Not all haunted houses are haunted by an independent specter and not all specters that haunt a house are strictly occupants. Meaning, not all haunted houses are actually haunted; some are, in and of themselves, specters. Additionally, not all of these engineered specters are necessarily evil. Many are adversely to the contrary. Conventional wisdom would say that the disposition of a house is an extension of its mason or master. But even this wholly logical premise is not itself a maxim. Such was the case with the Gideon Mansion.
The Gideon Mansion, located in what would become Ivanhoe County, Texas, was constructed of bottomland oak and east Texas pines. Built in the center of a spacious 4,000-acre rice plantation, it towered over its watery domain. Thomas Hanshaw Gideon, a financial wizard from Nashville, Tennessee, purchased the 4,000 from the Spanish government in 1817. Prior to the Austin land grants, and before the Adams-Onis Treaty, Gideon’s deal to this day remains something of a mystery. But T.H. Gideon was himself something of a mystery.
Local lore suggests that T.H. was associated with Jean Laffite, the “Corsair” that smuggled out of Galveston Island. How else would he have been able to stave off, not just knave French who resided in Louisiana, but cannibalistic Karankawa as well as rebellious Mexicans? For by the second decade of the nineteenth century, Spain’s hold on the region was crumbling. Laffite may have deemed the numerical alchemist useful, and as such, granted him protection. However T.H. managed his endeavor is lost to us. What we do know is that a competent man with capital arrived prematurely to a land about to blossom. The real question is why Thomas Hanshaw Gideon left a successful investment firm in Nashville to come to a wild, unsettled area like future southeast Texas.
Though the records are scattered and littered with holes, T.H. was the alcoholic, womanizing, junior partner for the Nashville investment firm, McMinn and Jackson. The firm had shipping interests all along the Mississippi River, which was beginning to yield commercial fruit. A newspaper obituary from March of 1817 exists for partner Tim Jackson. According to the announcement, Jackson died in a puzzling steamboat fire. Puzzling, because it was not associated with the boiler (the police report states that the fire was caused by arson). Both McMinn and Gideon were on the registry, which survived. Eyewitnesses testified that the two jettisoned into the river minutes before the explosion. Records from the War of 1812 indicate that Theodore McMinn was an explosives expert. So convinced were the Natchez, Mississippi police, that McMinn and Gideon were prime suspects. But the two men were beyond their reach. Gideon made his way southwest. A decayed corpse was later found on the western bank of the Mississippi, wearing McMinn’s clothing. With no forensic evidence, can we only assume it was him?
Why would McMinn and Gideon wish death on their partner? Court documents reveal that sometime prior to the steamboat fire, the two conspirators ordered their clerk to ‘destroy’ certain financial records. Had they embezzled from the firm? Or was it that Tim Jackson, having no family, had left his share of the firm’s assets in the firm itself? And what happened to McMinn? His death certificate states that he died of drowning.
So, in 1817, T.H. Gideon crossed the Sabine River with enough capital to purchase 4,000 acres. Three years later, the Gideon Mansion was complete. It was now time for this mysterious numbers guru to court a wife. Yet, T.H. would have to be careful. By 1820, the bulk of those immigrating to the Austin Colony, which sat just west of T.H.’s estate, were from the very region he had fled. The man found himself in the ironic predicament of being exiled from the very spot he had exiled himself to. However, Gideon’s taste was not raw-boned hillbilly, but rather, sculpted refinement. And a French maiden with an exquisite neck dwelt just across the Sabine in Louisiana.
Marie Desluaiers, the eldest daughter of a successful banker in New Orleans, would be the lovely bride. Her family knew nothing about Gideon other than that he owned and operated a highly connected rice farm. A man of finance, as Mr. Desluaiers, the former Tennesseean fit in well.
When the Mrs. T. H. Gideon arrived at her new home in May of 1822, the infant manse was in need of a feminine touch. The young French woman had ivy planted at the base of the four, towering white, Doric pillars. Rose bushes would adorn the front porch. Adolescent live oaks were uprooted from a nearby bayou and planted on the spacious grounds.
