On Barnstable ghosts, witches and dark history, gathered on a dark, windswept Halloween visit to one of the oldest villages on Cape Cod.
The day the sun disappeared
It was May 19, 1780. The American revolution was raging, and in Barnstable, Massachusetts, a small, New England village on Cape Cod and a loyalist stronghold, something strange was happening. For several days the sky has gone from blue to yellow, and the sun shone red. A rainy Friday morning dawned as the previous days had, but grew increasingly darker. By noon people were lighting candles to see. By two in the afternoon, the sounds of the night were coming alive, as daylight had totally disappeared. The air smelled of soot and it didn’t take much imagination to equate that with sulphur, and the fires of Hell. It was still a religious and highly superstitious time, and there was no media to explain what was happening. People began to fear the obvious … the end of the world, and judgment day had come. When the actual night began, the moon shone blood red.
It stayed like this all through the next day and into the following night. Finally, in the middle of the second night, it began to clear and the next morning, the sun rose as usual. It would be a long time before people knew what happened on that Friday, if indeed they ever did.
Then a hundred years later, in 1881, the morning sky was filled with red, gradually becoming yellow. It was incredibly hot, far too hot for May, and the humidity was unbearable. By then, the people of Cape Cod were used to the unusual.
There is a curious phenomenon on the Cape, that of illusion and mirage. Thoreau wrote of it, seeing similarities between the shore and the desert, that hunters firing at ducks must aim below the birds to compensate for the mysterious effect. Sitting on the shore, David Silon writes that you might see the shoreline reflecting back at you, hovering upside down over the sea, the dunes, ships and even entire villages. And just as quickly the mirage fades. Many sailors met their doom mistaking a lantern in a cottage window for a lighthouse, the tiny light reflected larger in the atmosphere.
The ocean has harbored mysteries on Cape Cod since Henry Hudson claimed to have spotted a sea serpent off the shores, eleven years before the Pilgrims landed here. For the next 200 years, reports of strange oceanic beasties continued to filter in. In 1833 a whaling crew was dispatched to tackle one of these creatures which had been pestering the fishing trade, but with no luck.
On Cape Cod itself, the water carries with it mysteries of its own. Where you find springs and abandoned wells you find predators, and mothers, intent on keeping their children away tell tales designed to frighten. These tales stay with the child into adulthood, tales they tell to their own children, and so legends live on.
There’s many who believe that springs and underground rivers carry with them hidden energies, which bring to life the supernatural. For those who believe in this notion, Barnstable is uniquely situation. Beneath the village runs an underground river, and next to the village is the bay. Perhaps this is why Barnstable ghosts are thought to exist in great numbers, from its earliest days to the present.
I was on Cape Cod for Halloween. I’d be heading to Salem in a few days, but I wanted to make sure I missed that madhouse during Halloween. It’s fun, but far too noisy for ghosts. There was no single event that drew me to Cape Cod, no celebrations or attractions. And perhaps that was the attraction. For me, Halloween is a time to be alone, or in very quiet company. I just wanted to feel haunted, old time haunted, and where better to do that than in one of the oldest areas of our country, New England?
And the most haunted, at least to a kid raised in the sixties. Dark Shadows was set in Maine. The film version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was set in Massachusetts. Bewitched was set in Connecticut and the most memorable episodes were those where they visited Salem. The Dark Secret of Harvest Home was set in Connecticut as well. And Edward Gorey lived out his years on Cape Cod, in Barnstable county.
History and horror go hand in hand. When you deal with ghosts, you’re dealing with the past. When you’re dealing with Barnstable ghosts, you’re looking for some of the oldest ghost stories our country has produced. As I made my way down the Old King’s Highway, I felt the mood descending on me.
Maybe it’s my age, but I feel something different at Halloween than most of what I see people celebrating. I still remember the fear of ghosts, witches and terrors of the night when I was young. The older people I knew often still believed in such things, old world beliefs. The witches they feared weren’t the white witches of today, but the same kind of terror that led to the deaths of so many people not far from here in Salem. You didn’t get excited about the possibility of seeing a ghost. Instead it was a feeling of dread. But that feeling was addictive. Even though you might be afraid to see one, you still had to look. We didn’t imagine our ghosts with gaping head wounds, soaked in blood. We saw them in the clothes they were buried in, or wore in life, from a time long past.
