Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492
 

Haunted Needham

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum

Also check out ‘Gone, But Not Forgotten…

Good Needham ghost stories are in short supply, and most could not scare an 8-year-old (and believe me, I’ve tried!) If you know any ghost stories associated with Needham people or haunted houses, please let me know, and I will include them here. Help me out! – eight-year-olds are a tough audience.

Needham history does not yield an abundance of ghost stories or haunted happenings. One likely reason for the scarcity of mysteries is that Needhamites in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were quite familiar with each other. Many families had lived here since the town was founded, related by marriage and all sorts of social and family obligations. Unlike seaport towns such as Salem, where strangers abounded and immigrant customs were often viewed with suspicion and distrust, Needhamites mostly came from a similar social, occupational and religious background.

The stories below are the few tales told about ghostly happenings in Needham. They were gathered in response to local media requests for stories to feature in the Halloween editions of the news. Most were gathered from Needham historian, Henry Hicks, and from Les Crumbaker, formerly with the Needham Historical Commission, and I gratefully acknowledge their assistance.

I add stories from time to time, as they come to my attention. I usually find them in unexpected places – the Bowlaway! – or while reading through old documents in search of something else.  Scroll down!

 

The Baby Ghost of Cook’s Bridge

I came across this one by chance, when doing some research for the recent renovation of Cook’s Bridge in Upper Falls. This incident is described in Ken Newcomb’s excellent history of Upper Falls, Makers of the Mold.

There was an old house on Central Avenue, just on the right after you crossed Cook’s Bridge from Newton Upper Falls and arrived on the Needham side. The address was 27 Dudley’s Yard – the old name for the little street now called Hamilton Place that branches off to the right.  In the late 19th century, Dudley’s Yard was the site of Ezra Dudley’s textile mill.  The house, which was built sometime before 1830, is long gone – apparently taken down sometime in the 1940s – and the current house on that corner is quite new.

The house was described by an 1870s-era occupant as “quite attractive.”  It was a double house, surrounded by a white fence, and with two large elms in front. Each half of the house had five large rooms, plus a basement kitchen that opened out to a level dooryard.  The house also had a fenced back yard, and access to the broad grassy slope that ran down to the Charles River (now the Echo Bridge Park).

What the resident did not mention – perhaps did not know – was the house’s sinister reputation.

It was said that a “wee spectre” haunted the house once upon a time, the ghost of an infant long ago murdered within its walls.  Occupants were awakened at night by the sounds of a child crying, and the rocking of a cradle.

And then in 1839, for some reason, the ghost of the child began to appear daily, at the large rock that once lay in the river opposite the house.  The apparition was naked, and about the size of a ten-month-old child.  Every day around mid-day, it could be seen running back and forth from the rock to the water.  Its rocking cradle could be heard beneath the sounds of the rushing water.  Then, after about an hour it would suddenly disappear, only to appear again at the same time on the next day.

The sighting attracted the attention of the community, and every day hundreds of people would crowd onto Cook’s Bridge to watch the ghostly apparition.  It was widely understood that this ghost was the uneasy spirit of the murdered child from the haunted house.  Its sudden outdoor manifestation made people uneasy; children were called home in the evening and people stayed inside after dark.

This went on for about a week, with increasing excitement and anxiety in the neighborhood. Then one day, a young man decided to investigate and waded out the rock.  There he found a piece of glass, which had become snagged on the rock.  He captured this “ghost” and brought it back to the crowd on the bank.  Apparently, each day when the sun reached a certain angle, it had reflected off the glass and the water swirling around the base of the rock, to produce the flashing apparition.  As the sun continued in its motion, it passed the reflection point and the “ghost” disappeared, until the sun rose again the next day.  Once the explanation was found the excitement abated, and the apparition (mostly) passed from memory.

This corner has changed a great deal since those days.  Dudley’s mill is gone, and the name of his street became “Hamilton Place” sometime in the 1940s.  Commerce in the neighborhood now centers mostly around eateries and small repair shops. The large rock in the river, visible on old maps, seems to have disappeared – the last mention of “the great mid-stream rock” that I found is from King’s Handbook of Newton in 1899; I drove by last week for a look, and it is definitely not there anymore.

