SWEPT UP IN the fervor of a back-to-nature movement, my wife and I decided to sell our house by the shore for a country place in upstate New York. We studied the Sunday Times real estate section for months, finally coming across a place that sounded ideal: “Old brick beauty on forty (+/-) wooded acres. Babbling brooks, sweeping vistas, lush orchards. Historical spirit! Owner anxious! Grab this one!”
And grab we did, which would come back to haunt us.
The house creaked with history, an old Georgian brick in Washington County, near the southeastern edge of the Adirondack Park. The only eyesore was an overgrown graveyard out back, a cluster of off-kilter slabs peeking above knee-high weeds. Two headstones belonged to the original tenants, Angus and Ida MacWhorter. According to town records, Ida had been accused of witchcraft in 1777 because a neighbor’s cow wouldn’t milk after she petted it. The local Presbytery exonerated her, but neighbors remained suspicious. Outraged by the accusation, Angus built a brick house—now ours—far from the settlement, but because of its isolation, Indians attacked and murdered his wife, fueling speculation that her death was a sign from God. The house was steeped in blood, murder and tragedy, which, to us, only added to its charm. Being young Upper East Siders, we named the place Hassle-Free Castle.
Hassle-Free Castle had everything we dreamed of, except for a tenant who wasn’t mentioned at the closing. One night, shortly after buying the place, I was sound asleep when my wife nudged me awake. There at the foot of the bed stood a wizened old lady with finger to lips as though shushing herself. She glowed like a firefly and silver hair cascaded to her waist. Strangely, a cowbell hung from her neck. Flabbergasted, I blurted, “Boo!” and she vaporized, cowbell clanging.
We kept the sighting a secret, knowing people would think we were nuts, but then another peculiar thing happened. Pruning an old butternut tree one day, I spotted a piece of metal nestled in the branches. On closer examination, it was a gold wedding band, partially overgrown with bark. A jeweler’s loupe revealed tiny engraved letters, T-D-D-U-P, “till death do us part.” How the ring got up there was anybody’s guess; I suspected a thieving blackbird stashed it. But my wife sensed a connection between the ring and the ghost. She polished the old gold to a luster and left it on her nightstand. Next morning, the ring was gone. It simply didn’t walk away; we were the only ones in the house. Or were we?
Later that winter my sixth-grade son and I were snowed in after installing new kitchen cabinets. That night we bundled by the fireplace in sleeping bags, telling spooky stories, watching shadows dance, when suddenly we heard loud banging in the kitchen—the cabinet doors? Heart in mouth, I ran in but found nothing. Reassuring him, I said, “Probably just the wind.”
“That, or a ghost,” he moo-haw-hawed. (Talk about from the mouths of babes.)
Strange things continued that year, but none stranger than the day I was high atop a ladder painting eaves. It was a sultry August afternoon, not a breeze stirred, perfect weather for painting. Inexplicably, in the dead calm a gust rose at the foot of the ladder, whirling like a tornado. Watching in amazement, the tiny twister slowly rose to where I was painting and, with a flourish, splattered dirt over the wet paint.
Of course, clanging cowbells, vanishing rings, banging cabinets, and tiny tornadoes can probably be explained, but nothing explains what happened next.
On Halloween night we invited up from Manhattan a houseful of guests who arrived in all manner of bizarre costume. Among them was Sarah MacLaren, an aging flower child who came dressed as Carmen Miranda in a hat festooned with bananas, grapefruit and mangoes. Sarah hailed from this area before settling in Greenwich Village, where she read palms, tarot cards and tea leaves, and sold cave art to tourists. As a housewarming gift, Sarah had cooked up a batch of exotic brownies that created a sensation and had guests in stitches. Banal remarks became gut-bustingly funny. Trays of canapés disappeared. Sounds were surreal: cricket chirps grated; fireplace logs exploded like cherry bombs. That night we huddled around candles, grooving and giggling, when Sarah suggested we hold a séance. Faces aglow, we watched her set up the Ouija board when an icy chill came over the room.
“Brrrr, somebody close the door,” Sarah shuddered.
In my dreamy state I hadn’t noticed, but sitting next to Sarah was a shrunken old woman wearing a contented smile and cowbell around her neck. My jaw dropped; it was the lady we saw at the foot of our bed.
“Cute outfit,” Sarah observed. “But what’s with the cowbell?”
The woman rose, bell clanging. “MacLaren bore false witness!” she hissed.
Sarah looked as though she’d seen a ghost, which, of course, she had.
“May all MacLarens burn in hell,” the ghost cackled.
“Hit the lights!” Sarah screamed. Lights came on, and the ghost vaporized, cowbell jangling. Spooked by the specter, guests stampeded back to New York terrified of what they had witnessed.
Parapsychologists might dismiss the episode as group hallucination, to which I say baloney. A bit of genealogical digging by Sarah MacLaren turned up the revealing fact that in the 1770s her upstate kin were neighbors of the MacWhorters. Remembering the tale of the bewitched cow that wouldn’t give milk, I deduced that the neighbor who accused Ida MacWhorter of witchcraft was none other than Sarah MacLaren’s ancestor. The ghost of Hassle-Free Castle was a textbook case of an aggrieved spirit returning to settle old scores.
Sure, there will always be doubting Thomases who pooh-pooh and roll their eyes, as did the people who bought Hassle-Free Castle from us in spite of being warned of a resident ghost. Six months after moving in, they put it back on the market at a bargain price—sounding anxious.