One of the best things about the Haunted Mansion is, oddly enough, the ambiguity of its backstory. Like any good ghost story, there's just enough hints of a greater theme that it inspires the imagination and urges creativity, making the guest an active participent in the mythos whether they are aware of it or not, yet with no concrete evidence to support just one telling; furthermore, the way people have tried to pin down an official backstory (like the Ghost Gallery, the various comics, movie and video game) has actually given more room to for people to expand on some pretty neat ideas, often with bits and pieces becoming pseudo-canon.
Long-winded intro aside, and partly compeled by MaleficiousVillain's own blog post about an imagined backstory, I thought it might be fun to share mine. While I have the whole thing planned out (and have for a good long time now), I don't have it all written out yet. I'll be putting up bits and pieces as I go along. If you're interested in following this thing, watch this post for updates.
Anyway, without further ado...
Ah! There you are! Welcome, foolish mortal, and good to see you looking so lively! As you know, we have nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine happy haunts here - with room for a thousand - but it was not always that way... You may not believe it, but this moldering sanctum of the spirit world was once a stately manor house, home to many myriad mortal characters before we ultimately opened our creaky doors to the wayward lost souls of this world. Every house must become haunted in some way, and - if you dare - I would be more than happy to share with you the dark and tragic history of this haunted mansion.
Oh yes, I see you are intrigued! Very well. Just ignore the shrieks you might hear and settle down in this chair. Our library is well-stocked with priceless first-editions... only ghost stories, of course. And, as the tome now floating toward you from the shadows will evidence, our story is just as macabre as you might expect. Now, let us begin...
Chapter I: Blood and Gore
The story of the mansion’s long and eerie history begins in New Orleans in the year 1816. The Crescent City was still recovering from the War of 1812, and the Battle of New Orleans had just ended with an American victory. Things were beginning to settle down, and the city’s trade had increased once again. The Queen of the Delta was the primary port-of-call in the South, where cotton was king and merchants ruled the Mississippi.
One of the unexpected heroes of said battle was the pirate Jean Lafitte, who along with his brother, Pierre, had been instrumental in turning the tide of the battle in America's favor. Granted full pardon by the General Andrew Jackson, the Lafittes were additionally gifted a specific parcel of land at their request, a spot with a commanding view of the Mississippi river, not far from the city proper. However, this property was adjacent a small and disused local graveyard, known as Sedgwick Cemetery, which was mostly avoided by the locals due to several ghost stories and superstitions about the area.
If these stories swayed the Lafittes, they didn't show it. For a time, the land was seemingly used as a berth for the company, and a collection of tents were often seen camped on the hill beside the cemetery. Rumors of ill-gotten treasure and secret smuggling tunnels began to circulate, but there was never a solid basis in fact, nor an answer to the question of why the Lafittes had chosen this land in particular to make one of their bases of operation along the river.
In early 1816, the land suddenly changed hands. The Lafittes sold the property to Captain Bartholomew Gore, head of a modest shipping business. Gore had amassed a fair fortune during his years at sea, his ship being remarkably free of the pirate attacks that plagued the Gulf waters and receiving good profit from the supplies he transported. Gore was known to be a shrewd businessman and a fellow not to be trifled with, bearing a quick and often violent temper. Those who crossed him while at sea faced his wrath, and his wrath was often brutal and left some manner of lasting impression. Many men who sailed under him would later say that the name of Gore was fitting for such a cruel man; the kind of temper people often attributed with the barbarous buccaneers and smugglers.
Indeed, the Captain had secretly delved into more illicit activities in order to earn his wealth. It was whispered that he was once Lafitte's boatswain, and that he continued to associate with the pirate for further protection. He was known to often make port with, it seemed, more supplies than he had first started with. Though many suspected that Gore was up to something, none dared say so to his face, fearing his temper.
Captain Gore, at that time, had at last decided to retire from his long career as a seaman and settle down with his earnings. New Orleans was the ideal place to live, and he began to mingle with the aristocracy. He grew to be close friends with George Blood, a old-money plantation owner, and was smitten with George’s sister, Priscilla. His attempts at courting her seemed to prove fruitless, much to his frustration; Priscilla saw him as shallow, greedy man with a gruff and uncaring attitude, and George, despite his friendship with Gore, was very protective of his younger sister.
So it was that, one evening as he tried once again to win Priscilla over, the Captain lost his temper and exploded to the both of them. “What must I do to prove myself to you?” he was heard to roar.
Unbeknownst to Gore, Priscilla and George had already conspired a plan. Their plantation was failing, and they were losing money. If things continued the way they were, they would lose everything. And so, through George’s urging, Priscilla gave Gore an ultimatum: "Prove to me that you can be a husband of merit. I want you to build us a home, one worthy of our status. If you do that, I will consent to marry you."
Work began swiftly thereafter, at the Captain's expense. The Bloods utilized slaves from their plantation, now with the task of building the mansion, while it is rumored that several of Lafitte's men were clandestinely involved in the planning and construction of the house and grounds, adding secret passages and hidden doors within the building. The process was longer than anticipated, plagued with minor accidents and setbacks, yet things went remarkably quick for all the problems the construction had, and by the spring of 1817, the mansion was completed.
The secret passages, of course, were known only to Gore. What he used them for, to this day, is still speculated, though it is commonly assumed that he never truly lost contact with his old pirate mates, and used those hidden spots for whatever backroom business he had that kept him in money. Some have claimed that there were midnight meetings between Gore and some shady characters, usually precluded by exchanged lantern signals between the house and the riverbank.
