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In the Dec. 20, 1878, issue of The New York Times, wedged between letters to the editor and an item on a New Jersey railroad company’s foreclosure proceedings, was news of a haunting in Brooklyn.
The residents of 136 Clinton Avenue, unable to explain weeks of strange sounds that visited their home at night, became convinced it was the work of mischievous spirits. Eventually they called the police, who were “determined to capture the ghost, and treat it to a night’s lodging in a Police cell,” The Times reported. But even the officers were left mystified.
Apparitions hardly ever make the news these days, and the only ghosts one is likely to encounter in Brooklyn are the sheeted kind on Halloween. But during the 19th and early 20th centuries, ghost stories were a common feature in newspapers across the country. An 1827 edition of The Wilmingtonian and Delaware Advertiser included an article titled “A Vision of Lucifer,” an essay by someone supposedly awaked by a ghost on a voyage. In 1889, The Chicago Tribune described a gang of ghosts haunting the North Side of the city by yelling, fighting and shooting pistols.
And The New York Times was no different.
Paulette D. Kilmer, a culture historian and professor at the University of Toledo, scoured the paper’s archives for a chapter in the 2017 book, “After the War: The Press in a Changing America.” Her research turned up nearly 300 ghost stories in The Times between the founding of the paper in 1851 and the early 20th century.
Coverage of specters began to ebb when Adolph S. Ochs acquired The Times in 1896. According to Meyer Berger’s book “The Story of The New York Times, 1851-1951,” Mr. Ochs pushed the paper to cover matters more seriously in order to contrast it with his New York City competitors. Ghost stories, specifically, took a few decades to disappear from newspapers, fizzling out in the mid-20th century with the rise of a different standard of journalism: Objectivity and evenhandedness took the place of sensationalism and scandal.
So why would the “newspaper of record” tell ghost stories? The short answer: Before the rise of other forms of media such as television, newspapers were often the sole source of both information and entertainment for readers.
“In the 19th century, the newspaper had to serve all the media needs for the readers,” Ms. Kilmer said. “They couldn’t turn on their TVs or computers. The newspaper was the center of their media existence.”
The paper often told seemingly objective, reported stories about the supernatural in New York City, including “True History of the Twenty-Seventh Street Goblin” in 1870 and the tale of an exorcism in a Passaic, N.J., home in 1913. It also carried news of the paranormal from other parts of the country, like a report detailing a castle-like mirage above the Pacific Ocean in San Diego in 1909.
But entertainment value doesn’t fully explain reader interest, Ms. Kilmer said. The Civil War and the advent of the Industrial Revolution — bringing with it gory industrial accidents, shipwrecks and trainwrecks — created an atmosphere of uncertainty “conducive to interest in ghosts,” she said.
The stories were often anchored by themes like the power of love and the finality of death; in her research, Ms. Kilmer also found many examples of ghost stories featuring the recurring theme of justice and fairness. The paper on April 9, 1874, for instance, carried an article on a ghost materializing in a Maryland courtroom to defend a widow, which, according to the story, “resulted in the discomfiture of successful villainy and the vindication of oppressed innocence.”
“The whole point is that justice will prevail because the court is the place where the innocent are protected,” Ms. Kilmer said.
Sometimes the ghost stories had no easy conclusions. Back at 136 Clinton Avenue, R. B. Thomas, one of the residents, was left without answers. “The Police have tried and failed,” Mr. Thomas said. “We don’t know what it is, but we do know that it is no earthly agency.”