“Artificial lights may appear, claiming to come from heaven…”
—Ellen White, Elmshaven, 1901
America is a country of ghosts, a nation-state of the dead. Transient towns dot forgotten highways curving through bone dry deserts. Phantom smokers haunt empty parking lots atop desecrated graves with their blue hazes. Even the golden coast, the dreamy end of roads, is filled with fallen petals of old neighborhoods and times. Most Northern Californians can tell you what it’s like to have a burnt city pass over and linger in your lungs as a little limbo before completing its pilgrimage to the sea.
America’s ghost stories are different from other countries, whose ghosts are named and tied to histories of people and place. Our history is estranged from the dead it stands upon. Ghost stories need time to be told. With a couple of centuries, we are approaching an age of maturity to look back and see shapes form out of folklore and paranormal accounts.
An interesting and relevant example is the strange story of a Mexican land grant from 1841 given to a “Dr.” Edward Turner Bale. The land was called Rancho Carne Humana, and is still described as such in the Napa County Recorder’s Office. There are several rather unsatisfying theories as to why this place was given such a curious name. Edward Bale served as a surgeon to General Vallejo’s men in 1840 although it seems all of the medical training he may have received was shadowing the ship’s carpenter on a treacherous voyage from England to California.
The land was called Colijolmanoc by the Wappo people of Napa Valley and it is thought that perhaps Dr. Bale punned the Rancho Carne Humana from this name. That does not satisfy me, but who knows the possible puns in a valley full of Mexican military, Wappo smallpox survivors, and this eerie Englishman. Perhaps it was just a snide remark to his reputation as a surgeon. In a hauntingly premonitory twist of fate, survivors of the Donner Party — the group of Midwestern pioneers caught in the wintery Sierras on their way to California who had to survive the harsh elements by consuming their deceased fellow travelers — were recouped and hosted by Edward Bale at Rancho Carne Humana. Even though there is no explicit apparition tied to this history, the land itself seems to be present and participating in the stories upon it. And if you’re looking for a phantom, it won’t take you long to get a ghost story out of a Napa native: Victorian homes become crowded, memories of the slave trade are recounted by children, strange, red creatures haunt particular streets.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is very much a response to the ghosts of America. Very literal ones, in fact. The Fox Sisters heard their first spirit rappings in 1848 — only four years after Ellen White had her first encounters with the numinous — and within two years became famous for their public seances. Adventism and Spiritualism were sisters in the nineteenth century boom of religious innovation in America, both promising the potential for young women to be messengers of the beyond.
Of course, you don’t have to believe in ghosts in order to see them pass by. Even Ellen White, clairvoyantly gifted as she was, recalls paragraphs of a dream-state conversation she had with her recently deceased spouse, James. She recounts so in a letter to her son, Willie C. White, on a September Monday in 1881 from the Rollinsville post office in Gilpin County, Colorado, five weeks after James had passed. He communicates what you would expect to hear from a spouse beyond the grave, encouraging Ellen to not let others burden her with responsibilities:
“The Lord did not require us to carry so heavy burdens and many of our brethren so few. We ought to have gone to the Pacific Coast before and devoted our time and energies to writing. Will you do this now? Will you, as your strength returns, take your pen and write out these things we have so long anticipated, and make haste slowly?”
(It is interesting James makes no comment regarding the theological or doctrinal implications of this posthumous visit. I imagine if he did, it would be critiqued as counterintelligence from one of the deceptive spirits he and Ellen spent so much time writing and warning against. Is this ghostly omission a deliberate choice in paranormal church politics? Ellen reflects this spousal savvy by not lingering on the dream visit in writing. Recording it at all has attracted accusations of spiritualism and witchcraft from those who already see the Adventist Church as a cult. Nonetheless, the omission of doctrinal speculation, Ellen’s established clairvoyance, and the vividness of the dream (to an experienced visionary, no less), and its message leaves us to accept this story as data. Something happened here.)
Less than ten years before that dream, in 1872, Ellen and James White set out to start a publishing house in the San Francisco Bay Area. They rode on the ferry from San Francisco to Oakland. I don’t know if the bay’s water was cleaner then than it is now. They might have chuckled over the apocryphal Twain quote around this time, that the coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco. Another apocryphal quote is attributed to Ellen on this ferry ride. The wintery summer fog must have lifted from the Bay. Perhaps the sun caught the sight of Oakland as it still does on a rare clear, crisp day. Willie and James Edson, their two sons, were with them, then 18 and 23 respectively. They probably heard the noises and cheers from the Shellmound Amusement Park, a new attraction to the San Francisco Bay. The park was named so because it was built on one the shellmounds of the Ohlone people of the East Bay, a coastal hillock that served as a village occupied 2,700 years before this afternoon, as well as a resting place for the community’s dead. James Edson was already married at this time, but it is easy to imagine the thrill such a sight would inspire in Willie, a single 18-year-old: the racetrack, the carousels, its two dancing halls, its shooting range. On this ride, looking with young, judicious sons onto the vibrant thrills of amusement parks built on ghostly grounds, far-flung hullabaloos across the water, Ellen turned to James and said, allegedly inspired, “Somewhere in Oakland is the place to locate the paper.”
