This is an older story of mine that I always considered an little piece of gold. I found it with the help of a librarian, and to this day I go back and forth on whether it should be considered a legend or a ghost story. It has a ghost, and a story for that matter, but falls into an older tradition. You can’t investigate it or prove anything, so what you are left with is an old story people believed in at the time but that has now been pushed to the shelf as tale. That to me seems like a definition of legend.
I’ll let you decide.
The volunteer at the Newburyport library was sure the case had been a hoax. Older people in town knew of the haunted house, or knew the old story of the dead child and class tortured for month by the odd winds, the voices and the floating arm. The children had all seen the ghost of a boy in their classroom, but it had been disproved over one hundred, thirty years ago. The case had been closed and the hoaxer had become infamous, but there was still a lingering doubt.
In 1873, a twenty cent book was published entitled Expose of Newburyport Eccentricities, Witches and Witchcraft by someone calling himself H.P. The small pamphlet included a story about a the ghost of a murdered boy who had come back to haunt the children of the school, and after its publication, the well known haunt became an open and closed case. The truth, however, tells a slightly different story, and sometimes proving a fraud means having to ask more questions.
By 1872, the Charles Street Schoolhouse had become a black spot of sorts for the community in Newburyport. The building was falling apart and should have been remodeled decades before. The heating system was ancient and the floors creaked when students thought about moving. The drab color stuck out against the changing neighborhood, and most wished that it could be torn down.
The school was a weigh station for the unwanted, “untidy”, students of the town and the leftovers from other communities. They were the wayward urchins and the special needs kids of their time. The sixty-three desks were always filled, rotating as pupils dropped out to work or because they had become bored.
Lucy Perkins, the young teacher who accepted the job of instructing them, was known as an intelligent but sad woman. She had worked at the school for two years, but when she was hired she was not told about the teachers before her. The school committee kept why several teachers had quit suddenly.
The children knew why.
“The enemy to their public peace was supposed to be in the air, invisible, intangible and malignant, irregular but certain in its visits, and positive in it disturbances. “
The schoolhouse was haunted. In about 1860, a child had committed some “horrible” act in the school and had been given the appropriate punishment. He was severely beaten and locked in the basement of the building. He was left there the entire day and students were ordered to ignore his cries and moans. When the school day ended he was helped home and died later that night. The teacher, well within his rights as a disciplinarian, suffered no repercussions.
While it is impossible now to say what the inhabitants of the school experienced in the next few years, the rumors say it was well known the place was haunted well before Ms. Perkins was hired. She taught for two years without recording any negative instances, but late in 1871 things changed.
The class was often made to suffer through 2-3 hours of knocks on the walls. They came from the floor, from the ceiling, from the back wall and their own desks. They often became so loud the students could not work. A loud banging could be heard some days on the front door. Several times Lucy tried to catch whoever was distracting her class, but there was never anyone there. One days she opened the door and felt a person brush by her. The children in the room also felt something enter the room and go by their faces.
Doors would open and close by themselves. A frustrated Lucy would lock the offending doors, but they would swing back open after she turned her back. Clothes hanging from hooks in the back of the room would fall off. Students suffered bad headaches and noises in their ears as atmospheric conditions in the room would changes dramatically from moment to moment. A large vent located in the middle of the classroom was used to allow in fresh air. It had a manual latch so heavy Lucy had to use all her strength to open it. Sometimes the vent would open on its own or refuse to move no matter how she struggled.
Lucy kept two bells on her desk to announce class and breaks throughout the day. The bells would often ring by themselves in perfect time and in tones the bells should not have been able to make. One time, during an outside break, one bell rang so loud all the kids lined up to reenter the building. Lucy, outside and confused, unlocked the schoolhouse door to find the bell still on her desk and the room empty. The children laughed, and she decided to start telling people what was going on.
The school committee refused to hear her and most of the people in town believed she was crazy. The story, however, was starting to attract attention to the town.
