Friday, December 18, 2015

Book Review: A Christmas Canticle by Frank E. Bittinger

For those of us who love a good ghost story, no matter what time of year it is, Frank E. Bittinger provides a fun holiday read with A Christmas Canticle.

Channeling Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol for inspiration, Bittinger gives us his version of Ebenezer Scrooge - Bronson Ghostley, a demanding gothic horror author, paranormal television star, and all-around media personality who has no time for sentiment or holidays.

This twist on the familiar holiday tale has been up-dated to the 21st century complete with cell phones, DVDs and the internet. Although the story is predictable as to the purpose of the visiting spirits (And how could it not be?), Bittinger leads us along with enough interesting details that we accept Ghostley as a modern-day Scrooge.

His spin on Marley’s ghost is unique and interesting, especially when you begin to understand the backstory of Ghostley’s childhood. The Ghost of Christmas Past has a unique vision, offering Ghostley “two sides of the same coin.” The Spirit of Christmas Present provides more illumination into what makes Ghostley tick, reminding him, and us, that “even when we can see, sometimes we are still blind.”

The final spirit, the dreaded Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, is a “real bite in the ass” according to Ghostley. But the death coach that propels Ghostley into the future does seem pretty cool!

All in all, A Christmas Canticle is an enjoyable holiday read offering a message that transcends religious ideology and simply asks that we treat our fellow man, woman, and the animals, with respect and caring.

[The Youngblood’s 1960s song Get Together kept running through my mind as the perfect soundtrack for this book:

Come on people now

Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now]

The Author and A Friend
Bittinger originally wrote his book as a Kindle exclusive to raise money for animals in need.  Now available in paperback, a portion of the royalties from A Christmas Canticle are used to assist in rescuing and caring for animals that have been abused and neglected. So go ahead, order the book and enjoy the guilty pleasure of reading a rejuvenated Christmas novella by the fire knowing that you're helping to save lives, too.

A Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good read!

~ Joy

About the Author:
Over the centuries, Frank Bittinger has experienced many existences. In this incarnation, Mr. Bittinger is a vegan who lives and writes in Western Maryland, sharing his home with a menagerie of pets, several alternate personalities, and the occasional ghost. One of his favorite pastimes is taking walks in old cemeteries in the evening. Ancient Egypt holds a fascination for him; he has a scarab beetle tattoo between his shoulder blades as well as a collection of Egyptian items and books in his deep, dark red bedroom. Learn more about the author at his web site:

Book Details:
A Christmas Canticle by Frank E. Bittinger
Published and available at  Amazon   (2014)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Twelve Terms of Death

We’ve all heard them - in fact, we’ve probably used them – those sometimes obscure references to death. The terms may be considered euphemistic, polite, even rather humorous slang, but they all indicate one thing - you’re “pushing up daisies.”

He came to a sticky end
This British phrase indicates that someone died in a rather unpleasant manner.

She’s as dead as a dodo
This was a popular phrase in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dodos were a type of flightless bird that became extinct in the 17th century, so the saying indicates that someone is also “extinct” or gone.

He bit the big one
This expression is U.S. slang for having died: very popular in the 1970s.

She’s gone to that big ranch in the sky
The location of where the deceased went, in this case the “big ranch,” usually correlates with a place he or she visited in life.
Davy Jones Locker

He’s gone down to Davy Jones’ locker
Seamen used this phrase to indicate a sailor who drowned at sea, or a ship that went down in the ocean.

She’s shuffled off this mortal coil
This expression indicates that someone has rid themselves of their earthly troubles. Shakespeare used the phrase in Hamlet, “What dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

He bought the farm
This slang phrase derives from a farmer having a life insurance policy. When the farmer died, the insurance paid off the remainder of his debt and “bought the farm” for his family.

She’s as dead as a doornail
Although the phrase dates back to at least the 14th century, Charles Dickens gets the main credit because it is the narrator in A Christmas Carol who says, “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” A doornail that has been bent is said to be “dead” – not usable. The expression indicates something, or someone, who is no longer of service.

