There’s something to the Name Game, but there are times when a legend plants itself so deep into the minds of residents it forces them to actually name the place for the odd folklore born there. We recently came across something like this with Bloody Bucket Road in Wachula, Florida, a road named after a story which then inspired a story which inspired an urban legend. We’ve also found our way to places informally named after the weird happenings there, like the Devil’s Tree and Thrill Hill. Rarely does a crazy story, known by the people living in the area if not fully believed, make the powers that be change the name of a place to reflect the popularity of a story.
The Devil’s Tramping Ground in Bear Creek, North Carolina is one of those places. As we heard more about the story, given our obsession at the time with all things named after the Devil, we knew if we were going to North Carolina to look for phantom trains and hitchhikers, we were going to have to stop in and see if we could glimpse something unknown and supernatural making circles in the middle of the woods.
It started with a search into an area of North Carolina known as the known as the Piedmonts. While looking for something else, I stumbled upon Craig Payst’s Web site North Carolina Ghost Stories. He has a whole section of his site dedicated to the odd stories from that area, including a weird legend that has gained popularity among the people there over the last few decades. Some of the details were familiar in that way a good piece of folklore should be, but one of the most interesting slants to the story was that the legend was shifting, adapting with the times to conform to changing ideas. As we changed as people, the little tale of a patch of land where nothing would grown changed with them.
The basics of the story should sound like something you’ve heard before. In the woods near an area known as Harper’s Crossing there is a patch of land where things would not grow. The infertile pattern was in an almost perfect circle, so people said there had to be something sinister and supernatural about it. The first stories, which is said to date back at least two hundred years, tell of the Devil himself cast down, or up, to earth to contemplate what evil deeds to commit against the people of the Piedmonts. Payst attributes this foundation to the strong religious ideas of the Scotch-Irish immigrants who made their way to the State. No reason is given as to why these people should be a target for him, but there he walked in a circle debating and scheming what to do and tearing up the ground as he walked.
There is more than just barren land in the story though. Men and beast avoid the spot for reasons they can’t explain. People who have dared to try and stay there at night have left with terrible visions. It is also said that anything placed in the middle of the circle, living or dead, will be cast out by unseen hands. Some have seen unexplained lights, and like many sites like this one, people have reported seeing hooded figures, either dark souls or Satanic cult members, walking the circle and the surrounding woods.
If that was end of the story, it would make for an interesting tale. But there is more to the story. In the past few years, every trend in the paranormal has been used to explain the site or offer up a backstory for the unexplained. According to Payst and some others who have looked into the stories, over the years the story has shifted to aliens, a witchcraft hotspot, and an ancient Indian burial location. Each variation reflects the fears and the interests of the people who are making the story their own, evidenced by the newer idea that the spot is actually a vortex. Whether to keep the deep folklore alive or just to claim a little ownership in the story, the little patch in the woods transforms itself into what people want.
This, along with the idea of being pushed by unseen hands drew us to the site.
When we got there is a warm summer day with clouds and a slight breeze. It was not hard to find, especially considering the street is named for the legend. We set up a stationary camera to capture the whole thing and walked the perimeter of the circle. It was littered with garbage, convenience store cups, and beer bottles. There was a metal chair set up roughly in the middle and a makeshift fire pit. Someone had been there recently, confirming the Devil’s Tramping Ground as a party place.
We walked a ways into the woods and found evidence of other activity. There were animal bones scattered in different locations, proof of either cult activity or people wanted it to look like there was cult activity. Other than the bones and tarps, there was not too much to the area itself. We spent time in the circle itself to see if we could feel anything trying to get rid of us, but our feet remained firmly planted. Natalie had the idea to make a cross out of some of the local vegetation to see if it would get tossed from the circle. We stayed for about an hour, mainly to say we had been there, and made our way to the hotel to get some much needed sleep.
