A Ghost Story
What would you do in a haunted house?
NOTE: This is a transcript of an episode on the Adventist History Extra podcast. The transcript has been adjusted for this written format and may not precisely match the audio of the episode, which you can listen to it here:
DISCLAIMER: In the podcast episode, I offered a disclaimer that younger listeners (and readers?) should be aware that elements in the story I'm about to tell might be unsettling. While the story is true, it is a ghost story and if you're frightened by such things you might consider reading something else.
As usual, I make no promises concerning grammar and punctuation. Welcome to the Internet.
A San Francisco Chronicle reporter was sitting at his desk one Sunday when he was handed a telegram:
“Come over at once; spirits particularly active again last night. Bring your friends. We give you possession of the house to do as you or the devil pleases. Last night’s performance let us out.”(1)
The reporter knew exactly what this was about. He grabbed his coat and ran for the ferry which would take him across the bay to Oakland. He made for Castro and Sixteenth street, where he found a large crowd gathered outside a mansion. Everyone gathered there had a theory about what was wrong with this house—and what spirits might be inside.
The Chronicle reporter headed for the door and found the terrified tenant: Thomas Clarke. “Come in,” Clarke told the reporter, but he didn’t wait for the newspaper man to ask a question: “I tell you what it is: we had the devil’s own work here last night. . . . We’ve all been pretty courageous so far, but I’m free to confess that last night’s doings let us out. We’re done. We propose to give the house over to the devil and whoever else it is, and say no more about it.”(2)
51 year-old Thomas Clarke worked for the U.S. Treasury department. He had that iron-laced Puritan blood from his ancestors who had washed ashore in Plymouth colony.(3) He was hardly an excitable fellow. His first instinct had been to laugh: "Neither I, my wife, my daughter, nor anyone in the house believes one iota in the doctrine of Spiritualism,” he told one paper. He then told another: "It has all been a lively laugh so far."(4)
By the end of this affair, Clarke wouldn’t be laughing.
It all begun on April 24, 1874, which the San Francisco Chronicle described in detail:
“Down the stairway slowly groped the three gentlemen. Each held a death grip on his revolver with one hand, and on the bannister with the other. The hall below was as dark as Erebus. They reached the parlor door as the bell ringing was joined by a cacophony of thumping and crashing noises throughout the house, filling them with dread. Slowly there came from out of the Stygian blackness of the parlor and stood in the doorway ready to receive them--a chair! The chair seemed to slide along the floor of its own volition and take its stand in the open doorway, unaided by any visible thing. 'The three gentlemen stood and stared at it for a few seconds with horrified looks. . . . Presently Mr. Bayley cocked his revolver and moved slowly (to) the stairs, followed by the others with blanched cheeks." They gathered their courage and trailed the bewitched piece of furniture into the parlor, where they found to their amazement that "the chairs were marching around the room in pairs, the center tables danced about, ottomans rolled over and over, and the piano warped and twisted and groaned as if in great tribulation."(5)
The second night was even worse. Thomas Clarke had invited a dozen people over to see it for themselves, including a minister, some neighbors, and one of the owners of the house. They sat around for an hour when the minister began to feel his time was being wasted. Maybe Clarke had made this all up—he wouldn’t be the first person to claim some supernatural haunting in order to have fifteen minutes of fame. As soon as the minister stood up, there were three “tremendous thumps” coming from under the dining room. The Scooby Doo party rushed over before the minister stopped them: “See the chair!” he shouted. They followed his gaze to the top of the stairs and saw a chair floating, writhing in mid-air. It then began to move its way down the staircase toward the crowd. Clarke, in his comically understated way, told the reporter: “Well, I can tell you, there was some excitement after that.” The thumps continued from underneath them. It sounded, Clarke said, “exactly as if someone was beneath the floor pounding against the beams with a muffled sledge hammer.” Then the bells all around the house began to ring. A gong in the China cabinet began to sound. Boxes began coming down the staircase, followed by a giant chair—which landed with such a thud that it shook the entire house.(6)
The first of the Scooby Doo party to leave was—you guessed it—the pastor. (What’s up with that?) He just grabbed his hat and left. But the haunting continued. Furniture in the bedrooms danced and spun. The chaos went on for hours; deep into the night. When the reporter asked him how all of this affected Clarke’s other guests, Clarke was charmingly Clarkean: “Well, it rather thinned them out.”(7)
Things did quiet down. Clarke and his few remaining friends took to sitting around the table. His roommates went to bed, though bereft of sleep. A half hour passed before it happened—the thing that sent Thomas Clarke and his family running from the house, determined to be rid of it as soon as possible:
"All at once a long, wild, shrill scream—a woman’s heartrending wail—rang through the house like a bugle’s tone. Every man of us started to our feet, our faces as white as chalk. . . . I tell you, sir, I have heard women scream before now; but I never, in all my life, heard such a terrifying while as that. . . . Oh! My God that wild horrifying shriek will linger in my ears as long as I live."(8)
The next morning, Clarke sent the telegram to the reporter. With the reporter in his home at last and the saga faithfully recounted, Clarke told the reporter that he was welcome to stay the night but that he was done with this haunted house. Before he left, Clarke and others walked around the house and into the crawl space. Nothing seemed out of place. And with that, he was gone, leaving the reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle and his friends in the house as the moon rose. As the clock struck 8:30, another friend came. At 9:30, a local medium arrived. At 10, a crowd was still besieging the house, among them little children who were hoping to witness this madness. At 11, people are getting tired and wondering if anything was going to happen at all. Midnight, still nothing. In some ways, the waiting is worse. The silence is worse. Every pin drop has the reporter on edge.