Marie would prove challenged with regards to pregnancy, yet when the seed finally took, she bore them both three consecutive sons. Jack, the eldest was born in 1825, Marcus, the middle in 1830 and T.H. Jr. in 1833. The House of Gideon was established.
At what point the house became conscious it was a House is a matter of eternal speculation. But conscious it became. Its breathing could be heard in the expanding and contracting boards. Its breath traveled the system of stoves. Its blood ran in the enclosed well. Its heart beat through the flames of the hearth. Its thoughts fermented in the spacious attic, whose two dormer windows acted as eyes. The House of Gideon was alive.
Yet, none in the family noticed these subtle clues. T.H., having attempted to walk the straight and narrow, found himself in extramarital affair after affair. The eldest, Jack, was an egotistical fop; and T.H. Jr. was beginning to show the first signs of schizophrenia. It was the middle son, Marcus, who increasingly exhibited the wiles of one in tune with the metaphysical. Early on, under the tutelage of his crafty mother, Marcus showed great skill as an artist. Sitting, sometimes for hours, gazing at the sky, the boy would fill sketchbook after sketchbook of clouds. The House kept close watch of these things, determined to make contact. And it was through the boy’s charcoal that the House would convene communication.
The day was overcast and the clouds were gray and sagging. The recent rains had given the grounds a deep lushness. Sitting in the grass, his stick and sketchbook in hand, Marcus saw a raven sitting in one of the willows that wept over the lake. Stretching out onto his stomach, his legs extended behind him, the boy artist focused in on his subject. Alas the raven took flight, flying into a tree behind him. Turning around, Marcus rose to one knee. With the pad on his thigh he quickly scribbled the bird’s brooding likeness before it could fly away. Moving his eye slightly left, Marcus sketched the front of the mansion into the background of his picture. Later that evening after dinner, he studied amid candlelight the day’s bounty. The addition of the Gideon Mansion in his labors pleased him greatly. Gradually, The House began to dominate Marcus’ sketches and his art became more and more intuitive. His father liked the drawings so much, that he had several framed and hung in the front parlor.
As childhood morphed into adolescence, the artist turned to painting. Not all of his oils were of The House, but most were. Furthermore, not all the paintings were concerned with technical prowess. Indeed, some were at times impressionistic, as if at a glance, he saw into the soul of The House. It was twenty years before a group of Europeans would degenerate the rules of painting; Marcus Gideon was a prophetic profligate. The boy had become devoted to The House, and The House to the boy. Of course, the more introspective the paintings became, the less appreciated Marcus became. His father downright rejected his son’s style, while his mother insisted that he attend an art school in New Orleans in order to learn the “proper” technique. Idealism is the disease of youth, and Marcus Gideon suffered acutely. His rebellion would become absolute. The House, however, would never tolerate the abuse of its kindred soul.
The eldest, Jack, was athletic and handsome, and the women sought after him. He had cruel tendencies, particularly toward Marcus. Partly out of offence, partly out of jealousy, Jack smashed an oil of Marcus’ against one of the Doric pillars; The House was so angered that it plotted a sinister revenge.
The floorboards of the back porch were showing signs of wear. Unbeknownst to T.H., they were infested with termites. As Jack was entertaining several belles one evening on the patio, his footing became unstable and his boot plunged through the porch. Rotted wood imbedded itself into his foot and ankle. The bloodied shoe had to be cut off. Besides being humiliated and embarrassed, Jack’s foot was severely hurt. Over the next week, it became infected. With the nearest medical attention some twenty miles away, Jack’s predicament was grave. After loading his eldest son in the family carriage, T.H. was halted by several fallen trees that had apparently collapsed overnight— blocking the only road out. The infection turned gangrenous. Jack’s foot had to be amputated.