Gore's new home not only won him the respect of his fellow aristocrats, but also the hand of the fair Priscilla Blood. She instantly fell in love with the house when she saw it, and all her doubts about Gore seemed to vanish. George Blood, as well, found the mansion to his liking, and approved of the union between his sister and his friend, both for romantic and practical business reasons. He sold the old Blood plantation and brought all the slaves to work on the mansion as groundskeepers and servants.
Years passed, and the lives of the united Bloods and Captain Gore (the humor of the combined names not lost on the locals) carried on pecefully. In 1820, Priscilla gave birth to her first and only child, Celeste, and for the first three years of her life, she was endlessly doted on by her parents and uncle.
The first major tragedy to strike came in the summer of 1824. While the captain and his wife were off on an ocean voyage, Celeste fell ill with yellow fever. Try as he might, her uncle (who was prone to seasickness and agreed to stay behind and watch his niece) could do little to aid her, and she died before her parents returned. Stricken with grief, Priscilla blamed herself and the Captain for not being there, while Gore's legendary rage was leveled at George for "allowing" their daughter to die. During a grand row between the Captain and George shortly thereafter, Gore turned violent and, in the ensuing scuffle, accidentally killed his brother-in-law by tripping him, the man's head striking the edge of a fireplace mantle.
With two deaths now looming over them, the relationship between the Captain and Priscilla began to crumble. Captain Gore once again took to meeting with his shady associates, making backroom deals and secret pacts in order to acquire more wealth, which seemed to be the only force driving him now. Priscilla became withdrawn, pulling away from society life and rarely leaving the mansion. She began to associate with one of the servants, a Creole man named Lee, who discreetly had been practicing voodoo; through him, Priscilla sought contact with the spirits of the dead, hoping to speak with Celeste and George. Lee performed many rituals and spells for Priscilla's benefit, on the promise that he would be set free in the end, so that he might find his own wife and daughter that he had been separated from many years ago. She agreed, but grew attached to Lee and began to prefer his company over that of her husband. In a strange way, Lee and Priscilla formed a sort of friendship.
Captain Gore, less than a year later, began taking to sea once more. Priscilla did not care to see him go, but often wondered what it was he was doing. His merchant business seemed to be thriving again, but she wondered about the cargo and goods he brought back and why he continued to meet with suspicious men in the dead of night (which by this point she knew about). She expressed this to Lee, now her only confidant, and he used his powers to investigate. He claimed that the spirits were guiding him to an old sea chest, stored away in the attic, and while the Captain was gone, Priscilla found the chest and opened it to discover some very interesting objects: a weathered cutlass, a pistol, clothes of a seaman and, wrapped by a Jolly Roger, a ship’s log. Reading through, she discovered to her horror the truth about her husband: that he was, indeed, a notorious pirate.
All the hidden details were here: she scarcely believed the atrocities he had recorded in his log. What was worse, she now realized that he had likely returned to sea to resume being a murderous sea-rover! The truth revealed, all her doubts of her husband that had been buried for years resurfaced, and she screamed in anguish as much as anger as she threw the chest to the floor, scattering its contents. Seizing the log, she fled from the attic in a rage, hating to have been deceived for so long.
Unfortunately, in her own anger and pain, she did not take into account the Captain’s legendary temper. After facing her husband with the evidence in his log, Priscilla Gore was never seen again... alive, at least. The Captain regretted what he had done the moment he did it, but there was nothing to be done of it; she would have ruined him otherwise. He quickly covered his tracks and returned to his life, free of blame but tormented by guilt.
After that night, though, the Captain knew no peace. Slowly but surely, his behavior became more and more erratic as he began to feel an unsettling aura on the house. He tore all the portraits down from walls, fearing they were watching him; he slept fitfully and was tormented by strange knocking and footsteps in the halls; he wandered from room to room, unable to relax, constantly seeing his wife's image just out the corner of his eye. The haunting increased in intensity as days passed, with horrific visions and hateful whispers following the Captain wherever he went. Finally, unable to handle the haunting any longer, Gore fled the mansion and set off on his ship one foggy night. It made it to the Gulf of Mexico before a terrible storm swept up as if from nowhere and sank the vessel, leaving no survivors.
Lee, for his part, had known the truth of Gore's crime all along, and had used the darkest rituals at his disposal to help pull the vengeful spirits of Priscilla and the Captain's victims from beyond the grave. Now masterless and darkly pleased with his work, Lee vanished into the swamps of Louisiana, hunting for his missing family.
Chapter II: The Gracey Mansion
For many years, the mansion stood abandoned and devoid of life, a decaying landmark only spoken of on dark, lonely nights around firesides. Stories were told of otherworldly sounds emanating from within the manor, of ghoulish apparitions roaming the corridors, and of macabre music in the air and phantom lights in the windows. There was no doubt in the minds of the people that the old Gore Mansion was haunted.
Some rumors persisted that the former owner had hidden his fortune somewhere in the manse. Many a bold attempt was made to infiltrate the house in search of the rumored pirate treasure, yet all who set foot inside were either frightened away immediately thereafter or simply disappeared. Even during the tumultuous years of the Civil War, the mansion was avoided despite its strategic location. The place was assuredly cursed, or so the locals said.
Then, in the spring of 1866, a young entrepreneur named William Gracey arrived in New Orleans, a mysterious fellow who mostly kept to himself. William was a friendly individual, charming and polite to most everyone he met, yet was unusually withdrawn from the social hierarchy for someone his age. No one knew what he did or why he had come to New Orleans with such a large amount of money at his disposal. Those would ask him about his background would get a short, somewhat bitter response: “My past is dead and buried. I’ve chosen to start anew.” Then he was all smiles again, much to the curiosity of those that knew him.
