This is a week long educational write up I did for the National Paranormal Society. Each section was broken up over different days (if the links over there are ever fixed I will link to it so you can see it the way it was meant to be). Even if you are not an investigator and just “curious”, I believe you will find it helpful.
Congratulations, you have been contacted to conduct an investigation! What are the first steps you are going to take after the initial client interview is complete and an investigation date has been set?
Investigating possible paranormal activity is not just about showing up at a location, turning your gear on and sitting around in the dark waiting for something to happen. As a paranormal investigator, you have an obligation to your client to know as much about the history of the area as you know about how to run your equipment.
Pre-investigation research can provide you invaluable tools to use during your time at a location. Earthbound spirits do not have to be attached to a structure. Often times I will hear people say, “This house isn’t that old, I don’t understand why I am experiencing these things.” Learning the history of not only the existing structure, structures that stood before, the town, the families that lived there, what happened to them, and how to talk to them can possibly get you results you never dreamed of.
Pre-investigation research can provide you invaluable tools to use during your time at a location. Did the town your location is in suffer some kind of tragedy in its past? Do you know who has owned the land for the last 200 years? Do you know the families that have lived there? Do you know how they died? Do you know how to talk to someone who lived 150 years ago? This week, I will go through five different kinds of things you can research so that you go into investigation armed with knowledge to help you understand the energy you might encounter, and help you better communicate with them. You cannot always rely on witness history recollections. Unfortunately, sometimes, oral histories that have been passed down are like a game of telephone. Facts are muddled, changed, attached to the wrong people, and sometimes people just make stuff up to make it sound more fascinating. This is why, along with witness interviews, you need to learn how to conduct research yourself so you can go in with iron clad facts to help you make a good game plan for your investigation, and hopefully by the end of this week you will be able to do just that.
Sometimes your work is easy. You know when you go to a location that something bad happened there. Asylums, hospitals, and prisons are good examples of knowing what kind of history a place has. However, what if it is just a house or business in a nice little town? When you go to a location, do you ever wonder about the town itself? Has the town had different names? Was there anything that caused mass and/or untimely death? Has any kind of tragedy happened there? Were there any catastrophic weather events (floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.), plane crashes, train wrecks, building explosions, war battles, or mass murders? Did boll weevils wipe out a way of life that might have made someone experience enough mental anguish to go on a rampage? Were gentlemanly duels or high noon showdowns a way of life in this town? Were there torrid love affairs? Was the town struck down by yellow fever? Any one of those scenarios can help you try to figure out what might be going on at your investigation spot.
There are many ways you can find important information about the town you are investigating. This is where Google WILL be your friend. One of the first things you want to do is search to see if the town has a local historical society, some do and some do not. If you cannot find one for the city, search for one for the county/state/country that town is in. On websites like these, you will be able to find out a lot of history. Information can include when the town was formed, why it was formed, if it ever went by another name, if it was ever in another county (this will be beneficial knowledge with tomorrows topic on Land Deeds), and many times if the town is known for anything tragic. Reading through historical websites is an easy, free way to find out some facts, and most of them will give you a contact name that might just be willing to help. **Word of advice – because of the way some people perceive “ghost hunters”, when I need local historians to help, I usually start telling them I am researching the town and need some help. I leave the “ghost hunting” part unrevealed until I can gauge whether they are agreeable to assist.
Another excellent online source is the county’s genealogical websites. The US GenWeb project is a decent resource depending on the county administrator who runs it. Some of them have been left to flounder, but some of them have a wealth of information. You can find a state/county listing here: http://usgenweb.org/ and for our awesome international members, you can try this website: http://www.worldgenweb.org
If you live near the town, you can visit the historical society itself and go through real documents that show you the history. Most local libraries have old newspapers on microfilm, and if you found notations of a particular incident, you can go and read the factual stories as they happened. Newspaper accounts written at the time of the incident are gold mines of information that sometimes is forgotten or changed over time.
You can also try to find newspaper articles online, the website here: https://sites.google.com/site/onlinenewspapersite has many links to historical newspapers, both national and international, that have been digitized and are keyword searchable. One important thing to note when researching old newspaper articles, do not limit yourself to just the town. A perfect example occurred when I was planning an investigation in Winder, GA. I was looking for an article on the death of a prominent doctor and I could not find it in the Winder newspapers. Winder, Ga sits between Atlanta and Athens, and both newspapers in those towns wrote about this doctor’s illness and death, so never limit yourself, widen your scope if you have to.
