When the Haunted House Went to Court

This post originally appeared on Massachusetts Paranormal Crossroads, and a part of it appeared in Jeff Belanger’s book “Weird Massachusetts.”

Most people who spend any time looking at the paranormal come to believe in the real estate law that says people selling a house have to disclose tragedies that have occurred in the residence, including any rumors of paranormal activity. This law has gained legendary status, and it hints at our fear about such a big investment and the fear that things we cannot explain will enter our house and come after our children. The odd thing is, the court have not been clogged with new house owners claiming specters on the staircase and bumps in the attic. While this may be due to people not wanting to come forward claiming ghosts have caused them distress, part of it may be due to the almost impossible task of proving that a ghost exists.

One such trial happened in 1733 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The man suing was not the one tormented by ghosts, but the man cheated by the tenants of the house accused. When the people living in the house left one by one claimed it was haunted, a prominent member of the Plymouth community took them to court to save his financial investment and preserve the honor of his house. The trial, while not claiming that ghosts really do
exist, forwarded the power of belief in the paranormal and justified those that believe in ghosts.

By the fall of 1733 the house on Cole Hill had been abandoned and its reputation solidified in the minds of the community. There was no shortage of beliefs in ghosts and of the Devil as a man who might walk the streets on any given night. Plymouth was common among its New England neighbors, a culture of fear and superstition where cannons were shot to force demons to leave the town as a cure of small pox and citizens
were as likely to have hexagons on their barns and home remedies in their kitchens as bibles by their fires.

Even in this context, the Phillips House stood out. It was haunted, probably by its former owner although some claimed by the devil itself. No one would live in it and the property value of the surrounding houses even suffered the effect of having it in their neighborhood.

The owner of the house was Josiah Cotton, a prominent member of the community and strict Calvinist who distained belief in the paranormal and the following of silly superstitions. Like many early settlers, he had lost most of his children during childbirth or from disease but he held on to his daughter Hannah. She married Captain Thompson Phillips who built the house on Cole Hill and had one child. Shortly after the marriage,
Phillips was lost at sea. Hannah remarried and moved to Boston, but died later that year of small pox. Cotton was given custody of his granddaughter. He also inherited the house and all of Phillips debts. His own financial standing had started to become shaky due in part to the costs of raising his grandchild, his own son’s education at Harvard and several bad investments. He decided to sell the house, knowing he could raise more money quicker if he sold it rather than renting it out. He was unable to find a buyer willing to pay enough and eventually opened it to renters in the area.

In 1732 he reached a verbal agreement with John Clark, a blacksmith who decided to use the house as a residence for himself and his business partner as well as a workshop. He moved in with his family, his business partner’s family, several people who worked for him and a few others. There seems to have been an argument between landlord and tenant a little over a year later. Cotton wanted someone else to share the house forcing Clark to split the space and give up his bedroom. People witness the men arguing and Cotton later testified that Clark claimed he would start rumors about the landlord and the house if Cotton insisted on the move.

In June 1733 Clark and his partner moved out, refusing to pay the rent they owed. One by one the remaining tenants moved out refusing to pay their rent. Their claim was that the house was haunted by Phillips and the Devil himself. Unseen hands moved furniture or rattled the walls throughout the house. There were unexplained noises, including groans that sometimes became so loud and disturbing other people in the neighborhood were awoke by them. There were often lights in rooms where no one was, sometimes seen as candle light or “unusual” glowing. The most disturbing hauntings involved a pale “blewish” light that was seen by people in the house and the surrounding neighborhood. At first those outside of the house found ways to dismiss what they were seeing and hearing. Cats, wolves and the moon helped explain away what was happening, but the reputation of the house was growing, and with each tale people incorporated their own fears into the lore being created. In court many would testify they thought there might have been a more mundane explanation, but they soon changed their mind. The house was haunted and the cats became groans and the moon became the disembodied soul of the agents of the devil. People began camping outside of the house, waiting for something to happen.

