Boston, Massachusetts, boasts countless stories of the supernatural. Many students at Boston College have encountered an unearthly hound that haunts O'Connell House to this day. Be on the watch for an actor who sits in on rehearsals at Huntington Theatre and restless spirits rumored to haunt Boston Common at night. From the Victorian brownstones of Back Bay to the shores of the Boston Harbor Islands, author Sam Baltrusis makes it clear that there is hardly a corner of the Hub where the paranormal cannot be experienced as he breathes new life into the tales of the long departed.
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When it comes to school spirits, Boston has more than its fair share of them. Spine-chilling tales of unexplained sounds, flickering lights, residual apparitions and levitating objects have become a rite of passage for the uninitiated college-bound freshman adapting to life in one of the haunted dorms scattered throughout the Boston area.
Elizabeth Tucker, a professor of English at Binghamton University and author of Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses, said that collegiate ghost stories are morality plays for the modern era. "They educate freshmen about how to live well in college," she explained in a 2007 interview, adding that the cautionary tales serve as spooky metaphors of fear, disorder and insanity. They also reflect students' interest in their college's historical legacy. Yep, campus ghost lore is a paranormal pep rally of sorts. "You don't find ghost stories at schools without a sense of pride," Tucker continued. "School spirits reflect school spirit."
The difference between Boston's specters and other run-of-the-mill ghosts haunting universities throughout the country? Our spirits are wicked smart. Boston University's Shelton Hall, for example, boasts the ghost of a famed American playwright and Nobel laureate in literature, Eugene O'Neill. Harvard's Massachusetts Hall has one respectable-looking student who returns every fall claiming to be a member of the class of 1914. Apparently, the residual apparition of Holbrook Smith never got the memo that he was kicked out of the Ivy League almost a century ago.
We got spirits, yes we do.
The Charlesgate Hotel, located at 4 Charlesgate East, is Boston's version of New York City's The Dakota building (which served as the creepy location for the film Rosemary's Baby and the spot where John Lennon was murdered). It has been a hotbed of alleged paranormal activity since it was built in 1891 as a fin de siècle hotel replete with glazed porcelain tiles and working elevators. Formerly a Boston University and Emerson College dorm, the ornately designed building is the source of a slew of student reports from the 1970s to the mid-'90s claiming the building was a supernatural vortex of evil.
In 1895, author Charles S. Darmell called Charlesgate "one of the most elegant family hotels in the city." The initial structure included thirty apartments and was constructed at a cost of $170,000, an enormous sum at the time. The building was sold in 1923 to Herbert G. Summers, who owned the hotel during the Depression era. Boston University purchased the building, housing four hundred female tenants, in 1947. In 1951, BU asked permission to remove the skylight and cover it with tar and gravel. By 1968, it housed almost five hundred students and had two dining halls. Apparently, students enjoyed living in a textbook example of a haunted house. In fact, the Charlesgate Hall Handbook from 1956–57 described the building as BU's very own "witches castle," alluding to its Gothic-style architecture that was once suitable for Boston's Brahmin elite.
There were several elevator-related accidents at the Charlesgate, including a broken hoist cable that rattled four ladies in the '40s. The more severe incident, happening in 1947, involved a female student walking into the elevator shaft and plunging six floors. Apparently, she didn't die from the fall, nor was it confirmed as a suicide attempt. However, the myth surrounding that fateful nose dive has perpetuated an onslaught of paranormal legends that continue today.
Rumors began in the '70s, when Boston University students claimed that they were feeling bad vibes from a sixth-floor closet after discovering an alleged suicide had taken place there years prior. For the record, the suicide stories were never confirmed. "Went to Emerson for grad school from '87 to '89. My friends lived on the sixth and the top floors. This was nicknamed the 'suicide dorm' when it was part of Boston University's campus," recalled Mark from Arizona. "I always felt creeped out in that place, and though we weren't allowed, we did play with a Ouija board."
Here's where Mark's tale gets strange: "It led us to find a door hidden in a closet that led to a small hidden space between walls. An old fireplace was in it and a shoe from what looked like the middle of the twentieth century. After that, one of our friends who was involved became very sick and started acting strangely. Pretty creepy."
When the notoriously haunted site became an Emerson dorm in 1981, all hell broke lose. A bevy of myths — including a "man in black" haunting the halls, unexplained noises, hidden rooms that were not included in the building's original J. Pickering Putnam blueprint and the ghost of a little girl, Elsa, who fell down the Charlesgate's elevator shaft — were reinforced by the something-wicked-this-way-comes vibe that emanates from the fourteen-thousand-square-foot space with turreted bay windows looking out over the Charles River. There were even rumors of Mafia hit men knocking off victims in a soundproof room on the seventh floor and Satanic cults performing sacrifices.
In 1981, Emerson's newspaper, the Berkeley Beacon, reported that a spitfire of an evil creature called a "Fury" set up shop in the Charlesgate basement, while others mentioned that paint from a door had been scratched off to look like the devil himself. However, the harmless spooks from the early '80s took a much darker turn as the decade progressed.
