a Halloween tribute to the many ghouls and ghosts of our community
The Seacoast is home to a myriad of historic buildings, lighthouses and cemeteries, many dating all the way back to the 17th century. But along with this vibrant history come an equally striking number of unsettling stories involving shipwrecks, fires and murders. To borrow a line from Dracula, as portrayed by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, “It is old, and has many bad memories. Be warned.” The Count was describing his castle, but the same may be true of the Seacoast. Stories abound about phantasmal women in white dresses, shadowy apparitions and other inexplicable sounds and visions. Fortunately, most of these poltergeists appear to be relatively innocuous, bearing ill will only toward those who wronged them in life. But the depth of the Seacoast’s spirit world can still be a bit unnerving for its living inhabitants. In celebration of Halloween, The Wire has compiled some ghastly local lore from area experts on the spectral realms.
When it comes to haunted buildings, Portsmouth rivals Amityville. The city’s charming architecture and historic locales are believed to harbor more than a few restless spirits. With a little help from Roxie Zwicker, tour guide for New England Curiosities and author of “Haunted Portsmouth,” here are a few of the most chilling stories from the Port City’s uncanny constructions.
177 State St.
The snug brick building at 177 State St. has been the site of numerous ghost sightings and investigations. A former brothel, the building eventually became Molly Malone’s Irish Pub, which recently closed and was replaced by McMenemy’s Restaurant.
According to Zwicker’s 2007 book, neighbors have repeatedly spotted two spectral women gazing out the pub’s windows at night, wearing 19th century gowns and waving to passersby. Perhaps, these ghosts are the lingering spirits of harlots who worked there in the 1800s, still trying to solicit clients from the street below.
But there are other stories, as well. A staff member at Molly’s once witnessed a spectral man wearing a long white coat in the basement, a former apothecary. Others have reported dishes inexplicably rattling and glasses flying off bar shelves by themselves.
In September 2007, members of the New England Ghost Project, a team of paranormal investigators based in Massachusetts, accompanied Zwicker to Molly Malone’s for a radio show. The results were disquieting. Executive director and lead investigator Ron Kolek said he first attempted to coax the spirits by placing $2 on a table—the going rate for services when the building was a brothel. It didn’t work.
But the team had better luck in the basement, where they picked up strong EMF (electro magnetic field) readings. The group turned to Maureen Wood, a psychic trance medium, who believes she can channel communications from spirits (think of Whoopi Goldberg’s character in “Ghost”).
“In the basement, she trans-channeled a drunken sailor by the name of Daniel,” Kolek told The Wire. “Daniel loved one of the prostitutes that was there, and it wasn’t mutual.”
Upstairs, Wood successfully channeled the subject of Daniel’s affections. According to Kolek, the young woman was depressed and even wept during the encounter. “She really didn’t want to be there and she hated what she was doing,” Kolek said.
Perhaps the strangest moment of the visit came when a member of the group went into the lady’s room and found the stall door locked from the inside, although no one was there. It was a sliding lock and the stall door extended almost all the way to the ground, meaning someone would have had to climb over the door in order to exit without unlocking it. Ghosts, too, it appears, need their privacy.
111 State St.
The brick building at 111 State St. has seen a steady flow of businesses come and go, and it appears each former occupant has left behind some vestige of its presence. In the late 1990s, the building was home to a biker bar called Old Bridge Café, a site of open drug use and regular violence. In 1999, a man was stabbed by his friend and bled to death in an adjacent alleyway.
When Old Bridge shut down and was replaced by Jack Quigley’s Irish Pub, employees began reporting a variety of ethereal occurrences. According to Zwicker’s book, bartenders and wait staff often heard scraping noises coming from the second floor, which was only open on weekends.
On one occasion, after a particularly noisy series of scrapes and bangs, an employee went upstairs to find that every barstool had been upended and placed upside down on the floor. On another evening, a waitress was walking past a beer mirror on the second floor when she glimpsed a horrific face beside her own in the reflection. When she turned and found no one there, she screamed in terror.
Quigley’s closed in 2006 and was replaced the following year by AK’s Bar and Bistro. The bar did not last long, and the building recently became home to Agave Mexican Bistro. It remains to be seen what sorts of spooky happenings the new tenants will experience, but Zwicker believes the building is still rife with paranormal activity.
“The last I knew from AK’s before they closed was that the basement still retained otherworldliness about it, still the sensation that there was someone in the basement,” Zwicker says. “Downright creepy, I was told.”
A striking example of Portsmouth’s unique architectural designs can be seen in The Rockingham House on State Street. The building is guarded by two pairs of golden cast-iron lions, and its façade, upon close examination, features no fewer than six leering faces. The visage on the triangular peak on the left is that of Woodbury Langdon, the building’s original owner. On the right peak is the face of Frank Jones, a subsequent owner and important figure in Portsmouth history.
