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Bob Sylva: Ghost writer

(Originally published on Oct. 20, 1994) Unsettling dreams, soothing amber lights. Missing household items, objects skittering off tables. For 115 years, the sighs of May Woolsey have possessed this E Street Victorian like a pastel shadow, or a scented draft.

Now, in another episode, suddenly a key appears out of the blue.

It may be the key to the trunk. The key to a grieving mystery.

Quite possibly, in a kind of closure, as a psychic predicts grandly, it will free May after a century of hazy tenancy, leaving her restless spirit at peace, the fitful house no longer captive. Or maybe it's just a stage prop - a cold facsimile purchased at some antiques shop.

Miriam Gray holds the key in her hand. There is nothing remarkable or tingling about it. It is old-fashioned, made of a dull silver metal, with a loop handle and a flag of notched teeth. There, it strikes the round cafe table with a reassuringly corporeal ping.

"I'm a healthy skeptic," says Gray about the fascinating story of May Woolsey, a young girl about whom she has based a play called "Alkali Moons." The two-act play opens this week, at the 24th Street Theatre. But Miriam Gray and her patient husband, Ed Duffy, have been leading characters for years in a private drama involving a phantom May Woolsey, these unexplainable events, and this most peculiar Victorian home in Sacramento.

Ed Duffy bought the place unawares in 1979. At the time, it was a derelict boardinghouse in Alkali Flat. A skilled carpenter and stage set designer by profession, Duffy set about the Duffy set about the exhaustive task of restoration.

In knocking out a stairwell, Duffy discovered a small steamer trunk lodged behind a false wall. The curved trunk was made of worn black leather, a torn shipping label on one end. That evening, attended by Jim Henley of the history center, Duffy anxiously opened the trunk. It was carefully packed with personal items, all preserved with a sachet of palpable sorrow.

The trunk belonged to a young girl. Inside, there were petticoats, a satin wedding hat, rubber baby galoshes, Christmas tree ornaments, an ostrich feather fan, tiny leather gloves, a wooden rolling pin, marbles, buttons, spools of thread, a sewing kit, doll-size felt slippers, hair combs, party invitations and an affecting diary.

The trunk was May Woolsey's. "It's almost like an archaeological find," says Sacramento History Center archivist Charlene Noyes of the poignant treasure of historic artifacts. "The whole trunk was intact, with all these wonderful things inside. It really opens up that person's life. We have a real insight into what that young person's life was about."

Ultimately, it was tragic. The only daughter of Luther and Mary Woolsey, who reportedly built the E Street home around 1870, May Hollister Woolsey - bright, gossipy, blithe - died unexpectedly of encephalitis, Sept. 21, 1879. She was 12 years old.

Her inconsolable mother, receipts show, hired a medium and conducted a seance at the home in a desperate effort to reach her daughter. Mary Woolsey also put many of May's precious things - including a lock of her hair - into this black leather trunk. She hid it away in a dark niche of the house. And there for a century, until its unearthing by Duffy, the trunk quietly wept.

Opening the trunk, however, seemed to release a spirit.

Shortly after its discovery, Ed Duffy and Miriam Gray began a curious courtship. Duffy, intrigued, almost possessed by May, told Gray about the trunk, and on just their second date, took her to see May's grave site. In 1983, amid exposed rafters, missing sheet rock, the stirred up dust of history, the pair were married inside their future Victorian home.

Soon thereafter, odd things began to occur. Household items would turn up missing. Other things - a checkbook, a theater script, even Gray's wedding ring - were "misplaced." Duffy and Gray turned to each other, perplexed. There was no logical explanation for what was happening.

Then one night, Ed Duffy experienced this vivid dream. He was running terrified down a street lined with gas lamps. He was being chased by something sinister. He managed to make it to this familiar home on E Street. He hurried inside and dashed up the stairs and called out "May Woolsey!"

At his cry, May suddenly appeared at the landing. She was bathed in this warm amber glow. Instantly, the evil evaporated and Duffy felt this immense sense of relief and comfort - a feeling, he reports, akin to survivor accounts of near-death experiences. "The dream woke me up," recalls Gray. "Ed wouldn't talk about it until days later."

