- THE ENIGMA OF AMERICAN POLTERGEISTS -
THE STRATFORD POLTERGEIST
THE STRATFORD POLTERGEIST
Strange Happenings of the Phelps Mansion
BY TROY TAYLOR
On a late winter morning in March 1850, strangeness came to the peaceful New England town of Stratford, Connecticut. It came quietly and without fanfare but its arrival would shake the community to its core - and would create a mystery that remains unsolved even more than a century and a half later.
Reverend Eliakim Phelps came to Stratford in February 1848 and bought a sprawling mansion on Elm Street that had once belonged to a sea captain named George R. Dowell. The house was as eccentric as its builder was. For instance, the captain had constructed the main hallway of the house to be 70 feet long and 12 feet wide, with twin staircases that met at each end of the second-floor landing. The odd design replicated the layout of Captain Dowell’s clipper ship.
The seaman sold the house and retired, passing ownership to Dr. Phelps, who soon planned to retire himself in the new home. However, he would find the place anything but peaceful!
Dr. Phelps had been born in Belchertown, Massachusetts to an old and respected New England family. He was a graduate of the Union and Andover Seminaries and had been in charge of congregations in both Geneva and Huntington, New York. He had been widowed in his late 50’s but his children were all grown and had moved from home by then. He was well known in religious circles and was seen as somewhat unusual in his thinking, often expressing an interest in mysticism, mesmerism and later, in the growing Spiritualist movement in America. He devoted most of his time to reading and exploring his unique interests. Phelps was definitely outside of the norm when it came to Presbyterian clergymen.
Then, at 59 years of age, Phelps began to make some changes in his life. Not only did he relocate from Philadelphia to Stratford, but he also married again. His new bride was many years younger and already had three children: Anna, 16, Henry, 11 and another girl, who was 6. Together, they had a son, who was three years old when the strange happenings on Elm Street began.
Despite what seemed to be a blissful life, some accounts state that the family was not entirely happy. Apparently, Mrs. Phelps did not care for Stratford and did not like her neighbors. She was constantly tired and upset and it was said that her daughter, Anna, suffered from a nervous disposition. The stress carried by these two women is worth noting during the story to come.
It began on Sunday, March 10, 1850. The entire Phelps family returned from church services that morning to find the doors of their house standing wide open. Dr. Phelps was shocked by this! As the maid was away, he had been sure to secure the entire house, locking not only the exterior doors and windows, but the interior ones as well. The only keys were in his pocket. But now, they discovered that all of them had been flung open, both inside and out.
Dr. Phelps cautiously entered the house, unsure of what he might find. What he discovered was chaos. Someone had ransacked the place, knocking over furniture, smashing dishes, scattering books, papers and clothing. Yet strangely, they had not apparently been robbed. Phelps found that his gold watch, the family silver and his loose cash were in plain sight, but had been left alone. He wondered if perhaps an unlocked window had provided the thieves means to escape when the family returned from church and caught them by surprise.
Phelps summoned his family and they went upstairs to inspect the bedrooms. Here, they found no burglars hidden away but something even more unnerving. In one of the bedrooms, someone had spread a sheet over the bed and had placed one of Mrs. Phelps’ nightgowns on top of it. Stockings had then been placed at the bottom of it to suggest feet and the arms of the gown had been folded over the chest as though crossed in preparation for a funeral. What sort of message had the thieves, or more likely vandals, been trying to send?
The family attempted to restore some order to the house before returning to the church for the afternoon services. When the clock struck past noon, Mrs. Phelps and the children departed, but Dr. Phelps remained at the house, hoping to catch the burglars when they returned. He hid in his study, armed with a pistol, and waited in silence. A few hours passed and he heard no sounds but that of the house creaking in the wind. No doors opened or closed, no footsteps fell in the rooms or the corridors.
Eventually, he left his hiding place and wandered about the lower floor. He opened the door to the dining room and got a shocking discovery! The previously empty room was now filled with a crowd of women! They had entered the house without sound and now stood silent and still, standing and kneeling in positions of religious devotion. Several of them held bibles, others bowed so low that their foreheads nearly brushed the floor, and all of them seemed to be in a rough circle in the center of the room.
