Today we continue our series of family background posts by relating some relatives with a spooky connection. I’m not really close kin to most of these characters, but I’ll lay death’s heads to door-knockers I’m closer than most. So if I happen to get menaced by actual Halloween monsters this year, I am hoping I can drop the names of these supernatural relations to talk my way out of it. (Although I hasten to point out that in just about every example below, it was a less a case of someone being a monster than an example of ignorant, paranoid relatives, neighbors and strangers terrifying themselves, pointing at someone or something else and screaming “Monster!” — which is essentially the story of mankind.)
Actually both of these famous Rhode island vampires I’ll be discussing are closer to “nosferatu” than they are conventional vamps as codified in films, i.e. they were “plague-bringers” as opposed to “blood-suckers” . But just as undead, baby, just as undead! Both of these legendary tales are lain in the town of Exeter, which is about 15 minutes from the house where I grew up. (As it happens, my parents are buried in Exeter, although in different graveyards from the legendary creatures)
Why such an inoffensive little stretch of road as Exeter would be home to the walking undead at first seems mysterious, but scholars have been working on this a while, and I found this 2012 article from Smithsonian to be most illuminating.
It turns out 19th century New England “vampires” (especially Rhode Island vampires) are a thing. The scholar in the article has identified upwards of 80 cases similar to what you’ll find described below. The participants most likely never used the word “vampire” — that terminology was imposed by outsiders and the press in describing the strange goings on. It’s a phenomenon not unlike the witch hysteria of a century and more earlier, although with a different set of contributing factors, which are these:
Consumption. The microbes that cause the horrors of tuberculosis were unknown at the time. People saw their friends and neighbors wasting away, feverish, fatigued, pale, sweating and red-eyed. They drew conclusions about the cause that were within their own belief system, which was steeped in…
Superstition. Naturally rural folk are more more prone to be superstitious, but there was a particular reason for those of Rhode Island to be even more superstitious. An ironic one. Rhode Island had been founded as a refuge for dissenters, with complete religious freedom. In the early years it was no less a religious place than the surrounding colonies, just with far less official oversight about personal belief. Providence became the birthplace of the Baptist church; Portsmouth and Newport were havens for Quakers and Anabaptists. But that also meant that folks were also allowed to worship NOTHING. Unlike most of New England, Rhode Islanders were not required to attend church, let alone a certain church. In time, a situation existed where the vast majority attended NO church. This left room for a vacuum of sorts. While many modern people make a false assumption which equates religion with superstition intrinsically, Protestantism (in the period after the witch trials, at least) was theoretically about reason, regarding superstitious beliefs as false and unenlightened. In Rhode Island, however, all bets were off.
A couple of potential sources for the ritual practices mentioned below exist. One, is (as a newspaper quoted a local man of the time as saying) that the beliefs came from local Indian Tribes. Another (and I find this one especially compelling given the time line) is a “mysterious foreign quack” who appeared in the town of Willington (Northeastern Connecticut) in 1784, and whose ungodly prescriptions were condemned in the pages of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer.
Thanks to Rory Raven for having first introduced us to these local legends during our walking tour a couple of years ago. These are just two of the most famous cases of the so-called New England vampires. I’m likely to be related to others, but I haven’t looked into their coffins yet.
I am one of the thousands descended from Pardon Tillinghast, one of Rhode Island’s earliest settlers and an important minister at the famous Baptist Church of Providence. And so too is the family in question:
In 1799, Rhode Island farmer Stukely Tillinghast had a dream that half the trees in his orchard had failed. Like Joseph in the Old Testament, this dream was taken to be a portent; even more would be read into it later…after he lost half his family. Sometime after the dream, Tillinghast’s 19 year old daughter Sarah contracted consumption and died. Shortly thereafter a son James also came down with the disease. But (undoubtedly in a delirium) he also made the nettlesome claim that the recently deceased Sarah had visited him in the night. And you can see where that might cause trouble. James died. Then four other of the Tillinghast children (of a total of 11) also became ill and died — after claiming that the dead Sarah had also appeared to them. And this happened to some of their neighbors, as well. By the time Tillinghast’s wife Honor came down with consumption and claimed to be seeing her dead children, the farmer decided something must be done. (He was a Yankee farmer — it took him a while to get off his butt).
We don’t know where Stukely got the idea, nor even how true it is, we only know the lore. And according to the story, he exhumed the coffins of his recently dead children and Sarah’s was found to be curiously…well-preserved. In comparison with the remains of the others, there was a troubling lack of decomposition. And (this is the oft quoted detail I find hard to give any credence to) “the heart was full of fresh blood”. Oh, yes — did I mention that Stukely cut the heart out of his own daughter’s corpse? And then, as someone told him to do, he then burned it, to make Sarah’s spirit go away. And as the story goes, Honor recovered after this measure was taken, and there were no more illnesses or deaths.
