Doris Abramson’s ghost story


The central hallway and staircase of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington house. This historic photo of the home shows what it may have looked like when Doris lived here.

Doris Abramson was a Smith College and University of Massachusetts alumna and a University of Massachusetts Professor Emerita in the theater department. While at UMass, Dr. Huntington gave Doris a job as a gardener at the Porter-Phelps-Huntington during the summer. Through this position, she was able to live in the house and befriend Catharine Sargent Huntington. To learn more about Catharine, the house, and the surrounding lore please visit the museum for a tour.

Here I sit, on the fourth of September, just before Labor Day, thinking that at last I will steal the time to talk to you about things that happened so many years ago, that I promised almost as many years ago to tell you about on a tape.  When I first promised to tell ghost stories, I do believe your children were babies and you thought to have them hear these stories, when they might have meant more to them than they mean to you and your mother now, but I’ll try to tell them anyway.

Many things recently have made me remember Forty Acres and my ghosts.  This morning for instance, Catherine Huntington phoned me. She’s in her ninetieth year. We talk to each other on the phone about once a week, either I call her or she calls me.  She got up even earlier than I did this morning and so she phoned. And I read not too long ago in the paper about Genevieve Huntington, that’s Dr. Huntington’s widow, who incidentally, Catherine tells me, is about to remarry a sweetheart of forty-five years ago.  On this occasion, there was a picture of Genevieve in the paper, a little piece about the house and she was there to show people around it, and in her concluding remarks she said that she, and mind you she used the pronoun I, she said I have exorcised the ghosts. I thought that was rather amazing and I haven’t dared ask her from whence these powers came.  Anyway, she said I have exorcised the ghosts, and then she added that perhaps her late husband, James Lincoln Huntington would not have approved, because he was of the opinion that there were some people who did not live their lives fully enough the first time on earth and must return. It was rather startling to read that in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in 1977.  I can’t really imagine what people reading the newspaper made of it. I like to think of the doctor saying it and I wonder about that exorcism, I’m not going to go back I think to find out.

Let me now in memory go back just over thirty years ago, to the summer of 1944, when my friend Dorothy Fletcher and I had the great privilege of living in the old part of the wonderful Porter-Phelps-Huntington house, which as you know, is really two houses adjoined by sheds.  The carriage house at that time was where the doctor and Genevieve lived, and there was the series of sheds which at that time had wood in them and old objects that were stored. And then the old house, which is today a museum, but which was then called by many of the neighbors a haunted house.  So when Dorothy Fletcher and I moved in on somewhat of a lark, but also needing summer employment, we were the Huntington’s gardeners, very privileged ones, as you know. We slept in a canopied bed, we worked five hours a day on the grounds, five days a week, and were paid five dollars a week, that was what the doctor called our “stipend.”  

So when we moved in, we were told by the doctor that it might be a good idea for us to retire before midnight, because there had been occasions when ghosts were known to walk through the halls, down the stairs, of the house in which we were to live.  I think, because we were young and adventuresome, that we didn’t pay much attention to it and thought well, so if we’re awake after midnight some time, won’t it be fun? Actually I think we really sort of filed it away in the backs of our heads and didn’t think too much about it.  My first experience with anything like a ghost at Forty Acres took place actually in broad daylight and did not alarm me in the least. I had arrived and started living at Forty Acres before my friend Dorothy was able to come on from New York. She was to be driven there by a friend of hers, Bob Frasor I remember, and I was expecting her to arrive late one afternoon in the summer of 1944.  

I sat in what is still called the Long Room, that beautiful living room that has a lovely arch under which generations of Huntingtons have been married.  I sat there reading a novel, I think it was a John P. Marquois novel as a matter of fact, waiting for the car to arrive that would bring Dorothy. As I sat there reading I thought I heard someone come into the dining room.  And thinking that perhaps Dorothy had arrived and come in through the back kitchen, I rose and walked quickly across the Long Room, across the hall and into the dining room. My distinct impression as I stepped into the dining room was that someone had just left.  I remember that my eye caught a lovely little French mirror that then hung on the south wall of the dining room, and I said to myself, someone was just looking into that mirror, and I imagined that I heard the rustle of skirts as someone turned the corner from the dining room closet, entre chamber, into the old pre-Revolutionary War kitchen.  All this happened in a split second, and I, 20th century me, I thought oh, I’m sorry to have interrupted her.  I knew it was a female ghost, that was the rustle of the skirt of course, and I thought, that she had been standing looking into the mirror and when I called out, she was startled and left.  As I say I wasn’t at all alarmed. I thought yes, the doctor’s probably right, they’re here and we’re the intruders. And of course, she shouldn’t have come out in the daytime, so I might have said it was her fault, but the point was I was the intruder and I had disturbed her as she walked into the dining room.  I told the story, I told it to Dorothy Fletcher when she did arrive, I told it to the doctor and his wife, and he said, yes probably, probably it was Elizabeth, and it all became just a little joke, a little story that we told, the Dr. saying, nodding his head, yes it was probably Elizabeth meaning Elizabeth Porter, of the 18th century, other people skeptically chuckling.  Dorothy and I, well, I don’t know, I don’t think we gave it very much thought.  We were later to give a great deal of thought to ghosts at Forty Acres.