Upon landing in New Orleans, William got in touch with a man named Bill Coote, a retired privateer. It was widely known that Coote had once been on some good terms with Jean Lafitte, and it wasn’t something Coote tried to hide either. Whatever it was they discussed, William’s request was a simple one: he wanted somewhere private, somewhere where he would not be bothered.
Coote knew the perfect place. He brought William to the mansion, explaining what he knew of the home’s history. Legal ownership of the Gore Estate had curiously defaulted to him after Captain Gore's death, and had discreetly held on to it since then. When inviting William to explore the mansion before consenting to buy it, Coote warned of the strange activities in the house. William was not daunted, being a practical man that did not believe in ghosts. The deal was just too good to pass up.
William moved in shortly thereafter, working now on returning the mansion to its former splendor as he established his own business in the city an importer. The locals were confused; was this not the most haunted mansion in these parts? Stories soon focused on Gracey himself, saying he had somehow placated the restless spirits of the mansion. He had some sort of strange power, they assumed.
In truth, it was stubborn pride that kept William from being frightened away by the peculiar and unexplainable phenomena he experienced on a regular basis. He had left behind a life of threatening poverty and ugly family business in England, had become a self-made man, and he had poured nearly all of of his hard-won earnings into buying this property. So what if there were a few ghosts? Her deserved to live in status.
Still, the haunting was hard to deal with in the beginning. William was perhaps the bravest man to live in the mansion, yet he knew he couldn’t keep the spirits at bay by himself. Soon enough, word spread that William was contacting every psychic, gypsy, soothsayer and houngan in New Orleans in a bid get rid of the ghosts, or at least placate them. Time after time he met with failure, as those he hired were either ineffective, fakers just trying to get his money, or were frightened away by the hauntings.
So he was surprised when, in 1867, a stranger appeared on his doorstep one evening: a darkly alluring woman with an air of mystery about her. She called herself Madame Leota, claiming to be a medium. She told William she had been drawn to the mansion, feeling the powerful presence of the supernatural, and she sensed his need for the quieting of their activity. They talked, and in the end, Leota was brought into William’s employ, taking residence in the manse. Leota was given a place to practice her arts, to commune with the spirits and work mystical spells, in exchange for calming the ghosts that plagued William; true to her word, the haunting decreased, and a measure of life returned to the once lifeless manor.
Restored to its former glory, the only stories that circulated now were about the house’s reclusive owner. William Gracey had become something of icon in New Orleans. There was many a young debutante who would have wished themselves the one at his side, yet he remained stubbornly single. He seemed distant, dissatisfied with the fawning of the ladies. Why was such a rich and handsome bachelor so withdrawn from the social circle? And why would such an upstanding gentleman associate with a lowly fortune teller, let alone ler her live in his house? Some claimed the master of the mansion had been bewitched by Leota, who wanted him for her lover. Other stories painted a similar picture, but expounded that it was Gracey himself that had done the enchanting.
There was some grain of truth to the stories. Leota, who for most of her life had been an outcast of normal society, loved William for his acceptance of her and her powers. And William, a weary and lonesome soul behind his charming visage, was often drawn to the mystical beauty of the medium. Their romantic affairs were passionate and frequent, yet shaky and secret. Despite everything, William felt no true love for Leota - a fact that frustrated her to no end. What could she do to sway him?
As time went by, William began to open his doors to the New Orleans elite, hosting parties and galas at his famous estate. These balls became the talk of New Orleans, and invitations were actively sought when word spread of some event happening at the Gracey Mansion - not simply because they were fantastic affairs, but because of the intrigue surrounding the rumors of ghosts and spirits. It seemed like disquieting things happened in small, isolated incidents every time the public arrived at the mansion, and it became a game for the frequent guests to see if any of them would happen upon some unusual thing during a party.
Interestingly, it seemed to a few that whenever the mysterious Madame Leota was in a bad mood at a party, the cases of strange activity would increase.
One fateful day, in 1868, William Gracey crossed paths with a woman, a florist named Emily De Claire. From the moment William met here eyes, he was smitten. Their first meeting was little more than polite conversation, but William felt he had glimpsed a kindred spirit, a beautiful soul that could ease the mysterious loneliness that ate away at him. Likewise, Emily was drawn to William's charm and good graces. Their mutual courtship began almost immediately, and much to the jealousy of the available young women of New Orleans, it was not long before the two were engaged to be wed.
Leota was not pleased with this news. She burned with anger and jealousy, and tried once more to get William to love her instead. She claimed that she could make him happier than any woman ever could; had their romantic dalliances of the past meant nothing? But William told her they must must put their passions aside. What they had before was in the past, and that his love for Emily was real. When Leota changed tact, and threatened to expose their trists to the public, William countered by threatening to ruin her name and cast her out of his house. He then ordered Leota to set about quieting the spirits of the mansion once and for all, or else risk being sent away.
When the haunting suddenly ceased altogether, Leota told William that she had exercised most of the ghosts plaguing the mansion, and that those that remained would trouble him no more. At last, William felt he could safely allow his bride-to-be to live in the mansion, and he began to plan for their wedding. He thanked Leota for her help, and tried his best to apologize, but she acted as if she had come to an understanding, and told him to dwell no more on it.
"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," or so the old quote says. Unfortunately for William, Leota had instead dredged up the wayward ghosts of the house, like Lee had years before her. Fueled by indignation, she likewise discovered many a spirit in Limbo that sought revenge on William Gracey for some heinous crime in his secret past. Her psychic abilities brought to her a terrible truth about William, but she hid the knowledge away and patiently waited for the day of the wedding.
