It is snowing very hard in Concord, Massachusetts, as psychic medium Angelina Diana white-knuckles her way into town. She sends me nervous updates from the road as she crawls to my hotel, and I again apologize for being a living repudiation of higher education who mixed up Massachusetts and Connecticut when I found her via random Google search months ago.
I first contacted Angelina all the way back in September, based on the dual criteria of enjoying her purple website and believing that the town of Concord was, like her, located in Connecticut. My motive, like my grasp of American geography, was simple: to travel to Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott’s ancestral home, to attempt to confer directly with the spirit of the famed author 151 years after she wrote Little Women. Angelina gamely agreed to help me reach Louisa, warning me only to “keep in mind that anyone could come through” the veil. While both of us prepared for supernatural interference, neither of us (well, potentially one of us) could have predicted the snowstorm that would befall the entire Northeast that day.
The idea isn’t entirely without historical inspiration. Concord is allegedly a haunted place, so much so that the cast of Greta Gerwig’s most recent Little Women adaptation said they could “feel the spirit of Louisa” during shoots there. When I arrived in the town a day earlier, it took approximately ten minutes for locals to start telling me that my 300-year-old hotel, the Colonial Inn, was occupied by the nonliving. During the American Revolution, the inn housed one Dr. Timothy Minot, who tended to wounded soldiers in what’s now Room 24. Some speculate that the room is haunted by the soldiers, or the doctor himself, or even the Thoreau family, who once owned the hotel; either way, guests have been spotting ghosts for years. One of the hotel’s employees tells me quite matter-of-factly that the room’s fireplace is haunted. As Marie, a local shopkeeper, explained, “It’s a good place to have a seance. They’re good ghosts, just stuck in the in-between.”
Angelina arrives after a harrowing three-hour drive, and we embrace like we have both barely survived an avalanche. She’s bright blonde and sporting a fitted red blazer and matching long nails, with a full face of makeup and a sweet warmth that does not betray her traumatic journey. I welcome her into my haunted temporary home, but withhold any information concerning the history of the inn, in order to keep our encounter aboveboard from a ghost-hunting perspective. We’ll begin our Concord ghost tour here.
We’ve managed to persuade the hotel to let us sneak into the allegedly haunted Room 24 for ten minutes between guests. As we walk toward the room, up a small staircase and down a narrow hallway, Angelina pauses. “Somebody used to wait here a lot for somebody to come home,” she says. “Somebody lived here. I felt a woman saying, ‘He’s coming back from sailing.’ Are we even close to water?” I remind her that I cannot tell the difference between states, much less where states are, but via my phone I confirm that we are indeed located near the Atlantic Ocean, whereupon people have been known to sail. Inside the room, Angelina explains that there are three types of energies: “Residual energy, which is left from the people that used to live here; spiritual, which would be a ghost or a loved one; and psychokinetic, which we create with our brain.” Angelina tells me that Room 24 is full of residual energy. “You could smudge this away,” she says. “It’s not a ghost or a spirit. But do you know if they’re hearing voices coming from the fireplace? I’m hearing mumbling or sounds.”
Brimming with confidence in Angelina’s abilities, I send a pleading text to Jan Turnquist, the delightful executive director of Orchard House who I’d spoken to a few times for a previous story, asking if she’ll be at the house today (despite the relentless weather) and whether we can pop in for a quick private tour. My original plan was for Angelina and I to sneakily contact Louisa while on a standard Orchard House tour, as I’d assumed that Orchard House would not condone the explicitly paranormal. And I’m right: When I tell Jan what I’m up to, she’s skeptical, explaining that the house’s “mission” — to preserve and protect and educate — doesn’t line up with my mission, which, again, is to bother dead people. So we come to a gentle agreement: Angelina and I will simply have our own unholy conversation on the side while Jan generously gives us an abridged tour.
When we arrive at Orchard House, Angelina immediately spots something. “I see a face in the window,” she says from the car. I ask if she often sees faces in windows. “It depends on the situation. I see a lot in photographs,” she says. We both agree it is probably Louisa, skeptical of interlopers like she was back in the olden days. At the door, Jan greets us with the nervous cheerfulness of an extremely nice person who has found herself in a totally impossible PR situation. Her deep well of knowledge and love for Orchard House and for the Alcott family is palpable; she speaks about the house like it’s a person, and talks about the Alcotts like they’re still alive. “It feels like they just left,” she says, sighing happily. “This is where they lived the longest — 20 years.”
I ask Jan if she wouldn’t mind letting Angelina tell us about the energy she senses in each room before we enter it and hear about its actual history, and she agrees. This quickly falls apart. Instead, the two women, both titans in their respective fields, begin a tender, fascinating tug-of-war between the spiritual and the rational, a microcosm of humanity’s search for meaning in a chaotic universe.
The first extremely polite dispute begins when Angelina says she “senses the front door is not where the family always entered,” that the area was perhaps specifically designated for guests. “No,” says Jan. “They all came in here.” Angelina pushes back: “I’m feeling residual energy. I feel that there was another main entrance for them.” Jan says she will “think about it.” Angelina then adds that she feels the wallpaper is not the same wallpaper that was used during Louisa’s time, and Jan confirms that she’s right — it’s an exact replica — and shows us the real wallpaper behind a sort of secret panel. Angelina looks at me meaningfully. “But everything you see through the house is all original,” Jan quickly clarifies.
