[NH] Portsmouth – Ghosts of South Street Cemetery

Many ghost hunters know a few haunted locations that consistently provide ghostly phenomena.

One of the largest and most haunted cemeteries in Portsmouth, NH fits that description.

South Street cemetery isn’t the official name of the location, but it’s what most people call it.  This lovely, slightly eerie cemetery is at the intersection of South Street and Sagamore Avenue, not far from downtown Portsmouth, NH.

Until recently, I hadn’t researched the cemetery very much.  I simply knew the “hot spots” where we usually photograph ghostly anomalies, and where ghost hunters’ dowsing rods detect the strongest paranormal energy.

THE CEMETERY’S ‘HOT SPOTS’

We always visit the graves just outside the cemetery walls.  Several headstones have been stolen from those sites since my previous visit.  That’s so sad.  However, the raised mounds remain, and they tend to be very good for ghostly phenomena including elevated EMF levels, apparitions and the murmuring sounds of nearby ghosts.

Note: If you visit graves at the wooded perimeter of South Street cemetery, especially at dusk, be sure to go with a group.  Though the police have done a good job of patrolling the area, the woods were sometimes a temporary shelter for homeless people in past years.

Women should be especially cautious near the woods and at the graves just outside the cemetery walls.  There seems to be an unpleasant male entity (ghost) there.

We also pause at one of the crypts, at a couple of locations that students usually describe as “eerie” or “creepy”, and at the smaller entrance on the far side of the cemetery.

The actual history of the cemetery has provided some good reasons why its apparent ghostly “hot spots” are so hot.

For example, our ghost hunting classes generally meet at the main entrance to the cemetery.  It’s near one of the highest points on the north side of the cemetery.  We almost always sense something odd — but also sacred — when we start our ghost investigations there.

Research reveals that the elevated spot is where a gallows stood in the 1700s… a site with some lurid history.

The earliest gallows was a “hanging tree” where two early executions included Penelope Henry and Sarah Simpson, “turned off the back of a cart” in 1739.  (That expression meant that — after standing on a cart positioned beneath the gallows — the cart pulled away, leaving them hanging.)

From my experience, most sites of “hanging trees” tend to be haunted.  People report paranormal activity at or near (within a half block) of the site.

THE UNJUST DEATH OF RUTH BLAY

One of the most gruesome stories is the hanging of Ruth Blay, a 25-year-old schoolteacher.  She was convicted of concealing the death of a newborn, later found to be stillborn.

According to the charges, Ms. Blay had buried the infant beneath loose floorboards in her schoolroom.  The corpse — wrapped in a cloak — was discovered by 5-year-old Betsey Pettengill and some of her friends.

Ruth Blay was immediately “apprehended” by a man named Isaac Brown, who was paid ten pounds (approximately $2000 in 2008 dollars) for his services.

The young schoolteacher’s trial was rushed, and the sentence was harsh, but the people of Portsmouth defended the popular schoolteacher.  Numerous briefs were filed with the British court, requesting a reprieve for Ms. Blay.

Just one chance remained for her pardon on December 30st, 1768, the day that her execution was scheduled, but the sheriff decided not to wait.  In fact, he changed the time of her hanging to an hour earlier than planned, so he wouldn’t be late for dinner that evening.

It was not a popular move.  An angry mob gathered near the gallows.

Likewise, Ruth Blay did not go quietly to her death.  (Note: When I see this in a history, it’s another good reason to look for a ghost.)

According to the legends recorded by journalist C. W. Brewster in the mid-1800s…

“…as Ruth was carried through the streets, her shrieks filled the air. She was dressed in silk, and was driven under the gallows in a cart.”

The crowd shouted angrily as High Sheriff Thomas Packer hastily positioned the cart beneath the gallows.  He looped the noose around Ruth’s neck and then — with a brusque command to the horses — drove the cart away, leaving the young woman’s body swinging from the rope.  Sheriff Packer did not stop to look back.  Instead, he drove the cart to arrive home in time for his meal.  He was apparently unaware that — as he drove away — a rider had arrived at the gallows with an urgent letter.

