“You could make any song sound creepy if you wanted. It’s all about the inflection” – Willie Nelson
Some places are unavoidably creepy. Like the windowless, black room in your neighbor’s basement, or Chuck E. Cheese, or when your humble little town serves as a template for an H.P. Lovecraft story. Newbury Plantation (about 30 miles northeast of Boston) was settled and incorporated in 1635 by a group of about 100 colonists from Wiltshire, England. In 1764, the General Court of Massachusetts declared the part of Newbury bordering the Atlantic Ocean to be a new town named Newburyport, consisting of 647 acres and 357 homes, the smallest town in Massachusetts at the time. The logic was that the residents of Newbury were largely farmers, while those in Newburyport were typically engaged in activities related to shipping (merchants, shipwrights, etc.), leading to discord in public affairs, and they decided to be quite literal, rather than fast and loose with the naming conventions. Newburyport prospered from the Atlantic slave trade, privateering (during the American Revolution and War of 1812), molasses importing from the West Indies and associated distilling operations, shipyards, whaling, and a substantial fishing fleet that trawled the George’s Banks, but by the opening of the 20th Century, very little remained of its former maritime importance. Thus, when H.P. Lovecraft needed a prototype for a decrepit New England fishing village for his 1931 novella “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, he found fertile ground in a visit to Newburyport, later admitting, “Innsmouth is a considerably twisted version of Newburyport”.
One thinks that perhaps he was trying to be generous to the residents of Newburyport. The abbreviated version of the plot of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is that following excessive sailor deaths in the War of 1812, the town’s South Sea trade faltered, a cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon was founded to foster amicable relations with the fishy-looking Cthulhu mythos Deep Ones, briefly reviving the fishing trade through regular sacrificial rituals until depopulation through a mysterious plague, followed by cross-breeding with the Deep Ones, resulting in a whole lot of genetic weirdness, after which the entire population of Innsmouth is rounded up by the U.S. Treasury Department, shipped off to a concentration camp, and subsequently disappear from the ahistorical record. While none of this actually happened to the people in Newburyport, the town does have the distinction of hosting a well-documented case of a haunted schoolhouse. Not quite as impressive as intercourse with the Deep Ones, but hinting at the town’s enduring creep factor. It was a dark and stormy school day…
In September 1871, strange and mysterious sights and sounds disturbed and annoyed the teacher and pupils of the male primary school in Charles Street, Newburyport, but no report was made to the school committee until late in the month of October, 1872, when the annoyance became more serious, and the police were asked to investigate and ascertain, if possible, the cause of these disturbances (Currier, 1909, p534).
Ghosts had to work a little harder in 19th Century New England to get your attention. Rattling a few chains, opening a few doors, and changing the room temperature, while curious, appear to have been regarded as spectrally amateur, certainly not rising to the level requiring the involvement of government officials. And hints at haunting started mildly enough at the Charles Street School (it’s said that disturbances started as early as 1870, but such goings-on were kept on the down low by the School Committee), although it was “positively and seriously reported that one or two teachers gave up their charge, rather than suffer from the constant intrusion of an invisible agency, with which there was no possible chance of a fair and square contest” (Davis, 1873, p17). There was inexplicable, rapid knocking and pounding that often drowned out the voices of the teacher and students, invisible visitors rapping on the entryway door, pupil’s outer garments refused to stay on the hooks in the vestibule, dustpans and brushes were thrown to the floor, levitation of stove covers (a small stove in front of the students provided heat for the classroom), violent ringing of bells upon the teacher’s desk by an unseen force, and a number of other minor nuisances initiated by an unidentified phantom interloper, designated a “low grade in the classes of spiritual manifestations, and perhaps in themselves would attract little more than local attention” (The Haunted School-house At Newburyport, 1873, p10). The escalation of spectral activities can be loosely grouped into “the light”, “the wind”, “the hand”, and “the ghost”, but before we delve into these, we should consider (1) the earlier history of strangeness in the Newbury area, (2) the history of the school house, and (2) the schoolmistress, one Lucy A. Perkins.
