Supernatural and Spooky Events of the 1800s

Close-up of the face of Abraham Lincoln Memorial
mathieukor / Getty Images

The 19th century is generally remembered as a time of science and technology, when the ideas of Charles Darwin and the telegraph of Samuel Morse changed the world forever.

Yet in a century seemingly built on reason there arose a profound interest in the supernatural. Even a new technology was coupled with the public's interest in ghosts as "spirit photographs," clever fakes created by using double exposures, became popular novelty items.

Perhaps the 19th-century fascination with the otherworldly was a way to hold on to a superstitious past. Or perhaps some really weird things were actually happening and people simply recorded them accurately.

The 1800s spawned countless tales of ghosts and spirits and spooky events. Some of them, like legends of silent ghost trains gliding past startled witnesses on dark nights, were so common that it's impossible to pinpoint where or when the stories began. And it seems that every place on earth has some version of a 19th-century ghost story.

What follows are some examples of spooky, scary, or weird events from the 1800s which became legendary. There's a malicious spirit that terrorized a Tennessee family, a newly elected president who got a great fright, a headless railroader, and a First Lady obsessed with ghosts.

The Bell Witch Terrorized a Family and Frightened the Fearless Andrew Jackson

The Bell Witch torments John Bell
McClure's Magazine depicted the Bell Witch tormenting John Bell as he lay dying. McClure's Magazine, 1922, now in public domain

One of the most notorious haunting stories in history is that of the Bell Witch, a malicious spirit which first appeared on the farm of the Bell family in northern Tennesse in 1817. The spirit was persistent and nasty, so much so that it was credited with actually killing the patriarch of the Bell family.

The weird events began in 1817 when a farmer, John Bell, saw a strange creature hunched down in a corn row. Bell assumed he was looking at some unknown type of large dog. The beast stared at Bell, who fired a gun at it. The animal ran off.

A few days later another family member spotted a bird on a fence post. He wanted to shoot at what he thought was a turkey, and was startled when the bird took off, flying over him and revealing that it was an extraordinarily large animal.

Other sightings of weird animals continued, with the strange black dog often showing up. And then peculiar noises began in the Bell house late at night. When lamps were lit the noises would stop.

John Bell began to be afflicted with odd symptoms, such as the occasional swelling of his tongue which made it impossible for him to eat. He finally told a friend about the strange events on his farm, and his friend and his wife came to investigate. As the visitors slept at the Bell farm the spirit came into their room and pulled the covers from their bed.

According to legend, the haunting spirit continued making noises at night, and finally began to speak to the family in a strange voice. The spirit, which was given the name Kate, would argue with family members, though it was said to be friendly to some of them.

A book published about the Bell Witch in the late 1800s claimed that some locals believed the spirit was benevolent and was sent to help the family. But the spirit began to show a violent and malicious side.

According to some versions of the story, the Bell Witch would stick pins in family members and throw them violently to the ground. And John Bell was attacked and beaten one day by an invisible foe.

The fame of the spirit grew in Tennessee, and supposedly Andrew Jackson, who was not yet president but was revered as a fearless war hero, heard of the weird events and came to put an end to it. The Bell Witch greeted his arrival with a great commotion, throwing dishes at Jackson and not letting anyone at the farm sleep that night. Jackson supposedly said he'd "rather fight the British again" than face the Bell Witch and departed the farm quickly the next morning.

In 1820, just three years after the spirit arrived at the Bell farm, John Bell was found quite ill, next to a vial of some strange liquid. He soon died, apparently poisoned. His family members gave some of the liquid to a cat, which also died. His family believed the spirit had forced Bell to drink the poison.

The Bell Witch apparently left the farm after John Bell's death, though some people report strange happenings in the vicinity to this day.

The Fox Sisters Communicated With Spirits of the Dead

The Fox Sisters
An 1852 lithograph of the the Fox sisters Maggie (left), Kate (center), and their older sister Leah, who functioned as their manager. The caption says they are the "original mediums of the mysterious noises at Rochester, western New York.". courtesy Library of Congress

Maggie and Kate Fox, two young sisters in a village in western New York State, began to hear noises supposedly caused by spirit visitors in the spring of 1848. Within a few years the girls were nationally known and "spiritualism" was sweeping the nation.

