Wicked Haunted

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Since its founding in 1636 as “a shelter for those distressed of conscience,” Rhode Island has attracted freethinkers and dissenters and those whose oddball beliefs made them unwelcome elsewhere, so it should not be surprising that a number of strange stories have been passed down to us through the years. And when it comes to ghost stories, Rhode Island has a spooky smorgasbord of tales from which to choose. We have everything from a fiery spectral ship haunting Block Island, to a murder victim helping bring the culprit to justice from beyond the grave. We even have Granny Mott, South County’s legendary witch and fortune teller. It only seems natural that Edgar Allan Poe liked to stroll down Benefit Street on Providence’s East Side – Benefit was once lined with little family graveyards, and some say many of the bodies are still there. More recently, some intrepid plumbers from Warwick took over reality TV with “Ghost Hunters,” investigating alleged hauntings and paranormal phenomena. Dude, run!

Rhode Island’s only “official” haunting is that of the Ramtail Mill, an old wool mill that stood on the banks of the Ponagansett River in Foster. The owners, two brothers named Potter, employed dozens of people and hired one Peleg Walker as night watchman. Peleg was a disagreeable man, and the solitary life of the night watchman suited him perfectly. After the last worker had left for the evening, he locked the doors, and many saw his lantern moving from window to window as he made his rounds through the empty building. In the morning, Peleg would unlock the door and ring the bell to summon the employees to work.

According to the legend, Peleg argued with the Potters almost constantly; no one knows why anymore, and they may not have known themselves at the time. After one particularly loud argument, Peleg angrily warned them that, “One day, you will have to take the key to this mill from a dead man’s pocket!”

One morning in May 1822, the bell didn’t ring and the door remained locked. Forcing their way into the building, the Potters found Peleg Walker’s lifeless body hanging from the rafters, with the key to the mill in his pocket, just as he had promised. Their disagreeable night watchman had taken his own life.

The Potters didn’t replace him, but Peleg may never have really left in the first place.

One night, workers were awoken around midnight by the pealing of the bell. Entering the building, they found it empty. When it happened again a couple of nights later, they took down the bell rope. And when the bell continued its midnight ringing, they took it down, too.

On another occasion, several workers noticed that the mill’s wheel was turning backward – against the flow of the Ponagansett. On yet another night, the workers were awoken by the sound of the mill’s machinery running at top speed in the middle of the night. It took almost an hour to get the equipment locked down again. When people reported seeing Peleg’s lantern still passing from window to window in the darkened mill, workers began quitting and moving away.

Eventually the mill was forced to close, and if Peleg Walker still made his nightly rounds, no one was there to notice.  The old mill burned down and the woods moved in to cover over the remains. You can still find the ruins if you look hard enough.

But something else remains. The 1885 census of Rhode Island contains the usual information about Foster, recording its population and points of interest. The Ramtail Factory is listed on page 36, along with the simple comment, “haunted,” making it, to the best of my knowledge, the only officially recognized haunting in the state, if not the country.

Without a doubt, the most infamous Rhode Island Hallowe’en story is the legend of Mercy Brown, which made headlines in The Providence Journal on March 19, 1892. George Brown lived with his family in rural Exeter, and things took a grim turn when the family saw a string of deaths occur over a few years — George’s wife Mary died, and then his daughter Olive. His other daughter Mercy followed them to the grave a short while later. When son Edwin started to get sick with the same strange malady that had claimed the others, George must have been terrified. He sent the boy west to Colorado Springs for his health.

Rumor had it that the Browns were being plagued by a vampire, though it was pretty clearly tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was called at the time. While the bacillus causing tuberculosis had been identified a decade before, the news had never reached Exeter. Cityfolk in Providence shook their heads at the strange notions holding sway in the wilds of Exeter.

Yielding to public pressure, George eventually decided he would have to dig up his deceased family members and look for signs of a vampire. He, along with a local doctor and a handful of townies, went out to the Brown family plot in the graveyard, carrying shovels. The headline on The Providence Journal article a couple of days later would read, “EXHUMED THE BODIES — Testing a Horrible Superstition in the Town of Exeter.”

George and the others didn’t find anything unusual about the bodies of the mother or Olive; both of them had been dead quite a few years at that point, reduced to skeletons (though it was noted that Olive still had her long hair).  They turned their attention to the body of Mercy Lena, who had passed away two months before at age 19.

Mercy’s body had rolled over in its grave. According to some versions of the story, her hair had gotten longer, her nails had grown and her cheeks were rosy. In accordance with a tradition peculiar to Rhode Island, (something H. P. Lovecraft himself would describe as an “uncomfortable superstition,”) the group cut open Mercy’s chest and removed her heart. There was, seemingly, fresh blood dripping from it. Clearly, this was the problem corpse, the vampire that had been haunting the family. Placing her heart on a nearby rock, George Brown set fire to it. Edwin, recently returned from Colorado Springs just in time to witness the grisly scene, was brought over to inhale the fumes of his sister’s burning heart. According to some versions of the legend, the ashes of her heart were then mixed with water or medicine, and given to Edwin to drink. This was supposed to cure him of his weird affliction, but it didn’t work, and Edwin died shortly thereafter. However, his was the last death in the Brown family due to tuberculosis … or vampires. Uncomfortable or not, the superstition was still effective.

Rhode Island has always been a strange place. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Happy Hallowe’en!

Rory Raven’s first book was Haunted Providence: Strange Tales from the Smallest State. His latest is a novel titled Summerland. Find him online at roryraven.com and/or roryobrienbooks.com. He lives in Salem, Mass, but he left his heart in Providence, where it was burned on a rock.

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