Ever since she was a little girl, Darcy Lee of Mattapoisett has been captivated by the paranormal. The TV show In Search Of… hosted by Leonard Nimoy was the turning point for her, making her question every shadow, every unexplained sound, every story she was ever told about ghosts and other unexplained phenomenon.
As an adult, Lee spent a great deal of time traveling, and in each town she would visit the local bookstore to acquire books about ghosts in the area. She believes these stories represent the folklore of the region.
After living and working in Plymouth, Lee became involved in organizations associated with the town’s history. She heard tales of local hauntings but could find very little research or documentation of these stories – thus, the idea for her new book Ghosts of Plymouth, Massachusetts was born. The book was published in September.
The group gathered at Rochester’s Joseph H. Plumb Memorial Library on Monday night listened with rapt attention as Lee read aloud from her book, describing the long and sordid tale of the haunting of the Captain Thomas Phillips house. This house has the distinction of being the only house in Massachusetts officially designated as haunted, as a result of a court battle between its owner and the disgruntled former tenants.
Lee learned the particulars of this haunting from the court documents, and she recounts them with delicious detail.
The owner of the Phillips House, Josiah Cotton, in 1734 took his tenants to court over what he called slanderous stories and rumors the tenants spread throughout town describing the disturbing and terrifying hauntings they experienced at the house. They asserted that, because of the hauntings, the house was uninhabitable. As a result, Cotton was unable to rent the house to any subsequent tenants. Lee describes this court battle as evolving from merely a slander suit into an attempt by Cotton to “purge the society of superstition.”
Ultimately the court ruled in the tenants’ favor, suggesting that it is not a crime to believe in ghosts and the belief cannot be proven either way.
Based on Lee’s telling, Plymouth is rife with intense hauntings. Local residents have reported having seen a Victorian era couple walking up and down Burial Hill, whose apparitions would always disappear at a particular grave. When Lee researched the grave at which they disappeared – a grave of a child inscribed “Ida Lizzy Spear, 3 years” – she put the pieces of the mystery together.
Lee describes most hauntings as “residual hauntings,” in which ghosts, like a movie replaying, are doing what they did in their ordinary life. The ghosts at Burial Hill, she thinks, were most likely the little girl’s parents visiting their daughter’s grave.
In writing her book, Lee was determined that the stories she retold would be well researched and corroborated by either written record, photographic evidence, or some other verifiable source. She wasn’t looking to “poke the bear” as she puts it, reminding us that she isn’t a ghost hunter but rather a recorder of stories, and her book is an attempt to verify – or in some cases debunk – accounts of hauntings in Plymouth.
Lee, a former board member of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, said part of the impetus for the book was to find out what could be relatable to the history of Plymouth. She didn’t want her book to recount urban myths, common to all places, but rather “stories related to buildings or tragedies that are part of Plymouth’s fabric and culture.”
Lee reminded the audience that it is not just old houses that are haunted – sometimes a haunting goes with the land. She illustrated this idea with a story of the pilgrims landing at Plymouth to find skeletons of the Pokanoket Wampanoags who had been tragically decimated by plague two years earlier. She wondered aloud, “The sickness, the death, the desperation – does the land hold onto that energy?”
Another haunting of great intensity is the wreck of the brigantine General Arnold in 1778. This ship ran aground in the Christmas blizzard a mile outside Plymouth Harbor, and 70 crewmen died. Lee describes the sailors’ bodies, many of which were never claimed, laid out on the floor of the 1749 Courthouse. “The same boards that are there now,” she added.
Burial Hill, where many of the sailors and captain are buried in a mass grave, the Courthouse, and the harbor are all haunted by these tortured souls, Lee says.
An audience member related her disappointment at not seeing ghosts on an overnight stay at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, to which Lee replied that she imagined the ghosts at that house are probably pretty tired of being bothered by visitors.
Perhaps the Borden hauntings will be included in Lee’s upcoming project, which is in the works, of the hauntings in the South Coast.
Lee is doing another reading from her new book at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library on Saturday, November 18, at 2:00 pm, where her book will also be for sale. One may also purchase her book online or directly from the publisher, Acadiapublishing.com.
Lee also has a Facebook page “Ghosts of Plymouth Massachusetts-Books and Author Events” for more information on upcoming events.
By Sarah French Storer