The Rockingham was a hotel in Jones’ time, but it has since been turned into condominiums, with The Library Restaurant on the ground floor. Many early residents of the condos, including poet Esther Buffler, reported frequent sightings of a ghostly woman with long black hair streaked with gray, wearing a long white night gown. Referred to as the White Lady of the Rockingham, she is known to randomly manifest in hallways and disappear into walls, leaving only a strong scent of the sea.
Stories persist to this day. “I have heard numerous recent stories about the restroom in the basement of the Library Restaurant where women have heard someone in the restroom moving around in there, with the sounds of a large dress rustling in what should be an otherwise empty bathroom,” Zwicker said.
The Music Hall and elsewhere
A devastating fire ravaged much of Portsmouth in 1813, leaving a wake of smoldering buildings and haunting memories. The unsolved conflagration supposedly started on Chestnut Street in what is now The Music Hall, which opened in 1878. Countless patrons have witnessed shadowy figures in the domed theater, heard disembodied footsteps on the stairwells or felt cold breezes from out of nowhere.
Renovations last year uncovered a painting of a masked character wearing a colonial hat, now known to some as the Phantom of The Music Hall. Zwicker believes dramatic lobby renovations completed this year will only add to the lore.
“Even with their restoration, I am sure that the ghosts will enjoy it even more,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people have mentioned over the years seeing shadow people in the theater, moving up the aisles and leaving their shadows on the walls, yet there is no one there.”
Equally chilling stories come from Sise Inn on Court Street, the John Paul Jones House on the corner of State and Middle streets and the Wentworth by the Sea hotel in New Castle, as well as Fort Constitution and the former Portsmouth Naval Prison. It’s all chronicled in Zwicker’s book.
For whatever reason, ghosts seem to have a special affinity for lighthouses. Just ask Jeremy D’Entremont, of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. Few other people have spent as much time within the area’s handful of historic lighthouses. And although D’Entremont is a self-described skeptic when it comes to ghosts, he can’t argue with his own experiences. “There’s a part of me that hangs onto a bit of skepticism, but, at the same time, I’ve seen and heard enough to have an open mind,” he said.
Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse
D’Entremont believes he may have recently had a firsthand encounter with Joshua Card, the long-time—and long-deceased—keeper of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. Card manned the lighthouse, located adjacent to the U.S. Coast Guard station in New Castle, from 1874 to 1909. Tall and distinguished with his thick white beard, Card was a well-known and well-liked figure in the community. He proudly wore a “K,” for keeper, patched to his uniform. When people asked him what it stood for, he would merrily tell them, “Kaptain.”
Thirty-five years is an unusually long time to serve as a lighthouse keeper, and it appears Card has found it difficult to let go of his post. He retired at the age of 86 after suffering a stroke and died two years later, in 1911 (you can find his grave at nearby Riverside Cemetery on Route 1B). But many people believe Card’s spirit still resides in the old lighthouse, keeping an ever-vigilant watch over the port.
“We started hearing reports of shadowy figures being seen walking around at night,” D’Entremont said. Coast Guard workers have reported hearing footsteps and seeing people moving in the old keeper’s house nearby.
Others have heard voices from within the lighthouse. D’Entremont’s wife heard a grumbling voice while working in the tower’s watch room a few years ago. On a separate occasion, a volunteer was painting in the uppermost lantern room when he distinctly heard a voice say, “What are you doing?”
Just a few weeks ago, D’Entremont himself heard something in the lighthouse. He was in the watch room, giving two people a tour, when he clearly heard a voice from the stairway below say, “Hello?” Oddly, only one of his two guests heard the noise.
John Holland, a nationally known psychic medium who lives in Newmarket, once visited Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse as part of a pilot program for the History Channel. Although he knew nothing about the lighthouse, Holland said he summoned the letters JO—the first two letters of Joshua—as well as the letter K. He also sensed that the previous occupant went by a title, such as “sergeant” or “captain.”
“Whoever this guy was, that lighthouse was his baby. That was his life,” Holland told The Wire.
Investigators from the SciFi Channel’s “Ghost Hunters” recently spent three nights at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. D’Entremont was sworn to secrecy about what they discovered, but he called the results “intriguing.” The episode will air on Wednesday, Dec. 10.
White Island Lighthouse
A popular trend among ghosts is to appear as women in white. Such is the case with the apparition that purportedly inhabits the Isles of Shoals. She has been spotted roaming several of the islands, including Smuttynose, Star and Lunging. But some of the most notorious sightings have occurred on White Island, home to one of the region’s oldest lighthouses.