The incidents in Hydesville, New York, began when the family of John Fox, a blacksmith, started to hear weird noises in the old house they had bought. The bizarre rapping in the walls seemed to focus on the bedrooms of young Maggie and Kate. The girls challenged the "spirit" to communicate with them.

According to Maggie and Kate, the spirit was that of a traveling peddler who had been murdered on the premises years earlier. The dead peddler kept communicating with the girls, and before long other spirits joined in.

The story about the Fox sister and their connection to the spirit world spread into the community. The sisters appeared in a theater in Rochester, New York, and charged admission for a demonstration of their communications with spirits. These events became known as the "Rochester rappings" or "Rochester knockings."

The Fox Sisters Inspired a National Craze for "Spiritualism"

America in the late 1840s seemed ready to believe the story about spirits noisily communicating with two young sisters, and the Fox girls became a national sensation.

A newspaper article in 1850 claimed that people in Ohio, Connecticut, and other places were also hearing the rappings of spirits. And "mediums" who claimed to speak to the dead were popping up in cites across America.

An editorial in the June 29, 1850 issue of Scientific American magazine scoffed at the arrival of the Fox sisters in New York City, referring to the girls as the "Spiritual Knockers from Rochester."

Despite the skeptics, famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley became fascinated with spiritualism, and one of the Fox sisters even lived with Greeley and his family for a time in New York City.

In 1888, four decades after the Rochester knockings, the Fox sisters appeared onstage in New York City to say it had all been a hoax. It had started as girlish mischief, an attempt to frighten their mother, and things kept escalating. The rappings, they explained, had actually been noises caused by cracking the joints in their toes.

However, spiritualist followers claimed that the admission of fraud was itself a ruse inspired by the sisters needing money. The sisters, who did experience poverty, both died in the early 1890s.

The spiritualist movement inspired by the Fox sisters outlived them. And in 1904, children playing at the supposedly haunted house where the family had lived in 1848 discovered a crumbling wall in a basement. Behind it was the skeleton of a man.

Those who believe in the spiritual powers of the Fox sisters contend the skeleton was surely that of the murdered peddler who first communicated with the young girls in the spring of 1848.

Abraham Lincoln Saw a Spooky Vision of Himself in a Mirror

Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the year he was elected president and saw a spooky double vision of himself in a looking glass. Library of Congress

A spooky double vision of himself in a mirror startled and scared Abraham Lincoln immediately after his triumphant election in 1860.

On election night 1860 Abraham Lincoln returned home after receiving good news over the telegraph and celebrating with friends. Exahausted, he collapsed on a sofa. When he awoke in the morning he had a strange vision which would later prey on his mind.

One of his assistants recounted Lincoln's telling of what happened in an article published in Harper's Monthly magazine in July 1865, a few months after Lincoln's death.

Lincoln recalled glancing across the room at a looking glass on a bureau. "Looking in that glass, I saw myself reflected, nearly at full length; but my face, I noticed, had two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other. I was a little bothered, perhaps startled, and got up and looked in the glass, but the illusion vanished.

"On lying down again, I saw it a second time -- plainer, if possible, than before; and then I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler, say five shades, than the other. I got up and the thing melted away, and I went off and, in the excitement of the hour, forgot all about it -- nearly, but not quite, for the thing would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang, as though something uncomfortable had happened."

Lincoln tried to repeat the "optical illusion," but was unable to replicate it. According to people who worked with Lincoln during his presidency, the weird vision stuck in his mind to the point where he tried to reproduce the circumstances in the White House, but couldn't.

When Lincoln told his wife about the weird thing he'd seen in the mirror, Mary Lincoln had a dire interpretation. As Lincoln told the story, "She thought it was 'a sign' that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term."

Years after seeing the spooky vision of himself and a his pale double in the mirror, Lincoln had a nightmare in which he visited the lower level of the White House, which was decorated for a funeral. He asked whose funeral, and was told the president had been murdered. Within weeks Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater.

