Friday, October 29, 2021

Delhi's Haunted House

The ghost of a "lady in white." (Art by C. Wilkins, courtesy J'aime Rubio)

 [Author’s note: When I stumbled across this story in old newspapers, I wanted to share it. But after working on this article for a while I was surprised to find that my friend Mary Adams Urashima had already posted a piece about the same incident. After some consideration I went ahead with my own article, hoping to find a way to provide a unique spin. I hope I've done that. Happy Halloween!]

"Police today were mystified by the reported appearance of a ‘ghost’ in a home at Delhi, [a] small settlement a mile south of Santa Ana," reported the Los Angeles Times on August 27, 1941. The eerie goings-on caused quite a stir.

Early Delhi

The community of Delhi (always pronounced “dell high”) is centered east of Main St. along Warner Ave., which was once named Delhi Ave. Pioneer James McFadden purchased 4,000 acres here in 1868 and named the area for his family’s old hometown of Delhi, New York. 

In the early 1900s, McFadden gave a portion of his land to the Southern California Sugar Company for the purpose of building a sugar factory to serve the area’s vast sugar beet growing industry. Soon, with the factory nearly complete and a new railroad spur under construction, McFadden was able to sell off other parcels of his ranch at advanced prices to land speculators. 

The Southern California Sugar Co. factory (Courtesy Orange County Archives)

In 1909, Fred and Henry W. Hinze created the first of several subdivisions to support the new industry. Henry also oversaw the factory’s construction and served as its first superintendent. But the sugar company's two largest stockholders: James McFadden and James Irvine, soon sued Henry, saying he'd cheaped out on construction in order to keep a larger profit for himself. By 1910, McFadden and Irvine were invested in a new rival factory -- the Santa Ana Co-Operative Sugar Co.-- within sight of the first factory. Two years later, Delhi’s second residential tract was carved out of the adjacent W. G. Emmett ranch. "To the man of small means," Emmett advertised, "this is YOUR opportunity.”

 And finally, in 1915, the C. E. Measor Subdivision was added to Delhi by inveterate Santa Ana bootlegger Catherine Measor Leieritz and her unruly children.

The Santa Ana Co-Operative Sugar Co. factory (Courtesy Orange County Archives)

From early on, the new community of Delhi was largely Hispanic. Many of its early residents had come to the U.S. to flee the violence of the Mexican Revolution. In Delhi they found a relatively peaceful spot where non-Anglos were allowed to buy land (a rarity in the early 20th century) and where many jobs were available at the sugar factory. The neighborhood had only 500 residents in 1920, but grew by leaps and bounds from the 1930s through the 1950s. It was annexed into the City of Santa Ana in 1929.

Culture and the Supernatural

Belief in the supernatural is largely taken for granted in Latin American and continues to run deep with many Mexican Americans. These ideas are often rooted in a combination of Christian and indigenous traditions. 

A good example is El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) which is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. Celebrants visit family graves and build decorated home altars to help the spirits of dead loved ones find their way home to visit. Decorations, parades, and other traditional elements are more light-hearted than somber. In part, the celebration has its origins in the Medieval European Christian traditions of All Saints’ Day and All Souls' Day. But it’s also infused with ancient indigenous cultural traditions honoring the dead. The Aztecs had at least six festivals throughout the year that resembled Day of the Dead, the most similar of which was celebrated between October 20th and November 8th. One of the precepts of El Dia de los Muertos is that the veil between life and the afterlife is a very thin and sometimes permeable.

A Day of the Dead offrenda (altar) (Courtesy Paolaricaurte)

As recently as 2014, a Pew Research survey still found widespread belief among U.S. Hispanics in the presence of ghosts in our midst. Combine these cultural norms with the dynamics of any small town (i.e. word travels fast and everyone knows everyone's business) and it seems 1940s Delhi was the perfect place for a ghost story to develop and spread. 

