The autobiographical information below was prepared by Henry and Patricia Mitchell for:
Patricia and Henry Mitchell, in a photograph taken during their dating years. He is in the dress uniform of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.
As a teenager during the late sixties, especially after the deaths in a car accident of two popular Chatham High School teachers, Jane Booth and Erma Cocke, I became quite concerned about whether there is life after death — and, if so, whether there is any way to know about it. I did not find any pastors who were willing to talk much about it. One philosophized, “I don't know whether there is life after death or not, but if there isn't, we won't have to worry about it anyway.” Another asserted, “According to the Bible, if you get saved you won't have anything to worry about.” (He didn't explain to me how I would “get saved.”) Neither answer seemed very complete or satisfying, so I worried about it!
About that time, a church youth group leader (not knowing any better) introduced us to the Ouija board as a form of entertainment. It occasionally acted as though it had a mind of its own, so we continued to toy with it from time to time, hoping it might provide a clue to our unanswered spiritual questions. We also tried palm reading (a dud), card reading (tedious, but once in a while something came up to catch our attention), and automatic writing (mostly gibberish and very boring). There was lots of popular writing around insisting that it is possible to contact the spirits of those who have died, but we were also aware of spiritualists whose seance fakeries had been exposed. So we didn't trust paid spiritualists, and we didn't try any. Having sort of stalled out, we put the whole question on the “back burner.”
Arrival in Biloxi
Brand-new USAF Second Lieutenant Henry Mitchell at the front door of the Mitchells' home at 256 Miramar Avenue, Biloxi, Mississippi, 1969.
Then, in the summer of 1969, having just received an electrical engineering degree and an Air Force commission at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and a wife — Patricia and I were recently married — I was assigned to USAF Communications Officers School at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi. It was during the nine months I was attending that school that we were introduced to more than we ever wanted to know about “contacting spirits.” I had become friends with another electrical engineer in the school, a young lieutenant by the name of Tom. Tom was a sports car enthusiast and rally driver. Because of his activities along that line he had made a lot of local Mississippi friends.
One morning at class Tom told me that he had an “engineering problem” which might interest me. He said that he had been told about a house in Handsboro (a community on the east side of Gulfport) that had a reputation as a “ghost house,” and that he was determined to solve the mystery of these strange manifestations by using scientific and mathematical techniques. He told me where the “Cahill House” was, and that he had permission from the owners for himself and a few friends, including us, to go inside. Class ran from 6 in the morning until 12 noon, so I went home for lunch and Tricia and I hopped in our Mustang and drove the few miles to Handsboro.
First Impressions of the Cahill House
The house was recently abandoned due to damage from Hurricane Camille (the owners built new rather than repair). It was rather imposing, constructed around World War I on a sandy ridge overlooking Bernard Bayou at Handsboro. We walked up to the house with just a twinge of foreboding. The house lived up to its reputation immediately. First, as we stepped into the front door, I had the distinct impression of someone grasping my right elbow. The feeling lingered the whole time we wandered through the house and disappeared as soon as we stepped back outside sometime later. Also as we walked through the front door into the quite spacious central room, we noticed a toy tractor wheel lying on the floor in front of us. We picked it up, looked at it, and placed it on a window sill and stepped into the next room. Immediately coming back by the window, we noticed that the little tractor wheel was missing. We were a bit shaken, but by this time determined to see the whole house, which we proceeded to do. I could hardly wait to talk to Tom.
The following day I reported back to him at class, and was overheard by another young lieutenant who had spent his childhood in Handsboro. He was familiar with the house and its reputation, having been a playmate of the children of the house's owner, a local physician. Over the next few weeks several of us went to the house in groups to see if any more weird phenomena occurred. We were not disappointed.
Patricia Mitchell sorts through debris near the entrance to the Cahill house, Handsboro, Mississippi.
Various members of the group heard strange noises (loud crashes, especially, which had no accompanying vibrations), saw apparitions, watched lighted cigarettes go floating by in mid-air, walked outside in thunderstorms and did not get wet because it was as though one was covered by a huge umbrella, and observed fireplace fires flaring up or smothering unexpectedly. Most disconcerting was the fact that no phenomenon (except the fireplace oddities, which could have been caused by quirky downdrafts) was observed by everyone present. Only one or two persons would have each experience. This situation was maddeningly frustrating for supposedly “rational” persons trying to gather evidence. We scrapped Tom and Henry's plan of using science and mathematics to figure out what was happening! The only constant was that just before one person would see an apparition or hear a crash or have some other auditory/visual experience, another person would feel a chill, as if from a cold wind.
