Died and Gone to Your House

by Christopher Shaw | December 1987

It may be true that “the dead . . . settled down in neighborhoods,” as Francis Phelan observed in the opening sentence of William Kenne­dy’s novel Ironweed; at least where ce­meteries are concerned. But the unsettled spirits that once inhabited some of those corporeal cocoons de­mand more elbow room, and, often, a refined and salutary environment. Have you ever heard of a haunted high-rise condominium, shopping mall, office complex? It isn’t necessar­ily a preference for country over city on the ghosts’ parts, but more likely for congenial habitat in which to suffer eternity in limbo. The quaint Dutch villages of the Hudson Valley are fa­vorite resorts of the un-dead. The plush Assembly Chamber in Albany’s State Capitol harbors its spiritual mas­cot: a loyal nightwatchman who died in a fire on the job. In Saratoga, re­portedly, the well-known ghost at the artist’s colony Yaddo once pestered the writer and frequent resident John Cheever from his bedroom. In the southern Adirondacks, with their dark battlegrounds and history, every vil­lage seems to own a haunted rectory or farmhouse.

The idea for this story came from photographer Nancy Safford of Warrensburg. After her feature on rodeo cowboys appeared last spring (“Rodeo!”, May/June 1987) she called and told me about certain phenomena that manifested inexplic­ably on negatives she had taken while shooting a book about farmers in Brit­tany: crosses appearing on headstones in the image which didn’t exist in ac­tuality, faces looming out of ancient church walls, a dark shadow hovering over the corpse of a woman laid out for her funeral. Nancy said she knew of haunted houses and places in the Adirondacks and she’d like to repro­duce some of those effects here, in color if possible, and write about them. I said, Oh, sure Nancy, can we get ectoplasm on film? She couldn’t guar­antee it, but there were plenty of ghosts floating around and anything could happen once you started shoot­ing around a good spot.

I asked her where the good spots were; any great camps, cure cottages? Well, she wasn’t really sure, but there must be plenty. There were ghosts everywhere, weren’t there? She knew some people who had an island on Lake George they said was haunted. We could start there. I liked the idea of a haunted island, so I agreed to the piece on the condition that I write it myself. I was predisposed to the subject and I knew I had an ace in the hole in case we ran into problems finding good stories: I had lived in a haunted house once myself.

When Steve Reynolds’ grandmother went to her reward in 1942, her last words were, “Oh dear, can’t I have another summer on the island?”

Nancy and I sat on the flagstone ver­anda of Reynolds’ house on Recluse Island, near Bolton Landing on Lake George, with Steve and his wife Liz. A stiff chop blew straight south out of Northwest Bay, splashing water and spray onto the shoreline boulders sur­rounding us, so we had to raise our voices to be heard. A couple of flat-landers in a bass boat cast lures intru­sively over the barren sands of the little bay a few feet away.

“My grandmother knew every spot on this lake where there was a bass,” said Steve. “She used to go out for an afternoon and come back with enough fish to feed twelve people.”

For years she arrived on the island in May and stayed until October, he told me. Her bonds to her family were as strong as those she forged between herself, Lake George and Recluse Is­land, and she wielded an unbreachable authority among them. Many guests and family members experienced the strangest occurrences in her upstairs bedroom. “Most people who get any vibes at all, get them here,” said Liz Reynolds, as she showed me the bed­room, with its balcony and French doors facing southeast, toward the green kame of Dome Island.

Recluse Island displaces a parsimon­ious quarter acre of water just east of the Algonquin Restaurant and Chic’s Marina. Beyond Dome rises the un­dulating silhouette of the east side ranges: Applejuice, Buck, Am’s Cob­ble, Pilot Knob. Recluse was the first island on the lake to have a permanent residence, and tradition claims a jesuit lived in retreat there for decades, hence the name.