The peak season for autumn leaves had been a week or two before everywhere else I’d been on this trip. But on the cape, the leaves were still hanging on the trees, soaked with red and orange. It was a picture perfect time of year for Halloween. Not Samhain, for this wasn’t pagan. This was old time Halloween, in houses which bore the scent of old wood, where the horror had nothing to do with slashers, but instead was witches and ghosts.
On Indians, pirates and Cape Cod witches around Barnstable
About a mile east of Barnstable village is Cummaquid, now a haven for the wealthy, especially those interested in golf. When the native Americans were still prevalent on Cape Cod, there lived in a cave alongside the beach a medicine woman known now as Granny Squannit. She was ancient, her hair hung down over her face, and when she pushed it aside she peered back at you with a single eye in the middle of her forehead. Her specialty was ridding young boys of the devils that lived inside them. If treasure was found on the beach, or in the forests nearby, she claimed it as her own and buried it, marking the spot with glowing orbs of light. She seems to have taken the secret of the treasure with her to her grave, though ever since people still from time to time, spot her orbs hovering over the sand.
Southwest of Barnstable lies Grand Island, now known as Oyster Harbors. It was the site of some of the earliest settlements of the Wampanoag people, the same tribe which befriended the Pilgrims at Plymouth. By the time the white men came along, Grand Island was mostly deserted, except for a woman known by the name of Hannah Screecham.
According to legend, which is believed to have at least one foot in history, a certain pirate, or pirates used to visit Hannah who performed a grisly chore for them. Some say the pirate was Captain Kidd himself, though that’s unlikely.
The pirate would anchor off the shore of Grand Island, and taking the treasure and one member of the crew, would row ashore to meet with Hannah Screecham. Hannah would lead them to a special location on the beach. There the crew member would dig a deep pit, to hold the treasure which was passed down to him. When he made his way from the hole, Hannah would push him back with such force as to render him unconscious, if he was lucky. If he managed to stay coherent, he’d find without Hannah or the captain’s help, he couldn’t find his way out of the pit, as the sand around him collapsed and he was buried along with the treasure. As she pushed the unfortunate sailor into the pit, she’d release a blood curdling scream, which let the men on ship know that the treasure had been buried and the captain would soon return. Some say that her cry was one of elation and joy at the evil deed she had just committed.
As time went on, Hannah began to feel that she was poorly paid, typically receiving a small purse of silver, perhaps a stolen ring for her diabolical services. Knowing the location of the treasure, one night she decided to take a more appropriate payment. Under the fun moon she made her way to one of the spots where a cache of treasure had been buried, which of course was also the grave of one who had been murdered by Hannah. She dug deep till she reached the corpse of the unfortunate. Pushing it aside, she went for the treasure, but heard sounds coming from above. Peering down on her she began to make out the faces of those she had murdered, just before feeling cold fingers wrapping around her throat. As she fought to escape, the walls of pit gave way around her, burying her as it had her victims, where she lays today, in an unmarked grave, sleeping with a strange bedfellow atop a heap of buried treasure.
Hannah has become another of Bardstown’s ghosts, her blood curdling screech still heard on windy nights, echoing in the darkness.
Hannah’s sister protects the forest south of town, first as a witch and later as a Barnstable ghost
Hannah had a sister, Sarah, and at some point the two had a falling out. William Simmons’s writes in the Spirit of the New England Tribes, that Sarah moved to Mashpee, south of Barnstable and built herself a cottage on the banks of a pond, located in the darkest part of the forest, which is still called Witch Pond.
Sarah had a great respect for the forest and the animals that lived there. She was believed to be a shapeshifter, able to change into a coal black horse, or a large doe. When hunters fired on the doe, they found their bullets did no harm, and ill luck soon befell them. As a result of the stories told about Sarah, neither the white settlers, nor the native Americans would venture into her woods in search of game.
There was one man who paid no heed to the tales and Sarah spotted him hunting in her forest. There was something different about him though, a weapon more powerful than an arrow or gun, for it was a dart of love that pierced Sarah’s heart. She chased after the man, telling him in no uncertain terms how much she wanted him, but he feared her and rejected her. She didn’t give up, and eventually he gave in, and told her to come to him at his home outside the woods.
