Jezebel Interview: Author Hannah Nordhaus on Chasing Her Ghostly Ancestor

by Kelly Faircloth

There’s a woman said to haunt Santa Fe’s La Posada Hotel.

The building was a private home before becoming an inn, built for Julia Staab. Julia was born in Germany, but she married a man from her hometown who’d struck it rich supplying settlers and soldiers in the New Mexico territory. And so she traveled halfway across the world to bear and raise several children far, far from everything she knew. Now she’s a local legend, and all sorts of stories have sprung up to explain why she might’ve stuck around. Most of them are very dark.

But ghosts have descendants, too, and among Julia’s is author Hannah Nordhaus, who set out to unravel the mystery of who her ancestor really was. This involved research into European spa culture and nineteenth-century women’s healthcare, the spiritualist movement and the growth of Santa Fe. She talked to ghosthunters and psychics and dedicated Julia enthusiasts. And then, once all her research was done, she booked a night at La Posada.

I talked to Nordhaus about American Ghost, the book that resulted.

It’s always interesting to me what projects pan out. What pushed you to write about Julie and your family’s history? What tipped you over?

I was trying to think about my next project after my last book, which was about honeybees and the beekeeping crisis that’s been affecting honeybee populations worldwide. Julia wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. My dog died right before my last book came out, so I thought about writing a dog memoir. And that did not pan out! Not every idea does.

Julia Staab is someone I’ve known and thought about  my whole life. I had written about her before, when I was a younger woman. At the time, I think I was really writing about myself more than I was writing about Julia. The article was about Julia as a young bride, coming from Germany to New Mexico with her horrible husband, and being kept down by men. I think at that point in my life I felt I was being kept down in a similar way. So I wrote that article when I was 24, and then I moved on with my life and became a journalist and wrote about science and the environment and stayed away from ghosts.

Then, a few years ago, sometime after I realized the dog memoir was not something I wanted to spend two years writing, I remembered I had found this book that my great-aunt Lizzie had written about our family history, which spoke of Julia and her children, and told a tale of sadness and madness and suicide, drug addiction and disinheritance and family feuds. And I realized that there was a lot more to my family than just these ghost stories. And I was at a point in my life where I wanted to learn more and in a place where I had the opportunity to do so, as a writer.

One of the things that fascinated me was how well you were able to flesh out Julia’s family and her world and get so close to her, but at the same time, it was hard to get final, definitive answers to many of the big questions. You still end up wondering about the core of Julia. Did you learn what you wanted to learn?

About Julia, no. But I learned so much more about her family, the people around her. She was so enigmatic and so reclusive and left so few  records, so I had to trace her life through the people around her. I did not get satisfying answers to a lot of the questions that I started with—what exactly was her ailment? Why was she unhappy?

I have a lot of speculations based on things I learned, but I still can’t tell you exactly why she was unhappy, how she died, or whether she’s really a ghost. I wish her ghost had come to me in the hotel room and said, ‘Let me sit down and tell you about my life!‘ But history doesn’t work that way. And it’s not just because it’s a ghost story. It’s also because she was a nineteenth century woman, and most women’s lives were so undocumented. They were so sequestered.

I do, however, feel a lot closer to Julia’s daughters, especially to my great-grandmother Bertha. That was something I had not expected. I found Bertha’s diary a few months into my research and that really opened up Bertha’s world, and the family’s world–what they did, who they were. Coming to understand Bertha helped me also understand something about Julia. Bertha, in contrast to her mother, led a really remarkable and productive and, from what I gather, happy life. She’s become a model to me in how to approach the sadness in our lives, the challenges, and she was by all accounts beloved and really engaged in her world and in her community in a way that her mother wasn’t.

But Julia really did remain a cypher.

I loved that though. When you’re writing something like this there’s a certain pressure to overstate your case, but you were really comfortable laying out what we have, what we don’t have, what we can maybe think about. Something like Abraham and whether he really donated to help build the Catholic cathedral and whether they put the Hebrew lettering on over the entrance had anything to do with him.