A stay of execution had been issued by the Royal Governor of New Hampshire, but it arrived minutes after Ms. Blay’s death.  If Packer hadn’t changed the execution hour, Ruth Blay would have lived.

Outraged, a mob marched to the sheriff’s house.  There, they hung an effigy of Packer, and placed beneath it a sign that said,

“Am I to lose my dinner
This woman for to hang?
Come draw away the cart, my boys-
Don’t stop to say amen.”

Then, the crowd carried the effigy through the streets to be sure that every citizen knew of Packer’s cruelty, and finally — according to some versions of the story — burned the effigy in front of his home.

Ruth Blay was buried in an unmarked grave about 300 feet north of the small pond near the middle of South Street cemetery.  That’s the location where we usually record the greatest number of ghostly anomalies in our photos.  It’s also where people first notice that their cameras aren’t working correctly.

(Those cameras are usually fine after people leave the cemetery.  This kind of problem is normal in profoundly haunted settings.)

According to legend, two gravestones glow with spectral light, near Ms. Blay’s burial spot.  We’ve noticed quite a few glowing stones in that vicinity, and they drew comments during our class on Saturday, 13 Sep 2008.

Ruth Blay’s ghost may haunt the site of her death and burial.  Her spirit — and perhaps the baby’s — has also been reported at the site of the schoolhouse, around 94 Main Avenue in south Hampton, NH.

Note: According to state records, Sheriff Packer was responsible for executing the only three women ever hung in New Hampshire.

Similar to Ruth Blay, the other two women — hung on December 27, 1739 (almost exactly 29 years before Ms. Blay’s death) — were convicted of “feloniously concealing the death of infant bastard child.”

The house where the sheriff lived (and ate his dinners on time) was at the northeast corner of State and Court Streets in Portsmouth.  His house became Col. Brewster’s Tavern, which George Washington stayed at for four nights.

In 1813, the house burned to the ground and was replaced by the Treadwell Jenness House, built in 1818.  According to some, that location is haunted.

Sheriff Packer was still in office on June 22nd, 1771, when he died.   Some claim that he was buried in — and haunts — Portsmouth’s North Cemetery.  It’s possible that he does.  However, the North Cemetery gravestone of Thomas Packer (d. 1793) is for one the sheriff’s two sons.

Ruth Blay isn’t the only spirit with a good reason to haunt South Street cemetery.  Two famous murder victims are also interred at the cemetery.

SMUTTYNOSE MURDER VICTIMS

Orb at South Street Cemetery

On the night of March 6th, 1873, Norwegian immigrants Karen and Anethe Christensen were murdered on Smuttynose Island in the Isles of Shoals.  Both women were strangled, and one had been assaulted with an ax.  A third woman had been attacked with them, and she identified the murderer as a German immigrant, Louis Wagner.

According to trial evidence, Wagner had rowed out to the island, committed his evil deeds, and then rowed back to the mainland.  He was captured in Boston, but until his hanging in 1875, Wagner maintained that he was innocent.

Since then, many people have speculated about what really happened on the night of the murder.  One of the most famous stories supporting Wagner’s innocence is the best-selling novel, The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve.

Though Wagner was buried in Maine, the graves of the murder victims are in the Harmony Grove section of South Street cemetery.

We haven’t investigated their graves yet, but recommend them to other ghost hunters in the Portsmouth area.  When questions linger after a murder, we often find reports of paranormal activity around the graves.

HISTORY OF PORTSMOUTH’S SOUTH STREET CEMETERY

South Street cemetery is actually at least five cemeteries: Cotton Burial Ground (1671), Elmwood Cemetery, Proprietors’ Burial Ground (1831), and Harmony Grove (1847), and Sagamore Cemetery (1871).

The first record for Cotton Burial Ground appeared in June 1671:

“It was agreed with Goodman William Cotton to fence the town’s land that lyeth by Goodman Skates, for a trayning place, to cutt down all the trees and bushes and to clear the same from said ground by the first of April next, and for his soe doeing he and his heirs shall have the above feeding and use thereof as a pasture only, for twenty years–and the said land shall still remayne for a trayning field and to bury dead in.”