He kicked the bucket
Believed to have come into use during the Middle Ages, this phrase was used when someone was hanged, and the bucket or stool on which they stood was moved, or kicked away.

She’s met her maker
A euphemistic expression indicating that the deceased has gone to meet God.

He’s six feet under
To be six feet under is to be dead and buried. Six feet is considered to be the common depth of a grave.

She’s pushing up daisies
Popular in the early 20th century, this expression was better known in the 1800's as “turning up one’s toes.” Regardless of the phrasing, it still meant someone was "dead and buried."

Now it’s time to “give up the ghost,” (which can mean ‘to die’, but it can also mean ‘to stop working’) and enjoy the weekend!
~ Joy

Friday, November 20, 2015

13 Grave Markers With Descriptions

It is amazing, the different shapes and styles of cemetery stones you can find in the graveyard. Here is a list of some of the most common, and some of the more unique.

Box Tomb
Box Tombs

This is a rectangular shaped above ground grave marker, sometimes constructed of brick or stone with four sides and a slab top. There is no “floor,” and the body is buried below ground. This style is very popular in the eastern and southern parts of the U.S.

White Bronze Cradle Grave
Cradle Grave Marker
Curbing, or small walls, surround the grave and usually incorporates the headstone in the design. The interior was then filled with live flowers. Many now sprout weeds since left unattended; others have been filled with concrete to keep a “clean” look about them. Despite the name, a cradle grave does not indicate that a child is buried here. Today, they are called kerbed headstones.

Flat Stone

Flat Headstones

These markers lay directly on the ground, which makes mowing easier. You will find many of these were created from cement with names and dates hand-carved into the marker during the Depression years.

Gateway Arch

Gateway Headstone
This stone is usually seen on the graves of a married couple. It is made up of two columns connected by an arch. It also known as “The Portal to Eternity.”

Grave House
Grave Houses
A grave house is a building constructed over a grave to protect it from the elements and, at one time, grave robbers. The structure resembles a tiny house with walls and a roof; many have small windows and a door. Others have tiny openings, which are known as spirit windows. 

Individualistic Markers

These began with angels and lions, guarding mausoleums and above ground markers. Today, they take a decidedly personal approach as seen by these figures and icons representing the souls of those whose graves they mark.

Ledger Stone
Ledger with Cut-Away
Flat Ledger Stone
This flat, rectangular stone is laid directly upon the ground and covers the grave completely. The top is used for inscriptions or cut out designs.

Monolith Marker
Monolith Stone
This is an upright stone placed upon a base. It is very common in the cemetery.

These four-sided towering spires were popular in the 19th century and were a part of the Egyptian Revival Movement; notice the top tapers into the shape of a pyramid. These stones usually mark the graves of those who had standing, and money, in the community.

Pulpit Gravestone
Pulpit Stone
Pulpit Tree Stone
This stone has a slanted surface and resembles a lectern. They may also look like an open book. Many people assume that the book is a bible but not necessarily; it can also represent “The Book of Life.”

There are several variations of this marker but all take their influences from the Egyptian Revival Movement of the 19th Century. The style is still considered rare in cemeteries.

Detailed Sarcophagus
This stone receptacle is placed on a pedestal and has inscriptions and designs engraved upon it. This marker was very popular from the latter part of the 19th Century up until the 1950s in the U.S.

Tree Stone
WOW Emblem

Tree Stone
These carved markers resemble tree trunks or stumps with vining ivy, severed branches, and other icons that tell a story about the person buried there. The tree stone was adopted by Modern Woodmen of America and Woodmen of the World, but a stone does not signify that someone belonged to either organization unless their emblem is on it.
Now, head out to a cemetery this weekend and see what you discover.

~ Joy

Friday, November 6, 2015

Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald - 40 Years Later

Next Tuesday will mark the 40th anniversary of the final voyage of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which occurred on November 10, 1975. The freighter went down in a storm on Lake Superior, taking all 29 on board.