They had their tryst and she let down her guard, shifting into the guise of the black mare. The man, more clever perhaps than wise, tied the mare to a tree, and Sarah, blinded by love allowed it. Once secured, her lover nailed iron horseshoes to the mare. Then a fourth, this one made of silver, which burned and agonized the witch.
Proud of what he’d done, he went for the neighbors to show off how he’d captured Sarah. Arriving back at his house, he found she was gone so they pursued her to her own cottage by Witch Pond. Her screams greeted them before they reached her door, and when they entered the found her back in human form, with a silver horseshoe nailed to her hand.
After that, Sarah avoided love and the company of men. Her forest was once more off limits, till one brutal winter when there was no game to be found anywhere, and desperation drove one solitary hunter into the forest. Cognizant of the story of the black mare, he brought with him one silver bullet. As he neared the pond, a young doe leapt from the woods, staring him down. Raising his gun he put the silver bullet into the doe’s heart, which then disappeared back into the woods. He pursued it to Sarah’s cottage and when he entered, found the old woman dead, with a silver bullet in her heart.
How a pious woman of God became a witch and even more wicked as a ghost
Some years later another witch was rumored to haunt the woods south of Barnstable. Liza Tower Hill, who was said to live in a cottage beside Halfway Pond. Those brave enough to wander into the forest there told tales of how they had seen her dancing on the surface of the pond, bare foot and bare breasted, with devilish fish swimming in the waters below, whilst mutant animals stood on the bank, watching. Twice she was accused of turning men into horses and riding them to witch’s sabbaths.
Liza met her end after taking a shining to Benjamin Godspeed. She would appear to him in the night and “ride him like a horse.” Benjamin took flight to avoid her visits, boarding a ship off the coast. Thinking himself safe, he noticed a cat swimming behind the ship, and that night she appeared to him once more, and rode him even more ferociously than before. A ship mate told him to use a page from the Bible as wadding for his pistol, and when he spotted the cat once more swimming behind the ship, fired and struck it, killing it instantly. At that moment in her house beside Halfway Pond, Liza slumped over, dead.
There’s a curious footnote to the story of Liza Tower Hill. The stories seem to be based on a woman by the name of Elizabeth Lewis Blachford. She was a pious lady, lived an exemplary life by nearly all accounts, but as she neared the end of her life, some people she had made enemies of started spreading rumors. She ignored them, turned the other cheek if you will. The slight change in name allowed people to talk about her, without using her real name and thus avoiding slander. After her death, as time went on, the real woman was forgotten, and the stories took on a life of their own, growing ever more outlandish as the Bible fearing woman became a hellcat of legend.
Eventually Liza Tower Hill became a Barnstable ghost. One evening, long after her death, a fellow returning home drunk on his horse found his way into the forest and became lost. Liza found him and took him in, and he went willingly, not realizing she was a ghost. After spending a cozy night in her bed, he awoke to find himself in the company of an old man, who presented to him a black book to sign, and with it his soul.
Barnstable ghosts grow along with the village that bears its name
Today Barnstable is a township, comprising of several villages, and is the largest community on Cape Cod, as well as the country seat of Barnstable County. Route 6A, known as Old King’s Highway was originally a native American footpath. Later it was a cart path for the original settlers on Cape Cod, and finally an extension of the road built from Plymouth colony known as King’s Highway.
As commerce moved from inland to the maritime centers, and later traffic flowed quicker along the interstates, Old King’s Highway became in a sense, frozen in time. As a result, it’s a tree lined treasure trove of older homes and architectural styles, winding through some of the oldest villages in our nation. It runs the entire length of Barnstable and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Not too far from Old King’s Highway, near Sandy Neck lived a Scottish gentleman, just east of the great marshes that skirt Barnstable. He worked as a manservant for a rich doctor, and when the doctor turned up murdered and his riches missing, Robert the Scot, as he was known, fell under suspicion. Hung for the crime and buried in unhallowed ground at Scorton Hill in Sandwich, the oldest town on Cape Cod, it’s said one can sometimes hear Robert playing his bagpipes there, as well as the shore of the ocean where he lived, as he searches for the doctor’s lost riches in order to prove his innocence.
As the population spread across Cape Cod and Bardstown, more houses sprung up along the King’s Highway, and the older the houses, the more ghosts you find. Folklore is a product of a culture, be it a nation, state or even a town. Part of that culture seems to be ghost stories, as you find them across nearly every civilization.
