Jul 16, 2014
Ghost Tours at Mark Twain House in Hartford; Will Lady in White Appear?
If you're a fan of Mark Twain or ghosts—or both—you may already know that his former home on Farmington Avenue in Hartford has been rumored to be haunted. What you may not know is that you can learn firsthand about the house's "haunted" history, as well as Twain's take on ghosts and the unearthly findings by paranormal investigation teams.
The Mark Twain House & Museum is presenting Graveyard Shift Ghost Tours, which run hourly from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Aug. 22 and 23. The popular special events feature an after-dark tour of the Clemens property that includes passing through the main house, the servants' wing and down into the basement, which is normally off-limits to visitors.
Focused on "haunted history, dark tales and Victorian traditions surrounding seances and spiritualism," it's "a rollicking good tour," says Steve Courtney, retired publicist and publications editor of the Mark Twain House who has written the book—literally—on the mansion's haunted history, We Shall Have Them With Us Always: The Ghosts of the Mark Twain House (available from the museum's gift shop). He points out that it's "not the kind of tour where things jump out at you from closets. It's more educational." Visitors will learn a lot about Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, and his experiences with the supernatural.
Make sure to read the story Paranormal investigators spin haunting tale about a historic house in Branford from the Shoreline Times. In the 1724 Harrison House in Branford, a historical society member asked in the otherwise empty dining room, "What kind of soup did you eat?" and a "ghost" answered, "Vegetable." Skeptical? It's on tape.
"Mark Twain was fascinated by ghost stories," says Courtney. "He loved to tell them. He learned a lot of them from the slaves on his uncle's farm when he was a boy in Missouri. He heard a lot of tales that he would later recount when he went on the lecture circuit, one in particular, 'The Golden Arm.' He joined the Society for Psychical Research in England, which investigated hauntings and seances in a serious, scientific way, or so they felt. He said he didn't believe a word he read but he read every one of their journals cover to cover."
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Mark Twain House, it's where the renowned author lived with his wife and three daughters from 1874 to 1891. While there, Clemens wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in addition to other classic works. The Clemens family lived there for 17 years, until they left for Europe as a temporary recourse from serious financial problems. Following the death of daughter Susy at age 24 from meningitis in 1896, the Clemens family was too heartbroken to continue living in the home, and sold it. It subsequently was a boarding school and library before becoming a museum dedicated to the life and career of Samuel Clemens that is open to the public year-round.
Over the years, there have been reports of employees and visitors seeing the apparition of a young woman in a long white dress roaming the halls and ghostly faces in the windows; other have had their clothes tugged by unseen forces and heard the laughter of children, whispers and other unexplained noises.
Courtney suggests that the staff of the house has been familiar with the alleged ghosts for decades. "Even back in the 1960s and '70s, there were people who felt 'presences,'" he says, but adds that they were reluctant to discuss their experiences. "They thought it was undignified to talk about it."
A few staff members shared their unusual experiences with Courtney for the book, including Mallory Howard, who was giving a tour and was standing in the drawing room when she saw something odd in the interior window over the fireplace that looks through into the entry hall of the house. "She saw somebody go by the window and she thought, 'Oh my gosh, somebody is wandering around loose,' because sometimes visitors get detached from tours, or that maybe it's a member of the staff," recounts Courtney. "Then she saw a woman pass an open door to the right of the fireplace in an old, white Victorian nightgown. And then over to her right, where Mallory was giving the tour, in the wide door that leads to the dining room, she saw this figure pass the door and then was gone. As she put it, she was absolutely stupefied for a few minutes—people on the tour asked what was wrong and she said that she was a little dizzy, and then recovered her senses and gave the rest of the tour. But after she went to the visitor's center to try and determine if someone else had been in the building or were there actors around—nothing like that."
Courtney also tells of historical interpreter Jason Scappaticci, who was up on the home's third floor when he experienced something he couldn't explain. "Again, it was a matter of looking through a door and seeing someone," says Courtney. "He actually saw the back of someone in a Victorian dress, and saw her passing and thought it was a weird way for a visitor to dress, and then realized that this woman wasn't there anymore."
