Pawnee Bill Ranch
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(Music: The Frogleg Rag)
Anna: Thank you for downloading the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast, brought to you by the staff of the Pawnee Bill Ranch.
(Music: Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky)
Erin: Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast. I’m Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch Curator.
Anna: And I’m Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch Historical Interpreter. Do you hear that spooky music playing, Erin? The air is turning a little crisper each day, the leaves are changing color, and the Ranch Staff’s favorite time of year is here: Halloween!
Erin: Yes, we love Halloween around here! It’s always one of the big events here at the Ranch and also in the town of Pawnee. So, we thought it would be fun to talk a little bit about some of the spooky things here at the Ranch. Our topic today is one that is a little eerie, but is one of the fan favorites for anybody that visits the Ranch. No tour through the mansion is complete without a visit from our resident ghost. And he’s not just any old ghost either. He’s been in Pawnee Bill’s mansion for over 80 years and he comes out to greet every tourist, whether you get a chance to see him or not. It’s been said he’s the most reliable ghost in Oklahoma. Of course, no big old house is complete without a good ghost story.
Anna: Legend has it that shortly after 1936 a maid was coming up the main staircase of Pawnee Bill’s mansion and noticed something rather odd in the painting at the head of the stairs. What had been a woodland scene of two men hunting in a canoe was suddenly covered with the silhouette of a man. As the viewer moved from one side of the upper level to the other the silhouette of the man simply...disappeared.
Erin: Pawnee Bill was a showman and he understood the importance of a good story. From the time that he became aware that there was an image that had appeared in this painting, he would say that it a certain individual, in fact a very good friend of his...but I think we’ll save that until a little later in our podcast.
Anna: Yeah, we don’t want to give away too much too soon; but what about the painting itself? It’s long been rumored that the silhouette was done on purpose. Some have called it a trick painting while others have claimed that the ghostly image simply appeared one day. While there is no concrete explanation, we do know the history behind the artist himself. His name was Hal Morrison and his life is nearly as unusual as the painting itself.
Erin: Hal Alexander Courtney Morrison was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada on March 12, 1848. While there is no definitive biography of his life, we do know that he attended Harvard Medical School as a young man and studied to be a surgeon. After his time at Harvard he worked as a member of the medical staff of the Intercontinental Railroad.
Anna: When asked of his time at the Railroad, Morrison would remark “I did nothing but paint and fish, and finally abandoned my profession entirely to rove over the world and paint what pleased me.” It would be these woodland scenes, like fish and ducks and scenes of country life that would mark much of his career. After becoming dissatisfied with his career at the railroad, he quit working for them and decided to take himself on a little adventure.
Erin: It sounds so exciting! For the next seven years after he had left the railroad, Morrison traveled Europe and studied fine art in Paris. During this time, he became an avid hunter and fisherman and even took up the hobby of taxidermy to preserve the specimens of fish and wild game he caught and he used these as models for his later work. He studied oil painting and water colors at the European School of Art and found himself enjoying the life of an artist far more than he ever enjoyed being a surgeon.
Anna: And I can tell you through my art history class you learn that sometimes these surgeons make way better artists than other people.
Anna: Because they understand how anatomy works and how animals work and things like that. Morrison’s budding style was referred to as trompe l’oeil which means “deceive the eye” in French. The art technique involves using a realistic image to create an optical illusion. The artist uses forced perspective to trick the viewer into seeing a three dimensional image. Now, that’s complicated but the best way to explain this art form is to think about the old Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote would paint a tunnel on a rock wall to trick the Road Runner into smashing into the wall.
Erin: By 1882 Morrison had moved to the Atlanta, Georgia because of an undisclosed medical illness. Some sources state that the he was suffering from tuberculosis and the weather of Georgia was better for his condition than the cooler climates of Europe. While in the city of Atlanta, Morrison set up a studio that would become well respected throughout the city. He would teach students in both oil and water color and he became one of the city’s most respected artists. In 1884, Morrison married his wife Henrietta and they had two sons, Hal and Montford.
