I recently spent a few hours exploring the house and surrounding grounds known as the Haldeman Mansion. I’ve heard about the place several times while attending paranormal conferences and also from friends (from the community) that have visited the mansion. Although I knew of it, it wasn’t on my ‘radar’ to look into. That changed a few weeks ago when a bulk email was sent out from Haldeman Mansion to paranormal groups. The Anomalies Research Society was on the list.
The email was an invitation for paranormal groups to schedule investigations of the mansion. Here are the contents of the email; “We are a Non-Profit historic site offering paranormal investigations as a fundraiser. The Haldeman Mansion sits on over 2 acres of Native American grounds overlooking the Susquehanna River. Home to burials, disembodied voices, footsteps, and shadows of the many spirits left behind. We offer low prices with low minimum requirements … but lots of privacy and great opportunities to experience the haunts. Visit our website or contact XXXX for more information.”
Sharon had responded to the email, expressing her extreme displeasure that this location was being used as a venue for pseudoscience, given the history of Samuel Stehman Haldeman (1812 – 1880) who was born and raised within the mansion. Since he is the main focus of the historical information associated with the mansion, his work in science stands out. Sharon is a scientist and works hard to promote science education to the public. She easily relates to Mr. Haldeman, who had dedicated the majority of his life to the advancement of science.
Although I was reading the email exchanges, I was still occupied with other projects. While driving to North Carolina on a business trip, I was listening to some podcasts to pass the eight hours in the car. Sharon’s podcast, 15 Credibility Street, was among them. At the end of the show, she talked about the Haldeman Mansion and her concerns. She also gave a more detailed background on Samuel Haldeman, which I was not aware of. Sharon had, unknowingly, sufficiently distracted me. I now wanted to know more about Samuel, the mansion, and the alleged paranormal claims.
First, let’s take a look at Samuel – “At the age of twenty-three, Samuel contributed to the Lancaster Journal an article refuting Locke’s “Moon Hoax”. From then on, his life was devoted to science. For forty-five years he spent most of the time in his library, many times working sixteen hours a day. In 1836, Professor Haldeman became an assistant on the State geological survey of New Jersey, and was later transferred to a similar position in Pennsylvania. During extensive geological work, he discovered a new genus and species of fossil plant. Geology did not engross his whole attention, as he was now busy collecting and studying shells, and made substantial contributions in this field through an expertly illustrated massive work of copperplate engravings, drawn and colored from the original shells and living animals. One professional association of Samuel Haldeman during this period of 1840 to 1850 is particularly significant for his scientific development as well as for the development of American science. In 1844 he became a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fledgling organization just beginning to function. At the request of this organization, he prepared a paper entitled “Enumeration of the Recent Freshwater Mollusk Which are Common to North America and Europe, with Observations on Species and their Distribution”. Fifteen years later, an obscure British scientist had the following to say about this paper, “In 1843-44 Professor Haldeman (Boston Journal of Natural History, United States, Vol. IV, pg. 468) has ably given the arguments for and against the hypothesis of the development and modification of species: he seems to lean towards the side of change.” This scientist was Charles Darwin and he was writing in the preface to his Origin of Species, one of the most influential and controversial science books ever published. Samuel was said to have been the only American Naturalist with whom Charles-Darwin corresponded, and whose opinion Darwin regarded as authoritative. “Samuel continued to write important and prize-winning essays and articles in philology, phonography, ethnology, and natural history.”
All photos above by Kenneth Biddle. Click on photo to expand.
After learning more about Haldeman, I completely understand Sharon’s concern, and I also agree with her. The history of the house is grounded in science, higher education, and critical thinking – but now it seemed that it was becoming another “haunted house” for paranormal groups to promote pseudoscientific nonsense. To be fair, the paranormal events are not the only source of income for the mansion, which operates solely on donations and memberships. Throughout the year they offer other fundraising events, such as an annual Strawberry Festival, Victorian Tea, a Geology & Archaeology tour, and Apple Fall Festival, and Open House events every weekend.
What I needed to do was visit the mansion myself. Whenever it’s possible, I make it a point to not only visit the location of interest but also to talk with the people involved. I contacted Lora at the mansion and made a private appointment. My family piled into our SUV and we headed over for the day. When I arrived, I was able to explore the grounds for about ten minutes. The mansion sits atop a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River. The stone house has a “T” shape design, with the top section facing the river. The only date stone on the house is stamped with 1811, but additional research puts the oldest section in the mid-18th century. A closer look at some of the windows makes one scratch their heads – several aren’t nearly as square as they should be – but, it’s as though the builders took these strange curves and angles into account. The framing is built that way and doesn’t appear to be due to wearing or shifting on the structure.
Lora arrived, greeted us in a most friendly manner, and opened up the mansion for us. Once inside, the needed repairs are obvious; holes in the ceilings and walls, loose floorboards, uneven floors, and so on. Despite the damage, one can see the potential of the mansion. I could easily imagine how beautiful the place must have been in its prime. We were given free reign, allowed to go up to the attic (which is usually off limits), down in the basement, and everywhere in between.
