Excerpt: A Guide to the Ghosts of Lincoln

 Boye_cover.inddAn excerpt from A Guide to the Ghosts of Lincoln, New Edition.

THE FACE IN THE WINDOW

Perhaps no other incident in the unusual history of Lincoln, Nebraska, affected as many people as did the apparition at a Near North Side church. The church is still there, and so is the window glass where one day, long ago, the image of a woman’s face appeared.

The lovely white-clapboard house of worship has a lofty interior. The high ceiling helps turn parishioners’ thoughts heavenward, away from the busy, earthly world just outside on North Tenth Street. For a few hours each Sabbath the faithful gather to ask humble forgiveness and sing joyous praise. Then they leave the church in polite conversation, unaware of the mysterious artifact just feet above their heads.

There is nothing unusual about the window. Like its mates, its simple, arched top and slim, square bottom suggest nothing but holy quietude.

Look again.

One autumn afternoon in 1892 three women were walking past the church when one of them suddenly stopped. “Look!” she cried, and pointed.

The shape was unmistakable: it was the face of a woman. Although the image was faint, the woman’s face was distinct; her hair was tied back, and her eyes were cast downward.

First the women summoned the minister. He saw it and drew back.

Word spread rapidly throughout the Russian Bottoms. People came to the church to see. Neighborhood children claimed it was the face of a schoolmate who, pregnant and without a husband, had taken her own life earlier that year. People speculated that the father of the unborn child was married or in a position of trust—why else had her spirit appeared at the church?

Soon people from all over the city came to see the face in the glass.

Oddly enough no one mistook the image for that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Instead, many were fearful that the face was an omen of a coming tragedy. How else to explain the feeling of sorrow in the woman’s downcast eyes?

Perhaps she appeared as a warning; something bad was going to happen. Some thought she was a weary immigrant woman who foretold of economic misery. Sure enough, that very fall William Jennings Bryan roused huge crowds in Lincoln with his doomsday call to rise up and save the common man before the ruination of the world.

Others saw an Indian woman’s face in the image. Just a few weeks after the image disappeared, 150 Lakota men, women, and children were slaughtered at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Some theorized the face was nothing more than a faded photographic image. In those days glass was used to reproduce camera images. Perhaps the image was the work of a thrifty craftsman who had used scrap glass, in this case photographic glass, to fill the windows of the church. What you were seeing was a photographic negative that had all but faded from years in the sunlight.

Within a couple of days, the image disappeared. The story would have ended there but for the fact that the face appeared again, nearly fifty years later.

By then automobiles and streetcars had replaced horses and buggies. The neighborhood was now populated with the grandsons and granddaughters of the original immigrants, but the modest houses and the community spirit that bound them were still evident. By then most people had forgotten the story of the face in the old church window, for time had erased the memory of that fate- ful visage. When it appeared again in the 1930s, far fewer people witnessed it, but those who did swore that the woman’s eyes were looking downward.

The incident even made it into a book, The 1939 Almanac for Nebraskans. The book was part of a federal work relief program called the Federal Writers’ Project. The FWP, as it became known, was part of the political and economic reforms instituted as a response to the hardships of the Great Depression. While the legislation made it clear that anyone who was on relief would be eligible for the FWP, the idea was that writers, scientists, historians, editors, and other professionals would be hired in order to produce comprehensive guides for each state in the nation.

A popular and gifted professor at the University of Nebraska, and a guiding light in that project, was Lowry Wimberly. He was a scholar who was fascinated with the subject of death. He had a deep understanding about various beliefs concerning the soul and the nature of the underworld. His first published work was a ghost story. He was fascinated by the supernatural and believed in ghosts, angels, devils, and elves. “Ghosts and legends are born from coincidences,” he said. “The air is filled with the spirits of the dead.” He believed that the soul survived in other physical forms.

Does it still?

On quiet Sunday mornings, sunlight streams through the church window glass and shines on the faithful gathered inside. Others, bound for a more worldly fate, hurry by in cars, on bicycles, and on foot. Were any of them to glance up, what might they see?