The family is buried at Rhode Island Historical Cemetery #14. Stukeley’s headstone has been removed, and the children have stones with no writing on them, but you can find Honor’s, which is marked only with “H.T.” Go to this link and a man will take you right there.
This next story happened in the same town of Exeter almost a century later. Almost everyone who tells these stories has a weird, infuriating tendency to either gloss over or ignore what I take to be a highly significant fact: same thing, happened twice, same town. Naturally these two stories are far more related to one another than people tend to stress. I hardly think it is a coincidence that a second outbreak of the same hysteria occurred in the same tiny town as the initial one. I’d go so far as to speculate that the 1892 incident was inspired by surviving local stories of the 1799 one.
Yes — 1892. One might think that that is very, very late for something of this nature to be happening in the civilized Northeastern United States. But then, yeah…no. Guess what? Where I live (New York City) scarcely a year goes by that one doesn’t read in the paper about some superstition-based murder, often linked to voodoo, or Santeria. I cast no aspersion against those fascinating religions, especially in light of the bloody lapses of those who practice my own faith. (Conversion by the sword, anyone?) I’m just referencing a parallel, similar phenomenon — there are still people around who believe in evil spirits that much.
And as for the “civilized Northeastern United States” — here’s a little known fact. In the late 19th and early 20th century, New England’s population outside the cities had drastically declined. Evidence of that is still with us. Walk through any New England forested area and before long you will run into a stone wall. (Don’t run too hard!) You also see stone walls surrounding houses and farms, of course, but how mysterious to find them in the middle of the woods. The explanation is that those wooded areas were once farms, which subsequently were abandoned, became overgrown and reverted to nature. Population in the area was lost due to westward migration and the Civil War. And while immigration later increased American population overall, rural New England was not where most of the newcomers settled, at least not for a long time.
It’s gradually dawned on me that an unlikely reporter on this phenomenon is H.P. Lovecraft. For the longest time I would read his stories and not go along for the ride because I couldn’t imagine the New England countryside being as eerily secluded as he describes it. But it seems that in his time it was, after all. This makes for an interesting parallelism between the European and American Romanticisms. The Europeans had their ruins; and we too, after a fashion, had ours.
So Exeter, Rhode Island, a backwater to begin with, was an even worse one at the time of which I write. Its population in the 1820s had been well over 2,000. By the 1890s it was down to only about 900. This is why I’m pretty comfortable speculating that I’m related to this family of Browns. Brown is a much more common name than Tillinghast, but like the latter family, it is also the name of one of the founding families of Rhode Island (who started Brown University and much else). I am related to these Browns; and I find it likely that so are the Browns of Exeter, a town with so little population influx prior to the late 20th century.
The Keep, where the corpse was kept at the Exeter cemetery prior to Mercy’s examination
The Brown story is remarkably similar to that of the Tillinghasts. It began with Mary the mother‘s death by consumption in 1883, followed by the death of a daughter, also named Mary, six months later. Then nine years passed. Mercy came down with consumption and passed away in 1892. Her older brother Edwin came down with it a few months later, and that’s when the hysteria broke out this time. In this case, the community demanded an exhumation. Mercy’s father George Brown didn’t believe in the superstition and agreed to it only reluctantly. In an interesting and modern, if somewhat illogical, twist, a physician was called to examine Mercy’s body. He noted that her hair and fingernails had continued to grow after death. (Though that happens to most bodies). Be that as it may, Mercy’s heart was cut out, burned, mixed with medicinal herbs and put into a potion for Edwin to drink to ward off the bad spirits. He died anyway.
1892 is essentially the modern era. The difference between this case and most of the earlier New England vampire cases is that this one was widely reported. Newspaper men from the Providence Journal were on the scene and papers carried the story around the world. Soon the 20th century would dawn: movies, radio, television. Even rural places like Exeter began to have some dim awareness that such things as vampires were not real. And perhaps the wide reporting on the Brown incident was something of an embarrassment. So no similar incidents followed. Because of this, Mercy Brown is often known as the “Last New England Vampire.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shunned House appears to draw from both the Tillinghast and the Brown incidents, and some of have speculated that news of the Mercy Brown story had also reached Bram Stoker, whose Dracula was first published in 1897, just five years later. And there are those later tales of New England vampires, Dark Shadows and Salem’s Lot to chew on…
THE OLD ARNOLD ESTATE (A.K.A. THE CONJURING HOUSE)
This house was the real-life basis for the 2013 horror film The Conjuring. I’m going to bore you by sticking closer to the known facts than the film, books about the topic, and lots of what you will find online will tell you; my main source for the factier facts is this investigative web site. Also, most accounts of the story start with the haunting (1970-1980) and work backwards and keep it vague. I’m going to go chronologically and try to be a little more specific.
