Podcast 313 – Newport’s Haunted White Horse Tavern

Built in 1652, the White Horse Tavern is America’s oldest continually-operating bar and it’s Newport, Rhode Island’s most haunted.

In Episode 313 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger belly up to the bar of the White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island. Built in 1652, it’s America’s oldest continuously-operating bar in the United States, and according locals it’s Newport’s most haunted. The ghost of an old man has been seen around the building, disembodied voices have been heard, and sometimes dishes and objects move on their own. With over 350 years of history related to colonists, pirates, soldiers, and tourists, we explore the history of this haunt.

Read the episode transcript.


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

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The Haunted White Horse Tavern on Marlborough Street in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Haunted White Horse Tavern on Marlborough Street in Newport, Rhode Island.

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

RAY: Jeff, it’s great to be here in Newport, Rhode Island, in these last days of summer.
JEFF: It sure is, Ray. It’s still nice out. I mean, sure there’s still plenty of tourists around, but what can you do?
RAY: You can look for a place to get a beer, that’s what you can do.
JEFF: I’m with you. Fortunately… Newport may have a bar or two in town.
RAY: I can confirm those rumors are true.
JEFF: I have a bar in mind for us today, Ray. We’ll just walk up here on Farewell Street.
RAY: Farewell Street… how ominous!
JEFF: I know, right? Our destination is right here on the corner of Farewell and Marlborough Streets. The perfect place for two legend hunters like us to grab a pint. Let’s go inside.
JEFF: Welcome to America’s oldest continuously operating bar… and Newport’s most haunted. We’ve come to the White Horse Tavern to look for ghosts.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 313 of the New England Legends podcast. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Most of our story leads come from you! So please reach out to us anytime through our Web site or stop us on the street. And please do share this podcast with your friends, that’s how we grow our community.
JEFF: We’ll go searching for the ghosts of the White Horse Tavern right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: Okay, Jeff. The White Horse Tavern is a nice restaurant with white table clothes and everything. Not our usual haunt.
JEFF: Right, we like our bars a little more divey. But they DO have a bar with about eight seats, so we should grab a couple of them before they’re gone.
RAY: We’ll have two of those please.
JEFF/RAY: Cheers!
RAY: So the White Horse Tavern is not only the oldest bar in Newport, it’s the oldest continually operating bar in America?
JEFF: It is. It was originally built as a home for Francis Brinley and his family in 1652. In 1673, William Mayes Sr. thought this was the perfect location for a tavern and inn, so he bought the place and expanded the building. He officially obtained his tavern license in 1687, and that’s what it’s been ever since. Mayes’s son, William Mayes, Jr. was also a notorious pirate who sailed the Red Sea, and also helped run the tavern when he was in port and not plundering.
RAY: So basically this place has been a tavern for 350 years and it was once run by a pirate.
JEFF: Right.
RAY: Love it so far.
JEFF: What’s not to love?
RAY: AND it’s haunted?!
JEFF: That’s what they say.
RAY: I guess any building that sticks around for three-and-a-half centuries is going to pick up a ghost or two.
JEFF: That’s true. Think about this: If we could come back here and sit at the bar on the first day it opened, and then time lapse 350 years, imagine what we’d see and overhear?
RAY: We’d be here for the last heydays of pirates, we’d hear talk of revolution against the king of England, we’d witness a new nation being born, we’d discuss the Civil War, read about the invention of the automobile, electricity, radio, airplane, television, space travel, Internet, the debut of the movie Goonies in 1985, AND the birth of the New England Legends podcast in 2017.
JEFF: Yup. All milestones that could be witnessed right from this bar.
RAY: Hey! We should do that!
JEFF: Do what?
RAY: Time travel through the whole thing!
JEFF: Can we do that?!
RAY: Of course we can. We time travel every week. So let’s head back to 1673 and grab that first drink.
JEFF: It’s Friday, September 1st, 1673 here in Newport, Rhode Island, and a brand new tavern has just opened up!
RAY: Mayes’ Tavern looks like the perfect place for a Friday Happy Hour!
JEFF: Two pints of your finest ale, please!
JEFF/RAY: Cheers!
JEFF: Drink fast, Ray, because from here we’re going to leap ahead almost 30 years to 1702.
RAY: Wow. Okay, It’s now September of 1702, and William Mayes, Senior has just passed away.
RAY: Leaving the tavern to his son, the pirate William Mayes, Jr.
JEFF: Sure, he’s a pirate, but the locals still like him.
RAY: The locals like him, but the British government does not. He’s still a wanted pirate. The heat is on. In an effort to keep the inn and tavern in the family, ownership is transferred to Mary Mayes Nichols and her husband, Robert.
JEFF: With the tavern safely in other hands, they’re free to continue operating without fear of the business being confiscated and shut down by the government.
RAY: Two pints of ale, please!
JEFF/RAY: God save the King!
