Podcast 264 – The Ghost of Wadsworth Athenaeum

In 1891, employees of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, believed the building was haunted by Rev. Thomas Robbins.

In 1891, employees of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, believed the building was haunted by Rev. Thomas Robbins.

In Episode 264, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger hunt for the ghost of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. Opened in 1844, this is the oldest continually-operating art museum in the United States. The haunting first made the newspapers back in 1911, when a group of past and present employees gathered to share their unexplained experiences inside the old building. The group thinks they know who is haunting the old Athenaeum.

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The haunted Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.

The haunted Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Painting of Rev. Thomas Robbins of the Connecticut Historical Society.

Painting of Rev. Thomas Robbins of the Connecticut Historical Society.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: Wow! The Wadsworth Athenaeum looks like a castle!
JEFF: It does! Complete with turrets and everything. This Hartford, Connecticut, landmark has been here since 1844, though it was founded two years earlier.
RAY: Yeah, I can see the year 1842 in stone above the main entrance.
JEFF: Today it’s a museum that holds countless priceless paintings and other pieces of art. Let’s go inside.
RAY: This is a beautiful building, Jeff. Check that out – they have a Norman Rockwell painting over there. Tons of other paintings that look sort of familiar, though I’m no art connoisseur. This place is really big!
JEFF: This museum regularly makes top-ten must-see places in Connecticut, Ray.
RAY: Are we here to look at art?
JEFF: No, we’re here to look for a ghost… because they say the Wadsworth Athenaeum is haunted!
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 264 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We can’t do what we do without you! So thank you for being with us.
JEFF: Please subscribe to our podcast if you don’t already, and post a review for us on Apple podcasts. That goes a long way in growing our audience. Or tell a friend or two about our show. So many story leads come from you, so please keep them coming. Reach out to us anytime through our Web site, through social media, or our super secret Facebook group.
RAY: Before we go exploring the haunted Wadsworth Atheneum, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our patreon patrons!
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JEFF: It’s only $3 bucks per month. Like buying me and Ray a cheap beer at a bar… but we’ll need two straws to split it. Seriously though, most people won’t become patrons. So it matters quite a bit when you step up to the plate. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
RAY: Okay, Jeff. This Hartford museum is big and beautiful.
JEFF: It is.
RAY: It’s also pretty modern looking on the inside. Here’s a little more information on the museum. Today, the Wadsworth Athenaeum is home to almost 50,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years of human history. This museum is the oldest continually operating public art museum in the United States.
JEFF: Wow! This place is historic.
RAY: It is! It was founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth who wanted to build a fine-arts gallery, but he was pressured into making this an athenaeum which was a trendy term back in the 1800s for any kind of cultural building that also contained a library. A place of learning.
JEFF: Got it.
RAY: Over time, it evolved into more of an art museum, which was always Wadsworth’s vision.
JEFF: Though the building dates back to 1844, obviously there’s priceless art in here, so they have the latest security.
RAY: You’d think it would be tough for a ghost to hide with all of these cameras, motion detectors, and guards keeping watch.
JEFF: You’d think. Yet, this haunting was so profound at one point, it made the newspapers. Way back on July 10, 1911, the haunting of the Wadsworth Athenaeum got quite the write up by several current and former employees. Gathered for the 1911 interview was Miss Caroline Hewins, who was a librarian with the Hartford Library at the time. Frank Gay, who was curator of the Wadsworth Athenaeum. Alfred Bates, he was a librarian with the Connecticut Historical Society. And finally, there was Alfred Clifford, who was superintendent of the Wadsworth Athenaeum back then.
RAY: Collectively, this group of people spent many thousands of hours inside this building at all times of the day and night.
JEFF: In the article, they claim most of the strange activity occurred in years prior. Back when the athenaeum looked quite different. So let’s head back to 1891, and look for ghosts.
RAY: It’s the winter of 1891, and something strange is happening here inside the Wadsworth Athenaeum…
JEFF: What was that?!
RAY: I don’t know. You and I are standing still, and I don’t see anybody else around here. But we both heard those footsteps.
JEFF: We did. Today, the building looks a lot different than where we came from, Ray. The most northern third of the Athenaeum is occupied by the Hartford Public Library. The picture galleries occupy the middle third of the building, and the final third is home to the Connecticut Historical Society. On the ground floor is the newspaper and reading rooms, the second floor is the library, and the entrance is on the north side of the building.
RAY: Library attendant Frank Gay was just telling us that sometimes when he’s in the building, it’s almost empty depending on the time of day, and the weather, and things like that.
JEFF: Sure, that makes sense.
RAY: Frank said sometimes the stillness feels oppressive. He also said that sometimes men would be sitting in the reading room, quiet as can be, and complain they’d hear strange sounds.