It was several moments before Dr. Phelps realized that the women in the room were incredibly lifelike effigies that had been fashioned from the family’s clothing. The dresses had been filled with rags, muffs and other materials from around the house. The dummies had somehow been created and positioned during the short time that Mrs. Phelps and the children had been away from the house.. and while Dr. Phelps had been so vigilantly standing guard! How could it have been done? And more importantly, what did it mean?
Notably, this would not be the last time that the effigies would appear without explanation in the house. Over the months to come, these eleven "women" would be joined by nearly 20 more. They would appear without warning and with no clue as to how they were constructed so quickly or so secretly. On March 10, the family would not know that this incredible event was only the beginning!
Some time later, the events on that Sunday morning would be connected to an almost forgotten incident that had taken place a few days before. Some would suggest that perhaps the spirits that came to the Phelps mansion came there by "invitation".
In 1850, the Spiritualism movement was just starting to capture the attention of America. Two years before, in 1848, the Fox sisters of New York had received national attention with their spirit rappings and Americans were becoming intrigued by communication with the dead.
On March 4, an old friend of Dr. Phelps’ had come to Stratford for a visit. Knowing of the minister’s interest in unusual things, they began discussing Spiritualism and the possibilities of contacting the spirit world. One thing led to another and the two men decided to try their hand at a seance. In reply to their questions, the men reported some disorganized knocking and rapping sounds, but neither of them considered it very extraordinary. But did they summon up something that night which would come back to plague the house later?
By March 10, the seance was undoubtedly forgotten in the confusion over the vandalized house and the mysterious effigies. After that, things got even worse! Activity became more frantic the following day as objects began to move about the house. An umbrella jumped into the air and traveled nearly 25 feet.. forks, spoons, knives, books, pens and assorted small objects launched from places where no one had been standing... pillows, sheets and blankets were pulled from beds and fluttered into the air. This continued all day long and finally, by evening, the activity seemed to be exhausted and the house fell silent.
But the next morning though, it started all over again. Mrs. Phelps pleaded with her husband to call someone for help. So Phelps contacted Reverend John Mitchell, a friend and a retired minister. Mitchell listened to the story and quickly suggested the most obvious solution, that the maid or the older children were playing tricks. He took the suspects away from the house and sequestered them nearby, but the activity continued. He still suspected some natural explanation though, until he actually saw some of the objects move for himself. He soon became convinced that the events were unexplainable.
On March 14, the haunting took another turn. During the morning meal, a potato literally dropped from nowhere and landed on the breakfast table. This was just the beginning too. Throughout the rest of the day, Dr. and Mrs. Phelps, along with Reverend Mitchell, witnessed 46 objects appear and drop out of the air in the locked parlor. Most of the items were articles of clothing that had been somehow transported from the upstairs closets.
In the weeks to come, observers, friends and the curious witnessed objects appearing and flying through the air at the Phelps home. Most of these items would move at abnormally slow speeds and they would touch down on the floor as if carefully placed there. Phelps and others also claimed to see the objects change course while in flight.
There were many accusations of trickery toward the Phelps family but with each, Dr. Phelps invited the skeptics to see the house for themselves. He was hospitable to reporters, investigators, and even mere curiosity-seekers, and he permitted them to come to the house and to stay as long as they liked. Many of them would witness the disturbances first hand.
Finally, after reading accounts of the haunting in newspapers, Dr. Phelps’ son, Austin, journeyed to Stratford to get to the bottom of the matter. His uncle, Abner Phelps, a well-known Boston doctor and Massachusetts legislator, accompanied him. Austin himself was a professor at Andover Theological Seminary. Neither of the men was pleased with the family’s growing notoriety and neither of them had approved of Dr. Phelps’ marriage to his young wife either. They were sure that they would discover a trickster among the family.
During their first night, they heard a loud pounding noise that they surmised was coming from the knocker on the front door. They took turns pulling it open and guarding the door, but each time they expected to pounce on the prankster, they found the doorstep to be deserted. Finally, they stood on both sides of the door, Austin on the outside and his uncle inside. The loud knocking continued, but the source was a mystery.
