A Melody Haunting

By: Gary Gray

 

Two months before moving to San Francisco, I found an antique Piano at an estate auction in Chicago. It was a Steinway upright, model 1877. I have always been attracted to old furniture, and the piano though a bit roughed up through the years, was in excellent condition and a bargain I couldn’t resist. The bench was original and tucked neatly inside it was an old tattered music book from the turn of the century.

The piano was part of an estate sale. The auctioneer told me that it belonged to an old woman who had recently passed away, her children saved some of her furniture but other pieces were collected and put up for consignment to the auction house. The piano had been purchased and shipped to San Francisco before the turn of the century around 1877. It was a family heirloom, and had been played very little over the years. How the old lady came into possession of the instrument wasn’t known. How it came to settle in Chicago wasn’t known either. All that the man knew was that the piano was haunted.

When I inquired as to the nature of this haunting, the auctioneer couldn’t provide me with much detail.

“All I know is that it is supposed to play by itself.” The auctioneer said.

“Have you ever heard it play?” I asked.

“Nope. The family says they never heard it neither. The old lady swore up and down to the day she died that it was haunted. Nobody ever believed her.”

“Maybe that is why they didn’t want to keep it.” I replied.

“Could be. What ever the case, it’s a good piano and in beautiful shape. We have a delivery company that will deliver it for $250. They do lots of work for us.” I wrote the check for the piano and a second for the delivery fee.

When we moved two months later, the piano was shipped along with the rest of my furniture. In some small way, I felt like it was returning home. A pleasing feeling.

We found a nice Victorian house, built in the early 1900’s near the Mission District. The piano was placed along the living room wall as a center piece. We decorated the remainder of the house in a manner reminiscent of the 1890’s. It was very comfortable.

Our daughter, Angelina, was born a year later. As she grew older, one of her favorite things was attempting to play the old piano. When she was eight years old, we decided to give her piano lessons. We hired a lovely elderly lady, Mrs. Bullard, to visit our house once a week for lessons. When she saw our Steinway for the first time, she sighed with joy.

“What a lovely piano. It looks just like one I played as a little girl.”

“We purchased it in Chicago before moving out here.” I said. “The auctioneer said it originally came from San Francisco.”

“That’s interesting.” She replied. “My great-grandmother’s sister played a piano like this. I never knew her; she died before I was born. She was a piano teacher just like me, and there were family stories about her piano being haunted.”

“Is that true?” I asked. “The fellow I bought this piano from said that this one is haunted. Maybe there is something about pianos from San Francisco.” We laughed a bit.

“You know, I’ve got an old diary and a photograph. Maybe I should bring them over and we can see if it’s the same piano.” She said jokingly.

“Why don’t you. I’m sure we’d get a kick out of that.”

A week later, following our daughters next lesson, Mrs. Bullard commented on Angelina’s playing.

“I’m very impressed with Angelina’s progress.” She said.

“That’s good. She always loved to bang on that piano, its good she’s learning to actually play now.”

“She hasn’t had previous lessons?” Mrs. Bullard asked.

“She’s never had a lesson.” I replied.

“She knows an old song called ‘Chinatown, My Chinatown’ and plays it well too.”

“She’s learned that in two weeks?” I asked.

“Oh-no! She already knows it. I didn’t teach it to her.”

“Maybe she got it from one of our old records.”

“Could be. She’s beyond a beginner’s level, that’s for certain.”

Mrs. Bullard opened her purse and removed an envelope. Inside the envelope were a faded old picture and a leather jacketed diary.

“Here’s that memorabilia I told you about.” We studied the picture and compared it to my piano. “Look here. The pianos look almost identical. It’s hard to say for certain though.”

The photograph was faded. Seated on the bench was an older woman and standing next to her were two younger ladies, late teens or early twenties it appeared. Behind the ladies on top of the piano sat a fluffy white cat.

“Who are the girls?” Angelina asked.

“This was my grandmother’s aunt and her daughters, Martha and Margaret.” She said, pointing at the two younger girls. They were my grandmother’s cousins. We came into possession of the piano sometime after they died near the turn of the century.”

“What was it like back then?” Angelina asked, entranced with the photograph.

“Let’s sit on the sofa and I’ll tell you my old, old, family story of the haunted piano.” The old woman took Angelina’s hand and led her across the room.

Angelina and I sat together, staring at the aged photograph as we listened intently to Mrs. Bullard’s story.

Mrs. Bullard leaned closer to Angelina and with a serious whisper began to explain.

