One Autumn night, in Sudbury town,
Across the meadows bare and brown,
The windows of the wayside inn
Gleamed red with fire-light through the leaves
Of woodbine, hanging from the eaves
Their crimson curtains rent and thin.
As ancient is this hostelry
As any in the land may be,
Built in the old Colonial day,
When men lived in a grander way,
With ampler hospitality;
A kind of old Hobgoblin Hall,
Now somewhat fallen to decay,
With weather-stains upon the wall,
And stairways worn, and crazy doors,
And creaking and uneven floors,
And chimneys huge, and tiled and tall.
A region of repose it seems,
A place of slumber and of dreams,
Remote among the wooded hills!
For there no noisy railway speeds,
Its torch-race scattering smoke and gleeds;
But noon and night, the panting teams
Stop under the great oaks, that throw
Tangles of light and shade below,
On roofs and doors and window-sills.
Across the road the barns display
Their lines of stalls, their mows of hay,
Through the wide doors the breezes blow,
The wattled cocks strut to and fro,
And, half effaced by rain and shine,
The Red Horse prances on the sign.
Round this old-fashioned, quaint abode
Deep silence reigned, save when a gust
Went rushing down the county road,
And skeletons of leaves, and dust,
A moment quickened by its breath,
Shuddered and danced their dance of death,
And through the ancient oaks o’erhead
Mysterious voices moaned and fled.
+ + +
That’s the prelude to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. Sort of an American version of Canterbury Tales, the poem revolves around tales told at a lonely stage coach inn on a fall evening, and was inspired in part by a visit to the Red Horse Tavern in Sudbury, MassachusettsÂ in 1862.Â Longfellow had taken on the project in part, to ward off the grief over his wife Fanny’s tragic death by fire. The ninth of July, 1861 was a blistering hot day, and as Longfellow napped, his wife was in another room, and according to the classic version of the story, was sealing locks of their children’s hair in envelopes with sealing wax. Somehow a fire was started, which ignited Fanny’s dress, and though Longfellow tried valiantly to put out the fire, first with a rug and then his own body, his wife was horribly charred, and died early the next day. Longfellow himself was so badly burned that he was unable to attend the funeral, which lead to him being unable to shave for the scarring, resulting in his trademark beard.
Tales of a Wayside Inn is the source of the poem, Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride, which created a mythology around the event, not necessarily accurate, but the one taught to school children for generations after.
The Red Horse Tavern was by this time a shadow of its former self, described by Wordsworth asÂ “a rambling, tumble-down building,” no longer functioning as an inn but still used in part as a boarding house. A relative of the previous owner, who had died in 1861 related the story of the Howe family and their inn, which sparked the poet’s imagination. Longfellow further described the Red Horse Tavern as anÂ “Old Hobgoblin Hall. With weather-stains upon the wall, And stairwaysÂ worn, and crazy doors, And creaking and uneven floors, And chimneys huge,Â and tiled and tall.”
Today, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn is believed to be the oldest inn in operation in the United States. The original section of the Inn was built by David Howe for his pregnant wife, Hepzibah Death, along Boston’s Old Post road, and in 1716 they expanded it and opened their doors to travelers. The Howe Inn was even the meeting place for the local militia in 1775, to begin their march against the British in the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
Passed down from Howe to Howe until the death of Lyman Howe, who died childless just prior to Longfellow’s visit, the inn which first bore the family name, became the Red Lion Inn, and then by tradition, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. But the roots of the inn are still intact in a design, decorum and general feel of a colonial era tavern and inn. The inn grew in size through seven additions, adding rooms and even a ballroom, and then in the mid-twentieth century was reduced nearly to ashes by a devastating fire.
Salvation came in the form of local support in rebuilding and the deep pockets of the Ford family, whose patriarch Henry Ford had purchased the inn in 1923. Motivated in part for his love of Longfellow, Ford had an idea to turn the Wayside Inn into a living history museum, an idea just slightly ahead of its time. Ford purchased thousands of acres surrounding the inn, built a grist mill and other buildings, as well as a relocating a schoolhouse thought to be the inspiration for the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” In addition, Â he built a chapel, still popular with those of a matrimonial bent, the Martha-Mary Chapel, named after his and his wife’s mothers. The inn has over the centuries been visited by Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh and Thomas Edison, in addition to George Washington and General Lafayette, which no self-respecting colonial inn should be without. In should also be noted that John D. Rockefeller visited the inn after purchasing the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia, which was an inspiration to the development of Colonial Williamsburg. Following the restoration of the inn after the fire, the Ford board of trust handed over the National Trust.
Rumors that the Wayside Inn is haunted date back prior to 1868. Found among the notes for the hostess of the inn was a report of an incident where a ghost was reported half floating half running through the room known ever since as the Hobgoblin Room. The room had been used for dancing parties and large group meetings, though later converted into a bedroom, also was also known as the Old Hall.
