Uneasy Spirits: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery (4 page)

BOOK: Uneasy Spirits: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery
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Yes, Mrs. Fuller, both of my parents,” Miss Pinehurst replied. “My family came to San Francisco overland in ’57, and my mother died just three years later. She had a hard time on the crossing, never really recovered. My father died in 1865. That left my little sister, Sukie, and myself. Sukie was only seven when mother died, so you could say I raised her.”

Even younger than I was when mother died,
Annie thought.
Why have I never even considered going back down to Los Angeles to visit mother’s grave since I’ve been back?
She didn’t know if she could even find her mother’s grave. And then there was her father, dying up in that small Maine town while on business, and John burying him there without her permission. Would it have brought her any peace of mind to see his resting place? Made his death any more real? She realized she just didn’t feel any connection to where their bodies were buried. Yet being able to visit Matthew’s grave today had been comforting.

Miss Pinehurst interrupted her reverie saying, “You mentioned you were visiting a friend. I am sorry if this is a recent loss.”


Why, thank you, yes, very recent. I don’t know if you heard, but one of my clients, well, one of Madam Sibyl’s clients, Mr. Matthew Voss, died this summer. He was a dear friend.”

At her mention of Madam Sibyl, Annie felt rather than saw Miss Pinehurst stiffen. She had explained to her, as she felt she had to do with everyone who chose to live in her boarding house, that the small downstairs parlor was devoted to the business of Madam Sibyl. She had also explained that she, Mrs. John Fuller, was Madam Sibyl, and this was a kind of business alias she used to keep her professional and personal lives separate. She assured her potential boarders that her work was respectable and very discreet. Some of the residents, like the two elderly seamstresses, Minnie and Millie Moffet, really didn’t seem to grasp what she was saying, but also didn’t seem to care. Others, like Mr. Chapman, one of the two clerks who shared the small room at the back of the second floor, seemed to think it was a good joke.

Miss Pinehurst, on the other hand, had made it crystal clear that she found the whole idea distasteful, and that only the strong recommendations from the wealthy and socially prominent Mr. and Mrs. Stein had convinced her that residing in Annie’s boarding house wouldn’t ruin her reputation. Herman and Esther Stein occupied the two-room suite across from Annie, and it had actually been Mr. Stein’s suggestion that Annie start her clairvoyant business as Madam Sibyl.

Annie, squashing her inclination to say something in defense of her occupation, returned to the apparently safe subject of families and said, “You mentioned raising your sister; I believe I heard her husband is a clerk in a bank, such a promising occupation. And that she has a little . . .”

Annie gasped as she realized the enormous mistake she had just made. “Oh, Miss Pinehurst, I am so sorry, your little nephew, I had forgotten. Mrs. Stein told me he died suddenly this summer. Such a tragedy. I would not have distressed you for the world.”

The older woman gave the tiniest of shrugs and stared down at the graves below. In the waning daylight, her normally pale skin looked ghostly white, and Annie could see that she clenched her hands to her breast as if she was in pain.

Heavens above, how could I have forgotten
, Annie thought.
And from what Esther said, she simply doted on the boy. Of course that’s why she is here, to visit the boy’s grave.

Miss Pinehurst turned abruptly towards her and said, “Mrs. Fuller, do you believe in spirits? I have looked at the advertisement you have in the
Chronicle
, and it doesn’t say anything about Spiritualism, or mediums, like most of them. I wondered . . .” She stopped speaking, as if she didn’t know what to say next.

After a long pause, Annie replied stiffly. “You are correct that as Madam Sibyl I don’t claim any ability to communicate with the spirit world. What I offer people is advice. This advice is actually based on my experience and skills in the world of business and finance, as well as a modest understanding of the human condition. Unfortunately, I found I was taken more seriously if I said I was aided in obtaining that advice from palmistry or astrology. May I ask why you want to know if I believe in spirits?”

