Monday, April 30, 2012

The Ghost of Marco Polo's Wife

After Polo returned from Asia to Italy, he was imprisoned, due to his involvement in a war then occurring between Venice and Genoa.  However, there are rumors that persist to this day, nearly 700 years after his death, that Marco Polo was imprisoned for reasons other than involvement in the war.  According to these rumors, he was imprisoned on the orders of the church, because he had married a non-Christian, the daughter of Kubla Kahn, Hao Dong.

According to these stories, Hao Dong came back to Italy with Marco Polo, but found the people to be unaccepting of her due to differences in appearance, religion, and language.  She became increasingly alienated from all but those closest to her, and became an effective shut-in.  Her only solace was Marco himself, and singing - she is said to have had a beautiful singing voice.

When Marco was arrested, his sister went to Hao Dong and told her that Marco had been executed.  In despair, Hao Dong lit her clothing on fire, and then jumped out of the house's window, into one of the Venetian canals, drowning herself.

It is said that people traveling along the canals at night can hear her singing, as if she was not ready to forgive the treachery of her sister-in-law or let go of her husband even centuries after his own death.

Commentary:  I was delighted to discover this ghost story.  Marco Polo was, by any standard, one of history's great adventurers.  His travels to China are, quite literally, the stuff of legend.  It is open to debate how many of the more fantastic elements of his writings were due to his claims, and how many were due to a writer to whom Marco Polo dictated his narrative.  This writer, Rusticcello, was a writer of romances (generally adventure stories) popular at the court, and it is concievable that, even if Polo had said everything accurately, it might have been embellished.  It is also possible that Polo did the embellishing, and Rusticcello took faithful dictation.  We'll likely never know.

However, even the more mundane elements of Marco Polo's books are sufficient to show that this was a man who lived a life the likes of which most of us would only ever dream of.  He travelled the world during a time when it was rare to travel far from your home town.  He spent time in the court of China during a time when most Europeans were only vaguely aware that this place called "China" even existed.  And then he returned to Europe to tell his story.

Given that there is a good deal of confusion regarding how much of Marco Polo's story is true vs. hullabaloo, it is only fitting that a ghost story would be associated with him that is likely far more myth than fact.

The historical record indicates that Marco Polo married a woman named Donata Badoer as his first and only wife, with whom he had three daughters.  There seems to be little more than rumor to suggest that he was married to Hao Dong, indicating that it probably did not occur.  Still, medieval record-keeping being what it was...

It should also be noted that the majority of references to this story are found on the websites for walking tours, suggesting that it may be of a more recent vintage than it's proponents would like to think, and that it may be more a product of tourism than paranormal activity.  Also, the claim that Hao Dong had lit herself on fire seems more consistent with a 1960s/70s view of Asia (when footage from the Vietnam War showed protestors setting themselves alight) than the expedient suicide of a heartbroken 14th century woman (also, if you wanted to burn yourself to death, why would you then jump into water?  Seems like there could be more about the story said here, but I have yet to see anything of the sort). 

Anyway, there seems to be some parallels between this story and two of my other favorites: La Llarona, and Paganini's Phantom Violin.  On the whole, it's a good story.

Sources:,, Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cock Lane, High Wycombe, England

Cock Lane in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England, is reputed to be haunted by at least one specter, maybe even two of them. In the 1980s and 1990s, people reported seeing a woman dressed in gray either walking or floating along the road, only to have her vanish.

On another occasion (described in the podcast linked below), a man was walking along the road late one night, and encountered someone in a hooded sweatshirt. Figuring that it was better to walk with someone else than alone, the man walked up alongside the other int he sweatshirt, and asked to walk with him.  The fellow in the sweatshirt crossed the road to get away from the man.  Trying again, the man walked to the sweat-shirted individual and again asked if they could walk together, only to see the silent pedestrian again cross the road to get away.  Finally, the original pedestrian demanded to know why the one int he sweatshirt was being so rude, and they turned to him, revealing only blackness under the hood of the sweatshirt.

Commentary:  The story of the pedestrian encountering a phantom is in most respects a fairly standard "encountered a ghost on the road" tale, elements of which are common from both pedestrian stories and phantom hitch-hiker tales.  The unwitting person going on about their normal business (walking/driving/working) encounters what they take to be a normal individual, normal individual does strange things/exhibits strange traits (avoiding the unwitting person/having very cold skin/speaking with a strange voice/etc.), and then the reveal, where the strange individual is revealed to be not human (they vanish/they turn and have no face/the unwitting person finds out that the person they encountered has been dead for decades). 

The other phantom people have reported is also interesting in that it is a grey lady - a common type of ghost sighting.  Women dressed in grey, usually in 19th/early 20th century garb, are reported throughout the English speaking world, and usually are part of a local tradition, being integrated into stories about warnings of disaster, lost loves, or unfinished business.  Although there are places where you will read that grey lady ghosts always accompany prophecies of doom, the truth is that most grey lady stories are just like this one, stories of a particular ghost that has no connection with any particular future event, but may be associated with past events.

Sources: Paranormal Database, Anything Ghost Podcast

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Allegedly Haunted House Party, Hull, England

Neighbors of a rented house in Hull, England, have long complained of the noise of partiers and loud music cranked up late into the night.  Worse, the garden of the house has been covered in trash (largely empty alcohol bottles) which had a tendency to end up in other people's yards as well. 

When confronted by neighbors, Leanne Fennell, the 20-year old woman who rented the house and resided there with her young daughter, claimed that the loud noises were the result of a poltergeist.  She claimed that she would be in bed at night, only to hear the stereo turned up loudly, and that her attempts to get the ghost under control resulted only in further mischief.

the young woman was cited, and ordered to pay 875 pounds to the council, which she failed to do.  She has now been taken to court.

While I get the desire for a poltergeist to turn up the stereo - after all, the term poltergeist is a German word meaning "noisy ghost" - it's tendency to empty alcohol bottles and dump them in the yard is rather more confusing.  Perhaps it is unclear on what the term "intoxicating spirit" is supposed to mean.

Commentary:  History is full of examples of people concocting ghost stories to cover up for their own misdeeds.  The Amityville Case is probably the most gruesome and notable, but more minor cases are not uncommon. 

While this particular story seems especially silly (honestly, it wasn't me making the!  Yeah, it's a haunted house party, that's the ticket!), it's no more so than the Amityville case (it just seems sillier because of the relatively trivial nature of the infringement: loud parties vs. multiple murders), nor is it really all that different of the many non-newsworthy cases where people blame missing car keys or other items on impish spirits. 

Although it is likely that this is just an example of Fennell being in a tight spot and coming up with the first excuse that came to mind (a very stupid excuse, really), there is always the possibility that she has managed to convince herself that it is true.  Weird thing about human memory, we can convince ourselves of the truth of all manner of outlandish things, no matter how absurd. 

Incidentally, I once lived next door to two kids attending the local community college who would have all-night, loud parties, and never seemed to grasp that their neighbors might object.  I kind of wish they had claimed that ghosts were responsible - it wouldn't have kept me from calling the police, but it would have at least given me a better story to tell my friends.

Sources:  IO9, This is Hull and Reading