For an old city like Newburyport, ghosts should be as intrinsic to our community as the epitaphs that line our cemeteries. Surprising, these spectral visitors seem to be shrugged off as nuisances as often as not – not to be mentioned except as a matter of fact and hardly something to announce in the local paper! I experienced myself when I was ten, living in a haunted house in Enfield, Connecticut. It was not a pleasant experience and I was so glad when after two years, my family moved away. It now makes for an entertaining story but I assure you, it was not fun when it was happening!
Newburyport has its share of spooky places – Maudslay State Park, Marches Hill, the Old Hill Burying Ground and probably if truth was told, dozens if not hundred of old homes in the City. One ghostly event ended up becoming nationwide news – the story of the haunted schoolhouse on Charles Street. I have noticed that the present homeowners location is still hidden and did not make it onto the historical survey – to this day protecting their privacy from curious onlookers.
Unlike today, where large buildings house students, dozens of school buildings were located in Newburyport in the 18th and 19th century. In fact, one historian counted 124 schools at one time within the city boundaries! This school so close to the water was intended for the poorer children and even in 1870 was in need of some repairs. Discipline was very strict back in those days and what may have triggered this ghosting happened a decade earlier. The school had been the dumping ground of the unwanted, special needs kids of that day and it tended to be overcrowded.
In about 1860, a child had committed some “horrible” act in the school and had been given the appropriate punishment. He was severely beaten and locked in the basement of the building. He was left there the entire day and students were ordered to ignore his cries and moans. When the school day ended he was helped home and died later that night. The teacher, well within his rights as a disciplinarian, suffered no repercussions. It was this single event that began the rumors that the school was haunted but there was no sign of such a thing until the fateful year of 1871.
Spectral happenings were occurring in the school house that was basically the stuff of hollywood special affects. There were ghostly apparitions, solid objects floating through the air and hovering above onlookers’ heads. There were loud knocking sounds and objects flying about the room. Soon, the parents were told of these events by their children, the parents began to talk and in turn the reports of the Charles Street ghost made it into the local newspaper, then into the Boston Media and soon enough, people across the country were reading about the young phantom of Newburport. For a brief time, our City’s name was heard in excited conversations across the nation.
Famous celebrities like Oliver Wendell Holmes came to try to debunk the story. Spiritualists who were BIG back then came to do seances and to excorcise the "spirit" The town established a committee to investigate and try to "debunk" the events. Their findings claimed that it was a hoax but most in the city realized the committee’s report was rigged form the start and no one took the findings seriously.
Just as they suddenly appeared, the apparition and supernatural activities ceased in 1873 as quickly as they started and no one has reported anything in the building since. Over the years, the school was converted to a home and the homeowners have reported no spectral activities either.
Though some have suspected that some of the activities were hoaxes, so many occurrences were seen by multiple witnesses and with no explanation at the time – the floating apparitions, heavy iron stove tops hovering in the air and the banging in desks and on the walls in several different directions at the same time. To this day, there is no real full explanation. The newest theories that are being presented is this could have been T.P. – Telekinetic Poltergeist. Someone present with deep psychological troubles projecting their energy into the walls and floors and moving objects and not even realizing they are causing it.
Tales of the City: Strange doings on Charles Street, By Gil Gillis / Tales of the City, Sat Jul 26, 2008
The Little Haunted Schoolhouse, by Jessica Gill and the Staff of the Newburyport Library,
Mysterious New England, Austin N. Stevens, ed., (Yankee Inc., 1977)
The Haunted School-house at Newburyport, MA, Anonymous, 1873.