The spirit of Hannah Nordhaus’s great-great-grandmother Julia is said to walk the halls of the famed La Posada hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. The writer set out to untangle truth from the legend that surrounds this woman who emigrated to the American West as a young bride.
by Sandee Brawarsky
A few days after her wedding in 1865, 21-year old Julia Schuster Staab left her large family and her village in the forested hills of northwestern Germany for the American frontier. With her new husband, Abraham, 26, who had left the village 11 years earlier and returned a wealthy man, she traveled by ship, railroad, steamboat and finally stagecoach along snow-covered mountain passes to reach Santa Fe, New Mexico. Carrying with her trunks of stockings, jewelry, wedding gifts and furniture, the cultivated and elegant young bride had no idea of the life waiting ahead.
The couple arrived in early 1866 to a place of flat adobe buildings randomly arranged around a dirt plaza at the center of town. Streets were piled with garbage. This was the rough West, where parties in the local dirt-floor dance hall often ended in gunfire. Julia spoke neither English nor Spanish; there were few German speakers and even fewer Jews.
Author Hannah Nordhaus is Julia’s great-great-granddaughter. When she was growing up in Washington D.C., she was aware of Julia’s pioneering journey and had seen a photo of her in Victorian dress. Every summer, her family would visit Santa Fe and would stop by La Posada, the stately hotel that had been built by Abraham as the Staab family home. But mostly she knew her great-great-grandmother from the way most people referred to her: as a ghost. For years, there were stories told in Santa Fe of the apparition in a long black gown who appeared at La Posada (“place of rest”). Lights would go on inexplicably, chandeliers would sway and glasses would slip off of shelves.
Nordhaus’s lyrical memoir, American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest (Harper) tries to untangle truth and legend, the tale of success and the hardships of life, the woman and the ghost. Soon after the couple arrived in Santa Fe, Z. Staab and Bro. would become the largest wholesale company in the Southwest. Julia and Abraham had seven children and the eighth died. The family story is one of displacement, madness, inheritance and disinheritance, forbidden love, lawsuits, suicides and family feuds, all far from the refined world the piano-playing Julia had left behind.
The reader is struck by the bravery and inner fortitude of Julia and other mail-order brides who followed similar paths. Joanna Herson’s 2008 novel, The German Bride, is based on Julia’s story.
The narrative skillfully weaves together Julia’s story, the story of Nordhaus’s search for Julia and the ghost story. In an interview, Nordaus, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, notes that some of the research she did on the internet – finding newspaper articles, checking historical archives, consulting genealogy forums – would have been impossible a decade ago. She also found written works left by relatives, like a travel diary by her great-grandmother and her grandmother’s reminiscences of her own years as a young bride in New Mexico. No one alive remembers Julia, but Nordhaus found people who knew her children. A family tree at the beginning of the book is a useful reference.
Nordhaus uncovered a family book of Jewish prayer, in German, in which Julia recorded the births of her children. The author also traveled to the American Southwest and to Germany, and she was particularly interested to learn, for the first time, about the descendants of family members who stayed behind in Europe. From a cousin in Germany, she found out that a sister of Julia’s lived a long life, to be killed in the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1943.
The first article Nordhaus ever published was when she was in her twenties. was about Julia. Then she saw her ancestor as restless and unsatisfied, a victim of the decisions of others. About 20 years later, when she herself was a mother, Nordhaus found a photocopied copy of a book her great-aunt wrote in 1980 about the extended family. Then she began to think about Julia as a mother and as a woman who grew old far away from home and family. She wondered whether Julia and Abraham had a loving marriage, or whether he was a tyrant, as the ghost stories made him out to be; she wanted to find out about the sources of Julia’s apparent sadness, whether she was ill or just not resilient, whether she was murdered or killed herself.
“She became a person, someone I cared about,” Nordhaus says. “She gave me understanding of what a lot of people go through – how hard it is to be a woman, an immigrant.”
As for Abraham, she came to see that he was “a real and complicated person.” She says, “He was a man of his time. We can’t judge him by the standards of our time.”
About this memoir and her previous book, bestseller The Beekeeper's Lament, she says, “I tend to write about quirky corners of the world. I like to shine light.” In writing American Ghost, she was inspired by Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. She loved his voice, the depth of his research and the way he entered his relatives’ worlds.
For Nordhaus, writing this memoir has strengthened her Jewish identity. She explains that that her father, who is half-Jewish, was not in touch with his Jewish roots, and she came to see how Jewish his forebears were. She describes herself as culturally half-Jewish (her mother is Jewish).
“I just wrote a book about being Jewish,” she laughs. “Now I’m officially Jewish in way I probably wasn’t before.”
She adds, “I learned by tracing Julia’s life how lucky we are to live in the times we do, to have the opportunities we have as Jewish women.”
When asked about her take—after these years of research—on the ghost story, she says, “I would like to believe in her ghost—There is nothing I encountered that told me she was definitely a ghost or not. You can’t prove a negative. I believe in the power of her story and I believe in the power of the past to influence how we view the present.”
(Originally published in spring 2015)
Sandee Brawarsky is an award-winning journalist and essayist. She is the book critic for the New York Jewish Week.