Category Archives: History

The Delaware “Cult House” Urban Legend

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lukasz-szmigiel-jFCViYFYcus-unsplash-1024x682.jpg
Just spooky, not correct to the locale discussed.
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

(Originally published on April 29, 2021, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

When I was in 3rd grade, I was attending an elementary school in northern Delaware that is no longer extant, and one of my friends told me a story his older brother had told him about a haunted house near our school. I remember that we, as suburban 8-year-olds who didn’t live near the school and who had no means of getting anywhere without our parents, solemnly agreed that we both totally knew where the house was and that we would meet there at midnight. Most of the details escape me now, but I remember that it was a mansion with a gatehouse.

The next time I heard about a haunted mansion, I was in college in the late 1980s. This story had more details: it was a mansion with a gatehouse and a long driveway on one of the back roads of the Brandywine valley of Delaware near the Pennsylvania line. The trees around the house grew away from it as if leaning away from something evil, the windows were made in cross shapes and glowed red sometimes at night, and there were black trucks with tinted glass that would emerge from the lot near the gatehouse and follow you if you drove past the house too many times. Lots of Satanic Panic was involved, saying that there was a Satan worshipping cult and/or the KKK that met there. A decade later, the story I heard shifted a bit so that the trucks became SUVs, and the addition of mutilated animals first cropped up along with the tale of the Skull Tree, which supposedly had something that looked like a human skull embedded in its trunk. Of course, the versions I heard in the 90s were from people who claimed to have seen it, but still somehow couldn’t provide me with an address.

The original story put it somewhere in Greenville, Delaware. The last time I heard it from a person in Delaware (in the early 2000s), the house was identified as a mansion belonging to someone in the Du Pont family. This put it closer to one of the most visible still-occupied Du Pont mansions, Granogue, but it was clearly NOT that estate, since I knew where it was and had driven past it many times, and there were no oddly-grown trees or inverted cross windows. I note that several of the really spectacular Du Pont mansions have been turned into museums like Winterthur and Longwood Gardens, but there are a lot of other fancy residences belonging to Du Pont heirs and cousins (some of which have also been turned into parks or museums, like the Mount Cuba Center), as well as other Extremely Wealthy Colonial Families of northern Delaware (or the nouveau riche families who bought the mansions off them).

The fountains at Longwood Gardens. They get lit up at night with different colored lights, and there is a fantastical light show set to music. One of my favorite memories is of attending a July 4th show there.

In any case, I had never been able to get the name of the road it was on, though on a couple of occasions I drove over many of the roads in that area, sometimes with my wife, looking for the place unsuccessfully. Though we found an awesome feral bamboo forest in the meantime.

A Location? Really?

Today, out of curiosity, I googled “cult house delaware” to see what I got. Lo and behold, people are producing addresses. But how odd! The address provided is on the Pennsylvania side of the border in Chadd’s Ford… where it was never located in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s.

The stories on the Weird Pennsylvania article appear to include the story my wife originally read on Obiwan’s UFO-free Paranormal Page back in the 1990s (with no address), as well as other stories that identify it as being on Cossart Road. One other site talks about the road’s residents and township’s reactions to teens cruising the road (eg, removing all the road signs, removing the Skull Tree), and so does this Reddit thread. Finally, I found a Youtube “drivethrough” of the road and watched it.

Fascinatingly, the supposed cult house is a) invisible from the road (how did people see the windows? granted some of that growth along the road is relatively young, if you look at it on GoogleMaps) and b) does not have a gatehouse or parking area visible from the road. I accept that the trees along the road are a little odd (but between the electrical lines run over them and the angle of the sun, the tilt makes sense), but they’re not along the house’s driveway or around the house itself, which is in contradiction to the earlier stories.

Development of the Lore

There are new eyerolling details about illegal incestuous marriages, although cousins aren’t actually particularly problematic, and there were and are plenty of extremely wealthy families for the Du Ponts to intermarry with (see also the Du Pont women who married into the English nobility, etc) so that cousin marriages were fairly unusual, as I recall from some of my reading. Also deformed babies killed by eugenic wealthy relatives buried under the Skull Tree. Wow, fascinating add-ons, folks.

There are a few vague mentions on some of these sites of a movie called “The Village” by M. Night Shyamalan from 2004, and I suspect that the filming site of this movie — a village set built in a field in Chadd’s Ford — is the source of this new “identification” of the house. There appears to be a rumor that the village was built near the cult house.

The location may also be tied to a trio of gang murders in 1978 in which the victims were shot and buried along Cossart Road. Those murders would actually date to just after the time I started hearing about the house, which would suggest that any movement toward the house being on Cossart could date from that time.

Also the aspect of being chased by red trucks or black SUVs seems to be dropping out of circulation in the post-identification era. There’s nowhere for them to come from, and this is one of the least convoluted roads in the area anyway, so nowhere for them to turn off to or for pursued drivers to duck off to… just a stretch of road with houses along it.

Well, Let’s Look At History

Me being me, I decided to hare off and see if there are, in fact, any Du Pont families along that road.

Cossart Road is a ~2-mile-long east-west road that runs from Route 100 (which roughly parallels the west bank of the Brandywine Creek) in the east to Route 52 (Kennett Pike) in the west. From a map of Birmingham township (the original township where Chadd’s Ford was located, which was, as you might imagine, a ford across the Brandywine, or the Fiske Kill as it was named by the Dutch colonizers who originally settled the area and shoved the Lenni Lenape out) that included land grants of the early 1700s, the eastern portion of the land that contains Cossart Road was owned by George Harlan, possibly granted somewhere around 1702. Cossart was part of Kennett Township, as parceled up by William Penn et al. The region was parceled off Kennett into Pennsbury Township in the late 1700s.

