Nancy Drew Sleuths follow the clues to author's old haunt

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    Ghost hunter Christopher Tillman explains why he uses a digital recorder from the '90s at the Toledo Times on July 9, in Toledo.

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  • Like any sleuth, Jennifer Fisher loves a good mystery.

    Ms. Fisher has been piecing together the life of Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote 23 of the 30-book series of Nancy Drew, the spunky girl detective who was always on trail of a good mystery, before Mrs. Benson settled into a long, distinguished career in journalism at the Toledo Times and The Blade. 

    The president of the Nancy Drew Sleuths, a fan club that covers all things Nancy Drew and Mrs. Benson, Ms. Fisher said that while she is hunting to fill in the gaps about Mrs. Benson’s life for a biography she is writing, she is also hunting a mystery about the writer’s afterlife.

    After reading about a ghost hunt at The Blade in October that looked into the possibility that Mrs. Benson, who died in 2002, is still around the places in which she worked for about 58 years, she and fellow sleuths kicked into mystery-solving mode.

    Three other Nancy Drew Sleuths — Gina Travis, Kelly Boettlin, and Mary Tarrier — as well as Nancy Eames, youth services coordinator at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, went to the Toledo Times Building on July 9, and, with the help of Christopher Tillman of Haunted Toledo, sat in a broiling and nearly deserted building to await word from the inveterate reporter.

    No one knows if there are such things as ghosts, and if so, would a no-nonsense reporter return?

    “The purpose ... was just to kind of get a sense of what's going on here, if the presence of her is here,” Ms. Fisher said.

    Later, the sleuths were off to Cleveland to look for the traces of Mrs. Benson there, before she moved to Toledo. July 10 was Mrs. Benson’s birthday, Ms. Fisher said, but she warned that the journalist wouldn’t have been pleased if her age somehow got out. 

    Hint: She was born in 1905.

    Ms. Fisher mentioned Mrs. Benson’s birthday several times during the hunt, in case Mrs. Benson’s spirit was listening. Then, as the hunt ended without definitive results, those in the room sang “Happy Birthday.” 

    Mrs. Benson began writing the new series of mysteries, Nancy Drew, in 1929, under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, was published in April, 1930. Twenty-two books later, she wrote the final book in the series, The Clue of the Velvet Mask, in 1953.  In between were other works, with a total of 135 published books, plus short stories and her pieces in various newspapers. She started at the Toledo Times in 1944 and worked at The Blade until she retired shortly before her death on May 28, 2002. She wrote a column, On the Go, after that, and fell ill at The Blade while working on that column. 

    Is she still on deadline?

    The hunt

    In a room that was the primary site of October’s investigation, Mr. Tillman set up a K2 meter, a tool that detects changes in the electromagnetic field that supposedly detects spirit activity, and a pet toy that easily activates when it is touched.

    He also used a digital recorder to document any electronic voice phenomenon — EVP — that could occur. 

    “If I pick up a voice on a recording that wasn't there when you're asking questions, to me, that that's pretty good evidence,” Mr. Tillman said.

    The sleuths were advised to ask questions, but most of the new reporters just wanted to express their admiration of Mrs. Benson. 

    Ms. Travis told Mrs. Benson of their shared connection: They both hailed from the same state. “I am also from Iowa,” she said. “And I have been to Ladora [Mrs. Benson’s hometown]. And we just thought Ladora was a neat little town.”

    Next, Ms. Boettlin said, “I just want to say I loved your flying stories. They made you feel like you were right in the cockpit.”

    Ms. Tarrier talked about the Nancy Drew series.

    “I just wanted to let you know that when I’m reading the Nancy Drew books, the earlier ones that you wrote, I feel that you put your heart and soul into them,” she said. “And you made it.”

    But the biographer-to-be had a question.

    After recalling their meeting in 2001, the year before Mrs. Benson died, Ms. Fisher said, “I don't know if you realize it, but I'm working on a biography about you. And I find your life very fascinating ... especially your trips to Guatemala in Central America.

    “In 1962 or 1961 when you went down to Guatemala City in April, a year after you were kidnapped, did you happen to run into mobster Carlos Marcello, who was dumped in Guatemala City by the U.S. government two days later? I'm curious about that,” she asked.

    Mrs. Benson revealed nothing.

    Not all of the evidence has been analyzed, but after reviewing the recordings during the ghost hunt, Mr. Tillman noticed another voice, a male one, saying, “thank you.” Everyone heard it on the audio, but no one heard it in real time.

    Ms. Fischer said she felt chills and a cold draft, and Mr. Tillman reported a slight chill near him in the sweltering room. At times, the K2 meter’s lights flashed, and during a spirited discussion about a famous haunted house in Iowa, the lights danced again. When someone asked if Mrs. Benson was enjoying the talk about her home state, the lights flashed again.

    The group moved into the old newsroom, but nothing further occurred, which, Mr. Tillman said, is what usually happens.

    That doesn’t mean the location isn’t haunted. In an earlier interview he said, “[Ghosts] aren’t like circus animals that perform on command; they come out when they want to, they talk when they want to.”


    Even if no one knows if Mrs. Benson — or anyone — is haunting The Blade or the Toledo Times, which ceased publication in the 1970s, Ms. Fisher and the other sleuths are content.

    ”Just seeing this historic building that she worked in for all those years was always something I wanted to do,” Ms. Fisher said. “I hope she appreciated our being here and talking to her about all the things she did in her life that we found interesting or amazing.”

    But the answer to this question is no mystery for the sleuths: What’s so special about Nancy Drew?

    “I, like so many people, read the Nancy Drew books as a child,” Ms. Eames said. “I had my mother’s Nancy Drew books as well as my own, and still treasure those books. I was thrilled to discover the Toledo connection because I had no idea. I thought Carolyn Keene was a real woman.”

    Ms. Eames said that when she became manager of the children’s library for the Toledo Lucas County Public Library she knew she had to include the series and Mrs. Benson. Plus, after the Main Library reopened from a major renovation, it shone the spotlight on local authors. 

    The downtown branch has had a marker honoring Mrs. Benson from the American Library Association since 2015.

    Ms. Fisher credits nostalgia as part of the fascination, as many people have read these books as children. 

    But there’s more to the story.

    “I think a lot of it is inspiring,” she said. “You consider Nancy Drew to be a role model in many ways because she was always helping other people and having fun adventures. But Millie Benson was a great role model as well, in many ways, just her work ethic and her passion for what she did.

    “So it's kind of like they're twinned. In a way, Millie is Nancy Drew and Nancy Drew is Millie.”

    As Ms. Tarrier added, “She was always just bigger than herself. All the fans in the series book community love these books. [They want] to kind of keep that part of her legacy going to where she's kind of become larger than life, in some ways, especially after her death.”

    And that is another mystery.