The following is an excerpt from A Guide to the Ghosts of Lincoln, New Edition (Bison Books, 2013) by Alan Boye.
Willa Cather and the Ghost Dog
Dale Aiken grew up in a house just down the street from the location of Lincoln’s only known ghost dog.
The Aiken house itself—a huge, older home—has had its own share of visitors.
“Our house had a pretty interesting history,” Aiken, now a lawyer in Austin, Texas, wrote. “The house belonged to a long line of famous Lincolnites. The Louise Pound family lived in the house for a while. Before that it was owned by one of the city’s founders.”
The house was built and stood for years on a spacious corner lot near downtown Lincoln, but it was moved to its present location on Van Dorn in the 1940s.
“The most famous person to have lived in the house was Willa Cather,” Aiken continued. “She lived in an upstairs bedroom for a time while she was attending the University of Nebraska.”
Probably Nebraska’s best known and most widely read author, Cather attended the university at the turn of the twentieth century. The house has a certain literary significance as it was here that she wrote some of her earliest short stories, and many of the poems published in her first book, April Twilights.
“I really wanted to write to you about the dog,” Aiken continued, “but I should mention that our house wasn’t untouched by strange events.” While Aiken was growing up, his family almost got used to the noises that came from the upstairs bedrooms.
“It would be especially evident when there was a lot of commotion in the house,” he wrote. “If we were having a party, or if we were simply loud enough, you could start to hear other noises coming from somewhere on the upper floors.”
If there was a lot of activity in the house, someone would inevitably notice a thumping noise coming from above. “We never really called this a ghost,” Aiken explained, “but looking back on this and the other things that went on in that house, I now realize we were probably dealing with what many people call a spirit.”
The “other things” that went on in that house were the sounds of items being scraped across the floor, books disappearing and then reappearing in odd and unusual places, and the faint, muffled sounds of barely distinguishable voices.
“The voices were strange. You could hear them every once in a while, especially when it was quiet in the house. You could never quite make out the words, however.”
Aiken has his own theory about the house. “I like to think the place was haunted by the spirit of Willa Cather. I love to think I grew up with her watching us.”
In those days the Aiken household did not give much thought to the various thumpings, scrapings, and lost books. It was simple: all of it was explained away as the creaks and groans of the old house still settling onto its new foundation. The far-away voices were nothing more than the wind through rafters somewhere high in the attic.
“We never talked about it all that much,” Aiken wrote, “but then just a week ago I talked to my brother on the phone and somehow the subject of ghosts in Lincoln came up.”
To their surprise, both remembered the events in the old house, and both had long ago decided they were due to something otherworldly. Neither one had ever mentioned it to the other.
“So as we got to talking, we remembered more and more. Then we remembered the dog.”
The dog. That dog. The Ghost Dog. People have different names for it, but to this day, many people in the neighborhood know exactly what you are talking about.
“It always would scare you half out of your wits,” Aiken continued. “You’d never see it in full daylight, just at night. I had a paper route, and the thing would appear when I rode my bike past the house before daylight.”
“It was a small dog,” Aiken wrote, “but fierce and mean. It would race out of the shadows and be at your heels before it started to bark. I was pretty used to having dogs chase me, but this thing always scared me half to death because it was always in the shadows.”
“Sure, there’s a dog there,” a ten-year-old girl from the neighborhood told me in the summer of 1987. “It is always in that yard. Scary thing. I only see it at night. I never go on that side of the street.”
The house where the dog appears is just a few houses south off Van Dorn on the west side of a numbered street.
The family who currently lives in the house does not own a dog.
“That’s the funny part,” said the ten-year-old. “No one knows where it comes from, or where it belongs. I’ve seen it a few times. Once it was Halloween. Another time was when all the electricity was off in the city. The entire street was dark.”
That time she was not alone.
“A friend and I were walking home from playing at Irving School. I wasn’t even thinking about the dog, and I walked down that side of the street. Then, there it was right behind us. It just was there all of a sudden. We both ran.”
During the autumn of a year early in the twenty-first century an older woman described hearing the dog howl as she passed by the house quite early one morning. Many others over the years have heard or seen the poor beast.
The dog has never been described with great detail. It is a medium- to small-sized dog, light in color, but not white. It is never easy to see, and it never appears unless it has taken the person completely by surprise. It has never been seen at any other location except in the yard of this fairly modern and modest home. Once it appears, it never goes beyond the property line, and it always retreats suddenly back into the shadows of the yard.
It isn’t as if it is defending the house; rather it seems as if it is mad with fear.
“The creepy thing,” Aiken wrote, “was that this dog was extremely nervous. If you had the courage to stop and turn toward it, it stopped and backed away into the darkness. I never could get a good view of it.”
Once, however, Aiken did get a passing glance of it. He remembers the dog’s eyes glowing large and white, just before it disappeared back toward the house.
“The saddest thing about all of this,” wrote Aiken, “is that this is all real. There was a tragedy there once, many years ago. A great tragedy many people in Lincoln would recall. It was a sad thing, a very sad thing that happened.”
He would not elaborate, but he did add, “I think the dog remembers what happened. I am not convinced that there are such things as ghosts, even yet. Perhaps it was just some neighborhood dog. You know some dogs live wild, even in the city,” Aiken wrote. “But if there are ghosts, then it wouldn’t surprise me that it haunts that house.”
So in this small, quiet area along Van Dorn Street, along a gentle, fern hill, are the literary echoes of Willa Cather and the never-stilled fears of a once happy family dog.
Stroll about this neighborhood one evening and see if you too might not meet up with these famous and infamous wisps of the local history. Be sure that you are on your guard, and do not go gentle into that good night.