The original plan was to go back that night and see if we could talk to some of the people who partied there or even interview the dark forces, but we spent too much time looking for the hitchhiking Lydia and were not able to get back. A follow-up the next day revealed nothing else out of the ordinary and our cross was in the same place. In fact, after the being molested by ghostly redheads in Greensboro and getting new Pukwudgie reports in Indiana, the Harper’s Crossing and the Devil’s Tramping Ground felt mundane.
It was not until we reviewed the camera some time later that things got eerie. One of the things I noticed, and we had not talked about it at the time of the trip, was how little time we spent in the middle of the circle. Most of the time we were there was spent trailing the woods, but we seemed to unconsciously avoid actually being where the Devil was believed to walked. It was subtle. We had travelled 1,000 miles and didn’t spend much time in the middle.
You can’t put your hands on that kind of idea or hold it up. It could just be an overactive mind wanting to justify having touched a legend. The camera, however, picked something up which almost defines the eye. At one point the lighting completely changes (perhaps due to the clouds overhead), but then several odd noises are heard. These climax with a clear clanging of metal. At that exact moment, something flies through the frame and out of the circle. We have broken it down and determined it was not a bird and was too big, even in perspective, to be an insect or something else hanging out in the woods. This, mixed with the sound heard right before the movement, leads us to believe one of those beer or soda cans was kicked out of the circle while we played in the woods.
Like the legend itself, there is no clear cut answer to what we saw. The Devil’s Tramping Ground has exist for decades, and if every bit of folklore is born from some truth, there might be more to the story than just some dead vegetation and some odd lights in the woods. People will continue to tell their stories about the place, odd first hand accounts with their choice of background to give it context. The legend will continue because we want it to, but just when you think it’s safe to sit back and think of it all as just a story, a swift kick and clang might happen and make you rethink whether a ghost story, or even a tale of the Devil, has more fact than fable to it.
And here I thought I was doing it right all along.
I set nets and lobster traps out there. I publish a story I hear in the hopes that a person keywording something they experienced or were told about will fall in and tell me their version of the story. I then document what they experienced. I go out to the places where things happen and try to experience it myself, maybe asking a few people nearby if they’ve heard about it. I’ve been doing that for more than twenty years, since I first asked people what they had heard about my haunted dorm, Charlesgate. If I’m looking at a place I don’t know, I send out e-mails to the gatekeepers of the tales; librarians, members of town history groups, professors at local colleges. It’s my way of trying to get my hands on what Charles Johnson once called, “our human inheritance.”
Today I received a response back from a doctor of folklore studies from a university in Pennsylvania. Nine words if you don’t count our names.
This is not the way to conduct folklore research.
Years ago Tim Weisberg from Spooky Southcoast gave me the label of Analytical Folklorist. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded official and important and close enough to what I do for me to embrace. After all, I was slowly moving away from investigating the paranormal and had long held to the idea that the value in looking into the paranormal was in finding what it had to do with the people who experienced it and those who sought out their stories. Tracking down a good ghost story was an exercise in recording oral and written history, and writing it down was capturing more about society than capturing a ghost (or a Ghost on Film). I believed then that tales of the paranormal and supernatural were a major part of our modern folklore, and my work over the past three years has done nothing to change that.
It’s not that I think ghosts don’t exist. There are unexplained things in this world, and those things will always remain that way. The paranormal is our way of trying to make sense out of the unseen, and for every story where we see a possible reason for the ghost, there are ten more that only point at our existing ideas on ghosts or the growing new mythology we are creating concerning the unknown. There is much folklore in how we look for ghosts, including the people who do it, as there is in the ghosts they look for.
But that’s a story for another day.
This is more about the Legends Project and its goal of searching out stories to trip this summer outside of Florida.
I had started the project a few years ago and restarted it about six months ago with the goal of traveling to sites I could trip and collect stories from. The idea was to find places where the locals knew of a story, ghost or just off-center, and then go to the location and see what I could collect by talking to people and enacting any ritual connected to the story.