I spoke with Lora about the Haldeman Mansion Preservation Society (HMPS), paranormal groups, ghosts, and the concerns that Sharon brought up. What stood out the most was the genuine concern Lora had about the reputation of the mansion. She, as well as the board, wanted the mansion to be known for its historical significance, for the work that Samuel Haldeman did and not as another “haunted house”. Lora explained that the paranormal program was low-key, and not promoted above the historical nature of the mansion. On this topic, I brought up my own research; pointing out that a simple Google search revealed a lot of paranormal related websites and videos (I showed her a search on my phone). Lora was visibly concerned about this.
Paranormal events are a money-maker for many historical sites, this is no secret. Many historical locations usually don’t receive adequate funding through other programs they run. Extensive repairs for these locations are extremely expensive and strict – there are specific guidelines that must be adhered to. If Federal monies are attached to the property then any changes to the property have to allow the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to comment on the project. I can understand the choices of many historical locations that go down this path. I may not like it or agree with it, but I understand why. These locations need money in order to keep going, and the unfortunate truth is a majority of paranormal groups love to pay-to-play at a location that has even the slightest rumor of being haunted.
The repercussions of going down this path are that the location loses its significance as a historical site, and quickly gains the reputation as (another) haunted house. Paranormal groups, who commonly use poor investigation methods and lack the skills to properly interpret data, spread reports of their spooky experiences by way of websites and social media. They post video clips of “evidence”, photos of reflections and long exposures, audio recordings of scratches, people talking, and broken radios – and promote it all as proof of paranormal activity. From my perspective, it was already known as a “haunted house” before a historical birthplace of a man of science since I had heard about it through paranormal contacts.
On that note, let’s take a look at the evidence being presented. Haldeman Mansion has two separate websites, a metaphorical “two sides of a coin”. The first focuses on the history of the land, the house, and Samuel Haldeman. On the opposite side of the coin is the paranormal website that displays photos, videos, and EVPs of alleged paranormal evidence caught at the mansion. Let’s have a look at some of these.
There are three photographs posted that allegedly show ghostly forms.
One shows the separate kitchen building with a shadow on the wall.
The shadow looks like the upper torso of a person. This image was taken without a flash and demonstrates signs of a long exposure. The “shadow” is most likely the shadow of the person that took the picture…while they were standing in front of the illuminated window of the mansion – which is the only the top part of the figure can be seen. Long exposures at night will develop subtle differences in light that aren’t normally seen.
The second image was taken by the Chesterfield Paranormal Research group and shows two “full spectrum” images taken seconds apart.
These images also show signs of long exposures; fuzziness of edges that should be sharp, high amount of noise, and no flash. The “figure” suffers from motion blur, which occurs when an object is moving faster than the shutter speed of the camera. “Full spectrums” cameras are notorious for long exposures, and they’re not actually ‘full spectrum’ – they are modified so the sensor doesn’t filter out the extended range of IR and UV it is sensitive to. The figure also appears to be holding a camera themselves, leading one to a more plausible conclusion that this is most likely another member of their group.
The last image was taken by Lily Elkins of Hope Paranormal and purports to show an “anomalous 8ft tall smiling figure in window”.
Because the image was taken outside during the day, the glass is reflecting the scene outside and to the right of the photographer which is the detached kitchen and smoke house. The lighting is also at a level where elements of the room can be seen, mixed with the reflection of the outside. In addition, the glass is the old wavy type which distorts the reflected images, as well as the light that passes through (seeing into the room). This alleged ‘smiling figure’ can easily be the combination of the scene outside, features inside the room, and both distorted by the type of glass of that window pane. This image falls under pareidolia, a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct.
The video section of the website features sixteen videos, two of which are promotional videos from the mansion itself. One focuses on the history, the other focuses on the paranormal investigations – particularly EVP recordings. In this video, nineteen EVP recordings are presented from various paranormal groups. They are presented in the standard para-TV fashion; each is repeated three times, accompanied by text on the second and third plays telling you what they believe is being said. This is known as “priming” – an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus (i.e., perceptual pattern) influences the response to another stimulus. In this instance, exposure to the text is influencing what you hear in the recording. What bothers me the most about this promotional video is the opening line:
“Did you know that the Haldeman Mansion is purported to be one of Pennsylvania’s most haunted landmarks”.
This is an extraordinary claim with no valid evidence to support it. In addition, it doesn’t come close to the dozens of other Pennsylvania locations that also make this claim, in terms of claims (none of which are testable), alleged evidence, and ghost stories.