Anna: Now, Morrison was well known for his wild life portraits, which were usually of game birds and various fish. His paintings heavily featured various states of nature as well, such as trees, rivers, and flowers. I think we even have a jungle type scene in our collection.
Erin: Yeah, we do.
Anna: This love of nature was also fed by his other love: hunting. Many of the animals featured in his paintings were animals that he had personally caught and prepared. He was also an extensive traveler. Morrison spent much of his year traveling from place to place in search of tepid climates. His illness made it difficult for him to live in a place that had too hot of a summer and too cold of a winter.
Erin: He spent many of his later years in Florida until he was forced to move back to Atlanta in the 1920s to live permanently because of his declining health. He sought care at the Davis-Fisher Sanatorium and sadly he succumbed to his illness on September 30, 1927. We have multiple paintings throughout Pawnee Bill’s mansion by Hal Morrison and it is obvious that the Lillie family really appreciated his particular artistic style. From the Magnolia still life in May’s bedroom to the portraits of Pawnee Bill and May that grace the front entrance, Morrison’s paintings are an important part of our collection.
Anna: Right and none are more important than our ghost painting. It’s probably the most famous painting we have in our mansion.
Erin: That’s true.
Anna: Now, the ghost itself was not intentionally added to the painting as far as we know. From all accounts the painting of the two men in the canoe was perfectly normal when it was hung in the mansion in the 1920s. There’s no reason why Morrison would have added the image to it at that time.
Erin: It wasn’t something that he was known for.
Anna: Yeah. It wasn’t until the death of a famous cowboy entertainer that the silhouette got its now famous story.
Erin: Right. Remember back to the beginning of our podcast when we said that Pawnee Bill would always swear that the image that appeared in the painting was none other than Will Rogers. Will Rogers passed away on August 15, 1935 in a plane crash in Point Barrow, Alaska. Pawnee Bill would swear until the day that he died that the image that appeared in his painting was none other than his good friend Will.
Anna: And the image really looks like Will Rogers.
Erin: It really does!
Anna: The silhouette is wearing a long duster coat, he’s got a cowboy hat, and he kind of has this slouched stance, which if you’ve seen many photographs of Will Rogers during his lifetime he kind of took that stance while he was having his picture taken. And it’s right across the way from the Will Rogers Room in the upper level of the mansion and I think we’ve even had some Will Rogers relatives come through the house saying that yeah, it does definitely look like him.
Erin: Yes, but the painting was painted far before he died, so it wasn’t intentionally, you know, Will Rogers ghost put in the painting. The truth is we really don’t know how the ghost appeared or who it’s supposed to be but there is probably a really logical explanation. The most likely being that Morrison simply reused an old canvas and the subject underneath, a mystery subject, is kind of shining through in a certain angle. That’s not as exciting as Will Rogers personally greeting our mansion visitors though!
Anna: No and most mansion visitors want to believe that it is our ghost.
Erin: It’s true. It’s one of the things that everybody remembers when they leave the house.
Anna: It’s the one ghost story that we get to talk about.
Erin: That’s right!
(Music: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach)
Anna: Now, one of the most common questions that we get asked when taking people on tours through the mansion is whether the house is haunted. I think I get asked that more than where’s the bathroom. They read things on the internet or even in books about our mansion and it kind of peaks their curiosity. So, what better time to address the issue of ghosts at the Pawnee Bill Ranch than during our Halloween podcast?
Erin: Yes, we’re going to kind of switch gears here and talk a little bit about how we personally feel about ghosts and spirits in general and the stories we have heard from people who have worked here in the past. Obviously we can’t prove or disprove the presence of ghosts, so we are veering away from our usual perspective of historical accuracy to personal experiences.
Anna: Now, I guess I’m a person who believes in ghosts. I like to watch ghost shows on television, and there are a lot of them out there. I mean, there are probably a dozen shows on television right now and since it’s coming up on Halloween there’s even more. I guess it’s because of the plethora of television shows about hauntings or these ghost clubs that are popping up everywhere that people are just really interested in the idea of spirits still hanging around the Ranch and they really want to know how we as a staff feel. We field questions about ghosts from paranormal investigators about doing investigations here at the Ranch probably about once a month.
