Millicent Washburn Shinn was the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley. She was an author and poet who took over editorship of Bret Harte’s Overland Monthly, a magazine about California. She also won renown as a psychologist in publishing her Biography of a Baby, from her research on the systematic development of an infant.
And she died of heart failure on August 13, 1940, 12 years and six days before I was born.
So how, you ask, might I have made her acquaintance?
As a program director and chaperone for a group of senior citizens, I made a lot of trips to interesting places. But the day I believe I met Millicent was one I will never forget.
This visit to the historical Shinn home in Fremont, California started like any other. The docent greeted us at the door and led us on a tour of the 1870 Victorian style house. Having finished the tour of the main floor, the docent led us up a narrow stairway to the second floor.
As was my practice, I allowed all the seniors to precede up the stairs and into the room because I was younger and more able to hear the docent’s spiel from outside the room. I then let the seniors exit the room and entered myself to see what they had just viewed and heard about.
The first room at the top of the stairs was your average farmhouse room, pretty stark and nothing very remarkable, except for some clothing hanging on the inside of an open closet door. Because I often work with costumes, I take every opportunity to educate myself on the correctness of what people wore in any time period.
I approached the closet and as I rounded the end of the bed, I got the impression someone was following me. My heart lept inside my chest. In my mind I viewed a young woman in a black dress. I knew when I turned around she would be there, but there was no one.
I shrugged my shoulders and continued forward thinking to examine the buttons on the first dress. Suddenly, I could not breathe. Not outloud, but in my brain I heard a female voice shouting emphatically, “Get out! Get out! Get out!” I left the bedroom quickly without looking back, knowing I would be in danger if I did not.
I didn’t want to frighten the members of the tour group, so I fell in behind them and waited until the tour guide had invited them to explore the upstairs library on their own. I then took her aside and asked if there had been unusual occurrences in the house?
She smiled and asked me if I felt something. I relayed to her that I felt a presence warning me to leave the closet area. She then told me she knew I would feel something when she saw me coming up the stairs.
“Some people are just more sensitive, I could see it in your face.” She went on to say, workers preparing the house for viewing had several experiences of hearing someone upstairs while they were all working downstairs, but when they went up to check, they found no one there.
One day, after locking up the house, some of the workmen were walking to the parking lot together and heard pounding. Looking up at the window on the second floor, they saw a young girl inside the house. Deciding a child had gotten into the house, two of the workers went back into the house to get her out and send her home before leaving for the night. They spent quite a bit of time calling out and looking into every closet and room but found no child in the house. They felt it was the ghost of a small girl who had fallen from an attic window and died.
Others had felt something in that front bedroom–though not necessarily a young woman’s presence as I had felt and many photographers had found strange orb-like figures in their pictures of the house and grounds.
The docent showed me a clock on a shelf in the front hall near the door. The clock was one which needed wound with a key kept on a shelf inside its cabinet. She said that every day as they left the house, staff made sure to wind the clock, check the time, and latch the cabinet. On numerous mornings when coming back into the house, they found the cabinet standing open and the time changed on the clock.
Needless to say, none of her stories made me feel very comfortable or gave me the desire to return, but I have often wondered who the woman whose presence I felt so frighteningly might have been.
Recently, I decided to write about my experience and visited several websites to reacquaint myself with the layout of the house and remember the significance of the family who had lived there. It was then that I learned about Millicent.
After having pursued her education, worked with early childhood development, and the magazine, she returned home and — as the only female child, took on the societal norms of the times. She bore responsibility to take care of her invalid mother, the household, and to help care for her brother’s children.
Some writers I found espoused the opinion that she did so grudgingly, and may have felt trapped, leaving me to wonder if that was the reason for the anger when I wandered too far into the room?
In the actual history of the family, there are no reports of her begrudging her life on the family farm. I imagine she felt protective over her mother, the children, and the house. Did she see me as one of the children foraging too far into the room and become afraid I might wake her ailing mother? Or had she simply grown tired of people poking about the place and, since I was alone, decided to make her point?
Whatever the reason, and whether or not it was indeed Millicent, or another woman of the past, the message was quite clear and I made up my mind then and there never to visit again for fear of further frightening encounters that might not end well for me!
If you would like to take your chance at an encounter, you may visit the Shinn Historical Park and Arboretum
1251 Peralta Blvd (28.80 mi) Fremont, CA 94536.