We’ll never know.

Yeah, here’s where the trail ends.

It’s not how narrative works! There’s so much pressure to provide narrative closure in journalism. But my background’s in history, and especially when you’re talking about women’s history in the nineteenth century, there’s just so few answers. There’s so little closure—you have to makes leaps, suppositions, especially about people’s emotional lives–what drove them, why they felt the way they did.

I studied a lot of women’s history in graduate school, and there’s a lot of really good examples out there of academic historians who tried to fill in those lacunae in women’s sparsely documented lives. There’s Jonathan Spence, who wrote The Death of Woman Wang, which is about a woman in early modern China, and there’s a book called The Midwife’s Tale, about a midwife in colonial Maine. There’s another book called Lucrecia’s Dreams, which is about the Spanish Inquisition. All wonderful history books that try to piece together women’s lives and histories from really sparse records.

So you know, as a historian, you do have to be comfortable with a lot of holes in the stories. But I think people who love ghost stories are accustomed to a lot of holes—so hopefully they won’t be mad at me.

I think it’s harder to do with popular writing, with more narrative stuff, and so I just had to trust that my readers would go along with me even though I couldn’t wrap it up neatly.

It was interesting, too, to think about how everybody in that family knew what was going on with Julia and in many ways it dominated their lives, but when it comes to write it down in your diary, you write about the guy you had a crush on. You don’t write about your mom’s terrible accident.

And I think now we probably would, because we write about everything and we’re so confessional in our writing. But that was not how they worked back then. The held things–especially matters of medicine and mental illness–close to the vest.

You had to find your way into Julia’s story through other people’s stories, and one I thought was interesting was Abraham. The ghost stories want to make him out to be this whoring gambling abusive monster. But your findings suggest that it was more complicated. Where did you come down on him? What was your final sense of him when you finished the project?

I think Abraham was not a horrible person. I don’t think he was the villain the ghost stories make him out to be. Though I am glad he wasn’t my husband.

He was very much a man of his time. I think he was incredibly personable, charming, funny, energetic. I probably would have been very taken with him if I had met him back then in his heyday. That said, he was a nineteenth-century husband and a nineteenth-century father. I think in many ways,  he was a far more horrible father than he was a horrible husband. It seemed to me that he really did care for Julia and try in his own limited capacity to help her. Mostly that involved hiring people to care for her and sending her off to spas. I don’t think he really quite knew how to deal with her ailments.

From Bertha’s diary, it seems he was actually quite loving father to his daughters as well. Strict, I think, but loving. But I think he was really, really tough on his sons, and I think they suffered for it.

So where I came down with Abraham is, I am fond of him. I have a fondness for him. I think he was a man of his time, and it’s hard for us to understand that marriages functioned in different ways back then.

Why do you think it is that Julia ended up being this legendary Santa Fe ghost? Out of all the women who lived and died in Santa Fe in the nineteenth century—and as you point out, someone like her contemporary Flora Speigelberg leaves a much clearer paper trail and would have probably been more widely known or at least more out and about. Why do you think it was her story that ended up having this afterlife?

Well, I think there’s the archetype of—especially in the Victorian ghost story—the sad wraith-like spirit floating around. You know, someone asked me at one of my book signings, ‘how do you know that Julia was always sad?’

And I don’t know that. But as I thought about it, I realized every contemporary description depicted that way. Sister Blandina, a nun who traveled with the family in the 1870s, wrote about Julia being depressed. She actually used the word–I didn’t even know they used words like “depressed” back then. But that is how she described her. And then in Bertha’s diary it just goes on and on about how Julia’s panicked or she’s having a bad spell, and it’s clear it’s an emotional issue, not just physical.

But never once did I find anybody saying “Julia’s happy today.” So I do think that whatever in the public memory remained of her story, she was clearly not a happy public person. So perhaps that legacy of sadness is why people feel that she’s a ghost.

And then, many people have also reported seeing a ghost in her house. So who else would it be? In the first newspaper article I found that ever mentioned the possibility of a ghost in the house, the paper reported that someone thought the ghost was a servant named Ida. But those reports pretty quickly turned to the ghost being Julia. And it made sense—she was, after all, the mistress of the house that was built for her.