That fall, Marcus was sent to art school in New Orleans. For two years, The House brooded. The biannual rice crop was a failure (a peculiar drought had affected only T.H.’s patties.). Upon the artist’s return, a sudden blossom affected the land. The two years following Marcus’ return were the most lucrative in the plantation’s twenty-five-year history. The House was happy. But the flowering Marcus’ talent was destined to take him away.
In 1855, Marcus Gideon, a highly skilled portrait artist, moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Immediately he found himself in the company of the city’s cultural elite. His talent for rendering realistic detail made him the most sought after painter in town. As the money began flowing in, so did the availability of women. But Marcus, still the idealist, was not content with his prospects—he sought something more, a realization of his ideal? He would find it not in a belle at all, but a poor Creole girl transplanted from his mother’s home state of Louisiana. Elise DuBree, a ballet dancer, lived upstairs from Marcus in an apartment along the Battery. Her mother, a house servant for a well-to-do family in New Orleans, was so endeared by her employers that they decided to educate her only surviving child. From a very early age, not unlike her artist neighbor, Elise exhibited an exceptional sense of grace and balance. Educated in New York, the Creole girl was blessed with the correct credentials. However, when her mother died, her patron family grew increasingly estranged. By 1855, her allowance had been severed; Elise DuBree now lived hand-to-mouth. Yet, the young idealist found her exquisite in her poverty. So much so, that he made her rendering his new life’s work. The Pre-Raphaleite movement was just beginning across the big water in London. Not unlike Dante Gabriel Rossetti, young Marcus became obsessed with his fresh subject.
“The neck!” He would say, “It’s all in the neck! Like a pillar!”
Marcus found himself again in the innovative driver’s seat; only Charleston lacked a John Ruskin to come to his defense. Just as with his previous experiments, the further away from his acclaimed academic style the artist drifted, the less understood he was. His instincts were at odds with the society in which he found himself ensconced.
Back in Ivanhoe County, the House of Gideon sat lonely and depressed; T.H.’s rice crop suffered accordingly. Perhaps out of pure spite, or some sort of twisted revenge, The House began to torment the already mentally ill T.H. Jr.
Jr. began exhibiting disturbing signs of insanity at a very early age. He would often conjure conversations that had never occurred. He was also given to paralyzing fits of depression; fits so pronounced that twice, before he was 18, he tried to hang himself. Fortunately, his attempts at self-annihilation were, in both instances, discovered before they were consummated. By 1857, the young man had dropped out of college and now lived languidly at home with his troubled parents. Mrs. Gideon spent an enormous sum on the best doctors available to her. But it was to no avail, as the young T.H. was uncooperative. He seemed to enjoy tormenting his parents with guilt. Against the almost unanimous advice of the medical profession, the Gideons did not institutionalize their youngest son. As it was, with his failed crop, T.H. was nearing financial ruin.
Once The House began its sick game with the insane Jr., it began in earnest. Starting with satanic, hallucinogenic visions in his bath water, The House then began planting strange, unnatural echoes all around its terrified subject. Several months of an endless barrage of disturbances left the already fragile man hapless and crumbling. There was nothing that the Gideons could do. In 1858, Marcus would return home, not just to marry the woman of his dreams, but to bury his little brother.
The House was cautious about the new Mrs. Gideon, and for reasons other than jealousy, so were Marcus’ parents. Being Creole, Elise living in a society whose principal institution was the enslavement of blacks, was ill-advised. Yet, Marcus was an artist. His approach to life was unconventional. There was a substantial coterie that condemned the union, but they were unable to a leave a lasting impression. Tensions were rising on the national scene, and thus any parochial animosities were destined to be short lived.
The House, skeptical of Elise, at first wished to possess the young Marcus. But as time passed and the feelings evolved, The House’s predominate emotion became a sort of maternal love. It had watched Marcus’ mother command her magic in the kitchen. The woman was an artist herself when it came to pastries and pies. Every year at the fair, Marie’s pecan cobbler would win first prize. The new Mrs. Gideon had a something of a culinary flair herself. The House decided that it could tolerate the wife of its beloved, like a daughter-in-law. And though it could find no avenue in which to communicate with the woman, it eventually grew to love her. This began to make itself apparent in Marcus’ art.
