"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 17, 2024

The Builders of Invisible Walls: A Mexican Ghost Story

"Montana Record-Herald," September 24, 1900, via Newspapers.com

This somewhat unusual story about ghosts with a taste for spectral construction work originally appeared in the “Boston Herald” in 1900, but was reprinted in a number of different newspapers.  The author was F.R. Guernsey, an American living in Mexico who was a regular correspondent for the “Herald.”

For scores of years the old one-story stone house on the Street of the Seven Gentlemen in the city of Querendaro had remained in the possession of the Allendes, till, in the troublous times preceding General Diaz's coming into power, it had passed Into the hands of "Col." Marron, guerrilla leader against the French and imperialists, as he preferred to be known; but regarded by the "Mocho" party in the city as a bloody-handed robber and highwayman. 

How the "colonel" had become possessed of the house was something of a mystery. No deed was passed; the old owners, the family of Allende, most respectable people with haciendas and shares in mines. had been extinguished, there remaining, at last, only one old man, as deaf as a wall, to occupy the place. He disappeared one night, and the next day the "colonel" took possession with his "estado mayor” or staff, a desperate crew recruited among the sort of people who hang on the edges of every revolutionary cyclone. And as the "colonel" was a testy person whose hands were stained with powder, and something more doubtful, and as his enemies had a trick of vanishing, nobody in the city dared inquire Into the conditions of his tenure of the Allende property. He was a tall, wiry, sinewy man, with long brownish mustachios, eyes gray and full of fire, a harsh mouth, and an eagle's beak of a nose. Things were unsettled in the state and the "colonel" was much afield, usually in the sierra where, like a hawk, he watched the fertile plain below and swooped down on an unwary enemy. During the war of the Intervention, he commanded as many as 1,410 daredevils, and once had made a dash Into Querendaro, surprising and punishing awfully four thousand French soldiers, some of whom had seen African service, and all tough chaps. That exploit made the name of "Col." Marron famous. For a few days he was master of the city, and good imperialistic citizens were hiding in friendly houses, or getting away in the disguise of cotton-clad peons. A dozen or more were ranged against a wall out by the cemetery and shot for "enemies of the republic." It was said that the "colonel” did some extensive and profitable looting. Anyhow, he seemed, in after years, to have hidden treasure to resort to in case of any financial difficulty.

The Emperor Maximilian went to his doom, and, slowly, peace returned. The iron-handed Juarez ruled in the city of Mexico and finished the anti-clerical programme begun years before by President Comonfort. Friars and nuns were bundled out of the convents and monasteries, great properties, the result of centuries of church rule, were sold to speculative people for whatever they chose to pay, and thus the great leveler, revolution, redistributed accumulated wealth. It seems a natural sort of process; it happened in Henry's time in England; it has occurred In many lands at different epochs. President Juarez gave place to President Lerdo, who was a milder man and had less strenuous work to accomplish, and, finally, there loomed high in the political firmament of Mexico a soldier of genius and the ablest of them all. the great son of destiny, Porflrio Diaz. Lerdo was beaten, and, fleeing, left the country. Thus the dawn of modern Mexico began. A man with vast and Napoleonic plans had begun to build a new national edifice, a statesman who had no fear of American invasion, the friend of Grant and an encourager of railways. 

It was, as has been said, some two years before this restorer of order took Mexico in hand, that "Col." Marron became the de facto owner of the ancient city house of the Allendes. Querendaro was a long way from the federal capital; times were doubtful; he had been a power in his region, and had shown that he could raise troops and command them to good purpose, and so his predatory tastes had to be overlooked by men at the capital. It was no time to bother about a fighting gentleman's peccadilloes.