(The military training field may explain why Sean, one September 2008 student, saw ghostly soldiers marching at the eastern end of the cemetery.)

In the 1850s, after a fire at South Street church, several graves were moved to Proprietors’ Burial Ground, including the 1761 graves of Samuel and Margaret Haven, children of Rev. Samuel Haven.

(When any grave is moved, we quite often note odd, sometimes ghostly energy around the body’s new location.)

In addition, the Cutts-Penhallow family cemetery was moved in 1875 from Green Street to a grove of trees near the center of the South Street property.   Many visitors to the South Street cemetery comment on this peculiar, dark section of the cemetery.  We’re not sure if it’s haunted, but it’s certainly creepy at dusk.

SUMMARY

Portsmouth’s South Street cemetery is an ideal location for ghost hunting.  It offers a wide range of paranormal phenomena in a convenient seacoast location about 10 minutes from US 95.

According to the sign at the main entrance, the cemetery closes at 6:30 p.m.

The police patrol the area regularly.  During one of our September 2008 classes, we were stopped by the police.  We explained that we were there to take photos.  One student’s backpack was inspected, before we could continue the class.  (It was only 5 p.m., so I’m not sure why we drew attention.)

However, the cemetery is a popular park for bicyclists, joggers, people walking their dogs, and ghost enthusiasts.  We recommend it for research; the stories in this article barely scratch the surface of the tales that could suggest ghosts.

Wear shoes suited to walking; the cemetery is huge.  Also bring bug spray and a spare camera.  Most of us had camera problems at some point during the evening, and a backup camera was useful.

If you’re hoping to take some good “ghost photos” or encounter other ghostly phenomena, visit Portsmouth’s South Street cemetery.

In addition, if you park in the small lot at Little Harbor Road, be sure to notice the energy as you enter the cemetery. (It’s a slightly wooded entry, sometimes overgrown with vines and branches. Many ghost hunters comment on unique phenomena there.)

References

Among Old New England Inns, by Mary Caroline Crawford, p. 303

Brewster’s Rambles #59, SeacoastNH.com

Haunted Portsmouth, by Roxie J. Zwicker

An Old Town by the Sea, by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Portsmouth Cemeteries, by Glenn A. Knobloc, p. 73

Provincial and State Papers of New Hampshire, p. 206

Re: More info on Ruth Blay, by samanthabalsavage1

Smuttynose 101 – A Quick Murder Study, SeacoastNH.com

The Tragic Story of Ruth Blay, SeacoastNH.com

Washington’s walk about city put a stir in the crowd, by Amie Plummer, Fosters.com

[NH] Wentworth by the Sea – Ghosts Revisited

On the northeast side of Portsmouth, at New Castle, a grand Victorian hotel overlooks sailboats, fishing boats and yachts.

For generations, the Wentworth Hotel, also called Wentworth-by-the-Sea, was a summer destination for wealthy families.

Built in 1874, this hotel was synonymous with ‘opulence’ through the 1960s. However, times changed and — by the late 1970s — the next generation showed less interest in their parents’ vacation choices.

As a guest during the waning days of the Wentworth’s popularity, I encountered some of the hotel’s ghosts.

At that point, the fourth floor was dusty and abandoned. It had once housed servants who’d arrived with families staying at the hotel.

By the late 1960s, the fourth floor was strictly off-limits to small children… which was exactly why I went there. I’d sneak off when my parents were busy with golf lessons, formal afternoon tea, or swimming laps at one of the hotel’s pools.

My first trip to the fourth floor wasn’t an idle visit. I’d seen a woman in a long dark dress, and a white apron and cap, dash up a narrow staircase from the third to the fourth floor. After waiting until she was near the top of the dusty stairs, I followed her.

At the top of the stairs, she’d vanished. I thought she’d slipped into one of the tiny servants’ rooms on that floor, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. I roamed from one room to the next, noting torn floral wallpaper, rickety wooden chairs and sagging cots.

