them many times before, maybe even glanced inside, but I’d never made the effort to really examine them. On this particular occasion, when we examined their contents, I finally realized the full significance of what we were living with in The House.

We  opened one of the trunks and right away, found a small piece of wood covered with red velvet. It fit like a puzzle piece onto the ambrotype. It was the missing front of the case.

As we dug through the two trunks, we realized that we had stumbled across the “burial plots” of many , including a great-aunt, a great-uncle, a great-grandmother, and as we were about to discover, the Civil War twins.

We did not have to search in the trunks long before we found what we needed…an old reproduction of a photograph measuring approximately 2′ x 2 1/2′. It was of two young men, seated side by side. Each was dressed in their finest–white shirt, vest, black bow tie, and black dress jacket. At the moment at which the photograph had been taken, they were both looking solemnly into the eye of the photographer, creating the chilling effect that they were now looking straight at me some 150 years later.

It was one of the few photographs in this house with any kind of notation. I recognized Barney’s {Lee’s grandfather} cursive penmanship immediately, and miraculously, it gave us the information we needed. Written on the back was the following:

John and William McKinnon,
twin brothers of Catherine Amanda Cole.
One killed in War Between the States,
other died of typhoid during the war.

So here were Lee’s ancestors from the Civil War, the brothers of which he had heard of but knew so little about. Now we knew not only their names, but their faces as well. We noted how the twins differed in their features. They parted their mid-length hair on opposite sides; one’s mouth was turned down; and one had a rounder face than the other. But their light-colored eyes were almost identical, and their gaze was hard to shake.

Most importantly, we immediately recognized one of the men as the Civil War soldier from the ambrotype. I excitedly gave the experts at the Civil War shop a call and gave them the name of the soldier. Within minutes, the woman at the other end of the line was rattling off information about the soldier found in the coal dust:

John A. McKinnon had been a thirty-four year old farmer whose residence was in Moore County, North Carolina. On 3/13/1862, McKinnon enlisted in the 49th NC Infantry and was part of Ransom’s Brigade. On 9/13/1864 he was listed as wounded. Two days later, he was dead.

It was at this moment that it sunk in. It wasn’t that we were living in an ordinary house that happened to be full of interesting old junk. No, it was much more than that. This was a house full of history which was not limited to one family’s story. The house, piece by piece, was beginning to tell us a saga of times dating back a century and a half.

We continued to search the remaining contents of the two trunks. The items were largely from the early 1900’s–letters, receipts, small town Alabamian newspapers (apparently saved for the articles which detailed the deaths of various family members), boxes full of mementos, photographs, greeting cards, and a gift of a gold ring still in its Christmas wrappings. It was poignantly sweet how so many of these things had been tied up with string, ribbons, and even an old tie. My favorite find was Lessie’s box of mementos {Lessie was Lee’s great-grandmother}. Her brown box, which once held a bible, had been bound with a black sash and was a veritable treasure trove. It contained among other things a 1901 photograph of Lessie–a thin, serious young woman dressed in a floor-length dark skirt and striped shirt decorated with little black bows; another photograph of Lessie which notes the year of her birth, 1879; report cards for her children; a homemade collaged book given to one of her children in 1916, postcards; an antique valentine; Christmas tags from presents; a button hook; and a sad find–photographs of someone’s grave.

Many of the items in the trunks were simply too personal to bring up into our living space: a military hat (from WWII?); a woman’s mirror and brush and a man’s toiletry kit, both from the 1920’s. These stayed in the trunk. And there was a mystery–a large piece of white cotton splattered with what looked like blood. What had happened here? It was disturbing. The two trunks, it turns out, held within many lives, many mysteries, and I grew determined to get to the bottom of it all.

Unfortunately, an eerie pattern with “The House” was making itself known. For whenever we made an attempt to straighten and purge, some strange event was sure to follow…

That night, Lee and I both had nightmares. Unusual enough in itself. But what was even more disturbing was their similarity. Lee dreamed that there was an old man standing in the room looking at him.  And eerily, I had almost the exact same dream. It was of a frightening person lurking in the shadows. When he realized that I had caught sight of him, he tried to hide from me. It was as if the opening of the two trunks had had a Pandora’s Box effect, spewing into the world threatening and unwanted things. In our case, the unwanted things were troubled souls that haunted our dreams.

With the finding of the ambrotype, I had the same sensation I experienced when I found the handwritten “souvenir” dated Feb. 13, 1897 tucked in the antique volume of Tennyson. Once again, we had landed in a place trapped in another age.

The parallel nightmares we dreamed after opening the two trunks foreshadowed the many strange and inexplicable events that followed. And we found ourselves struggling to come to grips with the fact that otherworldly occurrences in The House were not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

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