You’ve communed with the critters at Roger Williams Park Zoo, planned date nights at WaterFire and Trinity Rep, and enjoyed some old-school Italian fare on Atwells Ave. Maybe you even went to school in Providence, and became well-acquainted with the herringbone-cobbled streets of College Hill, and the fabulous views of “downcity” from Prospect Terrace Park, a time-honored spot for a first smooch.
But how well do you really know Rhode Island’s capital city? For instance, did you know that the Big Blue Bug, a.k.a. Nibbles Woodaway, that looms over I-95 in Providence is the world’s largest artificial bug? The blue termite is 928 times the size of an actual termite. And did you know that Brown University’s John Hay Library is home to four volumes bound in human skin?
We picked up that last tidbit on a lantern-lit Providence Ghost Tour (www.providenceghosttour.com) with Courtney Edge-Mattos, who started researching the city’s spectral side in 2006. She launched her company in 2007. A ghost tour is a fun way to see a familiar city in a new light — or should we say, dark. A 90-minute, after-dark tour with “ghost mom” Edge-Mattos reveals some of the creepy stories that lurk behind the beautiful buildings of College Hill, ghost central in Providence due to its high incidence of hauntings. (In summer, she also runs haunted boat cruises on the Providence River.)
You’d expect an old city like this one to have secrets. Behind the handsome facades, “appearances are not what they seem!” Edge-Mattos says. Dressed in all black, with a long, flowing skirt bedecked with rosettes, this ghost mama is a true believer. Her childhood home in Rochester, Vt., was so populated with ghosts of the un-Casper persuasion, the family sold it. “Ghosts have always been a part of our family lore,” she says. Add an interest in history and a background in theater and you’ve got the perfect resume for a ghost-tour leader.
Halloween, of course, is the busy season, when Edge-Mattos and her eight guides run as many as six tours a night. Go now, though (the first tour was March 26 this year) before the October tours book up, and you get a more personalized experience. Plus, the “residual ghosts,” who stay in their own bubble, are most active at the anniversary of their passing, Edge-Mattos says, not necessarily at Halloween. Some participants experience weird happenstance, like cameras and phones that won’t work, cold mists, and glowing orbs, that might be attributed to unsettled spirits. We felt cold chills, but we chalked it up to the weather.
Providence Ghost Tours guides on special Investigation Tours (not their regular tours) use dousing rods, spirit boxes, and EVP (electronic voice phenomena) recorders to communicate with the souls of the dearly not-so-departed. Edge-Mattos herself has encountered ghosts calling her name and other odd occurrences. Paranormal-themed TV shows and movies have heightened interest in ghost tours, she says. “Everyone loves a ghost story. They’re timeless.”
We won’t give away all the ghost tours stories, meticulously researched by the ghost mistress using historical records. But we’ll share some highlights, and things to think about — or try to push out of your mind — the next time you’re strolling the neighborhood.
The tour begins and ends at Prospect Terrace Park, in front of a towering statue of Roger Williams, the English-born Puritan minister who founded what became the state of Rhode Island. The story of his exhumation is an appropriately creepy beginning for the tour.
Ghosts of Providence past
Consider the illustrious Providence Athenaeum, haunted by a famous pair of star-crossed lovers, poet Sarah Helen Whitman and Boston-born writer Edgar Allan Poe. As Edge-Mattos relates the tale, Whitman, known to wear a coffin-shaped pendant, was engaged to Poe. The two met at the athenaeum. Two days before the wedding, Whitman’s mother broke the engagement due to Poe’s alleged drinking. Heartbroken, Poe moved to Baltimore and met his demise in mysterious circumstances two years later. Although he’s buried in Baltimore, “his soul remains in the athenaeum,” Edge-Mattos says. Visitors report disembodied voices saying “Darling!” and “My love!,” that ghost-hunters believe to be Poe and Whitman. One anecdote features a disheveled man sprawled on the steps of the library, who, when prodded, shouted, “The conqueror worm!” and then vanished. A literate vagrant, or the ghost of Poe? Who knows, but it makes a good story.
The Brown University Faculty Club is another reputedly haunted spot, featuring a too-friendly spirit in Victorian garb known as the Pink Lady. Caterers report coming face-to-face with this ghost, who was, perhaps, a guest at a party who refuses to leave. “Won’t you be my friend?,” the ghostly specter intones. Sorry, but no.
You might expect a mausoleum to be slightly unsettling, and so it is with the Annmary Brown Memorial at 21 Brown St., owned by Brown University. A member of the famous Brown clan, Annmary and her husband, Rush Hawkins, are buried inside this windowless building. “The specter of Annmary roams the halls when she is displeased,” Edge-Mattos says, such as when her belongings are disturbed or events run late. When Annmary is in a mood, nobody feels comfortable, Edge-Mattos says. “I love her — she is my favorite of the spirits.”
That’s a pleasant story compared to the hauntings of University Hall, the oldest building at Brown. “Built by the labor of enslaved people, who likely linger, it is the most vigorously haunted building in Providence,” according to Edge-Mattos. During the Revolutionary War, the building was used as a hospital. “Amputation was a common procedure, and there was no anesthesia or antibiotics at the time, so you can only imagine the pain,” she says. Limbs were stacked within the Offal House, permeated with the smell of gangrene, and the whimpers and wails of the dying soldiers continue to this day. Visitors and the custodial staff report orbs, faces appearing in windows, and pats on the shoulders from the unseen. Needless to say, “the entities that are trapped here are not the happiest,” the ghost guide reports.
After that, it’s almost a relief to see the as-far-as-we-know un-haunted house of horror fiction author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Located at 65 Prospect St. (moved from 66 College St. when Brown University expanded), this was the last house the author lived in before his death. It is said to be the model for his story “The Haunter of the Dark.” If you’re a Lovecraft fan, look for his grave in Swan Point Cemetery. On a small marker, the inscription reads, “I Am Providence.” Now that’s chilling.
If you go . . .
www.providenceghosttours.com; running from late March to December. Ninety minutes; $25; book online. For other tours of Providence, visit www.goprovidence.com. Looking for a perfectly themed overnight? Try the Graduate Providence (www.graduatehotels.com; from $170), formerly the Providence Biltmore. Built in 1922, this local landmark (once home to a speakeasy) has ghost stories galore.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com