The ceremony was to be held at mansion itself, and that day brought most of the New Orleans elite to the property to see the union of the new couple. Anticipation was high, and hours before the ceremony was to begin there were many guests. Emily, the blushing bride, was enthusiastic and cheerful; William was seen laughing and smiling throughout the day, never having looked happier in his life. Everyone there seemed to be in joyous spirits... everyone but Madame Leota.
Emily, being a traditionalist, began hunting through the mansion for those things a bride is supposed to have on her wedding day: something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. During her search, she found her way up to the mansion's attic, the perfect place to find something old; it was almost as if she were compelled to investigate...
Later, when the bride failed to appear, a concerned wedding party began searching the house. Her body was eventually discovered in the attic, crumpled inside a half-closed trunk. A fatal wound on her head led all present to believe it was a tragic accident; everyone except the grief-stricken goom, who quietly slipped away from the group in the horror and confusion.
He found Leota in her seance chamber, chanting a spell before her crystal ball. Without pause he rushed forward, seized the crystal ball and bludgeoned her to death with it.
As if the murder was a release, a hideous force rushed through the house, causing the wedding guests and staff to flee in blind terror. The anguished spirits taunted William, crying out about the injustice of their demise at his hand; they hissed about his time at sea, when he had led a mutiny against the cruel captain of the merchant ship he served on, and how many of the crew fell aiding him; how he had become a gunrunner and smuggler, and had sold his crew out to the authorities for safe passage to New Orleans; and how they had all hanged because of this.
William could not care less now. He had lost everything he had ever wanted. Tormented by the ghosts of his past, the murder of the medium and the death of Emily, William Gracey became a broken man. He wandered the mansion in a stupor, unable to avoid the wailing of the dead and the trauma of his own mind. At last, unable to cope with his existence any longer, he hanged himself from the rafters of the mansion's cupola.
The news of the strange occurrence on the wedding day spread across New Orleans like wildfire, and those wedding guests that had fled the estate could not deny what they had seen. None dared return to the Gracey Mansion to confirm what had happened, and those that tried never got further than the main gate before being spooked away by some unseen presence. Time passed, and without a proper explanation the people assumed William Gracey was long gone, and the dark house was abandoned once more.
However, what neither William nor the townsfolk knew was what subtle impact the event had had. Leota was not summoning the dark spirits, but trying to quell them. She had not expected Emily to die, merely wanting to frighten the girl away from William with the aid of her powers; she had not considered the tenacity of the vengeful dead, who met their ends thanks to William's machinations. The power of these spirits had gone beyond her control, and as she attempted to return them to Limbo without doing further harm, the spell was interrupted by William. Her death caused the spell to backfire, Leota's own soul becming bound to her crystal ball. At the same time, the psychic pulse generated by the violence of her end was like a Siren's call, and it resonated in this world and the next. Inevitably, lost ghosts began to take notice, hollow gazes turning toward the mansion.
So it was that, as the mansion fell silent once more, wayward souls began to drift in...
Chapter III: The Black Widow Bride
Far and away from the New Orleans, in the state of California, a great movement was underway. When gold was found at Sutter's Mill in 1848, it triggered a frenzy that brought hundreds of thousands of people to California with dreams of striking it rich. The Gold Rush changed the landscape of California, as prospectors fought the Native Americans and each other for land, small towns grew into cities, and hundreds of small communities sprang up. Great opportunity was tempered with great hardship, a few lucky men made their fortunes while others were left poor and empty-handed.
The Hatchaway Family came to California with these aspirations in mind. Originally from Missouri, Marcus Hatchaway was a weary liveryman that was enticed by the news of gold flowing from the west. Convinced he could make something of himself there, he packed up his possessions and family - his wife Nellie and young daughter Constance - and departed for the Golden State, settling in the community of Money County in 1851. Marcus soon joined the legions of prospectors panning and digging for gold, while Nellie occupied her time working around their meager property and occasionally teaching at the local schoolhouse.
As a child, Constance grew up listening to her father's talk of wealth and what he would do with it when he finally acquired it. Marcus thought big and talked big, endlessly optimistic as he outlined all the wonderful things he would do once he made his fortune. Constance latched on to these dreams, hopeful that one day they would be lifted up from their dusty, normal places and live the high life.
Unfortunately, Marcus' boasting did nothing to improve his chances, and as time passed and he remained a luckless prospector, both father and daughter felt bitterness fester in them little by little. For Marcus, he knew he was failing his family, but couldn't give up out of a sense of pride and a fleeting hope that somehow, someday, his luck would turn around; for Constance, wealth existed in direct correlation with happiness, and as some of the people in the county made it big and her own family languished, she felt jealousy and hatred. What had these people done to deserve the gold when her father, a noble and honest man in her mind, got nothing?
The plight of the Hatchaways continued unabated until 1855. Having found only meager success as a prospector, Marcus was ready to admit his failures and seriously look into another profession, especially when word spread that the gold was getting harder and harder to find. Then, while on a job-hunting trip to San Francisco, Marcus met and befriended industrial baron Henry Ravenswood. Ravenswood had made his fortune as founder of the Big Thunder Mining Company, which pulled an impressive amount of gold ore out of Big Thunder Mountain in Arizona. Taking a liking to Marcus, Ravenswood asked him to come and work for him, and an amazed a grateful Marcus accepted the offer.