The medium, who was trying to communicate with the spirits, thinks she understands. Among the tenants of the home was a sick lady—and clearly the spirits were trying to get rid of the sick lady. “This view of the case,” the reporter tells us, “is generally accepted by those who lean toward Spiritualism.”(9)
Nothing happened that night. Perplexed by the mystery, people prevailed upon Dr. Joseph Le Conte to help them. Le Conte had founded the University of California AND the Sierra Club; he was considered a learned and fair man. Le Cont got some ghostbusters together—namely, a respected minister and lawyer. (That way they could sue the ghost.)
Le Conte and his ghostbusters wrote a 360-page report, interviewing 20 witnesses, but the full report never saw the light of day. Clarke believed Le Conte's investigation was a sham. He saw what he saw and he wrote his own 23-page pamphlet explaining what he saw. It would define the final decade of Clarke’s life. Clarke would go on to publish several books claiming to be the communications from the spirits of the Washington family. Uhh, I mean George Washington, Martha Washington, and Mary Washington, George’s mother. Yeah… the first president of the United States. The Washingtons were apparently doing quite well–in case you’re wondering–and spoke through a medium in San Francisco, which Clarke had published. In case you’re also wondering: Ole George begins his letter to the living with the words: “My dear earth-friends” – which sounds like horrible sci-fi writing. (Is George Washington an alien?)
Meanwhile, the people of Oakland were astir with talk of spirits. Some wrote to the local papers to share their own ghost stories. Others offered their own expert explanations. One performing troupe at Brayton Hall adapted their performance and included a new “ghost song” as part of the show, written about Clarke’s house. There was something for everyone in this affair–the spiritualists obviously imagined a ghost story to be in their realm of expertise. The science-minded citizens sought a logical, terrestrial explanation for the affair. One even demanded that Clarke move back into his house and allow scientific observers. It was a “duty” which Clarke “owes to science.” The philosophers had something timely to debate. The comedians also enjoyed what one joker called the “nine days’ wonder” in Oakland, writing that if the spirits can throw heavy trunks down the stairs then scientists should find a way to use them to power coffee mills. Another satirist urged Thomas Clarke to publish his account of those nights before others do because “only distilled spirits improve in quality with age."
And the Christians, of course, had their explanations. Especially the Adventists.
ADVENTISTS WITH THE ANSWER
While Thomas Clarke was getting terrified out of his mind on 16th Street and Castro, two Adventist ministers, Dudley Canright and Merritt Cornell, were in the midst of an evangelistic series in the Bay Area. James and Ellen White had also recently arrived on the Coast. As the cities were in the midst of these “days of wonder”, Canright and Cornell decided to start preaching against spiritualism. Ellen wrote about the moving chairs and even the “shrill scream” and knew exactly where to lay the blame for these things: “In this manifestation, Satan seemed to overdo himself and really hurt his own cause."(10)
Many Christians today see mediums as something outside of Christianity. If you’re Adventist, then you probably know that Ellen White saw spiritualism as a threat to biblical Christianity all the way until the end of time. But Thomas Clarke never, to my knowledge, saw himself as anything other than a good Chrsitian. In fact, when Clarke published his 23-page book explaining what he saw, he very clearly saw himself in the midst of a battle between good and evil with his critics. Clarke wrote that of the thousands who visited his house in the years following those three crazy nights, “I have never known one to go away, without having been lifted higher towards that home not made with hands.’” Clarke went on to rhapsodize about “that life that does honor God who hath given it, granting to it immortality, that sometimes, on in eternal years, by its own labor, it may be entitled to a home with the angelic host, far beyond all material worlds--the eternal home of angels.”
It might be strange to think that someone who considered himself a devout believer could also claim that George Washington’s ghost was speaking from the dead. But it makes sense if you also believe that your soul is immortal. If you believe that the Apostle Paul and St. Francis and Mother Teresa all went to heaven when they died–why wouldn’t you believe that they might be trying to communicate with us? You at least have to be open to the possibility, right?
And there were examples of this. Moses Hull, a sabbatarian Adventist preacher in the 1850s, eventually became a spiritualist and spent the next half a century arguing that spiritualism was a biblical idea.