Miss Pinehurst reached out to Annie, grabbing her arm. “My sister does. Sukie believes she talks to the spirit of our dear Charlie, as if he would come to her while she sits in a dark room with a group of complete strangers. I went with her once. It made me ill. If she is conversing with anyone, it is the devil himself. Mrs. Fuller, do you think you could help me? I am at my wits end. I fear so for her sanity, for her very soul.”

Chapter Four
Sunday late afternoon, October 12, 1879
 


Prof Cohen, Celebrated astrologer, fortuneteller, clairvoyant, slate writer, etc, gives important information and help; it is not necessary to give age; fee $1. Removed to 425 Kearny”

San Francisco Chronicle, 1879

 

 

Annie found herself being pulled down a path by Miss Pinehurst, who seemed to be caught up in some sort of frenzy. Abruptly they stopped at a group of graves. Two headstones, side by side, looked as if they had stood in position for some time. The grave on the left was that of Mr. Charles Pinehurst, with his wife, Susan, resting on his right. The dark marble headstones were elaborately carved with matching weeping willows and hopeful inscriptions about the “pure of heart” getting to see their “Heavenly Father.” There were fresh flowers in small vases in front of each, and Annie surmised Miss Pinehurst had already been to visit these graves today.

Two unmarked headstones stood a little in front of the graves of the departed Pinehursts, and Annie realized with a start that these were probably destined for Miss Lucy and her sister. She wondered where Miss Pinehurst’s brother-in-law was supposed to spend his eternal life. Then she looked at the headstone that stood right in front of these empty graves, the humped earth and the sharp letters on the stone screaming out that this was a recent interment.

Miss Pinehurst, still clutching her arm, pointed to the headstone and said, “See there, that is what I wish to speak to you about.”

The headstone showed a carving of two cherubs surrounded by roses, followed by the simple but heart-rending words, “Charles Lucas Vetch Born November 26, 1872 and Entered into his New Life on June 3, 1879.” Puzzled, Annie peered at the inscription below, hard to read in the failing light, that said, “Our dear, innocent son is not dead, but liveth, in the Perpetual Garden of Summerland.”

Miss Pinehurst continued. “Sukie’s husband had put up a wonderful headstone, with the Bible passage ‘Suffer the little children,’ but then Sukie started seeing those awful people. She told Mr. Vetch, her husband, that Charlie had revealed to her that she didn’t need to mourn because he had never died, but had been
translated
. Whatever that means. And she ordered a new stone put up, with those silly words about Summerland. She hasn’t even been back since the stone was put in place. She also stopped visiting our parents’ graves, so it is up to me to bring flowers, and every time I do, I am forced to look at . . .” Miss Pinehurst gulped convulsively and then began to weep.

Annie pulled out a handkerchief, handed it to Miss Pinehurst, and, putting her arm around her, urged her to walk on down the path to where some grieving relative had conveniently placed a bench, which faced a tall, black marble mausoleum. Noticing that the two cadaverous angels that flanked the entrance to the vault seemed to be treading on piles of skulls, she had Miss Pinehurst sit so that their backs were to this monument to the macabre.

Speaking softly, while Miss Pinehurst regained her composure, Annie said, “Am I to gather that your sister has been attending some sort of séance, and that she is convinced that she is communicating with her dead son?”

Miss Pinehurst nodded, wiping away her tears.

Annie thought for a moment, trying to find the right words. “I can understand why this might be distressing to you, but I don’t think it is at all unusual for a grieving mother to look for some solace in Spiritualism. It is my understanding that Spiritualists believe there is no heaven or hell, and I can only imagine for a mother who has lost a child this is a comforting thought. What I don’t understand is why you feel that this is a threat to her sanity, and what you think I might do about the situation.”

Miss Pinehurst breathed gave a last sniff. “Mrs. Fuller, at first I thought as you do, that this was just a temporary reaction to her loss. Sukie has always been very sensitive, and her husband has been too indulgent. Charlie’s death was so sudden; it was devastating for us all. You see, we thought at first he had a summer cold. Sukie had never been good when Charlie got sick or hurt; she would exhaust herself crying. So I came every night after work, sat up with him, gave him his medicine, and rocked him. His throat was so sore he couldn’t sleep. After three or four days, the rash and fever he had developed began to disappear, and we thought he was getting better. Then on the morning of the fifth day, his heart just stopped.” Miss Pinehurst paused, again overcome with emotion.