In the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, the island was owned by Su­preme Court Justice Pliny Sexton and his descendants. When the colonial structure that formerly occupied the site burned in 1914, the existing house—an elaborate structure in a sort of Moorish Revival style—was commis­sioned by Sexton’s son-in-law as a wed­ding present for his daughter. While the house was being built, the family went to Europe on the Grand Tour, where the daughter died unexpectedly of tuberculosis in Switzerland. Her des­olated father wired home to put the island and completed house on the market without ever laying eyes on it. Shortly thereafter, it was purchased—for a song—by Steve Reynolds’ father, completely furnished and with three boats tethered in the boathouse.

It was a fitting transition: the profes­sion of architecture runs in the Rey­nolds family. Steve’s father was an ar­chitect, so is one of his brothers. His great-uncle was Elizabethown native Judge Learned Hand. Steve captained his crew team at Yale. He is an amiable articulate man in his 50s who worries the mouthpiece of his pipe in consid­eration before venturing to answer a question. He isn’t the type to engage in loose speculation.

“I’m still a skeptic,” he started to say, about the island’s apparitions, then acquiesced. “Well, I have to admit there’s something going on.” Quite a lot, apparently.

He ruminated for a moment, the breeze feathering his thinning hair. He was dressed for camp in rumpled khakis, chamois shirt, turned down wool socks and deck moccassins. He related the day in 1974 when his skep­ticism suffered its first severe blow. He was in the middle of a divorce when he brought a young woman and her fouryear-old son to the island.

“We docked—I tell you, this is weird; you’re not going to believe this—I docked the boat down there and I carried a couple of bags up,” he began. “I unlocked the door and went back for more bags.” While he was gone the four-year-old ran into the front hall, where an almost abstract spiral staircase rises to the second floor. For years the hackles on Steve’s neck had bristled whenever he climbed them. “The boy came down to the dock and said, ‘Who’s the lady?’ And I said, ‘What lady?’ He said, ‘There’s a lady standing on the circular stairs,’ and I said, ‘Well, why don’t you go in and take another look.'” He did, and came back out and said, “Yes, there’s a lady standing on the front stairs, smiling at me,” and beckoning to him to follow her. Steve asked him what she looked like. “Well,” Steve told me, “this guy described my grandmother absolutely to a tee,” right down to the long purple dress she always wore, and of which the boy could have had no knowledge.

Another first-time guest, a sober middle-aged man, saw her in what they call the Spider Room a few years ago. Couples who have slept in her bed­room have often had marital problems later on. Some have described waking in the morning to see her face watch­ing them from her mirror on the chest of drawers.

Liz thinks that people often undergo behavior changes when they visit the island, changes that they may not even be aware of. Some have demanded to be taken from the island in the middle of the night and sworn never to return, referring to bizarre but unspecified events. It all goes back a long way, with a full complement of disembodied footsteps and rattling doors. A couple of people have reported seeing a spectre dressed in the uniform of a co­lonial soldier standing resolutely on the patio. Just recently, when Steve was telling a neighbor about Nancy’s photographs, the woman seemed un­surprised. “Oh, God, my father’s told me for years that island’s haunted,” was all she said.

Highly charged events leave an im­print on a place, like the shadow images of nuclear blast victims projected on a wall. Rites of passage are common oc­casions for the constellation of spiritual energies: pregnancy, birth, puberty, marriage, divorce. Change is the bane of all ghosts, locked as they are in their narrow planes. When a disruption of their natural order is at hand, or a threat to the values of the person they once were, they may feel the need to make a statement by manifesting to the living, like Steve Reynolds’ domineer­ing grandmother. Remember me, they say, in a manner most appropriate to their past life.

The old Maranville farm, high in the hills above Bolton Landing, was once headquarters for Maranville’s Stagecoach Line, in days of yore. The bunkhouse still stands in a meadow across from the rambling white farm­house on Valley Woods Road. A giant grove of sumac grows from the foun­dations of the old barns.

When “horsepower” evolved into a euphemism for internal combustion, the old liveries and smithies turned their expertise in rolling-stock and ma­chine parts to the care and feeding of rougher brutes yet, and Maranville’s Stage was no exception. The family still operates the Sunoco station in the village. It’s appropriate then that the first sign of supernatural habitation of the farm involved automobiles.

