PEPPERELL — An extra chill was added to an already brisk October night when “Haunted History of New England” came to Lawrence Library. Historian Christopher Daley regaled the standing-room only crowd with ghosts tales tied to some of the region’s historical characters and locales.
The evening’s first story was about Mercy Brown, the vampire of Exeter, R.I. Daley explained that during the 19th century, vampires were not portrayed as bloodsucking creatures but instead as zombies whose presence drained the life from the living.
Mercy’s mother and sister died of consumption (tuberculosis), and a few years later, her brother Edwin also contracted the highly contagious disease and went to Colorado to seek a cure. Mercy came down with “galloping consumption” — an especially virulent form of TB, and died in January 1892. Her brother returned in March, and he too began to fade, and his doctor blamed Mercy for it.
The locals believed she was a vampire and opened her grave. Since she had been buried in January, the corpse was still relatively fresh with liquid blood present. This was all the proof needed to brand Mercy, and her heart was removed from her body, then burned to ashes on a cemetery rock. The ashes were mixed into a concoction to cure Edwin, who died anyway.
Mercy’s legend still lives in Exeter, and her grave draws many visitors, one of whom did a rubbing on the head stone that appears to show a devil’s head. Even the rubbing is said to be evil, and its owner claims that a pet dog grows frantic any time the animal is in the same room with the rubbing.
Poor Mercy seldom got to rest in peace. Her tombstone was once stolen and held for ransom, which was paid. The stone was returned and is now bolted to the ground with iron strapping.
Of course, a presentation on haunted New England would not be complete without a mention of Lizzie Borden, famous for the ax whacks delivered to father and stepmother. Lizzie was tried and acquitted of the gruesome murders and returned to her home.
The house is now a B&B, and guests claim it is haunted. There are stories of people being awakened at night by a Victorian-era woman tucking in the sheets; and tales of stray shoes flying through the air. Batteries rapidly drain in the house, which paranormal investigators claim is a sign of ghosts.
Daley’s presentation moved to western Massachusetts and the infamous Hoosac Tunnel in the North Adams area. The 5-mile train tunnel took 24 years to complete, and 200 men died during its construction. It was one of the first projects where highly explosive nitroglycerin was used for blasting. There were accidents that killed workers, but one incident involving a nitro explosion was thought to be a deliberate murder by “Ringo” Kelly, who was exonerated.
He disappeared from the area, but his murdered body was found in the tunnel one year to the date of the lethal explosion. That murder was never solved. There was also an especially gory accident at the site where workers were trapped and died. It is said their agonized cries for help can still be heard, and locals claim to see clusters of work men walking through the nearby woods and into the tunnel, which is still used by trains. But the trains do not account for what appears to be a lantern light waving around inside the dark abyss.
Daley also discussed several ghost stories stemming from the hostilities between New England’s Native Americans and early colonists. Freetown State Forest was said to be cursed when the Indian Chief Wamsutta handed over the land to pay a bad debt on behalf of his father, the former chief, Massasoit. Strange, gruesome and inexplicable things have happened there, including several murders. People claim to hear chanting and there are tales about zombies seen wandering in the woods.
One site in the forest is known as The Ledge and overlooks a pond. Folklore says a woman jilted at the altar jumped from the ledge in her bridal gown and her ghost can be seen repeating the deed. It is also believed that the forest is inhabited by “Pukwudgies” — small mischievous trolls who were originally helpers to the Indians, then turned evil.
Another Native American ghost story out of Rhode Island involves a massacre of a small band of colonists who set out to kill Indians but instead were slaughtered by the natives. Legend has it they died excruciating deaths and their screams can still be heard.
Fort Warren on George’s Island is known for its “Legend of the Lady in Black.” Daley described how a Civil War confederate prisoner’s wife sneaked onto the island disguised as a man to try to free her husband. They were caught, and when she pointed a gun at the soldiers, it exploded and killed her husband. She was convicted of being a spy and sentenced to hang. When executed, she was dressed in a long black cloak, and visitors to the island claim to see the figure of woman dressed in black wandering the ramparts.
Salem is known for women branded as witches, but there was once a man named Giles Corey accused of witchcraft who was put death by “pressing” — having heavy stones placed on his body, one by one, until he was crushed. He is said to have cursed the town with his last words, and now it is said a shadowy old man is seen laughing while walking around town. What is strange is that generations of Salem’s sheriffs have suffered ill health and rarely finish out their terms.
There are ghost tales surrounding Plymouth, too. A ship called Brig. General Arnold ran partly aground in a terrible blizzard. The men were trapped onboard and no one could reach them despite their cries for help. They all died except for the captain and cabin boy. The sailors were buried in a mass grave at Burial Hill. It is said their ghosts now stalk Pilgrim Hall.
Other notable haunted locales include the Mount Washington Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, The Shining; and the home of John and Priscilla Alden, who were Mayflower pilgrims. Daley showed an eerie photo taken at the Alden house that seems to show a ghost. Several pictures in the slide show featured shadowy “orbs” that are supposedly associated with ghost activity.
Daley teaches history at Silver Lake Regional School System in Kingston, and has a website with more information about haunted New England: www.Daleyhistory.com.