The Old Gaol (The Old Jail), Barnstable Village, Massachusetts
Ghost tours are great, don’t get me wrong. They’re fun and informative, and a great way to get leads for this site. But they aren’t typically bone-chilling, or even frightful. It’s hard to feel creepy in a group of people strolling the sidewalk. So I was looking forward to Barnstable Village’s Haunted & History Walking Tour, led by members of the Cape And Islands Paranormal Research Society. True, when dining with paranormal researchers I use a long spoon, but it’s possible for one of the elect to give a good tour, I’m firmly convinced of that.
Barnstable Villiage is your standard, run-of-the-mill picture-perfect Cape Cod villages, dating back to before the American Revolution and seemingly teeming with ghost stories. I checked in on the afternoon of All Hallows Eve at my bed and breakfast – the haunted Beechwood Inn, explored a bit along the old King’s Highway, Route 6A which is was all decked out in fall colors and colonial charm, then settled in for the Tavern Burger and a beer or two at the Barnstable Restaurant and Tavern, also reputed to be haunted. I watched the daylight wane and Halloween settle in, then wandered down to the Old Gaol which is the appointed meeting place for the tour.
Our guide was a practicing witch, a tiny lady battling a cold in the brisk New England evening. The breeze was picking up, which must have been even more of a strain on her throat to be heard above, but she did yeoman’s duty. Leaves were blowing onto the sidewalk at our feet as we set out, having been forewarned by our guide that it would be a quick pace. Impressively so for her little legs I might add. The first stop was a private residence, whose owner had come out one evening and relayed his own ghostly experiences in his home on a prior tour. Most of the stops were houses of a fairly ancient vintage, rarely dating from later than the 19th century and typically the 18th-19th century. The longer a building is around, the more of a chance it has to build up stories, and at that Barnstable is hard to surpass.
The tour ranges east on Old King’s Highway, past the Stugis Library and its little old lady ghost who loves attending the theater there, down to the Barnstable House, ominously described and named also The House of Eleven Spirits.
A few years back, a lawyer rented an office in the Barnstable House, and was working there alone one evening, when he heard and saw the latch to the closet drop of its own accord. The following day he saw a woman in a dress enter the room carrying a hatchet. Of course it’s unlikely she was up to any mischief with the hatchet, as in her time, there was frequently a bit of killing needing done around the house. Perhaps it was a chicken she was looking for? The unfortunate lawyer also came across the spirit of a woman churning butter by the fireplace.
The house was built in 1716 by an ancestor of Robert Treat, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Over the years the house that James Paine built has seen its share of tragedy. One owner, Edmund Howes, hanged himself from a tree in the yard. Dr. Samuel Savage was thought to be practicioner of black magic, using the house as the location for his experiments in the occult.
Most tragic of all though, is the story of poor little Lucy Paine, who drowned in the basement by falling into the entrance of an underground river which passes beneath the building. For years she still tried to get residents of the house to play ball with her, as well as just seemingly showing up at will, and scaring the pants off of whoever might be around. Oddly enough, it’s thought that perhaps Lucy migrated to the Barnstable Restuarant and Tavern down the road, perhaps linked to a piece of furniture or other piece of decor which made its way to the building after a fire in the Barnstable House. A second spirit is thought to have left the Barnstable House after the same fire, settling in at my bed and breakfast, the Beechwood Inn just east of there.
But it was to the Barnstable Restaurant and Tavern we went next. One wing of the building houses offices, and it was there that our intrepid guide picked up the tale of Lucy, who the occupants believe is responsible for a number of michievous pranks which are fairly common. Our guide told us the story of one woman who was so pestered by Lucy that she finally had to shout at her that she didn’t have time to play today, as she had a looming deadline. Lucy was so upset that she disappeared for a while after that. We were even allowed to entered the deserted hallways, two at a time, testing the resolve of our little group, or perhaps weeding out the believers from the skeptics. And it was creepy to walk down the hallway after hearing the stories. But alas, not even a creak of the floor.