SS Edmund Fitzgerald
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was launched on June 8 and made her maiden voyage on September 24, 1958. She was one of the largest ships to traverse the Great Lakes at 729-feet, and also the largest ship to have sunk there.

Mr. Edmund Fitzgerald
The ship was named for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company’s president and chairman of the board, Edmund Fitzgerald. The insurance company owned the Fitzgerald. The ship had several nicknames including “The Big Fitz,” and the “Titanic of the Great Lakes.”

The ship mainly carried iron ore from the mines near Duluth, Minnesota to the iron works located in Detroit and other ports on the Great Lakes. Round trips usually took her five days, and she made between 45 and 50 trips a season. It was estimated that she had made close to 750 trips during her 17 years on the Lakes. The Fitzgerald set numerous hauling records, many times besting her old records.

Superior, Wisconsin Lighthouse
On November 9, 1975 the Fitzgerald departed from Superior, Wisconsin loaded with 26,116 tons of ore pellets, and heading to Detroit. Her captain was 63-year-old Ernest M. McSorley, a Canadian with over 40 years experience on the Great Lakes. McSorley had taken over as captain of the freighter in 1972. This was to have been his final voyage before retirement.

November Gales
The ship was en route for all of 20 minutes when the National Weather Service issued gale warnings for the region that the Fitzgerald would be sailing into early the next morning. This was a bad omen as November is known as “The Month of Storms” on the Great Lakes, and this year “ ...the gales of November came early.”

At 1:00 a.m. on November 10, the ship reported winds at 52 knots and waves about 10 feet high; she was 20 miles south of Isle Royale.

At 7:00 a.m. another weather report was issued from the ship. This time winds were at 35 knots and waves were holding at 10 feet. The ship would not make another weather report.

Captain McSorley
It was 3:30 p.m. when Captain McSorley radioed to the SS Arthur M. Anderson, another ship also out in the storm, reporting damage and requesting that the Anderson stay close until the Fitz could get to Whitefish Bay Michigan.

Final Course
About 4:10 Captain McSorley radioed the Anderson that he had lost both radars and needed assistance with his position. The Anderson radioed back that they would keep the Fitzgerald advised of their position. (To hear the actual radio communication, visit

SS Fitzgerald 1971
Around 7 p.m., the Anderson radioed that it was following the Fitzgerald, lagging about 10 miles behind. When asked how McSorley was “making out with your problem?  He replied, “We are holding our own.” It was the last transmission that would come from the Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship hit a squall at 7:15 p.m. and 10 minutes later, the Fitzgerald vanished from radar.

At 2 a.m. on November 11, the William Clay Ford arrived at the site where the Fitzgerald went down – 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan. There were no survivors.

It was later reported that winds reached 45 knots where the Fitzgerald had last been reported, with waves as high as 30 feet.

In May 1976, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was officially identified. Its final resting place is about 520 feet underwater in Lake Superior. Divers reported that both water pumps were damaged on the ship, and the lifeboats had been destroyed by the storm’s force. Many speculate that the ship was taken down by huge waves swamping or pushing the Fitz underwater.

Numerous expeditions have been conducted at the wreckage site over the years. The U.S. Coast Guard rejected a preliminary report of faulty hatches in 1978. To this day an actual reason for the ship’s sinking remains undetermined.

The ship’s bell was raised in 1995 and restored. It now rests in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, Michigan. Each November 10th the bell tolls 29 times in memory of the 29 crewmen who died that fateful night.

Gordon Lightfoot commemorated the sinking of the freighter with his song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” released in 1976.  (This version includes edited footage by Joseph Fulton.)

It is now forty years later, and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is still one of the greatest tragedies, and biggest mysteries to have ever occurred on any of the Great Lakes.


