It starts with a ghost story…

One of the central questions this site will address is: What inspires an author?For American Athena, inspiration began in the classroom.

10733872_496046567202938_5454338657575935543_oMeet Grace, an Illinois College student who in the fall of 2014 took my class, HI 130 – Into the Archives. Designed as a first-year seminar, HI 130 acquainted students with college life and with the fundamental research and processing skills they would need to navigate the archives. Grace was intrigued by the story of Effie Smith, the daughter of local attorney and confirmed friend of Abraham Lincoln, David A. Smith. Smith’s home, constructed in 1854, is situated on the south east side of the IC campus and is used today by women’s literary societies. Our students are well acquainted with Effie – or at least her ghost. She supposedly threw her self out a second-story window when her beau was killed in the Civil War and she continues to keep watch from the attic to this day. After discovering that Effie actually lived to be a successful community reformer in Cairo, IL until her death in 1907, Grace decided to investigate other possibilities for the hauntings in Smith House. That’s when we discovered the story and this photograph of Effie’s sister, Emma, who suffered from a “nervous disorder” (so much so that her family sent her to live in a sanitarium for several years). She died suddenly in the home at the young age of 36 in 1887. However, I cautioned Grace against stigmatizing Emma as “the crazy lady in the attic.” In the 19th century, nervous disorders in women ranged from their simply questioning sexism to suffering from clinical depression. So rather than stigmatize Emma further, perhaps we use this ghost story to educate others about mental health and compassion.

On December 4, 2014, I posted Grace’s story on our FaceBook page and was astonished throughout the weekend as the number of views climbed to 5,524. It was our most popular post yet and it seemed to strike a chord with our audience… and with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about Effie and Emma.

An innocent ghost story fit for a Victorian gothic novel was suddenly imbued with a modicum of reality. The records stated only that Emma “died suddenly.” A scant obituary and quiet disappearance from family correspondence implied a collective need to forget. I wondered, did she take her own life? Did the people of Jacksonville contrive a more fantastic ghost story as a new truth to explain a terrible tragedy in a prominent family? Throughout the hectic final weeks of the semester and ensuing holiday season, I found myself sneaking moments to do more research on the Smith family and Andrew McFarland, the psychiatrist who treated Emma. The former superintendent of the Illinois Hospital for the Insane (located in Jacksonville), McFarland lost his post after a former patient, Elizabeth Packard, published a scathing expose about the conditions therein. Here again was a woman acting as an agent within her community. While I have yet to find any evidence to explain Emma’s death, I was compelled to find out more about Effie’s, Emma’s, Elizabeth’s worlds, about women and women’s networks in the local community. I had to know more.

Since December, I have been reading and preparing myself to take on a new book project. As a historian trained to research the twentieth century, this will be new territory for me. As a historian trained to examine the lives of women whose voices are largely undocumented, I am right at home.

Whenever I pick up a book, I try to learn a little something about the author. The author’s background and experience lends insight into how they approach sources and spin stories. What inspires them? Where did they find their information? What is the writing process like for them? Acknowledgements only say so much, and I always find myself wanting to know a bit more. So this construction zone of creativity is intended to demystify the research and writing process, to provide insights into how a book project comes together when the author is balancing a crazy family with a busy job, and to hopefully engage readers long before the final product rolls off the production line. Please join me on what promises to be a long but fascinating journey.

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One thought on “It starts with a ghost story…

  1. Pingback: Researching the Taboo | American Athena

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