“The neck!” He would say, “It’s all in the neck! Like a pillar!”
The two would collide in a brilliant mixture of beauty. Marcus Gideon was an artist of exceptional genius. But a genius at the wrong place and at the wrong time is a man condemned. And Marcus Gideon was a condemned man.
March 1861 saw Texas succeed from the Union. Along with its Confederate neighbors, the state began hastily forming military regiments. T.H., who had briefly served in the Texas Revolution against Mexico in 1836, was too old and worn out to carry a gun. Jack, now a cripple, demanded that his father finance a regiment in order to fulfill his delusions of grandeur. T.H., already financially strained to the point of bankruptcy, refused. Jack, his delicate pride ruffled, left Ivanhoe County. It was reported that after a skirmish in Virginia in 1862, Jack deserted the regiment he was serving in. The Yankees later captured him. The egotistical fop spilled the proverbial beans to his northern captors, resulting in the rooting out of his entire regiment. Jack Gideon would henceforth be forever known as a coward and a traitor throughout the American South. In fact, the family name would be dirt if not for his younger brother Marcus. The brilliant artist enlisted in the Texas 22nd in the summer of 1862. Serving through the duration of the war, Marcus distinguished himself both on the battlefield and off. A selfless leader, he set an example for his fellow soldiers through his magnanimity. His battlefield sketches were routinely published in the local paper, The Ivanhoe Eye.
The blockade of Galveston shut southeast Texas off from its lifeline, the sea. Once New Orleans was captured, and the Emancipation Proclamation had filtered through the state, the economic well being of the region collapsed. The strain from impending poverty was too much for T.H.’s abused heart. Not long after the news that Jack had been deemed a traitor, coupled with the increasing deprivation, T.H. died of a massive cardiac arrest. He was 61. His wife would soon follow.
Marie, having contacted scarlet fever in the winter of ’49, had been in poor health for some time. The suicide of her youngest sent her into a state of depression she was never able to fully rise out of. Shortly after her husband’s sudden death, she contacted a lingering cold. The cold became pneumonia. In the sweltering heat of the summer of ’64, with only Elise at her side, Marie Gideon joined her often-imperfect husband in the afterlife. Marcus did not receive the news until some six months later. Though it was a shock to discover that both his parents were gone, the shock of constant war had numbed the artist’s spirit.
Marcus Gideon returned to the house of his name a patriarch to desolation. His parents had passed, one brother was dead and another estranged. Most of the plantation’s slaves had left. Only a few had remained behind to help. But The House, which had for so long brooded in indifference, sprang to life like a wilted flower responding to water. It had a trickling effect. As The House absorbed the light of its kindred soul, the land, long in drought, regenerated from the return of rain. Elise was soon to be with child. But the body politic would not concur.
Reconstruction in the South was gruesome, and Ivanhoe County, Texas was no exception. Loans to planters were being prematurely recalled. Those who dared do business with the copperheads, scalawags and carpetbaggers, were charged impossible interest rates. Families that had lived and farmed a piece of earth for generations were forced from their heritage at gunpoint. The Yankees had won the war. T.H.’s crop had suffered more often than not in the past decade. As a result, he repeatedly mortgaged his land. To make matters worse, Jack had been writing from Ohio demanding his inheritance. What was Marcus to do? There was little hope.
Thomas Hanshaw Gideon was a coy man. He possessed a surgical mind. T.H. was able, even in the most emotional of states, to detach from the equation at hand. For years, the numbers guru had withheld funds from the collective larder and stored them in a safety deposit box. That box was located in a large hole in one of the many oaks that squatted unkempt on the 4,000. It was never much, as T.H. was not a miser and wished to provide his family with all that their station required; yet after two decades, little by little became a lot. Still, his mental health coincided with his physical and financial decline. Thus, toward the end of his life, when he desperately needed his savings, T.H wandered in subtle confusion, unable to locate the tree in question. But The House knew where it was.
