In Episode 196, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger check out the haunted Daniel Benton Homestead in Tolland, Connecticut. This three-centuries-old home has seen a lot of human activity, but it was a tragic event that took place in the winter of 1777 between two star-crossed lovers caught between a war and a deadly virus that still haunts us today.
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JEFF: New England is full of so many great old historic homes.
RAY: If the walls could talk, huh?
JEFF: Sometimes they can and do! Which is why we’re in Tolland, Connecticut, today. We’re looking for this town’s most historic building. Keep your eyes open for a red house coming on the left.
RAY: Metcalf Road is quintessential, small-town New England. It’s lined with Colonial stone walls and trees. The houses are spaced pretty far apart and set back from the road. Oooooo… check out that old house!
JEFF: That’s it’s! That’s the place we’re looking for.
JEFF: Welcome to the Daniel Benton Homestead, one of Connecticut’s most heartbreaking haunts.
JEFF: Hey there, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 196 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Tolland, Connecticut, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Is the Daniel Benton Homestead your favorite New England haunt? If so, maybe you should head over to our Web site and nominate it for a BoNEy award! That’s right, it’s our first annual Best of New England awards. We’re now taking nominations for your favorite haunt, ice cream place, beer, pizza, cemetery, and more. You’ll find a link to the submission form right from our homepage.
RAY: Before we explore this haunted homestead we need to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. The Daniel Benton Homestead looks old. The wooden siding painted red, the blue door, the central chimney, you can tell this house has been here a while.
JEFF: Ray, when this house was built, we were still England. Built in 1720, this place is now more than three centuries old.
RAY: So no doubt this house has seen a few things.
JEFF: It’s seen a revolution, a country born, a country at war with itself, it’s seen the advent of electricity, radio, world wars, television, powered flight, space travel, and now capping all that off, a podcast episode of New England Legends. But it’s a tragic love story that haunts this old house. A tale of two lovers who could never be together in life. Let’s head back to 1776 and meet Daniel Benton and his family.
RAY: It’s the spring of 1776, and Daniel Benton is now an old man. He’s weathered, but hardened. This man and his family are the very definition of America. Benton’s sons fought in the French and Indian War, five of his grandsons are now fighting in the Revolution War against England.
JEFF: The Bentons are wealthy. They own about 400 acres of land and are influential here in Tolland, Connecticut. Which of courses makes Benton men highly eligible bachelors.
RAY: Just before the war began, Daniel Benton’s oldest grandson, 28 year-old Elisha Benton, became smitten with a 16 year-old local girl named Jemima Barrows.
JEFF: The problem is, Jemima’s father is a furniture maker. A working man who doesn’t own land. These days, marriage is all about the union of families and wealth. The Bentons forbid the match. Elisha and Jemima’s love simply cannot be.
RAY: But that doesn’t stop Elisha and Jemima. In fact, sometimes when parents forbid something…
JEFF: It makes the kids want that thing even more.
RAY: Exactly. So the two meet in secret. In fact, the only thing that can separate them… is war.
[CANNONS AND MUSKETS]
RAY: Elisha is fighting in the Continental Army. His whole family believes in the cause, so he sees this as his duty to fight for independence. It’s August when Elisha finds himself near Brooklyn, New York, and the western end of Long Island.
JEFF: General George Washington had defeated the British in the siege of Boston back in March, so now General Washington has his sites set on New York City and its highly strategic ports. The British also know how important the New York ports are. They know having a stronghold here for the Royal Navy would go a long way in the British cause to stop the uprising. So General Washington and his troops set up defenses and wait.
It’s quiet…. Too quiet.
RAY: In turns out the Continental Army is out-matched and out-smarted. On August 21st, the British land on the shores across from Staten Island more than 12 miles away from the mouth of East River where Washington expected an attack. The British lie in wait for five days before moving behind Washington’s men, and flanking them. The Americans panic, and race back to Brooklyn to dig in, but not before losing twenty percent of their forces to casualty or capture. Among those captured, is Elisha Benton of Tolland, Connecticut.
JEFF: General Washington knows this position is a lost cause, so he evacuates the remainder of his men to Manhattan and then moves them out of New York to fight another day. It’s a resounding British victory.
RAY: Elisha is first imprisoned inside some of the old sugar houses in New York, but when space runs out, prisoners are moved to prison ships floating in the harbor.
RAY: The prison ships are awful. They’re unsanitary, they’re cramped, and the men… keep in mind… men who the British see as traitors… are stuffed into these boats like livestock.
JEFF: As the weeks turn to months, the conditions on the prison ships are only getting worse.
JEFF: Pretty soon, someone on board has smallpox. Highly contagious and deadly, it’s a matter of days before everyone on the ship has smallpox, including Elisha Benton. There is no cure. And now that the prisoners are sick with a deadly virus, their British captors don’t dare get too close.
RAY: It’s now January 3rd of 1777 when Elisha Benton’s prison ship sets sail out of New York harbor. Their destination is only about 100 miles away at the port of New London, Connecticut. It’s here that the British organize a prisoner exchange with the Continental Army.
JEFF: New London, Connecticut, is of course located at the mouth of the Thames River. Which of course is spelled exactly the same as that river in London, England, which of course it’s named after. But in Connecticut, it’s pronounced Thames, which makes the British soldiers bristle because any real subject of the crown would pronounce the river the proper British way… and call it the Tems.
