In the small town of Atchison, Kansas at 508 N. Second Street sits a small, unprepossessing nineteenth century cottage which is the site of one of America’s most famous hauntings. Commonly known as the Sallie House, this circa 1870 bungalow first came to public notoriety in the mid-1990s, when Tony and Debra Pickman’s story of the haunting was broadcast by the television show Sightings. Since then, the popular urban legend surrounding the property has been that the house is primarily haunted by a small girl named Sallie Isobel Hall who died in the home during a botched appendectomy, aged seven.
But this haunting doesn’t have the hallmarks of a benign haunting. The Pickmans were being attacked–scratches, homicidal urges, and fires were reported by the young family who lived there.
Not exactly the behavior of a sweet little girl.
In fact, the Sallie House haunting seems to bear the stamp of a demonic haunting–a theory that is borne out by years of LiveSciFi investigations into the property. Not only is the location usually great for EVPs of a disturbing and undoubtedly demonic nature, but numerous attacks have been perpetrated against LSF investigators. So you have to wonder–is the Sallie House really haunted by a dead little girl who once lived there? Well, that much of the question we can at least answer definitively.
There never was a little girl named Sallie who lived in the house. There was never a botched appendectomy in the house. There was more than likely never any surgery done in the house. Although a doctor did own the house in the early twentieth century, he conducted his medical practice out of a professional office in downtown Atchison. In fact, the sweet-faced curly-headed little Caucasian cutie that emerged in sketches of “Sallie” has nothing to do with the house or the haunting. The real Sallie Isobel Hall was an African-American woman who bore sixteen children–only two of whom outlived her. She died in 1905.
And she didn’t live at 508 N. Second Street.
This is a case of what can kindly be called botched research and not so kindly called straight up fiction. The history of the Sallie house can be easily traced from its construction to the present day. While there can be no doubt that the property is haunted and that several tragic incidents have taken place in and around it, the story of the sweet-faced Sallie is an urban legend that has been perceived as historical fact. So when many investigators visit the property, they aren’t investigating what actually happened there. Instead, they’re investigating a fiction and that, in and of itself, perpetuates the acceptance of that fiction as history.
Here’s how it all started. During the 1990s, when Tony Pickman was being interviewed for Sightings, he told a story of how he’d encountered a sweet little girl in his kitchen one night. The sketch is of the girl he claimed to have seen. Obviously, there is no way to independently verify another person’s individual experience, and there’s no way anyone can say if that incident really happened. In fact, aside from relating the incident, Tony Pickman has nothing to do with the problem we’re discussing. Neither do the current owners of the property. If you’re looking for someone to blame, look no further than Hollywood.
The Sightings production team made a conscious decision to “prove” the haunting was factual by cobbling together a specious story based on the name of a real person and a psychic’s claims. They took the name from a woman buried in the local cemetery – a woman whose grave was unmarked. They figured that no one would actually go through all the hassle of digging into the documented history of the property. They had no way of knowing that less than twenty years later, their story would be debunked so thoroughly because the public records involving the house were easily accessible online.
So Sightings got the ratings they wanted but in the process they ignored the real history and exposed countless investigators to a malicious entity without a shred of concern for what might result from that decision. That’s who to blame, if blame needs to be established.
So you have to wonder–what does all this mean?
Well, for starters it’s a fairly standard indication of a demonic haunting for a demon to disguise itself as something non-threatening, like a family member or–dare we say it?–a sweet little girl with curls. That makes Pickman’s story of the little curl easier to believe. If the people in a home with paranormal activity think they’re dealing with a child’s spirit, they’re more inclined to invite that entity into their lives. After all, it’s just a kid, right? The same kind of thing allegedly happened with the infamous Annabelle doll. The original victims of that haunted object had a medium come to their house to see who was behind the haunting. Through the psychic, an entity claimed it was a little girl who’d died in the apartment, and would they please let her stay because she loved the doll. The residents said yes and presto! Instant demonic infestation.
Rule number one with the paranormal – nothing is what it presents itself to be.
But the second point to consider when looking at how the Sallie myth became so broadly accepted as historical fact is how easily people were duped by it for two decades. After all, if you run “Sallie house” through your search engine, the first few links will all have some version of this story. So unless a team does more in depth research, they’re going to walk into the house thinking they’re dealing with a child, not a demon. That’s like walking into a lion’s den wearing Lady GaGa’s meat dress. The paranormal investigators would be lured into what is basically a trap because they’re investigating the legend instead of the location. That’s why it’s so important for paranormal researchers to find the actual documented history of a location before they go to a new location. Because there’s a huge difference in how you approach a residual haunting with a benign entity and a demonic haunting with a demonic entity.
As Father Gary Thomas, exorcist for the diocese of San Jose, California, said in our recent interview with him the difference between a disembodied spirit and a demon is clear-cut. “Usually if there’s a demon in a house, there’s violence. So more likely than not, there would be objects being thrown around or other kinds of movement in the house. If there’s a disembodied spirit namely a ghost – basically a human soul. It’s not violent but there would be activity, where the spirit is trying to get the attention of everybody.”
So a location like the Sallie house, where there are countless reports of people being scratched, pushed, burned, and otherwise attacked isn’t being haunted by someone just trying to get attention. The location houses a demonic entity who took on the appearance of the most nonthreatening thing imaginable–a little girl with ringlets and a pinafore–in order to bring people into the house unprepared to confront what is really lurking there. It wasn’t until LiveSciFi began to break down the elements of the haunting over the course of the last decade that the Sallie house myth began to fracture.
It’s easy to fall for the myth. Many owners of allegedly haunted sites are learning how to market their properties for the burgeoning paranormal tourism trade. As a matter of fact, anyone can rent the Sallie house in Atchison, either for a tour or an investigation. The haunted house is no longer a sideshow attraction at the county fair, but a cash cow for otherwise unknown towns and counties. The owner of a haunted property will make little off that cash cow if the haunting is perceived to be demonic, but if the spirit that lurks in the shadows is popularly believed to be a little girl?
Thanks to an unscrupulous television show, it doesn’t matter what really hangs out in the basement or the hole or upstairs in the nursery. The house is known, irrevocably, as the Sallie house. The public perception is already set that the house is inhabited by a lonely little girl who died in agony when the doctor began surgery before the anesthesia took effect. Investigators who go into a property buying into the legend are trying to get evidence to corroborate what the show made up–they’re researching a lie.
And that’s why LiveSciFi gets the evidence they do at 508 N. Second Street in Atchison, Kansas. Unlike other paranormal teams, they aren’t trying to prove a story some TV producer made up. Instead, they investigate the location itself, letting it tell its own story. So even though they’re at the Sallie house, they know they aren’t there to see a lonely little kid. They know what’s lurking in the hole in the basement.
And it doesn’t have curls and a skirt.