Scarlet Fever?” Annie asked, knowing that her own mother’s ill health had started with a childhood attack of this dreaded ailment, only scarlet fever hadn’t stopped her mother’s heart for another twenty years.
Poor Charlie Vetch, to think of his young life snatched away so early
.

Miss Pinehurst continued haltingly. “Sukie just fell apart. I tried to share with her my conviction that Charlie was with his
Heavenly Father
, that he had eternal life, but Sukie has never had a very strong faith. For weeks she wouldn’t leave her bed, wouldn’t eat, even threatened to harm herself. Her husband became afraid to leave her alone during the day, but he had to go to work, as I did. Consequently, Mr. Vetch hired a nurse to take care of her, get her to eat, take some air. We were both relieved when we began to see a marked improvement.”

Shaking her head, Miss Pinehurst said, “What we didn’t know was that Mrs. Hoskins, the nurse, was taking Sukie to attend séances run by this couple, Simon and Arabella Frampton, and that Arabella supposedly had established contact with Charlie. One day Sukie announced to her husband that she had talked to Charlie and that he said he was in a wonderful place, ‘but he missed his mama and papa so.’ She went on and on about how she knew it was Charlie, because he knew her pet names for him and kept asking after his purple ducky. Finally she told her husband he could talk to Charlie if he would just come to the next séance.”


Oh, dear,” Annie said. “And the nurse, Mrs. Hoskins, could she have been the source of information about the pet names and the purple ducky?”


Of course she was.” Miss Pinehurst snapped. “The evil woman had spent weeks with Sukie as she clutched that toy and sobbed out all her favorite endearments. But, see, this is why I thought you could help me. I knew you would understand right away the kinds of tricks people like this would get up to. How they could ensnare a simple woman like my sister.

I went to a fortuneteller once when I was young and foolish myself, and I saw immediately how he was just feeding my own words back to me. You must have to do this sort of thing as Madam Sibyl. Make someone think you have gotten special information from some supernatural source, when all the time it would just be good common sense.”

The heat of anger suffused Annie’s face as she reviewed what devastating retort she should make to point out how very wrong and insulting Miss Pinehurst had been, to lump her with people she obviously thought were criminals. However, a small niggling voice kept intruding, reminding her that what Miss Pinehurst had said contained a kernel of truth.

Miss Pinehurst couldn’t know it, but Annie already had some experience with fraudulent mediums, during the time after her husband’s death when she had been forced to live with her in-laws. John’s maternal aunt, Mrs. Lottie Vanderlin, recently widowed herself, had been the only one of his relatives who had treated her with kindness, and Annie had found herself watching with growing concern as Lottie made the rounds of local mediums, trying to contact her husband, Frederick. He had been a devout Spiritualist and promised her he would reach out to her from the afterlife.

Since Annie often accompanied the older woman to these séances, she’d seen how skillfully the mediums extracted information from Lottie, which they turned right around and fed back to her through table raps, badly accented Indian Spirit guides, and planchettes swirling around a spirit board.

Annie’s response back then was to create the first iteration of Madam Sibyl, figuring that it would be better for Lottie to listen to her advice than continue to squander her inheritance on unscrupulous mediums. Could she fault Miss Pinehurst for wanting to save her own sister from a similar fate? No matter how insulted she might feel by Miss Pinehurst’s assumptions, her own experience, including her work as Madam Sibyl, did mean she was better qualified to recognize what tricks the Framptons were employing than most.

Sighing, Annie said, “Miss Pinehurst, I assume from what you have said that both you and your brother-in-law have attended these séances with your sister, and you are convinced that this spirit of your nephew is a fraud.”

Taking an indignant snort as a yes, Annie continued. “What I don’t quite understand is why you felt you needed to speak to me
now
? You said her health improved, but earlier you mentioned your fears for her sanity.”

BOOK: Uneasy Spirits: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery
11.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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