In October 1988, the Boston Phoenix put out a tongue-in-cheek Halloween story called "Boston's Trail of Terror!" portraying the Charlesgate as a "devilish dormitory" where two-thirds of the building was inhabited by members of a Depression-era demonic cult. Journalist David W. Bromley contended that at least two grisly murders happened there, including those of a young boy in the downstairs stables and one on the top floor. The article continued, saying that the dorm was a "snake pit of spirits" by the '80s, that Emerson students would brush off close encounters with devil-worshiping fellow tenants and that it was commonplace to see a black pentagram painted on the floor surrounded by burning candles. According to the report, temperatures would drop and blankets were ripped off students during the wee hours of the night.
Jamie Kagliery, an Emerson student in 1986, wrote a term paper talking about Charlesgate's eerie temperature fluctuations even though the windows were shut. The young writer also told the story of "a man dressed completely in black," a so-called spirit who would stalk the seventh floor. He also claimed that room 611 was home to a series of suicides and that alarm clocks on the floor would sporadically go off at 6:11 a.m. without fail.
One anonymous source from Colorado, a former Charlesgate tenant who lived on the third floor, alluded to Kagliery's "man in black" story years later in an interview with me for this book. "I experienced many creepy feelings, but what really disturbed me was the night when I was alone in my room ... and someone in a dark cloak crossed my room and the door behind my head did not open," she recalled. "I turned around, and no one was there. I had heard it was the spirit of a man whose child had died in the stairwell and he killed himself in remorse. It was rumored that he watched over the girls to protect us. I hid under my covers for some time, but I did sleep that night, so maybe he was a positive spirit. The medium boards were frequently used, and there were some not-so-good energies which made us stop many times. I heard many rumors."
A handwritten note kept in the "Charlesgate Hauntings" file at the Emerson Archives recounted an alleged encounter dating back to 1987. In the story, Cindy Ludlow felt "the top bunk move" in room 327, even though no one else was there. Allegedly, the bed's sheets were pulled back. Based on the note, Ludlow apparently reached out to a friend with psychic abilities who said that it was the spirit of a little boy who "just wanted to play."
In the February 1990 edition of FATE magazine, former Emerson student Tracey Libby penned an elaborate Ouija-board tale that perpetuated the Satanic cult myth, saying that "it was not unusual for a student to walk by the open door of a room belonging to a cult member and find a group of them chanting." In her "Closing a Window in Charlesgate Hall" story, Libby paid homage to the building's arrested decay, pointing out that the antique bathroom had tubs that sit on legs with clawed feet. She also recounted a Ouija party where five freaked-out freshmen contacted an evil spirit called "Mama" and a helper guide named "Pete."
During the spirit session, they got a call from a parent who was supposedly psychic and "had seen a red flag signaling danger." According to the concerned father, Libby had "opened a psychic window, letting evil spirits through." The party of five tried to help a lost soul and was told to go to the boarded-up elevator at midnight. Libby talked about the "shaft girl" story, alluding to the elevator accident in '47 and a bloody crime scene behind the closed elevator. She also referred to the "man in black" myth. For the record, he had an injured arm in her yarn and "supposedly roamed the stairwell that surrounds the old elevator." Libby's published tale has a disclaimer saying that all names were changed for privacy but the story, "amazing as it sounds," is allegedly true.
There are several Ouija-board stories circulating from the late '80s. According to lore, the spirit games were banned from the dorm "because of their psychological effects on students due to evil messages," wrote Libby. While students who lived in Charlesgate Hall during that era insist that the boards weren't allowed, there are no references to the so-called Ouija board rule in Emerson's housing and resident life handbooks in the early '90s. Pot-smoking college kids playing with a Ouija board? Now that's scary.
Also, the "shaft girl" story about Putnam's daughter Elsa who supposedly fell down the elevator shaft and died while chasing a ball isn't true. In fact, Elsa Putnam had four children and lived in Boston until her death in 1979. Ironically, the story of Elsa's ghost, who was rumored to wander the halls of Charlesgate looking for her ball and a new playmate, transferred over to Emerson's other haunted dorm, The Little Building, when the college purchased it in 1994.
Robert Fleming, former archivist and current executive director of the Emerson College Library, gave a spirited speech in 1992 on the history of the grand hotel. "On haunting, I'm not going to say unequivocally that there are not ghosts," he remarked. "In fact, if there are any spirits of the dead that you should steer clear of in this building, it is probably the ghost of John Pickering Putnam, who probably puts a curse on anyone who does any damage or shows any disrespect to his beloved Charlesgate Hotel."
Three years after Fleming's speech, Emerson sold the creaky Hogwarts-esque structure located at 4 Charlesgate East. Now that the building is an upscale condo complex, the ghost-story frenzy of the '80s and '90s seems like a forgotten tale from the crypt. Perhaps Fleming's words about Putnam's ghost were true: Once the building ended its half-century term as a college dorm and returned to its original glory as an apartment complex for Boston's upper crust, maybe Putnam's spirit was finally laid to rest.
