Featured Stories & Articles from Cape Cod Travel Magazine: Ye Olde Ghosts of Olde Yarmouthport
Forgive me, dear reader, for using a cliché, but it was a dark and stormy night—in Yarmouthport. Main Street, the picturesque time tunnel that is Cape Cod’s Route 6A, at first subtly accented by autumn’s red, yellow and orange hues, was somehow transformed by the fourth Saturday in October into a more restless and spectral setting Edgar Allan Poe would have loved. But we were indeed early for “Ghosts of Yarmouth’s Past”—the local historical society’s house tour on the Common by costumed interpreters ready to impart more than a few secret tales of the supernatural.
So, not wishing to put in an unseemly appearance, we stopped momentarily at the nearby Parnassus Bookshop. When we told the staff, composed of two jovial gentlemen, that we were back for the second time that afternoon to warm our frigid hands, the owner with the improbable name of Muse replied, “Well, if you’re here for the ghost tour, you really should start on the third floor of this building.” It would have been fitting enough there to pore over long-forgotten volumes of archaic lore such as Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie. Edward Gorey’s Elephant House, among the three scheduled sites, beckoned us, however, in a manner only to be described as “Goreyesque.”
We duly arrived at the Yarmouthport Common where all the male guides wore top hats, and where all the visitors were discussing ghosts they had known personally. The Inn at Orleans further down the Cape was whispered about as a haunted venue, and one raven-haired lady let it slip that her office at work headquartered a ghoul. It was also suggested that more numerous ghostly sightings have been reported at sea-level locales such as Nantucket. We each proffered the requisite $8 fee and settled down to be enlightened by Joel, the guide for our small party. “Every house on the Common except number 12 is haunted,” we were told by the tour leader. The gathering was reminded (not to spook us out, of course) that Yarmouthport, the second oldest town on the Cape, was incorporated in 1639—well before the Salem witch trials of 1692.
The first stop turned out not to be Gorey’s, but the Colonial House Inn (1730s), hidden in nightly seclusion just east of it. There, behind the three-story mansard-roofed, doric-porticoed Victorian façade, satanic Elizabeth Lewis, a Barnstable witch born in January 1711, invited us to watch her stir fish scales into an already merrily boiling pot sporting ear of warthog and eye of newt. “My mother died when I was young,” she explained, to furnish living proof of why she had lived in the woods of those days alone with her father. Now, she cackled, she stays totally alone on Mary Dunn Road, next to Halfway Pond, where strange dancing lights are wont to hover.
Ms. Lewis unwound the yarn of how she had turned herself into a cat for swimming across the ocean. “All witches wear red shoes,” she hissed in near-feline abandon. “We have black cats to keep the negative forces away from us. Parking your broom upside-down works like a charm, too.” Asserting that poltergeists are “just having fun,” Elizabeth related in hushed tones that a ghostly couple down the road at the Old Yarmouth Inn likes to turn the lights back on after everyone has gone to bed. Another of their favorite tricks is moving glasses around on the polished mahogany bar.
Carried away with glee, Elizabeth then confided in us even more spectral news. The home at number 316 plays host to the ghost of an organist who once served at the First Congregational Church on the hill. And at number 418, a ghost named Ellen has a penchant for earrings. She steals them whenever she can from residents. “So be real careful when you go out,” Elizabeth warned, getting more serious at the flick of an evil eye. “And listen for things that go bump in the night.”
Our sense of foreboding waxed even more back on Strawberry Lane when we tripped over a display of lighted jack-o’-lanterns on the porch of Edward Gorey’s house. Gorey, the New York playwright who won a Tony Award for his revival of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Broadway, was a grand master of the macabre. It wasn’t his collections of books, bottles, finials, stuffed animals and rocks that spellbound us. It was that we saw a long-lost ghost wandering about in the backyard. Inside, our hearts almost froze at hearing the forlorn calls of howling wolves. Himself a longtime Cape denizen, Gorey kept six cats who indeed knew their digs harbored the undead. Poison ivy reportedly used to creep up the walls; raccoons came and went at whim, not to mention the omnipresent skunks and rats. The author of the house went blithely by, writing a hundred or so books, while George the Tomcat would often run and hide from the dearly departed dregs of society who walked—or floated—there. As if we needed any convincing, a ghost rushed past us draped all in ebony, and we were warned, “We’re sure there are ghosts in the barn…. Light a black candle at home to ward off evil.”
The last stop on the tour was the historic Captain Bangs Hallet House (1840s), the only furnished sea captain’s mansion on the Cape. They say it was built by the merchant Thomas Thacher to drive out the devil. This Greek Revival structure was added to an earlier eighteenth-century abode that had started life as a store. Sold to Captain Allen Hinckley Knowles in 1850, it eventually passed to Captain Hallet and his wife, Anna, who spent 30 years there until 1893. Knowles and Hallet no doubt congratulated each other by swapping homes in a deal dating back to 1863, but at least one of the three resident ghosts haunting the place still doesn’t like the idea. Thacher’s footsteps are often heard upstairs. Another spirit is forever closing windows, shutting doors and turning off lights. We were asked, Is that Anna Hallet? But how could any of us mortal folk be sure? And the third ghost at Hallet’s wears its clothes inside out. Curses! Actually, you’re right: That’s the way to get rid of one. A spook, that is.
We were told other amazing tales by the top hats in attendance, such as that Midsummer Night (June 23) is the most dangerous evening of the year. Some of America’s largest English Beech trees were weeping outside under a hypothetical full moon, but those of us who stuck things out were entranced with stories of the pirate ship Whydah, as well as of the gleaming, long-vanished packet ships—having sailed between Yarmouth and Boston—that still can be glimpsed on chilly nights. The exquisite needlepoint, low carved Victorian chairs, Sandwich glass and Chinese export porcelain did not console us a whit, but only served to heighten our growing sense of dread. Was Mary Dunn, at that very instant, feeding weary yet unwary travelers in the “Wheel of Thyme” herb garden beyond yonder Gate House? And what was there to be made of Robert the Scott, the indentured servant who, once in league with a long-deceased Barnstable physician, continues searching for his missing jewels—and playing the bagpipes now and again on windy nights? Have you heard tell of the Liberty Hill Inn, where a severed leg was found in 1970? The ghost who used to own that leg comes back looking for it. Mark their words.
“But relax, kind friends,” we were assured. “This has all been in good fun. Have some orange juice and doughnuts now, over at the Colonial House.” We did. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Lewis’s cauldron was still bubbling there. When the guests left on their separate journeys down Yarmouthport’s labyrinthine lanes leading off from the Old King’s Highway, we stepped out into the gloom and noted that the cloud-lidded sky was ready to scream.Back to Cape Cod Travel Guide Stories