In Episode 194, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Union Street in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to search for the long-lost location of a haunted farmhouse that made the newspapers back in 1887. Though it was reported to be haunted before a tragic event left a final scar, after a child was lost inside, the building rotted away to nothing except a spooky story almost lost to the ages.
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[BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC SONG]
RAY: Feeling patriotic today, Jeff?
JEFF: Sure! And this is the perfect song to listen to as we roll up to the historic Oak Glen house on Union Street in Portsmouth, Rhode Island – just a bit north of Newport.
RAY: How so?
JEFF: Because this house was built by Julia Ward Howe and her husband Samuel back in 1870. It was their summer retreat. After Samuel died in 1876, this became Julia’s permanent residence right up until her death in 1910.
RAY: Annnnnnd Julia Ward Howe, of course, wrote the song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
JEFF: She DID write the words to the song and set it to the music of the abolitionist song “John Brown’s Body.”
RAY: So is she haunting the Oak Glen house or something?
JEFF: I’m not sure about that. In fact, the Oak Grove house isn’t even our destination today. It’s just our starting point, but somewhere nearby we’ll find the story of a haunted house with a dark and tragic past.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 194 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Portsmouth, Rhode Island, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community of legend-seekers who love sharing stories through this podcast, through our super-secret Facebook group – now more than 3,000 people strong, through my on-going story tour – you can find dates and links on our Web site, and through the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime.
RAY: Now, before we go searching for this haunted house, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
JEFF: Okay, summer is coming, and I have an insatiable sweet tooth.
RAY: Me too! The struggle is very real.
JEFF: That’s why I love Nuwati Herbals Strawberry Moon tea. It’s naturally sweet thanks to the strawberry extract, blackberry leaf, hint of maple syrup, and stevia leaf. When I hit that mid-afternoon slump, and I’m craving a hit of sugar, this tea is such a treat, and gets me through it.
RAY: With warmer weather also comes the bugs. I just had a bunch of landscaping done at my house and will be spending a lot of time outside. So there will be plenty of Nuwati Herbals No-Ski-To natural insect repellent available at the Auger house. I like that these are natural ingredients instead of the harsh chemicals you get in those spray cans.
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RAY: These are herbal remedies from Mother Earth. Check out the Nuwati Herbals Web site to see all of their great products AND you legendary listeners get 20% off your order when you use the promo code LEGENDS20 at checkout. Visit Nuwati Herbals dot com. That’s N-U-W-A-T-I Herbals with an S dot com.
JEFF: Okay, Ray, take one last look at Oak Glen here in Portsmouth, because as I said earlier, this is NOT our destination.
RAY: Got it, so where are we going?
JEFF: We’re going to have to estimate our destination. But I can tell you we’re close. Within half a mile, we just need to figure out which direction.
RAY: What do we have to go on?
JEFF: I dug this story up in the newspaper archives. It’s from the August 20th, 1887 Newport Mercury newspaper. I love the opening. It says:
Haunted houses are going out of fashion these days, and one rarely hears about them, but here in Newport, where the aspect of life is modern to the most extreme degree, there is another side which is older, mustier, more in the shadow of the past than any corner of this great country that I have ever seen.
RAY: That IS a great opening. I guess in 1887 haunted houses were out of fashion, but not today.
JEFF: The article continues, and this is where we get our clue on the location.
Not half a mile from Oak Glen is an unfrequented side road leading from one crossroad to another, and on this rough, little-traveled thoroughfare stands a veritable haunted house. It is an old fashioned, two-story building, of that wonderful gray color which unpainted wood soon acquires in this climate—a color which harmonizes with the gray and gnarled trunks of the queer old apple trees, so crooked and tortuously twisted that, when one comes suddenly upon an orchard of them like that which grows near the haunted house, one is startled…
RAY: That’s pretty poetic. Newspapers don’t write like that anymore. Okay, so our clue is less than a half-mile from the Oak Glen house. If we look at our map…
RAY: That’s not a big area. It’s pretty obvious most of the streets within that half-mile are relatively new housing developments. But I do see two farms within that half-mile circle. Maybe this farm further up the road used to be an orchard?
JEFF: It’s possible. I think we have to accept that the house and even the side road are likely no longer here. But we’re close to the spot for sure. Let’s head back to 1887, meet this intrepid paranormal reporter, and investigate this haunt.
RAY: It’s a gray and gloomy, cloudy spring day here on Union Street in Portsmouth. With the exception of the Oak Glen House there in the distance, and a couple of farm houses, there isn’t much to see in this rural section of town.
JEFF: There are stone walls, and over there I can see those gnarled apple trees next to a decaying house. That must be the place. It’s got that gray and decrepit look. I’ll let our Mercury news reporter continue her description.
REPORTER: This curious, nameless tint is seen again in our stone walls, which fence and divide every man’s acres from his neighbor’s and from the highroads; and on certain of our gray days the whole atmosphere and face of Nature seem steeped in an ashen-faced monotone, sky and sea and landscape all tuned to the key of color which the old house keeps, even on the sunniest July day. It stands so close to the road that one easily sees in passing its dilapidated condition.
