Loud bangs and disturbing voices have long been little-known peculiarities of Philadelphia’s lone surviving Civil War museum, but noisy neighbors are not to blame.
Spirits from the dead have turned the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library into something of a flophouse for specters and suspicious shadows, according to volunteers at the Frankford venue, which occupies the 217-year-old Dr. John Ruan House at 4278 Griscom St.
Self-styled professional ghost hunters have been documenting the apparitions’ comings and goings since 2006. Earlier this month, the folks from South Jersey Ghost Research revealed their findings publicly for the first time during a lecture at the museum.
“We have two resident ghosts. One is in the basement. He’s very nasty and he doesn’t like us,” said Kathleen Smith, a ghost researcher and member of the GAR Museum executive board. “He doesn’t like women. I tell them, ‘Don’t provoke him.’ ”
The other permanent inhabitant is a former museum board member named Jim, a mostly harmless sort who gets his kicks banging steps and moving furniture, but it’s all in jest.
“Every time I come into the door, I yell upstairs and tell him I’m here,” said Smith, a retired Philadelphia police sergeant who runs her own private investigation business.
Those two full-time spirits seem to host a lot of visitors at the three-story museum. Using motion-triggered infrared cameras and ultra sensitive audio recorders, among other high-tech devices, Smith and her colleagues conduct about two ghost hunts a year in the museum. They have witnessed lots of unexplained phenomena.
There was the time in January 2006 when they were in a third-floor room and a man wearing a Confederate soldier’s uniform with lots of medals appeared at the top of a staircase. He didn’t talk to the researchers and disappeared before they could attempt a snapshot.
It was a curious image since the GAR Museum and Library is dedicated exclusively to those who served in the Union Army. The researchers later concluded that the spirit was that of a former museum board member who had served in the Vietnam War and, when alive, often donned Rebel attire with his own modern combat ribbons for demonstrations.
“He may be a residual haunting, like something on tape that keeps playing over and over again,” Smith said.
Another time, researchers stumbled upon an eerie, but invisible aura downstairs.
“Some of the other investigators picked up on some spirits in the basement that seemed to be hiding. They were black people,” said Smith. “They seemed to be runaway slaves.”
There is no hard evidence that the house was part of the Underground Railroad, Smith explained. But the neighborhood is home to the oldest Friends meeting house in the city and the Quakers were avowed abolitionists. So many freed slaves might’ve sought refuge in the area in the early 1800s.
Otherwise, most of the known spirits seem to have more direct connection with the Civil War or the museum.
Despite its name, the museum had no affiliation with the now-defunct Grand Army of the Republic. Union war veterans founded the GAR in 1866 as a fraternal organization. Members often donated their personal war artifacts to the local GAR posts, which also held service records for the members.
As the number of living Civil War veterans dwindled in the early 20th century, the posts often merged, as did their collections. Meanwhile, the veterans’ sons organized their own groups that would eventually unite as the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
The GAR dissolved in 1956 when its last member died and deeded all of the organization’s property to the sons group. Today, the Philadelphia Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans owns the Griscom Street museum and its collections, which include military records for much of Pennsylvania’s Union Army regiments, according to the museum’s longtime secretary, Margaret Atkinson.
Founded in 1926, the museum struggled for decades before Atkinson and her husband, Elmer “Bud” Atkinson, led a revival in the 1980s and worked tirelessly to retrieve the museum’s prized possession, Old Baldy, from a short-lived competing museum in Center City. Old Baldy was Gen. George Meade’s legendary war horse. His head — the horse’s, not the general’s — is stuffed, mounted and on display in an air-tight case.
Another museum possession with preeminent historical significance is a section of a blood-stained pillowcase from Abraham Lincoln’s death bed. According to Smith, the relic has a detailed provenance tracing it back to the house across the street from Ford’s Theatre where aides took the mortally wounded president.
Most of the stuff in the museum is more curious than rare, although no less authentic than Abe’s bed linen. The assortment includes uniforms, gear, weapons and letters that offer a window into soldiers’ lives in camp and in battle. In one hallway, there are a couple of tree stumps embedded with cannonballs. The Lincoln Room presents paintings, sculpture and writings that pay tribute to its namesake.
The museum is free and open to the public Tuesdays from noon to 4 by appointment and on the first Sunday of every month at 1 p.m. for an open house and guest speaker. The ghosts usually show up when only the volunteers and researchers are around.
“Jim” made his first contact with the ghost hunters in mid-2006 when he notified their resident psychic that he wanted to have a word with Smith. Like the retired police sergeant, Jim also served as a cop and was on the museum board before Smith got involved in it.
“Jim really loved the place and likes to be there,” Smith said. “He is a peaceful spirit. He’s happy. He likes to play practical jokes on people.”
Mrs. Atkinson does most of her work for the museum from home these days, but she doesn’t recall ever seeing any ghouls floating around the old Ruan house in her more active years, regardless of what the ghost hunters say.
“I think maybe they think John Ruan is still wandering around,” Atkinson said. “If they feel something is there and want to examine the building, I’m fine with it.”
After a long night in the dark and otherwise deserted museum, Smith and her colleagues usually end up with more questions than conclusions.
“I can only say this: as a cop and a ghost hunter, I’ve seen a lot of things I can’t explain,” Smith said. ••