Ghosts of Winter
Long before Dickens and his Christmas Carol, the holidays were associated with hauntings. Pull your chair up to the roaring fire, friends, to hear a few chilling and rarely told tales of South Fork apparitions. By Erica-Lynn Huberty
The winter holidays bring twinkling lights and bright parties—but they also bring gloomy skies and howling winds. At year’s end, we take stock of our lives, our thoughts turning to past events and people no longer with us. The Irish once had a tradition of spreading ashes before the hearth in November to see if departed family members might leave footprints overnight; they would be on the lookout for the bean-sídhe, whose wraith-like wail, sounding like an owl’s call, or a song, foretold someone’s demise. Clearly, Charles Dickens was tapping into a deep undercurrent when he associated the holiday season with something altogether less jolly:
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost of Christmas Past said, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”
A Christmas Carol isn’t the only Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote, and there are endless holiday ghost tales by other authors, including M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell. They are best read aloud, preferably in front of a roaring fire, toes curled inside shearling slippers.
Winter ghosts float through our East End landscape, too. If you keep a keen eye out, and listen carefully, you may catch a fleeting flurry of movement near a dark window or hear an almost-silent footfall on the stairs.
Some of the specters’ antics are mild, the tales more humorous than frightening. On Dec. 2, 1895, for example, a New York Times article reported weird doings in snow-swept Sag Harbor: “There is something the matter with the drinking water in this village,” the news item said. A number of young men had “seen a ghost several times recently while on their way home late at night. The apparition usually jumps up from behind a bush, and is described as wearing a high hat and carrying an army musket.” While one can easily attribute these sightings to pranksterism or too many hot toddies imbibed during Sag Harbor’s post-whaling recession (when stumbling down Main Street was a common recreation), there are plenty of other winter’s tales that are rather more eerie.
Take the house on Egypt Lane in East Hampton Village that used to belong to the Misses Atalie and Lillian Worthington. The Worthington family—who had before then been natives of Bridgehampton—bought the Egypt Lane house in the 1880s with death-benefit money after Lillian and Atalie’s brother Edwin died at 23 of diphtheria aboard a naval schooner, bound for Roanoke Island, during the Civil War.
Everett T. Rattray, the late editor of The East Hampton Star, remembered the maiden sisters—the last of 16 siblings—in his book The South Fork: “Aunts Atalie and Lillian Worthington . . . frail old ladies whose paternal grandfather had been a private in Washington’s army . . . blackberried together in all innocence in their old age on the hills at Montauk.” Atalie, he wrote, had been an extraordinarily beautiful girl and even when “old and wrinkled and salted with white hairs” was lovely. Miss Lillian was devoted to the Ladies Village Improvement Society.
In fact, Lillian was waiting to be picked up for an L.V.I.S. fête when she died in the kitchen in 1962 at the age of 92. Her nephew Herbert inherited the place, but never lived in it, reportedly because he felt too uneasy there. He rented it seasonally for a while before selling it to a Manhattan furniture designer named John Mascheroni and his wife, Serena.
Although they lived in the old place from 1974 to 1982, the Mascheronis got an odd feeling from it, too: They swore they shared it with an apparition.
“I experienced the ghost of Lillian Worthington,” Mr. Mascheroni told The Star in a 2003 interview.
“I would lock a basement door, and an hour or two later find it open. Once, when my wife was in the kitchen talking about canning, a cookbook slid off a shelf on its own and landed at her feet.” He was reading one night in Lilian’s bedroom, in Lillian’s bed, Mascheroni said, when he “suddenly it seemed as though someone had opened a freezer. There was a blast of cold, cold air. I couldn’t catch my breath. . . . It was just a feeling, for seconds—a presence of something.”
“Lillian was sending a message that the house should be respected,” said Mascheroni, who sold the property to Renée Zellweger, the movie actor, in 2003. Apparently, she never felt comfortable there, either, as she sold it several years later.
Sag Harbor’s undertaker, Samuel Thompson, chucks a snowball in a rare image from the 1880s; East Hampton Star archive.
And then there is the American Hotel. During the British occupation of Sag Harbor, in the 1770s, a tavern called James Howell’s inn stood where the American Hotel is now, and ghostly goings-on of a historical variety have long been reported there.
A decade before Revolution broke out, the British, in a display of disrespect that stunned the townsfolk, had built a fort in the center of the cemetery that is now called the Old Burying Ground, on Madison Street; there is still a noticeable incline and indentation in the center of the graveyard, reflecting the British fortifications.
During the Battle of Sag Harbor, in 1777, some 170 Continental soldiers under the command of Lieut. Col. Jonathan Meigs came down from rebel-held Guilford, Connecticut, in whaleboats and landed at Long Beach. They quickly seized control of a British hospital and outpost at Brick Kiln, then moved on Howell’s inn, where the British commanding officer, Capt. James Raymond, was captured. Next stop was the detested cemetery fort, where six Loyalist soldiers were killed and 53 taken prisoner.
