It was a humid, drizzly night when I joined the Providence Ghost Tour for a haunted jaunt through the East Side. The weather was fitting for an evening of ghost stories, though I’ll concede that I wasn’t a believer when I pulled up to Prospect Terrace for the tour – far from it. I’ve never had any use for the supernatural. Sometimes the mind runs away with itself, filling in the unexplained gaps with notions of hidden forces, destiny, fate and campfire chicanery. So says I, the educated, science-minded modern man who knows that ghosts are nothing but the work of an overactive imagination.
Then I saw two ghosts.
Courtney Edge-Mattos, who started Providence Ghost Tour in 2006 with Mike Gertrudes, warned me that this kind of thing might happen. “We’ve bumped into some cool characters, human and inhuman,” she says. Courtney, who considers herself to be a somewhat skeptical believer, has had her fair share of paranormal encounters in the years since mapping the unexplained, unusual and unseemly deaths that have made 02906 the preferred zip code of the damned. “I do think there’s validity to it and there’s something out there,” she says. The tour’s route changes every so often to accommodate the fluctuations of ghostly activity over time (natural phenomena like full moons and the equinox can serve as a signal booster for the undead) but they always faithfully depart from Prospect Terrace.
My guide for the night, Erin Newell, has been leading brave souls around College Hill for five years. She was a fan first before joining the ranks of the PGT. “I’m a scaredy cat!” she confesses, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred her from getting involved. If anything, prolonged interaction with the spirit world without a proper amount of respect and fear seems like a recipe for doom.
As it neared 8pm, and the light of day faded further down the cloud-covered horizon, Erin gathered the 12 tourists under the lamppost behind the monument to Roger Williams and asked us to consider “the secret history of where we live.” She told us about the apple tree whose roots consumed Williams’ corpse and savaged his bones, which now rest entombed below the statue. The tale was delivered with the theatricality you’d expect from a supernatural tour guide and served as a preview to the horrors and oddities to come. Then, we were off.
We processed down Congdon to the Meeting Street steps for the tale of Amasa Sprague and the Irishman who was wrongfully hanged for his death. From there we headed to the Dexter House to learn about the nocturnal spooks that keep RISD kids up at night. Up on Benefit Street we stopped at the Athenaeum for a story of love and loss Poe-style, complete with a recitation of the macabre “The Conqueror Worm.” At each stop, Erin had our undivided attention.
Spooky as it all was, though, I wasn’t buying it. But I hadn’t expected to. I wasn’t looking for true horror, just a few scary stories to share with out-of-town friends as we stumble around the city after a night out.
Halfway up George Street, Erin stopped to tell us about George Kelly, an 8-year-old boy who was thrown from a carriage after it struck a pothole. According to legend, a ghostly carriage appears on the street on the first, crisp fall night of the year. From there we made our way to the Annmary Brown Memorial, a combination private library and mausoleum. Maybe it was the particularly grisly details of George Kelly’s story (his brains, apparently, were spilled on the road) or maybe because I was already familiar with the story of Annmary Brown, I allowed my imagination to linger a bit longer on the little boy and the carriage. Then, as we rounded George Street and made our way down Brown, I saw my first spectre – a small child, holding its knees to its chest, between a bush and a Goodwill donation box.
I blinked and it was gone, and none of the corporeal objects or shadows on that corner seemed at all like the shape of a kid, no matter how much I glared at them. Not to throw the W word around irresponsibly here, but I had a stone-cold case of the willies.
Soon we found ourselves at University Hall at Brown University, which served as a military hospital during the Revolutionary War. If things go bump in the night on this tour, this is the place they do it. As Erin recounted the savagery of 18th-century medicine (they cut it off or you died), complete with a description of the stench of death that soaked into the building’s frame, a shadow darted across a window on the second floor. A few minutes later Erin pointed to that very window, informing us that the face of a long-dead revolutionary has been known to peer out from it. At this point I was done. Get me home, turn on all the lights, please have my mommy come tuck me in. The rest of the tour is a blur.
Chalk it up to the power of good storytelling – Erin was a pro, laying into the theatrics in all the right places, playing things more subtle and somber where necessary – or to the fact that after a long week I was just tired enough to read into strange shadows. Either way, by the time we got back to Prospect Terrace, I was thoroughly rattled. Time has done little to shake the sense of dread that settled into me that night, and I don’t know which is more frightening: that I saw what I think were two ghosts, or that my core belief in the nonexistence of supernatural beasties has been challenged. Do I believe now? That’s a hard question to answer. For now I’ll cop out and say I consider myself an apparition agnostic.