Many moons ago, I visited Gettysburg as part of the CWI Summer Conference High School Scholarship Program. One night, though exhausted from our daily lectures and tours, a group of us decided to continue indulging in the history around us in a method only a band of curious teenagers would compile: a self-led ghost hunt of the College campus.
The night served to unite us as we exchanged stories of the Blue Boy and the mysterious basement of Penn Hall. We didn’t have fancy equipment for our hunt, but led one another through the dark, unfamiliar paths, intermingling fact and fiction. We didn’t catch sight of any ghosts on Stine Lake, but we made lifelong friendships.
This anecdote leads to a question: where does the concept of Gettysburg’s spookier past fall in a landscape dominated by history? On that night, that group of kids found a way to incorporate it, innocently and with as much truth as we knew. Why, then, is it so difficult for many to reconcile it with the tales of Lee and Meade that haunt this hallowed ground?
Last Halloween, Kevin Lavery ‘16 attacked the concept of Gettysburg ghost tours here on the Compiler. According to Kevin, the tours offered in town are offered by “companies that are willing and eager to exploit the memory of this town’s tragic past for their own gain. They care for neither historical accuracy nor scientific plausibility. They care for what lies within the wallets of their patrons.” With all the respect due to my editor, Mr. Lavery, I disagree.
My first year in Gettysburg, I worked for one of these companies. As a conscientious, hard-working employee, I quickly rose through the ranks, soon training all of the new guides that arrived. My skills as a History/English double major were my strongest assets; I was given responsibilities such as fact-checking and researching and writing new tours. I can’t speak for every group in existence, but in response to those cynics extolling that “Ghost tours spit nothing but lies,” I can tell you from countless hours of experience that this is simply not true.
Research is crucial to the ghost tour business. Not only are the stories checked for documentation, but the background must be provided to supply the whole story. Behind the tales of spectral soldiers and phantom nurses, an entire history must be laid out. Many paranormal enthusiasts are also amateur historians; to these patrons, you must be able to prove your own credibility. Others couldn’t tell you what happened 152 years prior here in Gettysburg; for to these, you must paint a picture glorious enough to provide intrigue, to leave them wanting more, but factual enough that no passerby can deny the truth of your words. Are there ghosts in Gettysburg? Maybe. Was there a real battle here, with real people, and real stories that deserve to be told? Certainly.
Kevin’s depiction of these tour guides as mere “storytellers,” however, rather than “historical interpreters,” particularly in my case—as a CWI fellow, Pohanka applicant, History major, and Civil War Era Studies/Public History double minor—is simply false on many counts. No manager in their right mind, no matter how capitalistically greedy, would allow his or her employees to flounce about town in period attire spouting outright lies; the resulting need for damage control would be debilitating to the company. In fact, even within the community of tour groups (yes, they interact with one another, forming alliances and rivalries like any other companies), those that tweak the truth are known and ridiculed. Historians should remember that this sort of malpractice isn’t restricted to ghost tours: just ask Michael Bellesiles, a disgraced professor of history caught fabricating his sources.
What Kevin and other critics don’t understand is that to the participants of these tours— employees and visitors—this is all real. A shift of is crucial: to someone that believes the spirits of the dead linger behind, particularly if spurned by some tragedy, Gettysburg is amuck with ghosts. The “rational” non-believers make as much sense to these people as atheists do to born-again Christians.
If your argument is instead the straying from fact, should we also discontinue historical fiction? The ever-rising sales of the Shaara books prove quite the demand there as well. Even within academic history, facts are uncertain; about how many “facts” can we claim to be 100% positive? History is not a criminal case, it doesn’t require proof beyond a reasonable doubt; 51% certainty is often enough to get by, at least until someone proves otherwise. History is always changing as new generations unearth new perspectives; little can be maintained as “true.”
If nothing else, these tours are a much-needed aspect of the Gettysburg economy. Post-sesquicentennial, tourist numbers are bound to slowly decline to levels disastrous to this small town’s tourism-based economy. If people want to come to town on Halloween in hopes of seeing a spirit (as many do annually), why not let them contribute to our hotels, gift shops, and restaurants? If you don’t believe, don’t take the tours; don’t travel that section of Steinwehr Avenue or make eye contact with the people handing you flyers. If the spirits have a problem with it, let them tell them.