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 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 recently found a few from an unexpected place – the Bowlaway! – and while reading through old newspapers in search of something else. Scroll down!
The Rose Gardener (NEW!)
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 the other 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.
Ghosts in the (Pin) Machine ~ The Bowlaway is haunted – Who Knew?
I was happily looking into the history of the beloved Needham Bowlaway for a program we were planning, and was told a few stories about “Bowlaway Haunts.” The Bowlaway has been there for over 90 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 in abundance, but there are also a few mischief-makers 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 Historical Society 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, people have told me that the Town Hall is haunted. Especially at night when the building grew quiet, footsteps could be heard, generally on the upper floors. No one was ever seen, but the ghost was 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.
It remains to be seen what affect the renovations have on the Town Hall’s ghostly residents.
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.
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 bullets were found, still embedded in the walls.**
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 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.
Needham’s Most-Storied House ~Ghosts, Pirates, what more could you want?
The old Joshua Lewis House, built in 1776, 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 Lewis family owned the house until the mid-19th century, so the Lady is presumably a member of the Lewis clan, possibly Mary Lewis, first wife of Joshua, who passed away in 1803.
Their younger daughter, Abigail, is also the subject of an interesting story. The girl married, to her father’s dismay, a seaman from the Azores—a ship’s mate named Antonio Courante (called Anthony Currant). Lewis disowned his daughter upon her marriage; she and her husband left Needham for Boston, where they lived happily and had three children. Currant went back to sea, and in 1812 was captured and pressed into Naval service by the British. To rescue his daughter from penury, Lewis forgave her and took her back into the Needham house. A few years later, one of the children ran back to the house, crying that a strange man in a coat with brass buttons had appeared, sweeping up their mother into his arms. Currant was back; he had escaped to an American privateer, plundering British ships and eventually making his way back to Needham and his wife. The couple moved back to Boston; Currant stayed ashore, and they lived (we surmise) happily ever after. In later years, Joshua Lewis would say that Currant was the best son-in-law he ever had, and bequeathed a share of his property to their children.
By the late 19th century, the Lewis house was owned by Denys Zirngiebel, Needham’s Pansy King and the grandfather of NC Wyeth. It appears in several of Wyeth’s paintings, notably “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and “Christmas Morning”, now in the collections of the Needham Historical Society.
OK, This One’s Creepy…
In response to my request for more Needham ghost stories, I was pleased to receive an email from (then-)teenager Danny James about a nighttime misadventure in the Needham Cemetery. I’ll restrict my visits to the daytime for a while …
“It was a typical summer night — hot, humid, and full of bugs. We were all hanging out at Tina’s house (me, Tina, and David). At this point in the day, everyone else had made plans, or was already out. Since this was the end of July, some had gone on vacation.
Tina lives right by the graveyard on Nehoiden, so I tossed out the idea that we should go to the graveyard. I figured that it would be fun (I’m real into scary stuff) to walk around the graveyard after dark. I guess looking back on it, going into a graveyard after dark is kind of stupid, but this was a dead time for activities in Needham, and we had been inside all day…we just wanted to get out.
We left right at dusk, so it was nothing terrible. It was actually kind of beautiful. But it was getting dark quickly.
I guess without realizing it I was kind of jumpy and nervous. There is a bust off to one side of the graveyard [the Carter grave site]. The Needham Historical Society can tell whatever myth it wants about this bust, but (and I’m not joking about this) that thing was watching me when I stood by it. Maybe it was just my imagination – I don’t know. What I do know is that standing near it I felt that there was something there that didn’t want me to be there, and it was watching me closely.
I was creeped out because of that feeling, so I did what anyone else would do and told my friends. My friends reminded me that I’m usually jumpy and I should just chill. Whatever.
We left the bust and walked across the graveyard. I guess that my friends got nervous too, or whatever was in the graveyard didn’t like being disregarded, because Tina jumped back and shouted that she saw a pair of eyes by a grave. We didn’t go back to check, because now we’re all a little freaked. We also didn’t realize until then how dark it had gotten.
Now the fun begins. We walked until we were between the Carter bust and the place where we saw the eyes, and down towards the Nehoiden side of the street we saw a black figure. We tried to convince ourselves that this was a bush, nothing more. But bushes don’t move – really quickly – toward you, and this dark thing was coming at us quickly, and looking more and more like a person with each passing moment. We couldn’t make out anything clearly – it was just a black shadow running at us, and we all saw it.
As we turned to run, deciding that this was enough and we wanted out, Tina and David saw something else. I didn’t see it but they claim they saw an old couple standing in front of them, “white but see-through.” We all turned to run towards the car exit on Nehoiden Street, when I saw a car pull in that way. Its headlights were coming up the turn onto the path we were on. I figured it was a cop – because of the “local police take notice” thing, but I didn’t care who it was as long as it was human and could get us out. Just before the car turned, it drove past a gravestone…and it never came back out the other side (I swear I saw this).
Scared as hell, we ran out of there as quickly as we could, and we didn’t stop until the graveyard was in the distance behind us.
A few months later, in November, I went back to the graveyard alone, curious to see what was there. I didn’t even get into the graveyard before I saw that familiar shadow of a person running towards me in the distance.”