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By Michael Norman
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2006 Michael Norman
All rights reserved.
The Lady in Blue
* * *
When the footpads quail
at the night bird's wail,
and black dogs bay
at the moon.
Then is the specters' holiday —
then is the ghosts' high noon.
— William S. Gilbert
By the side of my bed, not farther away than I could have touched her with my outstretched hand, stood a beautiful woman. She was dressed in a pale blue silk dress, with a satin sash of the same color tied around a tapering narrow waist, and falling in great lengths down over the unnaturally large hips, almost to the bottom of the wide expansive crinoline skirt.
The extremely décolleté corsage exhibited a lovely neck and snowy, finely chiseled shoulders, while the arms were covered with very full bishop sleeves, with narrow bands at the wrists.
On her black hair, so black that it seemed almost blue, and which hung down in corkscrew curls on both sides of a most beautiful face, was resting a silver band in the shape of a tiara or crown. Her black eyes were so large and piercing, that they seemed almost like two burning coals, but as she closed them for a moment, as with a painful movement, there came over the face an expression of despair, sorrow, and suffering so intense, as I have never seen depicted on human face, save in the wonderful painting of the Mater Dolorosa in the Royal Museum at Madrid.
In her left hand the lady in blue held a silver candlestick, in which was a burning wax candle. With the right she made several quick, imperious motions, as if pointing over her shoulder to the door of the room.
She then turned. And with her right hand around the flame of the candle, as if sheltering it from the draft, the magnificent Juno-like form slowly glided over the polished floor to the door, which opened as in obedience to her silent command, and half closed again behind her.
Thus begins one of the earliest poignant descriptions of Sitka, Alaska's, legendary Lady in Blue, a Russian princess who is said to have haunted the city's long-vanished Baranof Castle, which once dominated that city's spectacular waterfront. Dating from 1838 and built on the remains of an earlier structure, the Castle was both the home and seat of authority for the Governor General of The Russian American Company until the 1867 sale of Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million, a purchase derided as Seward's Folly. The Castle was the site of the actual transfer of Alaskan possession from Russia to the United States on October 18, 1867, a date still commemorated as Alaska Day.
Hardly resembling the stone and plaster fortifications of the Old World, the Castle was actually a four-square, rambling, three-story wood-framed mansion surrounded by a stockade fence with guard towers at the corners. A cupola crowned the complex. Inside, however, were beautifully appointed meeting and dining rooms, bedrooms for the governor's family and guests, and other public areas. Though the Castle may have lacked the impressiveness of a Bavarian palace, it more than made up for it through its location atop a sixty-foot-high rocky promontory with an expansive view of Sitka Sound and its scores of islets. The Castle fell into disuse after the United States government took control of the territory. It burned to the ground in 1898 just as renovation work was beginning.
Sitka, on the southeast coast of Alaska along the famed Inland Passage, retains much of the rugged allure and the rich natural resources that first brought Russians to its shores two centuries ago. What they found was a rocky landscape surrounded by splendid, nearly inaccessible mountains and endless pine forests. They also discovered that the Tlingit people had occupied the region for millennia, harvesting their livelihoods from the forests and seas. They called their community Shee Atika, or "people of Shee." (Sitka is a contraction of the original Tlingit.)
The Russians arrived in 1799 under the command of Alexander Baranof, manager of the Russian American Company and eponym of Baranof Island upon which Sitka is situated. The Tlingits did not submit gracefully to the newly arrived Russians and several fierce battles between the two were fought over the next several years. The Russians finally prevailed and in 1804 renamed the settlement New Archangel.
A building boom replaced the earlier clan houses on Castle Hill with Russian- built fortresses. The settlement prospered for the seventy years Russians controlled the region; Los Angeles and San Francisco were mere outposts when Sitka became known as the "Paris of the Pacific" to whalers and fur traders. In the 1840s Sitka and the surrounding region had grown to over 2,000 inhabitants and boasted, among other attractions, a Russian Orthodox cathedral and a scientific weather station.
The Imperial Russian flag was taken down for good in 1867 when representatives of the United States and Russia signed documents at Baranof Castle transferring ownership of Alaska to the federal government. The Russian influence gradually waned as the U. S. began its stewardship of the region. Sitka lost its status as the center of Alaskan government and commerce as Juneau, Fairbanks, and Anchorage were developed over the ensuing century. Alaska was granted statehood in 1959.
Today, Sitka retains vestiges of its Native, Russian, and American histories; over thirty locations there are either national historic places or landmarks.
Built in 1914, the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall is the community center of the traditional Tlingit village. The Sitka National Historical Park preserves and interprets the site of a Tlingit Indian Fort and the final battle fought between the Russians and the Natives in 1804. The Tlingit Cultural Center teaches Native culture to both Tlingit and non-Tlingit.