For example, you go to a cry-baby bridge. You turn your lights out like the tale tells you to do. Honk twice as instructed and be ready to see the bride appear before you with the dead baby in her arms. Before that, you hit the Internet finding variations of the story and ask people about it when you get to the town.
Perhaps the best example of Tripping on Legends doing this would be the case of the Devil’s Tree in Port St. Lucie. We searched the Net for hours, and when we got there we asked everyone we could find the stories they had heard about it. We were able to record four or five variations of the story or little add-ons (the serial killer lived in a shack near the tree) and this led us to other mysteries, like what were the ruins near the tree and was the whole thing signal some kind of disturbance in the area where serial killers, sketchy asylum owners, and random acts of violence would find their way to the same spot.
To me, that’s what modern folklore is about. Find a story, look into the story, try to connect the story.
This is what I learned from reading the people who inspired me. Food for the Dead was one of the most influential books to my early work because Michael Bell set out to find the stories and experience them himself, even though he never really thought there were vampires out there. Jan Harold Brunvand laid out similar methods in collecting as many versions of urban legends as he could. The same could be said for Charles Robinson in prepping New England Ghost Files. I would even say hearing Joseph Campbell describing connecting myths follows a similar pattern.
So what am I doing that’s wrong, Doc?
The logical first step is to find a story. This is a copy of the e-mail I send out to get the pot stirred:
My name is Christopher Balzano, a folklorist living in Southwest Florida.
I am starting a new project looking to explore and celebrate the stories that have become the foundation for the rich oral and written tradition of this country. I am looking for the folklore that has contributed to the development and tradition of America, and I am hoping for your help.
I believe the journey of a folklorist starts with asking a question to get the adventure started, so today I am asking you.
Is there a story in your area that your citizens view as folklore or local myth?
Having done this for more than two decade, I understand how difficult that question may be. It involves sifting through old stories and urban legends to try and sort things out. I am not asking you to go that far, mainly because that’s where the love of the trip lies for me. I’m just searching for whatever information you might have and perhaps a lead.
I am looking to document the more obscure stories, the hidden John Henry of your area.
The story may be familiar but region specific, creepy or spooky, or just plain entertaining or important. Folklore, urban legends, or just regional legends are all fair game.
I am especially interested if you know of storytellers who make these tales come to life or know of local archived audio files of them.
I thank you for your time, and I hope to hear back from you.
I have sent this to countless libraries and historical societies. I have sent it to paranormal investigators and professors. It’s a feeler, and more often than not it gets ignored. The goal is to have someone get the e-mail and remember a story, or be bored enough to look through their files and find something that might fit the bill. Sometimes there is a near-forgotten story in a drawer somewhere, like the Haunted Schoolhouse case a few years ago. The bigger hope is that I get into their mind, so when something comes along, they think of me and what I am doing and get back in touch.
Almost every legend trip I have done in the past six months was born of this letter. A librarian told me about the Singing River. A newspaper writer pointed me towards the Mini Lights. A member of the historical society asked me if Talking Mary fit into what we were trying to do.
So what do I do differently, Doc?
I have since sent a return e-mail asking what more I need to do to warrant a moment of his time and a lead on a story, but when I look at what I do, I am confident I’m going about it the right way. I do it with a love of the story and an eye to what it says about us. I do it with respect and awe. I do it with the hope of experiencing what people have claimed to be their town’s truth but with the realization that more often than not I’ll just be shouting into the wind.
The first paranormal story I can remember involved a retelling of a Devil’s Footprint in New Hampshire. I was living there at the time (seven years old), and as I read how the town had created whole mythos around this imprint in stone, I became fascinated with what was the truth behind the story, especially after the writer gave several different account of the legend. Then he put his socked foot into the print and it fit exactly. I was hooked. Years went by and the same idea of the Devil’s footprint kept coming up.
