My wife and I used to own a haunted house in Minneapolis. We never saw anything unusual while living there, but every few years, some past resident would stop by to tell stories. One elderly man said the house presented the most startling experiences of his life, including knockings on the walls, falling paintings and disembodied voices from the dead. Another former owner hosted a ghost who hid items and played pranks.
What do we make of tales like these? In "The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories and Legends," Michael Norman rounds up lots of Minnesota ghost stories told as true, many of which will be unfamiliar even to devotees of regional hauntings. Through research and interviews, he grounds them in their times and places, as well as in the personalities of those who experienced them.
Norman, a retired associate professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and author of several previous collections of ghost tales, clearly believes that the more we know of a ghost story's context, the more we will appreciate it. This detail-driven, reported approach pays off in several narratives. A chapter about ghosts in the Owatonna Fitness Center, formerly a state school for orphans, benefits from Norman's inclusion of grisly bits of information about the building's past. These include the causes of death of orphans interred in a cemetery on the grounds: "diphtheria, a broken neck in a football game, and ruptured appendixes; one boy was gored to death by an elk the school owned while trying to retrieve a baseball in the animal's pasture."
Norman's account of hauntings in the dormitories of St. Olaf College focuses on the efforts of a dean to collect, preserve and analyze the ghost stories in search of clues to their origins and meanings. The dean wins our attention as an important and intriguing character in his own right.
Other accounts pile on details that stretch the reader's patience. Do we really need to know the name of the founding postmaster of Storden, especially when he does not figure in the ghost story that follows, and does Norman's catalog of the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts add to the story of the specters in its period rooms?
"There has never been a nation or civilization without ghost stories," Norman writes in his preface, but what perhaps makes Minnesota's tales distinctive in Norman's narratives is the aplomb with which its people accept ghosts in their lives. Throughout the book, phantom footsteps, rearranged silverware, levitating oars, disobedient water spigots and even transparent figures seem no big deal to many of the people involved. Norman's stories are not scary enough to repeat around the campfire, but they do make you wonder.
Minneapolis writer Jack El-Hai is the author of "The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness."