By Donna Clayton Lawder
Just call me a true believer. A solitary little girl with a vast imaginative life, I entertained myself for hours, often talking with people and animals my mother could not see. Though my mother was not concerned, my Calvinist granny who lived with us most of my childhood was.
"You'd best keep an eye on that girl," she'd say. Gram, suspicious of anything witchy or otherworldly, combined prayer and her abiding faith in Jesus, along with some curious superstitious practices-tying a string on my bedroom doorknob, spitting on the ground next to me when I talked of my invisible companions-in efforts to protect my immortal soul.
A recent Gallup poll has revealed that 32 percent of all adult Americans believe in ghosts. Nineteen percent aren't so sure, while a level-headed 48 percent dismiss the idea outright. The poll also discovered that 37 percent of us say houses can be haunted (16 percent not sure, 46 percent say don't be ridiculous).
A survey on religious beliefs found that better than half of all American adults believe in ghosts. Fifty-one percent of the public, including 58 percent of women, believe in ghosts, according to a 2003 Harris Poll of a cross-section of 2,201 adults surveyed online.
Like David Duchovny in "The X Files," "I want to believe." Not in aliens-that's another story, and I'll probably have to travel to Roswell to get it. But in spirits and a realm beyond the seen world, a world I believe has sometimes made itself palpably known to me.
In his new book Six Guns and Single-Jacks, Bob Alexander tells tales of the Wild Old Silver City that make one realize our streets have practically run red with blood. Some say ghosts are troubled spirits, perhaps souls who died difficult or violent deaths and who are trapped in a space between here and somewhere else. Given the violent clashes and sometimes murderous past of the Southwest, is it any wonder that tales of ghosts and hauntings abound here?
I did not have to look far to find firsthand tales of supernatural sightings. Kathy Gritton is a classical musician, herbalist and astrologer who moved to Silver City three years ago and lived here with her husband, John Eich, and their two daughters up until just a couple of months ago. I was told Gritton did "spirit work," communicating with so-called ghosts in local businesses, homes and even in the hills surrounding Silver City. Before she left town, I paid a visit to get the particulars on some restless-spirit situations I'd heard she'd addressed.
"Hi. I hear you're a ghost buster," I said, when Gritton greeted me at the door. She laughed out loud. The lovely, slight woman before me bore no resemblance to Dan Akroyd or any of the other ghost busters in the popular movie.
"Well, that's one way of putting it!" she replied, laughing.
What Gritton does claim is a special sensitivity to the unseen world of spirits, a sensitivity that surfaced early in her life, and which she has since cultivated. "I saw ghosts and spirits since I was a little girl, just five or six years old," Gritton told me. "Sometimes they appeared to me looking just like real people." When the young girl told her mother she was receiving visits "from people who weren't there," her mother's advice came from her traditional Eastern Orthodox background: "My mom said, 'Call on Jesus Christ to help you. Say it three times!' I did, and I could immediately feel the (ghostly) energy leave."
Years later, as an aspiring professional musician studying classical viola in graduate school, Gritton had a serious car accident, an experience that changed the course of her life, she said. "I was driven, totally immersed in my musicianship to the exclusion of everything else," Gritton recalled. "The accident was a relief. I realized I didn't have to take that path." During her long healing and recovery process, Gritton said she "recovered lost parts of myself."
Convalescing at her mother's home in Albuquerque, Gritton said, "spirits started coming to me." She started working with a Shamanic teacher to further develop her psychic gifts.
During her time in Silver City, Gritton's reputation for this special sensitivity spread, and she soon found herself being contacted by home and business owners. They asked her to talk with their ghosts, sometimes to eradicate what they perceived as unwelcome otherworldly guests.
"There are some restless souls in the hills," Gritton told me, blaming the area's sometimes brutal past. She's cleared land and buildings alike, but didn't divulge clients' names to protect their privacy.
One Gritton client who came forward with a story of ghostly eradication was Sandra Hicks, owner with her husband, Ron Belanger, of the Inn on Broadway. The inn sits on the relatively quiet corner of Bayard Street and Broadway in downtown Silver City.
Hicks and Belanger bought the inn in July 2003 and began restoring it for a grand reopening in February 2004. In addition to a thorough indoor renovation, restoring classic Victorian glory to the grand old place, Hicks paid loving attention to the grounds around the inn, installing a small patio and a serene garden of native plantings. Hummingbird feeders hang on the large and welcoming front porch with its wicker outdoor furnishings.
But all were not resting peacefully inside the inn. Soon after reopening, Hicks got an email from an American Indian woman who'd recently been a guest.
"She told me that I needed to know that while she was here, she saw a woman in a black dress come down the stairs and walk down the hall," Hicks related. "I never saw her," Hicks said of the apparition, "but I didn't want to!"
Enter the ghost buster.
Gritton confirmed to Hicks that she was aware of the Woman in Black's presence in one particular room of the house. At the Inn's Reopening Open House, Gritton saw the entity sitting on a couch in an upstairs room.