So, the apparition is gone.  The ‘great midstream rock’ is gone.   The old haunted house is gone.

And the Baby Ghost? – Who knows?

 

The Rose Gardener 

Many people are reluctant to admit that they believe in (or have even seen) ghosts, so from time to time I get a story that comes to me anonymously. This one came in over the transom one day, but is too good to keep to myself. Enjoy – if you dare!

You may not believe in ghosts…until you see one with your own eyes, feel its presence, live with one every day. I am a believer. I grew up with a ghost in a haunted house. You could even call it a haunted neighborhood. To this day, I do not – will not – go into my childhood home alone, EVER!

In 1976 an elderly woman living alone passed away in a mansion. She had outlived her husband, a wealthy businessman by 22 years. The big old house, along with a carriage house and rose garden were sold to a builder. The builder renovated the carriage house for himself and his family to live in. The mansion was rented to another family, and the rose garden was sold to my parents to build their new dream home.

I can remember clearly my father talking me to our new property mapping out where everything would go. As we tromped through the garden, twigs snapping with each step, he would proudly say to me, This is where your bedroom will go. Happily, I announced, Pink, Dad! I want a pink bedroom!  Yeah,  yeah sure, he replied; This is where the kitchen will be.  I  remember looking around at the neglected garden, dad’s voice off in the distance.  The roses lay limp on the ground, pathways overgrown, pillars and trellises knocked over. A sudden sense of sadness and loss came over me.  Dad, what about the flowers and roses?  Oh, don’t worry, he winked at me, we will plant a new garden – an even better one.

Little did we know that this was going to make someone very angry, someone who died long ago.

We finally moved into our dream home in 1978. Soon after moving in, strange things began happening – objects disappearing, doors slamming, and the constant feeling that someone was watching. The children of the three homes would get together along with other neighborhood children. We’d all sit giggling telling each other about the strange occurrences in our homes. One day, the builder’s daughter declared,  We will call him Willy, Willy the Ghost. Countless hours were spent in my basement using the ouija board calling Willy from the grave in the scariest voices we could muster – WWWWIIIILLLYYYY, come see us! … and the pendulum would spell… M-Y G-A-R-….. never letting it finish. We would chuckle and one of us would say  WILLY …… tell me who I will marry…  To this day, when I catch up with the old neighborhood friends, we still refer to him as Willy.

One Saturday night, my parents were to go out, and my baby sitter unexpectedly canceled.  I declared I was getting to old for a sitter anyhow.  I’ll be fine mom, really. You’re only in Needham – if I need something, I will call. I promise. OK, she said as she let our big German shepherd into the house from our fenced-in yard. Sialas will watch over you. Sialas was our watch dog and very protective of our family. My furry protector and I laid curled up on the couch and about halfway through “The Love Boat,” when Sialas’s ears perked up and he became alert. What is it, boy? I asked ….grrrrrrrr, and a low growl came out. I started to turn on all the outdoor lights on and then I heard it … BANG BANG BANG … It was the front door … BANG BANG BANG … it was the side door … BANG BANG BANG … it was all the doors, the roof, the whole house. Rythmic, terrifying. I found Sialas whimpering under my brother’s bed.  I ran to the phone and called my parents – Please come home!  I went into my bedroom and pulled the blankets over my head, because all 11-year-olds know that the boogie man can’t get you under the blankets. My parents arrived home, convinced I had an overactive imagination. Mom, I said, What about the banging?  It was wind knocking a tree into the house, she smiled.

About a year later, on a cold Saturday night, I waved to my parents as they drove away to go to a dinner party at a friend’s home, their tires leaving tracks in the freshly fallen snow.  Thrilled to have a night to myself, I put on my warmest pajamas, made myself a bowl of Captain Crunch and settled myself on the couch to watch An Inappropriate TV Show.  I heard Sialas barking outside … crunch crunch crunch … then he was growling by the back door. Annoyed at him for ruining my perfect night, I let him in and he ran to my brother’s bedroom.  I started to turn on all the outdoor lights, one by one.  Then I heard it …BANG BANG BANG … just an overactive imagination, I told myself … BANG BANG BANG … rhythmic, terrifying …BANG BANG BANG … that darn tree again … I went to every room to draw the shades and repeated to myself……I’m OK, I’m OK.  As I got to the kitchen window, I saw it …Him. He was walking very slowly toward the back door, the one we never use.  Suddenly he stopped and stared directly into my eyes with a menacing look. He was old, very old, in a tattered suit and an old brimmed hat worn with age.

