A Witch’s Grave

Last week, I discussed some tales of witchcraft from Marc Simmons’ book Witchcraft in the Southwest, which I read while conducting early research for my novel Owl Dance.

Witches didn’t always get the upper hand in their dealings with people, as demonstrated in nineteenth century court records. There is a story of a witch who poisoned a bowl of hominy soup as a way of getting revenge against a man. The man was suspicious and did not eat the soup. Instead, he added some herbs and spices of his own so it looked and smelled different. He sent it back to the witch as a gift. The witch ended up eating her own soup and grew ill.

Aside from those cases that are part of the court record, it’s hard to say how much truth there is to these stories of witchcraft from nineteenth century New Mexico that Marc Simmons relates in his book. However, it is clear that people believed in witchcraft and the stories have left a powerful legacy that is still evident in the twenty-first century. This is what led me to research New Mexico’s witch trials in the first place.

The small town of Mesilla in Southern New Mexico is famous as the place where Billy the Kid stood trial. After the Civil War, Mesilla became an important commercial, transportation and social center. In addition to Billy the Kid, such historical figures as Kit Carson and Pancho Villa were known to have spent time there. The historic town square is dominated by the brick edifice of the San Albino Catholic Church. About a half a mile from the church, down a street called Calle de Guadalupe, a little less than a city block from a house I once occupied, is the San Albino Cemetery.


The cemetery looks like something straight out of a western movie. Wooden and adobe crosses with Spanish inscriptions fill the grounds. There is no grass—only a few trees. In addition to the simple crosses, there are a number of ornate graves with beautiful sculptures. Other graves are mounds of earth covered in tile. Many of the graves date from the end of the nineteenth century.

However, one grave stands out among them all. Near the center of the grounds is a six-foot by six-foot solid block. A tall cross adorns the top of the block. Most notably, there is no name nor inscription on this strange tomb. The locals have dubbed this “The Witch’s Grave.” It is said that a woman was buried at the site and a large rock was placed on her grave. The rock was then surrounded by concrete, forming the block that sits on the site today.

It is said that the witch entombed there is attempting to break free. She tries to find cracks in the tomb so she can dig her way out. To prevent this, the folks of Mesilla continuously repair any cracks they find in the tomb. Over the years, the tomb has grown in size from all the repair work. One could dismiss this as simple superstition.

However, there’s a story that a few years ago, a group of teens went to the cemetery. They dared one of the girls to lay on the grave. As she stood up from the grave, she was suddenly and inexplicably struck by seizures. It was so bad, an ambulance had to be called. The girl’s mother never let her have contact with her friends after that.
Had the woman entombed in the witch’s grave once sought revenge against another? Did she go to a school of witchcraft so she could seek power and money? Her story is not discussed in Mesilla. What is known is that the spirit of a woman from the nineteenth century—from the height of witchcraft in New Mexico—still frightens the people of Mesilla to this very day.


Haunted Observatories

This past week, my editor sent me her notes for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. She declares it scary stuff, but has several good ideas for improving the pacing, strengthening the characters, and tightening the plot. I’ll be working diligently on that over coming weeks and will look for some insights about the process to share.

One of the hallmarks of The Astronomer’s Crypt is that it features a haunted astronomical observatory. Haunted observatories are not an area heavily explored by fiction or even ghost lore. So it’s fair to ask where I got the idea. Part of the idea comes from two prominent men who are interred in or just outside the observatories they founded. One is Percival Lowell, whose mausoleum is right outside the 24-inch telescope on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. Another is James Lick who funded the University of California’s Lick Observatory and is interred under the observatory’s 36-inch telescope.

Maria Mitchell Observatory

Maria Mitchell Observatory

However, it’s not just bodies near telescopes that gave me the idea. My first job in astronomy was at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island. The building is an old-fashioned Gothic-looking building right next to the house once occupied by America’s first woman astronomer. My fellow research assistants and I would scare each other by telling stories of Maria’s ghost walking through the building. One night, one of my fellow research assistants even climbed on the roof while I was observing, made thumping noises, and sprayed Lysol in the dome to make me think I was smelling the perfume of Maria’s ghost. In a dark, cold dome in the middle of the night, it was pretty effective!