Eventually, I realized that the only footprints in the dusty hallway were mine.

That was the first of many encounters with the ghosts on the fourth floor and the turrets of the Wentworth Hotel.

In February 2008, I returned to the Wentworth. I was taking pictures and double-checking my stories for Weird Encounters, the sequel to the book, Weird Hauntings. (As I did in Weird Hauntings, I’ve described some of my favorite first-person tales of real ghosts.)

Because I’d spent so many childhood summers at the Wentworth, I had no trouble finding my way back to the fourth floor. Since the Wentworth became a Marriott Hotel in 2003, they’re not dusty little rooms any more; the fourth floor is as opulent as the rest of the resort.

In February 2008, entering the front door of the Wentworth hotel was like returning home. It took me a minute to get my bearings since the entry had been remodeled, but I soon remembered the floor plan and found my way to the elevators.

On the fourth floor, I could feel that familiar, homely ‘ghost feeling’, especially at the staircase landings near the hallway ends. Twice, I saw figures appear and vanish, but perhaps that’s because I expected them. One was a man dressed in black tie formal attire… or he may have been a butler or valet.

The other figure seemed female, but I didn’t see more than a filmy outline that disappeared in a split second.

In addition, it may have been coincidence that the door to one of the most haunted rooms was unlocked and unoccupied during my visit. To me, that suite of rooms feels happily haunted, perhaps by a man of the sea. He’s a loner, and not likely to bother anyone who won’t welcome his presence. I had the idea that he was pleased that I remembered him, and left the door open.

I didn’t see anything, but I smelled the faint aroma of good pipe tobacco.

My visit was brief, but I’ll be back at the Wentworth when the weather is warmer. On this short tour, I was able to confirm that the ghosts are still there. There’s something very comforting about that.

[NH] Portsmouth – Real ghosts, private home – pt 2

[Part two of a true story that began at Portsmouth, NH – real ghosts, private home]

Often after this, I heard louder footsteps on the stairs to the second floor and upstairs, usually at dusk and for about thirty seconds at a time. I ignored them. Old houses make funny noises, I reminded myself.

It’s important to understand that I really wanted my own house after several years in rentals. Further, this house seemed such a great opportunity to buy a house at well below market value, I wanted it to work out. Also, I’d lived in a very haunted house in Northern California (which was later the subject of a Fate magazine article). I figured that it was highly unlikely that I’d ever live in a second haunted house.

When I couldn’t explain an odd event in the Portsmouth house, I ignored it.

But small incidents kept occurring.

FILE BOXES REARRANGED THEMSELVES OVERNIGHT

I kept heavy file boxes of papers and reference books near my work area in the dining room, and some mornings I’d find them rearranged.

I asked my family if anyone had been searching for something in my boxes, and they all said no. I wanted to believe them, but I also wanted the simple explanation that someone had been looking for something, and just didn’t want to admit it.

One morning, I found the white ceramic hippo that I kept on the center of the dining table, in one of my file boxes at the bottom of a stack. Annoyed, I brought him out of the box and replaced him on the table. That did not happen again.

The heavy, paper-filled boxes continued to rearrange themselves overnight, about once every ten days. I never heard this happening, though my bedroom was immediately above the area where the boxes were stored, and without carpeting, sounds traveled easily throughout the house.

A WARNING – THE SMELL OF SMOKE

A few weeks after the hippo incident, in the late afternoon, I started smelling smoke in the dining room, at the corner above the basement electrical box. I rushed to the basement, but the odor was not there. I went outside to see if a neighbor was burning leaves, or if a nearby chimney could account for the odor. The air was crisp and fresh outside.

In a panic, I had my husband check the box and our wiring as soon as he came home from work. He said some of it was old, but nothing looked particularly dangerous or in need of immediate replacement. Nevertheless, he did a little work on the wiring to the dining room, to put my mind at rest.

