As Halloween swiftly approaches, it’s time to get into the spooky spirit by thinking about the haunted and ghostly happenings right here in Middletown. Though in many ways Wesleyan’s campus appears to be the poster child for a “small liberal arts campus,” it’s important to acknowledge that we also have two literal graveyards on or near campus. From the graves on Indian Hill, to paranormal investigations of campus buildings, here are some ominous tales to make your stomach go funny and send a shiver down your spine. Or maybe those are just early symptoms of the WesPlague.
In 2014, a video was released on the Wesleyan YouTube channel detailing the chilling tale of Russell House and its supposed supernatural inhabitants. According to the Middletown Historical Society, Samuel Russell was a prolific opium trader and traveled often, leaving his wife at home. While he was away on a three-year stint, Mrs. Russell gave birth (you don’t have to be a math major to figure this one out) to yet another child. Shortly after, she tragically died, and Russell did not return to the house for many years, doubtless giving his now-increased brood the weight of paternal neglect. When he finally returned, he married his late wife’s sister, who had been caring for the children in his absence. While this was the custom at the time, I still think it’s a little suspect.
Built in 1828, the Russell House certainly looks the part of a haunted house, with its tall columns and ancient portraits. After Public Safety (Psafe) officers—who were interviewed for the video—reported sinister creakings and suspicious feelings in the Russell House, the Thames Society of Paranormal Investigation was brought in to settle the matter. They took EMF and temperature readings and set up cameras throughout the house. During the night, the cameras supposedly moved side to side, and footsteps were heard in the upstairs floors when no one (living) was walking. When the team of investigators asked the spirits to make a noise or signal their presence, they reportedly knocked and created recorded audio pollution. Despite this, the team reported that they cannot confirm or deny that Russell House in haunted. So next time you’re in Russell House and feel a chill, perhaps it’s the ghost of Russell’s scorned first wife, or maybe it’s the children looking to receive family therapy.
This got me thinking about mysterious and ghostly Middletown stories, so I went looking to the Middletown Historical Society for more. There, I learned of the brutal murder of Mrs. Lavinia Bacon which rocked Middletown on Sept. 24, 1843. A man named Lucian Hall entered her house, hoping to rob her. He knew the Bacon family always went to church on Sundays, so he assumed the house would be empty. However, he did not account for Mrs. Bacon, who had stayed home ill. As he searched through a desk, Mrs. Bacon discovered him. Hall, knowing that she would recognize him, knocked her to the ground with a chair and stabbed her with a large butcher knife several times. He was suspected due to his previous criminal record, and because he worked near the Bacon home. Though there were two other suspects, Hall confessed to the murder at his trial saying he “could not let the innocent suffer.” Honestly, Hall, it seems like they already have.
Back on campus, I learned of another spooky phenomenon observed in the anthropology building on High Street. I spoke with Donna Rak—the administrative assistant for the Anthropology Department, as well as a psychic medium for the prominent paranormal investigative group Ghosts of New England Research Society (G.O.N.E.R.)—about her experiences with the supernatural.
“I take messages from the spirits who want their story to be heard…for the good of others,” Rak said.
She mentioned that when she used to have a phone on the wall that would ring spontaneously, and when she picked up, no one was there. She called the phone department only to be told that there was no phone number associated with the phone on the wall. Additionally, a book on the rituals of East Timor would be pulled out on the shelf when no one claimed to have gotten it out. Shortly after, the department decided to clear out the attic of the building only to find a skull. While it’s fairly routine to discover a skull within the anthropology department, this one was actually unregistered, and they discovered that it had been dug up from one of the cemeteries. The skull was removed, and according to Rak, the book never moved and the phone never rang again.
I asked Rak about the graveyards on campus and what her impressions were. She explained that she has never felt a pull from the graveyard located at the top of Foss Hill. If there were spirits there, she said, she would normally have felt them—this anomaly which made her want to know more. Curious myself, I inquired at the Psafe building. According to the slightly concerned Psafe officer whom I asked, there are no real bodies in the graveyard. They were all exhumed a long time ago. Coincidence?
However, there are bodies under the headstones on Indian Hill. The Middletown Historical Society provided me with documents from a graveyard walk created by Dionne Longly. One notable grave is “Little Johnny,” dated 1870. Johnny was quite young when he died, and when his parents laid him to rest, they couldn’t afford a large monument. Because of this, the only writing on the brownstone grave is “Little Johnny” and nothing more. Another grave is the illustrious marker of Dr. Joseph Barratt, a “complicated” (read: smart but a little bit crazy) character. In his life, he was a physician, botanist, and geologist. Over the course of 30 years he became increasingly obsessed with fossilized remains in the Portland brownstone quarry, thinking they were dinosaur footprints. His certainty grew to the point that he would ask random strangers to lay down on the sidewalk so he could compare the indentations with the human figure. Not exactly what you want when you’re just trying to get groceries. In 1880, he was committed to the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane where he died two years later. His friends arranged to have his monument made out of the brownstone from the quarry with a dinosaur footprint and the inscription, “The Testimony of the Rocks.” So next time you sit on Indian Hill, pretending you’re in a low-budget indie film, think about the ghosts that might be sitting next to you.
Katarina Grealish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.