Living in Italy as I do, when I think about a ghost town, my mind immediately goes to Pompeii. That must be a place with ghosts aplenty: in August (or possibly November) AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the thriving city of Pompeii (and nearby Herculaneum), killing its inhabitants and burying everything under tons of ash. It is estimated that anywhere between 10 000 and 25 000 residents ( or it could have been only 2 000; there’s a lot of controversy on such details) of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were killed on the spot. The towns were completely lost to the mists of time until Pompeii was unearthed by mistake in 1599 by workmen digging an underground channel to divert the river Sarno. As the story goes, the sexual nature of the paintings and frescoes observed among the ruins led Domenico Fontana, the architect called in to assess the site, to cover them up and go away. Whatever.
At any rate, proper excavations of the two towns only started about 150 years later. During digs in the mid-19th Century, archeologists hit on the idea of injecting plaster into the spaces in the ash layers left by the decomposing bodies, which allowed the recreation of the volcano’s victims. The plaster casts are truly eerie; they include families caught trying to outrun the ash and the mudslides or who are resigned to their own deaths, with their heads in their hands. Some seem to be still protecting their babies.
I feel particularly bad for the dog. Does that make me a terrible person?
So yeah, there be ghosts there. Earlier this year, a team of experts at the Pompeii site started to conduct CAT scans on 86 of the plaster casts to try to discover more about the victim’s lives. You can read what the Upstairs Vegetarian has to say about it here.
Then there is Ostia Antica. During its heyday in ancient Roman times of yore, this was a densely populated port city, with a bustling market and forum, restaurants and bars and high-rise apartment buildings. At its height, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the population of Ostia reached a peak of about 100 000. The town was abandoned in the 9th century due to multiple invasions and sackings. Abandoned in the sense that people no longer lived there. But, as always, the carpetbaggers were very much in evidence: for centuries, the Ostia Antican buildings were stripped, their marble facades used in Roman palazzi and various cathedrals around Italy. After that, foreign visitors came searching for statues and inscriptions to grace their private collections. And then Mussolini got into the act and it was a whole thing, yada yada. I’ve gotten sidetracked. What I wanted to say is that Ostia Antica is a ghost town too, although less spooky than Pompeii, having been gently abandoned over a period of centuries (the sackings notwithstanding) as opposed to being destroyed virtually overnight by a volcano.
Visiting Ostia Antica
Which brings us to Bodie, California, a state historic park that I visited on my trip to the US last September. Bodie is 75 miles SE of Tahoe and is actually billed as a ghost town, which to my disappointment only means that it has been abandoned but contains substantial visible remains. There don’t have to be ghosts in a ghost town (although there may actually be ghosts in Bodie but more on that later).
So here’s the story. In 1859, four prospectors found a rich vein of gold in the eastern Sierras. They agreed to keep the discovery secret until the following spring, but W.S. Bodey returned ahead of time with “Black” Taylor (so called because he was half-Cherokee). Bodey froze to death in a blizzard when he was returning with supplies in November. No word on what happened to Taylor but I hope he got some gold out of that mess.
The gold rush in Bodie (named after W.S. but supposedly misspelled on the signpost) started slowly due to other big strikes in e.g. Aurora, Nevada (where Mark Twain was trying his luck). In 1876, a freak cave-in exposed a valuable body of gold and the Standard Consolidated Mining Company rushed in with equipment and lumber. Another rich strike followed in 1878 in the Bodie Mine, which, in just six weeks, shipped gold bullion worth a million dollars. Over the next 25 years, almost 10 000 tons of rich ore was extracted from the mine, yielding close to $15 million.
A rich man’s home
What’s left of Bodie, CA.
The boom she was on. Bodie grew rapidly, complete with boarding houses, restaurants and more than 60 saloons, brothels and dance halls (pretty impressive for a town of 8 200). Bodie had a bank, four volunteer fire companies (not nearly enough, as we shall see), a brass band (!), railroad, miners’ and mechanics’ unions, several daily newspapers and a jail. There was a Chinatown too, built to house contract labourers from Southern China. Murders, shootouts, barroom brawls, and stagecoach holdups were the norm and contributed to the legend of ‘the Bad Man of Bodie.’ I can’t find out anything about this legend except that it existed and that some little girl, on being told she was moving to Bodie, reportedly prayed: “Goodbye God! We are going to Bodie.” The Reverend F.M. Warrington described the town in 1881 as “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.” These quotes and anecdotes show up again and again in tales of Brodie, BTW, and seem to have originated with one Grant H. Smith, who wrote an article for the California Historical Society Quarterly in 1925.
The view across to the mines
Also? There was Madame Mustache. Bodie’s most celebrated personality, Madame Mustache started out as Eleanor Dumont, a pretty 20-year old Frenchwoman who established large gambling parlours in the mining camps. Extremely popular, Eleanor did quite well until she married a worthless miner who squandered her earnings and left her in the lurch. She moved around from city to city, gambling and building up her money again, including by managing a brothel. According to her obituary in the Esmeralda Herald, “Of late, what was years ago only an infantile fuzz on her upper lip, had developed into a growth of unusual proportions for a woman; hence her sobriquet—Madame Mustache.” One night while gambling in Bodie, she misjudged a play and found herself owing a lot of money. Later, she wandered outside of town and was found dead on September 8, 1879 of an overdose of morphine.
The boom wasn’t all lust and passion of course. There were savage winters, disease and mining accidents that claimed victims by falling timber, the explosion of a powder magazine, and other means. By 1881, Bodie had already begun its slow decline. The mines were depleted and mining companies went bankrupt as the miners and business owners went off in search of better opportunities. A disastrous fire struck in 1892 and destroyed a number of homes and businesses. Bodie had a brief uptick in the early 20th century when the use of cyanide to extract gold from mine refuse and electricity as a cheap source of mining power brought short-lived profits to the town. In 1932, another devastating fire, caused by a 2 ½ year old boy playing with matches, destroyed 95% of Bodie’s buildings and that was pretty much it. At that point, only six people were left in the town, five of whom would meet ignominious ends. One of the men shot his wife and, after she died, three men killed him. One can only imagine what that was all about. According to legend, the ghost of the murdered man visited the three men, shaking his fist. Soon, all three died of strange diseases. No word on what happened to the sixth person, who must have been mighty freaked out.
The last producing mine — the Lucky Boy — shut down after World War II. People left and, because there were no moving companies in the area, they only took what they could carry. The result is that many buildings are still full of the belongings that were left behind.
The things they left behind
Today, Bodie is preserved in a state of what historic park people call arrested decay. Only a small part of the town survives. Interiors remain as they were left, stocked with goods. I mentioned ghosts. According to legend, the ghosts of Bodie patrol the town to guard against thieves: anyone who takes anything from Bodie is cursed. You can read letters from repentant thieves in the little museum. One thief who took a nail from Bodie wrote, “Life since then has been a steady downward slide. It’s possible that all the unpleasant events of the past nine months are a coincidence, but just in case the Bodie curse is real I am returning the nail.”
By the way, I learned a new word while researching this story: ‘friggatriskaidekaphobiologist,’ which is a person who studies the fear of Friday the 13th. Thought you’d want to know.