The Reverend John Lathrop built a house along Old King’s Highway, which became the Sturgis Library, the oldest library building in the country. There are many who believe that the Reverend Lathrop haunts the stacks, as well as the basement. A little old lady long dead still on occasions attends events at the building’s theater.
Take the ghost walk in Barnstable and you’ll find yourself guided along King’s Highway, hearing more tales of a recent vintage, told by the people living in these ancient homes today. As time goes on, so do the Barnstable ghosts, right into the present.
Barnstable ghosts merit their own haunted history tour
The Old Gaol, or Old Jail was built in 1690 and there are no doubts that conditions there were brutal. The structure 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.
It’s one of the main attractions of the Barnstable Village Haunted History Tours, which I decided to take Halloween night, after dinner and a few beers at the also haunted Barnstable Restaurant and Tavern.
The Old Gaol was the final stop of the tour, and I was one of two who volunteered to take a seat in one of the cells, and when we did, 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 that 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 a complete fake. But not as easy to believe when sitting in a chair in total darkness and total silence in that very cell.
Barnstable ghosts rise from the dead in Old Cobb’s Hill Cemetery
Another featured location on the Haunted History Tour is Barnstable’s Old Cobb’s 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 have with a lot of ghost tours. Many of the stories and certainly most of the anecdotal evidence they provide are collected, or happened to members of whoever is giving the tour. I prefer my ghosts to be a bit more ancient, or at least older than I am. The words “sensed a presence” are bandied around a bit too often, and no more so than they were at Cobb’s Hill Cemetery. Which really didn’t need any priming of the fear pump.
And who’s to say, because in the cemetery at night, with clouds racing overhead, on a crisp Halloween night, I certainly sensed a presence there.
Dating back to the earliest days of the village, perched on a hill as dark as coal, the cemetery itself is ghost story perfect, though undoubtedly more so without the presence of a group.
There isn’t a lot of evidence for hauntings at Cobb’s Hill Cemetery. Instead it’s old school frightening. It’s not what you see or hear, if indeed you hear or see anything. But instead it’s like sitting in the darkened cell of the Old Gaol, that familiar sense of dread descending and it’s the way your imagination can conjure fears unique to yourself that lead you into believing anything could happen.
That’s why a town like Barnstable is ideally suited for tales of hauntings, witches and ghost stories. The age accounts for much of it. There have been enough lives, and deaths here to provide a steady stream of souls and ghouls. There are enough legends to color the collective memory and history of the town if not black, a colorless dark grey. And let’s face it. Older styles of architecture lend themselves to ghost stories. It’s easier to believe when you’re in a creaky old house, three hundred years old, than in a faux brick duplex built in the nineties.
The most likely location for Barnstable ghosts … how about the house of eleven ghosts?
No one can say for certain how many ghosts haunt The Barnstable House, sitting right on the Old King’s Highway in the village itself. The name came from a seance in the last half of the twentieth century, when a medium made the claim that the number was eleven.
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, and he’s been seen since in the attic. Dr. Samuel Savage was thought to be practicioner of black magic, using the house as the location for his experiments in the occult. His dark experiences seem to have tied him to Barnstable House as well.
One owner of the house saw a woman in older dress walking through the house, except she appeared to have no feet. That’s when he realized he’d installed a new floor over the old, and her feet were simply walking on the original floor. Another owner was disconcerted to find that the chandelier, decked out with candles were lit when she came into the room one afternoon. She climbed up and snuffed them out, wondering how anyone had managed to light them. When she came back in the room later, they were lit again. The process was repeated a number of times before finally staying out.
For much of the time, the Barnstable House was an inn, beginning in the eighteenth century. As late as the twentieth century, guests have reported seeing both men and women in colonial dress walking through the dining room, including one carrying a tray of tankards.
Most tragic of all though, is the story of poor little Lucy Paine, who drowned in the basement while chasing her favorite ball into the entrance of an underground stream 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 Restaurant 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. One woman who was working at a table in the restaurant was so pestered by Lucy and her ball that she finally had to shout at her that she didn’t have time to play today, as she had a looming deadline.
A second spirit is thought to have left the Barnstable House after the same fire, spoke to and was seen by several firefighters, before floating across the road to my bed and breakfast for the night, the Beechwood Inn just east of there. Where she supposedly took up residence, along with the other ghost that live there.