Angelina’s eyes grew wide as she sat upright, staring at the old photograph.

“This is the story of the haunted piano.”

*

It was called “The Paris of the Pacific.” San Francisco in 1899 was the most modern and enlightened city on the North American continent. It had one of the busiest seaports in the country. The cities socialites could often be observed strolling the streets in the latest Edwardian fashions, sipping champagne and eating oysters at places like Delmonico’s. The wealthiest amongst society attended European Operas and ate fine meals prepared by Cordon Bleu Chefs. Business was thriving and it was a good life for many; but, not for all. For the thirty thousand Chinese huddled into a few dozen square city blocks near the cities financial district, life was hard, lonely and without the amenities that most San Franciscans readily enjoyed.

Melody lived on Stockton Street, not far from Chinatown, with her two daughters, Martha and Margaret. Melody by profession was a piano teacher and a social volunteer. Her husband, my great-great-uncle Hubert, died in 1873 and she was left to raise the two girls. As a lady of social standing and a charter member of the Teacher’s Mutual Aid Society of San Francisco, she worked with the business leaders of Chinatown to eradicate gambling and other unmentionable things. She knew many Chinese Sam Yup’s, mostly merchants and shop owners and wasn’t about to let a small thing like Bubonic Plague interfere with her business. When the plague hit Chinatown, she helped organize the rat collections. For the majority, the outbreak was limited to Chinatown, but not always. Within a week of contracting the affliction, Melody died.

The daughters were left very little after their mother’s death in 1900; a few thousand dollars of inheritance and their home. After Melody’s death, Martha and Margaret continued enjoying their social life until the money finally ran out. By April of 1906, life on the Barbary Coast had made its transition to one of austerity and solitude.

Both girls were considered to be “above average” in their beauty, but by most eligible bachelors’ estimates, Margaret was the prettier of the two and the one most sought after for affections. Martha was the younger of the two sisters, by two years and had the more nervous disposition. Their social life made a dramatic decrease in the months following their mother’s death. Well aware their money wasn’t going to last forever; it became a priority for the sisters to court the most suitable eligible and preferably wealthy young men. Within a year, both girls were back to attending the Cotillion Clubs.

It was at one such dance when they were introduced to a certain Mr. Charles Hecker. In her haste to find a husband, she naively fell for the man. Martha in her youthful innocence was unaware of Mr. Hecker’s proclivity to gamble in private poker games. When discretely informed of his fruit- picking practices, she followed him late one evening after he walked her home, sneaking out the back door only moments after she had left him holding his hat at the front. Her clandestine attempt to learn more of the man resulted in her undoing.

His destination that evening was Chinatown. From her hiding place across the street, Martha secretly observed him entering a well known Grant Avenue gambling house. She waited outside until the wee hours of the morning, which was not an advisable thing to do, as the neighborhood was a dangerous place for a unaccompanied young white girl to be found at night. When Hecker exited the establishment, she confronted him on the sidewalk and from the ensuing confrontation she learned of his ill-gotten tendencies. His breath smelled of alcohol and his clothing reeked of sickening sweet opium.

He chased after her when she ran, only to be shut out at the door of her home. Overcome with depression, Martha secluded herself in her bedroom for days, until one rainy morning; Margaret found lying on the piano keyboard, a note. In this note, Martha had confessed the details of her encounter with Charles from a few evenings before. Heartbroken, Martha had lost the will to live.

Racing up the stairs to her younger sisters’ bedroom, it was there on the bed that Margaret found her sisters’ body; a cup of poisoned tea tipped on the floor by her bedside.

Charles Hecker is later found dead in a Chinatown alleyway. He was chopped to bits with a hatchet.

The rumor was that an old Chinese business acquaintance of Melody, one of the Sam Yup’s, had him killed in revenge for the mistreatment of Melody’s daughter. The police never solved the murder.

The family legend has it that Martha’s ghost continued living in the house after her death. Margaret was aware of the ghostly activity but was never certain of the origin. In her last diary entry, Margaret made the following comments.

  • Margaret Ludlow – April 17th, 1906

Occasionally, in the early afternoons, the piano plays itself. Today, there was something different. My attention was drawn from the book I was reading to the piano music emanating from the deserted living room.

“A new student.” I thought. I walked towards the doorway, observing the aged piano sitting against the wall of the adjacent room. The piano mother used to teach hundreds of students, and the same piano I too learned to play.

