"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Stratford Haunting

In 1849, former Philadelphian Rev. Eliakim Phelps moved his family into a beautiful new home: a three-story Greek-revival style mansion on a quiet street in the peaceful town of Stratford, Connecticut.

This was Phelps' "second family," so to speak. Three years earlier, at the age of 59, the reverend, who was a widower, married for the second time.  His bride was Sarah Nicholson, a much younger widow with three children: 16-year-old Anna, 11-year-old Henry, and a six-year-old daughter. This marriage produced a son, who was a toddler when the family moved to Stratford.

There are some hints that the Phelps household was not an entirely happy one. The second Mrs. Phelps was frequently unwell, and apparently deeply disliked Stratford and most of the people in it. The eldest child, Anna, shared her mother's delicate health and unhappy disposition. And young Henry was still in mourning for his dead father, and probably had yet to fully accept the man who had replaced him. However, no family is without its tensions and problems, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that the Phelpses had any difficulties out of the ordinary.

What was slightly unusual about Rev. Phelps was his interest in the then-fashionable topic of spiritualism. He was fascinated by mesmerism and clairvoyance, to the point where he had even tried hypnotizing some of his family. On March 4, 1850, he and a friend decided, as a whim, to try their hands at a seance. The two men were convinced they heard a few mysterious rappings, but they failed to get any other results. Phelps shrugged and dismissed the incident from his mind.

However, some later wondered if Phelps had unwittingly opened a spiritual door that should have remained firmly closed and locked.

The family's life in Stratford was uneventful until the morning of March 10, 1850. It was a Sunday, and their maid had the day off, so the Phelps home was empty while the family was at church. Before they left the house, the reverend had made sure all the doors and windows were locked. He carried the only set of keys in his pocket.

Considering these safety precautions, one can't blame the family for being shocked when they returned home to find the front door wide open.

They entered the house to find a scene of utter riot. During the relatively short time they had been gone, someone or something had thrown around the furniture, smashed the china, hurled books and clothing all over the floor. It was as if a tornado had struck. At first, they assumed they were the victims of unusually maniacal burglars, but they were puzzled to find that nothing was missing. Valuables such as watches and silver had been hurled about like confetti, but not stolen.

The family's understandable puzzlement and unease turned to cold horror when they went upstairs. In one of the bedrooms, the mysterious intruders had spread a sheet on the bed. On this sheet was spread one of Mrs. Phelps' nightgowns and a chemise, with stockings placed at the bottom to give the impression of legs. The arms of the gown were folded over the chest, as if it was a corpse formally placed in a coffin. Baffling symbols were written on the bedroom wall.

Ordinary housebreaking or vandalism is frightening, but comprehensible. But how on earth does one react to something like this?

When it was time for the household to return to church for afternoon services, Rev. Phelps stayed behind. He had a loaded pistol in his hand, just waiting to give the miscreants a proper greeting should they return. He didn't hear a sound, but while patrolling the house, he found another surprise, this one even more unsettling than the first.

Seated in the dining room was a group of eleven shockingly realistic-looking dummies, created by stuffing some of the Phelps family's clothing with rags and other materials. The mannequins were bent over several open Bibles, and appeared to be worshiping a small demonic figure that was dangling by a cord in the middle of the room. It was a grotesque, mocking parody of a prayer meeting.

Who was responsible for this eerie tableau? How did they construct it in such a brief amount of time? And, perhaps most importantly, why did they do it?

That Sunday was just the first act of the Phelps family's nightmare. Although all the rooms in the house were closely watched, these ghoulish dummies kept reappearing every few days, in rooms where nobody--nobody human, at any rate--could possibly have entered. The "New Haven Journal" marveled that the figures "were constructed and arranged...by no visible power." Loud poundings and rappings, made by no visible cause, were heard every night. The pianoforte would play when no one was in the room. The increasingly terrified family heard ghostly voices, sometimes quietly murmuring, at other times loudly shrieking. China spontaneously broke and windows shattered. Heavy tables would suddenly rear up on one or two legs. Silverware levitated. Objects began mysteriously flying around the house, seemingly under their own power. One morning, when the family was having breakfast, a potato dropped from out of nowhere and landed with a crash on the table. The mysterious persecutors had a fixation on turnips--surely, one would think, the most unspiritual of vegetables. The turnips began suddenly materializing out of nowhere, often with strange symbols carved on them. Perhaps the oddest event of all took place when the family saw a "vegetable growth" suddenly rise up from one of the carpets. It flashed more symbols at them before it abruptly vanished.

There were many witnesses to these strange occurrences. They described the objects as traveling through the air almost in slow-motion. Sometimes they landed with a hard bang, at other times they came to rest gently. Sometimes they changed direction in mid-flight. Rationalists assumed that there was some sort of "normal" explanation for what they were seeing--that someone was pulling an elaborate practical joke--but they could not even guess how it was done. The family was closely scrutinized, making it impossible that any of them could have caused the phenomena. Austin Phelps, an adult son of the reverend's from his first marriage, later wrote, "That the facts were real, a thousand witnesses testified. That they were inexplicable by any known principles of science was equally clear to all who saw and heard them, who were qualified to judge. Experts in science went to Stratford in triumphant expectation, and came away in dogged silence, convinced of nothing, yet solving nothing." Phelps became convinced that they were being targeted by demons, and it must be said that no one was able to offer a better explanation.