Mayall 4-meter – NOAO/Aura/NSF

Even today, when I walk around the main floor at the base of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, I sometimes feel like I’m being watched. I look up to an alcove at a darkened stair landing, where I think I see someone out of the corner of my eye. It always proves to be empty, and my skeptical mind always knows its just my mind playing tricks on me, but every now and then I wonder if a ghostly presence haunts the dome. The alcove is in the lower left of the photo. One astronomer was killed at the Mayall 4-meter almost thirty years ago in a tragic accident, several people have died over the years on the twisting mountain road to the observatory, and I just learned that a construction worker died while excavating the tunnel for the McMath-Pierce Solar telescope just across the mountain from the Mayall. There certainly is a potential for ghosts at the observatory.

I’ve only discovered one observatory that describes itself as haunted and that’s Perkins Observatory which was built for Ohio Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college near Columbus. Ohio State University partnered with OWU to run the facility for a number of years, but finally terminated the relationship in 1998. The history page for the observatory tells us that the ghost of Hiram Perkins, the math and astronomy professor who founded the observatory, haunts the site out of frustration that he could never use the site his money funded.

I’m a skeptic who believes science helps us understand our amazing universe and our place within it. However, being a skeptic doesn’t mean I dismiss things like ghost stories out of hand. I believe the paranormal deserves serious investigation. What’s more, I love a good spooky story and believe they tell us something about ourselves.

I am curious whether anyone else knows of a haunted observatory. Do any of my astronomer friends know of a site where strange things have occurred? Has anything ever been documented sufficiently well that it bears closer investigation? Although I’m familiar with several television shows about ghost hunters, I don’t know of any that have ever visited an observatory. Can you think of any? I’ll be happy to follow up on any leads and report about them in a future edition of the blog.


Before I get into the body of today’s post, I have some news to share. I just signed the contract for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Admittedly, if you follow both of my blogs, you’ll already have seen this, but it’s pretty exciting and it means edits should start soon.


A few weeks ago, my friend author Emily Devenport, recommended a 1964 movie of Japanese ghost stories to me called Kwaidan. I finally had a chance to watch the movie this past week and I have to say, this is both a fascinating look at Japanese folktales and a look at what makes good horror.

Kwaidan is an anthology film, composed of four tales. “The Black Hair” tells the story of a poor samurai who leaves his wife to marry another for a better position. His first wife literally haunts the samurai until he feels compelled to return home. In “The Woman of the Snow” two woodcutters are stranded in a blizzard and take shelter. A vampire-like woman appears and kills one of the men, then tells the other she’s sparing him as long as he tells no one about her. “Hoichi the Earless” was the longest entry in the film and tells about a blind minstrel who is compelled to play for a long-dead emperor and his court. Finally, “In a Cup of Tea” tells the story of both a samurai and a writer who see mysterious faces in their drinks.

The film is adapted from several folktales collected by Lafcadio Hearn. The stories appear in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things for which the film is named, Shadowings, and Kotto: Being Japanese Curios With Sundry Cobwebs. I was especially interested to learn of Hearn’s tales, as he was one of my sources of nineteenth century Japanese culture while writing my other recently finished novel, The Brazen Shark.

Clocking in at two hours and forty-four minutes, the movie is arguably a little slow-moving for the modern horror film, but it takes that time to build wonderful atmosphere. There is amazingly little blood in the film for a horror movie—though the one scene with blood is plenty horrific, even though the worst of the gore is covered up. Like a good Stephen King novel, it builds tension by getting us to care about the characters. Aside from the samurai of the first story, it’s hard to feel the characters deserve the horrible things that happen to them. The stories are metaphors for good advice, such as beware of blizzards and strangers, and perhaps don’t drink the tea if there are faces floating in it.

Do you have a favorite horror folktale? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Kwaidan Japanes Movie Poster licensed under fair use of copyrighted material in the context of the movie Kwaidan. Via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kwaidanposterjapanese.jpg#/media/File:Kwaidanposterjapanese.jpg