By robert porter lynch
When my mom led the charge to save the mansion, we didn't have a caretaker living in the house. As a student at Brown, I volunteered. After all, what young man wouldn't …
When my mom led the charge to save the mansion, we didn't have a caretaker living in the house. As a student at Brown, I volunteered. After all, what young man wouldn't want to have a 28-room mansion as his off-campus apartment. I lived upstairs in the 18th century section of the mansion.
I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary until I heard the story, conveyed by Elsie Williams, who was curating the doll room at the top of the stairs in the Victorian portion of the mansion. Her husband, Harold, who was a descendant of Roger Williams, was the retired handyman who spent most of his time repairing things around the building.
One day Harold went home, visibly shaken, and asked Elsie "What is that new doll in the doll room?" Elsie responded "What doll? We don't have any new dolls." Harold, not an unsteady man, began to shake. "The big white and filmy doll that's dressed like a man!" Elsie was perplexed. Harold had seen a ghost. He'd never go near the doll room alone again.
That was in the fall. I didn't think much of it at the time.
That December the Sprague Mansion Committee decided to light up every window in the house with electric Christmas candles. My job was to turn them on at dusk, and turn them off by midnight. Oh, how beautiful the mansion looked -- people would drive by just to see it glow.
I didn't notice anything until I walked up the Victorian stairway, past the doll room, then into the widow's walk at the top of the roof. An awful, creepy cold feeling swept over me. There was someone standing next to me on the stairway. But I couldn't see it, just feel it. This happened night after night on the stairway. It was frightening, yet inexplicable. I was in military training at Brown, ROTC, learning to become a naval officer. How could I fear something invisible. But each night, before I climbed the stairs, I took a sword with me.
On New Years Eve that Christmas, the mansion ball room was rented out for a big party. After everyone left, my duty was to clean the kitchen. As I was finishing up, the door bell rang. A bunch of my high school buddies from Cranston West were at the door where there to pay me a visit. Actually, a couple of them had too much to drink and didn't want to go home to have their parents question their fitness to drive. Of course, I invited them in. It was a bitterly cold night, and after an hour of storytelling about their first year in colleges, I offered to put them up for the night. We had several beds, as long as they didn't carouse.
That morning, we all gathered in the kitchen of the old section of the building for breakfast. Each of the guys was strangely silent. I asked if they had a hangover. No reply. "So, what's going on?" I pressed.
One piped up "Okay, who was the wise guy who kept pulling of my bedcovers all night. Each looked at each other, denying culpability. Another said "Look, it wasn't me. I'm really pissed you guys kept pulling off my covers. It was cold in the house!" (we kept the thermostat down low to conserve fuel). After some heated discourse, we all realized none of them was the culprit. They shrugged it off, but I knew there was something peculiar going on.
In early spring, there was a knock at the front door. An elderly couple introduced themselves. The man was the Manager of the Cranston Print Works many years ago. He and his wife lived in the mansion -- it was a perk of his job. After exchanging pleasantries, they asked if I had encountered the ghost. I nodded affirmatively and asked them to tell me more. There experience started in the wine cellar, then up the stairs into the second and third floors of the Victorian addition.
After that, I was too curious to put the ghost out of my mind. As a budding historian, it was my assumption the ghost must be Amasa Sprague, who was killed walking the grounds at night. After all, that would be the "logical ghost."
Some friends had described how people had used a homemade Ouija Board to connect with spirits. I'm a pretty linear guy, so I was naturally skeptical, but always ready for a little adventure. We made up an alphabet and numbers including a "yes" and "no" out of small pieces of paper set in a circle, and put an inverted wine glass in the center of the circle We put the tip of our index fingers on the top of the inverted glass and asked "Are there any spirits present." To my utter amazement, the glass came alive, started to jump, and immediately moved to "yes."
We asked, with great trepidation "Can you make your presence known?" expecting an apparition. Instead, the spirit decidedly flickered the flame on the previously still candle on the table. We were relieved, not wanting to encounter something too spooky.
Now, it's important to remember, the story of Amasa Sprague is deeply imbedded in Rhode Island history, so everyone was expecting we would get a "yes" response to the next question: "Are you the spirit of Amasa Sprague?" Surprised, we received a definite "no." We repeated the question; same response.
Then all the sudden the glass began to become highly energized, and began spelling out M-Y-L-A-N-D, several times over. We queried the spirit, asking when he lived in the house. He indicated 1880s, well after the Spragues went bankrupt in the crash of 1873. At that time, if I recall correctly, the ownership was then in the Chaffee family.
We continued the questioning. The spirt indicated his name was Charles, and he was the Butler. This seemed strange, not what we were expecting. Upon further inquiry we learned Charles had two daughters, Yvonne and Joan. From what we gathered, Yvonne fell in love with Chaffee's son and they wanted to marry. But, because "upper and lower class" were not supposed to marry (this was a big deal in Victorian times), the elder Chaffees would not sanction the marriage.
Apparently, Charles was still fuming 80 years later. Had his daughter married into a higher station, he would no longer be just a Butler, but his family would have been joint owners of the land. We inquired about what Charles wanted us to do. He indicated he wanted the story told.
It was getting late in the evening, and frankly, we were emotionally exhausted and ended the session.
During the course of the next two weeks, I asked around the neighborhood if any old folks remembered Charles and his two daughters. One man in his 90's remembered Charles when his was a young boy, and recalled he had two daughters, but couldn't recall their names.
Later that summer, I had to go to sea as part of my Navy ROTC training. So, I asked my best high school buddy, Richard M. (name purposely withheld as he still doesn't want to talk about this) to be the mansion's caretaker while I was gone. Rick was home from college, and he didn't like living with his parents. So, this should have been a great opportunity.
Low and behold, Rick lasted one night. From what I’ve been able to piece together, Charles appeared on the Victorian stairway with him. Rick bolted out of the house, and spent every night in the safety of his parent's home. He'd come back every day to be sure the house was safe and sound. To this day, over fifty-five years later, he still won't talk about what he saw.
As way led onto way, a real caretaker took over my job the next year, I graduated, got married, went to Vietnam, then grad school, not returning to the mansion for another 25 years. The next time I brought some friends, but did not tell them about Charles. As they were standing on the back servant’s stairway between the two sections of the house, Mary let out a jolting scream. "Something just brushed past me!"
Charles was still there.
Robert Porter Lynch is currently working on a book about Rhode Island Deputy Governor and revolutionary Darius Sessions. Lynch was purportedly inspired to write the book by George Washington’s Chair, a wooden chair with intricate carpentry and dark upholstery purported to have once been sat in by George Washington himself. Recently Lynch loaned the chair, his prized possession, to Varnum Museum along with a manuscript that he wrote detailing Sessions’ life and legacy. As part of the 251st observance of the burning of the British Schooner the Gaspee, the chair will be rededicated and unveiled to the public at 12:30 pm on June 10 in Pawtuxet Park.
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