The occupancy of the old house by the guerrilla chieftain was characterized by prodigal expenditure, much cock fighting on Sunday afternoons, and high gaming. Awful tales were told of people inveigled there, who were tortured into sending letters to their friends in distant places demanding large sums of money for some unmentioned purpose. One party in the city said these were high players who had to send home for money to meet debts of honor, but the few Mochos, or Clerical party men, still alive, whispered that "Col." Marron was no Republican officer, but an out-and-out scoundrel. They only whispered this statement in the privacy of their own houses, and with the doors barred. But Marron carried himself with a high head; he rode abroad with his bodyguard of friends all armed to the teeth, and nobody liked to talk of his doings. He had become possessed of all the bakeries and meat shops of the city, leased them to enterprising north-country Spaniards, or to natives of a business turn of mind, and so had a comfortable monthly income of fully $2,000. Thus, with extra income derived from queer sources, he could live in the style becoming a gentleman and support his henchmen quite like an old-time feudal baron, and just as respectably. In fact, this type of strong, unscrupulous and resolute men paralleled, in the time spoken of, the followers of William the Conqueror: might makes right till lawyers and notaries come along with red sealing wax. much tape, and stiff parchments. You have got to begin somewhere and somehow. Families of the aristocracy begin like the Duke of Argyll’s race, by killing off troublesome property holders and seizing what they have. And, after all, it will be seen on due reflection that Colonel Marron’s manner of accumulating capital was not a whit worse than the exploiting of the general public by the modern kings of finance and the great speculative manipulators of Wall street. They have the men of the long robes to help them steer clear of the awkward points of the criminal code, and take little risk; Marron took big risks, spent his money, and poor people found him likeable. In fact, a numerous party in Querendaro would have mobbed you had you remarked that he was a red-handed villain. They were recipients or his bounty. 

The house was ample, like all old-fashioned Mexican houses, built on broad and generous principles, and suited to the patriarchal life of the people. Fifty guests could easily be accommodated there, and In the palmy days of the Allendes they entertained in baronial style. Marron, their successor, was lavish In his hospitality. Nobody outside of his following lived there: he was a woman hater, and allowed none of the gentler sex on the premises. His cooks were devoted followers. They would not be tempted to poison him.

No one exactly knows what went on in the house and its great gardens and enwalled orchards. There were "high jinks," much feasting, gambling and pistol practice, occasionally strangers, apparently well-to-do, went to the house, and popular rumor ran that they did not always come out again. The Marron tenure lasted from 1874 till 1890. Then the colonel, being old and worn with excitement, and, most of all, with high living, fell ill, and his spirit departed to unknown regions. The Mochos, who were unsympathetic, said he had gone to hell. But as he had merely lived as other able men had done in many periods in the world's history, and gave of his substances to the poor at all times, we may cherish the hope that he fared as well as any feudal baron. 

Don Nicolas Valdemoro, about fifty years old, was the next owner. How he arranged that little matter of the title I don't know. He probably satisfied, for a song, any legal heirs of the Allendes, and Marron's estate had passed into the hands of his only nephew. 

The Licenciado Valdemoro was from Puebla, and as keen as the Poblanos have always been reputed to be. A Philadelphia lawyer would have had to take his dust on the highway of professional competition. And he was hard-headed. He had come to Querendaro in 1888, two years before Marron died. He liked the place, and when the time came, bought it. His family consisted of his wife Elena and three children of between twelve and eighteen, two boys and a girl. He had perhaps ten servants, including the chief gardener, who had peons under him, and they don't count. 

People talked about Marron's uneasy ghost walking about the rooms at night without any regard to locked doors. Servants stayed but a few weeks as a rule, and went away with queer tales to tell. The licenciado grew nervous, and, finally taking a house a few blocks away, began tearing down the Allende-Marron casa. He confided to his friends that he had no fear of anything phantasmal, but his wife not being able to keep servants long, it seemed best to pull down the house and build a new one on its foundations, and then he would have something modern, with the up-to-date conveniences that women like so well. It was a year and a half before the Valdemoros went back to the place, into a house spick and span. brand new and smelling of fresh paint and paper, with a private electric-lighting plant and electric bells all over the house, which was of one story, like the old place. The parish priest blessed the premises and there was a grand fiesta and any amount of champagne. The ghosts were surely banished. They might walk in the orchards, said the licenciado, and much good would it do them.

And the ghosts did remain away until a year ago, when they came back in troops and with any amount of accumulated ingenuity. You would have said that it was “Colonel" Marron and all his desperado gang. The pride of the licenciado’s heart was his collection of oil paintings, many of them selected by him in Europe, and valued at many thousands of dollars. He liked to show them to his guests and expatiate on their merits. 

