Brent Swancer January 12, 2022
In 1635, a group of about 100 colonists from Wiltshire, England led by a Rev. Thomas Parker and cousin Rev. James Noyes, along with the latter’s brother Nicholas, settled and a place called Newbury Plantation, in Essex County, Massachusetts. It started off as mostly a small and modest settlement, but would expand as the colonists gained more land and new residents came in for the leather tanning, textile, and shipbuilding industries the town was known for. The town would go on to start the nation’s first preparatory school in 1763, and in in 1764, the General Court of Massachusetts would separate the settlement into two towns, with one being Newbury, and making the part on the coast a new town called Newburyport. The new town of Newburyport would become known for being a notorious port for privateering during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, as well as an important stop in the Atlantic slave trade, as well as a prosperous shipping and whaling center. The town got a little fame when it was used as the model for the setting of HP Lovecraft’s 1931 novella The Shadow over Innsmouth, and it sort of earns its creepy credentials because it also just so happens that the area has long had a reputation of being quite haunted.
Newbury and Newburyport had a long tradition of homes being haunted, stretching back to its very founding, and its largely because of talk of such hauntings that the area came to be known as being a den of witches. There were several supposed witches put on trial for practicing black magic related to hauntings in the town. One of these was the trial of a woman named Elizabeth Morse in 1690, whose family home had been besieged by intense paranormal activity from an evidently very angry ghost for years. Objects were flung across rooms, walls, floors and the ceiling were pounded on with great force, and stones and other heavy objects were often thrown by unseen hands at family members and visitors alike. Elizabeth was blamed for the strange disturbances and accused of being a witch, but was eventually acquitted. The blame was then placed on a man named Caleb Powell, but he too was acquitted. It was lucky for the supposed witches who allegedly populated Newbury and Newburyport that none of these trials ever ended in their deaths, but the trials also did not seem to do anything about all of the ghosts.
Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1913
Perhaps one of the more notable hauntings from Newburyport began in September of 1871, when students and teachers at the primary school on Charles Street came to be witness to a peculiar series of events. It began innocuously enough, with loud raps or bangs suddenly intruding upon lessons, and at first the teacher though it was just students playing a prank. It started as just a bit of an annoyance, with these knocks and thuds continuing on even as the angry teacher tried to catch the culprit in the act, but all of the students insisted that they were not the ones doing it, and no one was ever caught doing any of it. These mysterious knocks and bangs would continue on, getting more incessant and coming from the walls, desks, the floor, and even the ceiling, and whereas at first they had been just loud enough to be annoying, now they would ring out with booming volume, enough to drown out the teacher’s voice. On occasion, the raps and knocks would continue in a drumroll-like staccato, on others single, thunderous blasts that would hit with enough force to shake the building itself. Adding to the cacophony was the added addition of an unseen hand vigorously ringing the little bell kept on the teacher’s desk, and the weirdness would only graduate in intensity from there.
After sometime of this noisy ruckus, whatever forces were behind it started moving objects as well. Desks would slide across the floor, things would be knocked off of desks or shelves, jackets were removed from their hooks to fall to the floor, and sometimes items would levitate to float across the room in full view of a room of mesmerized students and their astonished teacher. The heater to the classroom, a little stove in the corner, would also often have its flame extinguished for no discernible reason, or have its lid flung up into the air. The invisible force also took to closing the ventilation hole in the classroom or closing the blinds, as well as locking the doors and opening and closing the windows. This wouldn’t even be the end of the escalating bizarreness. There began to come bouts of rain that would only seem to hit the schoolhouse and nowhere else, as well as sudden gusts of wind that would shake the building while leaving the surroundings undisturbed.
This would happen on otherwise clear days and leave the schoolhouse and its grounds with wind strewn debris everywhere while the area around it was untouched. Sometimes the wind would go tearing through the classroom to form a sort of mini tornado that hurled objects and furniture to be strewn about like a disaster area, before dissipating as suddenly as it had started. Another phenomenon was that the room would sometimes begin glowing with a radiant yellowish light of “a soft and equal radiance,” with no clear source and no explanation. The 1971 book Mysterious New England would say of some of this phenomena:
Surely not the prank of any schoolboy or adult was the phenomenon of the strange light. At times the whole schoolroom was illuminated, while the school was in session, by a strong yellow glow, which on dark days had proceeded from the entry and entered through a partition window. In the midst of storms, when the sky was heavily overcast and the school was almost lost in gloom and obscurity, “a soft and equal radiance” stole over the scene and lighted up the farthest corner of the apartment. This is nothing that can be ignored and treated with brave indifference. Over the faces of the pupils, who had put aside their books because of the darkness, there suddenly began to creep this terrible light. There was no burning focus; the appearance was described as an “illuminated exhalation.” Further, the schoolhouse was often attacked by powerful currents of air that arose, suddenly at times, when the atmosphere was entirely at rest. At times there appeared to arise a great storm outside, as billows of air appeared to rush upon the building and to sweep about it with all the vigor of a tempest. The joists creaked, the eaves moaned, and the chimney became an organ pipe.
