The story of the skull is the story of the house I grew up in. It was – and still is – one of the oldest brick homes still standing in the country, probably the oldest in that part of Illinois. The house was built in 1810 just outside of St. Louis by a French businessman named Nicholas Jarrot. The house is called the Jarrot Mansion.
My parents both came from well-to-do families, but don’t get the impression that our house was some sprawling estate. The Jarrot Mansion was small and cramped for something called a mansion, but I guess it was pretty spectacular at the time it was built.
Nicholas Jarrot, the guy who built it, was an interesting fellow. He started out as a fur trader, became a land developer, and sat as a judge where he hanged more than a few men. He ended up as one the most respected and richest men in the county.
He built the house with solid bones, my dad would say. It was built to last. My dad said that it was Jarrot’s skull that sat in the box in the cabinet, that it came with the house, that it would always stay there. My mom wasn’t so sure.
The story goes like this: my dad was related to Jarrot and inherited the house. He and my mom were both teaching at the University of Illinois when they got married and moved in. They were young and newlyweds and they fell in love with the place. My dad thought it was beautiful and scary. My mom just thought it was scary. They were both weird like that. This was in the 1970s.
I don’t know who told the story about the skull to my dad, probably my grandfather, but he died when I was young. My mom wanted to throw the skull away, but my dad convinced her it was just a family heirloom and it stayed. So, the skull came with the house, as my dad liked to say.
When I was seventeen years old, my parents had some new colleagues from the University over to the house for dinner. They were talking about local history and my dad couldn’t resist breaking out the skull. My mom told me they were a little shocked to see a human skull in the house, but being professors, they were more interested than outraged.
One of them was an anthropologist and as soon as he saw that skull he knew it wasn’t from old Nic Jarrot. He said there was no way it was from the 19th century. My mom told me she thought maybe it was more recent, maybe from some kind of murder, but the anthropologist didn’t think so.
My dad said bye to the skull and the anthropologist left with it to run some tests and figure out where it had come from. My mom was happy to see it go, but my dad was strangely uneasy. It was his family’s skull, I guess, but it’s not like he was really attached to it. The tests were going to be two weeks, three tops.
That night after the dinner, the house felt weird. It’s hard to describe, but when I went to bed, it was like the walls were gone, like the air outside was just blowing through the house. The place was old, so it was drafty, but this was different; there was a different quality to the house, an unsettling one.
The next night it was still weird. I had the strangest dream that I was walking through a fog and the ground was really muddy. It was getting harder and harder to walk and, just as I couldn’t go on anymore, I saw a figure through the haze. Someone was walking towards me and I had the strongest sensation of fear that I’ve ever felt. Just as I woke up, I heard the end of a woman’s scream. I don’t know if it was in my dream or not.
The next few days were worse. More dreams and this time when I woke up, the screaming was still going on. It was downstairs or it was outside or it was in my closet. But, no matter where I looked, there was nothing. My parents heard it, too. I could tell by the looks on their faces in the morning.
At the end of the week, I finally confronted them. We had all heard the screams, yes, but what freaked me out – freaked all of us out – was that we had all had the same dream. I don’t think my parents were ready for that one, but they couldn’t deny it.
My dad was an engineer; he liked to figure things out. Although, he didn’t really believe in a lot of paranormal stuff, he was convinced that moving the skull had angered Jarrot’s ghost or, as he put, “an intentional energy field manifesting as information in local space-time.” I thought he sounded like Doctor Who.
My dad set up an old camcorder and some other equipment that could read energy fields and stuff. That night, we all have the dream, we all hear the screams. I can barely wait to check to see what we got. It’s like Christmas morning.
I come downstairs and my dad’s already there, watching the tape. Back and forth, back and forth, he keeps playing this one scene. I’m looking, squinting at the screen, but I’m not seeing anything. “There,” he says, and in the corner of the screen, behind the couch and in front of the drapes is the outline of a figure, what appears to be a woman with her hands clenched in fists raised to the sky. She doesn’t have a head.
There’s only a second of footage that the figure appears in, but it’s certainly enough for us. We hit the library and the local historical society for more information about Jarrot. It was a real ghostbusting adventure. My dad could be fun and weird when he wanted to.
What we found in all the old documents was a little scary. Jarrot had a housekeeper named O’Malley who worked for him for twenty years. There was some stuff that the people in the historical society told us that suggested she had been very close to him, close enough to get pregnant, I guess. That was the story anyway.
In December 1842, O’Malley the maid disappeared unexpectedly and some people said that Jarrot had bought her off and sent her back to Ireland. Some other people, however, said it would be highly unusual to take a trip in the dead of winter and that if O’Malley went anywhere, she went to her reward at Jarrot’s hands.
Of course, there’s no evidence for any of it; we don’t even know if O’Malley ever existed. Dad, however, is convinced. I think he liked the elegance of the solution. It all makes sense: the skull is the housekeeper’s and Jarrot had to keep it in the house in order to placate her restless spirit. Classic ghost story, right?
We get home and we start preparing for that night: cameras, recorders, we’re all going to stay up and try to talk to the ghost of O’Malley. I have my Ouija board. Then the phone rings. It’s the anthropologist who took the skull. He has some results for us.
Even though it had only been a week, the anthropologist was so excited he wanted to call us right away. Turns out the skull was far older than any of us imagined. As my dad told me afterwards, the anthropologist knew right away that the skull was ancient.
Where my house is, I guess there used to be a city. Not just any city, but a city built by ancient native Americans. The anthropologist called it Cahokia. A thousand years ago it was the New York City of the Midwest.
The thing about Cahokia is that they may have practiced human sacrifice. See, they built these giant dirt mounds that were a lot like what the Aztecs did in Central America. Later, in the 19th century, they found a lot of bones around here, but when people started building buildings and houses, they just knocked the mounds over to fill in parts of the river. A lot of Cahokia got levelled, including the part that Nicholas Jarrot built his fine house on.
So we lived on top of an ancient city, maybe the part of the city where they killed a lot of people. The anthropologist said that the skull was from a young woman who lived in the area at the time that Cahokia was thriving. Did Jarrot find her skull when he built his house? Did he keep it in a box? Is that bad?
We got the skull back from the anthropologist. He didn’t want to return it, but he had made a deal with my dad, a deal my dad insisted on keeping. All the strange stuff cleared up when the skull came home. No more dreams or sounds in the night. I don’t know if I would want my skull kept in a box in a house full of strangers, but maybe that wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. Maybe if that girl whose skull it is was a sacrifice, maybe she was sacrificed to protect the city or her family. Maybe in some way she’s still doing that; maybe she’s trying to protect us.