I opened my mouth to scream but nothing came out. I ran to the phone and called my mom …We will be there in 5 minutes. I waited by the front door curled in a ball until I saw the headlights. I opened the door and saw my parents’ car with two police cars behind them.  I ran into the safety of my mom’s arms. Trying to catch my breath and control the sobs, I described my ordeal. The police checked the inside first, then the outside. The officer came to me and said where did you see him…. Right there, I  pointed out the kitchen window; he was right there. They went out and returned shortly. He looked at me in disbelief then said to my parents, There are no footprints in the snow. Everyone turned and stared at me.  I saw him, I said.  I really did! Mom thanked them and apologized for imposing. She tucked me in. Honey, she said, you need to stop watching scary TV shows.  Mom, I said tears rolling down my cheeks, I just met Willy.  The next day I saw the ouija  board sticking out of the trash in the garage. Good riddance, I thought!

Mom and I still talk about that night, and I always wondered how much she believes but doesn’t want to admit.  Although she always insisted that it was my imagination, she was constantly having the house blessed by a priest. I think we have the most blessed home in Needham.

As the years passed, Willy became a little quieter. I guess he grew accustomed to our presence and I grew accustomed to his. He seems to only comes around when there is change. He doesn’t like change!

The last time he made an appearance was about twelve years ago. My parents went on an extended trip and my friend offered to house sit. You know this house is haunted, I told her. I’m not afraid of ghosts she chuckled.   On the second night she was there, my phone rang at 2:00 am. Half-asleep, I answered it.  I heard her shaky voice – What is that banging noise? It won’t stop. Oh, I said –  that’s Willy.

These days, when I visit my parents, I still look at that big old house and wonder if He still is around. The carriage house family spend most of their time in Florida now, and the mansion has changed hands several times.

Recently mom and I had a yard sale in her driveway. A nice man who was an antiques dealer was paying me for some old things mom didn’t want, and he turned to stare at the old mansion. Pretty house, isn’t it, I remarked. He turned to me and said, Yes it is… my wife spent her childhood summers there with her aunt, he continued.  It’s haunted, you know.  I looked into his eyes and whispered …Yes. I know.

 

This One Might Have Me Convinced…?

One of Needham’s oldest houses was said to house the ghost of a woman, who preferred to appear to children rather than adults. One recent known contact was reported (reluctantly) by the family who lived in the house in the 1980s. The owner denied having heard of a ghost associated with his house, but later admitted that he and his wife had once heard his young daughter talking to someone. When asked, she said that she was talking to “the nice lady.” The family who built the house lived in it for more than a century, so the Lady is presumably one of the wives or daughters.

These incidents apparently continue.  I have heard several times (even recently) about similar personal experiences in this house.  The stories are consistent, but come from unrelated sources. Hmmm….   (PS – Don’t ask. Won’t tell.)

 

The House of the Dead Ghosts

The old Lemuel Lyon House, at 1175 Greendale Avenue was occupied in the 1880s by a pair of elderly sisters, Mrs Harriet Curtis and Miss Laura Caldwell. After Harriet passed away, Laura became convinced that the house will filled with ghosts who wished her ill. Accordingly, to protect herself, she acquired a large-caliber pistol, which she took with her to bed. Whenever she heard a noise in the house—a creak, a mouse in the walls—she would let fly with the pistol. She was armed, she cried, and not to be trifled with!

Her family finally committed her to an institution for safety. The house, which had suffered extensive interior damage, remained empty for quite a while thereafter. It was known locally as “The House of the Dead Ghosts”.

