An American Ghost Gallery: The Newburyport Schoolhouse Ghost

Spectral Edition

At least two ghostly mysteries gained national attention in the early 1870s, when the U.S. was still feeling the trauma of the Civil War. One concerns a phantom that roamed Memphis’s Brinkley Female College in 1871. You can read about that here.

The other ghost was also drawn to a school, but this time, an elementary school in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The earliest report I’ve found so far was printed in late November, 1872. The writer of this article, which appeared in The New Orleans Republican, opens by listing the alleged manifestations: first rappings, then latches lifted, and finally a pale boy who appeared at a window and glided inside — but who vanished into nothingness when the teacher attempted to grab him. The writer ends by expressing not just skepticism but outrage at the seriousness given to the allegations, especially the investigation promised by a school committee. “Of course there is no ghost,” the reporter insists, “and no face of a deceased boy had been seen looking through the window, and no ghost has been grasped at by the teacher.”

Nonetheless, interest in the ghost must have been strong. Reports continued in a variety of newspapers well into 1873. One report printed in Memphis’s Public Ledger deems the apparition a hoax, one created by “a mischievous boy named Currier.” (Perhaps the similar Brinkley Female College stories had made journalists in Memphis wary of such things.) A later report in South Carolina’s Fairfield Herald, however, exonerates the boy. Apparently, Currier “partially confessed; but he was not punished, because the teacher and all the pupils and his parents knew that he was not the strange boy that looked in at the window; and the face continued to appear when he was away.”

An article in New York’s The Sun never mentions the Currier boy but adds some manifestations that seem impossible to blame on a single child. One day, before the appearance of the pale, intangible boy, one of the schoolroom’s blinds “flew violently open.” The teacher went to pull it closed, but “another on the opposite side of the room opened as suddenly, while one already open shut simultaneously. For a few minutes the blinds had it all their own way, flying back and forth with almost lightning rapidity.” After that, more poltergeist-like activity occurred when brooms and dust brushes were seen “engaging in a sort of war dance, and, impelled by some unseen force, the dust pan came flying into the room. . . .” The teacher calmed the students before searching for an explanation. “Up stairs and down stairs she went, searching every corner, but there was no one to be found, and she returned to her desk more puzzled than ever, and a little startled too.” The Sun article goes on to recount the appearance of the ghostly boy and ends by speculating that the teacher might be a medium despite her denying having such powers.

Indeed, the teacher became a person of interest. Her name was Lucy A. Perkins, and in March of 1873, Vermont’s Essex County Herald printed extracts from a letter she wrote regarding the case. She admits to having tried to grasp a boy only to discovery him to be “like a thin cloud scudding across the room. Still he seemed to have the boy form.” She substantiates the reports about the broom and dust brushes, adding, “The dust-pan, hanging on a nail at some distance above the brushes, came tumbling down to the floor with a vengeance. It then stood on its handle, then on the bottom edge, and continued on so till it entered the school-room, and then it was placed as nicely against the partition as if I had done it myself.” The article concludes with Perkins attesting that she is not a spiritualist and “never had anything to do with a spiritualist.”

perkins-and-the-ghost
An illustration from the Loring pamphlet

The haunting was curious enough for Loring Publishing, located in Boston, to publish a pamphlet devoted to the narrative. Titled The Haunted School-house at Newburyport, Mass., the booklet provides details of the haunting along with a diagram of the schoolroom and additional illustrations of Perkins confronting the ghost boy. It vouches for the veracity of the teacher, saying, “She impresses one as being a decided materialist, and not a person to be impressed with conceits and imaginings. Her evidence in all these matters is singularly lucid and consistent.”

Though the Loring pamphlet leaves the mystery of the Newburyport haunting unresolved, a few newspapers reports offer brief and unsatisfying endings to the story. The Northern Ohio Journal, for instance, sums things up in one sentence: “The committee deputed to investigate the Newburyport school-room ghost story are said to have come to the conclusion that the spell arose from the members in the class on orthography.” Meanwhile, Illinois’s Cairo Bulletin claims that the boy pretending to be the ghost “has been recommended for a cadetship at West Point” with no further details or clarification. Interestingly, these two attempts to debunk the haunting essentially cancel out one another.

Unlike the Mapleton Ghost, my combing through old newspapers hasn’t led to a convincing explanation for the Newburyport Schoolhouse Ghost. Very much like the boy who paid a visit to Miss Perkins’ class that day in 1872, the case itself seems to have vanished like a thin cloud scudding across U.S. headlines.

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