After a few more stories and a couple of more stops, we were directed to Barnstable’s Old Cobbs Hill Cemetery, which we were assured, is if not the most paranormally active cemetery on Cape Cod, certainly in the top echelon. Which is indicative of the only problem I had with the tour. Many of the stories were were told, certainly most of the anecdotal evidence we were presented with, was collected or happened to members of the Cape and Islands Paranormal Research Society members themselves. The words “sensed a presence” were bandied around a bit too often, and no more so than at Cobbs Hill Cemetery.Â Which really didn’t need any priming of the fear pump.
Dating back to the earliest days of the village, perched on a hill and dark as coal, the cemetery itself is ghost story perfect, though undoubtedly more so without the presence of a group. After a few minutes wandering among the tombstones, we were led back to the Old Gaol, past schedule and still rather harried from the fairly long trot.
The Old Gaol, or Old Jail to use the vulgate spelling, was built in 1690 and there are no doubts that conditions there were brutal. The scructure has been added onto over the years, remodeled and even partly burned, but when you get to the cells in the back, aside from the glaring lightbulbs, it’s distinctly 17th century colonial torture pit.
I was one of the two who volunteered to take a seat in one of the cells itself, and the guide dutifully shut out the lights. As total darkness fell, she then began relating the ghost stories of the place, paying particular attention to the ones regarding the cell we were now in. She then played an EVP recorded in the same cell, which was certainly chilling. I’m a skeptic when it comes to EVPs, though with a caveat. I do believe at times they capture voices which are not easily explained, and are remarkably clear. This was one of them. Of course it’s easy to believe that it’s completely a fake. But not as easy to believe when sitting in a chair in total darkness and total silence in that very cell.
For the tour of the jail we were joined by Derek Bartlett, who is the creator of Barnstable’s Haunted History Tours, who was actually waiting for us in the dark when our guide led us into the jail, scaring the living crap out of her. He added what I believe was a stroke of genius, just after the lights went down. When doing investigations of the Old Jail, and investigators are alone in the cells, they have reported on several occasions the sensation of someone brushing up against them. True or not, it was good fun hearing the sharp intake of breath of one of the female members of the tour, followed by “oh sorry” from one of the men who had accidently brushed against her in the darkness.
Eventually the lights came on and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and the tour broke up. The guide, as well as Derek stuck around to talk and answer questions, and are quite knowledgable and eager to share. In addition, the Cape and Island Paranormal Research Society is responsible for care and upkeep of the Old Gaol, and I would presume at least some of the proceeds for the tour go to that, which is certainly worthwhile. And at $20 a pop for adults, and $10 for children 8-12, the fee is certainly reasonable. The tour made believers of some of our group, to be certain. And that’s a lot to ask of a ghost tour. There was enough history in the Haunted History tour to keep a hardcore history addict from jonesing, and enough discussion of paranormal investigations to keep those who are fans of the endlessly regurgitating ghost investigation shows currently polluting the airwaves quite happy. For those of us looking for good tales well-told, we went away happy as well.
Of course the star of the show was the Cape Cod night, dark and tinkling with the sounds of leaves falling in the breeze, Halloween certainly brought along the atmosphere needed to make the evening complete.
Gothic Travel Rating: I love a good ghost tour, and the Barnstable Haunted History tour ranks up there with some of the best. It’s long, clocking in at over two hours, with numerous stops, certainly more than related here. As stated, I’d prefer less of their own experience, and a bit more color in the other tales they told. But the Barnstable House and its eleven spirits is a good enough story to get the blood racing, and the house itself, stark and foreboding is an ideal setting. Coupled with the Old Gaol which was almost worth the price of a ticket itself, the tour deserved a solid four crypt rating. Click to learn more about Gothic Travel ratings and what they mean
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