Paul Thomas wants to believe in ghosts, but he’s not sure if he does yet.
Author of the new book "Haunted Lawrence," and a 2011 Ottawa High School graduate, Thomas said he wants to have faith that ghosts exist for obvious reasons, like the comforting thought that there is an afterlife.
“I’m not saying no, and I kind of lean more towards the yes than the no, but I still am rather ambivalent and I would like to get more information,” Thomas said. “Writing this book, there were some ghost stories where straight up, I was like, ‘This is not real.’”
From Ottawa, Thomas went on to study anthropology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and then studied at the University of Chicago, earning a master’s degree in social sciences. He now lives in Overland Park with his wife, Trina, but works at KU.
It was during his undergraduate career at KU when his interest in the paranormal amplified. Thomas lived in Stephenson Scholarship Hall, a building that opened on campus to students in 1952, according to KU’s official website.
“Some of my friends and I, during Halloween or October, we started talking about ghosts,” Thomas said. “We all figured out we had an interest in this. None of us were believers, but none of us were skeptics, if that makes sense. We were just kind of ambivalent towards the idea and we wanted to know more, so we formed this unit, this team, which was the ‘Stephenson Hall Paranormal Investigation Team.’”
The title was fancy, but “not as impressive as it sounds,” he said.
“We went to local businesses and we asked them kindly if we could come in and do really, kind of embarrassingly bad ghost hunting stuff,” Thomas said. “Most of the businesses said no. The Eldridge Hotel, however, was very cool about letting us come in. They just said, ‘Yeah, the room that is supposedly haunted is open. Come on in, you can look around,’ and so we did that. I did a write-up because I wanted to be official, so I wrote up our report. Actually, that report is the basis for the chapter on the Eldridge Hotel in the book.”
In "Haunted Lawrence," Thomas writes about the Eldridge Ghost, who supposedly haunts the fifth floor in room 506. Accounts range anywhere from doors opening and closing by themselves, lights that flicker and “foggy breath marks and handprints [that] appear on freshly cleaned mirrors.”
When Thomas headed off to Chicago for graduate school, he left behind his fiance and family, feeling isolated and developing depression as a result.
“In order to cope, I found that I enjoyed writing, and I liked writing about ghosts,” he said. “I don’t know why. It was something to kind of take my mind off of the situation at hand, and also it was fun and I enjoyed researching because there’s a lot there.”
At the time, he wasn’t sure what the end goal was.
“I think I just kind of wanted to make a nice combination of everything I could find and then maybe put it online or something for other people to read,” Thomas said. “I just started to reach out to other places, emailing and asking [if they would be interested], and slowly, bit by bit, I started to expand upon this larger and larger encyclopedia of Lawrence ghosts.”
While 548 miles away from Lawrence in Chicago, Thomas wrote the chapter now in Haunted Lawrence about the infamous Stull, Kansas, an unincorporated community about 12 miles west of Lawrence.
“That was my favorite one to write because I did this full-on anthropologic analysis of where it came from, why it happened, how it developed, and that was really the only one where I was like, ‘This is not real, don’t believe this. This is nonsense,’” Thomas said.
Stull supposedly has a set of stairs that lead to a “Gateway to Hell.”
“There was an old church there got knocked down, and it’s possible that maybe there was an old cellar from a house a long time ago that maybe was in an adjacent field nearby or something that someone found once and then said was the ‘Gateway to Hell.’ No one’s found those, no one can find those again, so it’s possible it’s just a made-up story.”
What’s more likely, he said after doing research and putting the pieces together, is that the tale originated from a combination of eerie occurrences near the graveyard where the Gateway is said to be.
“Way back in the day, there was a tree that was really big that broke in two by a couple tombstones, and people were like, ‘Oh, these people were witches. This was a natural phenomenon that’s punishing them’ or something like that,” Thomas said. “There was also someone, about 100 or so years ago, who hung themselves on the tree, and then in other cases, there was a tombstone with the last name ‘Wittich,’ so there were these three things and kind of spooky things that happened.”