Months ago, I thought it was my imagination. My longing for mother perhaps – or my mind creating imaginary songs. After the first week of music, I became accustomed to hearing the students play on the miss-tuned piano. After several attempts; however, I’ve given up my efforts to interact with the ghostly lessons.

These visits from the dead are not confined to the waking hours. From time to time I see mother in my dreams. She would be sitting at the piano with one of her students, turning the tattered pages of song books as they play. Dream after dream, an endless stream of faceless children, each playing with different proficiency. Mother, so patient and kind loved teaching young people. Mother’s apparition would often turn to me and beam a smile filled with warmth and joy.

Sometimes I wake from these pleasant dreams crying. I cherish my dreams as though I were a child awaiting mothers return home from a long trip. I do not want to wake from these dreams, not ever.

I normally have two cups of tea in the afternoon when I listen to the music. I often sit alone at my table, sipping hot tea during these ghostly concerts.

Mother’s students have long since grown old and I am certain that many have died. Perhaps they are returning to a place of happiness to linger, to find a comforting place that may have eluded them in life. It is not a fearful thought, the ghosts of mother’s students hanging about my living room practicing their piano. I am never able to interact. I have tried numerous times to speak with these spirits. A few times I have even sat at the piano and tried to play along. They have never responded. I can simultaneously play a song and they another, never did I seem to interfere with the lesson. The ghosts would always be oblivious to my presence. Eventually I realized that interaction was not possible.

Today’s student is good. Each note played with delicate precision; I hadn’t heard the song before but it was clear that today’s student was very accomplished.

I know there is nothing to fear. I believe mother has moved to a different world and in that world she’s alive and still teaching her students, with all her heart and joy, the art of playing piano.

Samantha the cat as always was intrigued. She will climb on top of the piano and sit, waving her long furry tail and licking her paws while the music plays. On occasion during these lessons, Samantha will leap to the keyboard and saunter across the keys, never interfering in the least with the progression of the lesson but still making annoying sounds as her paws press against the keys of the playing piano. Her characteristic curiosity ultimately wanes and she eventually becomes content to do her figure eight rubs against my ankles as I sit sipping tea in the kitchen and marveling at the surreal events.

After today’s concert, as I stroked Samantha’s long fluffy tail, Samantha’s tiny jaw quivered and she squeaked, as if she were talking to me.

“I know kitty.” I said. “I miss Martha too. Tomorrow, we will go to the cemetery and see her and Momma.”

*

“And that is the last entry in Margaret’s diary.” Mrs. Bullard explained.

The devastation was massive. The Great San Francisco Earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed 460 square city blocks. Nearly two hundred thousand were left homeless and hundreds were killed.

“Margaret and Samantha never made their visit to the cemetery. Shortly before sunrise the next morning, the ground shook and a portion of the old Victorian house collapsed. Margaret died in her sleep. Samantha the was never found.”

“The piano was recovered from the ruins and was in our family for many years afterwards. We’ve been telling the story of the ghost piano since I was a little girl.”

As Mrs. Bullard finished her story, Angelina beamed a large grin.

“I know how to make the piano play.” She said.

Mrs. Bullard and I looked at each other.

“Do you now?” The old lady asked.

“Yes, watch.” Angelina replied.

Angelina ran to the kitchen and rummaged through the cabinet for a tea cup. She opened the refrigerator, removed a carton of milk and carefully poured the teacup full. Returning to the living room, she sat the cup of milk on the edge of the piano frame.

“Darling, you shouldn’t put the milk on the piano.” I said as I rose, about to remove it.

“Wait.” The old lady said, holding her hand in the air, her eyebrows perking.

“Watch.” Angelina said as she gazed at the piano.

Mrs. Bullard and I watched as Angelina backed away from the piano, staring intently at the teacup full of milk.

Seconds later, the sounds started. It was individual notes, starting high on the scale and working lower. Not a song, more of a random thing it was. As if somebody were tapping the piano keys from high to low in no particular pattern.

I was astonished. Still holding the old photograph, I glanced at it again.

“Maybe it’s the same piano.” I said.

“Well, you never know.” Mrs. Bullard replied.

I was about to hand the photograph to the old lady, when I flipped it and looked at its back side.

Written on back of the old photo in faded ink.

“Melody, Martha, Margaret – SF 1900”

“Look Mommy.”

Angelina opened the piano bench, removed the old tattered song book and pointed to the name inscribed on the inside front cover.

Melody.

“It’s the kitty.” She said. “She likes the milk.”

“Well isn’t that something?” Mrs. Bullard replied.