South County doesn’t have a Great Swamp Devil or a Big River Bigfoot, much to the disappointment of local author Christopher Rondina, a fan of all things supernatural who has penned books on New England spirits, vampires, and ghost ships.
“Rhode Island doesn’t really have a monster story,” Rondina laments. His macabre mood lifts, however, when talk turns to the state’s abundant haunted sites, many inhabiting the historic villages and deep forests of Southern Rhode Island. “In some ways, I think Rhode Island is one of the spookiest states in New England, with woods full of old graveyards,” he says. And, he points out, we do have at least one paranormal pooch pawing around the ruins of an old fort in Jamestown.
As the leaves turn during fall and Halloween draws near, these South County sites are worth visiting for a few genuine chills.
The Advent Christian Church began holding religious camp revival meetings in the village of Greene in the 1880s, and ruins of the former Camp Greene can be found in the woods off Hopkins Hollow Road. “Abandoned cabins, enormous crosses, and bat houses nailed to every tree – this decaying former religious retreat in one of Rhode Island’s most rural corners feels like the backdrop for a Stephen King novel,” says Rondina. “Urban legends persist regarding murderous camp counselors and other dark deeds, but these grim accounts seem more like campfire tales than genuine history. Even so, it’s not a place most people would linger after sundown.”
Rhode Island has more than 2,800 historic cemeteries; #22 on Route 102 in Exeter is the final (?) resting place of Mercy Brown, who died of tuberculosis in 1892. Suspected by her family of being a vampire, Mercy was exhumed and found to be weirdly well-preserved; in desperation, a piece of her heart was fed to her brother (also ill with the disease) in an attempt to ward off death. “Mercy was one of a dozen such revenants thought to prowl the graveyards of Rhode Island between 1796 and 1892, a cursed history which may have inspired Bram Stoker, author of Dracula,” says Rondina.
Devil’s Foot Road in North Kingstown runs along a granite ledge known as Devil’s Foot Rock, so named for a series of indentations attributed to Satan himself. “‘Old Scratch’ is said to have left footprints in the woods near Quonset while in pursuit of a virtuous native maiden in the 1600s, and his diabolical prints are still visible today,” says Rondina. The satanic stone is located just south of Quonset Point, off Route 1.
Rhode Island may not have its own monster, but a demon dog is believed to wander the grounds of Fort Wetherill — a legend that Haunted Rhode Island author Thomas D’Agostino says could date back to British occupation of the fort during the Revolutionary War. Even if you don’t run into a spooky pup on your visit, it’s creepy enough to explore the ruined World War II era fortifications, which include underground tunnels (technically) off limits to the public.
Enough spirits are said to roam the halls of this 17th-century inn and restaurant that it attracted investigators from the show Ghost Hunters. An apparition that inhabits the inn’s Washington Room is said to be particularly lively, occasionally tapping guests on the shoulder. “Visitors from the past are reported to mingle with modern-day guests, though by all accounts most of the lingering spirits are pleasant company,” Rondina says.
Some spooky spots in South County have fanciful stories, but the terror and violence that took place in the Great Swamp in 1675 was all too real. In the middle of King Philip’s War, a colonial militia descended upon a peaceful encampment of the Narragansett tribe in South Kingstown and massacred hundreds of women and children, with many more dying after fleeing into the frozen swamp. The Great Swamp Fight Monument is located off Route 2, near the site of the fortress.
Founded as The Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in 1908, the Ladd School was essentially an overcrowded prison for the mentally ill and women accused of violating the morality codes of the day. This place of misery, neglect, and murder was finally razed in 2013, but not before being used as the setting of a horror movie called Exeter. “Haunted by dark memories and an aura of hopelessness, the site remains stigmatized to this day by its past,” Rondina says.
The 1770 home of Rhode Island’s foremost Revolutionary War hero is one of a handful of haunted houses that are open to the public. Rondina says supernatural phenomena have reportedly included a baby carriage that moves by itself, the smell of baking bread from long unused ovens, and the sounds of militia members preparing for battle. Not for nothing did Greene himself refer to the place as “Spell Hall.”
Two rows of Runic letters, visible only at low tide, were carved into a granite boulder on Pojac Point, some say by early Norse explorers. Nobody is quite sure where the carvings originated or what they mean, although the closest translation seems to be “screaming river.” The stone was relocated for safekeeping to Library Park in Wickford in 2015.
Church cemeteries are consecrated ground, but what happens to the unfortunate souls buried in the churchyard if the church moves away? One of Rhode Island’s oldest cemeteries can be found off Shermantown Road, with headstones dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, but the Old Narragansett Church itself was spirited off to Wickford in 1799.
According to legend, wreckers lured the Dutch sailing ship Princess Augusta onto the rocks of Block Island in 1738; the ship burned and sank, costing the lives of dozens of passengers. Some of the dead, who hailed from the Palatine region of Germany, are buried on Block Island, and an eerily glowing ghost ship is said to visit the island’s shores each winter, “eternally seeking vengeance on the descendants of the wreckers who sealed her fate,” according to Rondina.
At least two ghosts are believed to roam the halls of Smith’s Castle — perhaps not surprising for a building that dates back to 1678. The spirit of Elizabeth Singleton, a Newport woman who fell down a staircase and died after an overindulgence in rum, is said to be buried on the property and haunts the old building to this day. The building was once owned by the family of author John Updike, who used Wickford as the fictional inspiration for his book, The Witches of Eastwick.