Ghost hunter: Author scares up eerie stories from MinnesotaWINDOM — The figure of a man in a plaid shirt lurks in the shadows of a century-old theater, staring down a woman in the ticket booth before disappearing in a sideways “whoosh” that defies human capability. A man gets lost in the blinding snow of a blizzard and perishes, but later shows up at his neighbor’s house to pinpoint the location of his own body. The night clerk at a historic hotel experiences a period of bitter cold each night she works, in the midst of an extremely hot summer. In the same hotel, a lobby table lamp, a water faucet and a gas fireplace — the latter disconnected from a fuel source — turn on and off by themselves.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WINDOM — The figure of a man in a plaid shirt lurks in the shadows of a century-old theater, staring down a woman in the ticket booth before disappearing in a sideways “whoosh” that defies human capability.
A man gets lost in the blinding snow of a blizzard and perishes, but later shows up at his neighbor’s house to pinpoint the location of his own body.
The night clerk at a historic hotel experiences a period of bitter cold each night she works, in the midst of an extremely hot summer. In the same hotel, a lobby table lamp, a water faucet and a gas fireplace — the latter disconnected from a fuel source — turn on and off by themselves.
Forget screaming banshees, maniacs with chainsaws or strangers on dark roads with hooks in place of hands. These are real ghost stories — or at least real in the sense that are believed by the person who experienced them or have become so rooted in legend as to be quoted as fact — and they all occurred in Minnesota, featured in “The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories & Legends,” by Michael Norman.
Norman, a native of Illinois, taught for 30 years at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, chairing the journalism department. Now retired for five years, he has become “the ghost guy,” assembling and co-writing five collections of American ghost stories, the latest, “The Nearly Departed,” published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Initially a self-proclaimed “confirmed doubter,” Norman was intrigued by other people’s interest in ghost stories.
“I was fascinated in that people are fascinated by ghost stories, so I was able to translate that into these books,” he explained. “I haven’t seen a ghost, and I’m not a parapsychologist. It deals with that fascination that people have with life after death and the possibility of survival and being scared but yet at the same time not in physical danger. We like the idea of a chill, a little bit of fear, the unknown — especially at this time of year.”
For the Minnesota book, Norman was able to begin with stories from the North Star State that he’s previously used in “Haunted Heartland.”
“So I was familiar with some of the tales,” he said. “Since the Minnesota Historical Society Press was interested in publishing it, I wanted to focus on those places with some interesting places and go beyond a listing of haunted places to tell the stories, to find out how the ghost story originated and deal with the history of the area.”
Norman referenced an 1894 story from Storden, titled “The Late Mrs. Randall,” as “one of the more interesting historical stories — interesting regional legends that involved a ghost of that time.” The Storden tale was one he’d come across some years ago, but others were brought to his attention more recently through research.
“One of the things I did was contact every historical society in Minnesota — every county has one and a lot of cities — and told them what I was working on and that I was interested in hearing any regional lore involving a haunted place,” Norman recalled. “I got a lot of leads that way. Some of them are dead ends, no pun intended, and some you can get beyond that there’s supposed to be a ghost in such and such place and find people to interview. With ‘The Late Mrs. Randall,’ there’s nothing there, but I did drive around the area and got a sense of what it looked like.”
On his venture to the southwest part of the state, Norman also paid a visit to Nobles County, setting for a blizzard story titled “Frozen John.”
“You have to include at least one blizzard ghost story,” Norman noted. “That 1873 blizzard is still considered one of the worst of all. Are they scary stories? They’re not scary in the movie sense of the word, with blood coming down the walls and such. But I can only deal with the information I can find. I didn’t embellish.”
“Frozen John” begins by relating several stories of Nobles County residents who became lost when the blizzard blew in suddenly in 1873. But the title character is John Weston, a farmer from Seward Township in northern Nobles County who went to chop wood near Graham Lakes. He saw the storm approaching and headed home, but was several miles from home when it hit. Becoming disoriented, he drove his ox team in a circle, heading back toward Graham Lakes then eventually toward Hersey — now Brewster. A rescue team went looking for him, but only found his oxen, strangled in their own yokes.
Here’s the rest of the story, excerpted from “Nearly Departed”:
But that’s not to say John Weston was nowhere to be seen.
His neighbor and good friend was a Mr. Cosper. With other men he had been among those searching for Weston when the blizzard had abated on the second day.
Unsuccessful, Cosper and the rest of the men returned home to feed their stock.
What happened next led to a notoriety for John Weston that certainly would have eluded him in life.
Cosper told Worthington Advance editor A. P. Miller what had happened just before dusk:
I went into my stable after the bucket, intending to water my horses. I came out and turned the corner to go down the path when about half way down the slope to the well I was surprised to see John Weston coming up the path to meet me.
He approached with his usual familiar smile, and his hands were tucked under the cape of his blue soldier overcoat, just as I had seen him approach many times.
I called to him and said: “Hello Weston! Why, I thought you were lost in the storm.”
Weston replied: “I was, and you will find my body a mile and a half northwest of Hersey!”
He then began to . . . fade away, somewhat like smoke thinning out, and disappeared.
I had not time to realize what was occurring till it was over, and then I began to feel mighty queer.
Mighty strange, indeed.
Cosper’s astonishing story spread rapidly over the next few days. New search parties were formed to look in the vicinity of Hersey, where the ghost said his body would be found. Still no luck, and so the searchers gave up until the spring thaw.
Not until April, after the snow had melted, was Weston’s body finally located at the bottom of a deep slough … a mile and a half northwest of Hersey, just as the ghost had said. Snow had been very deep in that area. Authorities figured he’d made it nearly 12 miles through the blinding snow. But regrettably, hopelessly lost and no doubt exhausted from the exertion, he could go no further and fell face down, his fingers grasping a few blades of tall prairie grass sticking up through a snow bank. Even today, the desolate, expansive prairie is a formidable foe if a blizzard traps the unwary traveler.
Also included is what Norman calls “a curious footnote” to Weston’s story in that his wife also had a strange visitor that day, although she only hear a voice telling her that “John was frozen to death.”
“I drove around to where I think Weston was found,” Norman related about his visit to Nobles County. “It’s hard to know some odd years later exactly where it was. I was there in the fall — the leaves were gone, but it hadn’t snowed yet, but you could imagine that countryside is just so wide open that if a blizzard comes up, even today, it would be easy to get lost, and you’d have no sense of direction.”
Norman is scheduled to make another visit to southwest Minnesota on Sunday, this time to speak during the 108th annual meeting of the Cottonwood County Historical Society. He will do some readings from the book and talk about his ghostly research, as well as the importance of historical societies in retaining such lore.
“One of my adjacent interests is preserving these stories,” Norman said. “For instance, with ‘The Late Mrs. Randall,’ that kind of tradition is as important as written history, the stories that were told at one time, passing along the oral traditions of a community.”
It’s been about 30 years since Norman started researching ghostly tales, and he admits that he’s not the “confirmed doubter” he once was.
“I’ve become more open-minded and less of a complete skeptic,” he reflected. “Everybody can’t be wrong. With historical stories, it’s kind of hard to judge. As you page through the book and the witnesses and description of what happened and what they went through, it’s hard to deny that reality, to find other explanations for it.
“… I think we like to be scared, but also be able to turn the lights back on and know everything is OK.”
The 108th annual meeting will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Cottonwood County Historical Society, 812 Fourth Ave., Windom. A short business meeting will be followed by Norman’s presentation. Light refreshments will be served.