On a Pennsbury map from 1860, large swathes of the eastern portion of Cossart were owned by J.H.Pyle, with a single exception of a house on the road owned by P.William. The area around the address appears to be a W.Hawke with another singleton house on the road without a legible name. An 1883 map shows Pyle still in possession, splitting the road with a John McC(ann?oane?). In 1880, Job H Pyle is listed as a farmer in Pennsbury, living with wife Jane, son Henry, and a number of laborers and boarders. Other people on the stretch recorded by the census taker included Joseph B Pyle, miller, and his family, and families by the names of Cloud, Washington, Woodward, Dilworth, Sharpless, and Johnston. In 1900, Joseph B Pyle is still there, along with the Woodwards and a couple other familiar names, and the people living along that stretch of road are all still farmers. In 1910, Margaret Pyle, a widow, is still living among the Clouds and Sharplesses, people whose professions were farmers, farm laborers, creamerymen, carpenters, and schoolteachers.

In 1920, we get our first confirmed residents of Cossart Rd:

  • Ralph and Celia Keiser – he was an operator for the telegraph company
  • James and Edna Hart – he was a fireman for the railroad
  • Mark and Myrtle Mackey – he was a dairyman farmer
  • John and Louise Clendening – they were from England and he was a butler!
  • George and Helen Van Horn – he was a farm laborer and they had a large household of children, grandchildren, and boarders (who variously were farmers, stenographers for the powder company, and operators for the telegraph company)
  • John and Flora Nichol – both Scottish, and he was a gardener

Turning the corner off Cossart onto Parkerville Street Road (not sure at all what road this is in present; Parkerville is significantly north, but this continues through to Kennett Pike, which seems to make geographic sense), we also see:

  • Mary Lumb – a laundress in a private home
  • Rose Brittingham and her husband Wilbur – English couple; she was a housekeeper in a private home
  • Annie Boody – a laundress in a private home
  • among many others

So we have our first indication that there is a wealthy house in the neighborhood that supports a butler, housekeeper, and laundresses, as well as possibly a gardener or two.

In 1930, Cossart Road has quite a few people, and now we have more information. For instance, Ellen C Wilson and her nephew Floyd live in a house worth $600 — significantly more than many of her neighbors, whose homes are worth in the $6-$10 range. Still, she doesn’t have an occupation, but Floyd is a coalyard laborer — doesn’t seem likely to be the scion of wealth. Elsewhere on the road we have a George Bary and his wife Mary, a Russian trainer at a dog kennel. We have William Gregg, a farm manager, who has enough money to bring in a woman only known as Latchford, who is a cook in a private family (probably his). There’s Gordon Murray, a Scottish florist who works in greenhouses. Oh, and there’s Ralph and Celia Keiser — Ralph’s an agent for the railroad now, and their house appears to be worth $650. Looking around a little more, on Fairville Road there’s Albert Walker, a general farmer, and the value on his property is an appalling $5000. But then the geography gets muddled and the censustaker apparently goes north for his next census.

In 1940, alas, we do not have any reference to the street names, which makes the various private estates listed mysterious.

It’s fascinating that we have evidence of wealthy homes along these roads, but very few apparent census records of these wealthy homes. Guessing that these houses were gated and had no interest in participating in the census, making these homes even more invisible than they already are. Wealth hath privilege.

While the purported Cult House has no information online, I note that 935 Cossart, an admirable stone farmhouse, was on the market relatively recently and had some photos up. This 7600+ sq ft home was built in 1911, which is when we started to see servants and estate employees, so it makes some sense that the turn of the century is probably when the Money arrived on Cossart. Other houses with real estate listings appear to consist of a range of properties, from ugly recently-built McMansions (including a 12K sq ft monstrosity at 217) to 1950s suburban tract houses that have had some updates.

So, back to the Du Ponts. Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours arrived in the US in 1800 with his sons, one of whom, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, founded the gunpowder company on the banks of the Brandywine in Delaware that would become DuPont Company. Their first mansion was right there, Eleutherian Mills, and has in part been turned into the Hagley Museum (the site of my earliest remembered school field trip). It’s hard to track all the members of the family, because of course the women marry out and take a lot of money with them to join up with their husbands’ money and make more money, in the way of capitalists. There is no guarantee that some Du Pont or other didn’t live at some point on Cossart Road, but I can say that as of 1940, no one named Du Pont appeared on the census records in the area. There were other impressive names on private estates in Pennsbury, like someone with Morgan as a last name, but nothing to directly connect to the Du Ponts.


This is one of those urban legends that has grown in the telling, and it’s fascinating to see the changes that have transpired over 4 decades. I am not convinced that the “cult house” is or has ever been on Cossart Road, nor am I convinced that it ever existed at all. Still, it’s fun to have a “hometown” spooky story that I’ve been able to watch as it changes.

The Phelps Mansion Haunting

(Originally published on February 19, 2020, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

The Phelps Mansion Haunting in Stratford, Connecticut, is a case of poltergeist activity that has intrigued me for decades, in part because of the bizarreness of the activity. It is remarkable for the extraordinary nature of the haunting: at the heart of it were multiple creepy religious life-sized dioramas built in remarkably little time out of household materials and the family’s clothing.

It’s also been covered by many different ghost sites and books about haunted New England, so I’m going to synthesize what I’ve found and add in a bit of historical research of my own. Let’s start with a discussion of the “hero” of the tale, Reverend Eliakim Phelps.