James Edson White would continue to work in publishing, specializing in printing hymnals and music books both with the Pacific Press and then with his own J. E. White Publishing Company, a couple of years after his father passed and Willie had received the aforementioned letter of his mother’s dream. James Edson’s faith and fervor was reinvigorated in 1893 by an appeal written by his mother, unlastingly titled, “Our Duty to the Colored People,” penned at the beginning of her stay in Australia. Three years later, he and his wife would outfit a steamboat to be a traveling school, teaching illiterate folks along the Yazoo River to read and write. Their boat: The Morning Star. Forbidden knowledge in Mississippi.
Ellen returned to Oakland in 1900, shortly before the University of California excavated the site of the Ohlone Shellmound underneath the amusement park. The park would be closed in 1924 and the land would serve as an industrial plant until being demolished by the City of Emeryville Redevelopment Agency in 1999. Of course, demolition workers found Ohlone artifacts in the earth, like gold emerging from the sifting dirt of a prospector’s pan. And of course, despite protests, the site was redeveloped and presently serves as the Bay Street Shopping Center, Ikea and all. Another shellmound, a five-minute drive north in West Berkeley, was dated to be 5,700 years old, older than the Pyramids of Giza and Jerusalem. This shellmound sits under a parking lot across Spenger’s Fish Grotto, opened in the 1890s, closed in 2018. Ohlone descendants and activists recently succeeded in halting further development on the land just a year prior.
Ellen was 73 when she returned to Oakland, looking for a final resting home. She would have just missed the mysterious airships of 1896, reported from Sacramento to San Francisco. A Mr. R. L. Lowery said he heard a voice on the ship barking orders for higher elevation in order to avoid the church steeple, as it evaded the tower of a brewery. A couple of the reported sightings were later found to be fabrications and hoaxes. Critics would assume that therefore all of them must be publicity ploys by unscrupulous publications. However, we must mind that publicity stunts as such could only work if the public recognizes a subject they have witnessed and are perhaps seeking to know more. Again, something happened here. The memory of the mystery ships in the sky and their lonely lights at night evaporated from public consciousness, much like memories of the unnamed and unknown dead.
Ellen had a hard time finding a home in Oakland and went to the Rural Health Retreat in St. Helena to rest and see old friends. There she purchased a fully furnished home built by the railroad businessman Robert Platt, who in turn had received the land from his brother. The Elmshaven website alleges the original property that has since been divvied up into different parcels was an “abandoned Indian stronghold.” Ellen would continue to have visions in her home of Elmshaven, sometimes being surrounded by beings of light in her living room, late at night. She would write them down just like James asked in that dream twenty years ago.
Did I mention that Elmshaven stands on the edge of Rancho Carne Humana? The land had stories to tell. Ellen became one of them.
After fifteen years of living on this hauntingly curious parcel of land, Ellen became one of the ghosts. She passed away in Elmshaven on July 16, 1915, the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, prayed to by millions for the delivery of ghosts from Purgatory. Mount Carmel being the mountain upon which a prophet of God called fire from heaven.
Fifteen years of visions from this solitary period of her life ask to be revisited and seen by more eyes. Starry beings in dark writing rooms in an elderly clairvoyant’s home in the woods. Early on in her Elmshaven writings, in 1901, she began the short entry quoted in the epigraph about artificial lights descending from the sky.
I was in Napa during the weeks it took the incinerated city of Paradise, California to march over Rancho Carne Humana towards the still buried shellmounds of the Bay. If Elmshaven did indeed stand on an “abandoned Indian stronghold,” I wonder what it was holding out against? And why was it abandoned? It could simply be smallpox or an inaccurate memory or a marketing attempt to further historicize a location. I visited my aunt as she recovered from surgery in the Adventist Health St. Helena, the Rural Health Retreat’s present name. Her window looked over the elm-covered hills. I didn’t, but the Elmshaven tour guides claim nurses from that hospital see a “heavenly glow” come from the property from time to time.
Of course, Ellen wrote virulently against non-Protestant spirit models and would probably object to any participation in these stories. But if we are to honor her, we must place her in a wider, human story as opposed to bottling her up in an Adventist vacuum. A human story we are still discovering. Something happened here. Something weirder than Adventism already is. Something that Adventism isn’t yet allowed to consider real. But something happened here.
Bryan Nashed is one of the cohosts of The Badventist Podcast. A graduate of La Sierra Academy, he studied English and Media Studies at UC Berkeley. He works at a nonprofit career center in San Francisco and attends the LIFE Adventist Church in Berkeley, CA.
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