Hauntings remain with their houses

Do ghosts attach themselves to objects, and follow them, even when they move?

Certainly, that seems to be the opinion of the members of the Rindge Historical Society, which presently operates out of the Freeborn Stearns House in that town. As soon as they began bringing in historical mementos all over the state – including several guns from the Civil War – they began experiencing a gamut of paranormal activity.

The same could be said for a situation where an entire house moves, as is the case with the old Deacon Cummings House, presently located in Davis Court, in the Historical District of Nashua. The house, a classic salt-box building, was originally constructed in Dunstable in 1746. Around 1800, the house was moved across the town border into Hollis, specifically on Merrill Lane near Runnell’s Bridge. The Runnel family ran a large farm, and hired numerous itinerant workers to work on the property.

It is here that the legend of the house originates. One of the employees was an old sailor who harbored a severe distrust of banks, and preferred to hide the jewels and loot he had acquired on his journeys under his pillow, along with a knife.

Well, the knife didn’t do him any good. The other workers quickly learned of his cache, and murdered him in his bed. After that point, it is said, his spirit began to stalk the house.

The house stood deserted for many years, and its reputation as a haunted place began to become pervasive. In 1896, the house came to the attention of one William Spalding, who heard of the place while at a party held at the Nashua Boat Club. He went into the vacant building to investigate three flashes of light the color of phosphorous. When he and his friends entered the house with candles, a gust of wind extinguished them and bricks fell from the steeply pitched roof to the ground. Spalding purchased the house in 1896 and moved it to its present location behind his Concord Street house.

Just what kind of person was Spalding – and what could have compelled him to purchase and move a demonstrably haunted house? We can glean some history of his family from “The Granite Monthly: A New Hampshire Magazine Devoted to History, Biography, Literature and State Progress,” edited by Henry Harrison Metcalf and John Norris McClintock, published in 1902:

“The banking institutions of the city are not only large in number for a community of its size, but are noted in the financial world for successful management and strength of resources. The First National Bank, located opposite the city hall, has occupied its own building for thirty-five years. Its president is the Hon. J. A. Spalding, present postmaster of Nashua; and a man known throughout the state for his long identification with its business, financial, political and other interests. Mr. Spalding was the first cashier of the First National, serving for the long period of thirty-two years. He is a native of Wilton and yet retains in his possession the homestead and estate. On his election as president of the bank, his son, William E. Spalding, was chosen his successor as cashier. He is one of the best known of the younger men in the city, for he has always been active and prominent in all that concerned its welfare. He was a member of the staff of Governor Rollins, and since then has carried the title of ‘general,’ and as General Spalding he is known about the state, but to his intimates and boyhood friends he is still familiarly designated as ‘Will.’

“General Spalding has a hobby, and a splendid success he has made of it. It is the collection of all that in any manner pertained to home life in the Colonial times, and his effort along this line is so complete as to include the acquisition of a Colonial house of the better type, and the filling of it with the furniture, plate, dishes and in fact, practically every article used by the pioneers of state and nation.” The house stands on the spacious lawn of General Spalding’s Concord Street residence, and it and its contents constitute a collection at once so complete, great and varied that it could not fail to elicit the admiration and even astonishment of an Alice Morse Earle and other students of Colonial days.”

There were some alterations made to the property when Spalding purchased it; elements of the colonial revival were added, including a corner cupboard with fluted columns and a detailed cornice. Most of the building, however, remained intact.It’s interesting to note that Concord Street had its own history of ghosts long before Spalding brought The Haunt into the neighborhood. For instance, we have this account from the Portland Daily Press, published on July 12, 1871:

“HAUNTED HOUSE IN NASHUA – The State House at Concord has for several weeks been haunted by a lively set of political ghosts from all parts of the State, nevertheless Nashua presents a case of which the following statement is made:

‘Some three years ago a well-known gentleman purchased a house on the Concord Road. He had not long resided in his peaceful villa when of a moonlight night, he was aroused by what seemed to be a flock of sheep walking on the roof above his head. Of course he was puzzled to understand the phenomenon; more so when he sought to learn the cause and discovered – nothing. Since that time persons have been heard in conversation in the cellar, and the sound of someone digging in the earth under the windows with crowbars. Occasionally there has been an offensive effluvia ascend from the hearth in one of the rooms, and the family have been subjected to a variety of other annoyances.’