A Short History of the Reverend Eliakim Phelps 

The Phelps family has been knocking around New England for quite some time. William Phelps, the original immigrant, arrived in 1630 on the Mary and John. He helped found Dorchester, MA, and Windsor, CT. His son, Nathaniel Phelps, was one of the first settlers of Northampton, MA; Nathaniel’s son William and grandson William remained there.

William Jr’s son Eliakim Phelps was born 1709 in Northampton; he moved to Belchertown in 1731 or 1732 (the town was first settled in 1731) and died in 1777. His first wife, Elizabeth Rust of Northampton, died in 1752, age 40, and by her he had 6 children. He then married Elizabeth Davis of Springfield, and had, as his second son, Eliakim (who died in 1824), who had 6 children: Abner, Daniel, William, Eliakim, Asenath, and Diana. (I think Asenath is a cool name!)

Phelps family tree

It is this last Eliakim, son of Eliakim, who stars in our story.

Some highlights from his life:

  • Eliakim was born March 20, 1790, in Belchertown, MA.
  • In 1814, he graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY. 
  • In 1816, he married Sarah Adams (b. 1791) in Wilbraham, MA.
  • In 1818, he “settled in the ministry in West Brookfield” and was the 5th pastor of the West Brookfield Congregational church. (This is worth noting as most sources identify him as a Presbyterian minister.)
  • In 1826, he resigned his ministry to become (briefly) principal of the Female Classical Seminary (founded in 1825 and no longer in operation by 1853, though I can’t find when it closed exactly) in West Brookfield, MA. 
  • In the aftermath of leaving the Seminary, he “afterwards settled at Geneva, NY, and [was] dismissed from there.” It was apparently a Presbyterian church, indicating that he had engaged in some of the crossover between Congregationalists and Presbyterians. No clue about the dismissal!
  • In 1835, he was elected Secretary of the American Educational Society, and the family moved to Philadelphia.
  • In 1840, he and his family were living in Moyamensing, Pennsylvania (now part of south Philadelphia). 
  • In 1844, he received an honorary degree from Delaware College. 
  • In November 1845, his wife Sarah was carried off by fever, leaving Eliakim a widower with 3 more-or-less adult children (1 of the 4 children died young).
  • In 1846, he remarried to a young widow, Sarah B Kennedy Nicholson (b. 1814, only 6 years older than his oldest surviving child)), and took in her 3 children by her previous husband: Ann, Henry, and Hannah Nicholson.
  • In 1848, he purchased a house in Stratford, CT, and moved his family there.
  • In 1858, his second wife Sarah died in Philadelphia of uterine cancer.
  • In 1860, Eliakim and his young teen son Sidney were living in what appeared to be a boarding house in Woodstock, CT.
  • In 1880, Eliakim was living with his son Henry Martyn Phelps in Weehawken, NJ.
  • Eliakim died on December 29, 1880, age 90, in Weehawken..

Our story also features Eliakim’s second wife Sarah and her 3 children by her first marriage (Anna, Henry/Harry, and Hannah), as well as their toddler son Sidney.

Now that we understand some of the major players, let’s talk about another major piece of this story: the house.

The House

The mansion was built in 1826: a 3-story Greek Revival home at 1738 Elm Street, Stratford, CT. It was built by General Matthias Nicoll (1758-1830) for his daughter Eliza Hopkins Nicoll (1786-1851) and son-in-law Captain George Robert Dowdall (1782-1829). The center hallway of the home was apparently designed by Eliza for George, and was meant to be reminiscent of the main deck of his clipper ship: 12′ wide and 70′ long, with twin staircases leading to the second floor. The house had 4 Doric columns across the front, and the interior was elegantly appointed with chandeliers, carved paneling, and molded plaster work.

Rendering of Phelps Mansion, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Vol. XXIV, 1878, p. 34.

Some sources say that Phelps purchased the mansion from Captain Dowdall, while other sources say that he bought it after the deaths of both Dowdalls — gives different information though: Captain. Dowdall was long dead (died in 1829), and Eliza was clearly in her sunset years (died in 1851), so Phelps likely purchased the house from Eliza, who then moved to Otisville, NY, likely to live with a family member until she died.

The Phelps family owned the house until 1859, when Rev Phelps sold it to Moses Beach, founder of The New York Sun. The home was later inherited by his son Alfred, who was a long-time editor of The Scientific American and ran a private school from the home called the Stratford Institute. In the 1940s, the mansion was covered into a nursing home, the Restmore Convalescent Home, and was bought by Alliance Medical Inns in the 1960s. Financial issues prevented the plans the company had for it, and it boarded up and abandoned the house by 1970. Vandals caused considerable damage to the building, and it was demolished in 1972, by some accounts, and in 1974 by others.

From the house to the greater environment, let’s discuss what was going on in the world at this time.

Historical Context

Many Spiritualists point to 1848, when the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, NY, had their first momentous night of communicating with spirits, as the beginning of Spiritualism. Basically, the home of the Fox family began to be troubled by noises, shaking, and persistent knocking sounds. When the 2 younger girls fled their bedroom one night in apparent terror, they began asking the “spirits” to respond to their counting with knocking, and the spirits accommodated. So began their long and storied careers as mediums, communicating with spirits such as “Mr. Splitfoot” and others. The Fox Sisters moved to Rochester, and newspapers of the time (specifically, the New York Herald and New York Tribune, that I could find) referred to them as the Rochester Ladies as of 1850. Maggie confessed that their work had all been a hoax in 1888. But while the confession destroyed their careers, it did not stop Spiritualism from continuing to grow.

