Adelaide Crapsey, A Ghost Story

We’re a couple of weeks past Halloween, but let’s finish out our series on American poet Adelaide Crapsey with a ghost story about two families. Perhaps you don’t believe in ghosts? That’s OK. In this story one family believes in ghosts and the other one doesn’t.

As we learned yesterday, a young scholar and writer of poetry, Adelaide Crapsey was struck down just days after she turned 36 in 1914 by tuberculosis. Though greatly weakened by her illness, she had worked on organizing a book-length collection of her poems in her final year, including a section introducing examples of a new poetic form she had created.

Alas, she didn’t seem to have a publisher when she died. It’s uncertain who knew about the poems she’d selected. Adelaide had a strong belief in self-reliance and not burdening her friends and family, and so for as long as possible she’d kept the news of her grave diagnosis from them, and some of the poems in her manuscript (such as the ones used in our last post) spoke frankly about her illness, pain, and thoughts on mortality.

adelaide crapsey grave

A grave marker that doesn’t burden you either. She ended her collection of poems: “Wouldst thou find my ashes? Look/In the pages of my book”

 

There were some external reasons for this desire not to burden her family. Her father, Algernon Crapsey* had been a prominent Episcopal priest in Rochester New York, one who had practiced a ministry to the poor and other disadvantaged portions of the Gilded Age. Adelaide’s father came to believe that certain spiritual beliefs of his church were not only of doubtful accuracy, but that taken on faith they would hinder service to the poor. Once he decided he was right about this, he wouldn’t shut up about it either. He preached it, he wrote articles and books about this: if you believe in miracles and heavenly rewards you are all too likely to not feel the need to make your own miracles by action here and now, in this life, on this Earth.

This put his church in a bind. Here was a churchman who was known for manifest good works around the state of New York, a Christian hero of a sort—but who was also vocally opposed to church doctrine.

So it was that a few years before Adelaide Crapsey died that a committee of investigators from the Episcopal diocese came to the parsonage where Adelaide had grown up to question her father on these matters. Her father was out, doing those good works. Her mother was worn-out from dealing with this all. Adelaide, like any good PK,** stepped in as hostess. The story is told that she served them tea and kept them graciously talking as the tea went down.

Oh, and she had spiked the tea with rum. It was said the investigators inquisitorial rigor suffered a decline during their wait.

But Adelaide’s father would not keep quiet. He eventually met with a church trial for heresy.***  He claimed the heresy of the church not serving the poor as Jesus commanded was far greater than any they could charge him with over supernatural events, but the church’s hierarchy convicted him. Maybe he wasn’t a heretic who believed in different gods or another heavenly host, but it just wouldn’t do to be a priest of their church who didn’t profess the right beliefs.

No burning at the stake though, he was just written out of his job and the church. The family had to leave the parsonage where they had lived for decades for a house some supporters found for them elsewhere in town.

Adelaide, like her family, didn’t believe in heaven and hell. And now she was dead, and as her poem had put it, her mouth was now part of the quiet as with falling snow and the hour before dawn.

In another part of the same town, there was a successful architect, Claude Bragdon. What kind of architect? Do you know the names of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, or Buckminster Fuller? Claude Bragdon was that type, committed to artistic principles, in his case to a religious and mystical level. Indeed, he had a strong side-interest in Theosophy, a 19th century unified field theory of spiritualism and hermetic knowledge. He had known the Crapsey family and Adelaide at least somewhat. Adelaide had taken his mystical bent in stride, calling him “cube man” due to his fascination with the hypercube (which I think may be related to Buckminster Fuller’s theories about the geometric nature of the universe).

Claude_Bragdon

“The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone/Causes Galileo’s math book to be thrown” Claude Bragdon sings the Tombstone Blues.