“‘On Friday night last week the gentleman heard what supposed to be some splitting of wood in the shed, and descending quietly to an adjoining door with a lighted lamp, listened to the sound for a full hour; in the meantime hearing noises in the kitchen at his left which led him to suppose that some other member of the family was about, he opened the door, and as usual, there was nothing in either place. These noises have become so frequent and have been so often repeated that the wife’s and sons’ health have suffered, and the gentleman has been obliged to make arrangements for their accommodation elsewhere. He now proposes to invite a few friends to join him in a full investigation of this mysterious affair. The result will be made available at an early day.”

That’s not all. There was another haunted encounter in the same neighborhood about 10 years later. This one was particularly heinous, as we find in a report from The Boston Journal on November 16, 1880:

“Nashua has a ‘haunted house.’ It is situated within the half mile radius of the geographical center of the city. It is a large, two-story modern and tenantless structure. It has been built five or six years, and from its portal mother and son have passed to the grave. Just now this house is the sensation of the city. Everybody is talking about it and the wonderful phenomena that have occurred within is four walls are the evening themes of many family circles. Those who are superstitious have an idea that the spirits of the departed linger here, for what purpose is not clear, and those who are of a practical turn of mind laugh in derision, and while they do not ignore the statement that strange and thus far unaccountable sounds have been heard, they urge that an intelligent investigation will reveal natural causes. We express no opinion, we simply give numerous statements, many of which we have from the lips of those who learned them by experience.

“A family took possession of the house. The first evening, and while the wife, with her children about her, was engaged about some work in the parlor, the door bell rang. She answered the summons, and to her great surprise, there was no one at the door. She returned to her work and presently she heard footsteps in the hall. She sought to learn the individuality of her visitor and was dismayed upon discovering – nobody. During the night that followed, strange, unexplainable noises were heard, and the members of the family began to fear they had become tenants of a haunted house. The next night there was a general racket. At midnight the household was aroused by a sound which indicated that the covers of the stove were being shuffled about and someone was engaged in housework. The head of the family and a male lodger – a partially deaf man who was aroused by the noise – investigated in the kitchen and no cause could be found. They retired, when presently a stove in the attic of the house was thumped and banged about. No cause could be discovered. During the next few nights a noise like a person strangling with hiccough, also groanings and traveling about the halls and upon the stairs were heard and no clue to a cause could be assigned. It is also said that the store covers were rattled during the day, and when the wife, thinking some friend had called and was making the noise to attract her attention, opened the door, there was a pressure against her like a person crowding past, also that she was crowded in a like manner while ascending the staircase. The family moved out.

“Since then there has been an endless amount of speculation, and all the ghost stories of individual recollection have been told and retold to the wonderment and entertainment of select circles. The troubles of this haunted house have also been continued, and stories about it have magnified until the most wonderful phenomena of the age are attributed to it.

“A gentleman who proposed to hire it undertook, with a friend, to spend the night in it, but the traveling about the hall, ringing of the doorbell, rapping upon the walls and a bright light which was frequently thrown into their faces from ‘nowhere in particular,’ frightened them so that they fled at midnight in dismay.

“Mediums have held seances in the house and profess to have held solemn conversations with those who died there, and it is told that on a certain night a bright light was seen for an hour in the room, where the woman, mentioned in the first paragraph, died.

“We dislike to spoil a good story, but since the foregoing was written, a gentleman residing in the neighborhood of the haunted house has informed The Telegraph that the strange phenomena are traceable to a family of rats that had made a nest in the furnace.”

In its new location, the house attracted the attention of the press at large. As it predated just about every other building in the city, it was seen as something as an oddity. As an example, we have this rather curious little piece from the June 30, 1904, edition of The Weekly Advocate:

“AN ODD OLD HOUSE

“Quaint New Hampshire Building That Dates Back 250 Years.

“Col. William E. Spalding, known throughout New England as a collector of antiques and owning some of the best specimens of Colonial utilities to be found in any one collection, some seven or eight years ago secured from the Nashua Hollis line the Winslow Reed house, a curious old structure more than 250 years old, which was first brought to general notice by the Press, which published some interesting ghost stories based peculiar happenings at the isolated farmhouse. This house was taken down and transported piecemeal to Col. Spalding’s lawns, where it was rebuilt and filed with the choicest and most appropriate antiques to be bought at any price in New England. Today it stands a priceless storehouse of treasures.

“In the old house are secret cupboards and strange, weird closets. Most strange of all is a secret stairway winding around the immense chimney, which leads to a secret chamber on the second floor, large enough for ten or twelve persons and yet so arranged as to be without chance of discovery to the rest of the house. In the cellar was a room in the chimney where it is believed counterfeiting was going on.”

