July 28, 2013

The Shunned House: Facts As Strange As Fiction

Tony and I were in Providence visiting our friends Bill and Ed, and we decided to stroll down Benefit Street. If you've never been it's a worth checking out for the beautiful architecture.

Look at this photo of 135 Benefit Street. It's such a charming, well-maintained, historic house. Since it's near Brown University, you can also bet it's worth a lot of money.

That wasn't always the case for this particular property. Providence has definitely gentrified in the past few decades, but before that some of these beautiful 18th century homes were downright wrecks. Here's how H.P. Lovecraft describes this house in his story "The Shunned House":

In my childhood the shunned house was vacant, with barren, gnarled, and terrible old trees, long, queerly pale grass, and nightmarishly misshapen weeds in the high terraced yard where birds never lingered. We boys used to overrun the place, and I can still recall my youthful terror not only at the morbid strangeness of this sinister vegetation, but at the eldritch atmosphere and odour of the dilapidated house, whose unlocked front door was often entered in quest of shudders.

Lovecraft's short story relates how a prosperous merchant named William Harris builds the house in the 1700s, but he, his family, and his servants slowly sicken and die. Strangely, his wife goes insane before dying and raves wildly in an obscure dialect of French - a language she never learned. Perhaps even more strange is the giant human-shaped patch of phosphorescent mold that grows on the damp cellar floor, which everyone seems to take for granted. Shouldn't they try to remove it? They didn't have dehumidifiers back in the 1700s, obviously.

Virgil Finlay illustration for "The Shunned House" in the October 1937 issue of Weird Tales.Thank you Wikipedia!

One maid employed by the Harrises, a Rhode Islander from someplace wonderfully named Nooseneck Hill, thinks all the suffering might be caused by a vampire of some kind. In her part of Rhode Island people exhume, burn and then consume the hearts of suspected vampires, but the tasteful merchant family fires her for expressing her crazy ideas. They should have listened to her. All the mysterious deaths give the house such a bad reputation that no one, even the indigent, is willing to live there. The house becomes abandoned. 

Don't try to go inside - the house is private property and someone's home.
 In the 1920s, a professor named Elihu Whipple and his nephew decide to investigate the house's unsavory history. They find that a Huguenot (French Protestant) family lived in the same spot in the 1600s. The Huguenot family, who were occultist descendants of an accused werewolf from the French town of Caude, were slain by a mob of their angry Providence neighbors and buried in unmarked graves near their home.

Professor Whipple and his nephew, armed with the latest 1920s scientific devices, decide to spend the night in the shunned house's cellar. I won't give away the final ending of the story, but since it was written by Lovecraft you can bet someone turns into a puddle of slimy yellow grease.

Lovecraft's "The Shunned House" is fiction, but given the sensational nature of this story it's surprising to learn much of  it is actually based on fact. OK, maybe some of those facts are a little legendary...

Convenient street-level access to a cellar haunted by vampiric mold.
 FACT: According to Charles Skinner in Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, there was indeed a human-shaped mold that sucked the life out of people. It seems likely Lovecraft used Skinner's story as an inspiration. Breathe easy, Providence. The vampiric mold was actually found in a house on Green Street in Schenectady, New York and is no longer malevolently active.

FACT: Up until the 1890s, many New Englanders thought consumption (tuberculosis) was caused by the recently dead feeding on their surviving family members from the grave. The cure was to burn and eat one or more of the vampire's internal organs. There were many documented cases of this alleged vampirism in Rhode Island, including most famously one Mercy Brown. The best book about this practice is Michael Bell's Food for the Dead. He also devotes a chapter to "The Shunned House."

FACT: There is a village called Nooseneck in Rhode Island. I hope they sell t-shirts!

FACT: There was a werewolf from the French town of Caude. Jacques Roulet was accused of transforming into a wolf and murdering a young boy in 1598. He was convicted and sent to an insane asylum. As far as we know, none of his ancestors moved to Providence.

FACT: A family graveyard was located at 135 Benefit Street before the Harris House was built. All the remains were moved to the North Burial Ground, but legend claims a few bodies were left behind, including those of a French Huguenot couple. 

FACT: The house on Benefit Street was inhabited by a merchant named Harris, but his real name was Stephen, not William. According to Quahog.org, the Harris family did suffer some bad luck after building the house, including poverty, infant deaths, and the insanity of Mrs. Harris. Mrs. Harris was known to shout wildly in French - a language she had never learned.

July 21, 2013

A Haunted House and Puritan Fornication

Instead of one big topic, this week I just wanted to share a couple interesting things.

First up, a horror movie called The Conjuring opened this week. It's supposedly based on an actual haunting that occurred in Burrillville, Rhode Island in the early 1970s.