There are several issues with this video; first, there’s the priming mentioned above. When you cover up the screen to block the text (so you don’t know what you’re supposed to hear) the alleged responses become nonsensical noise. My wife was able to guess two of them (out of 19), while I had the text on the screen covered up. (She refused to entertain the ‘ghost box’ EVPs, because they’re from a broken radio.) Considering that we had the benefit of context – hearing the question asked – this creates an expectation and plays a part in helping us figure out what the answer (random noise) should be. Another issue with the majority of EVP clips featured is that the alleged EVPs seemed to have been taken from a different audio source other than the video being viewed. To clarify, when you watch the video clips, a very short clip of the alleged EVP is inserted onto the video. This is most likely from the audio recorders that can be seen in the various scenes. The issue; it’s combining two different audio clips – the video and audio recording – into one. If this is the case, then this is a manipulation of the data and consequently invalidates it (ya know, besides the lack of proper controls). We can’t even be sure the timeframes of the two recordings match up. This is not a proper way to present evidence.
SoulSearches.TV filmed an episode of their video series at the mansion. To their credit, they devote three to four minutes (of the 28+ minute video) to the history of the land, Native American villages, and Samuel Haldeman.
Unfortunately, most of the video is showcasing alleged evidence from different teams, including their own. They presented EVPs that fell into the same issues as most – audio pareidolia from nonsensical noise. Their determination of what was allegedly said in the recordings was a stretch, to say the least. A video clip showing a ‘360 parascope’ illuminating just as a door is slammed shut is presented as something unusual. This device is a static electricity switch with pretty lights marketed towards ghost hunters. It is not a scientific tool. This is most likely due to the vibration of a slamming door, not a ghost. Sadly, they don’t attempt to replicate the event on a video. Another clip shows a dim light anomaly move on the side of the scene. The anomaly is not investigated any further on the video (most likely noticed some time later) or followed up. I’ve seen this type of anomaly before, actually spending a few hours investigating it at another historic location. It happens when someone is moving around with an infrared or ultraviolet lights source (person walks by holding the light) and passes by a doorway, window, or even framework. The light seems to “move” as the source passes the opening and is blocked by either side of the door/window frame.
Three videos focus on the use of an Xbox Kinect for their alleged evidence. For many ghost hunters, these seem to be proof of spirits. To those who take the time to learn how the device actually operates, we see the anomalies as a product of operator error – the operating fails to follow the simple protocols set forth by the manufacturer (clear space of obstacles, be sure the device is stationary, etc. These anomalies are not ghosts, they are glitches because the ghost hunters have ignored the instructions and fail to use logic in their interpretation of the data. Instead, they assume the anomalies are ghosts and apply human traits to the randomized and often distorted stick figures that appear due to the software making guesses.
All in all, there is simply no valid evidence to support the claim that the mansion is “one of Pennsylvania’s most haunted landmarks”. The claims rest on anecdotes, subjective validation, confirmation bias, and huge lack of necessary knowledge and critical thinking when it comes to analyzing the data. It is the poor methodology, misinterpretations, and ignorance of paranormal groups that are a major contributor to the mansion’s growing (alleged) paranormal reputation.
When it comes to a historical landmark that owes its history to science, it is a shame that it is becoming a hotspot for promoters of pseudoscience. However, I do not own the mansion, nor am I on the board. I have no say in how they raise the funds to repair and restore the mansion. With little government funding to go around, landmarks such as this must look to alternative ways to bring in money. Paranormal enthusiasts are a cash-cow, full of people that are willing to pay for a few hours of subjectively validating their well-established beliefs (I have yet to see or hear of an actual scientifically-based investigation of the mansion). And again, Haldeman Mansion does hold many non-paranormal events to raise funds.
When speaking to Lora, I had no reason to doubt that I was talking to a woman who was passionate about the history, and showed genuine concern both from Sharon Hill’s emails and me explaining (and showing) how the paranormal aspect was far outweighing the historical importance of the property. It physically affected her (worry, uneasiness, anxiety, and some sadness was noticeable). She truly loves the house and history, and unfortunately, must go outside the box to raise funds to keep it going. I get that. Even though I don’t like it, I do understand it. And again, I have no impact on the decision. Many other locations have followed this path — Fort Mifflin on the Delaware, The Sun Inn, Selma Mansion, Bolton Mansion, White Hill Mansion, the Powel House, the Physick House, and many more (these are just in my local area).
I did donate to the mansion, enough to become a member of the Preservation Society. I’ll be following the progress of the restoration, festivals, and non-paranormal programs as they develop. Lora mentioned an educational program involving school field trips to the mansion (I just hope the paranormal brochures are removed for them), which would be a great experience for young children to learn about science. I’ll also be following the paranormal stuff, in the hopes of injecting some critical thinking into the mix. It won’t stop the majority of pseudoscientific ‘evidence’ being promoted, but I may be able to help cut down on some of it.
I’d also like to extend my gratitude to Lora for meeting with me and allowing me to explore the mansion. I appreciate the information and discussion we had. I look forward to seeing her, and the mansion, again.