While the schoolhouse itself didn’t have a particularly noxious history, the greater Newbury region was no stranger to all manner of the bizarre. By the 1870’s, Newburyport had settled into its role as a relatively prosperous coastal town, but 200 years earlier, the founding Pilgrim fathers landed in a wilderness lightly populated by the Pawtucket tribe of Native Americans (greatly reduced by an enemy tribe referred to as the Tarratines). In 1701, about ten thousand acres of what would become Newbury was purchased from the grandson of the Pawtucket chief who first encountered the colonists for the ludicrous sum of 10 British Pounds (the Pilgrims had already been there for about sixty-six years, so this seems like a mere formality. Around 1676, the Morse family of Newbury was harassed by “demoniac annoyances” consisting of thunderous noises on the roof of their home, and periodic pelting of the house with sticks and stones (which I have on good authority may break your bones), the movement of various objects by an invisible force, and untying cattle in their barn – for these predations, a supposed wizard Caleb Powell was charged, but acquitted. 1n 1680, Elizabeth Morse of the same family harassed by the phantom was arrested for witchcraft, but allowed to return home to die quietly in her bed. A number of other witchcraft accusations floated around Newbury for years, not to mention the discovery of a two-headed snake that came to the attention of Puritan minister and Salem witch trial celebrity Cotton Mather. This was all pretty much standard occult fare for Colonial New England, so apart from the superficial similarities of the Morse family “demoniac annoyances” to later events, we have no strong reason to suspect a blood-soaked legacy that one assumes can only lead to angry ghosts.
Sketches of the exterior and interior of the Charles Street schoolhouse at the time of the events are available, but don’t feel any pressing need to look them up. Think Little House on the Prairie (for those unfamiliar, a schoolhouse where all the students are crammed into a single room). An 1873 pamphlet called The Haunted School-house At Newburyport, has detailed sketches of the school’s layout in case you want to channel your inner architect. Suffice it to say, it was an old-timey American schoolhouse. The school building was originally built elsewhere and moved to a bare patch of ground on Charles Street (investigators in the 1870’s felt it was important to report that the final plot of land it came to rest on had no history of tragedy or horrors connected with it. The only previous association of the school with anything nefarious were rumors that around 1858, a brutal schoolmaster so savagely beat a thirteen-year-old pupil that the poor boy later died, but neither contemporary or later investigators could authenticate that claim, despite the fact that it provided some awesome back story for some of the ghostly visitations. I mean, nobody likes some random ghost who simply gets off on saying “boo”. We need to put a lasso around our liminal phenomena. Ghosts without a solid narrative are really just being lazy, and have abjectly failed to consider future royalties from ghost-hunting shows.
Let’s talk about the schoolmistress, Lucy A. Perkins. In 1873, Ms. Perkins was descried as “twenty-three years of age, strongly framed, and full of vigor and strength. She is of medium height, and has pleasant features. Her hair is black, her skin brown, her mouth small and somewhat sensitive, and her eyes dark and liquid. She impresses one as being a decided materialist, and not a person to be impressed with conceits and imaginings. Her evidence in all these matters is singularly lucid and consistent. She declares that she is not a spiritualist, and that she is not a medium. She professes an entire ignorance of the methods and literature of this class of believers. She properly considers herself a historian, and not a cause or an expositor of the scenes which she witnesses. Perhaps a close observer might detect a certain weariness and lassitude in her manner; but her “staying” power must really be strong to enable her to encounter day after day the distressing peculiarities of her position. She has taught in this building for two years, and it is hard to fancy how a woman could pass through such an ordeal and still preserve so much of her elasticity and strength. Miss Perkins has not yielded to the conviction that she was surrounded by mysterious powers without a hard struggle. She has tried all means to convince herself as well as her pupils that some ingenious human trickery underlies all this agitation; but it is hardly necessary to say that she signally failed.” (The Haunted School-house At Newburyport, 1873, p10-11). Of course, once the haunting seemed to be getting out of hand, Ms. Perkins decided it was time to alert the community.
And out of hand things got. From a lot of unexplained noises and minor movement of objects, the schoolhouse haunting started to get really weird. In the midst of storms and on heavily overcast days, the entire schoolroom would suddenly be illuminated by a strong, yellow glow with no apparent light source and with equal radiance no matter where you were in the room. Not especially threatening, and saves candles, but nonetheless a mystery. On a more disruptive note, there seemed to be a periodic tempest that even on days when there was no wind outside the schoolhouse, rattled and shook the building, and then entered the classroom, whirling air currents above the heads of the students without any apparent motive force, but rapid enough and loud enough to halt instruction. Then came the disembodied hand.