RAY: So here at the mouth of the THAMES River in New London, sick and weak, Elisha Benton is set free.
[HORSE AND WAGON WALKING]
RAY: He’s placed on a wagon where he makes his way back to Tolland and his family.
JEFF: Smallpox is deadly. The Benton family knows it. Everyone knows it. If they let Elisha into the homestead, by law they’ll all be placed under quarantine. But family ties are strong, and Elisha has suffered enough.
JEFF: Elisha is brought inside and placed in a warm bed.
RAY: When Jemima Barrows hears word that her love has returned to Tolland, she’s overjoyed. But then her parents explain that Elisha has smallpox. There’s no way for her to see him. The Benton home is under quarantine.
JEFF: Now 17 years old, Jemima is both headstrong, and love sick. So she sneaks over to the Benton Homestead. She scopes out the home for a just a few minutes before she takes a deep breath, marches right up to the door…
[CREAKING DOOR OPENS AND THEN SLAMS SHUT]
JEFF: And walks inside uninvited.
RAY: It takes only moments for the Benton family to see Jemima is now in their house. And it only takes another second for everyone involved to fully understand what this means. It means, by law, Jemima Barrows can’t leave the house. She’s now under quarantine as well.
JEFF: Jemima doesn’t care. She knows the consequences of her actions. She simply has to be with Elisha again. So the two are reunited. And Jemima commits herself to being Elisha’s nurse.
RAY: Elisha is covered in scabs and a rash that’s oozing puss. He’s in the later stages of the illness, it’s pretty clear there’s nothing that can be done. Not only that, he’s highly contagious at this point. Still, Jemima sits by his bedside and tends to the dying man she loves, even though her own life is in peril.
[HEAVY BREATHING AND A LAST BREATH]
RAY: Elisha Benton takes his last breath on January 21st.
JEFF: When a person dies from smallpox, they’re not allowed to be buried in town cemeteries. They’re still considered contagious. The sick must be buried near where they died. So Elisha is laid to rest in a grave near a stone wall that marks the edge of the Benton property.
RAY: Meanwhile, the Benton house is still under quarantine, including Jemima Barrows, who is now ill with a fever. Within a couple of days as blisters start to form on her skin, it becomes clear she too has smallpox…. (PAUSE) five weeks later she also passes away.
JEFF: The thing is there are rules to society. Even in death. The couple were not married so they can’t be buried next to each other, however, the Bentons recognize Jemima Barrows made the ultimate sacrifice for Elisha, and the two deserve to be near each other in some way, so she’s buried several feet away from Elisha on the other side of the carriage path, but still on the family land. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: The 1777 burials were NOT the end of the story. In fact, they marked the beginning of the ghost story here at the Daniel Benton Homestead.
JEFF: If we head over here by the side of the road, we can still see the grave of Elisha Benton. As well as this stone and plaque commemorating both of them.
RAY: Under Jemima Barrows it reads, “His betrothed, who herself died vainly attempting to nurse him back to health.”
JEFF: And Jemima is buried right over there. So if we’ve learned anything, it’s that when people die inside a house, it tends to leave a mark. We don’t soon forget it, even when centuries have gone by. And if those people happen to be buried about 60 feet from the front door of said house, and viewable from the window each and every day, chances are it’s going to conjure up something to those of us left behind.
RAY: Today the Daniel Benton Homestead is a museum owned and operated by the Tolland Historical Society. And it still has a tale to tell.
JEFF: Visitors and staff have reported strange sounds and groans heard inside. Skeptics may claim it’s just noises made by an old building, others say it’s the spirits of the past still hanging around.
RAY: Still, the house has stood for 300 years, it’s bound to have a ghost or two. The earliest mentions of a haunting that we found date back to the 1930s when Florrie Bishop Bowering bought this house and lived here. She used to host a radio program on WTIC. Bowering had a maid who worked for her who claimed she used to see a young girl dressed as a bride wandering through the house and crying.
JEFF: Hmmmm so sad and tragic. Perhaps we need to take a second look at that word “betrothed” on the plaque outside. According to an October 30, 1985 Hartford Courant newspaper article, former docent Yvonne Brown claimed a woman who stayed in the house overnight felt a man’s hand cover her face in the middle of the night.
RAY: Yikes! The same article claims a tour guide at the house encountered a dead feeling in the bedroom. And suddenly her watch just stopped in the room. She didn’t hang around to see if anything else was going to happen.
JEFF: So many strange little tales inside this house. Still, I get it. These two ghosts… Elisha and Jemima… we can’t help connecting with them because their tale is so tragic. They weren’t allowed to be together in life, Jemima sacrificed her life to be with Elisha for his final days, and even in death the couple are required to keep a proper distance. Considering all they went through: a war, a plague, a quarantine, and dying much too young, of course… they’ll haunt us.
RAY: So many stories haunt us, which is why we keep exploring them. And we can’t do that without the help of our patreon patrons! This group is the backbone of so much of what we do. Plus they get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear all for just $3 bucks per month. Please head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
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RAY: There are so many ways to connect with us, there’s our free New England Legends app for your smart phone, our Web site, the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime, and our super secret Facebook group, just to name a few.
JEFF: We’d like to thank our sponsor Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.
RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.