David Chapin, in his book Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, notes:

Sporadic reporting at this time mentioned rappings that were occurring in a variety of locations outside the [Fox] sisters’ influence. In the home of the Reverend Eliakim Phelps in Stratford, Connecticut, that March, witnesses heard raps and saw objects hurled through the air in the presence of an eleven-year-old boy. These “spirits” seem to have had more malevolent intentions than those at Rochester. Objects often struck witnesses and caused damage, leading the Reverend Phelps to conclude that “wicked spirits” were at work, and that “their communications are wholly worthless” and “devices of Satan.” Other rappings were heard in Newark, New Jersey, while strange, unexplained movement of objects was reported in both Richmond, Virginia, and the West Indies. Clearly the sisters’ hoax was taking on a life of its own.

Eliakim was known to be fascinated by Spiritualism, as well as mesmerism, and this interest carried through much of his family. At least one of his children (Austin) went on to also become Congregationalist clergy, and Austin’s daughter became a prolific feminist writer, producing nearly 60 volumes of prose and poetry in her life, including Biblical romances, antivivisectionist works… and 3 Spiritualist novels. So I think there’s plenty of evidence for the effects of Spiritualism on the Phelps family.

We have the players and the stage — what was the play?

The Haunting

On March 4, 1850, an old friend of Eliakim’s came calling on him at Elm Street, and after dinner and conversation, they apparently decided to try a seance. They apparently heard “intermittent, disorganized rappings” but nothing else. (Citro, 28)

On Sunday, March 10, 1850, the family returned from church to find all the doors standing open and the family’s belongings were strewn across the floor. In one bedroom, chillingly, Mrs. Phelps’ nightgown was laid out on a bed, sleeves crossed over the chest in imitation of a corpse and stockings at the bottom. Nothing appeared to be stolen — his gold watch and the family silver were in view and undisturbed — so they straightened the house and Eliakim sent the family back to church for afternoon services. Meanwhile, he lurked in the upstairs of the house, waiting for the burglars to return. He heard nothing, and then crept downstairs and saw that the dining room was filled with eleven women, some kneeling, some standing, some holding Bibles, and all completely still: all of them seemed focused on a tiny demonic figure suspended by a cord in the center of the room. 

The figures were made by stuffing rags and other materials into the family’s clothing.

According to Joseph A Citro’s book, Passing Strange:

An account of the event published in the New Haven Journal said, “From this time on the rooms were closely watched, and the figures appeared every few days when no human being could have entered the room. They were constructed and arranged, I am convinced, by no visible power. The clothing from the figures were made was somehow gathered from all parts of the house, in spite of a strict watch. In all about 30 figures were constructed during the haunt.”

Other events occurred during the next 6 months, such as objects moving through the air, family members being carried or pinched and slapped by invisible forces, windows breaking (some 71 windows broke, which seems like an appalling amount of money for repairs if it was a hoax), food appearing and being flung at family members, and loud rappings, knockings, and cries. In one incident, an umbrella leaped into the air and flew some 25 feet away, and smaller objects would fly from locations without any visible force to fling them.

At one point shortly after the haunting began, Mrs. Phelps begged her husband to find someone to help, so he enjoined his friend Rev John Mitchell to investigate. Mitchell decided that it must be the children having a prank, so he locked them away in the house. However, the disturbances continued, and he witnessed moving objects, among other activities, such as seeing objects appear and drop out of the air, and this convinced him that it could not be a hoax or prank.

Investigators, spiritualists, and journalists began to turn up at the house to document and attempt to prove/disprove the events. No witnesses or investigators were ever able to determine a human perpetrator of the events. These included Eliakim’s son Austin and Eliakim’s brother Abner, both of whom were sober, well-thought-of professional men in the Boston environs who were none too pleased about the family notoriety and had every reason to debunk the haunting. They heard pounding on the front door that they could not ascertain the source of, despite waiting on either side of it — the pounding occurred on the door between them, with no visible source. One night, the pounding had moved to Anna’s door, and according to Citro:

Again they took their positions on both sides of Anna’s door. The pounding continued. It came, Austin wrote, “… on the door between us. Said I, ‘Doctor, the knocking is outside of the door.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘it is on the inside.’

“The young lady was in bed, covered up and out of reach of the door. We examined the panel and found dents where it had been struck.” (Citro, 26)

Anna, the 17-year-old, was pinched and slapped, generally in view of the family, bruises and welts appearing on her arms and face. Henry, the 12-year-old, got the worst of it, apparently: he was pelted by stones while driving with his stepfather, he was carried across a room by something invisible and dropped on the floor, was thrown into a cistern of water, and several times vanished, once found in a hay mound unconscious, once found outside, tied up and suspended from a tree, and once found stuffed into the shelf of a closet with a rope around his neck.

Eliakim had apparently made attempts to communicate with the spirits perpetrating these events early on, but shut those attempts down because the communications had been so blasphemous and offensive. No transcripts were published, so we only have his word for it, and the word of his friend Mitchell, who also attempted communication. The entities apparently occasionally left Bibles open to significant passages, scrawled symbols on walls, and then, in a dramatic turn, began dropping written messages on the family, generally signed “by Sam Slick, Beelzebub, or H.P. Devil. One that fluttered into existence at Mrs. Phelp’s tea party said, ‘Sir Sambo’s compliments and begs the laddyes to accept as a token of esteem.'” (Citro, 29).

Eventually, however, he was worn down and agreed to another seance. The spirit this time claimed to be a soul in hell, requested pumpkin pie and a glass of gin, and then claimed to have been a law clerk who’d done work for Mrs. Phelps and committed fraud. Eliakim decided that this communication — despite discovering that fraud had been committed via a trip to the Philadelphia law firm in question — was worthless and bad. 