Maybe I’m not going about this the right way, but methods have to shift. We do not tell our stories the same way, and we do not hear them like the days of old. Smart phones are handheld campfires, and Reddit is your sketchy cousin letting you in on the haunted house down the street. Folklore is happening as we live and changing as quickly as we can switch apps. There is history in the ghost story. There is societal knowledge in the cryptid still wandering in the woods. The best way to hold this knowledge is to experience and squint and look for the strings.
Here’s hoping that’s good enough for you, Doc.
I first published information about Rockadundee Road in early 2oo2 as I was starting Massachusetts Paranormal Crossroads. It was one of the first Massachusetts legends, right after the Red Headed Hitchhiker of Route 44, that connected with me and that I was able to, to some some degree, track down. It’s interesting how this story went from an obscure legend passed through the writings of a few Web sites back in the day to a full fledged legend.
The greatest moment of local folklore is the moment the story becomes such a part of a community, or such a menace to it, that media outlets and other writers have to come forward to prove the legendness of it. Here are some more modern accounts of the story and the craze around it:
Ghostvillage’s discussion on it…with a little visit by Christopher Balzano
In Massachusetts, there is the tale of Rockadundee Road in Hampden, a small town in the western part of the state that could be copied and reproduced as a picture of New England.
It is the kind of road, formerly part of the forest that now surrounds it, that inspires ghost stories. Urban legends stick there and get passed between residents and paranormal enthusiasts alike.
The more bizarre stories involve an old witch who lived on the road who needed humans, particularly teenage, for rituals and incantations. She would find people who became stuck on the dirt road, hack them up with an ax, and bring them back to her shack in the woods. There is also a tale of a group of teenagers who went to the road, and for reasons unknown, and hung themselves from the trees along the road, perhaps hoping their spirits would haunt the town together.
The town reports no teenager who ever went missing or a group who ever killed themselves in a mass ritual, but the legends persist. All of the stories coming out of Hampden are echoed across the country in other legends, and the themes of the stories should be familiar to anyone who spends any time near a campfire. The hanging, the witch, the haunted road, and the use of teens in all the stories, resonate with urban mythologists and researchers alike.
There is one story that has a twist unique to Rockadundee Road. The story starts once with the death of a child, usually a young boy. While playing near the road, the child is hit by a car, almost always said to be a drunk driver, and killed. The parents, or maybe the community, create some kind of memorial for him. The site of his demise is covered with signs, a cross, or teddy bears. The ghost of the child then becomes like the ghost hitchhiker, appearing in cars or seen playing on the side of the road.
The story is pretty standard, and more and more investigators are hearing of haunted roadside memorials. At Rockadundee Road the victim is a boy killed by a drunk driver whose parents, in their grief, built a gazebo as a memorial. The boy is seen playing in the structure or nearby. The story goes on that a group of teenagers suffered a mysterious death while jumping on the gazebo as part of a dare.
In almost every report, like most haunted road graves, there is also a ghost car that follows people in the same area. The phantom vehicle comes from behind, often honking at the observer or flashing their lights. The car disappears going around the next turn. In Hampden the haunted tailgater has been reported to run people off the road. Most believe the car to be the one that killed the child. The psychic impression of the violent demise is trapped on the road and is forced for some reason to replay itself.
The haunting seems too good to be true and involves a situation too familiar to not connect with the majority of people. We have all seen the memorials on the side of the road and wondered what the back story is. When the deceased is a child we become even more empathetic and more likely to believe the story. We feel for and are frightened by the little boy unable to find peace.
There are usually contradictions or inconsistencies involved in the story. The driver is said to be drunk and never caught. There is also the fact that no one ever reports of seeing both ghosts. The stories are always retold as, “I saw this and I was told this is the reason why and there is this other ghost…” The teller fills in the holes, making the story more exciting. Most importantly, the same haunting is told and told again in different towns around the country.
The dark and lonely road is enough to inspire fear in anyone, but on Rockadundee Road, the haunted road is raised to the level of art form.
