September 21, 2023

The Haunted Charlesgate: Ghosts, College Students, and Weird Engimas

Living someplace old and historic, like the Boston area, brings both perils and joys. Among its current perils is the decaying subway system, which has been well-documented elsewhere. To avoid the most hellish parts of the MBTA, lately my commute home from work has involved more walking. Which brings me to one of the joys of living in the Boston area: beautiful old architecture. 

Most nights, I walk through parts of Back Bay on my way home. Among all the beautiful old brownstones and apartment buildings, one in particular stands out: the former Charlesgate Hotel, located at the corner of Beacon Street and Charlesgate East. The hotel was designed by John Pickering Putnam, a prominent local architect, and completed in the 1890s. Putnam apparently loved the building he created, and took up residence there with his own family. 

He died there on February 23, 1917 at the age of sixty. A legend claims it was suicide, but he really died of natural causes. Still, esotericists of a certain bent will notice he died on the 23rd, making his death an example of the 23 enigma, the idea that the number 23 is considered strange, somewhat sinister, and connected to unusual phenomena. So maybe Putnam's death date was a precursor of the weirdness that was to come...

The Charlesgate operated as a hotel until 1947, when it was sold to Boston University as a dorm. In 1981, it was sold to Emerson College, which also used it as a dorm until 1995. It was during those 14 years that the Charlesgate acquired its reputation as one of the most haunted buildings in Boston. Here are a few of the ghostly legends from that time..

The building was said to be haunted by the ghost of Elsa Putnam, John Pickering Putnam's daughter, who died as a little girl when she was playing with a ball on an upper floor. The ball rolled into an open elevator shaft, and Elsa ran after it and fell to her doom. This story is not true - Elsa Putnam lived until the 1970s and had several children of her own - but many Emerson students still reported seeing her ghost. 

Another legend claims that mobsters owned the building in the 1930s and murdered three people in the elevator. The ghosts of these gangland slaying victims were often seen wandering in the dormitory. Emerson students also claimed they saw the restless spirits of young women who had committed suicide in the building back when it housed female Boston University students. 

A phantom "Man in Black" was also seen lurking around the elevator. No one was quite sure who he was, but students were afraid to encounter this black-clad ghost, particularly late at night. 

Even when ghosts were not seen, Emerson students living in the Charlesgate experienced a variety of strange phenomena including unexplained cold spots, toilets flushing by themselves, and doors slamming shut. Some students also claimed the hotel had once been the headquarters for a demonic cult. According to an article in a 1990 issue of Fate magazine:

"Also at one point, a good part of Charlesgate Hall's residents allegedly belonged to a demonic cult. 

When Emerson College bought Charlesgate Hall as a dormitory in 1980, it was not completely filled by students. It was claimed that some members of the cult still lived there, and it was not unusual for students to walk by the open door of a room belonging to a cult member and find a group of them chanting."

Well, college is supposed to expose you to new experiences, isn't it? The same Fate article also claims that Emerson forbid students from using Ouija boards in the Charlesgate - and then goes on to describe a group of them using one to contact spirits in the dorm. I guess college is also about defying authority.

The Charlesgate's ghosts have been written about in many places: The Berkeley Beacon (Emerson's student paper), The Boston Phoenix, Emerson's official newsite, and various books about haunted locations in Boston. The building also appears in Scott Von Doviak's 2018 novel, Charlesgate Confidential, as do some of the ghost stories. The combination of a creepy old hotel, ghosts, and college students makes the Charlesgate an appealing subject for writers.

The Charlesgate is no longer a dormitory, but instead is filled with condos and apartments. I haven't heard of any ghosts appearing in the building since it became condos. Are any ghosts even there now? Maybe the ghosts were chased away during the renovations, or maybe they were conjured up by the Emerson students who lived there. College students tend to like ghost stories, and many local New England colleges are said to have haunted dormitories. 

I mentioned the 23 enigma at the start of this post. Although the concept first appeared in works by William S. Burroughs, it was popularized by the author Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson didn't necessarily believe the 23 enigma was real, but rather that it showed how people have the ability to find patterns in random occurrences. Some people starting seeing the number 23 in all kinds of unexpected places once they learn about the enigma. The number is only meaningful, though, because they think it is significant. They are creating a pattern out of random data.

Perhaps the ghost stories at the Charlesgate are something similar. Students heard rumors the dorm is haunted, and then noticed lights flickering, strange cold spots, and weird noises at night. These all could have perfectly rational explanations - old buildings often have bad fuses, drafty windows, and frisky rodents - but students interpreted them as ghostly phenomena because they had heard the rumors. 

This is, of course, all speculation on my part. The only way for me to know for certain would be to rent an apartment at the Charlesgate and see what happens. A one bedroom starts at $2,400/month, which is more than I have budgeted for ghost-hunting. Or then again, maybe I'm just scared that the legends are true? I don't want to encounter the Man in Black late at night, no matter what he is.