January 02, 2022

Two Phantom Houses Adrift in Time

I was browsing through my library of New England books and came upon two interesting stories. Both are supposedly true, and although they occurred more than 100 years apart they are very similar. They're about phantom houses that seem to travel through time. 

The first story comes from Footsteps in the Attic (2002), a book by paranormal investigator Paul Eno. In the summer of 1975, Eno was vacationing in Vermont when he met two local surveyors, Clement Ridley and Bud Harper. They told Eno about something strange they had seen. 

The previous summer, Ridley and Harper had been hired to survey a farmer's land in Johnson, Vermont. As they looked over the property they noticed an old wooden farmhouse that was not shown on any maps. The house was rundown but there was fresh laundry drying on the clothes line and smoke coming from the chimney. Someone was clearly living there. Oddly, there weren't any cars parked in the yard or any electrical or phone lines. 

The John Balch House, Beverly Massachusetts

Ridley and Harper saw a man in the yard. He carried an axe over one shoulder and wore an old-fashioned wide-brimmed hat. They called out to him, wanting more information on the property, but the man didn't hear or see them. They called out again and walked closer to the house. This time the axe-wielding man seemed to see hear something, but didn't see the surveyors even though they were only fifty feet away. 

Ridley and Harper got a little spooked. Why couldn't the man see or hear them? And should they be concerned he was carrying an axe?They decided to leave the area. 

They returned a few days later to continue surveying the land, but when they arrived they were surprised to find there was no old wooden house. Instead, they just found an overgrown cellar hole. Some of the stones looked blackened, as if they had been scorched in a fire long ago. 

Ridley and Harper were even more spooked than they had been when they encountered the man with the axe. A few days later, they learned from someone at Johnson's town hall that there had once been a house in that location - but it burned down in 1910.

Cue the spooky music.... 

Here's a very similar story, but from the 1840s. Caroline Howard King, a wealthy young woman from Salem, was vacationing in Beverly, Massachusetts with her family when she too encountered a house seemingly adrift in time. 

On a warm summer day King went for a walk in the woods with her cousin Nony and their maid Lucy Anne. People in Beverly called the woods Witches Woods, and said they were haunted. King and her companions didn't think anything strange would happen to them on a sunny afternoon, but they were wrong. 

After walking for only a short while they realized they were lost. It seemed as if the path they had followed into the woods had vanished. They wandered around for what seemed like hours until they finally came upon the ruins of an old farmhouse. King knew this was what the locals called the Homestead, and it was said to be haunted. Very little remained of the farmhouse – just a foundation, a chimney, and a stone stoop. An enormous lilac tree grew next to it. The trio explored the Homestead but there wasn’t much to see.

They soon located a path that climbed up a nearby hill. When they reached the top they could see a farmhouse below them where the ruined Homestead should have been, but this one was not in ruins. It was well-kept and smoke rose from its chimney. A small lilac shrub grew in front of it. As they watched a woman emerged and fed a flock of chickens in the yard from the stone stoop. Lucy Anne ran down to ask the farmwife for directions while King and her cousin waited at the top of the hill. 

Lucy Anne was dejected and confused when she returned. She couldn’t find the cozy little farmhouse anywhere, just the ruined Homestead and “hateful solemn old pine trees.” But now that she was back on the hill she once again could see the well-kept farmhouse with its smoking chimney. It was as if King, Lucy Anne, and Nony were looking backwards in time to a moment in history before the Homestead became a ruin. 

The threesome became even more eager to find their way home after they had this frightening realization. Luckily, they found a dry stream bed and after following it towards the ocean they emerged from the woods near their vacation house.  

Caroline Howard King includes that story in her memoir When I Lived In Salem (1822 - 1866), and I also include it in my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. The similarities to Paul Eno's story are pretty obvious. One difference is that people in Beverly knew there was something weird about the Homestead, but no one in Johnson, Vermont seemed aware of the phantom house in their town. Also, the Homestead can only be seen in its original state from a distance, not up close, unlike the Johnson house.

I'm not really sure what to make of these stories. Neither one provides an explanation of why these houses seem to slip through time (if that's even what's happening). Or are the people who see them looking through some kind of window to the past? It's not clear.

If there's any lesson, it's that the past is not really gone and is here all around us. We live in one of the oldest parts of the US, with a rich history of strange phenomena. Maybe that history sometimes literally shows itself to the lucky few. And who knows, maybe 200 years from now someone will see a phantom McMansion appear along with its ghostly owner on a riding lawnmower. We too will become part of New England's weird and wonderful past. 

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