Believing in ghosts: Part 3

This is the final part of a three-part piece I wrote for my Gothic fiction class.  If you’re just beginning this piece, you ought to start with the first post.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”

Near the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorthy and her companions return to face the terrifying might of the great and powerful Oz. While they shiver in fear, Dorothy’s dog Toto pulls aside a curtain to the left of the group, behind which they see an old man manipulating a machine with several dials and a microphone. He turns, pulls the curtain shut, while Oz shouts, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” (link to film clip)

Perhaps it’s not advisable to look into the mysteries of childhood. But I have a bad habit of ignoring good advice. Besides, sometimes that’s how you find the good stuff.

Attempting to find historical evidence confirming “Flying Joe” leads to a few hints of how the story originated. The most intriguing one hangs on the most specific detail in the story: the statement that “Flying Joe” was the only “high-ring man” who could perform the difficult triple somersault. Yet the first man to perform a triple somersault didn’t do so until 1909. Ernie Clarke would continue performing for the Ringling Brothers’ circus through the 1930s — well after the founding of the camp.

Flying Jordans 1897

The "Flying Jordans" in 1897. Lena jordan is seated on the left. (

However, in her book Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance, circus historian Peta Tait notes that the first aerial triple somersault in circus was actually accomplished by a female performer with the stage name Lena Jordan, a 16-year old girl from Latvia, who began performing it at early as 1897. However, until 1965, this was a little-known fact in circus histories, which for many years attributed the feat to Clarke.

After 1898, Jordan seems to have disappeared; there are no mentions of her as performing, as well as no mention that she was the first to perform the triple. Tait suggests her omission from circus history illustrates broader feelings of twentieth-century sexism, but it’s not terribly difficult to imagine that an accident during a performance would have been enough to cause a retirement. It’s not inconceivable that a circus performer would take up residence in Wisconsin, the home base of the Ringling Brothers’ Circus from 1884 to 1918. Moreover, there were Latvians in Northern Wisconsin, many arriving in the early 1900s.

But it’s the physical description of Lena Jordan that’s particularly intriguing. Tait quotes a contemporary journalist who described Jordan: “At 18 she was 4 foot 10 inches, her ‘extraordinary biceps’ felt by journalists, with back ‘muscle lying like knotted rope under the skin, and when she threw back her shoulders a regular ‘ravine’ was created between the rolls of muscle on each side of the spine.” (link) Accompanying this description is a drawing of an unnamed woman, probably Jordan.

Could this “little” woman, Lena Jordan, be the mysterious “Flying Joe”?

This is, of course, hypothetical, conjecture, and probably way off base. But it’s loads of fun to consider that there might actually be a historical basis for the story of Flying Joe.

So where does that leave me? What am I supposed to think about Flying Joe?

What good ghosts do

Edith Wharton photo

American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

Edith Wharton once wrote that while she didn’t “believe in ghosts,” she was “afraid of them.” The point is pretty simple. It’s possible to rationally understand that ghosts can’t exist while still being afraid of them. Scientific belief comes from one part of the brain. Fear comes from another. When you’re standing in the dark around a grave with a bunch of your buddies, rational thought is probably not high on your list.

Barring an exhumation of the grave site, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove the existence of the historical “Flying Joe.” And proving or disproving the existence of paranormal spirits is a totally different thing.

But the same non-rational parts of your brain that control fear also produce love. And maybe that’s the point.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether you believe in ghosts or not. Maybe what’s most important in a spirit like “Flying Joe” isn’t finding physical proof of that ghost’s existence, but in considering what belief in that spirit brings.

In his famous 1897 response to Virginia O’Hanlon known as “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” New York Sun journalist Francis Pharcellus Church wrote that without faith in Santa Claus, the world would be a poorer place:

There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished…

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. (link)

Perhaps the same holds true for belief in camp spirits like “Flying Joe.” I had a religion professor once in college from whose class, I must confess, I’ve forgotten most everything. Yet there was one key lesson I remember from him. “You must have faith,” he stated. I’m reasonably certain he was making a point about looking for scientific proof of God. It’s only through faith that one can appreciate what’s most true in the world.

What Flying Joe is, then, is neither a ghost, nor a prank played upon children, nor simply a tradition that’s been maintained so long its origins have been lost. Flying Joe is a spirit — a spirit, like Santa Claus, that transcends the visible world. It matters not whether either exist in the physical reality of life.

This certainly seems to be the view of the camp directors, who wrote in an e-mail about their own faith in Flying Joe:

Actually we feel that his spirit does indeed become instilled in the hearts of most boys who attend Red Acorn – the spirit of special friends, fun in the great out-of-doors, and all things that are good during childhood. No one who ever attends Red Acorn forgets who our camp spirit is and how he comes to us (in signs of three). And we say this in all sincerity, there have been times when the two of us have been at camp all alone, maybe playing tennis before camp, or maybe just sitting on the Quad after camp, that we have received signs from Flying Joe (when we really needed them) and even have thought we heard him speak once or twice. We are true believers in Flying Joe.

In that wonderful place in the brain where fear, reason and love mingle, that’s where Flying Joe exists.

And it’s not just my own camp. Film critic Roger Ebert concluded his review of the movie Indian Summer by admitting the emotion the film stirred in him:

Watching Indian Summer, I was possessed by an impulse to get into the car one day and drive to the shores of Bankson Lake, near Paw Paw, Mich., to see if the weathered cabins of St. Joseph’s Boys Camp still remain. It was there, during three or four summers, that I gathered memories that Indian Summer awakened with a fierce poignancy

It is human nature to form groups and be loyal to them, like… the other kids at summer camp. The artificial groups create instant traditions (all camps have their songs and legends), and in remembering them you are pulled back for a moment to a summer when all life seemed to be ahead of you. Now that it isn’t, that summer seems more precious, and that promise more elusive, than ever before. (link)

Someday, and I hope that day will be soon, I want to go back to Red Acorn. I want to take a walk out to the stables and see where I learned to ride. I want to wander out past the soccer field and see if the trees we planted grew — and if I can find my tree. And if I’m lucky enough to be there when camp is in session, on a Sunday night, I want to hear the campers singing the song that I sang every night to my children as babies. “Big Campfire,” it’s called. My youngest son will be ready for camp in nine short years. I hope they’re still telling the story of “Flying Joe” then.

I don’t believe in Flying Joe. But I have faith in him.


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