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Know the West

The soul in Suite 100: A ghost story


I am from, as they say, an "old" New Mexico Anglo family. I did not grow up in New Mexico, but have always thought myself from there -- tied to the place by blood and property and predilection, and by the way the smell of sagebrush and cast of light remind me that I am home each time I cross the state line. My great-great-great-great-uncle, Solomon Spiegelberg, first came to the area in 1846, a German-Jewish wagon-peddler who sold goods to the conquering American troops. My great-great-grandfather, Abraham Staab, followed his uncle to Santa Fe in 1858 and set up a wholesale dry goods business, selling grain and uniforms to the Army and supplies to local residents. In 1882, he built a graceful French Second Empire Style home on Palace Avenue, just a few blocks off Santa Fe's main plaza. It was a brick structure in a city of mud and straw, with a green mansard roof and a widow's walk ridged with elaborate ornamental ironwork. Inside were high ceilings and mahogany woodwork, ornate brass chandeliers and plaster moldings, gilt floor-length mirrors and furnishings imported from New York and Germany. Three stories tall, it dwarfed the other buildings in town.

Abraham built that grand home for his bride, my great-great-grandmother Julia, who had grown up wealthy in Germany and expected such things. She was a slight woman, under five feet, delicate as a sparrow, with dark brown ringlets massed above her head, her eyes just a tad too close together. She raised seven children in the house, and buried an infant. Local histories report that after the baby's death, Julia stayed in her room for two weeks, not eating or sleeping, and that when she emerged, her dark hair had gone completely white. She never quite recovered from the loss, rarely leaving her room, and she died there in 1896 at the age of 52. The home is now a local landmark, a swank hotel called "La Posada" -- Spanish for "resting place" -- with hot tubs and spa treatments. But local legend says that Julia has not exactly found a place to rest there -- that, in fact, she has never given up residence. My great-great-grandmother is the hotel ghost.

The first reported sighting came in 1979, when an employee cleaning late at night looked up to see a translucent woman with white upswept hair and a black Victorian dress standing near a fireplace. A security guard saw the same woman wandering a hallway some time later. He took off running. And then strange things began to happen throughout the old house. Gas fireplaces turned off and on, and off and on again. The brass chandeliers in the bar and living room revolved of their own accord. Vases of flowers moved to new locations. Julia's old bedchamber, two rooms at the top of the stairs with period furniture and unnerving lace curtains, now dubbed Suite 100, was reputed to be a particular locus of "ghostly activity" -- gauzy faces in mirrors, dancing "orbs," toilets that flushed on their own.

As word spread of Julia's reappearance in her old home, my great-great-grandmother –– a woman who, by all accounts, had been quite proper and reserved during her lifetime –– morphed into something of a local celebrity. She starred in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, and also Weird Travels; there are web pages devoted to her, passages in books about ghosts, even a novel based on her story. And so my great-great-grandmother, whom of course I never knew, is no longer my family's property. She now belongs to everyone -- a local legend, a curiosity.

This is not entirely objectionable to those of us who are related to her. It links us, conspicuously, to New Mexico's past. And it is fun to have a spirit in the family. My great-aunt Lizzie, who was the repository of family history until her death in 1982, was particularly keen on the ghost stories. She even spent a night in the room at La Posada, and reported seeing a rocking chair sway back and forth for no earthly reason. The rest of us stayed at the hotel from time to time, but never in Julia's actual bedroom. There were times, after a night of carousing with cousins at the plush Victorian bar below, when we convinced the hotel staff to let us visit the room. It had high ceilings and four arched windows. We'd lounge in the armchairs and the rocker and loll on the bed, calling for Julia as one would beckon a kitty -- dripping with condescension. Much like your average kitty, she refused to oblige.

Last spring, I decided to try again. I'm not sure why I felt compelled to know her at this moment in my life. Perhaps it was because, as I grew older, and had children of my own (though not nearly as many as Julia did) and began to contemplate mortality and bloodlines and loss, I wanted to know where -- and who -- I came from. So I made a trip to Santa Fe, to my family home where I have never lived, in search of a foremother whom I had never known. I booked a room -- her room -- at La Posada, and went in search of my family's Western beginnings.

There were some things I knew about Julia and Abraham already. I knew how taxing their trip to New Mexico must have been: the boat from Bremen to New York; the train from New York to St. Louis; the wagon road from St. Louis to Independence, Mo., through Kansas and on west. The trail rose slowly, at an agonizing pace, through the furrowed grasslands along the Arkansas River to Bent's Fort and then Trinidad, Colo., where it turned south along the sage-dotted foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then climbed to the staggering basin of blue-green peaks and the ramshackle aggregation of red-earth buildings that was Santa Fe -- the low-slung governor's palace; the churches and convent and Army barracks; the burros and chickens and whores. I knew that Julia, who came from a settled world of gray skies and dark-wood interiors and timeworn cobblestones, must have found such a place bewildering, even threatening.

I knew that Julia was an elegant woman who brought art and culture to a place that had seen little of either. In his 1924 book Old Santa Fe, Ralph Emerson Twitchell, a New Mexico historian, described the "wondrous memories" of those who visited Staab mansion: "Unostentatious but magnificent in their simplicity were the contributions of Abraham and Mrs. Staab … to the social gaieties which shone with frequent brilliancy in the ancient city." I was aware that she was often unhealthy: In At the End of the Santa Fe Trail, a 1949 memoir by Sister Blandina Segale, the Santa Fe nun described accompanying a sickly Julia to a railroad depot in 1877, a thrilling journey that involved a narrow escape from a run-in with Billy the Kid.

And I knew that Abraham had helped fund the construction of Santa Fe's cathedral when the town's famous French Archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, ran out of money, and that in return, the archbishop had placed Hebrew letters in the entrance arch: Yahweh, the word for God. Julia had been friendly with Archbishop Lamy; they spoke French together, and he planted two willow trees in her yard. In 1956, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian Paul Horgan devoted a whole chapter of his book, The Centuries of Santa Fe, to a woman modeled on Julia. In that chapter, which is titled "The German Bride," he described the nightly formal dinners in the mansard-roofed home at a table set "with European china, cut glass, silver, lace, and linen"; visits from Rutherford Hayes and the Indian-war generals Miles, Sheridan and Sherman -- and of course the archbishop. Horgan described Julia as an exquisite and dignified creature in a rugged outpost starved for urbanity: "Her skin was white," Horgan wrote. "Her clothes were beautifully made in the highest of fashion. She animated them with something of the effect of a small girl dressed up playing queen. She could make everybody smile simply on meeting them. Wait till she played the piano for them, and then she would make them sigh, or even weep."

That was what I thought I knew, anyway. At the state archives in Santa Fe -- a boxy, windowless, soul-crushing kind of place, as most state archives are -- I discovered some things I didn't know. I found a slim folder on Abraham Staab, which advised me that he was 5-foot-2, with a "low" forehead and "straight" nose, but didn't tell me much of anything else. Near the disappointing Staab trove, however, I found a much thicker folder that held the papers of Flora Spiegelberg, a wife of one of the uncles who preceded Abraham to New Mexico. She wrote prolifically about her life, and in those pages, I learned that she, and not Julia, was the model for Paul Horgan's "German Bride." It was she who hobnobbed with Rutherford Hayes, she who played the piano so beautifully. The willow trees in the yard? The archbishop, she said, had planted them for her.

I also found another file -- a historical-review article from the 1960s about the construction of the Santa Fe cathedral. And that story, too, was rather different from what I had been told: The Hebrew inscription above the cathedral door, it said, was a common symbol in the cathedrals Lamy had visited in his youth in south-central France: churches that had not all, presumably, been funded by Jews. So the proud tale of my family's proud past was just that -- a conglomeration of contested memories and half-truths and self-congratulatory hokum handed on from one generation to the next. Not all that different, really, from a ghost story.

My day ended with a ghost tour. I had arranged to meet John Lorenzen, a longtime local guide, at the obelisk that sits in the center of Santa Fe's plaza -- a memorial erected in 1868 to honor those lost in the Civil War, and also those federal troops "fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico." The word "savage" had been chiseled away from the marble in 1973 by a guy with a blond ponytail and a hardhat, and then occasionally scratched back in, and then chiseled out again -- another contested memory from my family's golden years. I wasn't sure I'd be able to pick Lorenzen out among the homeless and skater kids milling around the plaza's center, but it was obvious from the outset that he was my guy: a sturdy fellow with brown hair and an Indiana Jones hat, leather vest, puffy-sleeved green tunic, cargo shorts, hiking boots -- the classic mufti of a New Age adventure guide.

We started at the Original Trading Post on San Francisco Street, where four basement spirits like to throw clothes from the hangers, then visited a restaurant on the site of a card room that was owned by the notorious madam Doña Tula and which allegedly brims with the ghosts of whores and gamblers. We lingered at the porch of a pretty Victorian art gallery whose previous resident, a prominent real estate agent, moved out quickly -- really quickly -- after he encountered a black-cloaked, waxen-faced figure who smelled of rotting flesh and froze all the house plants. Lorenzen believes the home is on the site of an old hanging post. Ghosts tend to congregate in places of violence, Lorenzen told me, which explains their prevalence in the once-wild West. We learned of La Llorona, an Indian beauty who married a conquistador and gave birth to two children and then, when her looks faded and her man ran off, threw her two children into the Santa Fe River, hit her head on a rock and died. She still wanders the banks of the river, which isn't much of a river anymore but rather an intermittent stream channeled and deflected and sucked away upstream -- a ghost river -- looking for other children to drown.