But the most famous ghost of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn would have to be that of Jerusha Howe. Jerusha was the sister of Lyman Howe, known as the Squire, and the last Howe landlord of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. Miss Jerusha was far above the typical country girl of the period, according to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine “she possessed great common-sense, combined with refined tastes, musical accomplishments and rare domestic abilities. She was delicate in person, not of robust constitution, which kept her much at home under the care of watchful parents.”
Known as the belle of Sudbury, Miss Jerusha was an arbiter of taste in the area. She was the first in the area to own a spinet piano, which was often seen strewn with piles of old music books, handsomely bound with her name in gilt letters, and was known to playÂ â€œThe Battle of Pragueâ€ and â€œCopenhagen Waltz.â€ She was also known to sing beautifully in a “thin and decorous voice.”
For years after her death in 1842, if you asked older gentlemen of the area if they’d known Miss Jerusha, their eyes would brighten with the memory. She was described by one as a “handsome girl, tall and slim and bright and smart”. At one ball which she attended, she wore little pale-blue satin slippers with satin ribbon plaited around the edges, which were kept for years after her death on display in the house.
She was known to have rejected all suitors, and it is from this that the story of Jerusha’s ghost first comes to life. According to legend, rumor or innuendo, it’s no longer known which, Miss Jerusha fell for a visitor from England, who drank heartily of her affections, and afterwards pledged to return for her after his return to England. But he never did, and it’s not known whether he was lost at sea, lost on land or maybe betrothed back in England. Miss Jerusha’s fragile heart was broken, and it’s said she sung her soul away.
Miss Jerusha’s room is still there, Room nine, and it’s thought she also roamed room ten as well, as those are the two rooms which the ghost of Miss Jerusha is thought to inhabit today. If the stories are to be believed, she may be looking for the love and affection she denied herself in life, as she mainly seems to appear to men. In some cases, she’s believed to do more than appear. Some who spend the night in Room 9 have been awakened by the sensation of a soft breath on their face, only to open their eyes and look into her own, before she fades away. Others note soft caresses, a light touch on their skin, and some report the sensation of someone slipping into the bed with them and snuggling up.
She’s also reported to whoosh past guests on the back stairway leading to her room, with a rush of air and the scent of her citrus perfume, which has been noticed in many rooms of the Wayside Inn. Sometimes, when the inn is quiet, you can still hear the strains of the Copenhagen Waltz being played on her piano by her ghostly hands.
All of this may be fairly chilling and faintly erotic to those who aren’t turned off by sharing their bed with the ghost of a woman over two centuries old. Room 9 is certainly conducive to high expectations of spectral visitation. With dark, wooden paneling, plank wood floor, no television and hardly any traces of the past century or so, it’s a step back in time. There are two entryways, the main door leading from a brightly lit sitting room on the second floor, and the back door, leading to a narrow, steep staircase which leads into the dining area of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, on which Miss Jerusha’s chilling presence is often felt.
As we went to dinner that night we took the main entrance, past the throngs of people gathered for a wedding rehearsal dinner and into the barroom. The original barroom was actually through the door which leads to the kitchen area from here, but a faithful reconstruction this was all the same. In fact, I hadn’t a clue, with it’s aged hardwood floors, low beamed ceiling and rail bar, that it wasn’t the original, 200 year old version. My intentions were to stick to beer, until the bartender explained the coow woow.
The coow woow, I was told was a colonial era drink consisting of two parts rum and one part ginger brandy. If you drink fast it was cold, as the bartender keeps the liquor in the freezer for this concoction, so as not to water it down with ice. After one I was pleasantly alert, and in fact, just feeling pleasant all over. The second, after moving into the dining room gave me I felt, a better understanding of how farmers armed with hunting rifles, could muster the courage to stand up to the British, then the finest fighting group in the world.
It also left the next couple of hours pretty much a blur. I know I started with the clam chowder, as I always try the clam chowder when I’m in New England. It was, I believed, the first time I truly tasted the full bouquet of New England clam chowder. For the main course I went with either the Block Island Swordfish, or a steak. As I said, I’m blurry here on details I remember wishing I could simply live here, so whichever it was came with my highest recommendation.
Back in the room I set about solving the other mystery of the Wayside Inn’s Room 9, that of the SDS. The Secret Drawer Society. Beginning in the 1950’s, then inn-keeper Frances Koppels would tell children visiting the Wayside Inn about the secret drawers in their rooms, and hide candy for them to find. As time went on, people began leaving their own notes and gifts, and the Secret Drawer Society was formed. Room 9 has notes from past visitors tucked all over the room – in the beams, in drawers, all describing their visit to the Wayside Inn and Room 9. Some allude to a hidden treasure in the room, some having found it, others not so lucky. Many mention their experiences with Jerusha’s ghost, though most include a note that she hadn’t shown up on their stay.