Let me emphasize that the ten or so people in our group of observers were not “on a lark,” even though some spent many hours over a period of several weeks observing the house. Some visited during daylight hours, some at night, sometimes in small groups and at other times as many as eight at one time. There was no partying or horsing around of any kind. There was no alcohol consumption on the premises or drug use. We all were attempting to observe as clearly as possible what was going on. Nobody had any interest in the so-called “mind expansion” which the drug culture was beginning to tout at that time. We were a very straight bunch.
We did unpack our Ouija board and try it there, though. It went haywire, dragging our hands from letter to letter and number to number, and several “personalities” claimed, through the board, to be “spirit guides.” While in the midst of our “investigation,” the owners of the house told us that professional parapsychologists from a university were also working there and had identified seven characters including three already well-known to us. The supposed identities of these three were: a boy who had been killed in the back yard in the 1950's in a tractor accident; an old lady who considered herself the hostess of the house; and Dirk, an alcoholic RAF pilot who had visited the structure when it was an officers' club during World War II. The “boy” played the prankster around the house, and the “old lady” was fond of materializing and de-materializing. “Dirk” kept disturbing Tom at his apartment — Tom would hear the kitchen cabinet open, the clink of a bottle — and the gin kept disappearing. “Dirk” (through the Ouija board) often reminded Tom to keep a good stock of gin on hand. At one point “Dirk” seemed to have picked Tom's pocket, stealing his wallet, IDs, credit cards, and an entire cashed paycheck. Tom figured he had lost the wallet while traveling out of town, but as he was preparing to leave Keesler AFB on the way to a new assignment, he was in his apartment when he heard one of those mysterious crashes in his bedroom closet. Opening the door, he found his wallet on the floor and IDs, credit cards and fluttering bills descending from the ceiling of the closet. Tom was glad to leave Biloxi — and hopefully the “playful” spirits — behind. And so were we. But that's getting ahead of the story.
Patricia and I had met and become friends with a local couple, Jim and Sandra. Jim was curator of the Jefferson Davis home (Beauvoir) in Biloxi. We told them of the strange goings-on at the house in Handsboro. They had a few odd occurrences to report from Beauvoir, and expressed great interest in going over with us to the Cahill House. Jim especially wanted to photograph the place. I called the owner's wife for permission. She granted it, but commented that no pictures had ever been successfully taken inside the house, not even when they lived there — including at Christmases and birthdays. Film exposed in the house simply would not process properly, she said, but asked me to let her know the results.
Jim, Sandra, Patricia and I drove up to the Cahill House during the afternoon in broad daylight. Jim carefully loaded film into his Nikon, and we stepped through the front door (no tractor wheel this time). We walked across the parlor, and started into the kitchen area. In doing so, I thought I had lightly scrubbed my head on the door frame overhead, and stepped back, patting my hair and suddenly noticing that Jim was frantically photographing the spot where I had just stood. I said, “Why are you doing that?” Jim replied, “Didn't you hear that incredible crash?” (I didn't.) By this time the two girls had caught up to us and asked for explanations about the Jim's picture-taking and my rubbing my head. We explained. Tricia pointed up to the nearly-nine-foot-high doorway. “How did you (I'm 6 feet tall) bump your head on THAT?” We continued our tour with only a few more crashes. When Jim opened the camera to unload his film, there was no film inside.
This photo, taken by Henry Mitchell from second-floor rear window at the Cahill house, using a 35mm Agfa Solinette camera, shows the long arbor going from the house over the hill toward the Back Bay (Bernard Bayou). Interior photos taken on the same roll of film were unsuccessful.
The Investigation Ends
In talking to the owner of the house, she became concerned over the fact that the sense of touch was coming into play, saying that in their long ownership of the house this had not occurred. They had seen apparitions, heard “parties” going on at night downstairs (clinking of glasses, laughter, etc.), and even been awakened by their screaming toddlers (the room was spattered with sticky brown goop when they got to them; a medical laboratory confirmed the suspicion: old human blood; the children's room still bore extensive stains from that strange night).
A few nights later some of our friends returned to the house when a group of fun-seekers, without permission and quite inebriated, joined them. Shouting and cursing that the “ghosts” in this house were a fraud, a drunken fellow raced to the top of the stairs, where one of our group reported he appeared to become suspended in mid-air, feet off the ground for a few seconds, and then flew back down the stairs, crashing into a heap in broken glass on the landing. Somewhat sobered, he admitted that he thought he'd been picked up and thrown down the steps.