It appears that the house was in imminent danger of demolition at the beginning of the 20th century. For instance, we have this account from the December 27, 1906, edition of The Boston Herald:

“The ‘Haunt,’ the historic dwelling house moved to this city by Gen. William E. Spalding, where it was the old building (10 years ago), and fitted up as a special building in which Gen. Spalding kept his famous collection of antique furniture and historical relics, is being dismantled.

“Gen. Spalding this week disposed of all of his collection except that which he has moved into his residence on Abbott Square, and the sale was one of the most notable events of the kind which has taken place in New England for years. There were dealers and collectors present from all parts of New England. Extraordinarily high prics prevailed.

“This was especially true in the matter of highboys, lowboys, sofas, chairs and other articles of high class old-fashioned furniture, and on Sheffield silver and pewter ware.

“Extensive purchases were made by Hollis French, Dwigin Kinney and Mrs. Lord of Boston. Mrs. Caarks Curis of Manchester, Mrs. Harry Putnam of Concord, Mrs. Heddrick of Lowell, Dr. George F. Newcombe of Somersworth, Dr. Charles Twitchell of Portland, Me., and Mrs. Barrows of Haverhill while Mr. Merritt of Lowell, a well known book collector, purchased a large stock in his line.

“The ‘Haunt’ was originally constructed in Dunstable, Mass., in 1746, but it builder or first owner is not known. About 1800 it was moved across the town line into Hollis, and was the first wood frame building in which a resident of that town was known to have lived. A diary possessed by George A. Burke of Hollis tells of the removal of the building into the town being drawn by oxen.

“It was located in the vicinity of Runnell’s Falls on the Nashua River on the highway between this city and Pepperell Mass., and as long ago as the memory of the oldest inhabitant dates back it had the reputation of being a ‘haunted’ house. For years it was deserted.

“Gen. Spalding upon purchasing it, moved it to a location in the rear of his former residence on Concord Street in this city, and restored it at considerable expense, although he found at that time that the timbers were in a fine state of preservation.

“It formed a fitting place to display to his friends his collection of antiques to which he was constantly adding, and which came to be known as one of the best in New England. His decision to break it up came as a surprise to dealers and collectors all over this part of the country.

“An effort is being made on the Matthew Thornton chapter D.A.R. of this city to purchase the building, fix it up as a meeting place, and keep in it such historical articles as the society may be able to procure.

“Gen. Spalding was one of the New Hampshire agents at the time of the St. Louis exposition, and from his collection a number articles were taken to furnish a room in the New Hampshire building on the exposition grounds.”

From these accounts, it would appear that General Spalding was liquidating his treasured collection in order to decamp to other environs. The Daughters of the American Revolution were evidently successful in their attempts to secure the ancient structure, and it stands today.

General Spalding lived a good 16 years longer, expiring in 1922. From the May 24 edition of The Boston Herald of that year, we have his funeral notice:

“The funeral of William E. Spalding, Boston financier, will be held this afternoon at Nashua, N.H., where he resided before coming to Boston. He died Monday, following an operation. He is believed to have owned the finest antique collection in this part of the country. He leaves a widow, Florence Dexter Spalding, a son and a daughter.

“He was the owner of the famous King Hooper mansion in Marblehead and the Spalding farm house, which is in Parker street back of the Wentworth Institute in Roxbury. He served on the staffs of Gov. Sawyer and Gov. Rollins in New Hampshire. He was always interested in amateur entertaining and was prominent in the Longwood Minstrels and in the shows which the 1st corps Cadets gave in former years. He was a member of the Boston Athletic Association.”

It’s a little fuzzy what happened to the house after 1906, but it seems to have been converted back into a private house. What I have been able to determine is that an architect by the name of Steven Tracy purchased the house in 1942, and used it as an office. Consequently, he kept it heated and moisture-free, which accounts for its continued good condition. He also preserved the wall panels, and the hand-hewn 30-inch boards. The captain’s staircase to the second floor was preserved, as was the “good morning” staircase to the attic. In 1968, the house was sold to Nashua Alderman Linda Willett, who lived there with her husband, Henry, and their three children.

The house still stands in Davis Court, hidden behind an ornate garden. From the street, it still looks imposing, and is definitely one of Nashua’s true architectural treasures. Few people, however, seem to be aware of its incredibly haunted history.