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  • Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley
  • John McWilliams (bio)
Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley. Judith Richardson. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2003. xi, 296 pp.

The subtitle of this informative, cleanly written, and admirably documented book is both apt and revealing. As in recent studies by Rene Bergland, Kathleen Brogan, and Avery Gordon, whose influence is acknowledged, Richardson's interest lies in "haunting" as a sign of serious social division rather than in ghosts as a staple of the literary gothic. Within the especially "rapid pace of development and obsolescence" (5) occurring in the four-century history of the Hudson Valley, the local ghost story serves as a major vehicle of social memory, the return of the repressed, a "measure of historical change and jolting dislocation" (63). Haunted houses and headless horsemen, Indian specters and gnomic Dutchmen, fancied pirates and bloody Hessians are all removed, in Richardson's rendering, from the limiting domains of merely anecdotal folklore, silly superstition, and gothic convention. Whether the text is a tale by Washington Irving, a guidebook for Hudson Valley tourists, a local newspaper, a Broadway play, or a recent novel, narratives of ghostly appearances restore for us "a history troubled by restless change and contentiousness, which yielded haunting uncertainties" (11).

Richardson argues persuasively that rapid and wrenching layerings of cultural dispossession (the Indians by the Dutch, the Dutch by the English, British Redcoats by nativist rebels, the Anglo-Dutch by Connecticut Yankees, farmers by capitalists and, finally, town-dwellers by park conservationists) brought about multiple instances of real or alleged wrong, often legendized into atrocity, that had to be promptly buried in cultural memory, only to resurface as glimpses into the forgotten and unspeakable. To the obvious reasons that ghosts almost never speak, Richardson adds explanations deriving from the tensions of particular local conditions: the cacophony of languages in the Hudson Valley as well as in Manhattan, prolonged and treacherous Revolutionary warfare in the "Neutral Ground," George Washington's controversial hanging of British Major John André, the lingering presence of slavery, and exacerbated social inequality caused by immense Patroon landholdings. [End Page 206]

Among the many successes of this critical perspective, two are especially notable. Richardson's reading of Maxwell Anderson's High Tor shows us why Broadway stage apparitions of Indian chiefs and of Henry Hudson's crew could serve, as late as 1937, to rouse popular support and raise funds to block a quarry company threatening a mountain site rich in newly claimed place associations. Readers of EAL will be particularly interested in Richardson's third chapter, "The Colorful Career of a Ghost from Leeds.' In 1755, wealthy landowner William Salisbury bound his servant Anna Swarts with a rope to his horse, dragged her to death, and was indicted for murder, only to have the case inexplicably dismissed seven years later. Whether Anna Swarts ('schwarz'?) was a negro slave, an indentured servant, or a recalcitrant Hessian would never be known, but the death of this "irretrievably other" woman would haunt the valley for more than century, provoking sightings and a popular novel, as well as William Leete Stone's reportage on local tales of how a sinister man had dragged to death an alluring, tormented woman behind his gigantic white horse (121). Ghost stories of the woman in white-or was it black?-allowed residents to vicariously participate in guilt-ridden realities they needed to condemn.

The near-currency of Richardson's materials reduces, if not eliminates, the ever-present danger of antiquarianism. Readers whose associations of Hudson Valley apparitions derive from Irving's tales and Cooper's The Spy will be surprised to learn of the many "industrial hauntings" which began with "working ghosts" killed in quarries and tanneries, but continued on into sightings of the ghosts of the unemployed who, even before the Depression, were haunting abandoned mills and factories (160). Nor does Richardson allow us to make easy choices of merit from the insularity of our academic offices. The creation of state and county parks to preserve the Hudson River Valley eliminated farmlands and drove out longtime residents of river towns. In 1966...


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