And I started in Iowa.
I’m not sure why except someone had sent me a press release about a monster book from the state, which I really didn’t intend to read, and I heard something on the news about someone from Iowa. It seemed like a good place to start because, like most of the country, I am completely ignorant to its geography and its complexion. I can gather from the name it must have a strong Native American heritage, but other than that, I draw a blank. In fact, it may have appealed to me because what I know of it exists for me as little fragments of facts that I’m not sure are correct. I can make a strong argument that is exactly what a legend is.
So, week one is Iowa, and here is what I think I know. Captain Kirk was raised there. One of its colleges, I believe Iowa State, has the best writing program in the country. I remember a friend of mine applying to graduate school to the wrong one and nearly collapsing when she discovered her mistake. There is farming there, or ranching, and it might be in the middle of the country.
At some point, I’m hoping someone thinks this is quaint. Are we always patting the student on the back who’s not afraid to ask the dumb question and admit they don’t know something. I do not know about Iowa, blame my parents or the school system. I am sure a few of the people I get in contact with will look me up to see if they should respond. If you work under the assumption that this is my way to stick pins in the places across the country I’m ignorant to, does that mean I should be commended for asking and forgiven for not knowing. Again, at some point, I’m hoping they think this is quant.
Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery and its legendary Dark Angel were the most common response to my inquiries, although I need to admit most of the people I contacted were from state commissions and agencies. I was leery at first because I am trying to avoid hauntings, but I discovered something a bit different there. I avoided their links to paranormal sites and went to the source itself. According to the Iowa City Government site, the statue, erected under the direction of a grieving mother and wife of Bohemian descent, has a history with the University of Iowa and the surrounding community because:
- No University of Iowa coed is a true coed unless they have been kissed in front of the Black Angel.
- Any girl kissed near her in the moonlight will die within six months.
- If a girl who is innocent of men and the world is kissed in front of the Angel, the Angel
- will return to its original color, and the curse that turned it black will be lifted.
- Touching the Angel at midnight on Halloween means death within seven years.
- Anyone who kisses the Angel will die instantly.
- Every passing Halloween causes the Angel to turn one shade darker as a reminder of the people she has killed.
Automatically, I’m taken back to other cemetery legends I’ve heard. I’m reminded of the Graveyard Wager legend where someone, on a dare, has to spend the night in a local cemetery and dies because they become scared and accidentally fall or hit their head. When the cemetery in your town has a particular monument or statue or unusual grave, it increases the likelihood of this kind of story. Of course, the death become part of the lore of the story, and their spirit becomes part of the reason people go there on a dare themselves. This also takes me back to the story of Rockadundee Road and its ghostly gazebo.
As is often the case, the figure is a magnet to the local college area and its connection to love and sex can’t be ignored. It is a right of passage to kiss in front of the Dark Angel, but if you do, you risk dying. Only the pure woman, like in modern horror stories, can break the curse and stop the killing. The Angel has been there for over a hundred years, which leads me to believe she has incredibly high standards or there aren’t many pure young ladies on the campus of the University of Iowa. The college embraces the legend, and in a weird twist has students translate the inscriptions and markings, which I’m sure adds to the oddness of the location. The connection to Halloween, along with the references to rites of passage, also remind me of the famous Session House hauntings at Smith College.
Why did the angel turn black? I’m going to allow you to read some of the reasons and find the one you like the best, and instead offer up another question. Why are we so quick to condemn and accuse? In my limited research, I have found nothing, accept the court case mentioned on the site, to taint the woman who patroned the Dark Angel. Yet she has been accused of witchcraft, been involved in murder plots and adultery, and had her family members reputations smeared to try and explain the anomaly.
There is the hitch though. We need that mythology to explain that which defies our understanding. It’s no different than Zeus in the lightening and God behind the flood. Angels don’t just become Dark Angels without some evil behind it, and if the village didn’t do it, an individual must have. Throw in an outsider, and I’m not totally sure what people from Iowa would consider at outsider, and you know where the blame is going to fall. These stories don’t just tell us right from wrong. They also firmly place those who tell them on the side of the just and those who don’t heed the moral firmly in the dark.
