In the second half of the 19th Century, Hartford, Connecticut was home to many of the early pioneers of American silver plate manufacturing. Researching the history of several of these companies, I’ve learned quite a bit about the history of the area. Hartford is one of the oldest cities in the United States and following the Civil War it was the wealthiest city for several decades as well. Hartford is the home to the nation’s oldest public art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the oldest public park, Bushnell Park, and the oldest continuously published newspaper, the Hartford Courant. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) called Hartford his home and raised his family here. In 1868 he wrote of Hartford, “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see this is the chief.”
The “golden age” of Hartford was amazing to read about, for me at least, who only knew the city of today, one of the poorest cities in the nation. Thinking back on the 38 years that I was employed in Hartford, I recalled some of the more memorable buildings in which I worked. There was the old police precinct building that still had cells in the basement. And there was a gorgeous Italianate design house (which I’ll discuss in another post) that had been built in 1858 directly across the street from Samuel Colt’s mansion. But without a doubt, the most memorable building was the brick Victorian house in the Asylum Hill section of Hartford.
“Asylum Hill” was named for the Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons which has since been renamed the “American School for the Deaf” and has moved to a West Hartford campus. Asylum Hill in the mid and late 1800s was a prominent residential district of Hartford as wealthy families sought more spacious homes outside of the central city. Impressive homes were constructed, many of which remain today. The Mark Twain House and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House are two such homes in this neighborhood.
The three story Victorian in which I worked was located on Asylum Avenue. The illustration below from the late 19th Century shows the section of Asylum Avenue where the house is located (last building on the left side). It was renovated to accomodate our office requirements. The interior paint colors were chosen from those appropriate to the late 1800s. The front parlor, foyer and staircase, as well as second and third floor bedrooms were left intact, only painted, cleaned and polished. It was a wonderful building and my co-workers were interesting, to say the very least.
Actually, I don’t know how so many unique individuals had gathered together in one spot. We had a telex operator who read tarot cards for his co-workers on lunch break, a “voodoo lady” who you pretty much kept clear of (and made sure she didn’t clip a piece of your hair), and a palm / tea leaf reader / witch (very talented woman with multiple mystical designations) who was always full of dire predictions. The carpenter who did much of the work on the building, still working on various projects there even after we moved in, talked of cloven hoofs and devils in his house. It was interesting, to say the least.
We had a motion detector installed for security and Harry (name changed to protect the innocent!) would get calls from the security service during all hours of the night, as the alarm was continually going off. It was determined that bats had set the alarm off. We’d come in to work in the morning and find bats hanging off the “window treatments” as they were called.
Then, one day, the glass face on the wall clock in the common work area on the first floor flew off and shattered on the floor. The “witch” predicted this was an ominous sign…the spirits were not happy. And we looked at each other in shock and secretly worried about these unhappy spirits.
Shortly thereafter, Harry, whose office was on the second floor at the front of the building, announced that he had experienced a strange occurrence the night before. His office must have been the master bedroom of the house. It had a gorgeous fireplace with tall narrow windows on either side of the chimney above the mantle and a big bay window that looked out on Asylum Avenue. Everyone else had left the building for the day, and he was sitting alone in his office getting some paperwork completed.
As he sat there he started to smell a sweet fragrance. “It smelled like roses” he said. The scent got stronger and stronger and alarmed him. He thought maybe the cleaning lady came in and she was down the hall. He got up and walked down the hall, toward the back of the house, past the other bedrooms calling “Is anyone here?”. No answer. No one was there. And by the time he got to the end of the hall, the smell was completely gone. He turned and walked back to the front of the building and as he approached his office, the aroma returned. He walked in to his office and the smell was so overpowering that he couldn’t stand it and left the building.
Still obviously disturbed by the incident, he recounted the story to the staff the next morning. Again, we all looked at each other with worried faces.
Nothing happened again for many weeks. The clock and perfume incidents were almost forgotten. It was a spring evening and I was working late. My office was at the front of the second floor and my door opened to the second floor landing. There was no one on the third floor, I was the only one on the second floor, and there were three technical assistants working on the first floor. As I sat at my desk by the floor to ceiling window, I suddenly experienced an uneasy feeling. My heart started to pound and my skin started to crawl. I didn’t know why…I hadn’t heard any noises, seen anything or smelled anything to cause this uneasiness. But I felt an energy around me. An energy that didn’t want me there. I stopped what I was doing, grabbed my purse and left the office. The hall light was off, but the large chandelier in the downstairs foyer illuminated the open staircase.
I have had an aversion to stairs since I was a little girl. I fell down many a staircase when I was younger. I have this feeling of vertigo on staircases, as if I’m being pulled down the stairs. So it surprised me how fast I ran down those stairs. I felt as if some unseen something was right behind me, almost breathing down my neck. That it would reach out and grab me. There was a large transom window above the double door in the front hall. It was getting dark out, and that combined with the bright light from the chandelier in the foyer, made the glass in the transom appear mirror like. I knew this from experience. I didn’t want to look at that glass…I didn’t want to see what was behind me. I kept my head down and just ran as quickly as I could down those stairs.
I ran through the foyer and parlor, which we used as our reception area, as fast as I could and came to an abrupt stop in the large work area were the three assistants were sitting. They looked at me in surprise. I said “I guess you never heard me run down the stairs like that before” as they all knew about my stairs phobia thing. They just kept staring at me and I continued “I just had this creepy feeling come over me. I was up there all alone and I had to get out.” My assistant said, “You weren’t alone up there.” And my skin started to crawl anew. “What do you mean?” I asked. We heard foot steps coming down the hall right after you. We heard then coming down the stairs right behind you.” The other two women nodded their heads in agreement. Now I was really freaked out. “I tell you, I was alone up there. There was no one else.”
She laughed, got up, and walked through the reception area, into the foyer and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “Hello!” she called. No answer. “Hello” again. No answer. “Is anyone up there?” No answer.
She walked back to the work area with an alarmed look on her face. We all looked at each other and I said “I’m getting out of here.” The three of them grabbed their purses and we all ran for the back door.
The parking area was at the back of the house. As I drove down the drive past the house towards the street, I purposely didn’t look at the windows as I was afraid someone or something might be looking out.
I have not embellished this story. This is what I experienced and I haven’t forgotten it after all the intervening years.
Obviously, being the research nut that I am, I’d love to know more about the history of this house. Who might the ghost be? The only former occupant that I could find at this address was Rev. Dr. John Brownlee Voorhees who was pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Rev. Voorhees died in January of 1919 from wounds inflicted during World War I.
The map shown above is from 1877 and shows the section of the Asylum Hill area where my office was located (red dot marks the spot!).
I will be writing further posts on Hartford during this remarkable period of time, the latter part of the 19th Century.