November 21, 2021

Plymouth, 1734: A Haunted Mansion and A Court Case

It's Thanksgiving week, so here's a spooky story about a haunted mansion from Plymouth, Massachusetts. It's spooky if you believe in ghosts, but it's even spookier if you've ever been a landlord. Read on...

In 1725, a wealthy sea captain named Thompson Phillips married Hannah Cotton, the daughter of Reverend Josiah Cotton of Plymouth. Shortly after their marriage, Phillips built a large mansion in Plymouth for him and his new wife to live in. It was one of the finest homes in town.

Sadly, Thompson Phillips drowned in a storm while sailing to Jamaica. Shortly after remarrying, his widow also died, from smallpox. Ownership of the mansion passed to Reverend Cotton. 

Reverend Cotton lived on a prosperous farm just outside of town and did not really want to own a large empty mansion. He tried to sell the house, but the local economy was in a slump and he could not find a buyer. He decided to rent it out and soon found some tenants. 

Foremost among them was John Clarke. Clarke worked as a joiner, a type of skilled woodworker. He renovated several rooms into workshops, and lived in the mansion with his family and some apprentices. His colleagues Thomas Savery and Samuel Holmes and their families also moved into the mansion, as did a spinster named Ann Palmer. For a while all was good. The tenants lived and worked in the deceased sea captain's mansion, and Reverent Cotton collected rent from them. 

Gwendolen Raverat, Clerk Saunders' Ghost, 1918 woodcut.

The good times didn't last. In January 1733, the tenants began to hear strange noises. Sometimes they sounded like the death moans of a dying person, and at other times like a cane being struck against the walls. The tenants couldn't discern where the noises were coming from. Adding to the weirdness, doors and cabinet drawers would open on their own accord. 

Various people, both inside and outside the house, also reported strange lights. For example, one night Mary Little, who lived near the mansion, saw a strange blue light ("a pale blewish light") in one of the upstairs windows. She watched the light for nearly 30 minutes before it disappeared. The next morning she asked John Clarke's wife if the apprentices had been up in the attic late at night with a candle. Mrs. Clarke looked surprised. No one had been upstairs at all!

News of the strange phenomena began to spread through Plymouth, and soon nearly everyone in town believed the mansion was haunted. Large crowds gathered outside the house at night trying to see the weird blue lights or hear the mysterious groans. 

Reverend Cotton was unhappy about the rumors and believed they were false. Several weeks before the alleged hauntings became public, he had argued with John Clarke. Cotton wanted to move one of his son-in-laws into the mansion and wanted John Savery, Clarke's colleague, to move out. Clarke was infuriated. He shouted that the house was haunted and that he, and all the tenants, would move out. Cotton didn't believe the house was haunted and thought the rumors about ghosts were just a way to get back at him.

By October of 1733, all the tenants had vacated the mansion, claiming they were unable to live with the supernatural phenomena. Reverend Cotton attempted to find new ones, but no one was willing to move in. Many people believed the house was haunted, and those who were skeptical didn't want to deal with the large crowds of gawkers who gathered outside almost nightly.  

Cotton finally took his former tenants to court. They owed him unpaid rent and had broken their lease, but he thought it unlikely he'd be able to get recompense for that in court. Instead, he sued them for slander. The case was heard on March 5, 1734 in the Plymouth County Inferior Court of Common Pleas. Reverend Cotton was ill and could not attend the trial, but his lawyer, John Cushing Jr., grilled the defendants. He argued they had lied about the hauntings to break the lease and prevent Cotton from renting to future tenants. After all, Cushing said, it was the 18th century. How could anyone still believe in ghosts, witches, and demons?

Cushing (and Cotton, who had helped develop their legal strategy), underestimated the jury's belief in the supernatural. The jury believed the house was indeed haunted and also believed Cotton's former tenants were telling the truth. They found them innocent of slander. Cotton appealed the case and brought it to Plymouth Superior Court a month later. Once again a jury found the defendants innocent, and this time also required Cotton to pay their court costs. Clearly, people in Plymouth believed in ghosts.

Reverend Cotton gave up trying to sue the tenants, and eventually he moved into the allegedly haunted mansion with his own family. They lived there for more than five years, and never experienced any strange phenomena. Cotton also wrote an essay decrying superstitious beliefs, but sadly never published it. The building was eventually sold, and still stands on King Street in Plymouth today. As far as I know, no one has reported any ghosts since. 

My source for today's post was Douglas Winiarski's article "'Pale Blewish Lights and A Dead Man's Groan: Tales of the Supernatural from Eighteenth-Century Plymouth,"which appeared in The William and Mary Quarterly, Oct. 1998, Vol. 55, No. 4, p. 497 - 530. 

If you want to read more supernatural tales from the Bay State, I recommend my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, which is available wherever books are sold online. It's a perfect Christmas gift too!