RAY: Rustling newspaper in the newspaper and reading room isn’t unusual. But when you’re the only person sitting in there reading a book, and you hear it right behind you, only to find no one there—that gets unnerving. Frank explained there’s no breeze or anything else that could have caused the sound. Patrons get on edge.
JEFF: It’s little things, but it starts to add up. A patron complaint here and there, the odd footsteps with no source….
JEFF: Then there’s the slamming doors.
JEFF: And hearing the distinct sound of someone walking down the stairs to the basement. Frank investigates to make sure it’s not a patron wandering where they shouldn’t be, but he finds no one there. Just the fading sound of footsteps.
RAY: Caroline Hewins told us how she was often nervous when she had to work late afternoon or closing time, especially in the winter months. She said that’s when the strange activity is at its peak. She once witnessed a man and his son get so startled from the rustling paper sounds in the reading room, that the two sprinted out of the building, and didn’t stop running until they reached the post office down the street. But it’s Alfred Bates who believes he knows what… or rather… who is behind the disembodied footsteps and noises that echo throughout the athenaeum.
JEFF: Who?
RAY: Bates said it’s believed the spirit is that of Rev. Thomas Robbins.
JEFF: And Superintendent Clifford seems to agree. I can see him nodding.
RAY: Superintendent Clifford has slept alone in the building many nights when he had to work late and be in early the next morning. He’s heard the strange sounds and footsteps when he’s alone in the building.
JEFF: This group of past and present employees are level-headed folks. They don’t believe in flights of fancy. They’re scholarly and rational. But they can’t deny what they’ve all experienced many times in this building. But the identity of the spirit: Rev. Thomas Robbins, is as good of a theory as any other.
RAY: Did Rev. Robbins work here too? Or spend a lot of time here?
JEFF: He DID work here. Rev. Robbins was once a Congregational minister and scholar who preached and taught all over Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts. From 1844 until 1854, he was appointed the first librarian of the Connecticut Historical Society which is of course housed in this building. He never married, and died in 1856, bequeathing his vast collection of over 4,000 books to the library. He was 79 years old when he died. A painting of Rev. Robbins hangs in the Historical Society section of the building. Let’s go see it.
RAY: Look at that. The painting shows a white-haired old man sitting in a straight-backed chair, looking sort of saintly. There are some books on the writing desk next to him, and what looks like a stack of paper that he’s writing on.
JEFF: This is who they believe is the ghost of the Wadsworth Athenaeum. Why he chooses to haunt here and not some other place, we can only speculate. But those who work here have identified the footsteps as Thomas Robbins… and that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okay, there’s an amazing postscript to this story.
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: At the end of the newspaper article, it mentions how in 1892, the Wadsworth Athenaeum underwent some major renovations. As a worker was about to take down the painting of Rev. Robbins, he was warned to be careful, because that’s the building’s ghost. The worker smiled, lifted the painting, and dropped it, sending the painting out of its frame and curling up on the floor. The painting was saved and reframed, but they say, that was the end of the ghost.
RAY: This 1911 newspaper article from The Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, gathered a group of people who reflected on their memories from 20 years earlier. I love how the article addressed solid skeptical points. For example, one staff member pointed out that when a person is walking outside on Athenaeum Street, you can hear the footsteps inside the building too. Maybe that could explain it.
JEFF: But then someone from the group points out that the phantom footsteps pre-date the existence of Athenaeum Street. Plus, in my experience, once you live or work in a building, for even a short period of time, you get to know that building pretty well. You know which steps creak and groan. You know which wall is home to the water pipes that tick, tick, tick when warm water rushes through. You just know these things.
RAY: Of course. You know the difference between someone walking outside and inside. And someone walking down the basement stairs.
JEFF: None of the people interviewed wanted to flat-out say they believe in ghosts. They swore by their experiences, and would relay that others claim the ghost was that of Rev. Robbins who spent that last part of his working life in the building. But they never wanted to make that leap on the record for themselves.
RAY: I love how objective this article is. This story had floated around the Wadsworth Athenaeum and the region for decades. So the newspaper spoke to people who were there. People who shrugged their shoulders and said: I heard what I heard.
JEFF: That gets to the heart of it, Ray. Most of us are rational people who approach the world in a similar way. But once in a while, an experience shakes us up because it doesn’t fall neatly into a pre-defined box. You may call that experience paranormal, or a ghost, or a spirit, but we don’t know for sure. And that gets us talking about it.
RAY: And THAT brings us to After the Legend, where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story, and sometimes veer into stranger waters.
JEFF: We do. If you’d like to see that painting of Rev. Thomas Robbins, you can see it on our Web site, just click on Episode 264.
Rev. Robbins was born in Norfolk, Connecticut, and died in Colebrook, Connecticut. He even attended Yale. He was a nutmegger through and through. He’s buried in Old North Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.

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