While Nellie and Constance remained behind in Money County, Marcus took to mining Big Thunder with Ravenswood's guidance. Soon he was making a turnaround with the gold he managed to uncover, and would make return trips as frequently as he could to bestow his earnings on his wife and daughter. Constance was delighted, flaunting her improving status around the other children, and Nellie felt a growing sense of relief. Despite Marcus asking them each time to come back with him to Thunder Mesa, Nellie gently turned him down, saying they were ingrained in the county now, and to take her and Constance away from their friends and neighbors would be too much.
Perhaps this decision ultimately saved their lives. In 1860, Thunder Mesa was hit by a massive earthquake that ravaged the town and caused the mines to cave in. Marcus was killed in the quake, along with Henry Ravenswood and most of the townsfolk. Legend has it that the quake was the fulfillment of a Shoshone prophecy, that the guardian spirit of Big Thunder had unleashed its wrath on the white men that had plundered it of its riches.
The news of her father's death had a profound impact on Constance. Stricken with grief as she was, matters were only made worse with their one source of income gone. Now broke, Constance became the target of ridicule from her childhood friends, mocking her for her earlier haughty attitude. The teasing and bullying caused her hatred to grow, and one day her meekness disappeared: she struck a girl that had been cajoling her in the head with a rock and tackled her in a mad fury, beating the girl with her fists. The schoolmarm was forced to separate them, Constance yelling and cursing and the other girl suffering a concussion and covered in bruises.
Fearing what was left of their reputation had been damaged by this incident, and with few other options, Nellie took Constance and moved to nearby Secret County, taking up residence with the successful Harper family. The Harpers had made their earnings as farmers, and had a fair estate with plenty of room to house the widowed Hatchaway and her daughter. How Nellie knew the Harpers and why they had so generously allowed them to stay Constance did not know, but was content to get away from Money County and the troubles she hoped she'd left behind there. She befriended Ambrose Harper, the only son of the family, who she liked for his shyness and good nature, and did her best to settle in.
However, nagging doubts began to plague the young girl's mind. Her envy at the prosperity of the Harpers turned to disdain as she imagined them seeing her and her mother as charity cases. They lived in the same household, ate the same food, did the same chores, and yet Constance could not shake the sensation of being looked down on, of knowing that none of what they lived in was truly theirs. Her own curiosity about her mother's connection to the Harpers lead her to do some amateur sleuthing, and it did not take long for her to discover that Nellie had been amorous with Jonathan Harper, Ambrose' father, and that the affair had actually gone on since Constance's father had left them to mine Big Thunder Mountain.
Rather than expose her mother, Constance confronted her with the discovery, and a weary Nellie was forced to explain herself. "We had to find some way to make a living with your father gone," she said. "We women do not have the same opportunities as men, we're not given the same chances they do. We have to do what we can to survive - we would not be where we are now if Jonathan had not taken us in."
Disgusted and burning with rage, Constance nevertheless held her tongue and agreed to remain quiet. This she did - by the following evening, Constance was gone, having run away from home. A search was put out for her, but no trace of her could be found.
A grieving Nellie blamed herself for the incident, and despite the best efforts of those around her, never sufficiently recovered from Constance's abandonment - knowing how headstrong Constance was, the girl would likely never come back. Nellie died two years later, of complications due to illness, but most suspected that heartbreak had contributed to her downfall.
In early 1869, almost ten years after she had disappeared, Constance returned to Secret County from points unknown. Now a grown woman, she was instantly noted for alluring beauty and mysterious smile, though most of the townsfolk did not recognize her. Upon her arrival, Constance made her way straight to the Harper farm, where a surprised Ambrose was the first to greet her. She was welcomed back into the household, questions flying here and there about what had happened to her in the time she was gone. Constance replied with incredible stories of bravery and adventure, generally with her pulling herself out of tough situations. Ambrose took them in gleefully, smitten with her boldness and, truthfully, her fair looks. In turn he informed Constance of the things that had transpired while she was away - including the death of her mother, which Constance seemed oddly undaunted by.
Jonathan Harper was instantly suspicious of Constance. Nellie's death still haunted him, and he blamed her selfish actions as a child for causing it. Things were only made worse when Ambrose began expressing an interest in her. Jonathan tried to warn his son that she was no good, that she would inevitably break his heart like she had her mother's. He also suspected she was only using Ambrose as a means to and end; he was the sole heir to the farm, and he had seen a glint of avarice in her eye. But Ambrose would hear none of it, now head-over-heels in love with Constance. Nervously he attempted to court her, and was thrilled to find that she returned his feelings. Over the bulk of the year their relationship grew, and in October of 1869, Ambrose asked Constance to be his wife.
Constance was insistent that the wedding be held right away, and the two lovers quickly set a date and made plans. The couple were wed in a chapel in nearby Pleasant Lake, the minister proclaiming them man and wife, "'til death do they part." At the reception Ambrose gave Constance a pearl necklace that seemed to light up her eyes when she wore it. Those attending attested to Constance's delight at the gift. Almost more significant was how Jonathan begrudgingly gave the couple his blessing. Now feeling the weight of the years on him, his gift was turning full control of the farm over to his son and daughter-in-law.
That night the newlyweds retired to the farmhouse, while Jonathan and his own wife respectfully stayed with friends across town. As they set off into the cold November night, Johnathan thought he saw a figure swathed in a black cloak and cane hobbling down the road in the direction of the farm, but thought little of it and attested it to a figment of his imagination.
The next morning, Constance turned up at the sheriff's office in a panic. She claimed that Ambrose had gone missing, that she had woken up that morning and found him gone. A search was conducted, combing the nearby plains and woods, yet nothing could be found of Ambrose. Secret County was turned upside-down over the next week as inquiries were made, leads turned up only to dry up, and false starts lead to poor conclusions. Jonathan relayed his sighting of the figure in black, but it did little to help: Ambrose Harper had seemingly vanished from the face of the earth.