When researching legends of Massachusetts, one will eventually come across the “Angel of Hadley”. The legend endures as part of our history, often quoted as fact, and has been used as the inspiration for stories by James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorn. Maybe it is because it links our present to the cold autumns and winters we spent struggling to establish a new colony. Maybe it is because it attacks our old enemies the Native Americans and speaks to our glorious triumph over them. Most likely it prevails because, like all good legends, it has all the elements of great fiction but claims to be true, and although it has been proven to be false by historical records and historians, it continues to show up in articles and published collections as being true.
The legend takes place on September 1, 1675 during King Phillip’s War. Most of the town of Hadley, at the time a little more than an outpost in the wilderness, was at church. The Wampanoag Indians attacked the town, catching them by surprise. They were disorganized and no match for the well prepared Natives until a stranger stepped forward and organized the troops. We was tall with a gray beard and hair and his military skills and paranormal appearance drove the natives back into the woods and turned the tide of the war. When the troops returned to the town, the stranger was gone, never to be seen again.
This story draws us in for different reasons. It informs us of our past and how we came to be a nation. There is also the draw of war and battlefield ghosts, and this helps justify the truth of the story. Battlefields are places of death and great sorrow, and if there was ever a place where the paranormal could happen, where ghosts could walk and remind us of the dead who gave their lives to the greater good, that would be it. Just look at the documentaries on television and the amount of literature this subject takes up.
More importantly, it reinforces our conflict and superiority over the Native Americans. Even though we were unprepared we prevailed. The appearance of the spectral general, godlike in features and voice and coming from nowhere, is like God himself tipping his cap to the settlers, a sort of divine intervention for his chosen people.
But there might be a supreme reason the tale prevails, which might be the best reason to excuse it as being false, more myth than history. Tracing back the legend one finds the very people from who’s lips and hands it came from being the same people who felt the strong pull to create local history to prove our independence from Britain. If you want to create national pride, create a rich history for oneself.
The legend goes deeper, however, and this is where the records conflict about the general’s appearance as well as the possible human who inspired it. One source says another source is wrong, while another reinforces the idea.
Erza Stiles wrote in 1794 of a man, very much human, who saved the town of Hadley. She claimed the man who led the troops that day was William Goff, a fugitive staying in the town with military skills and the kind of personality to assemble a army out of confusion. In 1648 Goff was a jurist in the trial of Charles I of England. Charles was overthrown and the Parliament accused him of crimes against the people. Goff was one of the people who signed his death warrant and the king was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell took over the country, but after his death Charles II came into power and sought revenge on those who had killed his father. Goff and another man hid out in England before sailing to the New World and hiding in parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut. One place he was rumored to stay was in John Russell’s house in Hadley.
Indeed, Russell had a hidden room in his house that could have been used to hide the outcast, but there is no report from either the town’s people or the local law of any such person being seen at all around town. It would have been almost impossible to hide the two men and there are conflicting reports. Some say that Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts at the time was the first to write of the story in his journal and then publish it and that other people picked up the story and continued to retell it until it became truth. It is said that Hutchinson, who allowed Goff to hide in Boston for a time, got the information directly from another source, but that source has never been found. Goff’s journal of his time has no reference to his helping the people, staying with Russell or a battle in Hadley.
In fact, there is no record of a battle even taking place.
The legend endures though, being published in Fate Magazine and in their collection of stories entitled Visions of Ghost Armies. There are other references to it in the official history of Hadley and Massachusetts as well as segments in television shows such as Sightings. The truth may never be fully known about what did or did not happen in Hadley in 1675, but over 225 years later its goal is still felt. It has become part of our collective history and part of the mystic of Massachusetts
This is an older story of mine that I always considered an little piece of gold. I found it with the help of a librarian, and to this day I go back and forth on whether it should be considered a legend or a ghost story. It has a ghost, and a story for that matter, but falls into an older tradition. You can’t investigate it or prove anything, so what you are left with is an old story people believed in at the time but that has now been pushed to the shelf as tale. That to me seems like a definition of legend.
