Rest­less spirit

Ju­lia Staab’s rest­less spirit lives on at La Posada

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Jen­nifer Levin I The New Mex­i­can

Some say Ju­lia Staab is present still — 119 years af­ter her death — in her house on East Palace Av­enue. As she al­ways did when she was alive, she must en­sure that ev­ery­thing is in or­der for her guests — the peo­ple who are stay­ing at La Posada. Hannah Nord­haus un­cov­ers her great-great-grand­mother’s lin­ger­ing le­gacy in Amer­i­can Ghost: The True Story of a Fam­ily’s Haunted Past. A book sign­ing and re­cep­tion take place at the ho­tel on Fri­day, March 13. On the cover is a col­lage with an im­age of Ju­lia as a young bride; photo cour­tesy HarperCollins.

When Hannah Nord­haus was a teenager, she would tell her friends about her great­great-grand­mother Ju­lia Staab, a pi­o­neer of the West­ern fron­tier, whose ghost was of­ten spot­ted in the ho­tel that used to be her man­sion in Santa Fe. “I thought it was an ex­cit­ing story, but I never be­lieved in her ghost,” Nord­haus told Pasatiempo .

Staab, who died in 1896, be­gan ap­pear­ing on La Posada’s stair­case and in her sec­ond-floor suite in the 1970s. Guests and staff spot­ted her or heard her speak. The dark ru­mors that arose around her, how­ever, didn’t have much in com­mon with what was known in the fam­ily. As far as the younger gen­er­a­tions un­der­stood, Staab was a Ger­man-Jewish im­mi­grant who be­came a mem­ber of high so­ci­ety, and her hus­band, Abra­ham Staab, was a pow­er­ful and gen­er­ous busi­ness­man. To­gether they raised a large fam­ily. But lo­cal Santa Fe ex­pla­na­tions for Ju­lia’s rest­less spirit paint Abra­ham as a mon­ster who kept his wife chained to a ra­di­a­tor be­cause she went crazy af­ter the death of her baby. Some spec­u­late that she com­mit­ted sui­cide — pos­si­bly with an over­dose of lau­danum — or even that Abra­ham mur­dered her.

Nord­haus grew up in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and spent sum­mers in New Mex­ico, where much of her ex­tended fam­ily still lived. Af­ter col­lege she worked as a ski in­struc­tor in Taos be­fore even­tu­ally set­tling in Boul­der. She is the au­thor of the best­selling novel The Bee­keeper’s Lament . A few years ago, while vis­it­ing her fam­ily’s home near Las Ve­gas, New Mex­ico, she came across a his­tory writ­ten in 1980 by her great-aunt Lizzie. “It was this crazy story about my fam­ily that was a lot more com­plex than I’d been led to think,” she said. “It’s a story of sad­ness, mad­ness, and for­bid­den love, drug ad­di­tion, sui­cide, knives to the bo­som, dis­in­her­i­tance, law­suits, and fam­ily feuds.”

It was clear that some of the ru­mors about Ju­lia had a core of truth, but a real per­son was be­ing used as fod­der for ghost tours and tele­vi­sion shows like

Un­solved Mys­ter­ies . “Ju­lia was an ac­tual woman who had crossed the Santa Fe Trail. She’d been a mother, like me. She was more than an anec­dote.” Nord­haus spent the next few years search­ing ar­chives, news­pa­pers, public records, oral his­to­ries, and other sources as well as con­duct­ing in­ter­views with dis­tant rel­a­tives around the coun­try and in Europe to find out as much as she could about her an­ces­tor. The re­sult­ing book, Amer­i­can Ghost: The True Story of a Fam­ily’s Haunted Past (pub­lished by Harper Collins), is cel­e­brated with a read­ing, sign­ing, and re­cep­tion at La Posada on Fri­day, March 13.

Amer­i­can Ghost is more than a bi­og­ra­phy of Ju­lia. It’s a chron­i­cle of Ger­man-Jewish im­mi­gra­tion to the Amer­i­can South­west, a reckoning of fam­ily se­crets, and an ac­count of the au­thor’s per­sonal ghost hunt. Ju­lia (née Schus­ter) was born in 1844 in the Ger­man vil­lage of Lügde, one of a dozen chil­dren. Abra­ham, also from Lügde, was five years older. When he was fif­teen, he set off for Amer­ica to join his brother, Zadoc, and work for their cousins, the Spiegel­bergs, who had been the first Ashke­nazi Jewish set­tlers in Santa Fe. In 1859, Abra­ham and Zadoc opened a dry goods store

on the Plaza, and in 1865 Abra­ham re­turned to Lügde, mar­ried Ju­lia on Christ­mas Day, and brought her back with him to a small home in Burro Al­ley, where they started their fam­ily.

Ju­lia was sad and of­ten sick. Sev­eral times she trav­eled to Ger­many in search of a spa cure. On her fi­nal trip, five years be­fore her death, she was ac­com­pa­nied by two of her daugh­ters, Delia and Bertha. Bertha, Nord­haus’ great-grand­mother, kept a di­ary, which Nord­haus read as she and her own mother vis­ited Ger­many to learn more about Ju­lia’s life. In­cluded in the book is what she found out about Ju­lia’s sis­ter, Em­i­lie, who stayed in Ger­many. “I got the sense that Ju­lia al­ways felt re­ally yanked out of Europe and taken to this very rustic, rude place, not nearly as cul­tured as what she was ac­cus­tomed to,” Nord­haus said. “In many ways, Em­i­lie’s life was the al­ter­nate life that Ju­lia could have lived, with ev­ery­thing she wanted, but it ended so hor­ri­bly.” Em­i­lie had a lov­ing fam­ily and lived to age eighty-one. She died in the There­sien­stadt con­cen­tra­tion camp near Prague. No Jews in Lügde sur­vived World War II. “I didn’t know, when I started, how con­nected I’d wind up feel­ing to the Euro­pean his­tory of my fam­ily. Ju­lia and Abra­ham and my great­grand­mother Bertha were much more con­nected to their roots in Ger­many that I had ever re­al­ized.”

