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Landmarks Haunted by Debt Consult the Spirit World ... - The Mount

Landmarks Haunted by Debt Consult the Spirit World for Help - WSJ.com

5/5/11 9:02 AM

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THE A-HED MAY 5, 2011

Landmarks Haunted by Debt Consult the Spirit World for

Help

Ghost Tours Scare Up Cash to Keep Homes of Literary Lions Wharton and Twain Alive

By LUCETTE LAGNADO

LENOX, Mass.—Twelve-year-old Hannah Emerson Clapp came to the Mount, a mansion surrounded by

nearly 50 acres of woods and manicured gardens, to see where novelist Edith Wharton wrote "Ethan

Frome" and "The House of Mirth" and entertained Henry James.

Courtesy of The Mount

A postcard from around 1902 showing the Mount.

The experience left her looking as if she'd seen a ghost

—which was exactly what tour guide Anne Schuyler

intended. Ms. Schuyler, attired in a long, dark hooded

cloak, leads ghost tours, complete with spooky stories of

hauntings, apparitions and shrieks in the night. There's

even a nocturnal stop at the pet cemetery where Ms.

Wharton's dogs Jules and Mimi are buried.

"Some people hear the sound of barking dogs," Ms.

Schuyler says.

During the tour, a cleaning woman materialized to talk

about seeing mysterious shadows, hearing screams and,

one night, fleeing in terror. Hannah seemed shaken. She smelled mysterious cigar smoke, she says,

glimpsed the figure of "a man or a woman" crouching at a window. She thinks she may have seen Edith

Wharton herself. The girl's mother, Susan Emerson Clapp, says "Hannah is very sensitive and artistic."

The Mount's dabbling in the supernatural is one way to cope with an all-too-real financial crisis looming

over the estate. At $20 a ticket, ghost tours are a money-maker and have drawn more visitors to the

grounds.

The past few years have been tough on cultural and historical institutions such as the Mount. In the

recession, big donors grew scarce, and visitor counts declined. The market for ghosts and the

supernatural, on the other hand, has boomed, thanks in part to a crop of reality television shows,

including "Ghost Hunters" and "Paranormal State," on supernatural phenomena. So the conservators of

several august literary homesteads and venerable historical sites have jumped on the bandwagon.

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The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn.,

where Samuel Clemens lived when he wrote "Tom

Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn," was mired in debt and

on the verge of closing three years ago. These days, the

house plays host to "Graveyard Shift" tours that

combine ghostly stories with historical and literary lore.

Price: $18.

"The ghost tours have been a cash cow," says Jeffrey

Nichols, the executive director, who says his Twain

museum currently breaks even, though it still owes $5

million.

The Mount

Edith Wharton in the library at the Mount in 1905.

"I don't think we are being abusive to [Mark Twain's]

legacy at all—so many people come and they get

interested in Twain," says Mr. Nichols. "We can't keep

operating the way we used to. It won't work."

Nearby, the residence of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," offers an "Otherworldly

Tour." Ghost-hunting gear is used—including a K-2 meter to measure electromagnetic fields that some

believe signal paranormal activity.

Historic Fort Mifflin, in Philadelphia, which dates back to the Revolution, was really hurting a few years

ago. Now, the fort offers "Sleep With the Ghosts" where, for $90, visitors spend the night and enjoy a

paranormal experience. The ghost tours provide 20%-25% of the Fort's operating income, says

executive director Elizabeth Beatty.

"At first blush, you would say, do you want to go there? But we have found that paranormal enthusiasts

are also history enthusiasts," she says.

Ms. Wharton, one of America's great authors, captured old New York society foibles in prizewinning

novels such as "The Age of Innocence."

The Mount, built by Ms. Wharton in 1902, was her home during her unhappy marriage to Ted Wharton.

He became mentally ill. She took a lover, and later left and filed for divorce. The house went through

different owners, and was at one time a girls' boarding school. It was restored in the 1990s. Between the

late 1990s and 2007, the Mount raised millions for renovations, but also spent millions on operations

and acquisitions, including a $2.6 million deal to acquire Ms. Wharton's personal library from a British

dealer. "The whole world changed," says Stephanie Copeland, the former executive director.

Those days are gone, but about $5 million in debt from that period is not. Ms. Copeland says she wasn't

in favor of turning the Mount into a venue for weddings and ghost hunters.

"The idea the place was haunted was like a fire that was being fanned…those paranormals came in and I

really wanted to stop that," recalls Ms. Copeland. "I said, no, the house is not haunted."

Under the house's new executive director, Susan Wissler, the velvet ropes have come down. Ms. Wissler

has cut staff, and undertaken a variety of efforts to make the Wharton legacy more approachable, and

more lucrative. Weddings are now welcome. Last year, weddings generated about $75,000, she says.

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Landmarks Haunted by Debt Consult the Spirit World for Help - WSJ.com

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Scholars and schoolchildren are invited to peruse and hold the precious leather-bound books Ms.

Wharton treasured, some of which contain the author's markings, enjoy picnics on the grounds and jazz

on the terrace in the evenings. Visitors can sit on the furniture—mostly elegant reproductions.

"We've unbuttoned a couple of buttons," says Ms. Wissler.

The ghost tours reflect the more populist approach, which Ms. Wissler says is appropriate, given that

Edith Wharton herself had a taste for the macabre, and loved a good ghost story.

The TV show "Ghost Hunters" filmed a segment at the Mount, and snippets are aired at the start of each

tour. Along with spooky stories, Ms. Schuyler weaves in colorful Edith Wharton lore. She walks a fine

line, not exactly endorsing the notion of apparitions but not throwing cold water on them, either.

The ghost tours brought in $12,500 last year. That's not enough to dispel the financial specter haunting

the estate. The Mount faces a May 20 deadline to make two payments totaling $1 million.

Write to Lucette Lagnado at lucette.lagnado@wsj.com

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