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The Haunting of Elora Donnelly” (Chapter Five)


The interesting thing about investigating your family history is that you begin to appreciate the inadequacy of story as a means of factual information.  I’m struck by how the very thing that influences us the most, spoken history, is also the least chronologically accurate.  What of what we understand about ourselves is true?

I knew that Clementine Shipley had landed in London on the 23rd of October, 1897, having been aboard the Iconic Star for over a month.  There is no record of what transpired between her and Crawford prior to boarding the ship — though, clearly, some form of continued relationship must have developed for them to have been photographed together years later, and for Elora to consider Emerson as a nephew.  This is where factual history falls short and the improbability of story comes in.  I can assume that they were lovers, but the likelihood is that they were friends or mutual conspirators, as passion tends to leave a record.

First, I checked the next Iconic Star’s docking record in London and, sure enough, found a Crawford Valdene, who I suspected to be the actual Crawford.  Records show that the Iconic Star was full booked during the time Elora traveled.  I worked out the most conceivable events in my mind.  I can only imagine that Elora and Dave needed to escape to New York, where they were sure boats to England would be frequent, and they were determined to board the next one available.  In New York, they met Crawford and convinced him to give them his two-berth reservation on the next ship’s departure.  Was that the first time that the three had met?  I have to consider this a plausible story and carry on with my search.

Secondly, the enhanced photograph came back from the printers and, as it turns out, the pub is named The Hangman, as seen reflected from the door on the glass behind the counter.  There are five pubs with that name in London, but only one is located near Guy’s Hospital, where Crawford Valdene is registered as a laboratory associate to his infamous brother, Dr. Agustus Valdene, a renowned Anatomist and Phrenologist of the Victorian Age.  As luck would have it, The Hangman is still in operation.  I looked the pub up online and, judging from their website pictures, very little has changed of the interior.

Also, I have listened to Bruyeres by Debussy and downloaded all of the information I can find about his piano preludes.  Bruyeres is a solo piano piece and a part of twelve such pieces that make up Debussy’s Preludes.  Each piece has a title to accompany it.  Bruyeres is translated as “Heather” and the pieces preceding it are titled “Mist’s” and “Dead Leaves.”  Appropriate, don’t you think?   Though, who knows what it means.

As you can see, dear journal, I have been busy, which is even more impressive when you consider that I have done this investigation on the sly.  The fact is my husband is starting to worry about my sanity, as I suppose I would worry about his, were the situation reversed. 

I have had to ask Elora to stop playing the piano.  My husband can’t hear the music, even when I wake him, nor can our children.  So, my obsession with this dead woman, this buried mystery, is beginning to negatively influence my living relationships. Actually, the mere fact that she complied with my request to stop making noise is proof enough, in my estimation, of her existence.  But still.

Sometimes, I must admit, I wonder if I am stable or not, if I am taking this too far.  However, it seems to me that I might be the only person who is able to disclose what Elora is trying to transmit to me, a truth that will, I hope, stop the haunting. And, although I understand my husband’s worry, I have vowed to continue my research in secret out of respect for his sanity, not necessarily mine.

I pretend that she has departed from me, that I no longer see or hear her ghost, but I am aware of her presence even as I write this, she steers me like a guide, though it is not forceful.  She has my permission.

I’ve created an imaginary coffee group, which my husband thinks is healthy, so that I can research Elora during the time that I am meant to be attending the group.  Today, my coffee group is doing an imaginary museum outing in London, but really, I am meeting Dr. Emma Jefferson at Guy’s Hospital in the hopes that she will tell me more about Crawford Valdene.  I have hired a sitter for the afternoon.

The reality of my life at the moment is that the soul that knows the truth about my days is dead.  A strange phenomenon happens when you begin to relate to the dead more openly than the living.  It makes you question the validity of your own consciousness and you realize how much we live in our imaginations, where death, like life, is timeless.

Crawford certainly felt like a living man to me, despite living in whispers and shadows of my clandestine experiment, when I traced him to the Department of Phrenology at Guy’s Hospital, where his brother, Dr. Augustus Valdene, was a leading Phrenologist and Anatomist.

Dr. Jefferson is a specialist in Victorian Medicine, who believed I was there researching a character, which was partially true, though I neglected in telling her that the character visited me frequently.  That Elora was, in fact, in the room with us.

She explained to me that during the mid to late 1800’s, Augustus was the world’s leading Phrenologist and a well respected surgeon at Guy’s.  But, his surgical credibility plummeted when he refused to follow his contemporaries and reevaluate Phrenology as nothing more than a pseudoscience.  He claimed that he was developing indisputable research that would prove, once and for all, that phrenology had the ability to influence the thought process, that it could ‘grow thought.’

To prove this, he organized a demonstration in the lecture theatre at the hospital.  Unfortunately, record of his indisputable research was never heard or found, because a fire swept though his laboratory the evening before his planed presentation.  Dr. Valdene died shortly after.

Rumors circulated that his brother Crawford, who was notoriously “devilish in mind and approach”, was the one that started the fire, though that was never confirmed.  What was known is that Crawford was the subject of extensive phrenological experimentation conducted by his brother.

Augustus was attempting to influence his brother’s chosen sexual preference.  It was known, and confidentially documented, that Crawford was a homosexual.  Homosexuality was considered a crime during this time and Crawford had spent time in prison because of it.  Augustus believed he could reverse Crawford’s proclivity towards this “madness and abomination of body.”  It was thought that he would not discredit Phrenology because he was obsessed with curing his Crawford.

I took a sip of my coffee, feeling disheartened.  It explained that Elora and Crawford were not lovers, but what else did this have to do with Elora?  Had any record of her been burnt? 

Dr. Jefferson must have sensed my feelings and, after some consideration said, “There are a few files remaining, however, most of which were recovered from Augustus’s home library.  They are difficult to make sense of and most academics feel the findings too obscure and personal to present with any semblance of scientific, historical merit, but, all the same, the extracts from his work lead me to believe that the research he boosted about was not entirely destroyed.  It’s just come to a dead end at something you might find intriguing.  A thumb was found in his library.”

“A human thumb?”

“Yes, preserved in formaldehyde and belonging to a woman named Clarissa Shipley.”

I nearly spat out my coffee.  She must be related to Clementine Shipley!

“Can I see it?” I asked, trying to remain composed.

“I don’t see why not.  It’s in the private wing of the Gordon Museum, just down the hall on the right.  I’ll ring them and give you clearance.  Let me just look up it’s location.  Ah, yes, here we are.  Row C Specimen 310.”

Middle C played at 3:10!

I thanked her and tried not to run down the hall.

To be continued…

New chapters of “The Haunting of Elora Donnelly” will be released each month.

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