Weeks passed, Constance becoming withdrawn and pale, seemingly as her hope dwindled for her husband's return. When at last the hunt for him ceased, Constance begrudgingly assumed full control of the Harper farm... which she promptly sold for a tidy sum. Constance left the county quickly thereafter, leaving the surviving Harper parents with no son to look after them and no estate to go back to.
Time passed, and in 1871 Constance reappeared in San Diego, a woman of modest means and strong character. As she ingrained herself in the county's social strata, she crossed paths with Frank Banks, a respected eastern banker and pillar of the community. Frank was instantly drawn to the alluring charms of Constance, showered her with affection and gifts in a seemingly misguided bid to buy her love. While a few shook their heads at Frank's apparent lack of foresight, Constance reciprocated Frank's affections and grew close to him. In no time the news had gotten out that Constance was engaged to Mr. Banks.
Their engagement was a big affair in the community, and many of the townsfolk hoped that their wedding would be a prime social event. Frank had intended to hold the wedding at a local church, but Constance insisted that they be married at the same chapel, and by the same minister, that had married her and Ambrose. While the request seemed odd - even a touch macabre - Frank nevertheless consented, as long as the reception was held in San Diego. Frank and Constance Banks were married in Pleasant Lake in the summer of 1872.
Most of the town turned out for the big reception the day after the wedding, making it into a grand jubilee. A few of the guests noted that there seemed to be a stranger lurking just on the edge of the general activity; a figure swathed in a black cloak that, like an old man, hobbled about in a sprightly fashion. This was largely ignored, guests gossiping that perhaps the figure was some distant uncle that was mad at not being invited, or a local drunk. The reception ran on into the evening, and Frank's happiness was seemingly mirrored by the multitudes of friends and family that had come to celebrate his wedding.
Frank Banks was never seen again after the reception...alive, that is. His headless body was discovered in a pond just outside of town a few days later, and a grieving Constance wept out a story that her husband had gone out to meet someone one night and had not returned. Many of the townsfolk suspected the figure in black from the party as the murderer, but there was no evidence to support these wild rumors. The town grieved with the new widow, shocked by the horror, and offered their support and aid. Constance easily took on Frank's social status in the community, as well as his earthly possessions.
Becoming a socialite, Constance ingrained herself in the local aristocracy, mingling with the upper crust of the growing city. The ease of her recovery from Frank's death seemed both a relief and a puzzle to her peers, but they were happy to see that she was moving on after such a hideous tragedy. Then, two years after Frank's death, Constance was introduced to a visiting foreign diplomat, the Marquis de Doome, at a lavish party. A slow but steady string of meetings between the Marquis and Constance followed, the blustery but awkward diplomat trying in earnest to make his growing affections known. Gossip about the two spread like wildfire.
Finally the smitten Marquis asked his beloved Constance to be his wife, and to come with him to his home in Peking, China. Constance bid her friends farewell (these people pleased that "poor Constance" had found someone else after the unfortunate demise of Frank) and, just before setting off, took the Marquis to Pleasant Lake to cement his commitment. The minister, with a knowing smile, married the two in 1874.
After the joyful reception, Constance and the Marquis boarded a ship bound for the South Seas. The plan was to tour the Pacific before at last arriving in Asia...yet the vessel had not even left port when tragedy struck. On a foggy night a shrill scream and a crash alerted the crew, and when they broke into the couple's cabin they discovered a grisly tableau: Constance, sprawled out on the floor in a faint, with the decapitated head of the Marquis lying nearby.
The headless body of the Marquis was found floating in the bay not too far from the ship, and one of the lifeboats was noticed missing. It took ages for the hysterical bride-turned-widow (again) to recover, and she halting recalled coming into her cabin and finding only the Marquis' head waiting for her, placed neatly in an empty hatbox. The ensuing investigation once again pointed to the enigmatic figure in the black cloak, this time spotted by a local fisherman rowing a boat across the bay around the time of the murder.
Claiming to fear for her life own life, and traumatized by the deaths of her husbands, Constance swiftly claimed the inherited fortunes left by the Marquis and moved away from San Diego, never to set foot in the county again.
In 1875, railroad baron Reginald Caine was on an extended visit to San Francisco when he met Constance. He had come to the city to explore its growing potential, to sample its finest food...and to gamble. Reginald was known for his uncanny luck, a man that Fate seemed to perpetually smile on, and he loved to put that luck to the test at cards, dice or bets. He took risks where others wouldn't, which allowed him to rise in prominence in the railroad business and become incredibly wealthy; he was often called "Lucky Caine" because of his incredible good fortune.
For Reginald, Constance was a lucky break he had not expected but heartily welcomed. They were introduced at a society party, and Reginald was drawn to her almost as soon as they had exchanged greetings. Being a rotund fellow with a fair appetite, known for his strict gourmet diet, Reginald had never considered himself appealing to the opposite sex. Yet here was this woman - charming, inquisitive, gorgeous - who seemed so interested in him, laughing at his jokes, listening intently to his stories, impressing him with her own. Not only that, but she was good at bluffing - he recognized it in her as they played cards together during that first party. He was deeply intrigued to see what secrets this woman held.
Reginald further extended his stay in San Francisco to attempt to wine-and-dine Constance. He took her to the city's finest restaurants, brought to lavish shows and galas, took long walks with her around the city. Things accelerated quickly in their courtship, and within a matter of months from their first meeting they were engaged; even Lucky Caine could not believe his luck!