Joy (Maranville) McLaughlin was describing some other, she thought more dramatic, occurrences at the farm when she let drop the mystery of the car doors slamming in the driveway, almost as an afterthought. Ever since she was a child, she and her family would hear tires grinding in the gravel, voices, and one or more car doors slam­ming, as if someone were visiting un­expectedly. When they looked outside to see who it was, consistently no one was there. It would happen at any time of the day or night. It happened when they were inside or out. Sentries were posted to watch for the offending mo­torists; mad dashes were made to the windows to catch them in the act, to no avail. Finally, it became a sort of family joke, incorporated in the realm of natural occurrences.

“It still drives my roommates crazy,” she told me. “They keep running to the window like we used to, and I just tell them they might as well not bother; it’s just the phantom visitor.” I asked her if the slamming could be of stagecoach doors. “No way. After spending my childhood pumping gas, I know the sound of a car door when I hear one. And you’d think a stage would at least creak.”

I asked her if there was any other event in the farm’s history that could account for the visits. “Nothing I can think of,” she said. “Except maybe for the cars buried across the road.”

The what?

“Yeah, there are about a hundred cars buried out behind the bunkhouse.”

Joy’s father, James Baird Maranville, was a hard-living, singular, fun-loving bear of an ex-Marine,  remembered in the area as a great practical joker and switchblade wit. As propri­etor of the Sunoco station, he kept a well-stocked yard of junkers at the farm for parts. But during the ’50s the market for junk declined, and he grew an­noyed with selling parts for little or nothing, and having fenders or distributors ripped off in the middle of the night. The inventory had become a burden. So one day he dug a huge pit with a loader and buried all the cars in a single mass grave.

It’s always risky to attribute ghost phenomena to specific individuals, at least without such clearly identifiable manifestations as Recluse Island enjoys. Most spirits are content to announce their presence with footsteps, or the rattling of china, and the Maranville farm has its share of both. But slamming doors and automobile graveyard both express the puckish nature of the Maranvilles: Joy herself has keen sense of irony and a wide jolly streak. Her mother is more reserved; a flinty New Zealander with a twinkling eye and a sheep-country accent. What took place after she came home from the hospital last spring to recover from an operation bears all the marks of her family’s tricksterish spirit.

She had been given a helium bal­loon with the words “Get well” written on it, by a former friend and business associate of her husband’s. At home, she let it float at the ceiling in the living room. It hung there for at least two weeks. One evening her son Jeff called her in from the kitchen to ob­serve the balloon engaged in strange behavior. It had floated down and cir­cumnavigated his head before crossing the living room and ascending the stairs while they followed it in disbe­lief. When it went into Mrs. Maranville’s bedroom, she told her son, “It’s probably your father playing tricks.” After they brought it back downstairs, it duplicated the route. They watched as it floated over to Mrs. Maranville’s chair, circled her head, visited the din­ing room and kitchen, and re-ascended the stairs, where it wedged itself be­tween the wall and the shower stall in the bathroom. Satisfied that the dis­play was over, they returned to the living room to watch television.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Maran­ville said “Oh Jeff, you’re never going to believe this.” The balloon was float­ing downstairs. It hovered at the top landing for a while before descending the rest of the way, then visited each downstairs room, and came to rest be­side the piano, at keyboard level, where it stayed for days.

Mrs. Maranville thinks air currents brought on by changing temperatures caused the phenomenon, but to that Joy said, “Oh, baloney.”

“It was weird, that’s what it was,” Mrs. Maranville admitted and “better than watching television.”