A security guard also once reported seeing a tray fly across the basement of its volition and then hit a pipe.
Many of those who have had experiences seem to think the ghosts in the house could be either Susy Clemens, the aforementioned daughter who died in the house and fits the description of a woman in a white Victorian nightgown, or George Griffin, the Clemens' longtime butler. "There were stories in the book that I recounted of people who saw an African-American man standing behind tour guides while on the third floor, so he turns up as a suspect now and again," says Courtney. "Take that for whatever it means. I think maybe because they were some of the more interesting figures in the house, a lot of attention is drawn to them."
What of the house's namesake occupant? Has anyone ever spotted the spectral form of Samuel Clemens, lounging about in his trademark white suit while puffing a stogie? Not quite, says Courtney.
"The only sign of Mark Twain himself that people have mentioned is the presence of cigar smoke in the billiards room," he says. "There was a story where the smoke alarm was set off and the firemen came. This was like 10 years ago or so, and they had definitely smelled cigar smoke, which is what set off the smoke alarms. There are other people who say that they've smelled smoke. A very elderly member of the Friends of the Mark Twain House, which is a longtime support group, told me that when she was in the house alone, way back in the 1960s, she definitely smelled cigar smoke in the billiards room. So there you are!"
Any reluctance to discuss ghosts on behalf of the staff has clearly faded, much of that due to the efforts of Jacques Lamarre, communications director of the Mark Twain House. Soon after coming aboard in 2009, he agreed to let multiple paranormal research teams investigate the house, including SyFy's popular "Ghost Hunters." The new exposure helped boost interest in the museum at a time when it was struggling financially, and has certainly been beneficial to keeping it vibrant as a tourist definition. "Frankly, after the house was on 'Ghost Hunters,' they've gotten so many requests that they haven't been able to honor them all," says Courtney. "As a result of that and all the interest in ghosts and historic houses, we started running the ghost tours."
Although the tours are educational in nature and there are no orchestrated "scares," visitors have had unusual experiences, according to Courtney.
"There was one instance in which people on the tour heard the voices of two men talking," he says. "They were up on the upper floors, there's a big stairwell in the middle of the house—and down at the bottom of the stairwell they heard voices. They quickly determined that there was nobody around—there was no security guard, there was nobody who might've wandered over from the visitor's center to the house. The group—which included a prominent Mark Twain scholar—were really … let me say 'mystified,' by the experience."
However, Courtney is quick to add, "Now, a skeptic might say that this was just an auditory trick from someone perhaps outside who may have been walking across the grounds or hanging out by the Mark Twain House, so who knows?
As part of writing the book, Courtney spent a night in the house. "I've never seen a ghost there," he says. "So, I had no firsthand experience, except with squirrels, who I think were live squirrels. ... Mark Twain's daughter did have live squirrels she kept as pets, that she kept in her room on the third floor. In fact, two of his daughters kept these squirrels up there. So I wrote, rather flippantly in the book, that maybe these were the ghosts of Sara's squirrels! But nothing else. I walked around the house in the middle of the night—it was lovely to be there, barefoot in the Mark Twain House. Other than that …"
Courtney acknowledges that there are many skeptics on the staff who would prefer to focus on the true historical treasures of the Mark Twain House.
"I made sure to interview the education director, who thinks it's all a lot of hooey.," says Courtney. "He's upset that kids who come to visit the place, the first thing they want to know is if it's haunted because that's what they've hear. To my mind, whether it's a respectable thing for a historic house to be doing or not, that's a fascinating debate in itself." He adds: "I have a very hard time believing in ghosts at all. I think if one came up and said hello, I'd believe in them. But I have tremendous respect for people [like Mallory and Jason]—they are not flakes. Not that the other people who I mentioned are flakes, but these are people whom I know and respect and I know that they would never make things up like this. So who am I to say?"
Or as Sam Clemens himself said: "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising."
The Mark Twain House and Museum is at 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford. It's open Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. It is closed Tuesdays during January, February and March. For more information, call (860) 247-0998 or visit marktwainhouse.org.