The men were also disturbed by rapping noises upstairs. On the second night, they determined the noise was coming from Anna’s room, the daughter with the nervous condition. The hammering seemed to be coming from the inside panel of the door. They burst into the room, thinking to catch her in the act, but she was far from the door when they entered. Austin later wrote: "The young lady was in bed, covered up and out of reach of the door. We examined the panel and found dents where it had been struck."
The two men would depart from the house believing that whatever phenomenon was being experienced there, it was genuine.
The outbreak continued, becoming both a physical and psychological attack on the entire family. The night time hours were filled with rapping, knockings, voices, screams and bizarre sounds, while the daylight hours saw objects sailing about through the rooms. Silverware bent and twisted, windows broke, papers scattered and tables and chairs danced across the floor as if they had come to life. And of course, the strange effigies continued to appear. It was reported in the New Haven Journal that: "In a short space of time so many figures were constructed that it would not have been possible for a half a dozen women, working steadily for several hours, to have completed their design, and arrange the picturesque tableau. Yet these things happened in short space of time, with the whole house on the watch. In all, about 30 figures were constructed during this period."
Author Joseph Citro wrote that one of the kneeling figures, wearing a dress belonging to Mrs. Phelps, was so realistic that when the youngest child walked into a room with his sister and saw the effigy, he whispered to her: "Be still, Ma is saying prayers."
Unfortunately, the haunting was not limited to the destruction of items in the house. Daughter Anna soon became a target for the spirit’s wrath, as did young Henry. A reporter from the New York Sun wrote that he visited the house at the end of April 1850 and was present in a room with Anna and Mrs. Phelps and was able to observe them at all times. At one point, he saw Anna’s arm jerk and twitch and she announced that she had just been pinched. The reporter rolled back her sleeve and stated that her arm bore several savage-looking red marks.
At other times, Anna was slapped by unseen hands. Those present sometimes only saw the girl shake or jerk her head, but reported hearing the sound of a slap. They often saw red marks and welts appear on her skin. Once, while she was asleep, a pillow was reportedly pressed over her head and then tied around her neck with tape. According to the editor of the Bridgeport Standard, she nearly died.
But Henry was tortured even further. He was beaten, pinched, struck and occasionally rendered unconscious and abducted. Once, in the presence of Dr. Phelps, he was hit with a flurry of small stones. A newspaper reporter claimed that he once saw the boy carried from this bed by an invisible force and dumped on the floor. In front of a number of witnesses, he was once lifted into the air so high that his hair brushed the ceiling of the room. One day, he vanished and would later be found outside, tied up and suspended from a tree. He had no idea how he had gotten there.
The young boy was also burned, thrown into a cistern of water and his clothing torn apart in front of visiting clergymen. He was discovered missing again one afternoon and he was later discovered shoved onto a closet shelf with a rope around his neck.
Numerous theories were put forth (and continue to be today) as to just what was going on in the Phelps house. Many believed that the house had been invaded by intelligent spirits, bound and determined to wreak havoc with the family. But why? Locals stated that the haunting was caused by the ghost of a Goody Bassett, who was hanged near the house for witchcraft in 1651. However, there was no evidence to support this piece of fanciful lore.
While the charges of the skeptics about trickery seemed to be mostly answered by more displays of incredible happenings, the question still remains as to whether the haunting could have been the work of unconscious or involuntary psycho-kinesis. The poltergeist-like events that occurred could have been the unknowing manipulations of Anna (she of the "nervous condition) or even perhaps Mrs. Phelps, who was bitter and unhappy in her new home. Nearly all of the phenomena could be explained in this matter, save for the eerie and mysterious effigies that appeared in locked rooms.
It would be these figures, along with the knocking and rapping sounds, that would convince Dr. Phelps and some of the other clergymen that the force in the house was clearly a "demonic" one. Reverend John Mitchell, who spent the most time in the house as an investigator, even managed to engage the spirits in conversation using a primitive alphabet code of raps and replies. However, the foul answers that he received to his questions had him believing Phelps’ insistence that the force was an evil one.
And the communication continued beyond mere knocks and raps. On one occasion, Dr. Phelps was in his study alone, writing at his desk. He turned away for a moment and when he turned back he found that his sheet of paper, which had been blank, was now covered with strange-looking writing. The ink on the paper was still wet.