Cotton desperately needed the money the renters brought in, but he was a highly religious man who was down to earth. He had already begun to distain the paranormal effect it had on the citizens of Plymouth. Before Clark had moved out he had begun correspondences with anti-supernatural writers in New England and overseas. In his personal journal he wrote about the destruction of the Bible because the people preferred to turn to the stars or entrails rather than the written word. The reason people incorporated superstition so much in their lives is not hard to understand. Living in the wilderness and facing the unknown tried even the most pious person. Settlers Mixed old world beliefs with the Native American they were coming into contact with, as well as a need to explain new experiences they were being exposed to. Tradition becomes superstition. This may be a simplified explanation, but these elements help create the atmosphere in Salem towards the end of the 17th century and in the following decades throughout Massachusetts.

The lawsuit was filed against Clark and his business partner by Cotton. He could not sue them for the money they had skipped out on for the rent because they had never formalized the oral agreement for rent. He instead had to charge the tenants with slander against the house. Their rumors, combined with the large crowds that remained outside the house looking for ghosts, made the house an undesirable investment and people refused to rent it. The reputation of the house and the ghost seekers also lowered the property value of the surrounding area and tainted Cotton’s stature among the community.

Around this time Cotton’s obsession with the lawlessness of the superstitious community inspired him to write “Some Observations Concerning Witches, Spirits and Apparitions.” While no copies exist of the original, unfinished, manuscript, he often refers to it in his diaries and papers and there is proof that his words were heard by influential anti-paranormal writers and thinkers. It condemned the clogging up of courts with witch trials and attacked local preachers for preaching the unexplained in their sermons and reinforcing the superstitions of the people. These people had turned against God and refused to put their futures in his hands and this was the reason bad things happened. The cycle would not be broken until the fringe beliefs were broken, and he believed this trial would act as a trial against those ideas and for the glory of God. While this seems a noble if not loft ideal, it is important to remember Cotton still had substantial financial gain invested in the outcome of the trial.

The courts were also weary of the paranormal. By the middle of the eighteenth century educated people had already had enough time to see their flaw in Salem and the Enlightenment had changed people’s opinions on old “rural” rituals. Logic ruled and science had started to replace established religious beliefs. The media still controlled public opinion, however, and served to solidify people’s ideas about the property and justified people’s practice of supernatural rituals. Ghost stories make good stories and newspaper accounts of the trial before and during the proceedings served to reinforce rural superstitions as a type of subset of established religions.

The trial finally began in early March, 1734. Cotton and his lawyer changed their tactics several times over the course of the trial. Originally they intended to prove there was no such thing as ghosts and therefore there could be no reason behind what was said about the house. They offered explanations to most of the reported hauntings and several witnesses took back their testimony. He brought up other hoaxes, sighting the Salem
Witch Trials and other famous cases to prove his point. Cotton and his family even stayed in the house to prove it was safe. It may be difficult to prove the existence of ghosts, but Cotton’s found it equally hard to convince people there was no such thing as ghosts. The quickly changed tactics to prove belief in the supernatural was evil and wrong. Superstitions were the work of the “fringe” and undesirable people in society, especially Native Americans and slaves. As young and unestablished people in the community his former tenants were susceptible to this and then infected their neighbors who were more than eager to believe. This tactic failed as well because people’s ideas ran too deep. They turned to their last tactic, trying to prove Clark’s intent. They presented to the court that he had known people held these strong ideas and intentionally aid what he said to hurt Cotton’s reputation.

The decision finally came down, and the judgment acted as a validation for the people. It was not proven that ghosts did not exist and that superstitions were an important element in society and had to be validated. It did not matter if there was a Devil or not, only that people believed there was. Cotton and his lawyer did not prove intent and Clark and the other defendants were acquitted. Cotton was forced to pay all the court costs, but more importantly a message was sent that people were not ready to leave their ideas behind for his God. He later tried again to convince people by spending a small fortune on copies of the Hale’s “Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft” and by continuing to preach against the paranormal, but he never broke through. He also took the case to the higher courts, but was finally defeated when he was ruled against by John Hancock.

Cotton’s essay railing against ghosts was never published and eventually lost to time. Clark and the other residents blended into the Plymouth community and have since become footnotes. The house itself still stands, but visitors never hear of its true history. What remains is the trial. It proved nothing and made no decision on the existence of ghosts. It did establish the power of the people to determine what was true, even if there was no way to measure it or classify it. Ideas proved to be stronger than the black and white text of the law and trial, from the filing to the testimonies to the decision reach ahead to today to tell us the paranormal history we inherit.

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