Eliakim moved the family to Philadelphia for the winter of 1850-1851, and returned in the spring of 1851, where they were no longer disturbed. According to some accounts, they stayed in the house until 1859, when Phelps sold it to Moses Beach, though they were clearly in Philadelphia in October 1858 when Mrs. Phelps died — possibly Eliakim had taken her to Philadelphia for treatment.

Apparently, there were no other reports of supernatural occurrences until it was a nursing home, at which time some staff reported strange noises and other odd occurrences,. Inevitably, Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated the house.

Supernatural theories for the Phelps haunting range from spirits raised by Eliakim’s seance to the two eldest stepchildren, Anna and Henry, being conduits for paranormal energies, to there being a ghost involved, either a murdered peddler or a woman murdered for being a witch. The non-supernatural theories tend to focus on Henry as the prankster, or on Anna and Henry as teaming up for the hoax. If the latter, perhaps Anna did not return with the family in 1851 — I have found evidence for possibly multiple marriages for her, and she might’ve decided to get away from the family by getting hitched while in Philadelphia, which would have left Henry without his partner-in-crime. Henry, for his part, went to sea, married, and had 2 children. He died in Philadelphia at age 32 of valvular disease of the heart. Of the third child I can find no trace.

Sidney, the child of Eliakim and Sarah, who notably does not appear to figure in any of the stories, married and had one child, and seems to have also died fairly young, around 46, in Philadelphia.

While many of the newspaper articles of 1850 that I’ve managed to find seem to dismiss the entire event out of hand as at least as much of a hoax as they assumed the Fox Sisters to be perpetrating, there do seem to be considerable numbers of investigators who failed to find human sources for the activities. Was the mansion haunted? If not, how were the remarkable tableaus created and how were objects flown through the air in front of witnesses? That no one who subsequently owned the mansion found secret panels or doors, or other automation of deception buried in the walls suggests that at the very least, Rev Phelps was not himself necessarily involved, and may have been an inadvertent dupe of the entire adventure.


Just an observation


This is Judy Bernly, played by Jane Fonda, in the movie “9 to 5” (1980).  She is our original POV character, walking into the company with the supertoxic boss, and she joins forces with Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) and Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton) to overthrow the Patriarchy.

Meanwhile, Judy has some issues with sporting the huge bow style of the era:

fonda2 fonda4

Until, of course, she hits her Empowering Fantasy Sequence:

fonda5 fantasy

Of course, in “real life” in the movie, things don’t go quite so picturesquely, but they do overthrow the Patriarchy (in part) and get the promotions Dolly sings about so eloquently in the title song.

I believe that Judy Bernly is the spiritual grandmother of Erin Gilbert of Ghostbusters 2016 and the world’s tiniest bowtie.  (For a variety of reasons, not least that the characters’ presentation and roles are similar, but mostly I’m just presenting this for your consideration, not wanting to argue at all.)


How Kate Clinton Made Me Gay

(Originally published on my LiveJournal on February 12, 2007.)

Long ago, before the wheel was invented (or, well, possibly somewhat after; I was a life sciences major! what did I know?), I was in college. I picked the wrong college to try first, and wandered around it like a lost soul, and stood outside the college GALA meeting (this was also before bisexuals and transfolk were invented, apparently) in a long black cloak at night under a tree, trying to make my hide in shadows roll and failing repeatedly, for half an hour. I watched the meeting of perfectly normal gay people through the walls of the large glass meeting room in which the introductory meeting was being held — whose bright idea was that? — and felt that piquant terror that many geeks feel at the idea of mingling with normal people.

Fortunately, I failed my hide in shadows roll at just the right moment and was found by a wandering pack of science fiction geeks who dragged me off to join THEIR club. None of them, alas, were willing to be gay at me, but I happily shoved the idea of gayness to the back of my head.

Then I went to a different college. I was too busy to try their GLSU meetings, but I eventually found a slightly geeky gay man who worked with me to come out to. I came out to him on one of our long, boring summer afternoons of watching over our brooding ranks of Apple II+ computers (before the invention of the hard drive). He told me the GLSU was a seething mass of politics, so maybe I didn’t want to try them. Besides, I told myself, I was bisexual (this was after I invented bisexuality), not a lesbian. Perhaps there was still hope I could be ‘normal’.

The next school year, I lived in a dorm that was next to a set of train tracks. After getting used to the sound of the train running by my back door every hour and therefore becoming less sleep-depped, I started wandering the town. One store I walked past on an almost daily basis was Wonderland Records.

I was certain it was a Head Shop.

I wasn’t really sure what, precisely, a Head Shop was, but I was certain that it wasn’t the sort of place a Nice Catholic Girl like myself should be. (This was before I invented paganism.)

It took me something like six months before I dared cross that Heady threshold.

It was, actually, a record store.* It sold records. You know, those vinyl disc things that play on phonographs. It also sold cassette tapes, but I didn’t have a cassette player, so I didn’t even bother looking at those. There was a bargain bin of 8-tracks in the corner.

I looked around the store very carefully. I found a tiny section in the racks near the windows marked “Women’s.” I thought, “Women’s music?” and flipped through it.

I don’t remember seeing anything in there except two records by Kate Clinton. One was called Thanks for the Mammaries and the other, Making Light. (This led to later confusion and disappointment when I discovered the blog of the same name.)

There was something deeply subversive and intensely scary about women’s comedy, so I fled.

It took me something like six months before I chose Making Light because it had a less intimidating (and revealing) title. I carried it to the cash register with an exaggeratedly casual air, paid the uncaring clerk for it with cash, and ran for the hills. When I got to my closet-like dorm room, I played it.

