January 17, 2016

Haunted Happenings and Theater People in Kennebunkport

The other day I was at the Boston Athenaeum poking around in the library's folklore and occult collections. These books are kept way, way down in a deep dark windowless basement, which seems appropriate for the subject matter. The basement is brick-floored, low-ceilinged, adjacent to the Old Granary Burying ground, and probably very old.

Many of the Athenaeum's occult books are from the 19th century, and cover topics like spiritualism, astrology, and the local witch trials. Their covers are made from well-worn leather, and their pages are musty with age. Quite a few of them are in German. I haven't found a copy of the Necronomicon yet, but it's probably just sitting somewhere waiting to be shelved.

So, in this very atmospheric situation, the book that strangely caught my attention was Prominent American Ghosts (1967) by Susy Smith. The pages are not musty, and it's a light blue hardback. And let's face it, the name Susy Smith doesn't sound very ominous.

Her name may not be ominous, but a little poking around on the web revealed that Susy Smith (b. 1911, d. 2001) was quite prolific as an occult author. She wrote thirty books, including How to Develop Your ESP (2000), The Enigma of Out of Body Travel (1965), and The Afterlife Codes: Searching for Evidence of the Survival of the Human Soul (2000). Smith was a psychic and channeler, and had her first experience with a ghost when she encountered her deceased mother's spirit. After this encounter she began experimenting with the Ouija board, which led to a lifelong fascination with ghosts and the paranormal.

In short, Smith knew her stuff about ghosts (and may still, if her spirit is hanging around this material plane). To research Prominent American Ghosts, Smith traveled across the country from New Orleans to Hawaii interviewing people who had seen ghosts and visiting haunted locations. Happily for this blog she also visited New England, and wrote about a haunted house in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The house in question is the Gideon Merrill house, which was built in 1754. It remained in the Merrill family for a couple generations before it was sold to undertaker Samuel Lewis in 1830. Lewis only practiced his trade in the house for a short time before moving and selling the property to the Wells family, who owned the property until 1940, when they in turn sold it to Robert Currier, a theatrical producer from New York City who ran the Kennebunkport Playhouse.

Theater people and ghosts apparently go together like peanut butter and jelly. Currier was nonplussed to find an old coffin in the house's basement (perhaps leftover from the days of Samuel Lewis), but he was a little more surprised when guests began to see ghosts in the house. Currier's guests, primarily actors and singers, consistently saw the same two ghosts: a pleasant-looking young woman in Quaker clothing, and a gloomy-looking man dressed like a soldier. Currier and his friends nicknamed the soldier Ned after a book they were reading called Dead Ned; the Quaker woman was nicknamed Nellie. 

Psychically sensitive people who stayed in the house would see Ned and Nellie, but even those who didn't see them experienced strange phenomena. Doors were slammed by invisible hands, footsteps were heard when no one was present, and cold areas chilled guests to the bone. A professional medium named Leslie Tolman (aka Madame Shah) left the house in a panic in the middle of the night and advised Currier to sell it immediately. Dogs barked at unseen presences.

Singer Jane Morgan

The singer Jane Morgan, who had a top ten hit in 1957 with "Fascination" and was Currier's sister, reported that doors would unlock themselves. Morgan was afraid to spend the night alone in the house, and thought that Ned had murdered Nellie when she didn't requite his love.

Most of the phenomena were focused around two parts of the house: the attic, and a bedroom on the second floor. This bedroom was once inhabited by Old Lady Wells, a local herbalist and rumored witch. For the last twenty-four years of her life Old Lady Wells spent most her time confined to this room, leaving only to bring herbs up to the attic to dry. Some guests who slept in this bedroom saw the friendly Quaker ghost, but on one occasion another guest was awoken in the middle of the night when a window shattered. He assumed a rock had been thrown through the window, but nothing was found either inside or outside the building.

Strange noises have been heard in the attic, and cats ran worriedly up and down the stairs that led to that space. One night an actress who had driven up from New York pulled into the driveway of the house. It had not yet been opened for summer and no one was staying there. Then why did she see a flickering light shining out of an attic window? Unnerved, the actress refused to go inside until she found a friend in town to accompany her. They found the doors locked and the house unoccupied. When they went upstairs to the attic they found it empty ... except for a candle stub on the floor.

The Kennebunkport Playhouse burned to the ground in 1971, ending the influx of theater people into town. The Gideon Merrill house is still standing but I didn't find any recent reports of hauntings there. Perhaps the actors and other show business types were easily spooked or enjoyed telling each other scary stories, particularly when they were staying in a historic New England home. Or perhaps people drawn to work in the theater are just more psychically sensitive than the rest of us.

No one ever identified who Ned and Nellie might really be, and the connection with Old Lady Wells is suggestive but vague. Witches tend to hang around as ghosts after they die, but why wasn't the ghost of Old Lady Wells ever seen? The answers to these questions might have to wait until the next actor or actress takes up residence at the Gideon Merrill house.

 I think the Gideon Merrill house is still standing, but I don't know if Ned and Nellie are still wandering through its rooms. We might have to wait for another actor or actress to stay there to get the answer.

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Other than Prominent American Ghosts, my other main source for information was this page on SoMeOldNews.com. It seems to be referencing a newspaper article from the 1960s, which leads me to believe the ghosts haven't bee seen for a while.

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