Spirits, spooks & scary puppets, just another day at the museum
By Rebecca Huffstutler Norton Special to the Couri
(Editor's note: Norton serves as executive director of the Frontier Times Museum. Prior to her appointment, she worked at the Witte Museum in San Antonio.)
When the night falls and shadows envelope the museum's galleries, the museum director makes her way through the darkened rooms. As she feels the gaze of blank eyeholes fall upon her, she looks up and meets the gaze of the shrunken head of a Jivaro Indian warrior.
His face has long ago become a vacant mask of nothingness, betraying the terror he must have felt before his enemy took his head. She passes by a box that holds a bouquet of flowers lovingly woven by a grieving mother from the hair of her dead daughter.
To be caught in the museum after the last of the day's visitors have gone and the lights are turned out can indeed be chilling.
Museums are often haunted, filled with treasures once loved and cherished by those who have since passed on to the afterlife. Sometimes, the spirits are unable to leave their treasures behind.
Fortunately, I have not had a frightening experience at the Frontier Times Museum. One would think the spirit of the museum's founder, J. Marvin Hunter, would still remain. If he remains, he is a benevolent spirit who looks over us.
In San Antonio, the Witte Museum is known for the many spirits that occupy its halls. Many who have worked there have been touched by supernatural experiences.
For this museum director, I spent many years working at the Witte and have my own tales to tell. The dead were a constant companion looking over my shoulders as I did my work.
There were occasions on quiet afternoons when I would be working at my desk and footsteps would walk up to me. I would turn around expecting to see a colleague, only to see nothing.
To turn back around meant the footsteps would only step closer. Was it out of malice or curiosity? One will never know. For often on those occasions, I would flee my office into the warm sunshine away from the cold empty office where I was never quite alone.
In fact, the museum was so haunted that staff were instructed not to tell new security guards of their ghostly encounters for the guards were the ones that had to be brave and spend the night alone in the museum. Many times a new security guard would not return after the first night at work.
One such guard called his supervisor in the middle of the night and informed him that he was outside the museum and did not plan on going back inside. When the supervisor arrived, the guard told him about sitting at the front desk and hearing the doors to the courtyard rattling. He grabbed his flashlight and went to the doors to investigate. He looked out into the courtyard and saw no one. As he relocked the doors, the doors began rattling again though no one on this side of heaven was there.
Another security guard had the unfortunate experience of answering a phone call from beyond. As the telephone rang, he wondered who could be calling the museum at midnight. He looked at the caller ID and realized that the call was coming from inside the museum even though everyone had gone home - except perhaps those who still call the museum home.
A common question guests would ask the guards, "Who is the old lady dressed in the white gown?" Many believe the Witte Museum founder, Ellen Quillin, still walks the halls in the museum she built.
Mrs. Quillin opened the museum as a young, unmarried schoolteacher. After her marriage, she informed her husband there would be no children - the museum was her child. After her death, it is believed that she still oversees her beloved museum, her only child. It is not uncommon to smell her faint perfume drift by along with a cold chill.
While the spirits of the Witte Museum did not seem malicious, it was a different story when I entered the old Hertzberg Circus Museum on a gray January afternoon. Asked to assess the circus collection after the museum had been closed for two years, I unlocked the doors with trepidation.
As I walked into the lobby, the chilled air struck me like a deathly cold hand. I looked up to the second floor balcony, only to see the deranged faces of clowns smiling down on me. The dread I felt became overwhelming.
The museum staff had quickly left the building, draping display cases with white sheets. Each appeared to flow on its own volition, moving in a gentle breeze that I could not feel. As I removed a sheet from one case, the smirking face of a horrifying clown puppet grinned menacingly at me. I felt as though the puppet followed me with its eyes. For a mad moment, I wondered if he could indeed escape the case to come after me.
I continued to remove the white sheets from the display cases, needing to photograph each display. I felt I was being watched as I went about my duties. I glanced back at the puppet only to meet his dead eyes staring back at me.
Turning back around, I took another photograph and the flash illuminated the glass case. In that instant, I saw the puppet standing just behind me. I reeled around, wondering how it could have escaped.
Was I really seeing what I thought I was seeing? How could it be? My mind was playing tricks. I stoically turned to move on to the next case. As I raised my camera, I suddenly felt something brush the back of my knee. At that moment I knew for certain, the puppet was indeed not in his case.
As I ran out into the cold winter day, I knew that I would never return to the museum alone.