Once you have learned about the area you are going to and the general ways of life in any given time, you can start learning about the people.
Land deeds can be a little harder to research, but they can also be SO rewarding. These days local county tax assessor websites can give you some information on the sales of the property back to a certain time, but these times will vary, but they generally go back about 30 years or so. The online records can tell you when the structures on the property were built. There have been many times that I have done this research and found out the date the home was built conflicted with what the homeowner thought. I recently did an investigation where the homeowner thought the home had been built in the1930s, and it turned out the existing structure had been built in 1921. This gave me another approximate 10 years to find families that might have lived there.
Land deed research has to be done in reverse order. If the county did have online records, you can use the book entry listed to go to the county courthouse and find that deed book to get the names of the grantee and grantors, and then systematically use those names to look in the index books until you find the previous sale, then use that information to do another search, and keep going back as far as you can find records for. Learning the language for the very old deeds can be tricky. The following is an example of a land description, and as you will see, they depended on the fact that trees and rocks would always stay in place:
That track or parcel of land situate lying and being in the 243 Dist G.M. said state & county beginning at a black gum at Chandler’s line N 21 ½ W 12.50 to a rock N 166 °13.60 to road thence down road S 35 ½ E3 chs. S 52 E 10.34 chs to a rock S 32 E 4.50 chs. to a rock N 78 ½ E 6.47 to a rock thence N 46E 2.80 to a post oak. Thence N 73 E 14.00 to a rock at Elder’s line. Thence S 35 ½ E 1.5to Iron Wood. Thence East 80 links to white oak thence down the creek 6 chs to white oak the Candler line S 71 W 40.20 to the beginning Black Gum containing 43 acres.
That description is of a lot of land going by all four corners. Links and chs (chains) are a common form of measurement when doing land surveys, if you are interested in the history of a Gunter’s Chain, you can read about it here: http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/land/gunterchain.html
Yes, this is time consuming, yes, this is frustrating, but it is worth it. Unfortunately, I do not know how other countries keep their land records, so that is something you will have to establish if you are doing international research.
On Day 2, I told you that knowing a town’s history in its place in the county is important. It is not uncommon for a town to have been in multiple counties over the course of its history. I will go back to the Winder, Ga investigation as an example. The town of Winder is located in Barrow Co., Ga, but that is not where it has always been. Winder was originally a Creek Indian settlement known as Snodon. In 1793, when white men moved in, they named it The Jug and in 1803, it was renamed Jug Tavern with a population of 37 people. In the 1880s Jug Tavern was actually located in three different counties: Jackson, Walton, and Gwinnett. In 1894, it was renamed for the last time to Winder and in 1914, a completely new county was formed to encompass the entire city, they named this county Barrow.
When doing research, you need to know what county the property was in at any given time. This will be the same county seat that contains the land records. When doing the pre-investigation for the Winder residence, the online tax records indicated the home had been built in 1887. This meant I had to figure out which of the three counties the lot was in at that time (in this case it was Jackson). I followed the Jackson county deed books on the lot back to the early 1800s, and then I had to go to the existing county, Barrow, and search from 1914 to present day. It was well worth the effort. It showed me that the existing house, which had been a boarding house, funeral home, and private residence, was actually the second house to have been built there. Because I had this information, it helped greatly in locating photographs of the first house.
You never want to limit your investigation to reports about the existing house or business. The more you know about what has been there, the further you can broaden your range of questions when you do EVP sessions, and it will give you a greater understanding of responses you might get that seem totally irrelevant. While these records are a matter of public record, it is always a good idea to let your client know that you will be researching them. Both our permission forms and confidentiality forms contain statements that we research public records concerning the property, but that we do not release that information to anyone but the client.
This topic is one that I could write about incessantly. I have been a genealogist for over 30 years and have spent my life helping other people find out about their family history. Incredibly, it comes in quite handy when conducting paranormal investigations. The more information you can arm yourself with going in, the more the data collected might mean to you. To illustrate this, I will use an example of an investigation we did in our own town for the City Property Development Authority (and subsequently the City Council). The home was built in 1826 and was originally part of a 600-acre plantation. The home had never officially been investigated, but I had wanted to get in there since I was a little girl, largely because it had its own cemetery. We had no reports of activity to go on as the last owner of the home died in 1971 and since then had just been a “historic site.”