Soon after this, I paid to have an energy audit of our house, to lower our utility bills. The representative of the power company checked the wiring and said it was fine. He used a couple of devices to check for drafts in the dining room, and found that the area was tight so I probably was not smelling smoke from outside.

I was baffled, and these “little things” were starting to snowball. There were no single, frightening events at this point, but I began to have doubts about remaining in that house with my family. Something seemed not right, though I couldn’t say that a flying spatula, creaking floorboards, or shifting boxes were particularly frightening.

ANOTHER WARNING – DREAMS ABOUT A FIRE

Then I started dreaming about a fire. In my dream, could see the flames reflected in the rear window of the dining room. Sometimes I saw flames in the corner of the room. Generally, it was just heavy smoke and the reflected flames in the window. I don’t usually smell things in my dreams, but this was such a vivid nightmare, the acrid odor remained in my nose even after I woke up.

I mentioned this to my husband, who’s lived with me long enough to know that many of my dreams are prophetic. He looked anxious, but reminded me that there was no logical reason for a fire, and nothing we could do. We had a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, and he re-checked the electrical box and wiring, just in case.

The dreams persisted, as did the daytime smell of smoke from time to time. I started moving our belongings into a storage facility on the other side of town. This seemed silly since our huge attic was less than one-third full, and we also had a basement suitable for storage.

GHOSTS IN THE KITCHEN

I had located my writing area in the far corner of the dining room, where I could look out the window into our backyard, and also see the kitchen over my shoulder.

One early evening as I sat working, I saw something white pass through the kitchen. I looked straight at it, just in time to see (what I thought was) the back of a white shirt go past the doorway.

I thought it was my older daughter, and shouted to ask her if she had a new tee-shirt.

There was no answer. Then I noticed that she hadn’t turned the light on in the kitchen, and the afternoon light was fading fast. If she was cutting carrot sticks or another snack, I was ready to lecture her on safety.

I stood up to see what she was doing in the kitchen, but no one was there.

What had I seen that looked like someone in white, moving quickly past the doorway? I checked for a reflection from the yard next door, but the blinds at that side of the kitchen were closed. The window to the back was covered by a nice large ficus tree on the lower half. Light streamed in the top of the window, but only a foil balloon could reach high enough to reflect that kind of light,there. I returned to my desk, baffled.

Deciding that I’d been working too long and my eyes were tired, I left my desk and went out to the kitchen to start dinner. Everything seemed normal for the rest of the day.

However, over the next several months, I saw the “woman in white” more often. Many times, I was looking straight at her, and saw the filmy white shape of a woman in a long gown, float peacefully past through the kitchen. She was always going from the front hall towards the back door.

Less often I saw a man, mostly in brown clothing but still translucent as the woman was. He was sometimes on the stairs to the second floor, but usually followed the same path as the woman: From the front hall, through the kitchen, and vanishing towards the back door. Once, I thought I saw him at the window of the attic, but that may have been an odd reflection.

I still told no one about what I was seeing. I didn’t want to scare my children, and my husband was probably more afraid of ghosts than they might be.

THE GHOSTS APPEAR TO OTHERS

Finally, my older daughter announced firmly, “Mom, I saw a ghost in the kitchen.”

We exchanged stories and she had seen the same woman as I had: A filmy white shape in the kitchen, usually floating through the room.

I was relieved that someone else had seen her. But I was also concerned that my children were being affected by the energy–and perhaps spirits–in the house.

Next, more dramatic events lead to a decision.

[NH] Portsmouth – Real Ghosts, Private Home – Other Notes

(Additional notes from a story that started on Portsmouth, NH – real ghosts, private home.)

Haunted house in Portsmouth NH

Author’s comment: My ex-husband wrote this before reading my notes about what happened.

“One night, at about 3AM I clearly heard someone coming up the stairs to the bedrooms. We lived in one of those old Cape Cod type houses, built around the turn of the century. The stairs had no carpet on them and the hallway was quite bare with excellent acoustics. I called out, ‘Hello?’ wondering if it was a burglar or other intruder.