Henry Smith, of Knowlhurst in Stony Creek, was exactly that. His forge is still intact in the corner of his shed on little Swears Creek. For years his father ran a sawmill across the road, on the headwaters of Stony Creek. After World War II, when dude-ranching ruled the local economy and the lumber woods were thronged with cowboys, Henry’s work was in high de­mand. To this day, horseshoes, angle irons, and tools turn up in the grass outside his house every spring, after the frost drives them to the surface. After he died in the early ’50s, the farmhouse on the property burned and the new owners replaced it with a house built on the same foundation from a Sears and Roebuck kit.

Just down the road is the homestead built by a chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, a muleskinner who moved there from North Dakota in the ’20s to drive log­ging teams when the last of the big pine and hemlock were coming out of West Stony Creek. He raised four chil­dren: two boys and two girls. One of the sons owned the Stony Creek Inn for a while. The younger son be­friended old Henry Smith in his last years, and used to stop by every day to check on the old man and drink coffee with him. One bitter winter day, after having been away for a few weeks, the younger son renewed his visits, but he found Henry’s house empty and cold, with no trace of live coals in the woodstove. He followed tracks in the deep snow out to the woodshed, where he found Henry sprawled face down, fro­zen solid. In later years, the muleskinner’s younger son became famous in the roadhouses from Warrensburg to Corinth as a loveable rake and musi­cian, until one night he went upstairs in the old homestead, and shot himself with an antique Navy Colt. When the ambulance crew arrived, they found the father in full traditional dress and feather bonnet, singing the Death Song over his son’s body.

In the summer of 1976, the present owner let my wife and me live in the Sears house for the price of a paint job. My wife was pregnant with our son, and I painted through the day under the view of Baldhead Mountain, and in the mornings and evenings I’d write, prospect for brookies in the beaver flows, or go a-huckleberrying in the overgrown meadows. The weather was exquisite, and we entertained a lot of visitors that summer. One night my 16-year-old brother, Jonathan, drove home with us after a long carouse and song fest at the Stony Creek Inn and slept in what had been the bedroom: we had put our bed in the former living room, where the window faced the east, and Baldhead.

I woke in the wee hours to the sound of footsteps. The light was on in the hallway, and in my state of dim aware­ness I figured one of our many summer friends from the Inn was looking for a place to crash. The footsteps stopped at my brother’s bedroom door; the door opened slowly and I heard the sound of breathing. Then the door closed, the footsteps receded. . . and exit. I fell back to sleep.

In the morning there was no sign of a visitor, but I didn’t think anything of it. When Jonathan woke up late he joined us for coffee in the kitchen. He was ashen. He asked if I had opened his door in the middle of the night, I said no, but I had heard the steps, and stuck to my theory of someone looking for a night’s berth. He told me of his pounding heart, of hiding under the covers and a clammy feeling in the room. During the next week or two I canvassed around the community for anyone who might have come to our house that night, until I exhausted all the possibilities.

We forgot about it until a couple of weeks later, when my sister visited us for the night, slept in that room, and described the same circumstances. The same clammy feeling crept over her when the door opened; she too hid under the covers. As she told us about it in the morning we joked, “The place is haunted,” and let it go.

When my son was born in late Sep­tember, my wife’s mother stayed with us for a few days. She was the daughter of missionaries and married to an en­gineer; a no-nonsense sort. After she described an identical experience dur­ing her first night in the spare room, I began to wonder about the history of the road, and the persistence and tra­jectory of past events. I can’t say whether the footsteps were those of the muleskinner’s son, in his guilt recapi­tulating, too late, the search for Henry Smith. It could have been anyone else who ever lived there, or merely the effect of changing temperatures on the floorboards. But it reminded me how the past resists closure, is never really past, and keeps turning up in our lives like the resurrected horseshoes in Henry Smith’s dooryard. We stub our toes on it repeatedly. And how the very woodwork of human dwellings is imbued with the strength of the lives that transpire therein, with their laughter, conflicts, loves and secrets. It is like an ethereal glue that inte­grates families, their houses and per­sonalities into coherent patterns, or an inchoate memory, that in the words of Hudson Falls poet William Bronk, “—is the whole/strength of the house, will be there when we move out/hang deep in the cellar-hole when the house is gone.”

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