Ghostly happenings: Haunted history of Sprague Mansion

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What, or who, is haunting Sprague Mansion? For many years, this historical mansion, now the home of the Cranston Historical Society, has had a reputation for being plagued by unexplained phenomena. 

In 1967, when the Cranston Historical Society, led by Robert and Viola Lynch, purchased the Sprague Mansion, they didn’t know that, by saving the mansion from being destroyed by the City of Cranston for a high rise building to house the elderly of the city, they had also acquired something that wasn’t listed in the deed. Ghosts. 

The last residents of the mansion were the supervisors of the Cranston Print Works (once part of the Sprague’s industrial empire) and the house had been thought to be empty when the Print Works decided they no longer needed such a big piece of property. No one of the Cranston Historical Society knew that ghosts dwelled within the walls of the 28-room mansion, just ‘dying’ for some contact. 

When the Cranston Historical Society took over the mansion, it needed a great deal of repair, which the members were happy volunteering to do. One member volunteered his time working in what would became the “Doll Room” (no longer in existence) which was a very small, closet-like room that houses some creepy looking dolls and marionettes.  One evening in 1968, the volunteer saw something “white and filmy” in the “Doll Room” and from then on refused to work alone in the tiny enclosed room. Another encounter was witness by both Kennedy and Bell as they each captured photos of a doll’s eyes move on camera – the problem is: the eyes were painted on!

The wine cellar in the mansion has also been a site of frightening occurrences, including eerie, glowing orbs. One night, reported Bell, a woman’s figure has been spotted in the cupola, the highest point of the mansion. In 2007, Sprague Mansion was featured on the SciFi Channel’s show, “Ghost Hunters.” 

Apparently, the first reported encounter was in 1925, when guests reported seeing a ghost on the elegant, central stairway.

Three years later, Ethel Duckworth, the wife of Cranston Print Works manager Harry Duckworth, reported that she had been alone in the dark wine cellar, down in the basement below the original part of the mansion, when she felt someone brush by her arm. On another occasion, a “filmy white thing” brushed against a visitor’s arm while he was alone in the wine cellar. For some reason that gentleman never returned to Sprague Mansion. An icy presence was also felt there and still is according to other visitors.

And there’s been sightings in the mirrors scattered around the mansion. There are several candidates as to who is haunting the mansion.

But, now, oddly enough, many people believe the spirit who haunts Sprague Mansion was not a member of the family, or even associated with the Sprague’s. The legend of Charlie the Butler began when Bob Lynch Jr., and some of his Brown University classmates were doing “night watchman” duty at the mansion in 1967; right after it was purchased by the Cranston Historical Society.

The young men said strange things happened to them at night while they were trying to sleep. Blankets were thrown off the beds, but each claimed he had not been joking around. They constructed a makeshift Ouija board, a device that supposedly allows spirits to communicate with the living by spelling out words. “Tell my story!” is what the Ouija spelled out under the fingertips of the young men using the planchette.

They had contacted a “ghost” who had a story to tell. He called himself Charlie. He had been a butler to a wealthy family that had lived in the mansion after the Sprague’s left. He had hoped that his daughter would be married to the son of his employer, but that wedding never happened, dashing Charlie’s dreams of wealth and land. The Ouija kept spelling out, “my land, my land.”

Charlie’s reputation spread, and now he has his own Halloween Party at the mansion each year. Apparitions in white have appeared to some partygoers, and many claim they have been touched by a very cold hand.

Perhaps Charlie will make his presence known during this month’s upcoming Annual Charlie the Ghost Party fundraising event to benefit the Cranston Historical Society on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. This year they will feature Rhode Island’s Jared the Magician and Mentalist who will entertain guests.

DuBois is a well-known magical entertainer and mentalist. He has sharpened his skills performing mind-reading curiosities that will entertain and mesmerize all in attendance. His sleight-of-hand magic with cards, coins and borrowed objects will make you wonder, “How does he do that?”

Tickets are $15 per person and can be reserved by calling 944-9226. Seating is limited and it is highly suggested you call ahead to reserve your place since this annual event has always been a sellout.

Amasa Sprague murder

Other candidates for ghostly visits include that of Amasa Sprague who was murdered as he left his mansion on New Year’s Eve in 1843 to travel to Johnston. The following morning, his bludgeoned body was found face down beside the road, almost within sight of his mansion. He had also been shot in the wrist and bitten by a dog.

