"All history is kind of haunted," said Lori Williamson, Acquisitions and Outreach Coordinator at the Minnesota Historical Society, leading the way down into the basement and behind locked doors to the archives.
"History is about people who aren't here anymore. It's about remembering things, and as we all know, memory's kind of iffy — and there are many ways to remember something. All of it's kind of scary or a little bit creepy."
The Minnesota History Center's artifact storage is packed with the clothing, weapons and artwork of generations past, lending the space an eerie atmosphere under the dim lights. It doesn't help that the St. Paul center was built on top of what was once Miller Hospital.
"Especially when you're down here at night and it's dark, and you know the morgue had to be around here somewhere..."
Every Halloween, the MNHS takes the opportunity to highlight some of its most unsettling objects and the odd stories behind them. A sold-out tour on Oct. 25 will take visitors through the history of everything from a death mask to some rather disturbing surgical instruments.
Here are just four of the haunting objects in the collection.
The hexed marionette
This marionette is just one of dozens of dolls carefully laid in the archives' storage drawers, sleeping peacefully (one hopes) beside other puppets.
The wooden marionette was made by hand in Minnesota in the 1890s, according to Ron Baker, the man who donated it to the society in 1976. It was already missing a leg by the time it came to the museum.
Baker reported that the marionette was hexed and had been responsible "for a long series of accidents, illnesses and deaths."
When the curators attempted to contact Baker for more information, he was nowhere to be found.
Williamson said the staff generally tries to minimize contact with the marionette, except for the annual Halloween festivities.
Truman Ingersoll's ghost photo
All is not what it appears in this 1890 photograph from White Bear Lake, Minn.
Truman Ingersoll was a professional photographer in the state, who lived from 1862 until 1922. In this image, Ingersoll himself is "asleep" in the chair while the vision appears at the fireplace.
It's an example of trick photography, which was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century, long before Photoshop came on the scene. It was donated with other photos from Ingersoll's portfolio after his death.
The death charts
In 1888, there were 2,346 miasmatic-related deaths in Minnesota, 1,813 constitutional-related deaths and 1,716 "ill-defined and not specified" deaths.
This data comes to us from the Minnesota Department of Health's eerily beautiful death wheels, which were created to catalog causes of death across the state in the late 1800s. The MNHS has five of the charts in its possession; they once hung on the wall of the Department of Health.
Though the causes of death no longer all align with modern medicine — we no longer say "dropsy" or "diseases of the insane" — the wheels are a fascinating glimpse into the lives and deaths of past Minnesotans.
The Celestial Intelligencer
The Celestial Intelligencer, also called The Magus, delves into topics from ceremonial magic to demon identification tips. This particular edition was published in London in 1801 and brought to Minnesota by an early settler: The signature on the bookplate reads "Mrs. Stan."
In the MNHS collection of over 500,000 books, "we have way more occult books than you would think," Williamson said.
In the 1800s, occult magic was a popular curiosity. While some believed wholeheartedly in the occult, many found it an interesting diversion: "This is fun, why not? Let's have a seance!"
Step into the archives
More from the Minnesota Historical Society
This is only a taste of some of the collection's more storied objects. Though the tour of the archives is sold out, there are other MNHS events that will explore supernatural themes later this month, including a recreation of a Victorian-era seance at the Alexander Ramsey House. A full schedule is available from the Minnesota Historical Society.