The Russian period is represented by numerous legacies including Castle Hill, the site of recent archaeological excavations; a Russian military block house; an original 1835 log cache building; and a collection of exquisite Russian art and church treasures at a reconstructed St. Michael's Cathedral on the site of the original Orthodox Church. During the summer, Sitka women in authentic Russian and Ukrainian costumes perform traditional dances at the Harrigan Centennial Hall.
More recent additions to Sitka include a Raptor Center dedicated to pioneering efforts to protect Alaska's native birds of prey; a whale park dedicated in 1995, and Japonski Island, a World War II-era military installation now operated by a collection of local, state, and federal agencies.
Baranof Castle was actually a latecomer to the most commanding site on Sitka Sound. The hill has long been the central landmark in the region, and one of the most famous in Alaska. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Tlingit lived on the Hill at least as long ago as 1,000 A.D. In excavations during the late 1990s, researchers found an astonishing two tons — 300,000 pieces — of artifacts which are still being catalogued at the University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks.
During the later half of the nineteenth century, the Castle fell victim to the elements. A few events were held there over the years, but for the most part it became a ruin. The federal government tried to rescue it in 1893, and completed some remodeling that enabled it to become the seat of the Sitka District Court. But on March 17, 1894, a suspicious fire broke out near the judge's chambers. The wood framing had become so dried out that the Castle burned like a tinderbox. Firefighters could only focus their attention on saving several nearby structures. Suspicions arose that an arsonist had wanted to destroy court records relating to financial irregularities that a judge had been examining earlier that day, but no charges were ever brought in the case.
Just when the ghost of Baranof Castle first gained credence is difficult to determine. Author Eliza Scidmore described a trip she took to the Sitka region in her 1885 book, Alaska, its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago. She visited Baranof Castle, then little more than a shambles, and listed the ghost among its "attractions," although she thought the story had been "concocted ... to keep sailors and marauders away at night and to entertain the occasional tourist." She did describe the legend as it was repeated to her:
The signal officer has rescued two rooms on the ground floor for his use, but otherwise the only tenant of the castle is the ghost of a beautiful Russian whose sad story is closely modeled on that of The Bride of Lammermoor. She haunts the drawing room, its northwest chamber, where she was murdered, and paces the governor's cabinet, where the swish of her ghostly wedding gown chills every listener's blood. Twice a year she walks unceasingly and wrings her jeweled hands.
The poet Henry E. Haydon used The Song of Hiawatha as his model when he composed a saga of the doomed princess and her lover in an 1891 book.
In December 1888, Alaskan Magazine carried a brief letter from a Sitka resident describing his experience at the decaying Castle only the month before:
Last Saturday, November 24, I paid my first visit to Baranoff (sic) Castle. As usual, the weather was rather rainy and dismal. I first went into the ballroom and, with my back to the door, was looking at the decorations in the window left there from the last ball. Suddenly, a sound of something in motion attracted my attention; turning, I heard a noise as if of a man with heavy shoes ascending the first flight of stairs. I immediately went to the foot of the stairway and continued to hear the noise, this time as if it were on the second flight, and still on it seemed to go upward until it reached the roof, when it ceased. I then went upstairs and searched every room, but could find nothing in the shape of a human being. Subsequently I continued my search to the very top of the building and still could find no one.
I do not believe in ghosts, but I cannot imagine what caused the noise. Someone might suggest 'rats'; if this be the case, the rodent in question must have weighed about one-hundred-and-fifty pounds. I believe that on the occasion of the ball of the Boys in Blue, the man on watch heard noises during the night, but what I heard was in the afternoon, about two o'clock.
The editor noted that the author of the letter was "well and favorably known here, with veracity that is unquestioned ..."
Author and historian Clarence Andrews devotes a single paragraph and a footnote to the legend in his 1922 tome The Story of Sitka.
"There is a legend of a beautiful princess whose ghost haunted the Castle for many years. The story has been told by many at different times and is one of the romantic tales that cluster around the old metropolis of the fur trading days. Her lover was sent away or killed through the influence of an ober offitzer (under officer) who sought her hand in marriage. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who wrote so delightfully of Sitka in her journeys in Alaska in 1883, says that, 'By tradition the Lady in Black (sic) was the daughter of one of the old governors. On her wedding night she disappeared from the ballroom in the midst of the festivities, and after a long search was found dead in one of the small drawing rooms.' "
Andrews then adds an intriguing footnote, a portion of which points to some similarities with what he claimed were actual historical events:
"There is a strange fact which gives some color to the story. In the Russian American Company's Archives now on file in the State Department, Washington, D.C., under the date of September 23, 1833, a letter from St. Petersburg refers to a report of Baron Wrangell of November 30, 1831, which reported the death of under officer Paul Bulkof, and implicating one Colonel Borusof. Unfortunately, the records of 1831 are missing and so the report cannot be had. Baron Wrangel's daughter, Mary, died during his stay in Sitka."