Knowing his high profile and the news it would cause, Reginald asked Constance if their wedding could be discreet. Smiling, she told him of a little chapel in Pleasant Lake where their union would not draw much attention; she was good friends with the minister there, and promised he would keep things small and quiet. Only six months after their first meeting, Reginald Caine stood at the alter with his bride, unaware that his bride had brought three previous men to this same alter.
Shortly after the wedding, Reginald's luck finally ran out. His body was discovered one misty morning beside the railroad tracks, his head severed from his shoulders. Some assumed it was a tragic accident, others murder, and still more suicide. Witnesses claimed the last time they had seen him was the night prior, when he left a local bar chatting amiably with a man dressed in a black cloak, walking with a cane. Regardless, the discovery took its toll on his new bride, who stayed in the city only long enough to collect her impressive inheritance before setting out for points unknown.
On July 4th, 1876, Constance met George Hightower at a street fair in Newport Beach, celebrating the nation's Centennial. A wealthy son of the prestigious Hightower family, George had come to Newport Beach to get away from the domineering shadow of his older brother, Harrison Hightower III. George was not fond of the scrutiny labeled on him due to his brother - a multimillionaire hotel magnet and noted globetrotter, criticized for potentially swindling priceless artifacts from around the globe - and sought a relatively secluded, comfortable life away from that shady reputation. As many an unfortunate man before him, George was drawn to Constance almost immediately, but took things slowly and methodically. Many a woman had been drawn to him because of his money and his family, and he had to be cautious.
But Constance surprised him, proved to be an upstanding lady with excellent taste, poise, and wit. The pair of them engaged in philosophical, political and social debates that were refreshing and engaging. She seemed undaunted by his wealth or by his family name, and George began to consider that, perhaps, her affections were truly pure.
Friendship turned to courtship, and after a year George calmly proposed to Constance, who agreed to the marriage. Constance proposed a chapel in Pleasant Lake where they could tie the knot in peace, and they took the trip there with a few close friends and relatives. While there, George noted that some of the folk of the county whispered to each other when he and Constance would pass, and once he caught a man referring to his fiancee as a "black widow bride," though he had no idea what was meant. Asking Constance about this only brought a quiet laugh and a short response. "I made a bit of a name for myself here in my youth," she said. "It's not surprising some people are still bitter about my wildness."
Though bothered by the potential unspoken secrets, George still happily married Constance, who apparently was good friends with the presiding minister. Their nuptials concluded, the pair returned to Newport Beach, where the reception was held and George revealed his main wedding surprise: the purchase of a stately southern mansion in Louisiana, to serve as the couple's new home.
In truth, George had acquired the place some time ago. Even in California the Hightower reputation persisted, and George was dogged with questions from curious reporters and journalists about Harrison's such-and-such exploit of late. Seeking other options, he was informed by a friend of a mansion for sale in New Orleans for an incredible price. Investigating further, George learned that the property had been abandoned for years and was on grounds adjacent to a now-unused cemetery. Local superstition said that the place was haunted, which was exactly what George Hightower needed: partial isolation in a supposedly haunted manor (George was a skeptical man and had no reason to believe in ghosts) would do well to keep the nosy away, and he could enjoy the vanity of renovating a classic southern home into his private retreat. He made the arrangements and purchased the place without once setting foot in it.
Constance seemed overjoyed with the news; she expressed how she had seen enough of California and wanted a change of scenery, "to do the soul some good." Once their arrangements were finalized, bride and groom began their long journey to Louisiana.
Arriving at their new estate for the first time, both quickly shoved off their unusual sense of dread and went to see what was inside. Small, peculiar things seemed to happen as the wandered through the rooms and halls of the mansion: several locked doors with missing keys, unusual drafts, the occasional creak or soft knock somewhere in the distance. One large, octagonal room gave Constance in particular pause, and she refused to enter it, though she could not say why it bothered her at the time; meanwhile, George found it odd that the original owners had left seemingly all their furniture behind, and could see why some thought the place was haunted.
The couple moved through the house until, at last, they reached the attic, a dark and cluttered maze of old junk. As George peered into the cobwebbed gloom, he felt a sense of dread wash over him, right before Constance moved in quietly behind him and planted an axe in his cranium.
Constance quickly disposed of George's body, dumping it and the murder weapon in a nearby bayou, and took stock of her situation: with five husbands down, five husbands worth of gifts and money, and a fine old house to live in, Constance had at last fulfilled her dream of becoming wealthy in her own way, and without being caught.
Yet there was still one more thing she had to do. Try as she might, there was something truly disconcerting about the place, and the sense of dread that had been gnawing at her since she arrived was growing stronger as the sun set. Lighting a lamp, she started to write a letter. She had things to organize, things to put in order... and one last hatchet to bury.
Some time later, in Pleasant Lake, California, the local minister received a letter from the (unsurprisingly) widowed Constance Hightower. The letter stated that her husband was no more, as they had planned, and she needed him to finally send her the collection of wedding gifts she had stored. His half of the money would be secured once her possessions arrived. Likewise, the letter stated that she requested his presence... urgently.
Chuckling to himself, the minister carefully put the letter in his pocket before donning his top hat and cloak, and grabbing his cane. As he hobbled to the door, he patted the hatbox he carried with him; there was an awful lot of money inside, and he wasn't about to leave it behind.