"She was dressed in an old-fashioned black dress with a big black hat," Gritton recalled. "This was definitely the Old West!" When a ghostly spirit is visible, those who see them often get clues about the entity's life and the time period in which they lived, from the way they are dressed, Gritton explained. If there is dialogue, other clues come from the way they speak.
The Woman in Black did not reveal her name, but did have a story she wanted to convey. After Gritton's initial sighting of the entity, at Hicks' request, she agreed to work on releasing the Woman in Black from the inn. A few days later, Gritton heard the Woman's voice telling her what she needed in order to move on to the next realm: "She wanted to have mint tea with me. She wanted it to be served in porcelain tea cups with saucers, and I was to meet her in the upstairs parlor."
Though the Woman in Black did not reveal her name to Gritton, she did tell her that she had been a psychic in her lifetime, and that she'd tragically lost her two young daughters in a fire. "She wanted to tell her story so she could cross over," Gritton recalled. "She wanted to make sure that someone knew about her daughters."
Psychics theorize that "unfinished business" may trap a spirit between realms. With the Woman in Black having told her story, would she be released to cross over into whatever was next for her, whatever awaits us all? Hicks reported there have been no sightings of the woman in black at the Inn on Broadway since Gritton's ghostly tea party.
New Mexico author Antonio Garcez, owner of the Many Moons store on Hwy. 180 in Arenas Valley, says in one of his books that his grandfather's tales gave him a respect for history, including elements of history beyond the seen. His writes that his grandfather "cautioned me to have a reverence for the stars, the moon, herbology, the supernatural and, of course, ghosts."
Quite the authority on local and neighboring ghosts, Garcez will be giving a full moon campfire talk at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, "Spooky Days and Spooky Nights," on Oct. 15. He is the author of numerous books on ghosts in the Southwest, including American Indian Ghost Stories of the Southwest and Adobe Angels: The Ghosts of Las Cruces and Southern New Mexico (see box).
In the latter, which deals with local hauntings and sightings, Garcez tells Kathy E. Benevidez's story. In the interview with Garcez, Benevidez described herself as having "great respect for such (ghostly) things." At the time of her ghostly encounters, she lived at the corner of Kelly and B Streets in Silver City, in what was known as the Tinley Square apartments, originally built as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.
At the time, Benevidez was expecting twins, and she noticed that things around the house were going missing-particularly things in pairs, such as pairs of shoes, earrings and, notably, an amulet she had been given with a pair of images on it. The piece bore an image of twins, a boy and a girl, just as Benevidez gave birth to a boy and a girl.
She recalled the experience of sitting in a chair with one of her babies on her lap and feeling something like an unseen hand playing with her earrings. One earring popped out of her ear, down into her lap and disappeared, only to reappear some time later lying in her driveway. Earrings, it seemed, were a popular target of this ghostly mischief. She said that whenever she "felt something" playing with them, she'd grab the earring in question and say a firm "no," which stopped the sensation.
Benevidez asked the apartment's prior tenant if she'd had any such experiences, and the woman recounted that her three-year-old son often talked to "that man," a presence only he could see.
Benevidez' twins, meanwhile, were becoming more reluctant to go to sleep at bedtime, complaining of "scary things in our room." One night she noticed a glow coming from the children's room and investigated to find one wall "glowing," as if lit from within or behind. She could find no rational explanation, and the glow appeared to get brighter from night to night.
Some time later, visiting Native American dancers stayed with the Benevidez family. She gave them what had been the children's room, but told them nothing about the glowing wall or the other strange occurrences. The next morning, her guests described many spirits behind the one wall, and suggested using sacred sage and prayers. The guests led them all in a house blessing, after which Benevidez said "things calmed down," and there were no further inexplicable or supernatural incidents.
In her interview with Garcez, Benevidez reflected on the tuberculosis patients who had at one time suffered so, many of whom had died in the former sanitarium: "It's difficult to imagine the pain these poor people suffered through. I hope they have found the lasting peace they sought in life."
Traumatic death often is a cause for "hauntings," acknowledged ghost-buster Gritton. In Garcez' book, longtime Silver City resident Herb McGrath told his tale of a ghostly encounter involving quite a violent death, allegedly at the Buffalo Bar on Bullard Street.
The story goes that back in the early 1900s, a well-known brothel was located in the building before new owners took over. A local prostitute took her customer to the second floor bedroom. Things got out of hand, and the man threw the call girl out the window to her death on the street below.
Years later, a 20-something Herb McGrath was out with friends. They commented on the old story, which apparently all knew, but didn't give it much thought. Later, as McGrath was preparing to go home, he approached his car, parked across the street from the Buffalo Bar. He noticed a glow in the upstairs room, now used for storage. In Garcez' book, McGrath recounted that he saw the form of a woman in the window, and that the glow of light was "flickering" as from a kerosene lantern, which would have been used in the early 1900s when the alleged murder took place.