In the days that followed, other family members and friends would experience the same thing and would find papers with writing on them. The letters sometimes appeared from thin air, floating down over the dinner table or appearing in a sealed box. None of the messages were very revealing and unfortunately, they were all disposed of as Dr. Phelps felt they were missives from an evil source.
Now, desperate for information that the spirits had been unwilling to provide, Dr. Phelps agreed reluctantly to perform another seance in the house. This time, communication was easily resolved and the spirit claimed to be a soul in hell, enduring torment for the sins he had committed in life. Dr. Phelps asked the spirit what he could do to help and using the knocking code, the ghost asked that Phelps bring him a piece of pumpkin pie. Thinking that he had been misunderstood, he asked again and this time the spirit asked for a glass of gin.
Finally, Phelps asked why the spirit was causing such a disturbance in the house and the spirit replied: "For fun."
Then, the spirit further detailed its history, claiming to be a law clerk who had done some financial work for Mrs. Phelps. He confessed that he had committed fraud and had been sent to hell when he died. He did not explain why he was haunting the Phelps home though. Eerily, Dr. Phelps later made a visit to the Philadelphia law firm where the spirit claimed to have been employed and he examined the papers in question. It turned out that a fraud had been committed and that it had been serious enough to warrant the man’s prosecution, had he lived until his arrest and trial.
Later on though, Phelps would change his position about the identity of the ghost and would feel that he had been tricked using the fraudulent papers. It is unknown what made him change from his original position. He simply stated that: "I am convinced that the communications are wholly worthless, in that they are frequently false, contradictory and nonsensical.."
The Phelps family had gone through just about all they could take.
After months of madness in the house, they decided to abandon the place and move back to Philadelphia. They would at least winter there and see how things looked in the spring. Following this decision, Dr. Phelps was in his office one night and a paper suddenly came from nowhere and fluttered down onto his desk. The message asked how soon the family would be leaving the house? On a nearby paper, Dr. Phelps scratched the words "October 1" and by that day, they had departed. Phelps sent his wife and family ahead of him to Philadelphia and he remained briefly in Stratford to put his affairs in order. During this period, the house was quiet and still. The spirits had apparently departed with the Phelps family. However, they did not accompany them to Philadelphia.
The haunting seemed to be over at last. But was it?
The Phelps family spent the winter and spring in the city and they returned to Stratford in the early summer days of 1851. The house was calm and still and over the course of the next eight years, nothing out of the ordinary occurred there. The supernatural forces, whether spiritual or man-made, seemed to have resolved themselves.
So, what did occur in the Phelps home? Was it actually a conscious spirit who, for some reason, was wreaking havoc in the home? Or could the phenomena, even the most frightening and bizarre events, have been the unconscious work of the family themselves? Could this be why Anna and her brother, Henry, were the main targets of the outbreak? Could Anna, as some have suggested, have been subconsciously punishing herself (and her brother) for activity that was unknown to the other members of the household?
Not surprisingly, many of those who looked into the case believed the activity to have a source that was located within the house. Authors Hereward Carrington and Nandor Fodor believed the case to be of the human agent variety but unexplained. Spiritualist and psychic investigator Andrew Jackson Davis came to Stratford and asserted his belief in the genuineness of the activity. He stated that the outbreak was caused by “vital radiations” from Henry and Anna and that when the “magnetism” was at its strongest, objects were attracted to the two of them. He also believed that they could radiate a sort of “electricity” as well, which would propel objects away from them.
As far as the middle 1800’s go, this may be one of the most concise explanations for the modern theory of poltergeists that I have heard!
Sources & Bibliography:
Citro, Joseph - Passing Strange (1996)
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen - Encyclopedia of Ghosts & Spirits (2000)
Hauck, Dennis William - Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996)
Jarman, Rufus - Mystery House on Elm Street (Yankee Magazine 1971)
Norman, Michael & Beth Scott - Haunted America (1994)
Norman, Michael & Beth Scott - Historic Haunted America (1995)
Smith, Susy - Prominent American Ghosts (1967)
Taylor, Troy - Haunting of America (2001)
(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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