In “American Ghost’’ journalist Hannah Nordhaus braids personal memoir with historical research and resolute ghost hunting in a narrative that investigates the restless spirit of her great-great-grandmother Julia Schuster Staab.
Staab’s story might have been lost forever had there not been accounts beginning in the 1970s of a woman’s ghost haunting La Posada, a hotel in Santa Fe. In another incarnation, La Posada had been the mansion Staab’s millionaire husband built for her and their children in the 19th century.
The book opens with a white-haired female apparition that appears at the hotel, and reports of the ongoing hauntings include gas fireplaces being turned on and off, vases shifting about, glasses tumbling from shelves, and dancing footsteps in unexpected places.
Nordhaus, who was raised in Washington, D.C., and spent summers in New Mexico, grew up hearing stories about her ancestor’s troubled ghost. Apparently Staab, severely depressed and interminably grief-stricken over the death of her eighth and last child, Henriette, in 1883, died 13 years later at 52, a tortured soul. But once Nordhaus began to dig into the past, she found a slightly different story.
Born in Lügde, a small town in northern Germany, Julia, 21, was brought to Santa Fe in about 1865 as the bride of Abraham Staab, 26. He was one of the few Jews who had settled in Santa Fe a few years after New Mexico became a US territory in 1848.
The Santa Fe in which Julia arrived was “a confusion of commerce, a Babel of languages. There were only a handful of Jews among the Spanish settlers and Pueblo Indians, among the Navajo, Apache, freed slaves, soldiers, veterans, fortune-seekers, herders, cowboys, dry-land farmers, merchants, consumptives, investors, land-grabbers, miners, and shysters.”
Nordhaus surmises that not only did Julia’s new surroundings send her reeling emotionally, but her husband probably added to her sorrows. She sifts extensively through archives in New Mexico where she discovers Abraham was a gambler who frequented bordellos and was remembered in one newspaper article as “the Al Capone of the territory of New Mexico.”
So how did she come to her end? One legend proclaimed that in her grief over her child’s death Julia’s hair turned white overnight and she became a shut-in. Another version portrays Julia as mad and chained to a radiator in her room. But Nordhaus’s research leads to a different view. Newspaper clippings suggest that Julia had an active social life and traveled to New York and Europe after the death of her baby.
Anecdotal information further suggests that Julia and Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy forged a close friendship in the 1880s. Lamy, the first archbishop of New Mexico, arrived in Santa Fe from France around the time Abraham settled there.
Nordhaus speculates that Julia and the archbishop sustained each other through bouts of homesickness. The two spoke to each other in French and shared a passion for gardening. Nordhaus was so intrigued by Staab’s attachment to Lamy that she went as far as to have a DNA test to detect whether she had French blood.
Nordhaus also comes across the diary of one of Julia’s daughter’s, Bertha, who would become Nordhaus’s great-grandmother. Twenty-one at the time she kept her journal, Bertha writes that Julia suffered from a “sadness” that she could not shake. Near the end of her life, Bertha and her mother went to Bad Pyrmont, a spa town near Lügde to take the waters.
In search of what ailed Julia, Nordhaus visits Bad Pyrmont and Lüdge, where she feels “nostalgic for a place I’d never been and a tradition I never witnessed . . . Lügde swamped me with a [familiar] wistfulness.”
Perhaps it is this wistfulness that compelled Nordhaus to consult a bevy of ghost hunters and psychics in search of the truth about her great-great-grandmother. “I once thought of Julia’s ghost as a joke and an anecdote,” she writes. “Now I consider it a gift. It lured me into a past I would have never known. So of course I believe in ghosts. I believe in the power of the past.”
Looking for Julia Staab in the afterworld may put off some readers. But Nordhaus’s thorough, if somewhat less than conclusive, investigation of her great-great-grandmother’s life and times as well as her dedication to her memory will also win over some skeptics.