 

Claude Bragdon had not been married long when Adelaide Crapsey died. His new wife, Eugénie had never met Adelaide. One day, in that silent time of the hour before the dawn, something happened. Here’s how he described it in his autobiography:

One morning in the summer of 1915 I was awakened by my wife Eugénie, who asked me if I knew anyone by the name of Adelaide. I told her that Mrs. Algernon Crapsey’s name was Adelaide, and it had also been that of her daughter, who had died a short time before. “Take me to see Mrs. Crapsey,’ said Eugénie, ‘because I was awakened by the sound of her name, repeated over and over: Adelaide! Adelaide!’ “

Now if a chill runs up and down your spine to hear this, the architect and his wife may have taken it more calmly. Not only were spirit voices and mediumship part and parcel of Theosophy, Eugénie was a “Delphic Woman” in her husband’s estimation, one who used automatic writing to take down sayings and messages from the ether.****  And so now Eugénie’s automatic writing sessions became peppered with messages from the late Adelaide Crapsey. With a little interpretation, the messages seemed to be referring to the poems, the book-length collection Adelaide had been working on.

Book negotiations have been known to get complicated, and I haven’t read all the source materials for this story*****  but somehow the husband and wife mystic family convinced the social-gospel materialist family to go through the late Adelaide Crapsey’s effects, and retrieve the manuscript. I can see this scene written in Mulder and Scully dialog.

Claude came out of the Arts and Crafts movement, so buildings weren’t his only art. He also ran a small press for books on his theories and other Theosophical works. He became the book designer and publisher that introduced the world to Adelaide Crapsey the poet and determined ghost.

What became of Adelaide’s ghostly voice? It didn’t do a book tour or poetry readings—pity that, it would have pipped Tupac’s hologram by nearly a century and spiced up the valves of many a bookstore. The final automatic writing messages thanked the Bragdons for their efforts and assured everyone that the other side was a fine and happy place where she didn’t miss living at all. Just so much “Bread and butter notes” from the beyond.

At this point the man with the skinny tie and narrow lapel suit should step forward from the shadows and wrap things up, but where’s today’s audio piece?

Well, I did say that Claude Bragdon had many artistic interests. One of his friends was Alfred Stieglitz, the pioneering art photographer who was connected to another famous photographer Edward Steichen, a friend and brother-in-law of Carl Sandburg. Either through that connection, or Sandburg’s strong early interest in short poems created with concrete images rather than abstract words, or some Great Lakes leftist linkage between Adelaide’s social gospel preaching progressive father and the Milwaukee and Chicago based socialist Sandburg (maybe more than one of the above?) made Carl Sandburg aware of Adelaide Crapsey’s poetry and story, and he wrote a passionate elegy for her.

Here’s my performance of that poem of Sandburg’s, available with the player below. The full text of Sandburg’s poem is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

 

*I should have warned you: as elsewhere in this story, the 19th century names are full-flavored.  If Lemony Snicket reads this, let it be known that I will defend my intellectual property to the upmost here!

**PK, “Preacher’s Kid.” As a class, they have an opportunity to grow up with an interest in philosophy, ethics and words, but also with a childhood were the expectation to be good and the desire to rebel have to be balanced from a too-early age. Alternative reader here Dave Moore and my wife are both PKs.

***The story of Adelaide’s father Algernon Crapsey sounds eerily similar to a tale from The Sixties and another Episcopal clergyman (a bishop no less!) James Pike.  Pike was also committed to social change and questioning of religious dogma and was threatened with an ecclesiastical trial for heresy. Coincidentally, Pike eventually worked with a medium to try to contact his dead son.

****We now use Twitter. Much better. But are those odd messages we read from bots or….the other side!

*****Two women have worked to discover and catalog much of what is now known about Adelaide Crapsey’s life and work and are the prime source for much of what I know: Karen Alkalay-Gut who has written a biography of Crapsey Alone in the Dawn and Susan Sutton Smith who has written about the Crapsey and Bragdon families’ associated papers and published the Complete Poems and Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey.

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