One stormy night, as the heavens unloaded upon the fattening plains, a bolt of lightening severed an ancient oak in two. Several days later, while surveying the 4,000, Marcus came across its mystic ruin. Swatting through the tall grass for fear of snakes, with pistol in hand, the artist stepped his way through the tangle of gargantuan, fallen limbs. The trunk, which was now just a stump, appeared hollowed out but also pregnant with something. Upon closer inspection, Marcus saw that a box of some sort sat within. After procuring the box and dusting it off, he opened it. The contents were deliverance! At last, he could pay off his debtors!
But The House had not anticipated the artist’s susceptibility to bullying and guilt. Jack was now not only a traitor, but also a victim of syphilis. Unable to work, almost unable to think, the eldest Gideon milked his more fruitful, more talented younger brother for all that he could. In urgent letter after urgent letter, Jack pushed Marcus. Marcus, having been abused by his elder brother since as far back as he could remember, acquiesced. His wife protested in the name of their newborn daughter, Katie, and Marcus wrote Jack, explaining the situation and begging his brother to wait. Jack threatened to accuse Marcus of being a traitor and send in his supposed compadres, the Union army.
Marcus was panicked! He knew that his good status as a rebel worked against him with regards to the Provisional government. Perhaps he could work a deal with the bank? Marcus sent what he had found in the oak tree to his brother in Ohio. His parent’s legacy, The House of Gideon, was betrayed by his weakness.
The Bank of Ivanhoe County, now under Yankee control, was unmoved by Marcus Gideon’s tale. In one month’s time, they would foreclose. He was ordered to vacate immediately. But The House could not let the boy go.
The weeks following the notice of vacancy were filled with nervous reservation. Marcus and Elise spoke very little to each other. Their conversations concerned their newborn daughter. The House watched over the child like a sentinel. In one instance, Katie began to furiously cry while Elise and the maidservant were outside the kitchen quarters fleecing a dove. Rushing in to see what the trouble was, Elise heard the cries of her daughter. It was nothing really, as the child had just wet herself and was in need of a change. Water had been set upon the stove to cook rice. As The House watched Katie writhe in perceived agony, it panicked. Forcing the flame to a premature boil, the bubbling water spilt all over the counter and floor.
As the packing ensued, The House grew increasingly unnerved. Watching Elise in the kitchen reminded it so much of Marcus’ mother that that night water began to leak from the attic ceiling and onto the second floor. The Gideons attributed the accumulated puddles to a leak in the roof. But the night prior, no rain had fallen.
The day of the move was heartbreaking. The sky was heavy and without color. Loading the cart with the last of the family possessions, Marcus kissed his wife and child goodbye.
“I want to stay awhile, and tell the house farewell. I won’t be long, dear.”
“You’ll meet us in town by supper, Marcus?”
“Of course, Elise, I promise.”
Was Marcus conscious that The House itself was conscious? Or was it just that it had so dramatically acted upon his imagination as an original muse? These questions are unanswerable. What is known is that Marcus entered the empty house to pay his final respects. Did the heartbroken structure give any sign to the Marcus as to what was to come? Did The House at last speak to the boy it so loved? Again, unanswerable.
From the road, some miles away, the travelers heard a loud, rumbling thunder accompanied by a large tremor. The boom was so resounding that it set Katie crying. The tremor was so dramatic that their driver lost control of the reins. The horses ran them off of the road. And behind them, just over a line of trees, a cloud fluttered like unfolding wings into the stale air.
The Sage of Ivanhoe County, the chief chronicler of the region, summed up Marcus’ fate in a simple couplet:
Collapsing down upon him, the great beam,
That supported the Cathedral ceiling.
The Gideon Mansion was gone, taking with it the artist who peered so precisely into its enigma.