Mary Todd Lincoln Saw Ghosts In the White House and Held a Seance

Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln, who often tried to contact the spirit world. Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln's wife Mary probably became interested in spiritualism sometime in the 1840s, when the widespread interest in communicating with the dead became a fad in the Midwest. Mediums were known to appear in Illinois, gathering an audience and claiming to speak to the dead relatives of those present.

By the time the Lincolns arrived in Washington in 1861, an interest in spiritualism was a fad among prominent members of the government. Mary Lincoln was known to attend seances held at the homes of prominent Washingtonians. And there is at least one report of President Lincoln accompanying her to a seance held by a "trance medium," Mrs. Cranston Laurie, in Georgetown in early 1863.

Mrs. Lincoln was also said to have encountered the ghosts of former residents of the White House, including the spirits of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. One account said she entered a room one day and saw the spirit of President John Tyler.

One of the Lincoln sons, Willie, had died in the White House in February 1862, and Mary Lincoln was consumed by grief. It's generally assumed that much of her interest in the seances was driven by her desire to communicate with Willie's spirit.

The grieving First Lady arranged for mediums to hold seances in the mansion's Red Room, some of which were probably attended by President Lincoln. And while Lincoln was known to be superstitious, and often spoke of having dreams that portended good news to come from the battlefronts of the Civil War, he seemed mostly skeptical of the seances held in the White House.

One medium invited by Mary Lincoln, a fellow calling himself Lord Colchester, held sessions at which loud rapping sounds were heard. Lincoln asked Dr. Joseph Henry, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, to investigate.

Dr. Henry determined that the sounds were fake, caused by a device the medium wore under his clothes. Abraham Lincoln seemed satisfied with the explanation, but Mary Todd Lincoln remained steadfastly interested in the spirit world.

A Decapitated Train Conductor Would Swing a Lantern Near the Site of His Death

19th century train wreck
Train wrecks in the 19th century were often dramatic and fascinated the public, leading to a lot of folklore about haunted trains and railroad ghosts. Courtesy Library of Congress

No look at spooky events in the 1800s would be complete without a story related to trains. The railroad was a great technological marvel of the century, but bizarre folklore about trains spread anywhere that railroad tracks were laid.

For instance, there are countless stories of ghost trains, trains that come rolling down the tracks at night but make absolutely no sound. One famous ghost train which used to appear in the American Midwest was apparently an apparition of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train. Some witnesses said the train was draped in black, as Lincoln's had been, but it was manned by skeletons.

Railroading in the 19th century could be dangerous, and dramatic accidents led to some chilling ghost stories, such as the tale of the headless conductor.

As the legend goes, one dark and foggy night in 1867, a railroad conductor of the Atlantic Coast Railroad named Joe Baldwin stepped between two cars of a parked train at Maco, North Carolina. Before he could complete his dangerous task of coupling the cars together, the train suddenly moved and poor Joe Baldwin was decapitated.

In one version of the story, Joe Baldwin's last act was to swing a lantern to warn other people to keep their distance from the shifting cars.

In the weeks following the accident people began seeing a lantern — but no man — moving along the nearby tracks. Witnesses said the lantern hovered above the ground about three feet, and bobbed as if being held by someone looking for something.

The eerie sight, according to veteran railroaders, was the dead conductor, Joe Baldwin, looking for his head.

The lantern sightings kept appearing on dark nights, and engineers of oncoming trains would see the light and bring their locomotives to a stop, thinking they were seeing the light of an oncoming train.

Sometimes people said they saw two lanterns, which were said to be Joe's head and body, vainly looking for each other for all eternity.

The spooky sightings became known as "The Maco Lights." According to legend, in the late 1880s President Grover Cleveland passed through the area and heard the story. When he returned to Washington he began regaling people with the tale of Joe Baldwin and his lantern. The story spread and became a popular legend.

Reports of the "Maco Lights" continued well into the 20th century, with the last sighting said to be in 1977.