American Ghost: The True Story of a Family's Haunted Past

HarperCollins  2015


Hannah Nordhaus discovers that her great-great grandmother Julia is being seen in the present day as a sad-eyed ghost in a hotel that had been the family home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Trying to learn more about Julia's life, she interviews relatives, then turns to diaries, historical records, newspaper archives, psychics, mediums, and ghost hunters. The result is a spirited memoir of one of the earliest Jewish pioneer families in the American West.

After establishing himself as a dry goods merchant in Santa Fe, Abraham Staub returned to the pretty little town in Germany where he was born to fetch a wife. Julia, his new bride, crossed the Atlantic on a luxury liner to New York, boarded a train, and finished her trek on stagecoach to arrive at a dusty collection of hovels pretending to be a town. There were cowboys, Native Americans, Confederate and Union soldiers, outlaws (including two named “Billy the Kid”), and missionaries. Spanish was spoken, along with fragments of English, but little German.

There is an interesting chapter on health care titled "Region of Insanity." After the death of her last child in infancy, Julia slipped into depression. Since doctors in the Old West usually caused more harm than good, Abraham often took Julia to Europe, where medicine had evolved past the leeches, emetics, and purges stage—but not too far: even in Europe, anything a woman suffered (except a gunshot wound) was treated with a hysterectomy or “rest cure.”

In addition to the family history and relevant parallel events, the author interweaves her modern-day odyssey, retracing Julia's many journeys across the United States and Europe—including, of course, nights spent in the “haunted hotel”—to create a delightful travelogue. Nordhaus's smooth, almost casual style of writing makes this book read like a novel. Photographs, bibliography.

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