The supernatural shenanigans started almost immediately after Carolyn and Roger Perron moved their family into an old farmhouse. Objects moved on their own, blood oozed out of food, and strange voices were heard in empty rooms. The wife Carolyn was particularly afflicted by the multiple spirits that haunted the house.

Eventually, Ed and Lorrain Warren (ghost hunters who later became famous for The Amityville Horror) showed up at the Perron's house to investigate. I won't tell you what they found in case you want to see the movie, but you can also read about their investigation in this article from The Providence Journal.

Although Ed Warren has passed away, Lorraine still actively investigates the paranormal and maintains an occult museum in her home in Monroe, Connecticut. This sounds like a great field trip, but don't touch the exhibits - most of them are cursed. Youtube has a short video tour of the museum:

Fast forward to 3:00 if you want to see a spooky possessed doll named Annabelle, and then watch to the end to see a sinister wooden statue found by a hunter lost in the woods of Newtown, Connecticut. Creepy!

Maybe all this is too scary for you and you want something a little more academic. In that case, I give you this article that appeared in Boston.com about fornication charges in colonial America. A professor at Louisville University has recently published a paper on the topic, and she notes that women were charged for fornication more than any other crime in 17th century New England. There was even a category of crime called "open and notorious fornication." I suppose Puritan sex laws are scary in their own way, but unlike the ghosts who sometimes haunt our houses the sex laws seem to be staying dead and buried.

July 14, 2013

Hammond Castle: Psychics, Skulls, and Ghosts

Every July I get together with my friend Lori up on the North Shore. Sometimes we go to the beach, sometimes we explore some odd location. Last year we visited the Danvers State Hospital cemetery. This year the weather wasn't conducive for a beach trip, so instead we went to Hammond Castle in Gloucester.

Like all dramatic homes, Hammond Castle actually has a formal name: Abbadia Mare, which is Latin for Abbey by the Sea. The seaside castle was built in the late 1920s by the wealthy and eccentric inventor John Hammond as a wedding present for his wife Irene.

Hammond had over 800 patents in his name, and at one point held the second most patents of anyone in the United States after Thomas Edison. (I think he's now slid into third place.) Hammond invented radio remote control, earning him the title of "The Father of Remote Control", and at one point built a remote control yacht that traveled 120 miles with no crew.

Although he was very much a man of science, Hammond also had a strong fascination with the past. After visiting Europe, he decided to build the castle for his wife and also as a home for his collection of Medieval, Renaissance, and Classical art.

Hammond's wealth allowed him to not only indulge his taste in art, but also some of his other eccentricities. For example, pictured below is the castle's indoor pool, which Hammond enjoyed diving naked into from a second floor balcony. There's nothing wrong with skinny-dipping, but I do think it's a little strange that the pool is surrounded not only by Medieval storefronts he brought from Europe, but also a Roman sarcophagus (in the foreground) and some other Roman funeral monuments.

In keeping with his taste for Classical art, Hammond commissioned a nude statue of himself in the style of Greek sculpture (see below), and gave it to his wife as a gift. She hated it. After adding a fig leaf to it, she placed it outside on the front lawn overlooking the ocean. Apparently during parties guests would remove the fig leaf, much to Mrs. Hammond's annoyance. There's no word on how anatomically accurate the statue is.

Hammond's parties were probably a lot of fun, but I wouldn't want to be his overnight guest. The doors in one guest room are covered with wallpaper to blend seamlessly with the walls, and Hammond could shut them remotely from another room. He had a good laugh when his guests panicked at not being able to find their way out of the room, but let's just be happy there wasn't a fire.

Hammond's taste for the macabre and creepy didn't stop at funerary art and hidden doors. He also owned the skull of one of Christopher Columbus's crew men, and kept it in a Buddhist manuscript container. If you visit the castle and want to see the skull, it's in the Great Hall tucked in an alcove near the piano.

Even though he was a scientist, Hammond had a strong curiosity about life beyond the grave. He and his wife loved cats, and would have elaborate funerals for each of their pet cats when it died. He frequently said he wanted to be reincarnated as a cat. After his death in 1965 a large black cat appeared in the house and would often sit in his favorite chair. Perhaps it was the spirit of John Hammond?

While they were alive the Hammonds also experimented with Spiritualism and tried to contact spirits of the dead. Hammond even built a Faraday Cage to block electric currents and asked psychic mediums to contact the dead from inside the cage. The intention was to limit interference from the living world and enable them to more more purely contact the spirits. The floor of the castle's Great Hall has a permanent bleached spot from the cage's electromagnetic current.

A photo of the Faraday Cage.

A psychic named Mrs. Garrett and the Faraday Cage.