I hope poor Ida isn’t haunting that hotel thinking, This is incredibly rude of everyone.

Yes! There’s a paper trail that I’ll never find.

You know, I didn’t write about it in the book, but at my family’s place in northeastern New Mexico, where I found Lizzie’s book–on Bertha’s husband’s property–there’s supposed to be a ghost there, too. And there’s a lot debate in the family over whether it’s Bertha or one of the nannies who took care of the kids. There’s a picture there of a woman dressed in Victorian clothes, sitting on a rock with a bunch of children and looking at the camera, and people keep saying, “Oh I saw that ghost, and it’s Bertha.” But the picture’s actually of the nanny. So there’s probably a lot of misidentified ghosts out there.

Do you think it means something that this sad Victorian ghost woman pops up so often? Do you think it means something that we keep reanimating these women, building up a mythos and writing articles and telling stories and staying in hotels? Why do you think it captivates us?

I think there’s a couple things. One of the reasons I went into history of spiritualism in the book, is that this Victorian archetype of a ghost really arose out of the Victorian era and how obsessed people were with ghosts back then. At the time, a huge religious movement grew out of the notion that we can communicate with the dead. There were seances all the time, and Vaudeville spiritualism acts, and it all happened during this period when they were dressed in Victorian clothing and most of the mediums, the real famous ones, were women.

And so I think that the Victorian ghost story really grew out of that cultural movement. And that’s what we think about when we think about mediums and ghosts and seances—women in Victorian dresses. You rarely see a ghost in, say, a mini-skirt and platform shoes. They’re always in this high-necked dress with her hair pulled up. There’s a cultural archetype. And women were so sequestered in that era. Women were supposed to stay in the home. They were not supposed to be public figures in any way. Flora Spiegelberg and Bertha were much more modern women than Julia was. So you have this image of women like Julia, who were locked up in their homes and died there and never left.

It’s almost like looking at ghosts of ghosts.

Yes, and ghosts of a movement in the American imagination.

So, I get the sense you’re a skeptic. Did it change your feelings on ghosts to write this whole book about Julia, a legendary ghost?

It did and it didn’t. I am still a skeptic because I’m an empirical person and it’s really hard to be empirical about ghosts. People try, but they never succeed. That said, I want very much to believe. I love the story, I love the power of the story. I love how these ghost stories connect us to the past. If nobody believed they were true, they’d have a lot less power.

In writing this book and promoting it now, I have heard so many ghost stories from otherwise “normal” people who are generally skeptical, believe in science, are not woo-woo in any way. I’ve heard probably fifty stories since this book has come out, where people explain something happened to them that they can’t explain. They never believed in ghosts before and nothing’s ever happened again—just this one time. Who am I to say that they’re full of shit? They believe it happened to them; they seem like perfectly sane people. So I’m not going to say I don’t believe. I remain on the fence, but with a strong predilection towards wanting to believe.

You cover so many areas in your book. Is there anything in particular that you came across that really interested or surprised you?

I found the history of women’s health stuff just fascinating—how doctors treated emotional and gynecological ailments as the same thing. I knew there was some measure of that, but I didn’t quite realize that they were giving women hysterectomies for depression. Exploring the barbarity of the medical treatments that women were subjected to was really quite astonishing.

The other really surprising thing to me was that Julia had had a sister who’d lived long enough to be killed in Holocaust. Because I had no idea. I knew that my family was German and there were probably people who had not survived the Holocaust. But I had no idea that it was quite so close to home.

You start the book reading about how Julia left this beautiful place where all her family was, and she had to travel to the very difficult-to-reach ass-end of nowhere (at the time) but it saved her life. Or, it did and it didn’t I guess.

It saved her children’s lives and made it possible for us to be here. Her life was short and not terribly happy, and she died well before the Holocaust. But she came to New Mexico and raised our family there, and we are so fortunate that she did so.

Read the full article here