I’ll let you decide.
The volunteer at the Newburyport library was sure the case had been a hoax. Older people in town knew of the haunted house, or knew the old story of the dead child and class tortured for month by the odd winds, the voices and the floating arm. The children had all seen the ghost of a boy in their classroom, but it had been disproved over one hundred, thirty years ago. The case had been closed and the hoaxer had become infamous, but there was still a lingering doubt.
In 1873, a twenty cent book was published entitled Expose of Newburyport Eccentricities, Witches and Witchcraft by someone calling himself H.P. The small pamphlet included a story about a the ghost of a murdered boy who had come back to haunt the children of the school, and after its publication, the well known haunt became an open and closed case. The truth, however, tells a slightly different story, and sometimes proving a fraud means having to ask more questions.
By 1872, the Charles Street Schoolhouse had become a black spot of sorts for the community in Newburyport. The building was falling apart and should have been remodeled decades before. The heating system was ancient and the floors creaked when students thought about moving. The drab color stuck out against the changing neighborhood, and most wished that it could be torn down.
The school was a weigh station for the unwanted, “untidy”, students of the town and the leftovers from other communities. They were the wayward urchins and the special needs kids of their time. The sixty-three desks were always filled, rotating as pupils dropped out to work or because they had become bored.
Lucy Perkins, the young teacher who accepted the job of instructing them, was known as an intelligent but sad woman. She had worked at the school for two years, but when she was hired she was not told about the teachers before her. The school committee kept why several teachers had quit suddenly.
The children knew why.
“The enemy to their public peace was supposed to be in the air, invisible, intangible and malignant, irregular but certain in its visits, and positive in it disturbances. “
The schoolhouse was haunted. In about 1860, a child had committed some “horrible” act in the school and had been given the appropriate punishment. He was severely beaten and locked in the basement of the building. He was left there the entire day and students were ordered to ignore his cries and moans. When the school day ended he was helped home and died later that night. The teacher, well within his rights as a disciplinarian, suffered no repercussions.
While it is impossible now to say what the inhabitants of the school experienced in the next few years, the rumors say it was well known the place was haunted well before Ms. Perkins was hired. She taught for two years without recording any negative instances, but late in 1871 things changed.
The class was often made to suffer through 2-3 hours of knocks on the walls. They came from the floor, from the ceiling, from the back wall and their own desks. They often became so loud the students could not work. A loud banging could be heard some days on the front door. Several times Lucy tried to catch whoever was distracting her class, but there was never anyone there. One days she opened the door and felt a person brush by her. The children in the room also felt something enter the room and go by their faces.
Doors would open and close by themselves. A frustrated Lucy would lock the offending doors, but they would swing back open after she turned her back. Clothes hanging from hooks in the back of the room would fall off. Students suffered bad headaches and noises in their ears as atmospheric conditions in the room would changes dramatically from moment to moment. A large vent located in the middle of the classroom was used to allow in fresh air. It had a manual latch so heavy Lucy had to use all her strength to open it. Sometimes the vent would open on its own or refuse to move no matter how she struggled.
Lucy kept two bells on her desk to announce class and breaks throughout the day. The bells would often ring by themselves in perfect time and in tones the bells should not have been able to make. One time, during an outside break, one bell rang so loud all the kids lined up to reenter the building. Lucy, outside and confused, unlocked the schoolhouse door to find the bell still on her desk and the room empty. The children laughed, and she decided to start telling people what was going on.
The school committee refused to hear her and most of the people in town believed she was crazy. The story, however, was starting to attract attention to the town.