The owners immediately closed the house to all visitors, and announced their determination to tear it down. The Ouija boards (several had been purchased and were now in use by members of our “research team”) claimed to represent the voices of the resident spirits. They vowed that the house would burn before it would be torn down. We heard that on the day it was to be demolished, the contractor died of a heart attack. During the resulting delay, the house went up in flames. We also heard that investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire.
By this time, I had been reassigned to the Defense Electronics Supply Center in Kettering (Dayton), Ohio, so we left behind the Cahill House experiences as best we could. It had not been the top priority with us even at the time. Our knowing that our time in Biloxi was short — and maybe even our time together (an assignment to Viet Nam or some remote facility where families were not allowed was a possibility for me) — we were bent on exploring the Gulf Coast together. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana roads and beaches had much more appeal to us than a spooky old house. We had also discovered the delightful world of Creole and Cajun food (Patricia was, unknown to us at the time, on the way to becoming a foodwriter), and the architecture, music, and easy living of New Orleans, and were busy building dreams of returning there to live one day (which we did two years later).
Ohio was different from Mississippi in many ways!
But we had picked up at least one leftover effect of the Cahill House as we headed for Dayton: a “familiar spirit,” a Ouija-board “contact.” “He” was not one of the parapsychologist-identified spirits of the Cahill House, but another who described himself as the ghost of a dead Frenchman. We knew him by name, dates of birth and death, and place of burial — under a big oak tree in an old cemetery in Houma, Louisiana. We never attempted to verify the identity as being that of a real person; we really didn't want to know. A few years later we were sitting in traffic in Houma and realized we were looking at a cemetery of the description we had heard about through the “Frenchman.” Noticing a giant oak tree, we drove on without even stopping to look; we had had enough of him already. We tried the Ouija board some in Ohio, but it didn't do much there.
Tom had been told by a Mississippi spiritualist that the Gulf Coast was more active spiritually than many other places because spirits required warmth and water. The reasoning behind the water involved the event when Jesus cast the demons out of the Gadarene men, at which time the demons went into a herd of hogs and caused them to jump into the Sea of Galilee and drown (Matthew 8: 28-34). I thought it interesting that, by implication, that would mean that the spirits we were dealing with were demons. The idea of heat came from “the lake of fire of Revelation (19:20; 20:10, 14, 18; and 21:8). This spiritualist lady was by no means a Christian, and used the Bible for information, not instruction, or she might have noticed that Revelation 21:8 says the lake of fire is the destination of people like her — and us, too, at that time — who practice “magic arts!” She did suggest to Tom (while we all were still in Biloxi) a table levitation exercise, whereby a group of people could lay hands on top of a table in a certain way and it would rise off the floor, or levitate. We tried it, and after a few minutes, strangely enough, it worked. But it left us all so physically exhausted we decided not to try it again. Anyway, we were unsure of why there seemed to be more spirit activity along the Gulf (than in Ohio, or back home in Virginia, for example) , but wondered if it could actually be caused by the widespread open practice of voodoo and spiritualism in Mississippi and South Louisiana. (In other words, which came first to the community, the spirits or the spirit-invokers?)
The typical explanation that the spirits we were contacting were the ghosts of dead humans never did quite ring true to us. Their personalities didn't seem human, unless you look for the lowest level of criminal mentality or of psychological manipulation. The thief, shyster, pickpocket, flim-flam artist personality might describe their “now-you-see-them, now-you-don't” nature. I had the impression that whoever these entities were, they were extremely cunning and did not have my best interests in mind, to say the least. There seemed to always be an invitation to explore a little more, to get into ever deeper and more dangerous experimentation, without any way to rationally verify what was going on. These experiences brought on a deep-seated fear of physical danger, and of losing one's mind. The only seeming benefit was the occasional information that popped out, usually from Ouija board activities, and a fleeting sense of “power” that resulted from finding it out. This was mostly useless information, such as how much change was in someone's pocket in the moment, or the balance of a checkbook in someone's purse, or the birth date of a baby yet to be born. The down side was that we began to think there were unseen spirit-world pranksters following us around, fouling up our lives just for the fun of it.
Patricia Mitchell and artist Robert C. Adler on the courtyard of the Devéze-Henderson House at 612 Royal Street in New Orleans, 1974. The slave quarter on the left contained the Mitchells' retail shop (first floor) and living quarters (second and third floors).