The spectral tormentors began to show an ominously violent tendency. Anna Phelps found herself pinched and slapped by invisible hands. One night, while she was sleeping, a pillow was pressed over her face and a cord was tied tightly around her neck, nearly choking her. Little Henry received even worse treatment. His bed was set on fire. His clothing would be suddenly torn from his body. Once, while out driving with Rev. Phelps, the boy was suddenly pelted with stones. A family friend saw him carried across a room by some invisible force and thrown onto the floor. The spirits--or whatever they were--took to kidnapping Henry. He would suddenly disappear, to later be found tied up and hanging from a tree outside the house, or in a hay mound, unconscious, or bound and gagged in a closet. After these events, he never had any memory of what had happened to him.

The entities were oddly communicative. Papers began to drop down from nowhere, with creepily cryptic messages on them. The family began receiving letters--nearly a hundred of them--purporting to be from now-deceased people the Phelpses had known in Philadelphia. On one occasion, a woman visiting the Phelps household jokingly asked the "spirits" to write a letter for her to send to a friend in Philadelphia. Almost immediately, a paper floated down to her reading, "Dear Mary, I have just time to write and tell you that I am well. Give my love to Miss K. and her uncle. Also Mrs. and Mr. D. Also to Sarah. Good-bye."

The note was signed, "H.P. Devil."

One of the cryptic "spirit messages."

It was becoming increasingly apparent that the disruptions largely centered around young Henry, a theory that received confirmation from a curious, and possibly highly significant incident. One day, he told his mother that the night before, he was awakened from sleep by a being dressed in white. The figure told him, "Be not afraid, my son; I am your father." The being gave him a silver watch, telling him to wear it "for my sake." Mrs. Phelps tried to brush the story off, telling her son that it was only a dream.

But was it? As it happened, Henry's father had left him a valuable silver watch. It was kept locked in a drawer, to which the boy had no access. After Henry had this conversation with his mother, she unlocked the drawer, and confirmed the watch was still there. She relocked the drawer, putting the key in her pocket. Soon after that, the boy came in from the yard carrying this same watch. He explained that his father had reappeared, and again put this watch in his hand.

Reverend Phelps finally decided there was nothing for it but to hold another seance. If the first one had somehow accidentally summoned these demonic beings, perhaps a second one could persuade them to leave. This resulted in one of the weirdest "spirit communication" on record. Through a series of rappings, the "thing" identified itself as a damned soul, forced to spend eternal torment for its sins. In life, it explained, it had been a law clerk who had done some work for the Phelps family. The clerk had committed a fraud against the family, which led to him being sent to Hell.

Phelps asked sympathetically if there was anything he could do.

Yes, the spirit replied. It wanted a piece of pumpkin pie. And a glass of gin.

When asked why it was tormenting the family, the spirit replied in true satanic fashion, "For fun."

Later, Phelps checked with the law office where the spirit claimed to have worked. It turned out there had been some fraud, but of an amount "not sufficiently large to warrant prosecution."

Prosecution on this side of the grave, at least.

After months of this ghostly warfare, the Phelps family raised the white flag of surrender. They resolved to move back to Philadelphia, and hope their unwanted houseguests would remain where they were. Soon after the family came to this decision, another message floated down on the reverend's desk. It read, "How soon do the family expect to go to Pennsylvania? I wish to make some arrangements before they go. Please answer in writing."

"About the first of October," Phelps wrote back.

He was as good as his word. On October 2, 1850, the family left Stratford. They spent the winter in Philadelphia without incident, and when they returned in the following March, they were greatly relived to find that their demon companions seemed to be getting bored with their "fun." A few days after their return, they heard a slight rapping as they sat at the dinner table. They determinedly ignored it. A few more of the cryptic characters appeared from time to time, but the Phelpses did their best to take no notice of those, either. They received a rapping "communication" from a "spirit" who claimed to be a deceased daughter of the reverend's. When Phelps asked the "spirits" if their harassment of the family would continue, he received a series of raps which spelled out, "Be not afraid that they will trouble you more/Though we have not quitted Connecticut shore." A second message said, "Evil one has gone, and better one has come." The ghostly manifestations gradually subsided, until by December 1851, they finally ceased for good. The Phelpses were able to live a blessedly dull and commonplace existence in the home until they sold it in 1859.

The formerly haunted mansion was eventually turned into a convalescent home. There were occasional reports of ghostly rappings and voices, but nothing like the full-scale Weird reported by the Phelps family. The home was eventually abandoned until it finally burned down in 1972. The site is today a parking lot.

And as for the explanation of what the Phelpses experienced in 1850?  Was it all a hoax, perpetrated for God knows what reason either by someone in the family or an outsider?  Or was it something genuinely Fortean?

Your theory is as good as anyone's.

1 comment:

  1. Now, that's a creepy story. The harassment seems to have been a very mixed bag. Kidnapping the boy, doesn't go with objects levitating or dummies arranged around a table.

    And what sort of clergyman was Phelps? He stayed home during a church service - which he obviously wasn't conducting; he held seances; he was clearly well-off; he owned a firearm and was probably prepared to use it. And did Mrs Phelps ever say "I told you so?" about their move to Stratford?


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