But the allusions to the hidden treasure captured my attention, and perhaps because of my superior powers of clarity and deduction, brought on by liberal amounts of fine beer and coow woow, I soon discovered the secret trove. There was easily enough notes there to cover the bed, if I cared to dig them all out. But instead I dug down only till I found a small box, full of all types of tokens and gifts, left by former residents, which if taken at face value, would have easily been worth over a million dollars. I know this because a million dollar bill was included in the treasure.
As for Miss Jerusha? She let me sleep. Or couldn’t awaken me. Or perhaps she’s just pissed off.
For those of you who mercifully may not be aware, there is a reality television series titled Ghost Adventures, where a beefy fellow by the name of Zak and his buddy Aaron travel the globe, in an attempt to browbeat ghosts into interacting with them. The evidence, tellingly often consists of things that only Zak and Aaron can see or feel. If one had a coow woow for every time in each episode, one or the other says in a startled voice “what was that”, one would succumb to alcohol poisoning before the end of the show. They also come up with a fair number of EVPs, but c’mon. I can come up with more believable sounds by rubbing my butt cheeks together. If you can believe it, they heard voices in an inn containing many guests, and quite likely multiple events involving large numbers of people drinking large quantities of alcohol.
But what irked me about the episode where they visited the Wayside Inn, is the way they set about seducing the ghost of Miss Jerusha. By all accounts, in life she was a gentle, refined and demure lady, and for some reason I can’t see her saddling up next to these two, even though as Aaron noted, he even brought her chocolate. And yet according to both, she not only made her presence erotically known, but the episode ends with Zak going back into Room 9 for a second night, with flowers no less, and this time with no cameras, for what can only be imagined as a hot boo-ty call.
That I find this unlikely goes without saying. That I find this repugnant, repelling and reprehensible only touches on how sleazy I find this show and these characters. I count myself lucky that I didn’t see this episode prior to spending the night in Room 9 – not from fear of ghosts. But rather I would have been somewhat appalled at the thought of sleeping in the same bed that Zak had, for fear that the slimy tracks of this loathsome slug might have soaked into the fibers of the bed linens. Miss Jerusha deserves better than that, her memory if not her spirit.
The inn is part museum, part restaurant, part bar, part hotel, and all over its walls are decked with period artwork of the place throughout the centuries. While wandering the lobby and admiring all this, I was told by the staff that the historian for Longfellow’s Wayside Inn finds nothing more irritating than the stories and questions about the ghosts. He says he gets five times the inquiries into the ghost stories of the inn over the history of the inn, which is not only extensive, but verifiable. Meanwhile the ghost of Miss Jerusha dates only to sometime in the 1990s, with the rise of the internet. So if her ghost is still haunting the Wayside Inn, it took her long enough to get started.
That a mythological history of the inn has been used to sell it to the outside world isn’t really a question for debate. It has. Even the coow woow seems to have no verifiable historic precedence, but is likely an invention at best, inspired by history. Ditto the story of Washington’s bedroom, which dates back to the mid 19th century at least. And so it might well be with the ghost of Miss Jerusha Howe. It’s easy enough to forget that what you see at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn is a reconstruction of history, more than a historic building itself. As most of the inn had to be rebuilt after the fire, it’s at best a restoration, albeit a very effective one. It’s quite likely impossible to recreate the ambiance of a colonial era coaching inn, no matter how exacting the architectural details are. Because it was the life of the times, the talk of the times and the characters that lived in those times that set the mood. But when it comes to setting the mood of a night in a pre-Revolutionary Tavern in the 21st century, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn is as close as you’re likely to come.
Gothic Travel Ratings
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn is a faithful reproduction in so many ways, that one could easily spend a couple of days wandering the hallways and grounds. They serve a real breakfast as opposed to the more popular continental version, and October there is a riot of colors in the crisp autumn air. A night spent in Room 9 will certainly have you prepared for spooks, whether Miss Jerusha shows up or not. As I said, she didn’t for me.
Or did she? After adjourning to the bar before dinner, and before the coow woow, I realized I had forgotten my camera in the room, a serious faux paux for any travel photographer. I decided to take the back way, which I had done earlier. I checked with my roomie to make sure she hadn’t locked the door, which only has an old fashion latch on the inside, and she assured me she hadn’t touched the lock. So you can imagine my surprise when after negotiating the maze of dining areas and the steep staircase, that I found the door locked from the inside. After going back around to the main entrance of the room and finding myself inside, and the door indeed locked, I had a more profound respect for what ghosts might remain in the Wayside Inn, as well as a chill which I hadn’t felt before.
After verifying again that my roommate hadn’t locked the door, I was pretty darned certain that Longfellow Wayside Inn had earned a five crypt rating.
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them