I laughed and howled and played it again.

The line that stays in my head from that album: when she’s talking about removing stuck tampons, she notes, “Fortunately, we have friends to help us.”

Over the subsequent years of waffling and confusion, that album was one of those things I returned to like an orbiting comet. It made me wonder what I could be sometime, maybe, possibly. And every return felt a little more like home. I mean dykes! Making jokes about being dykes! How cool was that? And she wasn’t mean. Well, not to anyone who didn’t deserve it. So much humor about women is based on meanness.

I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to be a woman and funny and not mean about other women? It sounds like dykes have so much fun!

(Clearly, Dykes To Watch Out For had not yet been invented. Or, well, it had. I remember seeing the title on the table of the women’s book co-op I went to twice in grad school, and wanting to flip through it, but I ran away.  Then came back later and read bits of it.)

Meanwhile, I kept getting closer and closer to realizing that being a dyke, being part of dykedom, was what I wanted.

It took me a long time to come around to coming out.

Fortunately, I had friends to help me.

Several years ago, while in Provincetown, I bought another Kate Clinton album, this time on CD, in Womencrafts (10% Dyke Discount!). I took it home and forgot it. A month or so ago, I found it again, unwrapped it, and listened to it on the way to work. I laughed and howled and played it again, this time for my wife.

When I think about lesbians, the first thing I think of is Kate Clinton’s voice. I didn’t realize this until I listened to this album.

Someday, I’d like to see her perform live. And maybe if I’m brave, I can shake her hand and thank her for helping to make me gay.


*Which does not mean it wasn’t a Head Shop.

We Have Always Been Here

I was reading some more of the reactions to JJ Abrams’ tone-deaf and white-boy-oblivious comment last December about wanting his Star Wars to attract female fans because Star Wars had always been a “boy thing.”  Which is, of course, utter bullshit, and I hope that he actually paid attention to the fans and learned a thing (but given previous experience with supposedly open-minded white male directors getting defensive as hell and refusing to learn anything about their female, queer, or POC fans, I’m not actually very hopeful).

I don’t know how I missed Elizabeth Minkel’s article in the New Statesman before, but it is extremely quotable:

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible.

On Tumblr, my old friend X-Cetra said, rightly:

Shame on JJ Abrams and Steven Moffatt and all the adult geek boys of today who have developed collective amnesia about all the girls playing with Star Wars figures, geeking about Star Trek, learning Elvish, reading comics on long car rides, recording Doctor Who off PBS, programming on Commodore 64s, gaming on Ataris, and being masochistic Dungeon Masters. I am sick of having to shout to the rafters, again and again and again, a la Kosh of Babylon 5, that WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE.

And I remembered:

My first good boss was a woman some 40+ years my senior who ran the microbiology lab classes at my university and who was the biggest Tolkien geek I have ever known. She’d read the books voraciously as they were coming out (she said it was awful, waiting for the next book — eat your hearts out, GRRM fans), taught herself Elvish as she went, and was a bit of a Tolkien scholar (how much, I never knew, or even if she was published).

During the 1970s, when there was a big resurgence of Lord of the Rings, and in one microbiology class, she found Elvish writing in the back of one of the student lab notebooks she reviewed weekly. So she wrote back. And the student wrote back.  And so on.  They carried on an Elvish correspondence for the entire semester, even as the student was turning in assignments and lab writeups.  The way she told the story, it was clearly one of her fonder memories among decades of microbiology students.

On my birthday, I went in at midnight to do some microbiology culture prep.  As I assembled my plates on the lab bench, I saw that she’d left me the biggest card I’ve ever seen, with a reproduction of one of Tolkien’s paintings on it.  The inscription was, if I recall correctly, a short quote from  Bilbo’s birthday party.  I hope I still have it somewhere, because I treasure that memory.  Best. Boss. Ever.

Damn straight we’ve always been here.

Thank you, Mrs. Clouser, for being an example for this lonely female geek.

Days and Days and Days: The Fun Home Musical

Last Saturday night, I got to (finally) see Fun Home: the Musical.


I am a HUGE Bechdel fan.  I starting reading Dykes to Watch Out For secretly, when no one was looking, while shopping at a women’s book co-op tucked into the basement of a Carytown food co-op while I was in graduate school in Richmond.  My very first therapist had told me where it was in hopes, I think, that I would realize both that I was a lesbian and my boyfriend of the time was an abusive asshat.  The bookstore had a central table and all the Dykes collections were tucked onto the side of the table toward the back of the store, and my glimpses of the interiors of the five books that were available then made me wonder where I could find these amazing women, or people like them.  I was disappointed that the women who ran the co-op weren’t Mo or Lois or Ginger, despite their best efforts to bring me into the circle.  Eventually, I ran out of excuses and halfway workable lies to tell my boyfriend about where I was going, and I stopped going to the bookstore.

I didn’t see more of Bechdel’s work until a few years later, when I left that asshat and got together with my current wife, who owned all the collections.  I read through them ravenously and then kept current via Lesbian News, which always had a set of the latest Dykes in the center of the issue, and eventually moved to the web, where Bechdel was posting them on her website.   Naturally, when Bechdel first published Fun Home, we bought it almost immediately.  (We were also lucky enough to get hold of an autographed copy of the sequel, Are You My Mother?)   If I’d been more familiar with NYC, as many of my friends are, we probably would have seen the musical sooner, but I am something of a coward about traveling, and require some time to adapt myself to the idea of going somewhere relatively new.

In this case, travel was facilitated by a friend who so strongly recommended the show that she offered us crash space at her house if we wanted to see it.  So we took her up on it.