Though he called up to the figure, she "gave me no concern as she then leaped out of the window!" The young man was startled, especially as, when the woman began her fall, she simply vanished. McGrath quickly got into his car and drove away as fast as he could.
"If there was ever a question in my mind about the existence of ghosts," he told Garcez, ". . . well, I was convinced very quickly that evening."
Though I uncovered no other reports of further such sightings near the Buffalo Bar, I soon found another business on Bullard Street with reported hauntings. Rita Sherwood, owner of Repeat Boutique on Bullard Street, will tell anyone (who won't think her crazy!) that she coexists with three spirits in her downtown Silver City retail resale business. She is not the only one who senses them, she told me. Though not all of her employees have acknowledged the presence of ghosts in the store, some other than Sherwood have reported strange experiences seeming to lack scientific explanation.
For one thing, the volume on the store's music system will sometimes drop down to inaudible, or suddenly jump to ear-splitting. One day a customer was using his cell phone in the store and the stereo suddenly jumped to a deafening volume.
"I ran over to turn it down, and he looked at me like I was crazy! He was annoyed that it was interrupting his phone call and angrily asked why I suddenly turned the music up, even though there was absolutely no one by the system at the time," Sherwood said. "I just apologized and said there was a problem with it (the volume control)."
Sherwood said the staff is "more careful" with what music they play now, so the ghosts leave the volume alone. She theorizes that maybe the spirits "really like some music and don't like others." I suggested that maybe they don't like cell phones and were trying to thwart the gentleman's call.
"I hadn't thought of that!" she replied.
Sherwood also told of visible sightings at the store. "A customer asked me, 'Who is that woman over there?' and I looked where she was pointing to a chair. There was no one there. That fast!" Sherwood asked the customer to describe the woman she'd seen in the chair, and she answered, "A little old woman. She looked Hispanic. She was just sitting there looking very tired or weak."
Sherwood told me that a number of years back, a Hispanic woman was said to have fallen down the elevator shaft in the building. The woman had died of her injuries a short time later in the hospital.
Claiming to be sensitive to the spirits' energy herself, Sherwood said she communicates "respectfully" with the ghosts in her store, using a kinesiology technique to discern the spirits' answers. "I ask them a clear and direct question (usually requiring a 'yes' or 'no' reply) and then do this," she explained, linking a thumb and forefinger into the "OK" sign and inserting the forefinger of the other hand into the circle. Waiting a moment for the "reply," she then tests the resistance of her circled fingers. Depending on whether the inserted forefinger easily pulls through the circled fingers or meets resistance, Sherwood said she can tell if the answer is positive or negative.
During our conversation about ghosts, Sherwood checked in with her in-house spirits almost constantly, "out of respect." She asked them if they liked her talking about them to me. "Yes." Would they mind if I took a picture with Sherwood near the music system? "No."
"It's okay," she reported. I asked her if I could come behind the counter to get a different angle. Catching myself, and in the, er, spirit of the moment, I asked the ghosts if they minded if I came behind the counter. "It's OK," Sherwood answered for them. I snapped away.
Sherwood reported positive results from a "clearing" she did on her own shortly after she opened the store. For the first few weeks of business, she'd felt a negative energy hitting her in the face every time she went upstairs to turn on the lights.
"It was like someone screaming in my face," she recalled, "only there was no one there-that I could see, anyway." Business was terrible. Customers would come into the store, take a quick look around and not pass the foyer space into the store itself. In addition, there was a loud "boom!" at some point in every day, the source of which Sherwood never could discover.
With "tips" she got off the "Oprah Winfrey Show" (who knew?), Sherwood tried communicating with the spirits she suspected of bringing the negative energy to her store. She steeled herself for opening the store the next day, prepared and determined to communicate.
"I talked to them respectfully," she said. "I told them I knew they were there, and I asked for their acceptance of me and my business."
There was no loud "boom" that day, or any day since. Sales hit a record high and have been good since. The invisible screaming on the staircase ceased.
These days, Sherwood said, she and the ghosts coexist peacefully in the space. They like to hang out upstairs where the Halloween costumes hang on huge retail racks. Last Halloween, Sherwood said, she actually saw one of the spirits. It appeared like a gray mist in the shape of a human being. As quickly as it had appeared, it was gone.
Wanting to be in the thick of it, I asked the ghosts permission to climb the stairs to the Halloween storage area. Sherwood checked her fingers and said it was OK.
I wondered if I was imagining the cool breeze I felt on my neck. Was the air conditioning on? Negative. I took a deep breath, snapped a few pictures, said "thank you," and Sherwood and I headed downstairs.
On a whim, I decided to snap a picture of the stairway up to the balcony. No click. I checked the digital camera's panel: "Battery exhausted." Huh, I thought the battery was fresh. Sherwood just smiled a mischievous smile.
Interestingly, I took no fewer than nine more photos over the next three days on those "exhausted" batteries.
Perhaps I should have asked specifically for permission to take a shot of the ghosts' favorite stairway?
Hey, I told you in the beginning-I want to believe.