Special thanks to:

Friday, October 30, 2015

Haunted Ashmore Estates – Ashmore, Illinois

It’s October – my favorite time of year, and with it comes the chance to investigate some haunted places around the U.S. This year, A Grave Interest has focused on haunted houses, and the spirits who are up to some mischief making … Here’s one final look!

Photos courtesy Ashmore Estates
It was once a poor house where Coles County, Illinois residents could go and work for food and lodging. Residents grew their food on the farm; butchered and smoked their meats, churned butter, and grew the vegetables.

The current structure was built in 1916 on the same ground the original Alms House had stood on for almost 60 years. Built in the Neo-Georgian style, the three-story building also had a basement.

The Coles County Poor Farm operated until 1959 when it, and the surrounding land, was sold to Ashmore Estates, Inc. for use as a private psychiatric hospital. The hospital operated for five years before going broke and closing its doors.

One year later, in 1965, the facility opened again as a public mental institution, taking patients in from all over the state. By the late 1960s, the hospital had 50 residents in-house.

Ashmore Estates was sold again in 1976 and an attempt to modernize the building began. It took until the mid-1980s for the reconstruction to be completed, but by 1986, the facility was heavily in debt. By April, residents were being transferred to other locations and the psychiatric hospital was closed.

The building was left abandoned for years and rumors began to spread that it was extremely haunted. (It’s now listed as one of the three most haunted places in Illinois.) On Halloween night in 1995, the old caretaker’s home, across the road, was burned by vandals. As the spooky tales increased, so did the vandalism; all of the windows were broken out, people entered the building to spray paint the walls, damage the structure, and party with the “spirits.” As the years went by, Ashmore Estates continued to fall into decline.

Reports of full body apparitions have been made, especially involving a little girl. Some say it is four-year-old Elva Skinner, a child who died in the first almshouse back in 1880. The story goes that Elva was hurrying to get dressed one cold February morning when she stepped too close to the fireplace and her dress caught fire. She died later that day as the result of her burns. It is believed that Elva has haunted the property since her tragic death over 130 years ago.

An apparition of a man has been seen jumping from a window to his “death.” Another figure is that of a man wearing a dressy top hat who roams the hallways. Music can be heard in the building along with singing coming from the empty music room.

Local television weather personality, Kevin Orpurt stayed in the house overnight in 2009. He reported several incidents in the basement area where it felt as if something was trying to lift him off the ground. Around 4 am while the group he was with went up to the second floor to investigate, Orpurt stayed on the first floor. He has no recollection of how he came to be body-slammed onto the floor, but awoke in pain, surrounded by the rest of the group who decided it was some type of evil spirit that did not want him in the building.

The crew of the Travel Channel series, Ghost Adventurers recently recorded a show here. During filming they encountered banging noises, dark shadow figures, disembodied voices and scratches. Watch the Ashmore Estates episode on their web page:

A fierce storm hit in 2013 with wind speeds up to 100 mph. The building’s roof was blown off and the classic gables were destroyed. Most said the building was beyond repair. But the paranormal community stepped up and has assisted the new owners in bringing the building back to life. Another storm, which hit in May of this year, damaged the roof again and repairs have been made.

But this is no Halloween “haunted house.” Paranormal investigators and ghost hunters are welcome to set an appointment to schedule their investigations in the building. Horror movie producers and several ghost investigative shows have already stayed at the estates, shooting apparitions, mists and recording voices in the night.
Private investigations may be conducted overnight or during the daytime. Contact Ashmore Estates for current fees, and to set an appointment.

And, it gets better! A public Halloween investigation will be taking place tomorrow night at Ashmore. In what will be a 12-hour “lock-down” – from 6 pm Oct 31 to 6 am November 1  – twelve people will be admitted to explore and experience the estate on the night when the veil is the thinnest. Check the web site to see if the slots are already filled.

Next year will mark the 100 Anniversary of Ashmore Estates, and who knows what spooktacular discoveries await us …

~ Joy
Ashmore Estates
22645 E. County Road 1050N
Ashmore, IL
(217) 899-9978