Dead zone

  • The handcuffs of John Wilkes Booth, which were intended for the kidnapping of President Abraham Lincoln but were never used, are on display in the museum. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Ghost stories: Teo Monteiro stands next to the head of General Meade’s horse at the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Bump in the night: Teo Monteiro tours Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in Frankford. Here, he walks up the main stairs to the attic, where witnesses say that the ghost of John Ruan’s wife still looms. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

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. ••

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