Thursday, October 25, 2012

Some Museum History and Ghost Stories

     The building which houses the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is a particularly fitting one for us.  The original building predated the Civil War.  Prior to the war it was owned by James Whitehill, a furniture maker and undertaker.  During the war he provided caskets and grave markers to the military hospitals here in Frederick.  Dr. Richard Burr, a Civil War embalmer, also worked from this location in 1862, after the battles of South Mountain and Antietam.  I will be telling more of Dr. Burr’s story in next week’s post!  
 
     After the war, Clarence C. Carty bought the property from Mr. Whitehill’s widow, and established his own furniture and undertaking business on the site.  He also bought the adjoining property and housed his family there while renovating the building in 1892.  The pre-Civil War building at the front of the property was replaced at that time.  However, the rear section of the building (from the 1830’s) remained.  This is probably where the embalming was performed in the fall of 1862.  The Carty family continued to run their business here until 1978.




This photo of what is now known as the "Carty building" was taken around 1884 and shows Willie Keller, handyman; Henry E. Carty, who later ran the business; and Clarence C. Carty, who started the business. And yes, that is a rocking chair on display up on top of the sign post! This image, which is on display at the NMCWM, is courtesy of Frances Randall.


Here is a more recent photo of the Carty building, which has been home to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine since 1994. The building next-door, which also belonged to Mr. Carty, is now a separate property. You can still see many similarities to the building in the older photo though – especially the front doors and large display windows.

 
 
     Though there was an extensive remodeling project on the interior of the building in 2000, one part of the historic building still remains.  A freight elevator, used for the furniture which was manufactured here, is preserved in a corner of the museum’s collection room.



This freight elevator, believed to be the oldest one in Maryland, was probably installed in 1892 when Clarence Carty did his renovations.
 

This metal plate on the elevator shows that it was manufactured by James Bates of Baltimore, Maryland, and that this design was first patented in 1871. James Bates is credited as inventing the first automatic elevator in 1856. 

 

     Since it is an old, historic building, and it was once an embalming station, it is not surprising that there are also quite a few ghost stories associated with it!  I tend to be a skeptic about the subject though, and some of the stories can be debunked pretty easily.  My favorite story involves a “ghost hunter” who was going through the galleries with a device which was supposed to read the electromagnetic fields produced by the ghosts.  He was very excited to see high readings near many of the exhibit cases he scanned.  He reported that it appeared that most of our artifacts on display had spirits associated with him.  He was rather disappointed though, when it was pointed out to him that the readings were being caused by the magnetic locks on our exhibit cases!



And then there’s this photo of dozens of ghostly orbs in our Camp Life display, taken when the exhibit was being installed. Some people say the orbs are spirits, but a quick Google search of “orbs in photos” reveals that they are more probably caused by dust.



     However, I will admit that not all of the stories can be so easily explained.  There are enough consistencies in different people’s accounts of these stories to make me wonder.  The most reported occurrence is hearing footsteps on the ramps between the galleries.  This is one which I have experienced.  It is a very strange feeling to hear what seem to be footsteps following you, when you are alone!  Once I even ran back down the ramp toward the sound, because I was sure that one of my coworkers was hiding around the corner and trying to scare me, but there was no one there.



Here is our Deputy Director, Karen, standing in front of the building’s old doorbell. Although now the only way to operate this doorbell is to be standing in front of it and physically move the bell strikers, she sometimes hears it ring when she is the only one on that floor.
Also, notice the Carty building artifacts on the left side of the photo – one of the original Carty signs and a framed death certificate for Clarence Carty.




     Other stories we hear often from staff and visitors involve seeing images of people in Civil War era clothing, or feeling like someone has brushed against them when there is no one close to them.  On the third floor of the museum, more than one staff member has reported seeing a woman in a gray dress, or hearing children running and playing in the hallways.  Other people report that books sometimes “fly” off the shelves, or that paper clips jump out of their containers.

     Our Executive Director, George, talks about some of the things that have happened in the museum in the link here .

 
     Whether or not you are a believer, they certainly make interesting stories to tell, and they make you wonder about the previous occupants of the building.
  

  
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
 
 

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