The windows hardly contain an unbroken pane of glass, the chimneys are incrusted with a thick gray mold, and little tufts of ferns and weeds hang pendulous from the gutters under the eaves. The great solemn trees which stand between it and the road stretch out their shady branches and throw their heavy shadow on the house, and the bushes and underbrush have grown about with a luxuriance rarely seen in the poor soil of this part of Newport. It is as if the very vines and climbing weeds strove to mask the ruined windows and what they might show.
RAY: A friend of this reporter recently took an interest in the property. He figured a coat of paint, clean up the weeds and vines, fix the broken windows, and put up some new curtains… it really wouldn’t cost much money to turn this into a nice little property for someone, and put to rest any talk of ghosts and hauntings.
JEFF: This friend asks around about purchasing or even renting the house, but soon learns the house is not for sale and not for rent.
RAY: And who would do that?! Have this empty, spooky-looking house that you don’t want to live in, and you don’t want to sell it, and you don’t want to rent it?
JEFF: Not only that, the landowner doesn’t even want to talk about this place… because it’s haunted.
REPORTER: In the course of time I succeeded in getting at some of the stories told concerning it. There were the usual sounds of the opening and shutting of doors, or carriages driven up to the porch. There were lights sometimes seen at night in the windows, and shadowy figures guessed at rather than perceived in the corners of the grim old orchard, but these tales are always part of the property of a haunted house, and had nothing original about them. Finally I struck rock bottom, after penetrating through layers of loose sand and stones, and learned this singular story.
RAY: It’s here we learn about the last people to live in this house. There was a young carpenter, a guy everyone knew in the area, he’s well-liked. A steady, sober fellow who is good at his job. He falls in love with the daughter of one of the well-off farmers. It’s a relationship that is NOT approved by the girl’s parents. Still, the two are in love, so against the wishes of her parents, they run off and are married.
JEFF: Star-crossed lovers. It’s a tale as old as time. Not having much money or support from their families, the two settle into this small house right here. And they’re happy. They have each other. They have what they need in the small house. And pretty soon…
[NEWBORN BABY CRIES]
JEFF: Pretty soon baby makes three.
RAY: With such a happy young family living here, and considering how much the young carpenter fixed up the house, folks sort of forget about the haunted reputation for a while… But only for a while.
[SPRING BIRDS AND SOUNDS BUILD AND THEN FADE]
JEFF: Five years pass by without much incident, but then the misses gets a visit from family.
REPORTER: One day the young wife received a visit from her sister, who lived nearby, and who asked, after the usual greeting: “What visitor have you staying with you?”
“No one. Why do you ask?” answered the carpenter’s wife.
“Why, yes,” persisted the other. “I have seen him at the sitting room window twice lately as I passed by—an old man with white hair and a long white beard.”
JEFF: The wife is befuddled at this point. She figures maybe a neighbor stopped by when no one was home, but why would they come in the house uninvited? This would be only the first mention of something out of place. Not the last.
REPORTER: Shortly after this conversation the young woman was dusting the sitting room, her child playing meanwhile in the corner. Suddenly the little creature threw down its toys and ran to her, saying under its breath: “I want the old man to go away.”
“There is no old man here,” said the mother.
“Yes there is,” persisted the child pointing to an empty corner, where the mother could see nothing. “I want him to go away.”
That night the child was taken ill with the croup, and a week later the carpenter’s wife sat alone in a plain black frock, beside an empty crib.
RAY: The couple move out of the house shortly after the death of their child. And the house sits empty.
JEFF: It doesn’t take long for the haunted reputation to return as the house begins to weather and fade from lack of care. As the drab color blends into the landscape again, and the vines and weeds return, and crawl up the sides of the structure as if nature is taking back what’s rightfully hers.
RAY: Locals know a child died inside, and they know of the haunted reputation… it’s more darkness than a humble little house can take, so the house sits empty and rots… and that brings us back to today.
RAY: Today this haunted house is long gone, but we have an idea of where it may have once stood.
JEFF: We got a little help from John at the Portsmouth Library who was able to find some old maps and historic data on some of the properties along Union Street. Though we can’t say with certainty, we suspect this old house stood in the vicinity of the Lawton-Almy-Hall Farm.
RAY: The farm dates all the way back to 1690, though the main house has had several additions over the decades. There are plenty of stone walls as was described in the 1887 Mercury News article, but also many out buildings on the 40 acre property. It would have been common for a farm like this to have some small homes for farmhands. None of those survive today, but we do know this property is located just a little less than half a mile east of Oak Glen.
JEFF: So it fits the bill, but again, if the house wasn’t right here in front of us, it was nearby. When a house is gone, the story quickly fades. It’s the nature of these things, but we resurrected this one because we loved the language of the old article, and the connection it gives us to the old days of Portsmouth.
RAY: We love connecting with our communities, with our past, and with you legendary listeners. We invite you to become an even bigger part of this community and movement by joining our patreon patrons. For just $3 bucks per month you’ll get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
JEFF: Also, be sure to check out my new book, The Call of Kilimanjaro: Finding Hope Above the Clouds. I appreciate all of the great feedback so far.
RAY: We’d like to thank our sponsor Nuwati Herbals, we’d like to thank Boston-based voice actor and voice-over artist Lisa Strykowski for lending her voice acting talent this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
JEFF: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.