American Ghost : A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest
by Hannah Nordhaus

Overview -

In this spellbinding exploration of myth, family history, and the American West, the award-winning journalist and author of The Beekeeper's Lament seeks to uncover the truth about her great-great-grandmother Julia--whose ghost is said to haunt an elegant hotel in Santa Fe.  Read more...

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More About American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus

In this spellbinding exploration of myth, family history, and the American West, the award-winning journalist and author of The Beekeeper's Lament seeks to uncover the truth about her great-great-grandmother Julia--whose ghost is said to haunt an elegant hotel in Santa Fe.

The dark-eyed woman first appeared in the 1970s, standing near a fireplace in a long black gown. She was sad and translucent, present and absent at once. Strange things began to happen in the Santa Fe hotel where she was seen. Gas fireplaces turned off and on without anyone touching a switch. Vases of flowers appeared in new locations. Glasses flew from shelves. And in one second-floor suite with a canopy bed and arched windows looking out to the mountains, guests reported alarming events: blankets ripped off while they slept, the room temperature plummeting, disembodied breathing, dancing balls of light.

La Posada--"place of rest"--had been a grand Santa Fe home before it was converted to a hotel. The room with the canopy bed had belonged to Julia Schuster Staab, the wife of the home's original owner. She died in 1896, nearly a century before the hauntings were first reported. In American Ghost, Hannah Nordhaus traces the life, death, and unsettled afterlife of her great-great-grandmother Julia and her family, from Julia's childhood in Germany to her years in the American West with her Jewish merchant husband, to the spas and seance rooms of the late nineteenth century, to World War II and beyond.

In her search to find and understand her troubled ancestor, Nordhaus travels across America and Europe, and unearths family diaries, photographs, and newspaper clippings; meets with historians, genealogists, psychics, and ghost hunters; and learns along the way some unexpected lessons about living.

American Ghost is a touching journey of roots and memory, a story of pioneer women and immigrants, villains and visionaries, frontier fortitude and mental illness, imagination and lore. As she follows the strands of Julia's life, Nordhaus discovers a larger tale of how a true-life story becomes a ghost story--and how difficult it can be to separate history from myth.

  • ISBN-13: 9780062249210
  • ISBN-10: 0062249215
  • Publisher: Harper
  • Publish Date: March 2015
  • Page Count: 336
  • Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Women
Books > Body, Mind & Spirit > Supernatural
Books > History > United States - State & Local - Southwest

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2014-12-08
  • Reviewer: Staff

Journalist Nordhaus (The Beekeeper’s Lament) embarks on a “ghost hunt” for her great-great-grandmother, German immigrant Julia Schuster Staab, in this unique collision of family history, Wild West adventure, and ghost story. Since the 1970s, the grand La Posada hotel in Santa Fe has been subject to sightings of a ghost resembling Julia, who lived there with her husband, Abraham, and their seven children in the late 19th century. Nordhaus, who comes from a long line of skeptics, decides to investigate these rumors. She consults a variety of self-appointed supernatural experts—psychics, tarot-card readers, mediums, and dowsers—as well as more traditional sources such as newspaper archives, family diaries, and aging relatives. She also visits the settings of her grandmother’s life, from villages in Germany to the deserts of New Mexico where the Staabs lived alongside “Spanish settlers and Pueblo Indians... Navajos, Apaches, freed slaves, soldiers... cowboys, dry-land farmers... land-grabbers, miners, and shysters.” In the process, Nordhaus uncovers a strain of mental illness that runs through one branch of her family, delves into the lore of the 19th-century spiritualist movement, and discovers how a true-life story can become a paranormal one. Perceptive, witty, and engaging, Nordhaus observes that “it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive... as it is the story.” (Mar.)

BookPage Reviews

Restless spirit

If you’re an author with a family ghost, it would seem almost obligatory to write about it. Hannah Nordhaus’ “paternal grandfather’s maternal grandmother,” Julia -Staab, haunts La Posada hotel in Santa Fe (or so lots of people believe). In American Ghost, Nordhaus offers a fascinating and nuanced account of her ancestral ghost story and her complicated clan.

The Staabs, German Jews by birth, were among the first American merchants in Santa Fe. Julia married the already successful Abraham in 1865; she died in the house at the age of 52. Seven children survived her.

The ghost story goes like this: Julia never recovered from a baby’s death; her husband abused her; she died violently, perhaps by Abraham’s hand; and she now haunts her old bedroom. Nordhaus establishes that this is romantic fiction, though she remains respectful of those who believe they’ve encountered the ghost.

The Staabs were wealthy businesspeople, but they were also dysfunctional. Nordhaus unearths depression, addiction, suicide and estrangement. She writes of her ancestors’ travails with perception and compassion. Along the way, she employs family history to explore the lives of German Jews (Julia’s much younger sister died at Theresienstadt), the renaissance of Santa Fe and changing attitudes toward illness. It’s a spirited ride.

Perhaps most entertaining are her present-day encounters with psychics, ghost hunters and spiritualists, all eager to help. Her quest culminates in a weird experience in Julia’s room, make of it what you will. She does eventually discover whatever we can now know of the “truth” of Julia’s life, but inevitably, Nordhaus’ journey really is a search for self, and we are privileged to be able to accompany her.


This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews