Ghostly Presence Dates to 1902
Ninety years ago, when women lacked the vote and other accouterments of equality, Alma was besieged by a female ghost. As if a ghost in itself was not oddity enough, news accounts of 1902 found it even more astonishing that the ghost was not only feminine but also a black ghost, as opposed to your run of the mill white model.
Rather than flit about the kitchen, as might have been expected of a female ghost of her day, this ebony apparition had the audacity to move about the community at night and with incredible swiftness, scaring the devil out of several gentlemen about town. She appeared not at Halloween, as one might expect, but near the opposite equinox, in March, when chill winds still blew and a drab crusty snow covered the ground. The Lincoln Evening News in its edition of the 15th that month announced in big, black headlines the story of Alma’s ghost, a story that was subsequently printed in the daily newspapers across the United States.
Even though he was one of the witnesses to the phenomenon, Harlan County Journal publisher H. S. Wetherell didn’t mention the ghost personally, but instead in his March 28 edition, reprinted the Evening News story of two weeks earlier as a supplement to the local paper. In announcing the story, Wetherell explained that the Lincoln paper had “told a weird story of a ghost in Alma” and went on to mention that the local mayor had responded to the development by saying that “The favorite drink down here is DeWitt’s bitters and anyone drinking them is liable to see anything.”
Thereby having injected the proper learned levity into a levitating story the publisher went on with the account which described his encounter with the black-garbed ghost as but one by “a half dozen of the best men in the place, men whose standing and supposed freedom from superstition would naturally class them as doubters,” as the Lincoln paper put it. Other Alma residents who vouched for the ghost were U.S. Congressman Ashton C. Shallenberger, who would become a “dry” Nebraska governor six years later, carriage dealer Frank Grigsby and his son, Bruce, a University of Nebraska student, and Methodist Church deacon Wiley Schwartz.
Apparently the first to see the ghost over a three-week span, Wetherell reported that she at first passed slowly by his office window one night then vanished swiftly into the moonlight, a phenomenon which the scoffers-turned-believers called a truly hair-raising experience.
Shallenberger, taking a weeks leave from Congress to tend to local matters had been working late at his bank and was walking home when the figure emerged from an alley and “rushed past him like the wind,” disappearing about 10 yards ahead.
Carriage trader Grigsby also heading home from work, actually trailed the ghost until it vanished, then as he was “retracing his steps, he found it swiftly coming after him. He tarried no longer.” Deacon Schwartz was described as an “open scoffer” until the veiled and vague-faced figure chased him home from a prayer meeting.
Although the accounts sounded like fiction, “it isn’t safe to take this attitude with an Alma man,” the Lincoln paper said. “Similar stories are told by other well-known citizens and it has come to be generally accepted as being a disembodied spirit.” Some felt that the ghost was that of an Alma woman who, several years earlier on her death bed, had vowed to forever haunt her husband should he remarry, which he did. Others thought the apparition that of a recently deceased woman who had experienced an agonizing death. Debunking that theory were reports that the black-shawled specter neither groaned nor made any sound at all.
With the dusky ghost apparently about as well-established as such a wonder could be, one local yokel came forward and said he had seen a white ghost. Instead of gaining credibility, he was treated “like one who seeks to embellish truth with art.”
The embellishment may have come 20 years later in a book entitled “Haunted Heartland” by Beth Scott. In the chapter entitled “Alma’s Nightwalker,” the author generally puts the same citizens in different situations as they encounter the ghost which in Deacon Schwartz’s case bore down on him “like a giant blackbird in the moonlight.” Following the run of his life, Schwartz collapsed when he reached home.
Carriage dealer Grigsby required his wife to rub the pain from his legs after his swift escape from the ghost which, after sailing through a horse swooped towards him, “her black shawl flapping, her arms flailing the air.” The startled men, newly initiated into the occult late in the winter of ’02, welcomed the warmth of spring, but “the woman in black remained a tiny, unmelted patch of ice in the shadowed recesses of their souls.”
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