He had sometimes talked of having a portrait painted of "Colonel" Marron, as a sort of fit historical subject, and, perhaps, if he had carried out his purpose things might have gone better with him. But the Senora De Valdemoro objected, and put her plump Mexican foot on the project.

One morning the licenciado went into the big sala, or parlor, for some purpose and noted with Indignation that several paintings had been pulled from their frames and lay on the floor. He called up all the servants and read the riot act to them. They got down on their knees and assured el senor amo that they could not have been guilty of such vandalism. It was evident that they were sincere, and badly frightened into the bargain. 

A week after, the pictures having been duly restored to their frames, the same thing happened again, only this time several costly paintings had been ripped from the frames and slashed as with knives. Valdemoro was wroth and consulted the chief of police, who sent two trusty and confidential men to stay in the parlor nights. They remained on guard ten days, when one night they saw pictures falling from their frames and heard a smashing of mouldings which terrified them. They bolted into the patio and stayed there, yelling for the licenciado. who arose and went to the sala and saw things for himself. His hair stood up all over his head. He was a badly scared man. He swore rippling, gentle oaths in the Creole manner, too. It was plain that the supernatural visitors were no admirers of the fine arts. So the pictures were taken down, packed, and sent away for storage. The parish priest and his young assistants came and exorcised the demons, and things went well for a few months. Marron had never been addicted to the use of holy water.

One afternoon in summer a servant was sent from the family sitting room to the dining room for a glass of water; she came back and reported that midway in the big dining room somebody had built a wall and that she could not pass beyond It. Her face had grown singularly white and her knees shook. The senora went to the dining room and she, too, ran up against the invisible wall. Then she properly and decorously (as is customary under such circumstances) fainted dead away. When the licenciado, who was away from home, returned, he found his wife in a high fever and delirious. The servants told him what had happened, and he was naturally incredulous. He went to the dining room, but found no wall. Then he cursed them for a pack of imbeciles. But he was uneasy in his mind for all that. 

The next day he remained in the house, his wife still ill. Once he arose and went to his library to fetch a book, and just inside the library door he found a wall, solid, on which you could rap with your knuckles and hurt them. He had a queer feeling about the stomach and in the throat, and went back to his bedroom to reflect and collect his senses. Then he returned to the library and found the wall once more. It was a rough wall, he could tell by the touch, but he could not see it. He retired discomfited.

Next morning, he having said nothing about the matter, he went once again to the library and found no wall. He accused himself of being a victim of an hallucination. But his brain was dizzy and his nerves unstrung. 

The invisible builders were active for weeks; there were times when the dining room was obstructed, and always in the middle, across which a good stiff wall had been erected. Only no one could see it. Neighbors intimate with the Valdemoro family were called in, and they felt the wall and were wonderstruck. In an hour the wall had vanished, and for months the family could move about freely, but a few weeks ago, the house became again the scene of building operations. Valdemoro called in an architect, who made measurements, and finally submitted a plan; it was, in outline, a very good sketch of the old Allende-Marron house; the old walls were rising just as they had before. Jokers said that the dead-and-gone Allendes were recovering their property, of which they had been dispossessed. The Valdemoros moved out during such hours as the invisible builders made their walls passable. The house stands unoccupied; Valdemoro is puzzling over a nice legal question, namely, the right of ghostly owners to erect a house within your own. The descendants of the old Mocho families of the city are wagging their heads and saying, "I told you so." On some days, you can wander all over Licenciado Valdemoro's new house; on other days you run up against unseeable walls. 

The fame of the house is spreading beyond Querendaro. Some people say it is the work of the Allendes; most people fancy it is a trick of "Col." Marron and his henchmen. I don't pretend to know; I only put down the story as told by travelers from Querendaro. It is a psychical "nut" of the most unbreakable sort.


  1. Well, that's a new one. I've heard of ghostly barriers but not a ghost house rising inside a real one...

  2. Just dropped by and did my best to read this, but between my headache and my brain still sleeping while my body is on autopilot, it sounds like a strange but interesting tale


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