There was a day in late summer when I had been to Northampton on my own, I remember, and brought with me a little box of candy for Dorothy.  I remember because she couldn’t go with me on that day, I forget just why, perhaps some task around the house that she had to do. And that evening we stayed up reading late. There was a nice little dog that we had, Dommy, Dominoes.  And when the time came to go to bed, I used to say, “Time to go to bed, Dommy, time to go to bed, and little Dommy would rush up the stairs and go and get in under the bed. The bed was a high old canopy bed that’s still greatly admired.  And we, having stayed up late reading, talked for a little bit, and put out the light. It was rather a warm, dark summer night, and we laid there in bed almost asleep when we heard the clock strike downstairs, and each to herself, I’m sure, I remember for myself, counted to twelve.  We commented quietly that this was the first time that we had been awake after twelve, and had a little trouble falling asleep.

There is no real way of knowing how long we lay there before we were aware of a presence in the room.  Neither of us most certainly dared say anything. The dog under the bed didn’t stir, seemed not to be troubled.  In fact, I don’t remember until now ever thinking of how quietly Dommy lay there. Someone entered the room and moved about it with ease and grace, and left.  And just as I started to relax, there was the strangest thing, there was the sound of footsteps running lightly down the stairs. We hadn’t heard any footsteps running up the stairs, but we distinctly heard them running down.  We lay there, and then spoke to each other about what we had heard, only to have once again the sensation of a presence in the room for a certain space of time, and then, shortly after, the sound of the footsteps running down the stairs.  This was repeated, this phenomenon was repeated at regular intervals, and I can remember lying there in what is often described as a cold sweat, and it was exactly that. Dorothy was nearest the lamp, the little bedside lamp was on her side of the bed, and she said later she could no more have reached out and turned that lamp on.  

We lay there fascinated, horrified.  I remember thinking perhaps we’ve passed into another time zone.  I wasn’t a science fiction person at all, never have been, but at that moment, I thought, something’s askew.  I don’t know what will happen, and as we’d start to fall off to sleep we’d wake up again with the sound of those footsteps on the stairs.  And once the clock struck, I remember, and I hopefully counted thinking it must be near morning, and it was only two o’clock. How could we ever get through the night?  Dorothy made it worse at one point, because in between times, she whispered to me, “Perhaps it’s the man in the portrait in the hall.” There was a Huntington ancestor’s portrait in the hall, with eyes that followed you as you walked down the hall, you know that thing that painters can do to eyes to make them seem to follow you.  We always called him George, I can’t remember his real name, and Dorothy whispered to me, perhaps it’s George. Perhaps he has to come back and relive sometime when he went to a dance and was wearing dancing slippers and I said, “Shh, stop.” The whole notion of those light footsteps being on the feet of George and being dancing slippers was more than I could take.  

So we lay there waiting for the repeated footsteps and they came, each time after a certain interval, we couldn’t possibly have timed it, we just lay there.  Once, when the presence was in the room, something was knocked off, I thought , a bureau, something fell off with a little clatter. That was rather a frightening moment, but it didn’t interrupt the pattern.  And after a while, just as suddenly as it had started it all stopped. No one else in the room with us, no one else on the stairs, and that was it. We lay there, we still didn’t turn on the light. I fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning I remember that the sun was pouring in through the windows.  The wastebasket that I had pictured had been knocked over at one point was standing upright. There was nothing knocked off the bureau. Dommy came out from under the bed, Dorothy and I looked at each other and said, “We’re still here.” What could have happened? How to explain this phenomenon? As we walked around the room and we looked at all the things that were still in place, and looked out the window at the beautiful sunny day in this most beautiful place in Hadley, I happened to pick up a little box of Nougatines that I had brought from Northampton the day before.  As my hand touched the box, I realized it was completely empty. I looked in, not a one left.

Well, the two of us ran over to the carriage house, babbling as we went to tell Dr. Huntington about our adventure with the ghost.  He sat in his big chair in the living room, and we both, talking at the same time I’m sure, told him the story complete with details about Charlie—we didn’t call the ghost Charlie by that time, come to think of it, that came later—about the ghost, about the portrait, and the possibility of the dancing shoes, all the rest, we told him all the story.  And he nodded, and he listened and he was very interested, and said, “Yes, oh that was a marvelous story,” he thought it was wonderful. And we said, “Well who was it, what was it?”

He started telling us about Charles Porter and making a ghost story up, and then he saw how truly disturbed we both were, and so he said, “Oh I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for this, you know not everyone believes in ghosts, I do personally, but I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for it.”  

And we said, “Well, what?  What could it be?”

←Click here to read James Lincoln Huntington’s Ghost Story ○○ Click Here to read Pip Strongren’s account of the ghosts→