In Episode 301 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger stroll historic Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, to visit a house built in 1763. Known as the Stephen Harris house, this home was constructed over a former burial ground. Though the graves were relocated, some suspect not all of the human remains made the move. The house was haunted from its earliest days, a run of bad luck plagued the Harris family, and by the late 1800s it fell into disrepair. The legend inspired horror icon H.P. Lovecraft to pen his novella “The Shunned House.”
Read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shunned House online here: https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/sh.aspx
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JEFF: Okay, we’ll make a right onto Benefit Street.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: And the house we’re looking for is coming up on our right soon.
RAY: Benefit Street is one of the oldest streets in Providence, Rhode Island. One of the most historic too.
JEFF: There’s a parking spot right there.
RAY: Got it.
[CAR STOPS DOORS OPEN AND CLOSE]
RAY: I see a bunch of stately historic homes on this street. Which one is the one we want?
JEFF: That one right there. The yellow one. There have been so many tragedies inside this home that not only led to a haunting, but it inspired literary master H.P. Lovecraft to write a story about it. We’re in Providence to visit the Shunned House.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 301 of the New England Legends podcast. We appreciate you riding with us as we explore ghosts, monsters, roadside oddities, eccentrics, and all the other weirdness that makes New England great.
JEFF: If you’ve got a story we simply must check out, please reach out to us anytime through our Web site. Most of our story leads come from you!
RAY: We’re going to explore this tragic Providence haunting after a quick word from this sponsor.
JEFF: We’re in the College Hill section of Providence, Rhode Island.
RAY: This house on Benefit Street doesn’t stand out among the others.
JEFF: No. Not really.
RAY: It’s three-and-a-half-stories tall, just like many of the houses nearby. It’s got clapboard siding, it’s yellow. There’s a nice little stone stairway to the right of the house leading up to a fenced in yard. If you didn’t point it out, it would be easy to walk right by.
JEFF: All true. It’s known as the Stephen Harris House after the second owner of the home. The house was built in 1763 by John Mawney and sold to Mawney brother-in-law, Stephen Harris in 1784. But maybe this place was cursed from the start because Mawney built the house over the site of a burial yard.
RAY: Ooof… who does that? You’d think there would have been plenty of available space back then. Nothing like today.
JEFF: Sometimes you get a good deal on real estate, I guess. In fairness, all of the graves were moved to what is now North Burial Ground. Plus, some people just aren’t superstitious… not at first anyway. But when Stephen Harris and his wife Hannah moved into the house… strange things started happening…. Then tragic events soon followed. To find out what happened, let’s head back to 1784, and meet Stephen Harris.
RAY: It’s June of 1784 here on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island. The United States of America is still a new country. And it’s growing fast. It’s a place of opportunity for merchants like 29-year-old Stephen Harris. And this house on the hill overlooking Providence is the perfect castle for the wealthy man and his family. True, there was a small cemetery here before it was built, but progress can’t be stopped, so the graves were dug up and the remains and headstones were relocated about a mile north to a larger burial ground. We’re pretty sure all of the graves were found before construction began on the house…. Pretty sure.
JEFF: Stephen Harris is a merchant. He’s wealthy. He owns multiple ships that bring goods to and from various ports and countries. He and his wife, Hannah, are looking forward to starting the next chapter of their lives. Eight years ago, they lost their son, John who never reached his first birthday. But this is a new house with a new start…
[WOMAN YELLING IN FRENCH]
RAY: What was that?!
JEFF: I don’t know… Maybe someone outside?
RAY: Maybe. It sounded sort of far away.
JEFF: Anyway, not long after moving into his new home, Harris runs into some bad luck. One of his ships is lost at sea in a storm. It’s a total loss of crew and property. Harris is devastated. It’s a big financial hit too.
RAY: But these things happen. That’s part of the risk in the shipping business. Still, Harris will get back on his feet.
JEFF: In a spot of good news, the couple are expecting a child… This will be their second.
[WOMAN YELLING IN FRENCH]
JEFF: Did you hear that!?
RAY: I did. It’s really strange. I’m a little creeped out.
JEFF: Me too… Anyway… the Harrises have the good news of a forthcoming child, but with that also comes more tragic news from the sea. Harris just lost another ship. It’s devastating financially.
RAY: These are tough times. There’s still political tensions with foreign Kings, there’s pirates, and there’s wild weather in the north Atlantic.
JEFF: More months pass, and Hannah Harris goes into labor. But when the baby came out… it was stillborn. The couple are despondent.
RAY: So tragic. Harris is suffering a string of bad luck. But bad luck turns around, right?
