The Life and Ghosts of Vera Van Slyke

Side by Side Colorized
Vera Van Slyke (1868-1941) and Ludmila “Lida” Bergson (1882-1958), née Prášilová, a.k.a. Lucille Parsell

This timeline covers the history behind the hauntings investigated by Vera Van Slyke and Lida Bergson as well as key moments in their personal lives. It will continue to grow as I unearth more information. Links to related historical evidence appear in blue.

HftH refers to Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries.
GIaG refers to Guilt Is a Ghost: A Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mystery.

1692-93

Nineteen people were killed near Salem, Massachusetts, for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Well over 100 were so accused. This dark event of U.S. colonial history resurfaces during Vera’s investigation of a murder/suicide/haunting, chronicled in GIaG.

1763

Colonel Henry Bouquet commanded the British Fort Pitt, located where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet. (The site is now near downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.) Bouquet drew plans to have his soldiers carry smallpox-infested blankets to the indigenous tribes attacking the fort, telling his commander that “it is a pity to expose good men against them. . . .” The consequences of this plan lingered at least until 1902, as explained in HftH (“A Burden that Burns”).

1817

The Bell family became plagued by strange phenomena on their farm in Robertson County, Tennessee. Unaccountable knocking and other odd sounds developed into a voice from a spectral entity calling herself Kate. She grew increasingly aggressive toward the Bell children and became known as the Bell Witch. Two of earliest documents describing the haunting are an 1856 newspaper article titled “The Tennessee Ghost” and a paragraph an 1886 book titled History of Tennessee, from the Earliest Time to the Present. The legacy of the Bell Witch is intertwined with the mystery explored in GIaG.

1832

An epidemic of cholera was brought via the ship Sheldon Thompson to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn. The victims of the deadly disease were buried side-by-side — without coffins or headstones — at a site that later became the corner of Lake Street and Wabash Avenue. In 1906, this mass grave would have a deadly effect on a group of tunnel diggers working far below that spot, as detailed in HftH (“Vampire Particles”).

1846

The March 19th issue of Scientific American reported “the discovery of a monstrous wild man in the swamps about the Arkansas and Missouri line.” The brief article says the creature’s track measures 22 inches but concludes: “We are of the opinion that either the ‘wild man,’ or the man who raised the story, is a great monkey.” Despite such jibes, in 1851, several newspapers reprinted a report in The Memphis Enquirer, regarding a “Wild Man of the Woods” spotted in Greene County, Arkansas. The human-like creature “was of gigantic stature, the body being covered with hair. . . .” This early version of Bigfoot reappeared yet again in this same region of northeast Arkansas in 1908, and Vera Van Slyke had a role in investigating it. The truth is revealed in HftH (“Monstrimony”).

1848

The Night Side of Nature; or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers, by Catherine Crowe, was first published. This became Vera’s most prized book in her library of works on ghosts and related phenomenon.

The Fox Sisters from Hydesville, New York, claimed to be able to communicate with the dead through a system of rapping. They ignited the Spiritualism movement. Years later, Vera devoted much of her time to debunking Spiritualist mediums, as discussed in both GIaG and HftH. However, 1848 is especially important to the Stickney House, built in 1849 (some say earlier) by George and Sylvia Stickney. Vera investigated strange sights and sounds at this “house with no corners” in 1901, as chronicled in HftH (“Dark and Dirty Corners”).

1850

The Fugitive Slave Act was passed, holding all U.S. citizens — including Northerners, be they abolitionist or apathetic — responsible for returning runaway slaves. This law is often cited as having changed many minds regarding slavery, steering the nation toward Civil War. Its impact resurfaced in 1907, when Vera and Lida went to Philadelphia to deal with the ghosts of slavery in HftH (“King Midas Exhumed”).

Harry Escott
Harry Escott (dates as yet unknown), Vera’s mentor in ghost hunting

1855

An account of a supernatural investigation conducted by Harry Escott was published in Harper’s Magazine. Titled “The Pot of Tulips,” this chronicle was written by Fitz-James O’Brien, who feigned Escott’s voice to narrate the case. O’Brien did the same four years later with “What Was It? A Mystery,” which also notes that Escott smoked opium. These artistic choices opened Escott to charges of fabricating falsehoods. Escott later became Vera’s mentor in ghost hunting, and he taught her this hard lesson in making one’s cases public. As explained in HftH (“Houdini Slept Here”), this is why Vera does not write about her own supernatural investigations despite her being a journalist. Escott’s case involving the pot of tulips and his opium usage are both mentioned in HftH (“Ghosts and Other Immigrants”).

1857

A mutiny occurred on the Junioran American whaling ship sailing off the coast of Australia. Second-mate Henry Thorn Lord survived the ordeal, went on to become a ship’s captain, and eventually retired on Cape Cod by 1903. It was not a restful retirement, though, and Vera and Lida investigate why in HftH (“An Unanchored Man”).