Things intensified when the lights started. While Lucy was conducting her class, a bright yellow light would appear through the window and remain shining “like the sun” for hours. The light would come through almost everyday, even when the sky was overcast and there was no way the sun could be reflecting into the room.
Once while Lucy was conducting her lesson, there were loud rappings from the attic. She armed herself with a stick and took one of the young boys up with her to investigate. The rapping was replaced by laughing as they climbed the stairs, but when they reached the top they found nothing. As they searched the attic, they began to hear the same laughter below them on the bottom floor. Running back down the stairs to try and nab the culprit, they found no one nearby and again heard the laughing upstairs.
Until now the ghost had seemed playful and taunting but never really caused anyone harm. It was a nuisance, but the class pressed on. Then in 1872, the ghost finally took form. The children began to see an oddly dressed boy standing outside looking in at them. No matter how many times Lucy ran outside, she could never catch him. The boy’s arm then started to appear inside of the room. No one ever touched it, but they could see it floating in midair; the hand, arm and upper shoulder of a boy their age.
In October things reached their peak. The boy had already made several appearances to the children, but Lucy was finally able to see him for herself. She described him as a boy of about thirteen with blue eyes and a sad mouth. His clothes were of an older style and were brown and faded.
Later that winter, the school committee finally decided to do something. The whole town knew of the boy who had died fifteen years earlier and there was no silencing Lucy or redirecting the attention the town and its dilapidated schoolhouse was receiving. They held séances over the next few months to try and contact the murdered boy and put him at ease. The hauntings stopped, but most doubt it was communicating with the dead that caused peace to fall to the school.
Historical research can be a tricky feat. Old words can be translated and slang can be made understood, but euphemism is sometimes harder to nail down. A prostitute becomes a woman of ill repute. Alcoholism becomes a blackening of the gall bladder. Lost to history is what people really thought of Edward De Lancy and his family.
Edward lived near the haunted schoolhouse and his family was described as being eccentric and of “retired habits.” He was said to be unsociable but with a good sense of humor and of “little sympathy with his local associates.” Edward had received as a gift from a family member living in Europe some type of glass projection machine that could throw object far distances by catching the sun and then shining the trapped light. He fiddled with smaller object before hearing of the odd noises in the school and the murdered boy. He decided to project the image of a desolate schoolchild directly into the classroom, all the time laughing at the children down below.
When the news came to light, Edward would entertain anyone who arrived at his house by throwing ghosts into the classroom and explaining the methods behind his practical joke. The town considered the haunting solved, and as the author of the pamphlet writes, “Thus has Science given the world another proof of its power over the superstitions of the day.” Nothing is said of what happens to the children or sad Lucy Perkins, but the case was lost to a locked file cabinet in the Newburyport Public Library. The school is now a private residence and the latest owners report no loud noises, no odd laughter and no arm of a murdered boy hovering in their dining room.
Questions still remain, however, and while Edward’s antics explain the most intense aspect to the haunting, they do not clarify all that happened in that schoolhouse. While the atmosphere of the old building could have easily activated the imagination of the more undesirable students of the town, there was still Lucy Perkins and the other teachers who had quit the post. There was no way Edward could have faked all of the haunting and never admitted to ever going near the school. Rather the legend of the ghost and the murdered boy already existed and acted as his inspiration. Someone might have been outside pounding on the walls when they heard it, but what about the laughing in the attic and mysterious bells that rang behind a locked door.
What happened in the schoolhouse will never be fully explained. Since the first unexplained cold spot, the town swept things under the rug and kept the truth locked inside the building. People of the time did not want to face what might have been left behind by a boy beaten and left to die, but the story remains. The school was once described as “dismal at best, and if built by the spectral-loving fraternity themselves for their special accommodations, it could not answer their purpose better.” But the schoolhouse was more than just a prop or the backdrop to a story of tragedy, and if tragedy never rest, the murdered boy of the Charles Street Schoolhouse may never truly find peace.