What really happened, Thomas said, is that people began to confuse the person who hung themselves for a witch. They started to say the tombstone was where a witch was buried, and that she was the beloved of the devil.
“People in the area were telling this story, just an urban legend, and then the [the student newspaper at KU] got wind of it because one of the editors went down and heard it [in 1974] and said, ‘this is kind of a fun story, we could write a Halloween piece about it.’”
A newspaper shortage caused the “Halloween story” to be pushed back into a November issue instead.
“That seemed even weirder, this story was not on Halloween but in November. So people started to believe it, and it just became more and more, it moved from the graveyard to the church, people said the church was haunted, people said the church was demonic, then the story just spiraled out of control,” Thomas said.
As for his own ghost sightings, Thomas said he’s never had “a bonafide paranormal experience that is 100 percent unexplainable,” but he’s encountered several strange situations. In college, he worked at The Toy Store on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence. When he started working there, his co-workers had odd tales of “The Toy Store Ghost.”
“I mention in the book that these weren’t, like, you know, full apparitions or anything like that, but it was weird things that happened,” he said.
Once at work, Thomas was in the basement by himself. The store had shelving units with metal arms that stuck out so employers could take the arms out if they lifted them up and pulled them. On top of the arms were shelves. Generally, if a shelf fell, it would create a rip in the wall and fall to the ground, Thomas said.
“When I was doing something, I heard a shelf collapse, so I went over to check it out, grumbling to myself about how I had to pick up all this crap, but when I got there, the metal arms were still in the shelf, and it was as if someone had lifted up the board and then just dropped it straight down because everything was still on the shelf,” Thomas said. “I would have assumed if it would have collapsed, it would have fallen, and everything would have spilled everywhere...That was weird. I remember thinking, ‘This is uncomfortable, I don’t like this.’”
Another time, Thomas was visiting the “haunted” The Elms Hotel and Spa in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, when he got a bizarre feeling after a ghost tour.
“When I was there, I had turned all the lights off [in the hotel room], then we came back, opened the door and all the lights were on,” he said. “It was just really creepy because I remember having turned those lights off and locking the door and everything. Again, it could have been someone forgot, and we thought we did. It was a feeling that I had never had before. To be fair, we’d just gone on a ghost tour, so I might have primed for that kind of spookiness, but it was this weird eeriness that I had never felt before that time and have never felt after.”
Thomas said he’s never felt the “sense of evil,” that some people talk about. If he has dealt with any ghosts, they’ve either just been misguided or mischievous. He was raised Catholic and still considers himself as such, but said he also has some “more divergent beliefs.”
“As an anthropologist, I’ve realized that the diversity of the human experience is kind of a wonderful thing,” he said. “Some people, when they learn about different religions and different belief systems, they kind of lose faith in their own...I’m kind of the other way. I’m like, Oh, there’s all these stories and a lot of them have similar ideas and similar plot points, if you will. It makes me think there must be something greater out there that we just get bits and pieces of, and as different cultures, we find different pieces. So we’re seeing something, but we can’t see the whole thing. I feel like if ghosts are real, that’s definitely part of it.”
Thomas’ book is published by History Press and Arcadia Publishing.
“There’s been a lot of stuff written about these stories in different sources, but no book has ever compiled them in one location,” Thomas said. “A lot of the stories that have been told are kind of retellings of other retellings, and I don’t think people have really gone out and dug in the archives to find additional information.”
He said his goal was to take what has been written, what others have said, and add his own research into it. He conducted interviews at businesses and homes, visited haunted locations, took photos and dug into archives at KU.
“A lot of people were just like, ‘Yeah, you can come on over, come over to my house and look around,’ which I was surprised at because I don’t know these people, but most of them were very welcoming,” Thomas said.
"Haunted Lawrence" will be available starting Monday, and can be purchased at amazon.com, arcadiapublishing.com, or local Lawrence businesses like Wonder Fair, hobbs., the Raven Book Store and others.
Readings of the book will take place 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St., Lawrence, and 3 p.m. Oct. 29 at Neosho County Community College, 900 E. Logan St., Ottawa.