But he had to leave the sabbatarian adventist group to do that. Adventists don’t believe the soul is immortal. They believe that when you die you’re… dead. At least, until Jesus comes and resurrects people. So the townspeople in the Bay Area might have different theories, but Adventists only had one: That’s not George Washington. Nor is it a good angel—because a good angel wouldn’t lie; he wouldn’t impersonate a human being. We only have one being who liked to impersonate in the Bible when, in Genesis 3, he took on the form of a serpent.
Cornell and Canright’s warnings against spiritualism in Oakland really tapped into the mood. Some people were afraid this Adventist message affirmed that they should be afraid of such spirits. This message also gave people answers as to what was going on. In fact, things went so well for Cornell and Canright that it gave James White an idea: we should start a new paper out here. This wasn’t the first time he thought of starting a new paper on the West Coast–that had happened a year earlier in Colorado. Seeing the people crowding the Adventist evangelistic tent day after day, James now knew the time had come. This was the beginning of Pacific Press and their flagship paper, Signs of the Times.
When the first issue of Signs of the Times rolled off the press two months after the Clarke house haunting, a note made it clear to the readers who these strange Seventh-day Adventists were–or, at least, what they were not: “We are neither Spiritualists, Mormons, Rationalists, Free-Thinkers, fanatics, nor sensationalists. We are directly opposed to all these.”(11)
Dudley Canright took up the strange Adventist belief that the soul is not naturally immortal and offered 10 reasons why Adventists believe it to be true. Reason number 7 read: “Because the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is the very corner stone [sic] and foundation of spiritualism.”(12)
Adventism had been planted in the Bay Area in a big way. James and Ellen White took up residence four blocks from Clarke's house, next to the new Pacific Press plant. A sanitarium and a University would follow in and around the Napa Valley. Adventists weren’t just doing evangelism in the area, they were setting up a base of operations. And while these plans were conceived of long before the haunting of Clarke’s home, it was the conversation this haunting started which James and Ellen White, Canright, and Cornell entered into in order to establish their foothold in the Bay Area. The mood was ripe for the Adventist message about ghosts and death and the nature of the human soul.
Thomas Clarke’s home was unceremoniously torn down in the 1970s to make room for a highway. The people who lived on Castro and 16th were moved and everyone forgot about the haunting that had taken place there 100 years before.
That is, until three residents in the area all felt something was off. One man’s cat began writhing on the floor as if possessed. Another woman died, convinced that her neighborhood was haunted. Another had dreams of a ghost visiting her at night. Are these three random events that people misinterpreted? Maybe the cat was having a seizure. Maybe the ghost visiting her at night was just a bad dream. Or could that spirit that haunted Thomas Clarke’s home over 100 years before be up to its old tricks?
I’m not trying to scare you. But we tend to listen to these stories as if they happened so long ago and to someone else. Adventists, like all Christians, believe there are malevolent spiritual forces at work in the world. Perhaps Thomas Clarke’s ghosts didn’t cause any real, physical harm. But they certainly spooked him. They altered the course his life had been going. This haunting came to define him and absorb his attention. Why couldn’t something like that happen again.
And, if it did, what would you do?
The Adventist answer would be that these are some of Satan’s minions working mischief in your life and that you should run to Jesus. These spirits are not something to play with, to channel, to try and talk to. Ellen White even cautioned people against trying to cast out demons. As Ellen White says in a letter: “There is to be among God’s people no spiritual stupidity.” When Ellen White wrote about King Saul and the “witch of Endor” in Patriarchs and Prophets, she said that the evil spirit didn’t have the power to hurt Saul, so it was content “to goad him to despair and ruin.”(13)
Ellen White’s was an age where people were aware of the spiritually charged world they lived in. Actions and thoughts could have invisible consequences. The greatest care had to be exercised in what one did, thought, ate, or read–lest one give power to the evil forces in the world. Despite the distance people lived from one another, it was a world of deep connection. Everything was connected and human beings couldn’t control the outcome.
Today, we live in a decidedly secular age. Collectively, we don’t see that spiritually charged atmosphere any longer. We don’t perceive the connections between us in the way that we used to. So it’s a little difficult for us to sometimes understand what early Adventists and other Christians in their day wrote about spiritualism. But spiritualism isn’t gone. The idea that people can communicate with the spirits of the dead–or vice versa–is alive and well because the idea that the soul is somehow immortal is alive and well. It turns out, we don’t need a Christian society for people to still believe in the immortality of the soul.
So I thought I’d share this little ghost story on Halloween and remind you of this catalyzing episode in Adventist history. I hope that you found it interesting and that it perhaps gave you some things to think about. There’s no doubt that Canright and Cornell’s message was full of warning, but I think it must have also brought reassurance: The mystery can be explained. The danger can be avoided. You don’t have to live in fear.
The next time someone tells you that this Adventist idea of death being a sleep is just some theological exercise with no real relevance to what is going on in peoples’ lives, then ask them to have a seat and let them know that, boy, have you got a little scary story for them.