These phenomena were witnessed by numerous students, the janitor, and the schoolmistress, Lucy A. Perkins, and it was persistent and scary enough that the school’s janitor would quit, but it would all get even stranger still. There would also sometimes be heard voices that seemed to come from nowhere, as well as a deep and ominous laugh that would occasionally boom forth from the teacher’s desk. After this, students began to be spooked and startled by the appearance of a ghostly pale disembodied hand that would press up against the windows and then vanish, but perhaps scariest of all was the appearance of the apparition of a little boy. One account of this comes from a small booklet published in 1873 called The Haunted School-house At Newburyport, which says of it:
The recitation began, and it had proceeded five minutes when the boy who was at the head of the class, and who was standing beside the southern door which led into the entry, and which was open, suddenly cried out, with a startled voice: – “There’s a boy out there!” Miss Perkins left her place instantly, hurried across the room to the open door, passed through it, and emerged upon the corridor. At the further end of it she indeed beheld an intruder. She addressed some hasty and impatient expression to it, and hastened towards it with the intent of ejecting it from the building. She received no reply. It retreated to the corner opposite the foot of the garret stairs, and there it stood quietly. Miss Perkins approached. It stood facing her, with its arms loosely held together and the left hand partially extended.
Miss Perkins approached within four feet of the apparition, when a realization of its true character rushed upon her. She stopped, overwhelmed with fear, and gazed into its face. The figure was that of a boy of thirteen. The visage was remarkably pale, the eyes were blue, the mouth sad, and the whole effect was that of extreme melancholy. The general picture was that of a child prepared for burial, and prepared, moreover, in a poor and make-shift way. The clothing was brown and somewhat faded and rubbed. The trousers were black, and they seemed to have belonged to a taller person, for they were much wrinkled and creased, and they rested about the feet in such a way that Miss Perkins was almost unable to see the extremities. About his neck was a wide stock-like band, such as is used to keep the lower jaw of deceased persons in their places. His hair was of a yellowish tint, and it was thrown back in some disorder over the head, and was clipped behind in such a way that the neck was left bare. The figure was very slight, and it was easily and even beautifully posed.
There was no excitement or perturbation visible in its behavior. It seemed entirely calm and tranquil. Miss Perkins was able to look through this figure and to perceive the wainscoting and the sash on the other side. It was transparent, yet it was entirely visible. Its outline was perfect, its surfaces retained all their integrity, yet the film was so scant that it seemed that a breath could disperse it. Miss Perkins, transfixed with horror and about to faint, grasped at the wall to support herself. At this instant the figure moved. It passed before the teacher and with its eyes still fixed upon her glided to the garret door, which opened apparently of its own accord. It then began to ascend the stairs.
This apparition would begin to appear regularly, and by this time news of the haunting began to make the rounds. Members of the school committee, police officers, and clergymen all came into investigate and witness the phenomena for themselves, but the official word on the matter was that it was just students pulling some sort of elaborate prank. Indeed, the school committee even brought in three students who were known for being troublemakers, but the boys adamantly denied having anything to do with any of it and there was no evidence. It was also denied by the other students and the schoolmistress, who had experienced enough of the phenomena to know that it could not have been the doing of some mischievous young boys. A boy by the name of Amos Currier would later admit that he was behind it all, but was never able to show how he could have possibly managed to conjure up so many phenomena and pull off such an elaborate hoax. After all, how would a prankster have been able to pull off such a myriad of feats? One report would say of the unlikelihood of this:
It would take a very remarkable schoolboy to be able to make a cool breeze blow through a hot, closed schoolroom, or to diffuse a yellow light over the faces of everyone in the room, including himself. Could a schoolboy cause the walls of a building to shake as if there were an earthquake? Could he produce nausea n himself and his companions, and account for the sound of disagreeable laughter in the garret while he was sitting at his desk in the schoolroom?
In the meantime, spiritualists were coming in holding séances on the property and it was turning into quite the media circus. The haunting would continue on until 1875, when it would all suddenly cease without warning or reason. The schoolhouse would be used for several more years without incident, before being made into a private residence in 1880, with no further reports of the paranormal from the new owners either. One of the strangest aspects of this case is that apparently neither the schoolhouse nor the land it stands on has has any previous history that makes it out to be particularly violent or dark, not a place one would expect to be infused with the restless wraiths born of anguish and pain. Why were these intense, powerful paranormal forces drawn here and what did they want? Was this really even paranormal at all, or merely a prank pulled off by some bored kids? We may never know, and it remains a curious haunting in an undeniably creepy place.