So after spending the afternoon at the Met, we settled down to wait in the lobby of the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway, and watched people come in, including many of the actors.  I was feeling tense already.  I’d read reviews, I’d watched performances of “Ring of Keys,” I’d read Bechdel’s reaction to seeing it. I was afraid my expectations might be too high.  I was a little afraid of my own reactions to seeing it.

Annnnd right from the dimming of the lights and, “Daddy, hey, Daddy, come here, okay?” I was sitting on my vast array of feels and trying to keep them down.

Continue reading

More thinking about representation

I posted about Trixie Belden as one of my earliest, favorite People Who Looked Like Me.  But I’d be really remiss not to post about the One True Baby Butch I looked up to through my teen years.


Simultaneously an object of one of my longest-standing crushes and an example of how to perform as a tomboy/butch, Jo Polniaczek of The Facts of Life was one of the touchstones of my adolescence.  She first appeared on the show after its major reorg in 1980, and stuck with the show until it folded in 1988, which neatly bracketed my wakening realizations about How I Felt About Other Girls and the first times I stumblingly came out to friends in college.

Like Jo, I tried very hard to “soften” my tomboy image as I grew up.  I have photos of me with long hair, in makeup and skirt, and I don’t even look quite as uncomfortable as I felt in those pics.  My hair didn’t get quite as high as Jo’s did in the late episodes, but it was a close thing.  And I only briefly had a mullet.

But Jo really was was the one visual tutorial I had for how to be butch.  I wasn’t a working-class Polish-American kid, but if I squinted, I could still spot the Irish-American dye factory foremen and shoemakers in my family history.  For my last two years of high school, I was also a scholarship student at a local private school.  I couldn’t claim any particular mechanical aptitude, but I was at least not afraid to change my own damn tires once I learned to drive.  So I was certainly closer to Jo than… pretty much any other girl attending Eastland.

Jo had that masculine kata, the firm connection to the earth with each step, shoulders back, arms and fists ready to take up space, arms crossed to fend off the world when she was at rest.  She didn’t smile unless she wanted to — she certainly wouldn’t smile if some dude told her to on the street — and she almost never hid her cynicism behind an acceptable feminine expression.


The ongoing flirtation (what?  what would you call it?) between Jo and Blair fueled some of my most frustrating moments of watching television.  Just kiss already! I wanted to shout, but couldn’t because, you know, I was watching these shows with my parents.  You know you want to!  I knew I wanted them to.


Look at that flannel.  Just look at it.  It is a thing of beauty.

Mallory Ortberg put it beautifully:

Every one of Jo and Blair’s interactions falls into one of the following categories: Unhand Me You Brute You Awful Brute You’re Covered In Oil And You’ll Get My Hair Greasy, My God I Hate You Come Closer And Breathe Into My Mouth So I Can Tell You Just how Much I Hate You, and LEAVE HER ALONE SHE’S MINE. Blair’s not just from the right side of the track; her father owns most of the track. Jo’s not just a motorcycle-riding, jeans-wearing rebel without a cause, she’s the Artful Dodger in Jo March’s body in James Dean’s clothes.

I never wrote fanfic about Jo; I actually feel kind of remiss that I didn’t.  I suppose I read too much about Lisa Whelchel’s born-again Stuff to be able to manage to write something that put Jo and Blair in that long-waited clinch.  And so much else about Jo just didn’t need fanfic… it was text, it was there for us to see if we chose to.

People keep talking about a Xena reboot, and that’s cool, especially if Xena/Gabrielle is text, but I’d love a Facts of Life reboot where Jo and Blair do kiss and carry on a 1980s super-closeted torrid roommate relationship.  Nowadays, that kind of thing would be a Historical Piece.  For me, it would be the resolution of 35 years of frustration.

In any case, thank you, Jo and Nancy McKeon, for giving me that one tiny glimpse, that one striking example of gender performance that could carry me on for years until I could take up my own space and stomp the earth myself.  Until that time, I did my best imitation of Jo and carried on.

senior pic

Rabbit, rabbit!

I learned that particular bit of folklore (if the first thing you say in the morning on the first day of the month is  “rabbit rabbit,” you’ll have good luck all month) while reading Trixie Belden mystery novels when I was a 7- to 13-year-old.  I originally inherited several hardbacks from my cousin, like this one:


I added a few of the late 1970s hardback editions to fill in the blanks between her old books, like this one:


(Yes, the bindings were that crappy, and mine looked pretty much like this one did, with pages falling out.)

And later found a paperback edition that further extended the series:


I certainly read (and reread) the complete series up through book #20, and may have read a few beyond that, I don’t remember any more.

I’d made my very best attempts to read Nancy Drew, because That Is What Girls Read.  I just couldn’t manage it.  She was repellently girly.  I just couldn’t care about her. I turned to reading the Hardy Boys, and even religiously watched the Hardy Boys TV series (with Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy).  (THAT Nancy Drew — Pamela Sue Martin — was watchable, even though the books were unreadable, but they didn’t make as many episodes for her as they did for the Hardy Boys.)

My point is: Trixie Belden was the first time I saw myself in a book.

Okay, I’m not blonde OR perky OR outdoorsy.  I didn’t have any siblings, my friends were thin on the ground, and I certainly didn’t live in suburban/rural New York OR have a club for investigating mysteries.

But I was a baby butch from pretty much age 5 onward.  I resisted skirts, dresses, and anything frilly because they made me feel stiff and icky, basically, and my mother, kind and patient woman that she is, let me.  More than that, she supported my right to dress however I wanted.  The woman went toe-to-toe with the parish priest to get permission for me to wear a pantsuit for my first communion when I was six.  And won.  So I wore pants.  I wore turtlenecks.  My 7th and 8th grade pictures are rife with me in turtlenecks and flannels, for gods’ sake.

