Here live spirits and stories from buried eras
The Old Gaol in York, Maine, with stocks for public punishment, dates to 1719. Get permission before your ghost hunt: The deserted Ramtail Factory in Foster, R.I., is on private property. (Tom Herde/Globe Staff/File)
New England is rife with ghosts. Our spectral neighbors have been part of the landscape since long before the Europeans arrived. When it comes to tales of the supernatural, every state has its share, including these:
The state has an official haunted spot, identified as such in the 1885 state census: the deserted Ramtail Factory in Foster. Anyone brave enough to poke around here after dark has a good chance of encountering a spirit.
If tradition holds true, it probably would be the ghost of Peleg Walker, who served as night watchman in the early 19th century. It was Walker's job to patrol the grounds, checking the mill, warehouse, offices, and houses. At dawn, he would ring the factory bell to summon the workers. Then, on May 19, 1822, the bell didn't ring. Walker's body was discovered hanging from the bell rope.
Whether murder or suicide, the haunting began almost immediately. The bell rang on its own. Night after night workers awoke to the clatter of the looms running all by themselves. When they saw the waterwheel turning against the Ponaganset River current, dozens fled.
Those who remained saw the dimly glowing shadow of Walker, carrying his lantern from building to building. By the mid-19th century the factory had closed, yet even today Walker's spirit is said to haunt the ruins as he dutifully makes his rounds.
A warning to the curious: This is private property. Before entering secure permission from City of Providence Water Supply Board (401-521-6300).
Travelers on Route 103 driving through Cuttingsville often report seeing a ghost. A second look reveals it to be the marble statue of John P. Bowman, kneeling on the steps of Laurel Glen Mausoleum. Directly opposite is Laurel Hall, the spooky Victorian mansion Bowman (1816-91) built as a summer home. His wife and two daughters died before they could occupy it, so he built them a tomb. Until his death, Bowman lived alone in Laurel Hall. Local legend suggests he pursued occult sciences, hoping to bring his family, and eventually himself, back from the dead. His will provided for upkeep of the house and grounds. Stories emerged that a cook and butler were employed to prepare meals every night in case Bowman or one of his deceased family members showed up at dinnertime . . . hungry. While the existence of Laurel Hall ghosts may be disputable, the Neo-Egyptian mausoleum is an observable wonder. A peek through the barred entrance reveals an interior appearing vastly larger than the outside, an ingenious illusion accomplished by carefully positioned mirrors. Statues inside detail how each Bowman looked in life.
In the woods in Chesterfield is a set of ruins dramatic enough to imprint itself on anyone's memory. It's all that is left of Madame Sherri's Castle, a decaying monument to the flamboyant woman who built it. Once associated with Parisian music halls and the Ziegfeld Follies, Madame Antoinette Sherri commissioned the construction in 1931. The structure was unlike anything southern New Hampshire had ever seen. Despite disapproving locals, she threw wild parties at the castle. Some folks were certain she was running a brothel and whispered about flirtatious flappers and big limousines with cigar-chomping passengers arriving from New York. Locals say Madame Sherri delighted in scandalizing neighbors with her younger men, her pet monkey, and her habit of driving around wearing nothing but a fur coat and a bright smile. Eventually circumstances caught up with her. Her castle fell to neglect and vandalism, thus solidifying its reputation as a haunted place. On Oct. 18, 1962, it was gutted by fire, leaving only the foundation, arches, chimneys, and a grand stone staircase. Madame Sherri died in 1964 at 84, a penniless ward of nearby Brattleboro. But to this day visitors report hearing voices, music, and the sounds of parties long gone. Occasionally Madame Sherri is encountered, young and beautiful, gliding down the curved stairway from her heavenly boudoir to the cold New Hampshire ground.
That barnlike structure on a knoll in York is the Old Gaol, built in 1719 partly with salvaged materials from an earlier lockup, and maintained now by Museums of Old York. Its perfectly reconstructed cells, dungeons, and jailer's quarters offer insight into what it must have been like doing time there: occasionally crowded, always dark, frigid or stifling, depending on the season. And impossible to escape. Some ingenious jailer even imbedded saw blades as window frames. Prisoners were separated according to the severity of their crimes. One area housed the murderers and arsonists. The other was for doers of lesser evils such as profanity, intoxication, or failure to keep the Sabbath. One tale suggests that the spirit of at least one prisoner remains. It is thought to be that of Patience Boston, an allegedly wild, wicked, and wanton Native American. When the local minister tried to convert her, she retaliated by drowning his son. Boston was pregnant when she was incarcerated and stayed in jail after her son's birth. On July 24, 1735, she was hanged.
Boston's other Big Dig, the Hoosac Tunnel, was a 19th-century engineering marvel. Scores of workers commenced digging in 1851 from both ends simultaneously, creating a 5-mile horizontal shaft through the 2,000-foot Hoosac Mountains. Somehow they managed to make ends meet by 1875. The project cost more than $21 million. Almost 200 lives were lost to explosions, collapsing walls, fires, and asphyxiation. After so many deaths the tunnel was dubbed "The Bloody Pit." Today, according to Jeffrey Stewart, director of Paranormal Investigators of New England, "It's considered one of the region's most haunted places." Visitors report mysterious voices, floating blue lights, headless apparitions, and levitating lanterns. During snowstorms, people have glimpsed ghostly miners carrying picks and shovels, but who don't answer calls or leave footprints. In 1875 fire tender Harlan Mulvaney fled from the tunnel and vanished forever. A century later, curiosity seeker Bernard Hastaba attempted a walk-through. He entered the North Adams portal, but never emerged.
On certain still summer nights, boatmen and fishermen on Gardner Lake in Salem hear a haunting melody played on a faraway piano. Though it is impossible to determine its source, young folks guess and old-timers know, the music is coming from the water itself. The explanation is bizarre: On the lake bottom rests a 2 1/2-story house - and inside it, a piano. In 1895 the house's last owners, the Lecount family, hired a contractor to move the whole thing across the lake to a lot they had purchased on the eastern shore. The job was attempted during winter, while the lake was frozen. Workmen jacked up the house and put it on sleds, intending to haul it across the ice, furniture and all. By nightfall they had dragged it only halfway, so they decided to finish in the morning. At dawn, they discovered the house had broken part way through the ice. There was no way to pull it out, so they rescued what furniture they could. The piano was too heavy to move. Come spring, there was much excitement as people gathered to watch it sink. No one was hurt or killed. So the mystery remains: Who, or what, is playing the piano?
Joseph A. Citro, author of 13 books, including "Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors" (Houghton Mifflin, 1997) and "Weird New England" (Sterling, 2005), can be reached at josephacitro.com.