On one afternoon, at about three o’clock, a boy named Lydston, a lad of thirteen years of age, suddenly saw pressed flat against a pane of the second row, in the partition window, a child’s hand. It was yellowish-white in color, entirely bloodless, and its fingers were spread wide apart. Below the hand was to be seen a portion of the wrist receding into the background as though its possessor had leaned forward. Before Lydston had time to make an outcry, two or three of his companions had seen it, and all together they called to Miss Perkins. She at once hastened into the entry, an act that consumed but two or three seconds, and found no one there. The doors were all closed, and the outer one was locked securely. No one had been in the entry, and no one had gone out of it…After the first appearance others of same ilk followed rapidly. The hand re appeared, and it was again seen. It took the same position nearly always. It became familiar to the pupils’ eyes, but it by no means became familiar to their hearts. They always shrank when they saw it (The Haunted School-house At Newburyport, 1873 p13-14).
Finally, perhaps tiring of subtle theatrics, a full-bodied apparition got around to manifesting. I mean, the disembodied hand was a nice touch, but nothing suggests a full-blown haunting like the appearance and disappearance of a pale, young boy, at first showing up where previously only the disembodied hand had popped up (there was also no cessation of the interminable knockings and unexplained movement of objects). During a lesson on geography, the ghost made his presence clearly known.
The recitation began, and it had proceeded five minutes when the boy who was at the head of the class, and who was standing beside the southern door which led into the entry, and which was open, suddenly cried out, with a startled voice: – “There’s a boy out there!” Miss Perkins left her place instantly, hurried across the room to the open door, passed through it, and emerged upon the corridor. At the further end of it she indeed beheld an intruder. She addressed some hasty and impatient expression to it, and hastened towards it with the intent of ejecting it from the building. She received no reply. It retreated to the corner opposite the foot of the garret stairs, and there it stood quietly. Miss Perkins approached. It stood facing her, with its arms loosely held together and the left hand partially extended. Miss Perkins approached within four feet of the apparition, when a realization of its true character rushed upon her. She stopped, overwhelmed with fear, and gazed into its face. The figure was that of a boy of thirteen. The visage was remarkably pale, the eyes were blue, the mouth sad, and the whole effect was that of extreme melancholy. The general picture was that of a child prepared for burial, and prepared, moreover, in a poor and make-shift way. The clothing was brown and somewhat faded and rubbed. The trousers were black, and they seemed to have belonged to a taller person, for they were much wrinkled and creased, and they rested about the feet in such a way that Miss Perkins was almost unable to see the extremities. About his neck was a wide stock-like band, such as is used to keep the lower jaw of deceased persons in their places. His hair was of a yellowish tint, and it was thrown back in some disorder over the head, and was clipped behind in such a way that the neck was left bare. The figure was very slight, and it was easily and even beautifully posed. There was no excitement or perturbation visible in its behavior. It seemed entirely calm and tranquil. Miss Perkins was able to look through this figure and to perceive the wainscoting and the sash on the other side. It was transparent, yet it was entirely visible. Its outline was perfect, its surfaces retained all their integrity, yet the film was so scant that it seemed that a breath could disperse it. Miss Perkins, transfixed with horror and about to faint, grasped at the wall to support herself. At this instant the figure moved. It passed before the teacher and with its eyes still fixed upon her glided to the garret door, which opened apparently of its own accord. It then began to ascend the stairs (The Haunted School-house At Newburyport, 1873 p16).
And as ghost are wont do to, the boy then vanished. On subsequent days, the apparition put in a few more appearances, repeating the same motions and moving along the same pathway up the stairs. Then a new phenomenon presented itself – the sounds of three distinct voices (one deep, another thin and shrill, and yet another small and querulous) arguing in the garret at the top of the stairs. To make matters worse, a long, low, and disagreeable laugh was periodically heard to emanate from Ms. Perkin’s desk. As of 1873, when the details of the haunting were first put into print, all these spectral agitations continued to occur. After two years, a Charles Street School sub-committee, consisting of Episcopal clergyman George D. Johnson, Congregationalist pastor Samuel J. Spaulding, and the local Postmaster halfheartedly decided to investigate. They spent a grand total of two hours interviewing Miss Perkins and her students, and searching the premises. They concluded that unspecified “mischievous boys” (who probably need an anomalistic category of their own, considering how often they shoulder the blame for strangeness afoot in the universe) were the cause of all the disturbances. So confident in their findings were these respectable clergymen that they published a report in the Newburyport city paper. The Postmaster refused to sign. Since the 24-hour news cycle had yet to be invented, newspapers in Boston picked up on the story, leading to the widespread notoriety of Newburyport’s haunted schoolhouse. Based on the investigation of the School Committee it was recommended that schoolmistress Perkins be granted a few weeks’ vacation.