JEFF: You’d hope it does. But for Harris, this seems to be a new trend. More lost ships, more financial setbacks and hardships. And something seems to be off with Hannah.
RAY: She’s been through a lot.
JEFF: I’m sure that’s part of it.
RAY: It’s now 1786 and 31-year-old Hannah is expecting once again. Everyone is nervous. They’ve been here before. Hannah is stressed. She wants a child more than anything in the world, but she’s not sure she can take another loss.
RAY: In a turn of GOOD luck, Stephen and Hannah welcome Stephen Mawney Harris into the world.
JEFF: The couple are thrilled, but Harris’s business continues to suffer. And something is still off with Hannah.
RAY: Maybe post-partum depression?
JEFF: Maybe that’s part of it, but this started before she was pregnant. And it’s getting worse. Pretty soon….
[WALKING UP WOODEN STAIRS]
JEFF: Hannah is confined to the attic.
RAY: This is terrible. And with a young child to care for too….
[WOMAN YELLING IN FRENCH]
RAY: Was that Hannah?!
JEFF: I don’t know. It sounded like that same voice that seems to echo through here from time to time. And Hannah doesn’t speak French.
RAY: People outside are hearing it too. After a few weeks of the anguished cries coming the upper floor of the Harris house, people start to avoid the house entirely.
[WOMAN YELLING IN FRENCH]
JEFF: It’s 1789, and Hannah Harris’s cries from the upper floor stop. Hannah has passed away. She was 34 years old.
RAY: By this time people are spooked. The Harris family had a run of bad luck, they lost children, and now something inside that house drove Hannah mad and to an early grave. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okay. There’s lots more to say here.
RAY: I’m glad to hear it.
JEFF: The legend of this house exploded after H.P. Lovecraft used it as inspiration for his 1937 novella “The Shunned House,” which first appeared in a pulp magazine called Weird Tales.
RAY: 1937 is a long time after Hannah Harris died in 1789.
JEFF: That it is. H.P. Lovecraft was born in Providence in 1890. So he didn’t know any of the Harris family who would have lived in that house. But he DID know that house. By the time Lovecraft could stare at it, it was run-down. It was falling apart. It was spooky, and the legend was the family that lived there had a run of bad events and bad luck.
RAY: So the legend was already in place, and he just ran with it in his fiction?
JEFF: He did. Allow me to read a little from the first chapter of the story. Lovecraft wrote:
What I heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people died there in alarmingly great numbers. That, I was told, was why the original owners had moved out some twenty years after building the place. It was plainly unhealthy, perhaps because of the dampness and fungous growth in the cellar, the general sickish smell, the draughts of the hallways, or the quality of the well and pump water. These things were bad enough, and these were all that gained belief among the persons whom I knew. Only the notebooks of my antiquarian uncle, Dr. Whipple, revealed to me at length the darker, vaguer surmises which formed an undercurrent of folklore among old-time servants and humble folk; surmises which never travelled far, and which were largely forgotten when Providence grew to be a metropolis with a shifting modern population.
The general fact is, that the house was never regarded by the solid part of the community as in any real sense “haunted”. There were no widespread tales of rattling chains, cold currents of air, extinguished lights, or faces at the window. Extremists sometimes said the house was “unlucky”, but that is as far as even they went. What was really beyond dispute is that a frightful proportion of persons died there; or more accurately, had died there, since after some peculiar happenings over sixty years ago the building had become deserted through the sheer impossibility of renting it.
RAY: Yeah, I recognize pieces of that story for sure.
JEFF: Legend and folklore inspire fiction, which then alters the folklore. People confuse Lovecraft’s story with what really happened. They say no child could ever be born in that house. It was cursed by some French woman’s grave that was disturbed and never moved.
RAY: But in reality, Stephen and Hannah Harris DID have a child in that house. Stephen Mawney Harris was born in 1786, about three years before his mother died. And he lived until 1823.
JEFF: Not exactly a ripe old age. He was only 37. But still an adult.
RAY: Annnd Stephen Harris remarried a woman named Abigail Cushing. They went on to have nine kids together. The house on Benefit Street remained in the Harris family until 1890 when the last member of the Harris family listed as the owner passed away. But it remained in the Harris estate until 1924. So I’m guessing it sat empty from 1890 until 1924…
JEFF: Which was prime Lovecraft time. 34 years is a VERY long time for a house to sit empty. Especially in an otherwise populated part of town. A dilapidated house begs the question: why isn’t someone living there? Is it haunted… or cursed…. Or both?
RAY: And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s podcast and sometimes veer off course.
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