Trixie Belden wore short-sleeved buttondowns and jeans by preference.  She had a best friend, Honey, who was beautiful and femme.  I had some serious Feels about their friendship that often slid into wondering when they’d start kissing, which they never did, of course, but I shipped them hard before I knew what shipping even was.

All the other “girl sleuths” in existence spent nearly as much time on their wardrobes and other girly-ass things as the heroines of Regency romances, but not Trixie!  She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or be clever (heck, she saved her younger brother from a snakebite!), and the boys in the club almost never ended up saving her, or if they did, it wasn’t nearly as overweening and preachy as in other books.


Plus, come on, this chick is a butch:


The heterosexual romance threads all annoyed the hell out of me, but even at that age, I realized that they were compulsory in this genre, so I held my nose and read between the lines for what I didn’t know at the time were the “slash moments.”

This culminated in my starting to write a fanfic sometime in my late 20s in which Trixie did, in fact, grow up to be a private investigator, but was also a dyke, and was coming home to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance. Alas that I never did finish it.

Trixie  holds a special place in my heart as the first other butch I ever really discovered, and whose adventures I could read and actually enjoy, as opposed to those (heterosexual propaganda) stories written for the YA population.  Finding her was my own  “Ring of Keys” moment: there ARE other people like me.

We exist.

Representation matters.

I still have trouble finding butches in the genres I choose to read, despite increasing visibility for the FABGLITTER population.  I’m happy to read about FABGLITTER folks anywhere, any time, but I confess that my delight is just a little greater, my mind a little lighter, when I stumble on someone who looks like me in fiction.

And this is why I write what I do.  Because it matters.

Short Character Overview: Ira

Ira Solomon Feldstein

Birthdate: 9 April 1928

Height: 5’10” (in prime)

Weight: about 175 lbs

Race: Hebrew (as they say in the old census records!)

Spandex name: Mister Metropolitan (retired)

Sign: Aries

Blood type: B

College degree: Accounting, Wonder City Business College

Paranormal powers:

  • Strength: Class 4
  • Invulnerability: Class 5

Other notes:

In my original timeline, I was married to Elizabeth McCallum, a.k.a Tin Lizzie, and we had one child, Joshua.  In this timeline, though, I was originally married to Andrea Prinz, who was Mrs. Metropolitan for a while, and she was the mother of Joshua.  Apparently, I cheated on Andrea with Violet Stein, and ended up divorcing Andrea and marrying Violet for a decade or so of misery before we divorced.  I don’t remember any of the stuff that happened in the current timeline, but everyone else does.  As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been a widower since Lizzie went into the Great Gulf in 1984.

Wonder City Stories, the Web Serial

I started writing the episodes of the serial with only a few ideas about characters and where I wanted the story to go, but didn’t snag and start posting until I knew what the ending of the first story arc was going to be.  I knew I was going to have a character be my “Maryanne”—who was the innocent, just-come-to-town lead point-of-view character in Tales of the City—and I named her Megan, but she grew as I wrote her in the first draft into the butch, queer, not-quite-eight-foot-tall daughter of a retired superhero named The Amazon.  Despite knowing about her first, Megan’s voice was difficult to find, and only really came together in the novel.

I also knew that Ira Feldstein, my octogenarian, Jewish, retired superhero Mister Metropolitan, was going to be a major character, and Ira’s POV voice snapped into place powerfully and immediately.  The fact that he was displaced from his own original timeline — or possibly not — came later, with all his fears that maybe he was just “losing it.”  My exploration of aging superheroes was not done with Ira; it came back with a vengeance in the third story arc of the serial.

Nereid, believe it or not, was going to be my mean girl.  But she fought me mightily, and quickly won the battle.  Traces of the mean girl can be spotted in her earliest episodes posted in the serial, and that was one of the things I had to change when I was editing/rewriting bits of the first story arc to turn it into the novel: making Nereid’s character consistent, and show more growth and backbone.  Nereid’s character got a major upgrade in the second story arc of the serial—which will be published as a novel called Ephemera in 2016—and I had to reconcile that Nereid with the first novel’s Nereid.

Finally, there was Suzanne Feldstein, Ira’s daughter-in-law, my token non-paranormal POV character.  She took some reworking as well for the novel; I wanted her to be a white woman with some clues about the world, but I also wanted to show her as being very stuck in the past.  I think I succeeded in getting early Suzanne to move fairly smoothly into the Suzanne we see at the end of the novel, the one who’s trying to get on with her life.

Strong supporting characters I didn’t expect included pretty much everyone, but especially Simon.  I adore Simon, my readers adore Simon: I didn’t expect, or even hope for, a Michael Tolliver/Mouse character (one of the best-known and best-loved characters of the Tales of the City books), but I got one anyway.

G originally didn’t work as well as, say, Watson Holmes, so she was kind of a struggle to write.  I finally realized why, as I was working my way through the serial.  As a result, her story leads into and drives much of the second story arc.  Watson has gone on to become one of my favorite recurring characters in the serial, along with her sister Death, who only shows up occasionally, but is awfully memorable when she does appear.

And then, of course, there’s Zoltan, who I loved enough to write an entire novella—”His Faded Idol”—about.  That novella may get blown out to novel length before I put it out; I have some ideas about things I’d like to do with it.  Hoping for that at the end of 2016 or early 2017. *fingers crossed*

I might start doing more in-depth discussions of some of the characters, or maybe a bit of Wonder City history now.  We’ll see what moves me to write in a few days.