We ended the tour at La Posada. In the adobe reception area that now wraps the old home, we observed Abraham's gilt initials above the original entry. Then we climbed the stairs to Julia's room. It was bigger than I remembered, high-ceilinged, with a large four-poster bed. A small writing desk sat in front of the windows where, I imagined, Julia gazed out at the passing street life. There was a settee and chairs with dragon carvings that had belonged to her, and an elegant assortment of ornately trimmed Victorian furniture.

Julia had been, Lorenzen told me, an unhappy wife -- "a canary in a cage." She had, he told me, been a shut-in who killed herself with laudanum or arsenic, or may have been murdered by her husband, or the Spanish maid who loved him. Perhaps. The truth of this, like so much else, is lost to history. Lorenzen recounted stories of blankets ripped off unsuspecting sleepers and impulsive faucets. He stalked into the bathroom, which harbored an air of charming decrepitude that even a luxury resort couldn't buff away: a small-German-Jewish-person-sized bathtub, crumbling black-and-white tile. "Nineteenth-century ghosts are fascinated by plumbing fixtures," Lorenzen explained.

When the last ghost story was told, we sat in silence for a moment, and then Lorenzen cleared his throat: "Julia," he said, "if you'd like to show us a sign that you're here, we welcome it and we respect you, as the lady of the house." I looked around for a sign. "If there's anything you can do," he continued, "for our greatest and highest good, to show us that you're here, you're welcome to do so." Again, Julia didn't oblige.

After Lorenzen left, I poked around the room a bit, peering into the closet and behind the shower curtain -- for Julia, I suppose -- and then headed out to dinner and the hotel bar, which was once a family sitting room. The place was hopping. There was a jazz band, and a number of sleek people who looked like they were from Los Angeles, with sport jackets and gelled hair that crested in stiff, calculated peaks, like meringues. I sat on a velvet loveseat and ate lemon curd, observing these invaders in Julia's home, and then, when I had run out of excuses to stay, I headed up to sleep in the room where my great-great-grandmother died.

It was a restless night: glasses clinking, heaters clunking, clatter and chatter, trumpets blustering, doors closing, a dog barking in the hallway. Toward morning, I fell asleep -- and sometime after that, I woke up. Something might have happened then -- something that might have had to do with a ghost, or at least some ghostly orbs. Though really, who would believe me? It's just another story, secondhand and subjective, like all the others that link me to this home I never inhabited, this past in which I never lived. Memory is a ghost itself -- fleeting, undependable -- but it is all we have to make sense of who we are.

On my way out of town, I stopped at the cemetery where Julia and Abraham were buried. It must have once been a pastoral, tree-shaded spot on the far edge of the city, the resting place of Santa Fe's non-Catholic Anglos, but it had fallen on hard times. The once-lush Kentucky bluegrass lawn was gone; it died a few years ago, when the cemetery board stopped paying for irrigation. Prairie dogs had found favorable territory there, digging networks of tunnels that had begun to undermine the gravestones. Back when the graveyard was a going concern, the indigent were buried in cardboard coffins, which later disintegrated. Burrowing animals had begun to bring up bones from below.

The land was so barren it could barely support weeds, ground returned to desert, red-beige and prickly; the grand American elms and lindens and horse chestnuts also bare, perished, I feared, for lack of water. In disrepair, this home of perpetual care reinforced death's chilling finality: there were slabs sinking into the ground, headstones sheared in half, souls forgotten. Just outside the chain-link fence was a busy six-lane road crammed with rush-hour traffic and an electrical substation, all wires and superstructure, and a state building of the institutional sort -- thick walls and few windows -- and, on the edge of the cemetery, incongruously, a preschool play-yard -- possibly the creepiest playground in the world -- providing the only splash of color in the entire tableau, besides a few fake flowers laid here and there.

The Staab monument sat dead center in the cemetery, carved of pale gray granite -- 15, 20 feet high, perhaps -- a gothic S adorning the top, the word "STAAB" carved in simpler letters below. At its foot was a square of dirt surrounded by a low granite wall. It must once have held flowers or grass, but now it sheltered only dirt and weeds. The words "Father" and "Mother" were carved at the monument's foot. I yanked on the gate in the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the plot, and walked in for a closer look at what was left of my forebears. Inside was a symmetrical assortment of five smaller granite headstones flanking Abraham and Julia's monument -- those of their children -- now covered by tumbleweeds, encroached on by shrubbery, crawling with fire ants.

I took a few photos, and when there was nothing left to study or discern, I tossed the tumbleweeds into the dust beyond the fence, brushed the ants and dirt from the stones, and closed the gate behind me. This was what endured: the stones, the bones, the ghost stories that tie me to this high desert basin and the Sangre de Cristos rising to the east, shrine to another wandering Jew. Those, and the smell of the desert earth after it rains, and the penstemons in August; and all the vague, sweet, unreliable memories I have collected in the years of visiting this place, of monsoon summers and glazed winters and yellow-tinged falls, even the dusty, turbulent springs. Which is, really, more than enough.