Haunting Tales – New Canaan Darien and Rowayton Magazine

An Excerpt from…




October, 2007

By Beth Duff

Reprinted with permission.

No doubt about it, ’tis the season for ghosts, goblins and creatures that go bump in the night — and for good reason. The summer-to-fall transition that is triggered by the autumnal equinox in late September and stretches beyond Halloween is considered ripe for psychic phenomenon, a period when the veil between the here and now and the hereafter is gossamer thin. As Wiccans chant during their Samhain festival marking the end of the harvest in late November:

“Between the heavens and the earth
The way now opens to bring forth
The Hosts of those who went on before;
Hail! We see them now come through the Open Door.”

But what about those of us with a less esoteric interest in the spirits beyond the “Open Door”, those for whom a great ghost story or two around a campfire will suffice? Well, there’s plenty out there for us, too, and oftentimes closer to home than you might imagine.

Case in point: the popular Real Rowayton Ghost Stories program, brainchild of the Rowayton Historical Society, held biannually on the Sunday closest to Halloween. “It’s always a sell-out crowd,” says RHS President Wendell Livingston, who notes that the stories, told by people who’ve experienced them first-hand, add a new dimension to learning about local history.

The evening, complete with mood-setting candlelight and eerie sound effects, attracts the curious and the mysterious. “One year a visitor in a black cape and mask walked slowly down the Pinkney driveway at dusk, stood briefly in the doorway and then wandered away without ever speaking a word,” Wendell recalls. “To this day, we have no idea who the person was.”

Luckily for those of us who enjoy such things, Connecticut is particularly fertile ground for ghosts.

“All you have to do is start looking, and you’ll find people with stories and experiences, and houses in neighborhoods that have been known to have these kinds of occurrences all along,” says Donna Kent, president of the Ansonia-based Cosmic Society of Paranormal Investigation and a self-described psychic reader/spiritual counselor/ghost hunter.

As her fiancé and fellow devotee of the paranormal, Brian Jones, puts it, “It’s a numbers game. The more history you have, the more people who’ve been around, the more ghosts you’re likely to have.”

Think of ghosts as earthbound spirits that were once human, a subset of the larger spirit world encompassing angels, demons and other elemental types of creatures.

“Their physical body has died, yet their soul remains earthbound, usually because of some emotional attachment that has not been resolved on their end,” Donna explains. “They contact us by reading our auras, or the energy around our bodies, and they can sense who’s attuned or psychically more active.”

Although ghost stories date back to ancient times and pop up in the mythologies of most cultures, the field isn’t without its controversies. And yet, two separate surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization and the Harris Poll in 2005 revealed that 32 and 40 percent of Americans, respectively, accept the existence of ghosts, while a whopping three-quarters of the respondents said they believed in some form of the paranormal, including clairvoyance and communicating with the dead.

Firmly entrenched among them is Lorraine Warren, a Fairfield County native who, along with her late husband, Ed, founded the New England Society of Psychic Research in 1952. Together, the couple investigated thousands of hauntings and paranormal phenomena worldwide. They were two of only a handful of investigators allowed into the infamous Amityville Horror home on Long Island.

For Lorraine, it isn’t a case of believing in ghosts; it’s a case of evidence. “We never go into a case saying, ‘This is a ghost, or something inhuman, or a poltergeist,’” she insists, preferring to do her own extensive research before coming to a conclusion.

Like Donna, Lorraine speaks in terms of auras, the supernatural glow we each generate. “It depicts the person that we really are: our emotions, our health, our spiritual well-being. That is what the spirit sees,” she says, warning that negative auras attract negative spirits. “There are many things that cause things of this nature to escalate, including hatred and anger, and they attract other things that go into the inhuman or the diabolical.”

Some of the ghost stories of Connecticut fall into that darker end of the realm, including the tale of the infamous lost village of Dudleytown, near Cornwall in Litchfield County. Settled in 1738, it was a town in name only, with no shops, schools or churches — not even a cemetery — and a peak population of only twenty-six families.

But its residents were reportedly plagued by scores of ghosts and demons, not to mention a curse purportedly carried to the New World from England by the Dudley family that culminated in a string of odd accidents, suicides and insanity. Now deserted and closed to the public by its owners, the ominously named Dark Forest Entry Association, its secrets lie buried among the abandoned foundations of buildings that once dotted the woodlands.