The three of us walk into the living room, where a sprig of some sort of plant is lying directly on the threshold, almost like it was carefully placed there. Angelina smiles broadly. “Louisa is contacting us,” she says. “The residual energy is bouncing off the walls. She’s coming through you, Jan. You can’t just read people without somebody present that has a connection, and you have a strong connection to her.” This Jan agrees with: In addition to running the museum, Jan famously cosplays as Louisa around the world, performing the role for everyone from schoolchildren to international royalty. In town the day before, everyone I met asked me if I was planning to speak to Jan during my trip. “She is Louisa,” they all said.
Jan/Louisa steps out of the room to answer a phone call, reminding me that I am rudely intruding upon her in every possible sense. I ask Angelina what Louisa is trying to tell us by coming through Jan. “She has concerns about the structure of this room,” Angelina says. “It needs to be shored up. She’s very aware of what has to be fixed about it.” When Jan returns, she confirms that this portion of the house has had “tons of structural” issues that she’s had to deal with over the years. She begins listing them, visibly pained: “We had to put ten tons of steel … hand dig a foundation …” Angelina nods. “She knows it’s in the back of your mind. You’re both very meticulous,” she says. “For her to be able to express things you’re holding on to that you care about — I don’t know these things. They’re coming from her. I’d be surprised if you weren’t getting clues or help from her.” Jan laughs. “I’m glad Louisa knows. It almost killed me. I could have joined her.”
On the other side of the room, we find another flower, dropped directly in the space between the living and dining rooms. “Is that her again?” I ask Angelina. “You have to pay attention when things aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Maybe she’s saying hello, via paranormal activity. Maybe it’s psychokinetic energy,” she says. “There’s some energy causing things to happen in this room.” I ask Angelina what other sorts of things Louisa wants to tell us. “She’s happy that all of these women are here — she says anytime she can be among the presence of women, she’s happy,” says Angelina. Jan visibly brightens. “People thought she was this uptight Victorian author, but that’s totally the opposite of who she was. She wanted women to make their mark,” Jan says. “So many women have told me that the book saved their lives. I’m so grateful for that.”
I remember reading that some scholars believe Louisa was a lesbian, or at least not entirely heterosexual. I ask Jan what she makes of this as it relates to her happiness about being “among the presence of women.” “I think she just really loved people in general,” says Jan. “She loved her sisters. She adored Ralph Waldo Emerson, like a schoolgirl crush. I’m sure she felt if she ever met somebody her age … there’s nothing to indicate a woman she [felt for], or a Boston marriage. She wanted Jo March to be a literary spinster too — she wanted people to know that you didn’t have to be attached.”
“Did the family have cats?” asks Angelina suddenly, as we walk into the kitchen. “I just saw a black cat out of the corner of my eye.” Jan answers affirmatively: “Beth loved cats.” Both women are satisfied with this outcome. “I feel very protective of Beth,” says Jan. “Some people think something was” — her voice drops to a whisper here — “wrong with her. But I think she’s lovely, and very musical.” We all stare briefly but meaningfully into the depths of an indoor well.
After examining a large portrait of Louisa that Jan tells us the author hated because it depicted her after various illnesses that led to her losing her hair, we all compliment one another on our present hair and clomp up the back stairs to a room that Jan quickly identifies as May’s (the inspiration for Amy). “Did she sew at all? I feel there was a sewing machine here, looking out the window,” says Angelina. “They all sewed, yes,” says Jan, warily. “This overlooked the apple orchard, so it makes sense that you’d want to sew here.”
In Louisa’s room, where she wrote Little Women sitting at a tiny desk facing the window, Angelina says she hears a piano playing. “There was a piano right below this room,” says Jan, looking slightly surprised. “The family played a lot of music and you’d definitely be able to hear it up here.” The two women smile at each other, briefly reaching across the millennia-spanning chasm between science and spirituality to agree upon a ghost piano. Jan suddenly acquiesces on Angelina’s front-door theory. “Maybe the family came in through the kitchen door because they had a school of philosophy here in later years, with a lot of students coming in and out,” she says.
When we enter Louisa’s parents’ room, Jan looks at Angelina. “Do you want me to pause?” she asks kindly. Angelina demurs. Soon we’re all talking about our first experiences reading Little Women, cooing over a set of Little Women dolls in the gift shop, and talking about the opening scene of the 1994 film, which takes place during a snow fight. “I’ve always loved when it snows here,” says Jan wistfully. She shares with us that it’s been a struggle getting donations over the years to keep the house structurally sound and open to the public, and Angelina tells her that so much of the house’s survival is due to the “energy you put into this place. People can feel it. Even Louisa made me feel like, ‘Boy, there’s been so much work from Jan to keep this thing together.’”
Jan looks moved, but defers the compliment to her small staff. “This place attracts so many good people,” Jan says. “It means something to so many people. It’s not a church, but it’s as spiritual as some people need. I’m sure Louisa is smiling down from somewhere.”
We have reached some kind of unspoken truce between the incorporeal and the tangible, and while I still don’t know what Louisa thinks of Greta Gerwig’s film, I feel some larger score has been settled here today, in Orchard House, which is not in Connecticut, even though it seems like it should be. When we depart — Angelina to Connecticut, me to my haunted hotel — Jan hugs us both tightly. When we say bye, I nearly call her Louisa.