Chapter IV: The Museum of the Weird
For the people of New Orleans, there was no real change to the odd goings-on at the infamous mansion, even with the stories that it had a new, living owner. The discovery of George Hightower's murder surprised no one, and instead served as a grim reminder of why the house and its grounds were to be avoided: it was a bad place, a "plague spot" that no human being was meant to inhabit for long. If anyone suspected his widow, the reclusive Mrs. Hightower, of foul play, they didn't really care; if she really was guilty, she'd get hers sooner or later, just as every other owner of the cursed mansion had in the legends and lore.
Even so, no one saw much of the Widow Hightower following the incident, to the point where it was speculated if anyone lived in the mansion at all. But the rumors and tall tales continued unabated, some even going as far as to claim that an ancient, esoteric order or cult had quietly occupied the space and used it as their base for performing unholy rituals and rites in the dead of night. Of course, these stories had no basis in fact... or did they?
Chicago, 1893. The World's Fair was well underway, and was a showcase of wondrous marvels and exotic exhibits to all that attended. The Ferris Wheel made its debut, thrilling fairgoers as a new kind of attraction, while new electric lights illuminated the nighttime pathways and made pavilions glow. Many important and distinguished figures attended the fair, including millionaire Harrison Hightower III. And amidst the granduer and splendor of the Exposition, a discreet encounter took place between Hightower and a woman who called herself Abigale Patecleaver.
What exactly happened during the discussion between the two was hushed and secret, but Abigale appeared eager to give something to Hightower. She had in her posession the legal deed to a historic old estate in Louisiana, the very manor where Hightower's brother had been murdered 16 years prior, and explained that George's widow "no longer had any interest in the property," bequething it to Harrison's care. Hightower had little interest in taking the property for himself, in spite of his macabre connection to it and even knowing the storied reputation of the house - the very notion of ghosts and spirits was rediculous to him - but Abigale's insistence eventually swayed him, and he took the deed simply to make the tittering woman go away; seemingly relieved, she did just that, and the two never spoke again.
Hightower did not keep the deed for long, however. That very evening, while dining in a private lounge reserved for members and guests of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, Hightower had a rare moment of altruism and gave the deed to spiritualist Margaret Irvine, attending the Exposition as a guest of the mysterious Madame Zarkov. When offered legal ownership of a supposedly haunted mansion, there was no hesitation in her acceptance of it, and within a fortnite she was making her way to New Orleans.
Margaret, a native of New York. was keenly interested in all things having to do with the occult, and had gained a small following in American spiritualism as a writer on the subject of seances and connecting with the dead. She also claimed to be talented medium in her own right, though criticism of her methods and accusations of being a charlatan were not uncommon - to that end, she frequently worked with Madame Zarkov, a woman of (dubiously) Romani descent that operated a small curio shop, Le Bat en Rouge, in New Orleans and told fortunes. It was also claimed that Hightower had given her the mansion in a bid to curb her favor, and while Margaret disavowed such baseless assumptions, she never had a bad word to say about the millionaire afterward; some said they even recognized her distinct narrative style in a few of the ghostwritten novels about Hightower's adventures, but who's to say.
For Margaret, the move was a win in more ways than one. She had a storied mansion to call her own, and was much closer to her friend. She moved in straightaway, and soon enough was calling on Madame Zarkov to come investigate the place with her. Though Zarkov had heard the many ghost stories of the place, she had never had a chance to visit. Their initial tour, while strangely quiet, was still beset by the occasional odd sight or unexplained sound. A disquieting feeling settled on the pair as they traveled the halls of the house and overgrown pathways of the grounds. Yet while Zarkov was perturbed and warned her friend of the unnatural energy she felt - and energy that seemed to be growing the longer they stayed - Margaret was thrilled. She announced that she had every intention to fix the manor up and make fast friends with any unliving residents the place held, not showing the slightest bit of fear.
And that seemed to have been the case. Every day following, without fail, Margaret would bustle into Le Bat en Rouge and tell Madame Zarkov of the progress she was making on her "haunted fixer-upper." It took her a long time to find a work crew willing to take the job, and even longer to find a group willing to stay longer than a day, but by the end of 1894 the mansion was restored to some semblance of its former glory - or, at least, the outside was. Margaret said that she and the "others" had come to accord about the state of the house, and coexisted in such a way that all parties were satisfied.
With the work complete, a grinning Margaret finally made a pitch to Madame Zarkov. For years, members of the S.E.A. who frequently consulted Zarkov for her advice on the supernatural, had jokingly called her curio shop a "Museum of the Weird," so much so that the name had stuck in the inner circles of the Society. Indeed, Madame Zarkov did have in her posession many peculiar artifacts and odd items that had drifted into New Orleans from all corners of the globe and never drifted back out, some of which she claimed had mystical qualities to them. What Margaret proposed was a business venture, a way to capitalize on their shared macabre ventures: to move the contents of Le Bat en Rogue to the mansion, and open the place to the public as a genuine museum of the strange and bizarre.
Madame Zarkov, ever leery of Margaret's stubborn optimism, outright refused. She warned that such disrespect for the manor's dead would lead only to trouble and misery. But Margaret insisted. This would be a way to further educate the public on the nature of the afterlife and the metaphysical world, and that no one else had access to the level of genuine proof she had. She said she had it all worked out, that her time working on the mansion had made her plenty of friends "on the other side" who understood that what she was doing was ultimately for the best, which was a statement Zarkov found hard to believe. Ultimately, the medium would not join the venture as a partner, but begrudgingly agreed to at least be Margaret's consultant, as she had done for the S.E.A. over the years, and to sell many of her curios to the museum. Though disappointed, Margaret made the compromise.
The Museum of the Weird opened August 9th, 1895, admitting the first curious souls to the formerly-abandoned mansion.
To be continued...