February 05, 2017

An Old Haunted House in Cambridge

I am one of those people who actually likes winter. Once the grim darkness of early January is gone winter here in New England is actually pretty nice. There is a certain clarity to this time of year. The leaves are down and I can really see the landscape in all its contours. Rocks and boulders that are hidden most of the time are visible now, and its easier to see those hardy birds who haven't flown south.

It's also a good time to do stuff around the house. For some reason, when February comes I always like to make traditional New England recipes. Yesterday I made cranberry bread, and today I'm cooking pumpkin soup. There's just something homey about winter. The nesting impulse from autumn continues into these months, but without the pressure and commercialism of the holidays.

Of course, the spooky vibe from Halloween continues as well. It's still dark and dead outside, and it still seems like a good time for ghost stories. (Really, is any time not good for ghost stories?) Here's one from a friend who for many years lived in the Cooper Frost Austin House, which is the oldest house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Cooper Frost Austin House

The Cooper Frost Austin House was built in 1681 by Samuel Cooper. Cooper and his family were prominent members of Cambridge society, with several of them serving as deacons in the Puritan church or in municipal leadership positions. The house remained in the same family for 250 years (!) until 1913, when it was given to the organization now called Historic New England. The house is open several times a year for tours, and is worth visiting if you enjoy early Colonial architecture.

My friend was one of several resident caretakers who have lived in the house since 1913. When he was moving in, he met with the previous caretaker to see if there were any tips he needed to know. She gave him an overview of the property and the grounds, and explained the multiple rules for living in a historic house. And then she said:

"Oh, and by the way, I think there's a ghost in the house."

"A ghost?" my friend said.

"Yes, a ghost. I've sensed a presence in the house, particularly in the east bedroom upstairs. It feels like a woman, and sometimes it feels like she's watching me when I sleep. But don't worry! I don't think she's malevolent."

And with that she left, and my friend was left alone in the house. Naturally, he had already selected the east bedroom as his new bedroom.

Months went by, and my friend didn't experience anything strange. He slept through the nights without feeling any unusual presences. However, something weird happened one day when he was at the Boston Public Library. He had gone to the library to research the history of the house, and he mentioned to a young man working at the reference desk that he was now living in the Cooper Frost Austin House.

"The Cooper Frost Austin House?" the young librarian said. "Ugh. I've been inside that house and I'll never go back there again."

"Why? What happened?" my friend said.

"I spent the night there one time. Never again! A friend of mine was living there and asked me to house sit while he was out of town. At first everything was fine. It's a great old house and I was happy to have it all to myself, if even just for a weekend."

"That night I went to bed, and fell fast asleep. I was sleeping deeply when I started to have this uneasy feeling. It felt like someone was ... watching me. When I opened my eyes I saw a woman standing at the foot of the bed, staring at me. She had on old-fashioned clothes, and she didn't look happy to see me. I screamed and she vanished into thin air. I sat downstairs wide awake for the rest of the night, and I've never gone back inside that house."

Of course, the librarian said he had been sleeping in the east bedroom when he had seen the ghost.

My friend ended up living there for many years, and said he never saw the ghost, but occasionally people who visited him said they sensed something in the house. Personally I've spent a lot of time in the Cooper Frost Austin House and never saw a ghost.

I did ask my friend who he thought the ghost might be. His only thought was that she might be Susan Austin, who was born in the house and lived there in the 19th century. Susan Austin was apparently very attached to the house.

Why is Susan Austin haunting the house? That is, if there is even a ghost and if she is actually it. There's no good answer to that question. Instead, all we have are some good spooky stories from an old New England house. But sometimes spooky stories are enough, particularly on a cold winter day.


KeySanford said...

This comment is for a class assignment. You can ignore it.

I grew up in the Midwest, but I've always loved folklore and ghost stories so New England has always held a kind of allure being the place where you can find some of the oldest houses and towns in the country.

I'm partial to the Western parts of the U.S. when it comes to untouched wilderness, but if if I ever do a haunted house tour of the country I'll go to New England first.

Is there a way to research why Sarah Austin might be haunting the house? That's what I would try. I get the appeal of having a good story just be a good story but I'd still be curious if there was some background to the house or the family's history that would make a haunting now seem possible.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment, KeySanford! I don't know much more about Susan Austin. I don't think she died a violent death, but maybe she died in the house? My guess is that perhaps she is just really attached to her home. It must be hard to leave someplace that your family owned for 200 years.

I hope you get to explore some of old New England houses soon!