Most ghost stories, however, are more innocuous in nature, like the one involving the Seeley-Dibble-Pinkney House on the Five Mile River in Rowayton. Now home to the Rowayton Historical Society, the structure was sold to the Sixth Taxing District in 1966 by its last owner, Mrs. William Pinkney Jr.

In a letter unearthed by Rowayton history buff Lynn Friedman, Mrs. Pinkney gives a firsthand account of generations of family members and others who lived there. “We only had one ghost, though,” she reveals. “It goes up the oldest stairs occasionally like a weary old woman, pauses a moment, then comes down again. You’d be surprised how lifelike it sounds! We don’t know what does it (some contraction-expansion habit of the old boards, I suppose) but we like to call it THE GHOST. All of us have been scared to death the first time we heard it; now we consider it part of the family.” She adds that a faint yet distinct scent of roses marked the ghost’s visits.

Speculation as to its identity has ranged from the daughter of a previous owner to Emily Seeley, who was born in the house and later died in childbirth. But Lynn has her own theory, and it involves William Whiting of Darien, whose two older sisters had married into the prominent Raymond family.

Whiting built the house at 177 Rowayton Avenue in 1814, around the same time he acquired Tavern Island and the store housed in the Rowayton Market building. Within six years, however, he found himself overextended financially, with several wealthy acquaintances holding mortgages on his various properties.

Lynn, who has pored over Whiting’s deed records, theorizes that he was struggling under a great burden. “The worries that he must have felt as he tried to run his business, while the debts kept piling up,” she writes. “How did he feel, knowing that his sisters and their husbands were watching him fail?”

Whiting came to a tragic end. His body was discovered near the mouth of the harbor in early January 1820, not far from his deserted boat. It appeared that he had died while trying to make his way back home during a severe storm that had hit two days earlier. “From the mangled state in which he was found,” reported the Norwalk Gazette of the day, “it is supposed he must have crawled a considerable distance on his hands and knees before his strength failed him.”

Could the “weary old woman” of Pinkney House actually be William Whiting? Yes, says Donna Kent, who notes that the
spirits of people who die suddenly are often confused. “They get frustrated if they don’t realize they are dead and they’re in the home with you,” she explains. “They don’t understand why no one is paying attention to them, no one’s listening to them. You have to convince them that they are dead.” The noises and odors, she adds, are their way of saying, “I am here.”

Lorraine Warren agrees, saying, “Tragedy creates the ghost syndrome. When people are not at peace because of a tragedy, they tend to remain, or they are obsessed with their earthly possessions and they don’t want to leave.”

Elsewhere in Rowayton, tales of spirit sightings on Wilson Point have been linked to the area’s first inhabitants, the Naramake Indians, a Mohican tribe that settled there around 1675. Several burial grounds were discovered during the 1920s, including two bodies that were unearthed in the banks of glacial drift near the intersection of Woodland and Valley Roads. The remains of three more Indians were found when workmen inadvertently dug into their graves while sinking a tank. Two were reburied on the property, while the third, believed to be the chief of the tribe, was left in place. He lies in his original grave, encased in a sphere of oyster shells, his head raised and pointing eastward, as was the Mohican custom.

In recent years there has been at least one report of two spirits, possibly a mother and child, standing on the hillside behind the house in question. Folklore holds that once their graves are disturbed, spirits are destined to an afterlife of restless wandering in what has become for them a not-so-happy hunting (or haunting?) ground.

Another local tale originates in one of the many Raymond houses in town. Numerous family members have called 128 Rowayton Avenue home since it was built in 1892, including at least one spirit with a predilection for the third floor.

Current resident Bobbie Raymond Murray reports that episodes begin with ascending footsteps, followed by the sound of an occupied rocking chair. Although this usually happens during the day, Bobbie reports that her sons would be frightened enough that they refused to venture into the attic. Several Raymonds were known to have died in the house, and the Murrays reportedly comforted their children with the thought that the ghost was presumably family and therefore unlikely to hurt anyone.
There’s at least one more ghost with a third-floor connection, residing at 263 Oenoke Ridge in New Canaan. Longtime homeowner Melanie Barnard says she’s never seen the spirit, but she does hear from her occasionally.