Erin: It’s true. They call all the time. I can say that we have had a couple of paranormal investigative groups do investigations in the mansion with all of their technical equipment and I, honestly, have not been a fan of the process. I did not like it. I was present for each of them and each group detected, of course they find things, they detected some kind of spirit activity and both groups sensed a very negative force in the same room of the mansion on two different occasions. In fact one of the groups refused to get their equipment back out of this room because they said the energy in that room was adamant that they not return. So, my husband, Ronny, had to go in and retrieve their belongings. We have never had a group back and probably won’t in the future after that.
Anna: Now, what those people didn’t know that we did at the time was that someone, a relative of Pawnee Bill, had died in that particular room. You know, it’s a house that’s over 100 years old and it has had deaths that have occurred there. The death in that particular room was an elderly woman who was crushed when the ceiling fell on her. Because we knew this, and because we knew about the other deaths in the mansion, we were left feeling very uneasy and we never wanted to put ourselves in that position again.
Erin: Yeah, like I said before, I did not feel good about those groups, and I feel really silly saying this, but I felt like the Ranch was mad at me after that. I felt sort of embarrassed like I had let the place down by opening it up to that kind of exposure. Otherwise, I’ve never had a negative experience with the house or the Ranch. Everyone knows that I live here and my family lives here so I couldn’t function if I thought that the place was haunted. Another thing that happens is that we have psychics that come here or psychic groups. I have also accompanied several of those different groups and, you know, they almost always say the same things about the house and the feelings that they get and to be honest, it just makes me feel weird, like I am betraying Pawnee Bill and May and their family. And on another note every single psychic that has come through the house have told me that the spirits respect me and won’t do anything to disturb or scare me because they like me and they know my intentions are good. I’ve had another person tell me that my spirit is closed so I’m not open to receive messages from the dead. Make of that what you will.
Anna: I think it’s one of the oddest parts of our job. About every couple of weeks you get someone who senses something in the house and they want to tell you about it on your tour and it’s just very odd to be put in that kind of position. But I think what is important is that we do respect the house and the lives that Pawnee Bill and May and Billy lived and we don’t want to cheapen them in any way by saying that they haunt us. If they are still here we want them to be happy with the job we are doing and we don’t want to upset them by bringing in ghost busters. That being said, almost every person that has ever worked here has had an experience that can’t be explained. People and not crazy people either...
Erin: Regular, normal people.
Anna: Normal people just doing their jobs have seen people in mirrors, have felt someone brush by them, have seen movement out of the corner of their eyes, lights coming on and off, artifacts being moved, hair mysteriously appearing in combs, cold spots in the house, and general uneasiness kind of like someone is watching you. One of the most common things that I know I’ve experienced is the sound of footsteps coming from inside the mansion when you know you’re the only one in there or voices when you know you’re the only one on the park. I’m sure all of that can easily be explained because, again, it’s a very old house but when you hear it at the time it can be a very unsettling feeling. We have actually had several employees who refused to be alone in the house.
Erin: It’s true. I’m not one of them though. I actually love the mansion; I like to be alone in there. I get a really happy feeling while I’m in there. I think it’s a very lovely place to be. I think that what I can say is that the house does kind of have moods. It’s kind of hard to explain if you haven’t worked here before but we think of it sort of as a living being in a way and we do respect it.
Anna: I know some of the staff will say that people are going to think they’re crazy if they walk in because we talk to the house. We say good morning. We say good evening but we talk to it just like it is a living being. But I fully agree with what you’re saying and after a big group has been through the house, it would not be uncommon for us to say that, “the house is not going to be happy.” It has its little moods. It can be happy, it can be sad; it can be just neutral, where you just don’t feel anything at all. It’s nothing that we can explain really other than a feeling we get. But, Erin, I know that you have said that people have also referred to your house as being haunted...