Just after New Year 1972 my tour of duty with the Air Force ended, and we moved back to the Gulf, this time to New Orleans. We seldom made any more attempts to contact spirits, even though New Orleans is full of spiritualist groups, voodoo practitioners, etc. However, with or without effort, the phenomena seemed to follow us. We lived in a slave quarter apartment in the French Quarter, above our art/jewelry/doll shop, which was on the patio of the old Devéze-Henderson House (former home of the Henderson sugar planter family) at 612 Royal Street. There we and others occasionally caught glimpses of a mysterious figure appearing and disappearing at our window or on our balcony. A little dog would run into our shop, turn, race back onto the patio and seemingly vanish into thin air. An elderly Oriental man would meditate at our fountain on the patio, but no one ever saw him come or leave. An old sailor who strangely resembled a late relative of ours came to visit the shop and asked pertinent questions about us and our family. We found all this to be more threatening than helpful to us. We were too busy with operating our shop and publishing a magazine to invest much time in other-worldly adventures. After trying the Ouija board a little more, we found the “Frenchman” still available, but we mainly wished that he and the rest of his buddies would just go away. There was one exception to our back-pedaling: in her earlier reading about spiritualism Patricia had found extensive information on the use of amulets (lucky charms, usually crystals, in the case of her choice a birthstone ring). She had begun to “rub the ring for luck” with remarkable results. It seemed to work a lot of the time.
In clowning for the camera in January 1975, Henry and Patricia may have inadvertently captured the current serious theme of their lives. Left: New Orleans artist Bob Adler with Patricia, and his painting “Salvation Army.” Right: Patricia and Henry “imprisoned” behind an office chair.
I used it when I found myself in circumstances I didn't like and couldn't control. The ring seemed to offer a way to change the situation in my favor. But even that was not particularly satisfying. When I relied on rubbing the ring it was more an act of desperation than an assertion of power. Trusting the lucky stone was an acknowledgment that my life was out of my control. Being in control was important to me…I was doing some of my favorite things: retailing, promotion of the arts, journalism, but in the spring of 1975 I accidentally broke my foot and was partially immobilized for six weeks. That forced me to sit down and think, to take stock of things, and I discovered I was very dissatisfied and unhappy, even though I was busy and successful in beautiful New Orleans. Sort of like Scarlett O'Hara wanting to leave tumultuous Atlanta for Tara, I thought maybe if I could just go home and be close to family and good old Pittsylvania County soil I would feel more secure and content. I convinced Henry to sell out and close down our various business activities, and in June 1975 we moved back to Chatham.
Right away we were invited to a newly-formed Sunday School class (led by Hargrave Military Academy teacher/coach Rick Cline) at Watson Memorial United Methodist Church in Chatham, where our memberships had languished since high school days. Soon after we started to attend, the class began to study the book Something More by Catherine Marshall. In that book we found the first discussion we had ever encountered in mainstream Christianity about the forces of the spirit world. Her descriptions matched our experiences. Her explanations were very straightforward and based on Biblical accounts and warnings with regard to spirits. She detailed the existence of good spirits (angels) and evil spirits (demons). She identified “ghosts” as demons who masquerade as the dead. She appealed to the reader to put one's life in the hands of the resurrected Jesus, to receive the Holy Spirit as a comforter, instructor, purifier, and protector, and to accept the assistance of angels. We were impressed, but we didn't take the step immediately.
On November 11, 1975, “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr, a great hero of mine, appeared on the Phil Donahue Show to make the surprise announcement that he had just committed his life to Jesus. He described his own spiritual search, somewhat similar to ours, and challenged viewers to make the same decision he had. Kerr commandeered the microphone and cameras from a dumbfounded Phil Donahue, and led the audience in a prayer of repentance and dedication. Henry and I knelt in front of the TV set, and became Christians. Both of us experienced rather significant personality changes almost immediately. The Instructor and Purifier was already at work.
In the meantime we had bought the old Sims House in Chatham, which in many ways is reminiscent of the Devéze-Henderson House, where we lived and had our shop in New Orleans. We had been warned by several people that our house was haunted. We weren't looking for any such manifestation, and never saw any. We did, however, find evidence of unusual previous human habitation: a wandering tarantula, a snake container, and piles of pornography and lingerie. So there may have been reasons to avoid the old house, but perhaps not because of disembodied spirits! Anyway, just to be sure, we had our pastor come down and formally dedicate our house to the Lord, and drive out any negative spiritual forces. It wasn't a made-for-TV exorcism, but we were confident it did the job if it needed doing.
Henry and Patricia Mitchell and their daughter Sarah on May 30, 1982: different house, different Mustang, different lives!
As Christians, we experienced a new world of spiritual presence. Over time we were made aware of spirits again, but this time they did not bring fear and apprehension, but peace and confidence — not a chill, but warmth. These weren't ghosts, they were angels. (The writer of Hebrews 1:14 describes angels as “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.” Billy Graham's book Angels was especially enlightening to us in this regard.) In one situation I was operating a pre-kindergarten school at the house. At one play period when several youngsters were busy in the outdoor sandbox, a little boy let fly a small metal shovel at the face of a little girl. The corner of the shovel seemed headed toward her eye. Just before reaching its target, it bounced off an unseen barrier and clattered to the ground!
On another occasion, the top of a canister containing black-and-white film and developing solution (for a crucial professional photography assignment) fell off accidentally, exposing the film under bright lights. After tears and prayer, we put the film through both stop bath and fixer, and discovered no light damage whatsoever!
And one pitch-black evening we returned to our home where carpenters had been at work all day in our absence. I was carrying our two-year-old David, and stepped down off our six-foot-high back porch, not realizing that the carpenters had removed the stair treads to put up scaffolding. I instantly found myself standing about fifteen feet away on the ground without so much as a bump or jolt. I was at a loss for any natural explanation as to how we could have been transported that distance, or how I might have stepped down off the porch past the flight of dangerously dismantled stairs without either of us getting hurt.
Another spiritual dimension we have experienced as Christians is healing: both of us have been supernaturally healed of chronic physical conditions which were partially disabling. Everybody knows that the old television ad is correct: “When you've got your health, you've got just about everything.” And when you are sick or injured, it is a tremendous financial drain as well as a killer of your own productivity. Supernatural healing has been extremely important to us.
So how do we look back on the events at the Cahill House in Handsboro? It was definitely a watershed experience. It utterly convinced us that there is an unseen world, a parallel dimension, which can at times touch one's everyday existence.
Did we become convinced that we had interacted with the spirits of the dead? Well, that is the standard way people explain the “ghost” or “poltergeist” phenomenon. Most people who are deeply into this also believe in reincarnation and promote “out-of-body-experiences” of one kind or another. As Tricia already mentioned, we weren't totally persuaded of the truth of any of this back at the time of the Handsboro episodes. The book of Hebrews (9:27) says that “…man is destined to die once, and then to face judgment…” Assuming that is true, which we do, that rules out reincarnation, and greatly reduces the likelihood of the spirits of the dead wandering around here on Earth.
Then who were the “spirits” we encountered? We agree with Catherine Marshall and other Christian writers in concluding that they were masquerading demons. The apostle Paul mentions in II Corinthians 11:14 that “Satan masquerades as an angel of light.” Apparently masquerading is one of the chief activities of the demonic forces. Our experience with them certainly fits a demonic description. If the spirits involved were demons, it makes sense that they would attempt to misidentify themselves.
Would we recommend that people seek out these experiences? No. Because they were so difficult to verify — different people experiencing different things at the same time — we got to the point we were questioning our own sanity. They were not pleasant or reassuring events; they only raised the fear level and pumped us full of adrenaline. We never proved anything, except that something strange was going on. We came to feel that we were out of control, that not-so-benevolent forces were butting into our lives. We sensed that it was very dangerous. On the other hand, our Christian spiritual experiences have been totally positive, completely verifiable, creating a sense of peace and confidence. The Holy Spirit, it is said, is a Gentleman! There is a written manual for interaction — the Bible — with Him, and it simply involves prayer and belief rather than seances and experimentation. Also, the Bible provides dire warnings against attempting to contact spirits or communicate with the dead, calling such contacts “defiling” and saying anyone who participates “is detestable to the Lord” (Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18: 10-12). The Old Testament prohibition is so strong against this sort of thing that it carried the death penalty (Leviticus 20: 27). So we obviously don't recommend it. We stay away from all that sort of thing now. We don't participate in the celebration of Halloween, for example, because it is the Celtic celebration of this very activity. We burned our Ouija board back in 1975. — We'd rather be protected than harassed spiritually. We learned our lesson, and we thank God it was earlier instead of later. The occult and witchcraft are not “fun and games.”
Copyright © 1991–2008 Patricia B. Mitchell.