Writing the Unwritten – Boulder Weekly

‘American Ghost’ seeks to tell the truth in a ghost story

By Elizabeth Miller

 All of us are haunted — by vestiges of the past, and, as Hannah Nordhaus poignantly observes in American Ghost, by the ghosts of who we thought we were or thought we would become. Her story is a different kind of personal haunting, though, as she writes of the ghost of a great-great-grandmother said to haunt a Santa Fe hotel.

American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest is both the story of her great-great grandmother, Julia Staab, pieced together from the few scraps left of her life story, and Boulder-based journalist Nordhaus’ own personal revelations as she discovers those pieces.

“It’s a ghost story, and it seemed like that was going to be my hook, so to speak, but it’s also really an American story, and it’s a story of immigration and assimilation and families and how they change and how this German bride became an American wife and then became an American legend. So it seemed to me really the story of the making of America and the melting pot, how we become American,” Nordhaus says.

That ancestral German-born Jew immigrated to Santa Fe to live with her newly minted husband, Abraham, where he was on the rise to becoming one of the more notable millionaires in the American West in the late 1800s. She arrived in the city long before the railroad, before trees had grown in along the city’s streets, to live in a dirt-floored dwelling while Abraham grew his business into lucrative heights, eventually building her a three-story Victorian house just off the Plaza downtown.

Julia died in obscurity — just another woman whose life had largely disappeared behind her husband’s name in the few newspaper mentions it did receive. But after a remodel of the hotel that had once been her house restored much of its historic features, she was said to begin locking maids in her bedroom so often they now refuse to clean the room alone and ripping sheets off sleeping guests.

Nordhaus creates a patchwork quilt from the scraps of news reports, ships’ logs and a few personal family histories, including her great-grandmother’s briefly kept diary and a family history written by an aunt. What we know of life in the American Southwest at the time, as well as what we can tell from the life Julia left behind in Germany, adds color where the records leave off.

It’s a book she couldn’t have written a decade ago, she says; without the massive collection of newspaper articles available now online, she would be without the basic timeline of the Staab’s lives.

Interspersed with the history, Nordhaus recounts the trips to psychics, dousers and spiritualists she undertook to see what they might illuminate about the past — but also, she says, to introduce a little levity into what might otherwise be a very sad tale.

“I find her history interesting in and of itself as these western Jews who came to Santa Fe in the very early Anglo years, but the reason Julia remains alive to us and the story remains alive to so many people is because of her ghost story. That’s why people know her now,” Nordhaus says. “So I didn’t see how I could tell her story without dealing with the fact that she’s a famous ghost.”

More than revealing secrets of a long-dead relative, these interludes unmask Nordhaus as the seeker, the observer and the ever-curious and patient watcher of the world that years as a journalist and researcher have engrained.

We go along on that journey of discovery with her, as the past reveals more and more of Julia’s story to her great-great-granddaughter, and Julia’s story becomes more her own, and less that of the people who have told the story.

There’s so much of who we are in the stories we tell. How we see the world dictates what pieces of it appear in our recounting. Nordhaus saw that in the way she, at first, told the story of her great-great-grandmother. When she was young and feeling oppressed and a bit victimized, she wrote Julia’s story from the perspective of a young bride, shipped away from her home to a frightening and unfamiliar place, held down by the demands of an exacting husband and, eventually, seven children. She heard, in the retelling of the family ghost story from aunts and relatives, hints of the battered wives and a resentful disenfranchisement from the choices and opportunities afforded women now.

“When I found this book that my great Aunt Lizzie had written about our family, I realized Julia wasn’t just a story and an anecdote. She was a real person and there were now so many resources available to delve further into her history that it seemed like this was the time to really try to figure out who she was,” Nordhaus says. “But at the same time, I was still projecting onto her, I think because at that point I’m thinking of her as a mother and a woman growing older out in the West like I am. So I very much went into the project trying to learn about her as a person going through the same milestones in life that I was going through.”

What she concludes in her journey — we’ll leave Julia’s journey to the book — is that we choose how much to allow ourselves to be burdened by our own expectations, impinged by our own ability to see past the way our own autobiographies overlay the biographies we report and haunted by those unlived lives.