“We had only lived in the house for less than a year. The previous owner had myriad tenants who rented rooms. There was a distinct possibility that one of these ex-tenants came back from a night of drinking or drugs and had mistaken our home for theirs.

“I could tell that the person on the stairs had stopped right at the top step or the one right below it. I turned on my light, got out of bed, and looked at the top of the stairs and no one was there.

“There was no possibility of someone running down the stairs before I got there. There was no place to hide. There was no possibility of there being someone making the noise outside of the house. The footfalls were definitely on the stairs. I remember hearing that slight crunch of that stuff between your shoes and the treads of the stairs. Someone had definitely been walking up the stairs. But no one was there.”

Is this a real haunted house? Those who lived there in the early 1990s would say that it is. We have tried to conceal the actual location of this private home and ask those who recognize it not to bother its current residents. They have enough problems, if the house is still haunted.

[2016 update: The current residents say that they’re not troubled by any ghosts at the house. But, if a ghost did show up, they’d be fine with any benign spirit.]

[NH] Portsmouth – real ghosts, private home – pt 4

This concludes a true story that began at Portsmouth – real ghosts, private home

OUR LAST NIGHT IN THIS HAUNTED HOUSE

Our last night in the house, the footsteps returned, louder than ever. It was late in June, and about three o’clock in the morning. I remember hearing the footsteps, pounding up the varnished pine stairs as my family slept. Hard, leather-soled shoes.

For some reason, I thought that I was the only one who heard them.

Then the noise woke up my husband, and he leaped from the bed and turned on the lights. He shouted into the hall, and the steps paused.

My husband returned to bed, but sat up, prepared to go out to see who it was if the noise resumed.

It did. The footsteps suddenly continued, like someone was now running up the final few steps to the second floor where we slept.

Then the noise stopped, as if the person waited one or two steps from the top. My husband and I both went out to the stairway, turned on the lights, and saw nothing unusual. After checking the locks on the front and back doors, we left the lights on and nervously returned to bed.

Adrenaline pumping, I checked the stairs and hallway many times that night, but it remained silent. Something felt malicious to me, but that was probably my imagination after too little sleep, and the accumulated stress.

We moved out the next day. (My now ex-husband’s independent summary of the footsteps that night, are on the …Other notes page.)

THE FIRE WARNING WAS REAL

The night after we moved out, a huge Victorian house in back of ours burned to the ground. The distance between that house and ours was about 100 yards, at the most.

Our house would have been filled with smoke. The fire would have been seen from the window where — in my dreams — I’d seen fire reflected.

We were miles away, sleeping peacefully under the stars on the first night of a well-deserved camping vacation. When I saw the newspaper the next day, I was both stunned and relieved.

Someone else lives in “our” house now. It’s been fixed up, and the neighborhood may be improving after all. Perhaps we made a poor financial decision, but I don’t regret leaving that house after all we witnessed there.

1999 UPDATE

I took photos of the house on Sunday morning, Oct. 17th, but I felt as if someone was watching me from the house. Perhaps someone was; it’s certainly odd for a woman to stand in front of your house with two cameras, taking pictures. Nevertheless, when I picked up the prints, something about one photo nagged at me. It didn’t look right. One of the windows had a reflection that didn’t seem right to me.

Below, I scanned the section exactly as it appeared in the print, and an enlargement of it on the right. To me, it’s the man’s face, looking to the right, with an indented scar beneath his right cheekbone. He’s wearing round, dark sunglasses from either the 19th century or the hippie era. He has long-ish, light colored hair, and he’s slightly balding at the top.

From a 19th-century Portsmouth city directory, I know that the first inhabitants of the house were probably a man from England, his brother, and his son. All of them worked with leather, making shoes at a local factory, I think.

He’s the man in brown that I’d seen in the house. I’m certain of it.

Ghostly man in wondow of Portsmouth house. Close-up of ghostly face in window.

But, maybe I’m just jumping at shadows, and perhaps you see something different in the image… even just the reflection of the lilac bush in front of it.

You can read more about this photo, and see a sketch of the man, at Portsmouth – portrait of a real ghost