Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Things That Go Bump In The Night: A Family Story

“Best-laid plans” and all that…

Tonight’s offering started out to be about a completely different topic, but a post about “haunted houses” by my friend Marian Pierre-Louis on her New England House Historian blog  got me thinking.

What if…

Our current house was built about 1797, give or take a few years.  At least that’s what the old 1970s era “blue form” used to nominate it as a “historic property” in a “historic district” for the National Register of Historic Places says.

In any case, it’s been around a good long time and has undergone numerous internal and external “updates” – some good, some not so good.

I’ve lost track as to where we stand numerically in the long list of owners during the past 200-plus years. For part of that time in the early part of the 20th century, the house (which is quite large) was divided as a two-family duplex and at least two families lived there.  Without a doubt, it’s been “home” to numerous individuals since John Adams was President.

In any case, I would guess that the house has seen more than its fair share of folks shuffling off their mortal coils inside its walls. However, during the quarter century or so that we’ve owned it, we’ve not experienced anything like a spirit “presence.”

Not a single previous owner has come back to visit and had the courtesy to make himself or herself known to us, unless they came in the form of squirrels and mice.  If that’s the case, we’re kind of like the spirit world’s “Grand Central Station.”

Still, in spite of the age of the house, things have been quiet, spirit-wise.

However, that hasn’t always been the case in some other of my family houses, at least as far as some of my close relations are concerned.

My great-grandfather died at home in 1901 of nephritis. He was fifty-one years old and had worked most of his life as a sawyer in a lumber mill and as a carpenter.  By all accounts, he had a hard life and things did not always go well for him. 

At the time he died, four of his five surviving children lived at home.  The children ranged in age from 19 to 10.   My grandmother –the next-to-youngest- had just turned 12.  Agnes, the youngest child, was 10.

The house where they all lived was a massive two and a half-storey Victorian-era structure containing seven or more bedrooms, several parlors and two kitchens, with a large carriage house behind.  Spread across two city lots and set back from the street, the house dominated the neighborhood.  A carefully laid brick courtyard connected the carriage house with the street and a wooden picket fence surrounded the property.

It was the house in which my father was born.

As a child, I spent many Saturdays exploring the largely-abandoned carriage house, filled with boards and scraps of wood of all descriptions and with an assortment of carpenter’s tools, some of which belonged to my great-grandfather and others to his carpenter- son-in-law, the husband of his eldest daughter. 

The house remained in the family as part of my great-grandmother’s unsettled estate (she died in 1931) until 1965 when it was taken under “eminent domain” as part of a grandiose urban renewal project and then demolished.

(In fact, working from my notes while I was out of the country at university, I prepared the genealogical backup documents for the attorneys so that all the surviving descendants of my grandmothers’ children could receive their proper shares of the estate, which at the time, didn’t amount to much. If memory serves, the 1965 “eminent domain” price for the property was a bit less than $5,000, which was divided among 20 or more descendants, “per stirpes”, as they say.)

The old house itself was truly mysterious.  My grandmother’s nephew lived in rooms on the top floor and her older widowed sister lived alone (except for her canary) in the raised “English basement”, sleeping in a small bedroom next to the kitchen and cooking her meals on a huge cast-iron coal stove.  

The principal “parlor floor” was left uninhabited, its rosewood Victorian furniture draped with dust-covered sheets.  As far as I could tell, those sheets were put on the furniture in 1931, when my great-grandmother died and had never come off. The kerosene "Gone With The Wind" lamps were never lit.  During the next 25 or 30 years, no one spent any time on the parlor floor. 

The marble fireplace in the parlor had been stone-cold since the day after my great-grandmother’s wake. As a child, I tried to explore that room several times and was always quickly removed by one of the older relatives.  The parlor was not for exploring.  It was for preserving.

After all, it was in that room that the disembodied head of my great-grandfather appeared, wreathed in flames, to his youngest daughter Agnes, a few weeks after his death.  He left her with a short plaintive message.

Aggie,” he said, “I need more prayers.”

And then, it is told, he vanished.

Agnes was greatly alarmed at her dead father’s appearance, as were his other children and his grieving widow.  Prayers were said.  The priest was called.  More prayers were said and holy water was sprinkled liberally around the parlor. 

The vision of my great-grandfather in flames never appeared again, although most folks agreed that Agnes was never quite the same after that.

Or so the story goes. 

My grandmother told me the story of her dead father’s appearance before she died in 1956.  Her sister Agnes – the only person who saw the apparition - never spoke about it.  According to my grandmother – a staunch Irish Catholic until she drew her final breath -  Agnes’s vision was proof-certain  that her father was in purgatory.

Sadly, the house itself is no more.  Moreover, it occurred to me that I may be the only person living who actually spent any time in this house and actually knows its story. 

Houses disappear and families move on.  Their stories, however, can live forever - if we take the time to tell them.


  1. I was disappointed when I got to the point in your story where I read that the house was demolished. I'm sure the house was a real treasure. But your point is well made that we can preserve the stories. Ah, if only I were independently wealthy, I would buy old houses and restore them!

  2. The Urban Renewal project totally eradicated the entire street, demolishing at least 150 homes. This particular branch of the family had lived on the street since the 1850s. For about 20 years after the demolition, the only evidence that there had ever been a street with houses there were my grandmother's massive lilac bushes. They bloomed every spring in the field next to the spanking new concrete elementary school that rose up where the houses used to be.