JEFF: It’s now September of 1723. The tavern has been in operation for 50 years now. In that time there’s been the usual bar fights, arguments, lively debates, celebrations, and all the other kinds of events that happen in a busy port city like Newport.
RAY: Something seems to have stirred the lunch crowd here at the tavern.
JEFF: Did you hear that?!
RAY: I did!
JEFF: One of the inn’s overnight guests seems to have died in his room last night. Mary Nichols and one of her servants just discovered him.
RAY: I hear there’s some concern over how he died.
JEFF: Does someone think it could be foul play?!
RAY: No… There’s talk of a strange illness.
RAY: Everyone is clearing out. There’s worry it could be contagious.
JEFF: Maybe we should step outside too.
RAY: Oh wow. Some people in masks and carrying out the body from the upstairs room.
JEFF: Mary Nichols and her servant girl are also being taken out by some men wearing masks. I think they’re being taken to nearby Coasters Harbor Island for quarantine.
RAY: Newport is no stranger to outbreaks. There’s been smallpox, cholera, and even yellow fever. To keep the population safe, Mary and her servant are being taken away. Still, it’s going to be difficult for the two women who may or may not be sick.
RAY: Coasters Harbor Island is just a short rowboat ride from the coast of Newport. It’s 92-acres in size. Seven years ago, in 1716, the government ordered the construction of a hospital on the island to be used as a quarantine.
RAY: Things look bleak around here.
JEFF: They do. The sick and dying are everywhere. And now Mary Nichols and her servant are mixed among them. If they weren’t sick before, they may be now.
JEFF: After a few weeks, it’s clear that Mary Nichols is NOT sick, but sadly, her servant did get ill and passes away on Coasters Harbor Island.
RAY: So sad. We should probably head back to the tavern.
RAY: Two pints of ale, please.
JEFF/RAY: Cheers…
JEFF: It’s now September of 1730, and tavern owner Jonathan Nichols gives the business a new name: The White Horse Tavern. The Nichols family lives upstairs, and operates the tavern downstairs.
RAY: Two pints of…
RAY: Hey! I was in the middle of placing an order!
JEFF: Sorry, we gotta keep moving to see it all. It’s now September of 1776, and the Nichols Family has moved out.
RAY: Right. I heard Walter Nichols mumbling that he wanted no part in serving drinks to British or Hessian soldiers that have been garrisoned here.
JEFF: Two pints of ale, please!
RAY: What are you doing? We can’t drink with these guys! They’re the enemy.
JEFF: That’s right. And these are two less pints the enemy can drink.
RAY: Good point!
JEFF/RAY: To America!
JEFF: No offense. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: We drank a lot more beer than usual on this trip.
JEFF: We did, but we spaced them out over decades, so I think we’ll be okay.
RAY: Fair enough.
JEFF: So the Nichols Family moved back in after the Revolutionary War, and the White Horse Tavern remained in their Family until 1895 when it became a boarding house. Boarding Houses don’t make a lot of money, and they tend to get beat up pretty quickly. The White Horse Tavern was no exception. In 1954 the building was in bad shape and may have been lost but it was purchased again. After three years of renovations it reopened as the White Horse Tavern. It’s gone through various owners since, but now sits as an historic and haunted landmark in Newport.
RAY: Today everyone knows the White Horse Tavern. And given its age and history, a lot of people know it’s haunted.
JEFF: Staff and visitors have reported disembodied footsteps. They’ve seen the apparition of an old man who they assume was the guy who died upstairs from illness in the 1720s.
RAY: That’s a big assumption.
JEFF: I supposed it is.
RAY: Think of how many people came and went in a place like this? The owners, the guests, visitors, staff… that old man could be anyone.
JEFF: You’re right. We can’t help but try to put a label on anything we can’t explain. Staff have also been tapped on the shoulder by a person they can’t see. They hear voices, and sense the presence of someone there even when the building is empty and closing.
RAY: And I’m sure some of these ghosts turn into scapegoats when the wait staff drop a plate or breaks a glass.
JEFF: That story plays out in countless haunted restaurants and inns. Transient places where untold numbers of people have left some kind of mark behind. So much history was witnessed here. We can’t help but connect to that.
RAY: I’ll drink to that… again.
JEFF/RAY: Cheers!
RAY: Any excuse to have a beer with ghosts and we’re there.
JEFF: And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
RAY: After the Legend is brought to you by our Patreon Patrons! Our patrons make the magic happen. They support us financially for just $3 bucks per month – though some choose to give a little more. For that they 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.
If you’d like to see some pictures of The White Horse Tavern, you can click on the link in the episode description, or go to our Web site and click on Episode 313.
Coasters Harbor Island had many people died there in quarantine. There are still some records of names that are still around today listing local people brought there for smallpox and other illnesses. In the New England Legends television series who did an episode on Rose Island Lighthouse right off the coast of Newport. That island was also used as a quarantine.

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We’d like to thank our sponsors, thank you to our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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