The Ghost Appears

The aforementioned Times article continued with the details of the haunting. But the better telling of the story appeared in the Aug. 26, 1941 Santa Ana Register:

'GHOST' VISITS DELHI; HAS RESIDENTS OF HOUSE ON RUN

The first "ghost" seen in Orange County in many years may not be "the real McCoy," but is sufficiently real to three women who were given medical treatment last night in Delhi after "seeing" the apparition, and a man was so frightened he could neither talk nor move for three minutes according to reports by Santa Ana police and Matt Lujan, well-known Delhi resident and unofficial mayor of that community.

The "ghost" was so real, Officers Harry Prichard and Roy Hartley reported, that an entire family moved from their home at 522 Central Avenue. Lujan says he doesn't know what the "ghost" could be, is going to try to find out, if possible, by visiting the Central Avenue home some midnight soon. Last night when he searched the place with a flashlight, he found nothing to disturb him, but both he and the officers will vouch for the fright caused by the apparition.

As 8:45 o'clock last night, Lujan called police to the scene. The officers found Frank Garcia walking about the yard at 516 Central in a daze. Lujan then reported he first noticed Garcia acting strangely, stopped and found him unable to move or talk. 

Finally, when Garcia could speak, he said he was planning to move into the house at 522 Central, vacated by Pedro Munoz, Mrs. Munoz and family at 4 o'clock yesterday morning. Garcia is son-in-law of the Munoz'. He said, when he entered the front room of the house, he saw a woman with long hair and dressed in white, standing in the middle of the room but when he spoke to her, she faded away. It was just after that episode that Lujan discovered the paralyzed Garcia.

While Lujan was calling police, Mrs. Munoz arrived at the place she had left that morning, "saw" the woman dressed in white--and fainted into unconsciousness. According to the officers, Mrs. Munoz was suffering a bad case of shock. A physician was called to treat her after they gave first aid.

Mrs. Gomesinda Calderon, 510 Central, and Mrs. Bruno Canstaneda, 510 Adams, residents of the area, also received medical treatment last night after hearing of the excitement. They too had seen and heard of the "ghost" before, they said.

According to the Munoz family report, they heard noises at 4 a.m. yesterday "and couldn't stand it any longer," Lujan said. Munoz then took one load of furniture away and while he was gone, a voice outside the door inquired: "So you are leaving?" and when Mrs. Munoz opened the door, nobody was there. Last week, while the Munoz boys, 8 and 10 years old, were alone at home, a masked man appeared in the house, the boys said after running from the house to a neighbor's. Four nights ago, Mrs. Munoz was frightened "speechless," it was reported, when a "cold hand" touched her forehead.

But to date, nobody has offered an explanation of the "ghost's" activities nor explained the noises which drove the Munoz family from the home.

Mysteriously, even the house that replaced the "haunted house" is now blurred out on Google maps.

The following day’s Register had even more on the subject,… 

'GHOST' OF DELHI FAILS TO APPEAR

The "ghost" of Delhi was "on vacation" last night.

That's what several persons who watched for "her" reported today. Frank Garcia, . . . said he had a quiet night last night. He added that he had several men friends with him at the "ghost" place, however. 

Matt Lujan, unofficial mayor of Delhi; Manuel Viega, Santa Ana funeral director; F. Villanueva, editor of Las Noticias, Orange County weekly; and Frank Estrada, 1901 West Fifth, stayed at the "ghost" place, . . . from 9 o'clock last night until 12:30 o'clock this morning, Lujan reported, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. A score of curious persons drove to the Central Avenue residence to "have a look" last night but none reported seeing anything even resembling a ghost. . . 

Garcia, after his first night of occupying the house, reported he had been uncomfortable and that he thought he had been slapped in the face during the night. A living room door which had been closed, was found open later. Nobody has been able to explain the cause of the excitement to date. Lujan reported a Long Beach man offered Garcia $5000 [the equivalent of about $92,000 in 2021 dollars] if Garcia could show him the "woman in white."