**Note – In 2006, St. Sebastian’s School which owned the Lyons House, sold it in order to make room for more playing fields. The house was purchased by a Connecticut resident, who dismantled the house, and then reassembled it as part of his CT home. I have had the good fortune to speak several times with the new owner about the house; he mentioned that in the course of renovations, several old lead bullets were found, still embedded in the walls.**

 

Ghosts in the (Pin) Machine ~ The Bowlaway is haunted – Who Knew?

I was happily looking into the history of the beloved Needham Bowlaway, and was told a few stories about “Bowlaway Haunts.” The Bowlaway has been there for 100 years, so I guess it’s picked up a few die-hards (ha!) who just can’t seem to leave. Phantom pin-machine repairmen seem to appear on occasion, tinkering with the machinery at inconvenient times, or just taking a smoke break out back.  But there are also a few mischief-makers who like to keep the public on their toes – so keep an eye out for those roll-back balls in Lane 1!

 

Old Fishermen Never Die, They Just…

Searching for something else, I came across this clipping from the Needham Times. The date is cut off, but I’m guessing around 1985…?

“Local Ghosts? Only the Brave Dare Tread Here, by Sandra Balzer
In an old colonial town such as Needham, you would think stories about ghostly spectres would abound. But local historians this week could think of only one.

Many, many years ago the Indians of Newton and Needham claimed the land they trod upon as their own. They were generally a peaceful people who were farmers and hunters of small game… The great sluggish river we call the Charles was also a source of sustenance for these people.

In fact, it was by the river in Newton, just over the Needham line in a place called Hemlock Gorge, that they buried their brothers. And according to local historian Henry Hicks, it is in the vicinity of this ancient graveyard that the ghosts of Indians have been seen fishing near Echo Bridge.

‘The cemetery is still their land,’ Hicks said. ‘It’s protected by the Trustees of Reservations.’ Hicks said that there have been many unsubstantiated reports over the years of ghostly Indians fishing in the river. ‘They still have a right to fish there,’ he said.

The best time for the strong-hearted to see them? ‘Apparently it’s in the fall,’ Hicks said. ‘That’s when the herring came up the river.’ ”

 

The Old Chestnut

For years, Henry Hicks would take the third-graders on a tour of the old Cemetery as part of their annual Needham history field trip. After seeing the graves of the Mills and the Fullers and the McIntoshes, Henry would take the students up to the top of the cemetery to see the plot of the Carter family, dominated by its bronze bust of William Carter. The children were told that at midnight on Halloween, the eyes of the bust would light up, and Carter would look around the graveyard. This story, which has circulated for years now, is probably the best-known of the Needham ghost stories.

 

The New One

In conversations about the Town Hall, several people have told me that the Town Hall is haunted. Especially at night when the building grows quiet, footsteps can be heard, generally on the upper floors. No one has ever been seen, but the ghost is thought to be a woman. It is also said about the Town Hall that a ghost haunts the basement, the police lock-up in the old days.  A few years after I was told these stories, the Town Hall was renovated, and the old lock-ups are now municipal meeting rooms.  I’d be curious to ask the current staff if anything unexplained has happened…

 

Gone but not Quite Forgotten

There was once a house on Harris Avenue, between Prince and Plymouth Streets, that was said to be haunted. There was also a haunted house reported as being in “the Bird’s Hill area”, which may or may not have been the same one. The old Harris Avenue houses are gone, replaced by new construction. It is not known if the ghosts went with them.

 

Drums Along the Charles

In the 1980s or 90s, a family living in one of the old houses on Wilson’s Lane reported hearing the sound of Indian drums at night. The story was told that a Native American warrior had been murdered and left on the banks of the river near the house, and that his restless spirit still cried out to his brothers to come and bury him properly. A ghost-hunter was called in to contact the spirit and reported that the story was true. As far as I know, the drums can still be heard.

Three postscripts—1) although there was a Native American community in this area, they were mostly Christians, part of John Eliot’s Praying Indian community in South Natick. 2) The court records for the late 1600s-early 1700s (which are detailed and comprehensive) mention no such murder. 3) Needham historian Henry Hicks, who had the good fortune to meet the ghost-hunter during his “researches,” provided the gentleman with some spurious information; this information duly showed up in the ghost-hunter’s report as information gained from his ghostly informant.