Needless to say, Hammond Castle is rumored to be haunted. Some people claim to have seen Irene Hammond looking out its windows, strange voices are sometimes heard, and a mysterious red-haired woman has been known to appear at weddings that occur there. No ordinary wedding crasher, she disappears as quickly as she appears.

I got the information for this post from the Hammond Castle website, Joseph Citro and Diane Fould's Curious New England, and Dark Destinations.

July 07, 2013

Witches and Bay Leaves: A Witch Story from Hampton

Modern witches and Wiccans sometimes use the phrase, "If you can't hex you can't heal" when discussing magical power. Although you don't hear this phrase much among the general population, I think it does convey the ambiguous way most people view magic. Magic is a neutral force that doesn't necessarily follow any set moral code. If someone can use magic for good, what's to stop them from using magic for evil?

It's not a new concern, and it was certainly found among the English who colonized this area. Many people who tried to help their neighbors with good magic eventually found themselves accused of witchcraft. One of these was Rachel Fuller of Hampton, New Hampshire, who was put on trial in 1680.

Before her trial Rachel was something of a self-proclaimed expert on witches and allegedly had the ability to see them, even when they were invisible to most people.

Witches, she said, had pulled a boarder out of his bed at Henry Robie's tavern so they could ride him with an enchanted bridle. Rachel also claimed she had seen several local witches, including Eunice Cole,  practicing their dark arts. Goodie Cole and her companions magically put their husbands and children asleep so they could travel abroad at night and work mischief.

Bay leaves - flavorful and magical.
 Rachel fell under suspicion herself when she tried to help her neighbors, the Godfrey family, with their sick infant son. The Godfreys thought their child had been enchanted, and threw hot coals from the fireplace into his urine. If a witch was involved, this would make him or her appear. (For more details on how this works, see my posts about witch bottles and witch cake.)

Rachel soon appeared at the Godfrey's house and acted strangely.

... by and by Rachel Fuller came in and looked very strangely, bending, daubed her face with molasses, as she judged it, so as that she had almost daubed up one of her eyes, and the molasses ready to drop off her face; and she sat down by Goody Godfrey, who had the sick child in her lap, and took the child by the hand; and Goodwife Godfrey, being afraid to see her come in in that manner, put her hand off from the child and wrapt the child's hand in her apron.

Then the said Rachel Fuller turned her about, and smote the back of her hands together sundry times, and spat in the fire. Then she, having herbs in her hands, stood and rubbed them in her hand and strewed them about the hearth by the fire. Then she sat her down again, and said, Woman, the child will be well! and then went out of the door.

Then she went behind the house; and Mehitable Godfrey told her mother that Goody Fuller was acting strangely. Then the said Mary Godfrey and Sarah, looking out, saw Rachel Fuller standing with her face towards the house, and beat herself with her arms, as men do in winter to heat their hands, and this she did three times; and stooping down and gathering something off the ground in the interim between the beating of herself, and then she went home.

There are a couple ways to interpret this. If you were Rachel Fuller, you would say you came to help a neighbor heal their sick child. It was just a coincidence that you showed up after the coals were thrown into the urine. If you were one of the Godfreys, you would say the coals and urine compelled Rachel to appear because she was the witch who enchanted their child. Her alleged healing magic was just a further attempts to harm the child.

Rachel also told the Godfrey children that if they put sweet bay leaves around the windows and under the thresholds no witch could enter the house. The children did this, but because they ran out of leaves one door was left with a small space unprotected.

When Rachel next came to visit she did not enter through the backdoor, which was her normal entrance, but instead came in the front door. This was of course the door that was not completely protected. Twelve-year old Mehitable Godfrey later testified that

... though the door stood open, yet she crowded in on that side where the bays lay not, and rubbed her back against the post so as that she rubbed off her hat, and then she sat her down and made ugly faces, and nestled about, and would have looked on the child, but I not suffering her, she went out rubbing against the post of the door as she came in, and beat off her hat again, and I never saw her in the house since; and I do further testify that while she was in the house she looked under the door where the bays lay.

Although Rachel had been the one to recommend the bay leaves as protection, the Godfrey's claimed they were actually working against her since she was the true witch.

The Godrey's child died soon afterwards. Rachel was put on trial for murder in the summer of 1680, but was found innocent due to a lack of evidence. Interestingly John Godfrey, the father of the child, had himself been accused (and acquitted) of witchcraft three times in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Witchcraft trials were often motivated by property disputes and bad blood between neighbors, but beyond these purely mundane causes I think it's interesting to see how ideas about magic play out in the trials.

My sources about Rachel Fuller were Emerson Baker's book The Devil of Great Island, and this great genealogy site that has records of Rachel Fuller's trial.