D’Entremont said he spoke to one man who was close friends with a former keeper of White Island Ligthouse, a 58-foot structure on the small island’s rocky shore. The keeper’s first encounter with the ghostly woman in white came shortly before the massive blizzard of February 1978. He was busy securing things in preparation for the pending storm when she came to him and assured him that everything would be OK.
“He swore … that a woman in white appeared in front of him and that she seemed to be kind of reassuring him,” D’Entremont said. Sure enough, the storm did little damage to the island.
Since then, other keepers have reported similar experiences. Glenn Young, a Coast Guard keeper in the mid-1980s, said the woman in white would appear whenever a storm was brewing, usually in the area of a wooden walkway from the lighthouse to the keeper’s house (the walkway was destroyed during a nor’easter in April 2007).
“He and the other keepers would hear a woman’s voice that sounded like it was sort of a voice of warning,” D’Entremont said.
There are several theories as to the specter’s identity, but the most common is that she was the wife of Black Beard. Although evidence is in short supply, the infamous pirate supposedly visited the Isles of Shoals and left a young wife there, along with a buried treasure. He promised his lover he would return but never did, and according to popular legend, she died alone on the islands and continues to haunt their shores.
Boone Island and elsewhere
More disturbing stories have come from Boone Island Lighthouse, located off the coast of York, Maine. In December 1710, a British merchant ship called the Nottingham Galley suffered a terrible wreck on the island, made famous by Kenneth Roberts’ 1956 novel “Boon Island.” Stranded for weeks, many of the survivors resorted to cannibalism. Several crew members died, and their ghosts are believed to haunt the lighthouse. (A storm in April 2007 washed up an old shipwreck on Short Sands Beach in York, causing speculation that it could have been the Nottingham’s remains.)
Last week, D’Entremont was gearing up for a trip with members of the New England Ghost Project to Owl’s Head Lighthouse, near Rockland, Maine. Owl’s Head is widely considered the most haunted lighthouse in the United States. Many people have reported strange swirling lights in the area, along with phantom footprints that appear out of nowhere and lead to the lighthouse entrance. Others have reported their beds shaking noticeably when everything else around them is perfectly calm.
Some of the Seacoast’s cemeteries date back more than 300 years, and the souls of those buried have not all strayed far from their final resting places. In 2003, crews were working on a sewer line on Court Street when they unearthed an African American burial ground from the early 18th century, thickening the area’s graveyard notoriety. There’s no telling how many other earthly remains are buried beneath our backyards.
Point of Graves
Portsmouth’s oldest and, perhaps, most supernatural cemetery is located next to the flower gardens at Prescott Park, just before the bridge to Pierce Island. A single visit to Point of Graves burial ground on Mechanic Street could be enough to make skeptics believe in otherworldly forces.
Established in 1671, the cemetery is filled with tombstones dating back to the late 17th and early 18th century, many of them decorated with hand-carved skulls and cherubs. Visitors have heard footsteps or felt contact with unseen beings, especially around the grave of Elizabeth Peirce, who died in 1717 and is buried alone beneath a tombstone bearing a winged skull engraving.
Many believe that Peirce’s spirit is lonely and craves company. Zwicker thinks she may have once encountered Peirce while walking away from her tomb. “I felt a nudge or a small push behind me. Startled, I turned around quickly and found no one there,” she said. “The only other person in the cemetery at that time was my husband who was nowhere near me. I wasn’t really sure what I had experienced.”
In another part of the cemetery stands a tall, slanted stone bearing the names of two children, both under the age of 3. According to Zwicker’s book, they died during the yellow fever epidemic that plagued the region in the 1790s. People often report feelings of tremendous grief as they approach this stone, perhaps channeling the emotions of the children’s mourning parents.
South Cemetery and elsewhere
Point of Graves may be Portsmouth’s oldest burial ground, but South Cemetery is its largest. Composed of several smaller cemeteries, the graveyard at the corner of Sagamore Avenue and South Street was the sight of a questionable hanging in 1768. According to legend, an impatient sheriff oversaw the execution of Ruth Blay, a former schoolteacher from Hampton who was accused of murdering her baby. Many townspeople came to Blay’s defense, claiming the child was actually stillborn. On the scheduled day of the execution, a messenger arrived with a reprieve from the governor—which he delivered moments after Blay was hanged.
The truth behind Blay’s story is uncertain, but many visitors to South Cemetery have felt a ghostly entity tugging at their clothing. Others have witnessed eerily glowing tombstones near the graveyard’s pond at dusk, and some have noticed a forlorn wraith loitering behind the stones.
According to Zwicker, more unsolved murders have occurred in Portsmouth than any other municipality in New Hampshire. That being the case, it’s no wonder so many spirits have been unable to rest in peace. For your own chance to mingle with the dead, there are centuries-old cemeteries all around the Seacoast.
|< Prev||Next >|