Erin: Yes, now I live in what was originally Pawnee Bill’s garage or his carriage house. It was a bunkhouse for cowboys on the Ranch. It was remodeled to be a manager’s residence in the late 1960s and I’ve heard all kinds of stories about weird things happening in my house. Like people being pinned to their bed by unseen forces. Other people actually seeing ghost like figures. I can say I’ve seen or experienced nothing like that. I have had people who have stayed with us say that they think the house is haunted though. I just laugh it off. If I have ghosts, I just say they like me. I like them. We get along. We’re friends. We’re on good terms.
Anna: Yeah and I know there’s other buildings on the site that kind of have spooky stories attached to them and there’s also a lot of urban legends here in Pawnee itself. I know my mom always use to tell me stories about the Deer Lady haunting her house which is a Native American Legend. I’ve heard the museum has a resident ghost in it...which I’ve never seen. I’ve heard that one of the cases is supposedly haunted, which I’ve never had experiences with that.
Erin: There is a case that I will not go in. I can say that.
Anna: And there have also been stories about people, or images, being seen walking about the Ranch at night, which again, I’ve never seen before but that’s what I’ve always heard. The bottom line is that we are dedicated to doing the best thing for the Pawnee Bill Ranch. As historians it is our duty to interpret not only the happy things in life but also difficult subjects like dying and death. The best way to do that is with tact and factual information. We feel that it is in the best interest of both the site and the employees not to do paranormal investigations because they don’t really add anything to our ongoing mission. Proving that Pawnee Bill’s ghost is in the house is not going to add anything to your experience here. And I really like to put it this way when tourists ask about ghosts in the house; I say that this is Pawnee Bill and May’s house. These are their things. We’re just taking care of it for them, so even if they are still around, they’re happy with the job we do.
Erin: We hope that answers some of your questions about paranormal activity at the site. Thank you for joining us for our Halloween themed podcast. We are working on a couple of great topics for upcoming podcasts including one on Pawnee Bill and May’s son Billy and also one on the Judy family, and there are some really good stories involved just in that family. The Judy family inherited the Ranch after Pawnee Bill died. These are shaping up to be some really fun and interesting episodes. If you have any suggestions for future podcasts, please feel free to share them with us on our Facebook page under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum. We also want to take this time to remind our listeners that on Oct. 26th, one of our favorite events is taking place at the Ranch. Our Ghost Stories tours will be from 6:30 to 9:00. We have really great story tellers in different rooms of the mansion telling ghost stories. It’s a really fun time to see the mansion as you’ve never seen if before because it’s really creepily decorated and lit entirely by jack-o-lanterns. So call us at 918-762-2513. Only children 9 and up only please. As always, I’m Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch Curator,
Anna: And I’m Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch historical interpreter. We are going to leave you today with a poem by the great gothic poet Edgar Allan Poe, which is one of the authors featured in Pawnee Bill’s library in the mansion. And as always thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time!
(Music: The Great Crush Collision by Scott Joplin)
Anna: Spirits of the Dead by Edgar Allan Poe.
Thy soul shall find itself alone, ’Mid dark thoughts of the gray tombstone–Not one, of all the crowd, to pry, Into thine hour of secrecy. Be silent in that solitude, Which is not loneliness–for then the spirits of the dead who stood, In life before thee are again, In death around thee–and their will, Shall overshadow thee: be still. The night, tho’ clear, shall frown- And the stars shall look not down from their high thrones in the heaven, With light like Hope to mortals given–But their red orbs, without beam, To thy weariness shall seem as a burning and a fever which would cling to thee for ever. Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish, Now are visions ne’er to vanish; From thy spirit shall they pass, No more–like dew-drop from the grass. The breeze–the breath of God–is still–And the mist upon the hill, Shadowy–shadowy–yet unbroken, Is a symbol and a token–How it hangs upon the trees, A mystery of mysteries!
(Music: The Froglegs Rag)
Anna: The Pawnee Bill Ranch is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information go to www.pawneebillranch.com or find us on Facebook under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum.