Paranormal Tourism: A Legitimate Venue for Public History?

07 02 Soldiers_Orphans_Home_oldpic_sm

Gettysburg National Homestead for Soldiers’ Orphans

It’s Halloween week, which means that it is the height of paranormal tourism season in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Thousands of people are unknowingly participating in spectacles of ritual, folklore, and yes- public history. This August, with some trepidation, Dr. Judith Giesberg and I took advantage of a ghost tour of “Gettysburg’s haunted National Homestead for Soldiers’ Orphans” during the semester break. Dr. Giesberg is currently researching Civil War orphanages and I am studying the gender scandal central to orphan abuse cases at the Gettysburg Homestead. During Gettysburg’s sesquicentennial anniversary summer in 2013 I served as an interpretive intern with the National Park Service. I admit that I spent that entire action-packed season smugly priding myself that I could provide a factual alternative to ghost tours.

However, I have a solid background in public history, and I feel that it’s vital to reach broad audiences in unconventional ways. Also, I was one of those kids who really geeked out over ghost stories at (yes, Civil War-themed), Girl Scout camp. I was looking forward to hearing a good tale and open to great interpretation if the tour guide was willing to provide it. Dr. Giesberg attended a 2013 panel on ghost tourism at the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute conference and became intrigued by the topic. With these purely scholarly motives in mind, we embarked on our “spooky” evening.

The setting for the tour couldn’t have been more perfect. The summer night air crackled with lightning and we huddled inside the museum gift shop waiting for the tour to begin. Other soaking wet tourists, mostly teenagers and their parents, gathered around us. I noticed that there were some really creepy (and extremely tacky, in context) souvenir shackles for sale, reminiscent of the punishment one orphan received when the child was allegedly shackled to a cellar wall. There was already a historical discrepancy upon entering the building. The tour guides claimed that the building where the tour took place was the “actual” Homestead. In reality, a plaque marks the spot, several houses down, where the 1866 Homestead stands. I have not researched the history of the building we toured but I can confirm that it was not the Homestead.

After some delays and chatting with the tour guide, we were ushered into a large room to begin the tour. Our guide began her central interpretive technique of telling us stories about visitors’ supposed paranormal experiences on the tours. She mentioned that we could experience chills, aroma sensations, strange orbs, blurs in photographs, etc. She laid the groundwork for the orphanage story by telling us some stories which were factually true: before the orphanage became a site of abuse, the children went on a sleigh ride and enjoyed visits from people in the town. After the matron, Rosa Carmichael took over, things became unpleasant for the orphans. The guide told us about Carmichael’s “evil” nature. I believe she described her as a “psychopath”. While I winced at the exaggeration, so far, I was pleased with how the guide was handling most of the history and folklore. She was clearly using some historical sources and only stretching the truth for drama’s sake. Unfortunately, her next story lost me. The guide said that a really spooky cat haunted the basement. I’ll spare the details for the sake of professionalism, but a litter box was mentioned.

Next, we were led past real photos of the 1866 orphanage and into the basement. The basement was genuinely creepy. The guide pointed out the supposed remnants of shackles on the basement wall. She said that once, a visitor spotted an apparition of a child sitting next to her on one of the benches. The person sitting on that bench predictably gave the guide a sideways glance and moved to the other side of the room. The tour guide turned the lights out and told us a story about the basement confinement of a little girl who was also forced to wear pants as a punishment. My gender history sensibilities were delighted by her inclusion of that story and the teens in the group were shrieking at the horror elements. We were invited to crawl into a hole in the back of the cellar and see if we could take photos of any spooky sightings. For claustrophobic people, this was another seriously creepy moment on the tour. I was slightly disappointed that after this, I still hadn’t seen anything frightening.

Later, we were taken upstairs again and led outside into the courtyard. There, the guide told us some additional folklore about the Underground Railroad and runaway slaves, and about an orphan who was supposedly killed and buried in the backyard. Regardless of the fact that Carmichael was brought up on assault charges by a living witness, not murder, the element I was struck by was the fact that orphans would not be haunting the building. Historians have an advantage. We know that these kids may have suffered psychological scars, but they all grew up, moved elsewhere, and led normal lives.

During my public history training, I’ve been taught to study methods of interpretation. Clearly, the way this guide reached her audience was to attempt to identify with them emotionally and psychologically. “You are a child locked in this basement. You’re alone and afraid,” she said very effectively at one point. At other times, she stated that visitors had experienced creepy things in the past. We, of course, weren’t guaranteed to see the orbs or hear children’s voices (because that’s part of the economic aspect of ghost tours!) but she could try to convince people to believe. Ultimately, neither Dr. Giesberg nor I were thoroughly impressed with the caliber of this particular guide’s storytelling, interpretation, or historical accuracy, but we both felt it was important to experience a ghost tour for the sake of better understanding our audience and subject matter.

Finally, my questions for the blog readers: can ghost tours be taken seriously? How can scholars evaluate mass-marketed public history like paranormal tourism?

And, look out for a graduate course about ghost tourism…haunting a VU classroom near you in 2015!



  1. I was just talking to my Aunt, who is a huge fan of ghost tours. She was telling me about one she had just gone on with my cousins, and I noticed that rather than talk about ghosts or horror stories, she was recounting the histories of the buildings they visited and the men and women who inhabited them. I certainly think there is value in sparking an interest in history through captivating, or in this case spooky, stories. Of course, as you rightly suggest, the stories need to be based on fact.

  2. I have found your website quite by accident and I value your dedication to history. I would like to point out that you should investigate the history of that gift shop a little more. It is located in an original 1863 house that was the headquarters of O.O. Howard during the battle and as a field hospital after the battle. It truly is the original Orphanage. The house you refer to up the street is the Girl’s dormitory that was built 2 years later (1868) The manager of the gift shop has enlarged photos of the building from General Grant’s visit that clearly show the original building before Charlie Weaver built the Solder’s National Museum right up against it.As a ghost guide, I know the company that runs these tours try to include as much true and researched history as possible. For some of the young people who spend the Battlefield Bus Tour glued to their various devices, the little history they get from our ghost tours is better than nothing.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Liz. I will look into this matter further and modify the post/ my commentary as needed. I definitely agree that ghost tours are a great way to engage the public and I found that the guide’s treatment of the historical content was fairly accurate as a whole. It’s good to hear that the companies are trying to include a lot of historical research.

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