John Gordon, an Irish immigrant and employee at the mansion, had been seen arguing with Sprague the day he was killed. John and his brother, William, were indicted for the murder and their older brother, Nicholas, was indicted as an accessory before the fact. Gordon was tried at the Old State House on Benefit Street, found guilty based on circumstantial evidence, and hanged in the state prison yard (where the Providence Place Mall now stands) on February 14, 1845.

The so-called investigation was a community effort under the leadership of Amasa’s brother, Senator (and former Governor) William Sprague II. Evidence later came to light that proved Gordon’s innocence. Public indignation following John Gordon’s execution led to legislation abolishing capital punishment, in 1852, in Rhode Island.

The killer was never found, although some have speculated that Amasa’s brother, William II, had Amasa killed. William, the politician, wanted Amasa to expand the business, but Amasa refused to budge.

Amasa’s son, William Sprague IV (1830-1915), became a shining star. Not only a mill owner, like his predecessors, he became the youngest Governor ever at the age of 29 and was also a senator and a Civil War general. While in Washington, William met and married the daughter of the Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (he also served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury).

Kate Chase Sprague (1840-1899) was considered the belle of Washington – the most beautiful, elegant and eligible young woman in the city. But the two had an unhappy marriage and eventually divorced. She had frittered away a fortune, and lost her reputation along with her beauty. She died destitute and alone at her father’s rundown estate in Washington at the age of 58 in 1899. Their son, Willie Sprague (1865-1890) committed suicide while in his 20’s in 1890. In his parting note, he blamed his father for his life’s failures.

Until several years ago, many believed that the ghost was that of John Gordon. Besides Gordon and Amasa Sprague, himself. If a ghost returns because they’ve died in bad circumstances or have unfinished business to complete, then there are several candidates. 

Fortune lost

Lucy Chase Sprague, who lost a fortune, her husband, her reputation and her beauty – and died penniless; Amasa’s brother, William II, whom many believe hired someone to murder Amasa. In 1850, William was almost imprisoned for debt; six years later, he died of typhoid fever. At the time of his death, he was building his largest ever mill in Connecticut; the first William Sprague, who died of an infection after a bone lodged in his throat during a family breakfast; the son of Governor William Sprague II, who committed suicide in 1890.

Perhaps it is the uncle that Amasa never met, Abner Sprague, who died in childhood; maybe it is William II’s son, Byron. After he sold his shares of the business to Amasa’s two sons, the business became more profitable than ever, but Byron received no benefit from this good fortune or it could be his daughter, Mary, who died at age ten. 

With these candidates, maybe there are several different spirits inhabiting different areas of the mansion. After all, several strange things have been experienced in several parts of this house.

In October of 2002, at the original Charlie the Butler's Ghost Party, a group of women took a Ouija board into the “old parlor” of the mansion. These women had no way of knowing that the oil painting of the lady hanging on the wall was Viola Lynch, who saved the Sprague Mansion from being razed, or that the portrait was a painting of love by her heartbroken husband, Bob. Viola died earlier in 2002. 

The group told the curator, hostess of Charlie’s Party, that the Ouija had given them a message from “VL.” The message was, “Tell Bob, I need him.” Bob Lynch was active and in good health in October of 2002. On February 8, 2003, Bob Lynch died suddenly. Maybe their love was one that continued beyond the grave, and they just couldn’t be without each other.

In 2005, Kennedy and Bell met for an interview at Sprague Mansion. Kennedy asked Bell to put on a top hat that was on the bed for a profile photograph. Yet, a woman appeared in the mirror dressed in clothing of the 1880s. Bell is a folklorist and author, and retired folklorist for the State of Rhode Island.

At the upcoming Charlie’s Ghost Party when costumes are encouraged (no masks) for the evening attire. A friend to the Sprague Mansion, Adam Florio of Coventry, will share his love of Halloween by decorating the Mansion with his collection of ghoulish characters and other frightful pals. Some Mansion rooms will be open for touring.

You can have your future read by intriguing readers (separate fee): Debb Brown, who will conduct Tarot Card and Psychic Readings and MaryJo Guadalupe will offer Oracle Readings.

Light refreshments will be served featuring Texas Road House snacks. Age appropriate for 12 years and older. Send your check by Oct. 25 to Cranston Historical Society, 1351 Cranston St., Cranston, RI 02920. After Oct. 25 call Mary Mierka at 944-9226 to make sure tickets are still available.

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