With the growing interest in true ghost stories during the past several years, it's no surprise many writers and publishers are anxious to capitalize on the topic. Stackpole Books is another house that has a long line of regional ghost stories with a growing line covering the subject for every state in the union. The size and population of the Golden State has warranted a couple of titles, Haunted Northern California and Haunted Southern California. There are plenty of stories to tell and the character of the two halves is so different, dividing the state was reasonable decision. The Norcal installment provides good entertainment, but is disappointing for anyone looking for hard facts.
The content of this slim 2009 volume is divided into five parts, covering the regions of San Francisco and Central Coast, the East Bay and Santa Clara Valley, the Sacramento Valley, North Coast and Northern Sierra. The main body of this book is supported by an introduction, bibliography, acknowledgments, and author biography. There are about a dozen black & white interior images to accent some of the stories.
One of the stories told includes the ghosts at Donner Lake, which was the vicinity where the ill-fated Donner party was trapped during their notorious journey to Sacramento. Led by brothers George and Jacob Donner, members of this caravan were caught in an early winter storm without any source of food. As some of the colleagues died from exposure, survivors cut the meat off their limbs to eat. The apparitions seen are the mutilated bodies of those who weren't found alive when the party was eventually rescued.
Even as personal experience stories, many Author Charles A. Stansfield Jr. documents are too dubious to be considered true. San Jose has the most famous haunted house in California, if not the USA. In the 1880s, Sarah Winchester took possession of an eight-room farmhouse by the intersection of Stevens Creek and Los Gatos-Santa Clara Road (eventually renamed Winchester Boulevard). She immediately began renovation on the house and it subsequently grew to over 160 rooms. Stansfield repeats the plethora of hype about Winchester and her house with few hard, cold facts and some incorrect ones. He states that Sarah had two children and her husband, Oliver, died young. What has been historically verified is they had one daughter who died at six weeks of age. Her husband died about 15 years later in his 40s, which might be considered young today, but not in the 19th century. Stansfield paints a portrait of a neurotic, paranoid woman whose ghost wanders the house to this day.
Mary Jo Ignoffo, a local historian, released her biography on Sarah Pardee Winchester in 2010. It was not a project Ignoffo had planned to do until someone approached her with a box of letters and paperwork between Sarah and her solicitor. When all of that primary resource information landed in Ignoffo's lap, she became obsessed with writing Sarah's biography with emphasis on historic fact. One of the most intriguing facts she discovered was that Sarah had moved out of her famous mansion shortly after the earthquake in 1906 and treated it like a summer home afterward. She died there only because she had been feeling poorly and came down to San Jose from her house on the Peninsula to see her favorite doctor. According to the late Annette Martin, who was the official psychic medium at the Winchester Mystery House, the only intelligent ghost grounded there is gentleman named Clyde. She said he had been infatuated with Sarah and promised her he would always take care of her house.
Another story, "Rough Justice, Gruesome Ghosts," tapped into the darker history of St. James Park in downtown San Jose. If any open space in California's third largest city had reason to be haunted, it would be this one. In November 1933, it was the site of the notorious Hart Lynching, where Stansfield claims there is residual activity when people see the apparitions of the two men hanging from a tree.
Stansfield's tale is an interesting concoction of superficial research. He provides few specific details, such as the name of a historic person or that of a first-hand paranormal witness. He misleads readers into thinking that Brooke Hart, the 22-year-old kidnap victim, was a child. Stansfield goes on to say, "…The San Jose kidnapper-murderers were caught soon after their little victim's body was discovered. A rumor had spread that the boy had been tortured and sexually abused before being killed. The coroner's office did not deny this rumor. A defense attorney, in an interview with a local paper, unwisely gave the opinion that the two culprits might escape the death penalty on the grounds of insanity. That did it.…" Seriously? In truth, Brooke was killed almost immediately after being overtaken. His body had been dumped in the bay. What really prompted the mob to storm the jail across the street from the park were San Jose's affluent citizens who coaxed the angry crowd into doing it. The tree that was used to hang the alleged perpetrators was chopped down soon afterward. The real shocker came when people wanted the vigilantes to answer for their crimes and the governor, James Rolph (who, coincidentally, had been the mayor of San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake hit), pardoned them all.
Although Stansfield's writing style is clean and easy to follow, the misleading and inaccurate facts of the stories I have some familiarity with make it difficult to trust the ones I'm not. He taught geography at Rowan University in New Jersey for 41 years, so his knowledge of California obviously would not be as intimate as someone who lived there for a while.
It should also be noted that the use of the word "haunted" in this book's title is a catchall. Not all of these are ghost stories. The author also includes a few on other weird subjects, such as vampires, Bigfoot, witches and UFOs.
While Stansfield's background in cultural geography can be helpful in writing about regions outside those he's lived in and missing the mark on a few minor details might be forgiveable, the gross inaccuracies in his true stories are unacceptable. Granted, this is supposed to be folklore; however, when some of these cases still have a lot of historical data that is still extant, his work is sloppy. Haunted Northern California is readable and makes good armchair entertainment, but for anyone looking for tips on haunted places to sightsee, the author may just be sending his readers on a wild goose chase. Look for confirmation elsewhere before spending time or money visiting the sites Stansfield writes about.
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