Old Homes and their Demons

“So, have you seen anything strange in that apartment?” my neighbor asked one day, as we stood in front of our homes, corralling our toddlers out of the road.

“No. Like what?”

“Well. They call her Lilly. And I’ve heard some stories. Once, the girl who lived there before you walked into the dining room, and she found that the tablecloth had been ripped off the table and bunched up in the far corner of the room. And no one else was home!”

Lilly haunts our dining room, can you sense her presence?

As far as ghosts go, I think I can handle Lilly. A linen stripping, laundry fixated phantom doesn’t seem all that menacing. Plus, I haven’t seen any activity from her since we moved in two years ago. This is most likely the case because she has found a kindred spirit in my husband, who hails from France, the country of ironed sheets and jeans.

There are other demons in this old house that concern me more. Like the oil fired, forced air furnace in the basement. Our first fall after moving, the exterior temperature dropped, and the heat did not come on.  We cranked up the thermostat, nothing. We went down to the basement and tried to stare the machine into submission…nothing. We called the landlord, who attempted to convince us that the furnace was in fact working and we were delusional. We called my Dad, who is my go-to guy in matters of cars and machines. We prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

Then, in the middle of this upstairs, downstairs hullabaloo, we crossed our upstairs neighbor in the hallway. She has a separate furnace, and she was warm and toasty in her place. I explained our plight, and she reached over and flicked a switch. “The emergency switch was off,” she said, then picked up her laundry basket and went on her way.

The emergency switch? As it turns out, my New England neighbors know this kind of stuff. They were raised in old houses where furnaces have to be turned on by an inconspicuous switch in the upstairs hallway. They are unfazed by drafty wooden windows, overloaded outlets, and damp fieldstone foundations, not to mention the lead paint lurking under layers of fresh coats on the walls. When I was baffled by the black sooty remains on the basement wall, my neighbors quickly explained that they came from an ancient coal burner. And when an untouched ball rolled across our old wooden floor from one side of the apartment clear to the other, these folks didn’t even blink an eye. Level floors may be desirable, I suppose, but a slight tilt adds personality to a house.

Our slanted old house was built in the 1920’s, but it is new construction by Salem standards. When we first moved to the North Shore from Michigan, we took a “Haunted Footsteps Ghost Tour,” and learned a bit about the city’s historic dwellings as well as the real people who inhabited them. We followed our guide’s lantern through the streets of Salem past impressive structures like John Ward House (1684), the Crowninshield Bentley House (c.1727-30), and the Old Town Hall (1816).

The John Ward House (built ca. 1684), photo by the Peabody Essex Museum.

I knew a bit about the witch trials already (naturally, who isn’t a bit intrigued by this particular historical episode of complete and total madness),  but I was fascinated to hear that Salem had once been one of America’s most important seaports, boasting a significant trading relationship with China. Many of the magnificent homes throughout the city were built for wealthy sea captains that engaged in large-scale, global commerce. Even our most famous resident, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was involved in Salem’s maritime economy. His day job was working as a clerk at the custom house in Salem Harbor.

I’ve now lived here for five years, and I still enjoy strolling the streets of Salem, gazing at these historic homes, and reflecting on the people who once lived in them. These ghosts are sea captains, witch hunting puritans, members of the codfish aristocracy, as well as shoe leather tanners and lead mill industrialists.

They would eat our Lilly for breakfast.

— Marta Brill

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