I systematically developed abbreviated family trees on the last owner (who had died at the age of 97 and lived there almost all her adult life) and the owners before that. Luckily, they were all kind of related as the house had been passed down in the family. The original owners had a son, James that fought in the civil war and subsequently died in 1862, but amazingly, was buried in the family cemetery on the property. This was unusual because he was not a man of rank, and the “norm” was that men were buried where they died, not sent home, unless the family had money to get them home. Everything I could find only said he had “died in South Carolina in service to his country.” Everyone assumed he had died in battle. Using the state archives, I got his service record to see what battles he had been in and where he might have actually died. Considering what I had been reading, I was surprised to learn that James had, in fact, developed an unnamed disease and had been sent home, where he subsequently died in the very house, we were investigating (which explains how he came to be buried there). Having this information allowed me to do detailed EVP sessions because I had relevant information and was not just taking a “stab in the dark,” and having compiled a brief family history also helped with another energy that presented themselves.
Service records for several wars (along with MANY other useful records) can be found either at the National Archives http://www.archives.gov, at one of their many US libraries, or your state archives. There are also online resources, for things like that, like http://www.fold3.com, or http://ancestry.com but these sites cost money in the form of a yearly subscription fee.
Often times, if you have a name, you can do a simple Google search and find free family trees or blogs that family members have put online to include pictures of the people, family stories, etc., that you can use to gather information to ask your questions. A targeted Google search for the area you are investigating can help you locate where those records are as each country is different in the way they present them and the cost for accessing them. I will not advocate subscriptions for any one particular site, as they are all helpful in their own way, but if you are serious about your research, I do recommend finding the one that can give you the most bang for your buck and investing in a yearly subscription to a place that gives you access to a myriad of different kinds of records so that you can learn about your potential interviewee. I know I have used mine just as much for paranormal research as I have for just “regular” genealogy, and the information gathered has been invaluable.
Another great example was when we had a historic home to do. This was a previous residence turned museum and full of “facts” via wall plaques. With due diligence, I not only proved some of their “facts” incorrect, I found some they had never heard of. A particular resident of this house in the 1860s (who later died there) was made the flag bearer for the Confederate unit formed in the town. Via a published family genealogy I found that when he left for the war he left with the unit flag in one hand and “his fighting cock” in the other. In other words he left with his prize fighting rooster so that the men in the unit could engage in cock fighting in between skirmishes and battles. It was not recorded how long the rooster lasted; only that it won many many fights. This kind of information is the difference between engaging the energy there and possibly having them ignore you.
The links I gave previously for http://usgenweb.org and http://www.worldgenweb.org will also be useful for things like this. A lot of times you can find family histories written long ago along with copies of bible records. Sometimes these records are the only place you might find the name of someone relevant, especially children that died young and have been lost in time. Searching http://books.google.com is what supplied me with the information about Manny and his rooster, which will probably go down in history as my favorite pre-investigation fact learned. Researching family histories tend to make the investigation more personal because when you get to know the possible energy as a real person that lived and died, I truly believe they can sense your intent and want to communicate with you.
Vital records are a great way of getting information about a person or persons that might have relevance to your location. Up to a certain time (this is determined by your county, state, or country) you can find copies of birth, death, and marriage records online. Different locations started keeping these records at various times. You might find that one place has marriage records beginning in the 1700s and that another did not officially start keeping them until after 1900 (South Carolina is a good example of this). It is the same for birth and death records.
Depending on the location and type of the record, you can learn how the person died and where/how they were buried. As stated before, word of mouth stories can be inaccurate. The example I gave in of James and how he died of disease instead of gloriously being shot in battle is a good illustration. If death certificates had been issued in 1862, we would know what disease had claimed James died and where he passed.
Once again, depending on the location and type of the record, you can learn how the person died, where/how they were buried, to who gave the information on the person at the time of death, who their parents were, where they were born, who they married etc. One thing to keep in mind though, these records are only as good as the source of information and information could be not completely correct.