“Her name was Elizabeth and she was a young girl who died of consumption in the house,” she relates. “Her bedroom was up on the third floor, and every now and again we would hear rattlings, or things would appear in different places in the morning. But she never did anything malicious, never scared anybody.”

That is, until the Barnards launched a renovation up there and the workmen overstayed their welcome. The first indication of Elizabeth’s discontent came after they installed sliding doors in two closets.

“The next morning when the workmen went up, both sets of doors had fallen down,” recalls Melanie, who swears that she didn’t hear any related noise during the night.

That same day one of the workmen left his tool belt upstairs. When he went back for it a few minutes later, it was gone. He asked his coworkers, and Melanie helped him search, but to no avail.

“I had told them about the ghost and the closets and they were a little spooked by that, so I said jokingly that probably the ghost had taken the tool belt,” she recalls. “An hour or so went by and I heard one of the workmen say, ‘We’ll go downstairs for a
while and see what happens.’ They came back about a half hour later, went upstairs, and the tool belt was there in plain sight.”

A little research at the New Canaan Historical Society reveals that Aaron Comstock, a Revolutionary War veteran who was present at the burnings of Norwalk and Fairfield and the Battle of Ridgefield, built the 250-year-old wood-frame house. The Comstock family was wealthy and is well documented, with more than 200 original documents on file. There are at least three Elizabeth Comstocks listed, including Aaron’s niece, a daughter of his older brother Moses. She was born in 1783, but she is the only one of his six children for whom there is no date of death listed.

Could her spirit still inhabit the Barnards’ house? Is there really a ghost there at all, or can it all be explained away by overactive imaginations or playful workmen?

“Do I really believe all this? I don’t know,” admits Melanie, who adds that she has friends in town with old houses who have similar stories to tell. “For some reason she’s got a thing for closets and the attic. She acts like a kid, very playful. To take a tool belt and then put it back — that’s a prank. I can’t explain it, but it certainly makes for fun stories. And when you live in an old house, you buy into all kinds of stories about it.”

Asked for her interpretation of events, Lorraine Warren says that items can dematerialize, and that’s what happened to the belt. She agrees with Melanie that Elizabeth was ready for the workmen to move on and leave her alone.

“Spirits go dormant for periods of time. When the workmen started, they gave her renewed energy, and that’s why she was active,” she explains, adding that an intervention of sorts is called for because “she’s a very long time earthbound, and her spirit has to be put to rest.”

According to Donna Kent, there are many other ghosts who call Connecticut home, including her personal favorite, General Israel Putnam. The Revolutionary War hero served with distinction at the Battle of Bunker Hill but attained folklore status at the age of twenty-two, for killing the last wolf in Connecticut. A mural depicting his exploits hangs in the Greenwich Library, and his story is included in Donna’s new book, Ghosts and Legends of Eastern Connecticut: New Secrets of Old Lore Revealed, published this month by History Press.

As for those who reject or ridicule the services that she and other paranormalists provide, Donna maintains she’s not out to convert anyone. “Everybody is entitled to his or her own beliefs,” she says. “I’m not crazy, and the honor of it all is that I actually do get to help people. Who cares what anyone else thinks?”

You might just have a ghost if . . .

Ever wondered if you’ve had a brush with the paranormal, or perhaps harbor a resident ghost in your home?
Donna Kent of the Cosmic Society of Paranormal Investigation has provided this Top 10 list of things to watch for:

1. Experiencing physical sensations, cold spots, a disembodied touch on your skin, a shove, etc.

2. Hearing sounds; voices or snippets of conversation, having your name called when you are alone.

3. Smelling a fragrance, such as cigar smoke, perfume or coffee, that has no source.

4. Seeing an apparition or ghost or small darting movements with your peripheral vision.

5. Having objects move of their own accord or disappear, only to reappear at some future time.

6. Witnessing animals act strange or seeming to sense something you can’t perceive.

7. Finding images in your photographs that can’t be explained by technical processes.

8. Seeing electronic equipment or appliances come to life or shut off without reason.

9. Experiencing thoughts, feelings or emotions that are uncharacteristic for you and without any personal basis.

10. Sensing that you are of being watched and feeling that you are not alone.