In 1986, mystified by these events, Gray and Duffy hosted a dinner party and invited noted local clairvoyant Sherri Bolling. Bolling, recalls Gray, was immediately struck by May's presence. " "She's here,' " Gray says Bolling quickly murmured. " "There are signs everywhere.' "

Indeed, as if on cue, and in somewhat comic fashion, the dinner party turned into an almost tour de force performance of the paranormal. Objects began falling off the table. The leaves on a houseplant visibly drooped. And, in a chestnut of psychic phenomena, a flickering candle was suddenly, portentously extinguished. All this before dessert was served.

"She said it was May's energy," says Gray of Bolling's take on the topsy-turvy evening. "She was convinced that Ed had a previous life experience with May, and that May was the child I never had." Gray rolls her eyes, both alarmed and mock-amused at this facile extrapolation of omens.

Still, her natural skepticism aside, Gray became captivated with the brief life of May Woolsey. She read her diary and was touched by the child's feelings and ornate prose. And she was entranced by May's almost porcelain portrait, a daguerreotype of which was packed in the trunk. "I found it completely compelling," says Gray. "The intensity of her face."

All in all - the trunk, the flying objects, Duffy's intense dream, a mother's sorrow from the past - Gray soon found herself haunted, if not by May personally, then by the dramatic possibilities of her story.

Now on a recent afternoon, the sun a spotlight, not a dusty portent in sight, Miriam Gray, comfortably on stage in a midtown cafe, is holding forth about May Woolsey and the birth pains of dramaturgy.

At 50, with expressive blue eyes, a skim milk complexion, this neglected sheaf of red hair, Gray is an imposing woman - alternately (sometimes simultaneously) brash, confidential, irreverent, voluble. She seems prone to speak beyond her captivated audience of one.

Though a longtime and highly accomplished actress in the Sacramento theater, "Alkali Moons" represents Gray's first attempt at writing a play. It was a chore she says. And not because the subject matter is so personal, the conflicts so close to home.

"The play is not about May Woolsey," notes Gray, who goes on to articulate some other themes at work. "It is inspired by her - the trunk, the dream, the medium, certain things about her life. The message of the play is that you have to trust your life. The rewards you can get from letting go."

Speaking of letting go, there are some who believe the play will provide May Woolsey's own interminable drama a necessary resolution, a psychic denouement of her century-plus drifting in this downtown Victorian.

"Sherri (Bolling) believes that May's spirit is trapped in the house," says Gray. "That the play will serve as an acknowledgment of her life, her anguish, that it will release her spirit to some kind of lasting peace. That she is stuck. That she can move on."

A fascinating hypothesis, to be sure. Gray shrugs, uncertain.

But the story of May Hollister Woolsey remains eternally appealing. Her trunk and its contents are a popular exhibit at the Sacramento History Center. Her solemn grave site, with its eroded marble epitaph so bittersweet, are included in a standard tour at the City Cemetery.

And every so often, Miriam Gray returns home to find a flock of school children gathered outside her gate, wondering if, please, they might just come inside for a peek at May's childhood home.

Sometimes May's ethereal persistence tries Gray's patience. "There is no overwhelming sensation of May being in the house today," she assures.

Really? Then how to explain the key.

Ah, yes. The silver key.

A few months ago, still in the throes of polishing the play, Gray came home and found this antique key on the coffee table. Her first thought was that Ed Duffy had, rather thoughtfully, bought the key to use as a stage prop. When she asked her husband about it, "He said," she recalls, " "What key?' "

His explanation: "Maybe the cat drug it in the house."

Gray takes the key and taps it on the table. It sounds like an ordinary key, even if, perchance, it unlocks some other dimension. "I think it's very odd," says Gray, holding the key in her hand. "I don't believe the cat brought it in. I don't know how it got there. Maybe it fell through the roof."

Maybe May Woolsey dropped it.

The drama continues.

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