Census records are another thing that can help. The census is taken every ten years and records are available from the 1st one done in 1790 to the 16th one in 1940. Websites vary on if they charge you to see them, this link can show you who have them and if they charge: https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/United_States_Census. These records can give you a glimpse of who lived in the area, what they did for a living, who their children were etc. Sometimes these records can also be invaluable AFTER an investigation. During a particular investigation in Lumpkin, GA we met a 6 year old little girl named Sarah and through EVP gathered some information. This child was not written up in any of the family histories and she was not included in any of the family trees. Going by the information we received, I searched census records for the area at the time she indicated she passed, and I found her. The local historical commission was thrilled to be able to add this documented information to their files, and impressed that what the little girl had said in EVP was born out when no one had NO clue she ever existed. It certainly increased their belief in the activity in the home as they were there to witness us receiving the information.
One of my favorite records is something called a Bastardy Bond. These were caused for many a “mysterious disappearance” or outright killing. These bonds were intended to protect the county or other local authority from the cost of raising the child. When the pregnancy of an unmarried woman was brought to the attention of the court, a warrant was issued. She was questioned under oath and asked to name the father of the child. If she named a man, he was served with a warrant and required to post bond. If she refused to name the father, she or her father could post the bond, or else she was arrested and sent to jail. This kind of stuff is fodder for many local towns’ urban legends about the deaths of people, and the very thing ghost stories are made of.
I’m sure I do not have to explain how knowing how (and where) someone truly died can be beneficial to your investigation, but keep in mind the other information you can get from these records can be useful as well.
Sometimes I like to think of investigation as time travel. If you think about that for a minute, it makes sense. You, yourself, are not actually going anywhere, but you are attempting to communicate with someone from another time. A lot of words and phrases we use now would not be understood even 20 years ago, much less 150, 200, or 300 years in the past. Did you know that “way back when” people were classified by different words according to their age? They used designations like baby, little boy/girl, young man/lady, adult man/woman-the word teenager would not be understood and this is an important thing to keep in mind when attempting to communicate and establish the age of the energy.
Diseases were known by different names according to the time and place. I did an investigation once where we were told by EVP that the person had died from “spots.” If I did not have the knowledge of alternate terminology, I would not have immediately known that she meant the measles. Do you know that consumption was another term used for someone who had tuberculosis, Grippe was the word for influenza (flu), and Cramp Colic was the term for appendicitis? If you wanted to ask if a person had suffered a stroke, would you use the word “stroke” or would you use “apoplexy”? That would depend on when the person lived. If you are questioning a female who died after giving birth, would you ask if she died from septicemia or child bed fever? Using the right words will help to get you better responses that you can understand. This is a good source for locating the kinds of medical terms you should know: http://www.cyndislist.com/medical/diseases.
What would you say if you wanted to ask permission to take energy’s picture? That would depend on when they lived. You might ask if you could take a snapshot, a photograph, a daguerreotype, or capture a likeness of their image, you most likely would not ask them to sit and take a “selfie” with you.
It is also good to remember the lesson we learned on researching the town history and land deeds. If we go back to the example I used of the Winder, GA investigation, I would not ask any energy that died before 1894 anything about “Winder”, I would refer to it as Snodon, The Jug, or Jug Tavern because “Winder” would not mean anything to them.
The more you now about how to communicate with a spirit, the better results you are going to have. It is knowledge that is good to have in the back of your mind because sometimes you never know what era you will be visiting when you chat with the energy interested in communicating with you.
We have gone over several different things you can research before even turning on the first piece of equipment. Hopefully you have learned some new ideas to incorporate into your research. Even if you are one of those groups that does their research post investigation, all the information and resources I have given you this will work for that as well. Having this knowledge can help you do a more thorough investigation and just might give you interesting things to include in your report to the client. When we do our reveal, I always include a copy of all the research I did with the case report. It makes you look more professional, and it lets them know you actually care about their case.
Can you do this for every investigation you go on? You might not be able to find all the different kinds of resources for a location, but everyone can know the correct phrases to use, the right and respectful way to interact with what you encounter and the history of the era they lived.
Put yourself in their shoes, would you be more inclined to talk with someone who addressed you the proper way, seemed to care about their plight, and might even know your parents or your spouse/children’s name, or with someone that just showed up and said, “Yo dude, so how did you croak?”
Paranormal Investigation is about gathering information/data respectfully, and thorough pre-investigation research is a great way to show that you respect not only the client but the energy and what they may have endured as well.