What I know is that the Old Arnold Estate was built in Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1736. Harrisville is part of Burrillville, and adjacent to my mother’s hometown of Putnam, Connecticut. Many, many generations of Arnolds lived on the farm. And tragedies happened to at least three members of the family, although not all of it happened on the property. A Susan Arnold hung herself in the house in 1866. 11 year old Prudence Arnold was raped and murdered (throat slit) by farmhand William Knowles in 1848 (this happened across the state line in Massachusetts). And an Edwin Arnold was found frozen to death on the nearby property of Smith Aldrich after a night of carousing at the pub.
Then there is the case of the Arnold’s next door neighbor Bathsheba Sherman (1812-1885). If you squint at the photo above, which was taken on the Arnold estate, some have speculated that the woman in the center foreground is Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the daughter of Ephraim Thayer and Hannah Taft, and the wife of Judson Sherman. She had four children, only one of whom lived past early childhood. About Bathsheba there is much lore, most of it of recent vintage: that she was secretive, evil, mean, a witch, a Satanist, and that she killed a baby by driving a knitting needle into the back of its skull. There doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of this. When she died, she was given the usual Christian burial next to her husband, although it seems as though some puddingheads decided to vandalize her grave marker:
At any rate in 1970, a nice modern American family named the Perrons acquired the Old Arnold Estate and, by their testimony, things began to happen. Objects, including beds, levitated. Voices and noises were heard. A woman in a grey dress appeared and said “Get out!” People were slapped and pinched by unseen forces. And one of the family was stabbed by an invisible needle which drew blood. Who you gonna call? Why Ed and Lorraine Warren, of course, America’s most famous psychic investigators, and the folks who also cleaned up the cobwebs at the Amityville Horror House. The Perrons and the Warrens seem to have decided many things about whom those spirits may have been and then decided to tell the world. Andrea Perron wrote her three volume account House of Darkness, House of Light. And Hollywood made The Conjuring, which turned into an entire multi-million dollar franchise.
What’s my connection to all this? Well, as I mention above, my mom is from just a few miles away and I am related to all of those families historically connected with the house and the area: the Arnolds, the Shermans, the Thayers, the Tafts, and even the Aldriches. all of them are names in my family tree. All of them, it seems, but the Perrons and the Warrens — and that’s okay by me.
59 Church Street, Charleston, said to be haunted by Ladd
DR. JOSEPH BROWN LADD
My great-great-great grandmother Almira Kirtland Ladd of New London was one of a hugely prolific clan of New England Ladds. These Ladds were fruitful and multiplied. Many of them were famous (I’ve written about some, and I’ll write about others). And, it turns out, my first crush in high school was also one of them! And, so too was Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd (1764-1786). Ladd was born in Newport, Rhode Island but through a curious set of circumstances he would go on to become one of the most famous ghosts of Charleston, South Carolina. (Only yesterday I read of another Rhode Island family with a foothold in Charleston, the Hazards, founders of the village of Peace Dale. A likely explanation for a social corridor between the two distant locations is the slave trade, which flourished in both locations in the 18th centuries, though I hasten to point out that the Hazards would come to be prominent slavery opponents in the 19th century. But this is a digression!)
Ladd apprenticed to a local Rhode Island physician at age 15. By 1783 he was a doctor himself, and moved to Charleston with references from Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene, one of the most prominent Rhode Islanders of the time. (The war had ended just a weeks before Ladd made the move) But, when Ladd relocated to Charleston left something behind. He loved a young lady of Newport named “Amanda” (or so he calls her in his writings). He pursued her with all the fervor of youth. The love was not requited (largely through the interposition of Amanda’s unscrupulous guardian), and Ladd’s reputation was besmirched, so moved to Charleston. But he could not forget her. He wrote numerous poetic epistles to her which he called “The Letters of Arouet to Amanda.”
Ladd was well-liked and successful in Charleston. Unfortunately his easy progress got on the nerves of one of the first friends he’d made there, a man named Charles Isaacs who’d saved him from a robbery when he first arrived in town. In the intervening months, Isaacs decided Ladd was getting too big for his britches. It came to head one evening after the two met following a performance of Richard III at a Charleston theatre. The men quarreled over an actress in the play. Isaacs made unkind insinuations and then insulted Ladd publicly. To save his reputation, Ladd was forced to duel. In the exchange his kneecap was shattered, a wound that was painful, possibly crippling but also maybe survivable. But it is said that he refused treatment and died a few days letter in his rooms at 59 Church Street.
Today his spirit is said to haunt both the Church Street address and Philadelphia Alley, also known as Dueler’s Alley, where the fatal contretemps went down. Ladd is known as the “Whistling Ghost” or the “Whistling Doctor” after his lifelong habit of whistling. Because of the sad affair with Amanda, his is thought to be a mournful spirit, forever walking the earth in sadness.