Ghostbusters of Delhi

From a newspaper editor, to an undertaker, to sugar plant workers, the group that staked out the house all night came to the task with a wide variety of skill sets. 

The most famous among the team of “ghost hunters,” Matt Lujan of 304 Adams St., was indeed known as the “unofficial mayor of Delhi” for decades. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1906, he and his wife Nellie were living in Delhi by 1932. At some point he became the designated interpreter for the community, often acting as a liaison between the residents and the police, City Hall and the press. He also organized Delhi’s holiday events, actively protected the interests of his neighbors, and even disassembled malfunctioning streetlights himself, bringing the broken parts to the city for repair. He lobbied hard for improved roads in Delhi, and when the city wouldn’t upgrade them, he lobbied for Delhi’s succession from Santa Ana. (Every town should have a Matt Lujan or two.)

Modern view of Main St. near Delhi (Courtesy HistoricSouthernSantaAna)

One of the less well-known among the party was sugar factory worker Frank Estrada, whose previous fifteen minutes of fame came in 1916 when he was arrested for running a “blind pig” frequented by sugar plant workers in Los Alamitos.

Meanwhile, the two police officers who were sent to investigate, Harrison "Harry" Prichard and Roy Hartley, were among the department's older officers -- both nearing retirement. Perhaps the Santa Ana P.D. felt that ghostbusting wasn't the most strenuous work.

Who's That Ghost?

Delhi’s ghostly woman in white matches some elements of the Mexican folktale of La Llorona, although the story is missing a few of its usual pieces: La Llorona is typically wailing and often appears near a body of water. However, there are supernatural "white lady" stories in many cultures, and the key recurring thread is that of a woman's ghost bound to the earth by some tragedy. 

Advertising art for the 2019 movie, "Curse of La Llorona"

Historian J'aime Rubio traces the story of La Llorena back to pre-Columbian tales of "the Aztec Goddess Cihuacoatl, who took the form of a beautiful, almost angelic lady in white" who drifted through the night, lamenting, . . . ‘Oh my children…your destruction has arrived. Where can I take you?’” Rubio also finds roots in an early legend of a native woman who was rejected by the Spanish soldier who fathered her child. In the story, the child dies (in some versions by her own hand) and the mother kills herself. But "even in death she faced the agony and torture of roaming the land eternally, especially any area with waterways or lakes, searching for her lost child."

Statue of Cihuacoatl (Courtesty INAH Museum)

Just about every older town in California seems to have some version of a "woman in white" (or blue, or black, or pink) ghost story. Why not Delhi?

The Delhi "ghost" also has similarities to San Juan Capistrano's famous "Lady In White," who was supposedly first seen in 1930, walking along the railroad tracks. Historian Pam Hallan-Gibson describes her: "The 'white lady,' who materializes in fog and likes to call attention to herself, has been sighted on Los Rios Street, the Capistrano Villas, Las Brisas, and in the foothills behind Del Obispo. She's a playful ghost, dressed in a long white dress, who cavorts and teases, but never lets anyone catch up to her." Hallan-Gibson says that the ghost's appearances on Los Rios St. are generally "near the giant pepper tree north of the Rios Adobe" and that the spectral woman can be seen "tossing her mane of long, black hair [and] beckoning you to follow." Sometimes the woman is seen with a black dog.

No Further Sign of Ms. Ghost

Today, the house in Delhi where the haunting occurred is gone and a more modern house sits at that address. No further news reports of ghosts at that address can be found after the 1941 incidents.

The current house on the property was built around 1955. Shrubs obscure it nearly as much in person as Google's "fuzz" filter does online.

Most communities have local stories that have been passed from generation to generation. It would be interesting to know if some version of this haunted house tale persists today in Delhi's folklore. 

Whether or not one believes in ghosts, the study of folklore is as important as it is fun. Knowing the stories that we pass on to one another is part of understanding history and community.   

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