One per­son with whom Ju­lia did form a friend­ship in Santa Fe was a busi­ness as­so­ciate of her hus­band’s — Arch­bishop Jean Bap­tiste Lamy. The man­sion Abra­ham built for Ju­lia in 1882 was just down the street from the site of the Cathe­dral of St. Fran­cis of As­sisi, which Abra­ham had a hand in fund­ing. Ju­lia and the arch­bishop took walks to­gether; he helped her plant the apri­cot trees on her prop­erty. Nord­haus notes that in Lamy of Santa Fe , a bi­og­ra­phy of the arch­bishop, au­thor Paul Hor­gan de­votes a chap­ter to an un­named Ger­man woman whom Lamy held in high es­teem. From this thin ev­i­dence, Nord­haus’ grand­mother Ginny liked to spec­u­late that Ju­lia had an af­fair with the Catholic leader, and that, based on the tim­ing of their friend­ship, this li­ai­son pro­duced Nord­haus’ great-grand­mother Bertha. Nord­haus con­ducted DNA testing of her eth­nic mark­ers to dis­prove Ginny’s the­ory. Un­for­tu­nately, the re­sults re­vealed she has fewer Jewish mark­ers than she pre­sumed, and more French — a her­itage shared by the arch­bishop.

“If I’d been able to test his DNA, too, I might have more con­clu­sive an­swers. And though the DNA tests didn’t rule him out, I re­ally don’t think the arch­bishop is my great-great-grand­fa­ther,” Nord­haus said. A cousin tried to get her to sneak into Bishop’s Lodge Re­sort and Spa to swab the cloak that is kept there, which is sup­posed to have be­longed to Lamy, but she hasn’t taken that step. Fur­ther re­search led her to be­lieve that the Ger­man bride Hor­gan wrote about was ac­tu­ally Flora Spiegel­berg, an­other Jewish im­mi­grant in Santa Fe who was mar­ried to Abra­ham’s cousin Willi.

Though it’s prob­a­ble that Abra­ham was strict and au­thor­i­tar­ian, Nord­haus found no ev­i­dence to sug­gest that he was abu­sive in ways starkly dif­fer­ent from other men of his time. He was em­broiled in nu­mer­ous law­suits, and he was in­volved in some shady real-es­tate deals with the town power­bro­kers, known as the Santa Fe Ring. The his­tory of de­pres­sion in the fam­ily also came to light. “My grand­fa­ther was the most cheer­ful guy you’d ever meet, and it doesn’t seem like his mother, Bertha, was de­pressed ei­ther,” Nord­haus said. “But it does seem like so many other mem­bers of the fam­ily re­ally were so trou­bled. The boys were cer­tainly more af­fected than the girls.”

Through­out Amer­i­can Ghost , Nord­haus tells of vis­its to medi­ums and psy­chics who con­tact Ju­lia for her. A skep­tic by na­ture, she orig­i­nally planned for th­ese pas­sages to serve as comic re­lief. “But once I got to know them and see how se­ri­ously they take what they do — you just can’t sit in a room with some­one for an hour who earnestly be­lieves they’re talk­ing to your dead great-great-grand­mother and not en­gage in some way. The only way to be re­spect­ful is to par­tic­i­pate, and I did get swept up a few times.” In the end, she spent the night in Ju­lia’s suite at La Posada . Like the DNA test, the re­sults were in­con­clu­sive. Nord­haus would like to be­lieve in the leg­end, and she doesn’t deny that other peo­ple have had en­coun­ters with spir­its at La Posada, but she doesn’t think she’ll ever see any ev­i­dence that will con­vince her be­yond a shadow of a doubt that Ju­lia is a ghost. And though she has fin­ished ghost hunt­ing, she is still in­ter­ested in find­ing out more sto­ries about her fam­ily, which she is sure ex­ist in di­aries and let­ters, tucked away in at­tics and base­ments.

Re­gard­less of per­sonal be­lief, the staff at La Posada isn’t tak­ing any chances. The book-launch party co­in­cides with a re­fur­bish­ment of the Staab man­sion. Be­fore the work started, a staff mem­ber who has “a re­la­tion­ship” with Ju­lia spoke with her and got her bless­ing on the plans. (Ap­par­ently, pre­vi­ous ren­o­va­tions have up­set her.) The up­stairs rooms are get­ting new fix­tures, fur­ni­ture, and wall cov­er­ings; the bar has a new top; and all the floors have been re­fin­ished. Decades’ worth of wax and black grime were stripped away to re­veal orig­i­nal par­quet wood floor­ing with ex­quis­ite mar­quetry de­tails — a rare level of de­sign and crafts­man­ship. One ex­pla­na­tion for the rest­less­ness of Ju­lia’s ghost is that she is per­pet­u­ally wor­ried about en­ter­tain­ing and the way her home looks to guests. If that is true — and there’s no rea­son to sus­pect it’s not — then she should be very pleased.

The Staab plot, Fairview Ceme­tery, Santa Fe

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