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Newburyport’s Haunted Schoolhouse

Yankee Classic from Mysterious New England, 1971 It doesn’t take much to distract a young student from his lessons — certainly not the best efforts of Newburyport’s most bell-ringing, stool-rattling, door-knocking, wind-blowing ghost on record . . . No one ever knew the real story of Newburyport’s famous haunted schoolhouse of the early 1870’s. Amos […]

By Ned Brown

Aug 31 2009


Haunted Schoolhouse

Yankee Classic from Mysterious New England, 1971
Haunted Schoolhouse
Haunted Schoolhouse
It doesn’t take much to distract a young student from his lessons — certainly not the best efforts of Newburyport’s most bell-ringing, stool-rattling, door-knocking, wind-blowing ghost on record . . . No one ever knew the real story of Newburyport’s famous haunted schoolhouse of the early 1870’s. Amos Currier was said to have boasted in later years that he was responsible for all of the eerie doings which terrified teacher and pupils in the little one-room building on Charles Street; but no schoolboy could have been responsible for the more baffling phenomena recalled. The school board held inquisitions and columns of reports were printed about them; but some things which happened would have baffled even the most astute of today’s sophisticated scientists. You can read exhaustively about the haunted school in the yellowing files of local newspapers in the public library; but a compact account is preserved in a “tract” published by Loring of Boston and selling for twenty cents a copy. Unusual news stories of the time were frequently given this journalistic treatment and pamphlets could be bought at book shops and newsdealers. The little pitched-roof building, locale of soul-shuddering incidents, was described as drab in color, with green blinds, “and not in the best condition outwardly.” The door posts were soiled, the weather boards were scratched, characteristic of many school buildings, and a broken fence bordered the bare yard. The entryway and classroom were described as close and stuffy, with the familiar scent of southern pine that haunts the nostrils of those who attended the humbler schools of the era. There was said to have been nothing peculiar about the rude classroom; no niches to give echoes, no mirrors to refract the light; no closets where one could be secreted; and no objects outside the windows near enough to cast shadows within. It was a primary school for boys, with seats for about sixty pupils, a raised platform for the teacher’s desk, and chairs for a few visitors. As far back as 1870, people became cognizant of disturbances in the Charles Street School. It was reported that certain unaccountable sounds had taken place from time to time, but the incidents attained no prominence in the community because of their rather common character. While the children were murmuring their morning prayers, a thundering knock would sound on the floor; then it would come upon the wall, then near the teacher’s desk. On one occasion the sounds were so rapid and powerful that the teacher could not hear the children recite their lessons. One child was spelling the word “cannot.” He pronounced the letters c-a-n, but the noise which had been going on for such a long time suddenly increased, and the voice was completely drowned. The teacher could see the boy’s lips moving, but could hear nothing. A day or two later a series of raps was heard on the outer door. The teacher went to admit the expected visitor. She found no one; closed the door and locked it. The raps were instantly repeated. The teacher returned to the door, but found no one. Then the phenomena became all the more inexplicable. In an open space, in front of the pupils’ desks was a tubular stove. It had a cover which could be raised by a wire handle. The handle was at times seized, as though by invisible fingers, and raised upright, and the cover was lifted bodily several inches above the burning coals; and after keeping its position in mid-air for some minutes, it was lowered again and restored to its place. The janitor of the building, an ordinarily courageous man, finally refused to enter the building in the morning, unaccompanied, saying “the noises and disturbances were too much for him.” He often found the stove moved from its position, the utensils scattered in various places, and the fuel disarranged. Upon the teacher’s desk there were two bells, one smaller than the other. Frequently the lighter was seized by the unseen power, raised from its ledge, and rung violently before the eyes of the pupils. The schoolroom was ventilated by means of a circular hole in the ceiling, closed by a wooden valve, which could be raised or lowered by means of a cord descending from the garret. It was a trick of the rogue to shut the valve when it was supposed to be open — and open it when it was supposed to be shut. Surely not the prank of any schoolboy or adult was the phenomenon of the strange light. At times the whole schoolroom was illuminated, while the school was in session, by a strong yellow glow, which on dark days had proceeded from the entry and entered through a partition window. In the midst of storms, when the sky was heavily overcast and the school was almost lost in gloom and obscurity, “a soft and equal radiance” stole over the scene and lighted up the farthest corner of the apartment. This is nothing that can be ignored and treated with brave indifference. Over the faces of the pupils, who had put aside their books because of the darkness, there suddenly began to creep this terrible light. There was no burning focus; the appearance was described as an “illuminated exhalation.” Further, the schoolhouse was often attacked by powerful currents of air that arose, suddenly at times, when the atmosphere was entirely at rest. At times there appeared to arise a great storm outside, as billows of air appeared to rush upon the building and to sweep about it with all the vigor of a tempest. The joists creaked, the eaves moaned, and the chimney became an organ pipe. The teacher, Miss Lucy Perkins, who endured all of this, was, fortunately, not a sensitive soul. Twenty-three years old, angular, with a strong frame, she was not easily frightened. Sometimes she bid the children sing. To drive away their disturbing fancies, they would break out, in their high-pitched, unmusical voices, with : “Here we stand, hand in hand.” Miss Perkins underwent a firm and rigid examination on the part of school authorities. The schoolboys were bribed and threatened. It was said that Oliver Wendell Holmes had tried his hand at teasing a confession of trickery from the Currier boy by means of a dollar bill. But he failed. The school committee was initially reluctant to give color to the case by taking notice of it. There was agitation to close the school, even to remove the building. Some pupils were withdrawn. Others threatened to leave. By 1875 the disturbances had ceased and the school was used for some time after that. The school was long ago remodeled as a house, and the family of Joseph F. Garand lives at 32 Charles Street today. Joe says everything is serene.