1868

Vera Van Slyke was born in a rural town in New York State on July 9.

1882

Ludmila Prášilová, better known by her pet name Lida, was born in Prague, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) on May 6. This event is referred to in both HftH and GIaG.

The U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, significantly restricting immigration from China (and setting a precedent for placing strict restrictions on newcomers from almost all of Asia in 1917 and those from Eastern and Southern Europe in 1921 and 1924). The Exclusion Act had a bearing on a case Vera shared with her ghost-hunting mentor, Harry Escott. The story-within-a-story is recounted in HftH (“Ghosts and Other Immigrants”).

William James
William James (1848-1910), who had a key role in Vera meeting Lida

1884

Harvard professor William James assisted in the formation of the American Society for Psychical Research. Soon afterward, the Society formed committees, including one for mediumistic phenomenon and another for apparitions and haunted houses. Years later, both of these topics became relevant to events surrounding James, as detailed in GIaG.

1887

Lida emigrated to the U.S. at five years old, settling in Chicago. This event is referred to in both HftH and GIaG.

1894

After the death of her father, twelve-year-old Lida was coerced by her mother to earn a living by posing as a psychic medium. At some point, she renamed herself Lucille Parsell. This event is referred to throughout HftH, especially in “Shadows Cast from Behind Me,” and in GIaG.

1899

In Boston, Vera exposed Lida as a fake Spiritualist medium at the mansion of Roderick Morley. This is explained in detail in GIaG and is mentioned occasionally in HftH.

William B. Watts
Chief Inspector William B. Watts (1852-1925), who assisted — and aggravated — Vera during her investigation of the Morley Mansion haunting

1900

Phony faith healer Francis Truth was arrested with assistance from William B. Watts, Chief Inspector of Boston’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The event is mentioned in GIaG to illustrate why Watts is hesitant to cooperate with Vera, a ghost hunter, in her efforts to solve a murder case that had stymied the Boston police.

Vera and Lida discovered how to illuminate the ruptures that guilt tears in the membrane between the physical and spiritual dimensions. The details are found in HftH (“Skittering Holes”) and the method is used repeatedly in that book and in GIaG.

Ever restless, Vera leaves New York and settles in Chicago.

1901

Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze: A Decade of Defrauding Mediums, by Vera Van Slyke, was published. The title refers to one of Vera’s methods of debunking psychic mediums. She secretly swapped the séance candles with specially made ones whose upwardly wafting smoke induced sneezing in anyone not sitting around the table. The sneezing, then, revealed any confederates posing as spirits to be embarrassingly corporeal. This is illustrated in GIaG and referred to in HftH.

1903

The duo returned to the same mansion in Boston where Vera exposed Lida as a fake Spiritualist medium. They had received a request to rid the house of the ghosts manifesting there, an adventure that makes up the bulk of GIaG.

During that same case, Vera and Lida seek help from Boston’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Approaching the station, they come upon a publicity stunt meant to promote a steam-powered patrol car. Boston was the first police department in the U.S. to have such a vehicle.

1904

Rick Bergson, first introduced in “Skittering Holes,” ran into Vera and Lida again. He ended up taking Lida to see something fairly new: a motion picture projected on a screen. But Lida saw a scene from her troubled past enacted on the screen, too — and Vera was too busy reporting on a meatpackers’ strike to help her investigate the vision. The mystery is revealed in HftH (“Shadows Cast from Behind Me”).

Harry Houdini 1905
Harry Houdini (1874-1926), pictured here circa 1905, was perhaps Vera’s most famous client

1905

Vera returned to New York to help an up-and-coming magician named Harry Houdini. The King of Handcuffs found himself being blackmailed by a Spiritualist medium — and a spirit from his own past. Lida tells the story in HftH (“Houdini Slept Here”).

1906

A group of workers digging freight tunnels far below the streets of Chicago died from something that spurred them to “live life” with such mania that their hearts and kidneys failed. Suspecting the supernatural, the coroner for Cook County, Peter M. Hoffman, brought the mystery to Vera. The case is chronicled in HftH (“Vampire Particles”).

1909

Over 250 boys and men lost their lives in Cherry, Illinois, when fire and fumes swept through a coal mine. This tragedy might help explain the coats that dance with nothing in them, a phenomenon observed in a secondhand-clothing store in Milwaukee. It became a case with a significant loss for Vera and an even greater loss for Lida, providing the conclusion of  HftH (“Beyond the Great Beyond”).

1910

Vera leaves the U.S. to test her theories about ghosts in Britain, Ireland, and perhaps other European countries. As yet, little is known about this chapter of her life.

1941

Vera Van Slyke died at Seattle, Washington.

1958

Lida Bergson died at Crystal Lake, Illinois.


Go to the Help for the Haunted page.

Go to the Guilt Is a Ghost page.

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