Things intensified when the lights started. While Lucy was conducting her class, a bright yellow light would appear through the window and remain shining “like the sun” for hours. The light would come through almost everyday, even when the sky was overcast and there was no way the sun could be reflecting into the room.
Once while Lucy was conducting her lesson, there were loud rappings from the attic. She armed herself with a stick and took one of the young boys up with her to investigate. The rapping was replaced by laughing as they climbed the stairs, but when they reached the top they found nothing. As they searched the attic, they began to hear the same laughter below them on the bottom floor. Running back down the stairs to try and nab the culprit, they found no one nearby and again heard the laughing upstairs.
Until now the ghost had seemed playful and taunting but never really caused anyone harm. It was a nuisance, but the class pressed on. Then in 1872, the ghost finally took form. The children began to see an oddly dressed boy standing outside looking in at them. No matter how many times Lucy ran outside, she could never catch him. The boy’s arm then started to appear inside of the room. No one ever touched it, but they could see it floating in midair; the hand, arm and upper shoulder of a boy their age.
In October things reached their peak. The boy had already made several appearances to the children, but Lucy was finally able to see him for herself. She described him as a boy of about thirteen with blue eyes and a sad mouth. His clothes were of an older style and were brown and faded.
Later that winter, the school committee finally decided to do something. The whole town knew of the boy who had died fifteen years earlier and there was no silencing Lucy or redirecting the attention the town and its dilapidated schoolhouse was receiving. They held séances over the next few months to try and contact the murdered boy and put him at ease. The hauntings stopped, but most doubt it was communicating with the dead that caused peace to fall to the school.
Historical research can be a tricky feat. Old words can be translated and slang can be made understood, but euphemism is sometimes harder to nail down. A prostitute becomes a woman of ill repute. Alcoholism becomes a blackening of the gall bladder. Lost to history is what people really thought of Edward De Lancy and his family.
Edward lived near the haunted schoolhouse and his family was described as being eccentric and of “retired habits.” He was said to be unsociable but with a good sense of humor and of “little sympathy with his local associates.” Edward had received as a gift from a family member living in Europe some type of glass projection machine that could throw object far distances by catching the sun and then shining the trapped light. He fiddled with smaller object before hearing of the odd noises in the school and the murdered boy. He decided to project the image of a desolate schoolchild directly into the classroom, all the time laughing at the children down below.
When the news came to light, Edward would entertain anyone who arrived at his house by throwing ghosts into the classroom and explaining the methods behind his practical joke. The town considered the haunting solved, and as the author of the pamphlet writes, “Thus has Science given the world another proof of its power over the superstitions of the day.” Nothing is said of what happens to the children or sad Lucy Perkins, but the case was lost to a locked file cabinet in the Newburyport Public Library. The school is now a private residence and the latest owners report no loud noises, no odd laughter and no arm of a murdered boy hovering in their dining room.
Questions still remain, however, and while Edward’s antics explain the most intense aspect to the haunting, they do not clarify all that happened in that schoolhouse. While the atmosphere of the old building could have easily activated the imagination of the more undesirable students of the town, there was still Lucy Perkins and the other teachers who had quit the post. There was no way Edward could have faked all of the haunting and never admitted to ever going near the school. Rather the legend of the ghost and the murdered boy already existed and acted as his inspiration. Someone might have been outside pounding on the walls when they heard it, but what about the laughing in the attic and mysterious bells that rang behind a locked door.
What happened in the schoolhouse will never be fully explained. Since the first unexplained cold spot, the town swept things under the rug and kept the truth locked inside the building. People of the time did not want to face what might have been left behind by a boy beaten and left to die, but the story remains. The school was once described as “dismal at best, and if built by the spectral-loving fraternity themselves for their special accommodations, it could not answer their purpose better.” But the schoolhouse was more than just a prop or the backdrop to a story of tragedy, and if tragedy never rest, the murdered boy of the Charles Street Schoolhouse may never truly find peace.