Berklee College of Music's 150 Massachusetts Avenue
Many talented musicians have passed through the halls of Boston's Berklee College of Music since it was founded in 1945. The rock 'n' roll school has attracted a slew of singer-songwriters like John Mayer, Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks and drummer Joey Kramer from Aerosmith. Those on its growing list of alumni continue to be the who's who of Boston's local music scene.
Like its collegiate neighbors, Berklee has a haunted dormitory, located at 150 Massachusetts Avenue. The site, formerly the Sherry Biltmore Hotel, was damaged in a massive fire during the early morning of March 29, 1963, killing four guests and injuring twenty-seven. The source of the blaze was an eight-year-old boy who was staying on the sixth floor. He later told investigators that he was playing with matches in an unoccupied suite, room 655.
Of course, the ghost lore surrounding the building has taken on a life of its own. Former Berklee students have shared stories of inexplicable gusts of air, levitating objects and all sorts of unidentifiable sounds. "People see weird shadows and hear bizarre noises at night," confirmed Colt Wolff in an October 2011 interview with the Boston Globe, adding that a creepy picture of what looked like an apparition was shot in one of the dorm's rooms and circulated among students. "You're like, 'Well, it's an old building, so there's no way to know.'"
The stories, dating back to its purchase in 1972, have been consistent over the years, and students strongly believe that the ghosts roaming the halls are victims of the fatal hotel fire. The building was built in the early 1900s as an apartment complex and was reopened in 1955 as the Sherry Biltmore. The hotel was almost fully occupied at the time of the blaze, according to a report in Boston's Fire Trail, and a late-night party was going on in suites 601 through 611 for a departing cast member of the touring musical The Sound of Music.
The rescue is legendary among Boston Fire Department historians, who call it "one of the most spectacular jobs of raising ladders." Ten ladder companies responded to the disaster, rescuing approximately one hundred people, many over ladders, while the entire sixth floor was engulfed in flames. Guests trying to escape out of windows were blocked by air-conditioning units. One man tied his bedsheets together and fell twelve feet, uninjured, while two boys slid down a pole to safety.
Berklee students believe that the residual trauma of that fateful morning continues to wreak havoc in the dorm, even after the college renovated the building in 1999. "The strange thing I can remember is my roommate and I sitting doing homework and the TV flying across the room ... the windows were closed," recalled one anonymous student who lived in the dorm in 1985. "Oftentimes at night and sometimes in the afternoon, there would be knocking on the door ... frantic knocking. We'd open it while the knocking was happening, and there wouldn't be anyone there."
Richard G. said that he was initially skeptical about the ghost stories until he had a late-night encounter back in 1993. He was lying in bed and noticed a hairbrush fly off his dresser. "I assumed my roommate may have thrown it at first, but I looked and he was asleep," he told me. "Then, I thought to myself that this was just like a similar experience I heard about. It felt benign and not malevolent." He heard other Berklee students talk about "objects moving and falling. Also, hearing voices in the steam pipes. But the steam pipes were really noisy."
The boy who admitted to starting the fire was the son of one of the cast members of The Sound of Music. Partygoers recalled the sheer panic of trying to get out of the sixth-floor inferno, smashing windows and crawling out of a small bathroom window, head first, and finding refuge on a nearby roof. The Austrian-born child, whose mother played a nun in the Rodgers-Hammerstein musical, told police that he liked to hear the "fizz sound" of matches when asked why he sparked the fatal fire. However, Berklee College of Music students find no solace in the eerie sounds of terror emanating from the dormitory halls of 150 Massachusetts Avenue.
File under: haunting harmony
Boston University's Shelton Hall
Up-and-coming writers at Boston University flock to Shelton Hall's fourth floor, known as the dorm's Writers' Corridor, to hobnob with the spirit of lauded, and notably tortured, playwright Eugene O'Neill. The Long Day's Journey Into Night author — crippled with a slew of ailments ranging from a rare genetic neurological disease to tuberculosis to depression to stomach disorders exacerbated by alcoholism — spent the last two years of his life in suite 401 when the BU dormitory located at 91 Bay State Road was a Sheraton-owned hotel. Shelton was originally built in 1923. Ironically, O'Neill was born in a hotel, the Barrett, located at 1500 Broadway in the heart of New York City's Times Square.
Son of Irish immigrant actor James O'Neill and Mary Ellen Quinlan, The Iceman Cometh author suffered severe Parkinson's-like tremors caused by the late onset of a genetic neurological disease called cerebellar cortical atrophy, which he suffered from in his fifties until his death at age sixty-five. As O'Neill's health deteriorated, he insisted that he "wanted no priest or minister, or Salvation Army captain at his deathbed." He continued, "I will face God, if there is a God, face to face, man to man." The uncontrollable shaking impaired his ability to write, and he struggled with tremors later in life, allegedly asking his wife, Carlotta, to destroy many of his uncompleted plays. For the record, Carlotta initially claimed that she and her husband burned the unfinished manuscripts in a Shelton Hotel fireplace. There are no fireplaces in the building. After questioning from reporters, Carlotta later recanted the story, saying that she destroyed the unfinished plays, shredding the pages and then handing them to a janitor who burned the shreds in an incinerator located in the building's basement.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ghosts of Boston"
Copyright © 2012 Sam Baltrusis.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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