However, another writer and authority on the Sitka ghost, Richard A. Pierce, maintained that Wrangel's daughter died in infancy and that Andrews's source for the report on the death of Bulkof was never identified.
Although writer Pierce and others believe the story is all or mostly fictional, it has gained a status as one of Southeast Alaska's premier ghost stories, and certainly one that will not be put to bed easily. Further, with evidence suggesting that the ground on which Baranof Castle stood has been the site of human settlement for millennia, the likelihood of at least one ghost prowling the site is not too farfetched.
The ghost of Baranof Castle was forever enshrined in the Alaskan imagination by John W. Arctander, a now largely forgotten turn-of-the-twentieth-century writer and novelist of such books as The Apostle of Alaska and Guilty? But it was The Lady in Blue: A Sitka Romance, published in 1911, that gave the fullest telling of the legendary lady.
Although writer Pierce lacerated Arctander's version of history in a lengthy critique — "... there are so many holes in Arctander's tale that it must be dismissed as almost entirely fiction" — most of what is recited about the lady in blue seems to come from Arctander's work.
Arctander's tale is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator. He is at dinner one evening at the home of a married couple of his acquaintance. The story appears to take place somewhere in the "lower 48," though the location is unnamed. The couple quizzes the narrator (Arctander?) about his Alaskan adventures. When he talks about his visit to Sitka, and its dramatic beauty, the couple exclaims upon the coincidence and then gives him a manuscript purportedly written by the woman's father, a U.S. Army chaplain named Cramer who was assigned to accompany Army troops when they were sent to Sitka in 1867 to participate in the ceremonies turning over control of Alaska. The narrator settles down to read the chaplain's memoirs.
They purport to tell of the chaplain's experiences in the settlement. Among the events he recounts is an evening he spent at Baranof Castle as the guest of the Russian governor. When the other guests continue dancing into the night, Chaplain Cramer wishes to retire for the evening and asks to be excused from the festivities. He is shown to his chambers by an elderly Russian priest who mentions in passing that this is "Princess Olga Feodorovna's bedchamber." The priest mysteriously mentions that the "castle is haunted," but does not to go into detail. He wishes to ensure the army chaplain a restful sleep. Cramer tells him he doesn't believe in ghosts anyway.
The visiting clergyman awakens some hours later to find at his bedside the lovely wisp in a silk dress. He watches her for several moments until she turns and drifts from the room. Rather than staying put, he goes after her:
Although it seemed impossible for me to make the slightest move while she was standing near my bed, now — that she had disappeared behind the door — I felt an irresistible impulse take possession of me to follow her out in the hall, and, if possible, fathom the mystery.
I jumped out of bed, and ran to the door as quickly as I could, for fear that she would disappear without my knowing whither.
Reaching the door I was surprised to find it closed, but it readily responded to my eager grasp, and letting my eyes flash first in one direction and then in another, I felt my heart beat faster upon discovering the lady in blue gliding silently along the corridor in the direction of the great salon, from which were wafted toward the place where I stood, the measures of a stately minuet. She was still shading the flame of the candle with her hand.
Then suddenly I lost sight of her and of the candle, which had been glittering like a distant star in the dark hallway.
I hastened my steps and was soon rewarded. Only a short distance and an open door showed a staircase leading upward. From six or seven steps up her candle threw just enough light to show the stairs.
I ran up the steps, determined that she should not escape me.
As I reached the landing, I observed her by the window on the opposite side of a large glass cupola, peering out into the dark night, shading her eyes with her beautiful and transparent hand.
Oh, the sadness and sorrow in that face!
I was about to speak, to comfort her, to remind her of the great Master, who always had a kind word or a tender look for a sorrow as deep and as seemingly inconsolable as hers, to ask her to turn to the cross for her comfort and her consolation, when I heard coming from down below, from out of the darkness of the night, in the deep basso tones of the Russian sentry stationed on the bastion in front of the castle, these words: "One o'clock and all is well."
As if these words of human voice had awakened the lady in blue from out of a trance, I observed a sudden tremor in the hand shading her eyes.
An awful, unearthly cry of anguish resounded in my ears.
Excerpted from Haunted Homeland by Michael Norman. Copyright © 2006 Michael Norman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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