GHOSTS IN THE TOWER OF LONDON
This is a bit farther back, but the connections are just as real. It’s well known that the former fortification and prison is reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of the unhappy souls who were locked away and executed there by their enlightened monarchs. As a descendant of Royal Stewarts and other nobility I am related to many of the famous ones, including King Henry VI; the “Two Little Princes” killed by Richard III (Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury); Queen Ann Boleyn; Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury; Lady Jane Grey; and Lady Arabella Stuart. It must be crowded there, what with the bunch of them roaming the halls and moaning and sobbing and playing ninepins with their heads or whatever they are said to do. Learn more about the specifics here.
THE WHITE LADY
There are too many ghosts nicknamed “The White Lady” in the world to count. This one is said to reside at Highlow Hall in Heathersage, Derbyshire, where my (15th) great grandmother Elizabeth Eyre (1470-1495) is from. Highlow Hall was the ancestral home of the Eyres from 1340 to 1842.
Sir Thomas De Ashton (born circa 1403)
Sir Thomas is unique in history for having been licensed to practice sorcery or something like it. In 1446, he was given special dispensation by King Henry VI, to transmute precious metals, i.e. practice alchemy, often considered a dark art in those times. The document states that the King’s subjects are forbidden to molest Ashton for flouting God and the natural order in this way. I imagine he was counting on getting some of that gold for himself.
Alice Young (ca. 1600-1647)
A distant relation, Alice (also rendered as “Alse” or “Achsah”) Young was the first person executed for witchcraft in Colonial America, at least in the written record. Young was born in England, and moved to Windsor, CT sometime prior to her daughter Alice’s birth in 1640. She was hung for witchcraft in Hartford’s Meeting House Square in 1647. This was nearly a half century before the witch hysteria in Salem. Learn a (very) little more about her here.
Alice Young Beamon (1640-1708)
My (13th) great grandmother, accused of witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts circa 1677, and acquitted.
Alice Ireod Lake (1616-1651)
My (10th) great grandmother, who claimed to have seen her dead baby come back to haunt her was accused of witchcraft, compounded by the crimes of pre-marital sex and attempted abortion. She was executed at Dorchester; follow the link above for more on her.
Robert Williams (1607-1693)
My (9th) great grandfather twice over (I am descended from two separate lines leading from him, one from each of his daughters, both converging in my maternal grandmother’s line, the Cadys). He was the first accused witch I discovered in the family tree, although very little is known about him. (Though he’s mentioned in many books, including one that used to be on my shelf, Drawing Down the Moon). Williams was accused and acquitted in 1669, but convicted and punished for lying. These events took place 23 years before the Salem trials.
Susanna North Martin (1621-1692)
I wished I known about this one on our recent trip to Salem, I would have done more fact-finding with respect to her. Oh, well, all the more reason to go back! I hadn’t found her earlier because she’s not a direct relationship…she was the mother-in-law of my (9th) great grandfather James Hadlock (his second wife — after my own 9th great grandmother had died — was Abigail Martin. Still a relation, if by marriage!). This is through my maternal grandfather’s line, the Herindeens.
Susanna had first been accused of witchcraft (and of giving birth to a bastard and an IMP) in 1669. Her husband died in 1686, leaving her poor and unprotected at the time of the witch hysteria. She was 71 years old when she stood in the docks, and was not about to take any shit. Among other things, they accused of her of changing herself into a cat, jumping through a window and strangling a man while he slept. Cats aren’t generally known for their strangling abilities. but sense was not on anybody’s agenda. They also accused her of changing into many other animals, including a black hog. By all accounts she was a tiny woman. I’m sure there were many times when she would have LIKED to have been able to transform herself into a nice large, intimidating hog.
By all accounts, she laughed at her accusers, called their bluff, and never caved in as so many did to the fiction that was going on all around her. Further, she quoted the Bible in her defense. But to no avail. They hanged her in July of 1692. Read more about the brave old gal here.
Sarah Good (1653-1692)
Likewise, I only discovered this one recently. Sarah Good was one of the most famous of the Salem “witches” and one of the first three accused. I am related to her by marriage. She was one of the village cranks: homeless, in debt, angry, and just in general an inconvenient person to have around, one of the explanations for her having been one of the first accused. Read more about her at the link above.
John Alden, Jr. (1626-1702)
No less than the son of Pilgrims John Alden and Priscilla Mullins was accused of witchcraft! He was the brother of my (8th) great grandfather David Alden. Fortunately he broke jail and ran for his life. But clearly nothing was sacred, if they were accusing HIM. Learn more about him here .
Okay, that about wraps it up! And speaking of which, “Aren’t you related to any mummies?” you may well ask, “I mean, after all, you have vampires, ghosts and witches, surely there’s a line or two that leads back to Imhotep!” Undoubtedly, but it’s four thousand years back. Give me time, give me time!