Between 1872-1873, a number of seances were held at the schoolhouse, conducted by Boston spiritualists, but apparently these were rather secretive affairs, and nothing was reported regarding their results. In 1873, the Boston Herald reported that one of the clergymen who formed the School’s original investigatory committee himself was witness to the schoolhouse ghost.
The Newburyport Ghost is so far from being beaten that he has rallied his forces and carried the war into Africa [note: reference to Scipio attacking Carthage in the Punic Wars], he having appeared the other day in a rehearsal of his most profane tricks right under the pious nose of a clerical member of the two-thirds committee who reported against his existence. The minister and his wife, who is said to possess “mediumistic powers, called at the school-house at the close of the session, and were perfectly astounded at the racket that burst on them from every part of the house. The gentleman confessed to a member of his church that he was ‘as good as frightened, but on being asked why he didn’t come out and own up publicly that he was satisfied there was something in it, replied that, as he had been denouncing spiritualism from the pulpit and otherwise for years, he could not afford to go back on himself (Facts, 1884 p119).
Also in 1873, a pamphlet was published entitled Exposé of Newburyport Eccentricities, Witches and Witchcraft: The Murdered Boy, And Apparition of the Charles-street School-house that purported to have discovered the source of the Charles Street disturbances. In the vicinity of the school, an anti-social gentleman named Edward De Lancy (and the authors point out he was half French and half-Irish, “possessing the peculiarities of both nationalities, and but little sympathy with his local associates”) was singularly credited with the phenomena. It was written that in 1870, De Lancy had received a “spectral glass” from European relatives with which he could project images into the schoolhouse, and having heard of the previous disturbances, settled on the apparition of a young boy. The author furthermore concluded that the noises, levitating objects, and other strange phenomena are “perfectly natural”, and celebrated that “Science has given to the world another proof of its power over the superstitions of the day”.
The little schoolhouse on Charles Street was discussed and visited by a number of notables of the day including spiritualist and social reformer Robert Dale Owen, popular novelist Emma Southworth. In order to try and quell the burgeoning interest in the schoolhouse, the Newburyport town selectmen arrested three young students and said they were the “mischievous” authors of all the incidents, which they vehemently denied, and for which they could not be held accountable since there was absolutely no proof. Famed American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have offered one of the suspected boys a dollar if he would confess to causing the uproar, but was coolly received. After all, “It would take a very remarkable schoolboy to be able to make a cool breeze blow through a hot, closed schoolroom, or to diffuse a yellow light over the faces of everyone in the room, including himself. Could a schoolboy cause the walls of a building to shake as if there were an earthquake? Could he produce nausea n himself and his companions, and account for the sound of disagreeable laughter in the garret while he was sitting at his desk in the schoolroom? But the boy Holmes talked to would own up to none of it. Not even for a dollar. And the Selectmen in despair released the three they had suspected after a morning of fruitless questioning” (Lowndes, 1941, p68-69).
Journalists often like ghosts for their entertainment value, but they typically regard them with a kind of mild, dismissive amusement. They often love to report the strange and macabre, but take equal relish in any suggestion of a hoax, fraud, or other malfeasance. And if they can have it both ways, all the better. Schoolmistress Perkins noted that in the reports across numerous New England newspapers on the haunted schoolhouse, by and large the writers captured the broad brushstrokes of the haunting, but accused many of them of embellishing their stories unnecessarily.
In the 1880’s Newburyport’s haunted schoolhouse was sold by the city, repaired, remodeled, and turned into a private residence. One wonders what brave soul it took to make that real estate deal? Newburyport, having taken its place in the Cthulhu mythos canon, a mere schoolroom poltergeist seems almost quaint, but it does make a person suspicious about what H.P. Lovecraft saw on his visit that fixed the town as an archetypal site for intercourse with the Elder Gods. As Lovecraft himself said, “There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself”. Oh, and watch out for mischievous boys. There’s clearly something otherworldly going on with them.
Currier, John J. (John James), 1834-1912. History of Newburyport, Mass.: 1764-1909. Newburyport, Mass.: The author, 1909.
Davis, H. P, and D. P Howe. Exposé of Newburyport Eccentricities, Witches and Witchcraft: The Murdered Boy, And Apparition of the Charles-street School-house. n. p., 1873.
Lowndes, Marion S. Ghosts That Still Walk: Real Ghosts of America. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1941.
Mitchell, Edward Page, 1852-1927. Memoirs of an Editor: Fifty Years of American Journalism. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1924.
The Haunted School-house At Newburyport, Mass. Boston: Loring, 1873. “The Newburyport ‘Ghost’”. Facts v2-3. Boston, Mass.: Facts Publishing Company, 1884