In Plymouth, Mass., ghost stories satisfy the Halloween appetite
This town will be forever linked with another autumn holiday, but lurking behind its turkey-and-stuffing facade is a feast of macabre tales and ghost stories that will satisfy the appetite of any Halloween junkie. No place can be an old haunt without a double helping of history and death, and “America’s Hometown” has amassed nearly 400 years of both. The spirits of previous generations literally lord over Plymouth from a hilltop cemetery, and the depths of its spooky past keep two year-round ghost tours afloat, without drawing the October crowds and commercialism of Salem.
Another difference between New England’s de facto Halloween and Thanksgiving capitals: In Salem, accused witches often found the noose; in Plymouth, they found justice. “Witchcraft in Plymouth Colony was a capital crime,” says Pilgrim Hall Museum curator Stephen O’Neill, “but there were only two trials in the 17th century. Both women were acquitted, and the accusers were actually fined.” Mehitable Wilder Warren, charged with witchcraft in 1708, even successfully sued accuser Joseph Morton for “defamation and slander.” On display through December as part of a special exhibition at the museum is a handwritten document in which Morton and his brother appeal the court’s ruling.
Other exhibits detail the challenges faced by the Plymouth Colony from that very first brutal winter in which the Pilgrims buried half their brethren. Amid the harsh realities of Colonial life, people struggled to survive, and many died at an early age. Janice Williams, who runs Dead of Night Ghost Tours and a “haunted shop” on North Street, says it’s that piece of Plymouth’s past that makes it a hotbed of paranormal activity. “People died very young, very suddenly, and a lot of them have unfinished business,” she says. “They return to their places of comfort, and night after night they are out there.”
In business for little more than a decade, Dead of Night’s signature hearse parked along the waterfront has become a local landmark — not quite as iconic as Plymouth Rock but definitely bigger. The hearse is a departure point for nightly ghost tours that begin with pointers for ghost hunting and capturing apparitions on film before exploring the streets and burial grounds of Plymouth in addition to two historic houses with reported paranormal activity.
Colonial Lantern Tours also leads ghost tours of Plymouth, and I joined one on a night that delivered perfect Halloween theatrics. A witch’s brew of weather had left behind a damp carpet of leaves, and spindly tree limbs quivered in the ocean breeze. The rain had broken, but the sky betrayed little light through the cloud cover.
Our yellow-jacketed guide greeted us at the John Carver Inn, which we were told is haunted thanks to a Revolutionary-era residence that once stood on the site and was occupied by medical students who robbed nearby graves for corpses on which to practice. When the townspeople discovered their secret, the aspiring doctors were booted from Plymouth. The spirits of the dead, however, were none too happy with having their eternal rest disturbed, and they have continued to voice their displeasure by preventing some guests on the inn’s third floor from getting any rest either.
We made a short walk to Town Square, home to a stone marker that tells of the gruesome end to Metacom, the son of Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, who was known to the English settlers as King Philip. As a grim exclamation point punctuating the end of bloody King Philip’s War in 1676, Metacom’s dead body was quartered with one hand sent to Boston, the other to England. Colonists impaled his severed head on a pike and displayed it for over 20 years near Town Square.
Fronting the square is Plymouth’s old wooden courthouse, built in 1749. Our guide told us about the spirits lurking inside who, piqued by curiosity, like to pull back the window shades to see who’s outside. As our guide pointed her flashlight on the window to the right of the doorway, our group thought we saw some movement. Was it a ghost? A shadow? A poorly insulated window? Were we being tricked or treated?
Luckily, there’s an app for that. Our guide pulled out her smartphone and launched a ghost-hunting app that turned her screen into what resembled an air traffic control radar. White dots indicating paranormal presences suddenly glowed like unseen aircraft, but they vanished just as abruptly as they appeared. The green lights of her electromagnetic field meter also registered occasional blips, but there was nothing off the charts at the courthouse this night.
With our decidedly less high-tech candlelit lanterns in tow, we continued to splash through the Pilgrims’ original pathways and down narrow, darkened alleys. We stopped outside haunted structures ranging from a house once owned by John Hancock to The Blue Blinds Bakery. The tour of Plymouth was only a prelude, however, to the main attraction. Finally, our guide asked us the eagerly awaited question: “All right, are you ready for the graveyard?”
With just a handful of lumens generated by our candles lighting our way, we scaled the steep, slippery brick steps to the top of 130-foot-high Burial Hill, which dates to the 1600s. The cemetery looks out over Plymouth Harbor and in daylight, the finely carved headstones lend it the air of an outdoor folk art gallery. By night, however, those rows of crooked slate gravestones start to resemble legions of off-balance zombies, and it’s hard to discern where the darkness ends and shadowy silhouettes begin.
Once the sun goes down, Burial Hill becomes the province of the paranormal with apparitions such as Pilgrims and Victorian-era parents kneeling at their children’s graves frequently spotted. I can tell you without a doubt we weren’t alone in the graveyard that night — if only because a Dead of Night tour was up there, too.
As we walked amid the graves, our guide shared stories of some of Burial Hill’s denizens, including Mayflower descendant Thomas Southward Howland, who in the 1700s tried to evict an old woman from a shack on his land. Unfortunately for Howland, the squatter, according to local lore, was the witch Mother Crewe who responded, “Make your peace because you will not live to see another sunset. They’ll dig your grave on Burial Hill.” Indeed, Howland was knocked dead from his horse the next day, and the spades started to turn the soil in the family plot atop the cemetery.
The most tragic tale we heard was of the terrible 1778 wreck of the privateer General Arnold — named for Benedict Arnold in his pre-traitor days — which ran aground in the harbor during a fierce blizzard. Although the stranded vessel could be seen from shore, it took days before the storm relented and rescuers could reach the patriot troops huddled inside. By that time, 70 of the men had frozen to death. Corpses were stacked in the Town Square courthouse, and some were dipped in Plymouth’s brook to thaw before being interred in a mass grave marked by an obelisk on Burial Hill. Captain James Magee survived but asked to be buried with his crew when he died. Our guide told us the captain has been spotted patrolling the memorial, still watching out for his men, and we did get a few blips on the ghost radar along with another reason for Americans to curse the name Benedict Arnold.
With our transit of Burial Hill complete, we gingerly descended the steps back to Town Square. Our guide advised us before we passed through the gates to wipe our feet and instruct the spirits, “Thank you. You may not follow me home.” Why would they want to leave such a perfect old haunt anyway?