“The British soldiers had just gotten their pay and many had been eating and drinking heavily,” one Yankee later wrote. “Some had nothing but his shirt on, some a pair of trowsers, others perhaps one stocking and one shoe. . . .”
At Long Wharf, the rebels set fire to a dozen British brigs and sloops and captured 90 sailors (also taking quantities of rum and munitions). Within 24 hours they were back in New Haven with their prisoners and loot.
It is said that Room 15 at the American Hotel is troubled by the spirits of Meigs’s dead redcoats, who clomp around, one boot on and one boot off, and wake the guests. It has been so vexatious that one proprietor’s wife reportedly had an exorcism performed to rid #15 and the adjacent hallway of these disturbances. But, really, it is in the downstairs public areas where stranger things happen.
Vinnie Rom, the longtime barkeep at the American Hotel, was alone one wintry night with a friend who had come to visit and chat. He poured himself a beer and relaxed as he cleaned up for closing time, with his friend sitting at the bar. After putting out the fire in the fireplace by the dining tables, the two men heard a knocking in the fireplace wall.
Rom walked over to investigate, lowering his head to listen at the chimney, but found nothing. And then they heard it again. And again.
Thinking it was a squirrel caught in the flue, they checked it, but every time they got near, the knocking stopped. Vinnie locked up and went home.
At 7 the next morning, his phone rang. It was the office manager, asking, “What happened here last night?” Rom, perplexed, answered: “I had one beer and closed up and left at 11. Why?”
“Are you sure you left that early?” she asked. “Of course,” he said. “It was a quiet night.”
The manager had found the bar intact, the bottles and glasses just as Vinnie had left them. But there, in the fireplace, burned a perfect three-log fire, as if it had just been set.
Jacob’s Well in the 1950s, around the time the spirit of a murdered infant was exorcised, according to a contemporary news report; East Hampton Star archive. The house was gutted by fire in 2016.
But perhaps the most disturbing tale, all but forgotten today, is the wraith of Jacob’s Well.
In the April 4, 1955 issue of The East Hampton Star, its editor, Jeanette Edwards Rattray, wrote about rumors of a haunting at an old house at the head of Three Mile Harbor called Jacob’s Well. The house and its well—which was by then buried under a patio—were named after the Jacob Leek who had built the place sometime in the 1700s. The generations of Leeks who lived there had died out or moved away, and it was inherited through the female line into the Bennett family, and then was owned by Winthrop Gardiner before Ronald Rioux bought and remodeled it in the 20th century. Mrs. Rattray went to check out the haunting for herself, and was absolutely charmed by the property’s character, which she said was like “a little old dollhouse,” ancient, shingled, something like Home, Sweet Home Museum near Guild Hall.
The ghost story associated with the Leek house was exceedingly creepy. Legend was that a baby had been smothered to death there and that at night it could be heard wailing and crying under the hearth. “Who or when that was, nobody seems to know,” Mrs. Rattray wrote, “but the hearth was torn up” by the 1950s and boarded over. “There is now no fireplace, which presumably took care of the wailing.”
But the ghost at Jacob’s Well was not gone. The Riouxs sold the house to Jeffrey Potter in the late 1950s. Potter told a reporter for The Star in 1959 that no one had mentioned any paranormal activity when he bought it, and that he had come independently to the conclusion that it was haunted. The very first night at Jacob’s Well, he was awakened by a low wailing, then soft chuckles. He made inquiries in the neighborhood, and heard from various people the story of a murdered baby that could be heard crying under the hearth. The fireplace was no longer there; in its stead only a blank wall in the small sitting room where it had once been.
Potter lived with the nighttime wails for a while. His dog avoided the sitting room, he said, and when the pet was obliged to pass the wall in question, the fur would rise on its back.
Potter finally decided to rip out the wall and see what was behind it. But before he did, he made a tape recording of the ghost for posterity; yes, the cries could be heard on the tape, too. Someone versed in such matters warned that doing such an experiment would exorcise the ghost, and that this was a very bad thing to do, but Potter went ahead and ripped out the sitting room wall, uncovering the outline of the ancient hearth. He replaced the wall with cypress boards from an old water tank at Stony Hill Farm and built a new fireplace on the opposite, outside, wall of the sitting room. After that, the ghost baby never cried again.
Jacob’s Well was gutted by fire in February 2016, and torn down. The natural spring that fed the well still runs underground there, carrying cold water in a course down toward the harbor. A brand-new house, all white and modern, went up on the spot this year, but whether or not its owners have heard its haunted history is unknown.
*At top: Some later inhabitants of the old house at 30 Egypt Lane, East Hampton, insisted that the ghostly presence they felt was that of Miss Lillian Worthington, seen here around the turn of the last century. The house is still there, but ever since the movie actor Renée Zellweger planted tall evergreens out front some 15 years ago, it is no longer visible from the road. East Hampton Star archive.