Ghostly Piano Player & Others

December 20, 2010

I was in St. Louis during November 21-23, 2010, having traveled from Springfield, Missouri (where I spoke at the third annual Skepticon), courtesy of Kathleen Kelly of the Rationalist Society of St. Louis, to give a talk on “Hunting for Ghosts and Spirits.” I also did some research on the same at the Missouri Historical Society Archives, (whose Dennis Northcott generously accommodated me on a day the facility was otherwise closed). Appropriately enough, I also stayed at a haunted inn. Well, maybe not really haunted, but therein is a story.

Kathleen checked me into the English Tudor-style Cheshire Lodge (a setting for the George Clooney movie, Up in the Air ), and suggested we look at a room to make sure it was satisfactory. As we passed through a great room with paneling, fireplace, real oil paintings, and examples of the taxidermist’s art (including a giant standing grizzly!), I so appreciated the step back in time that I volunteered to forego the room and just sleep on one of the big couches there. But I was given a room anyway, and its décor was in keeping with the rest of the place—four stories of hallways and rooms studded with antiques, old prints, drapery valences, flickering gas lamps (as with the antiques, some real and some faux), and more. It’s one of those places with such ambience that (as I like to say) if it isn’t haunted, it ought to be!

As it happens, spooky phenomena have been reported here and there, from time to time. Trouble is, the place seems to be run by skeptics. The bellman, Melvin, has worked at the Cheshire for a dozen years but hasn’t had a single ghostly encounter. The desk clerk, Thomas, who has been there even longer, calls himself a “doubting Thomas.” General Manager Donald Hubbard is likewise bereft of experiences of an otherworldly nature, as is a charming housekeeper. What’s wrong with these people?

How do we explain, for example, occurrences on the fourth floor, where a former housekeeper had seen a woman with luggage leave a room that was then found undisturbed? Well, the traveler might simply have decided not to take the room, or perhaps the housekeeper was mistaken—given the long, multi-door hallways—as to which room the woman exited. As to the luggage itself, why would supposedly living energy extend to inanimate objects like suitcases, not to mention shoes, clothing, and so on? Doors were also reportedly heard closing on the fourth floor when no one was there, but perhaps a guest in a room simply changed his mind after opening the door and let it close automatically with a customary resounding sound. There are other possible explanations—of a non-ghostly kind.

Then there is the painting of a woman whose eyes follow anyone walking past. Actually there are several such pictures in the lodge, but the most talked-about one is in room 217, for which Mr. Hubbard gave me the passkey. As with all such images, the effect simply occurs with any two-dimensional portrait (photo or artwork) in which the eyes are gazing directly at the viewer (i.e., when the picture was made, the subject was looking into the camera or at the artist). Such a portrait will always appear to look at the viewer, regardless of the viewing angle (see Joe Nickell, “The Haunted Plantation,” Skeptical Inquirer Sept./Oct. 2003). The woman in the picture in room 217 is rather bug-eyed, which adds to the eerie effect.

Finally, there was the seventeen-year-old who had a room on the second floor; he heard knocking at his door when nobody was there, and the sounds of piano music—even though, he said, “I didn’t see a piano in the hotel” (see ). Could the rappings have been on an adjacent door? Certainly, piano music comes from the bar, which is located directly below the window of the teenager’s room!

All in all, I enjoyed my stay at the Cheshire Lodge—ghosts or no ghosts.