East Bay Ghost Stories

A closer look at the legends and lore that haunt the area 

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“I feel like this whole island is haunted,” says Amy Bruni, of Kindred Spirits and Ghost Hunters fame. She lists off a handful of Aquidneck Island sites, both well-known for their frights like White Horse Tavern and those less traversed by tourists – Miantonomi Tower, where public hangings once took place, and the supposed “blood alley” behind the Newport Opera House. Paranormal investigators like Bruni spend their careers not only communicating with the dead, but also ruminating over genealogical texts, court records, and house deeds. Visit any historical society in the area and it will become immediately clear – the East Bay is home to both hallowed grounds and the stuff of haunts and legends. While seeking out spooky encounters can be a fun pastime – especially during Halloween – there’s a sobering side to the lore, too. 

INVESTIGATING THE UNKNOWN

“Ghosts did bring me here,” says Bruni, who was drawn to spirits from a young age, a passion her father helped foster by supplementing it with American history lessons. Often traveling from California to the East Coast to film Ghost Hunters, she met her significant other in Providence and settled down in Portsmouth. She jokes that this comes with the benefit of sleeping in her own bed after investigating nearby haunts, but it also means she’s never far from the region’s abundance of lore.

“There are little cemeteries everywhere, especially on Aquidneck Island,” Bruni says. “You can just pick one and learn fascinating things about a family there. Like the Cornells. They’re buried behind a condo complex in Portsmouth.” She’s referring to the family who went down in infamy for Thomas Cornell’s alleged murder of his mother, Rebecca Cornell, in 1672. The kicker? The evidence leading to Thomas’ conviction and execution was purely spectral – the ghost of Rebecca appeared to her brother, John Briggs, with a message about the illicit nature of her death: “See how I was burnt with fire.”

It’s likely Thomas Cornell now rests beneath the Valley Inn Restaurant parking lot – apart from the family plot, of course.

Bruni investigated the Valley Inn for paranormal activity on both Kindred Spirits and her podcast, Haunted Road (and returns often for the stellar pizza), though the job takes her all over. She brings a uniquely thoughtful approach to coaxing out stories from the past.

“It’s just about humanizing the ghosts. I won’t claim to know exactly what a ghost is or speak in absolutes; I’m still not sure what we’re dealing with. But I just imagine, if someone were there in front of me, how would I treat them?” she says.

Bruni compares what they do to walking into a party where you don’t know anyone. In Kindred Spirits, you’ll see her and paranormal partner Adam Berry calmly, cautiously conferring with the spirit box – a means of getting on the ghosts’ wavelengths to hear what they have to say – and asking polite but probing questions, reading the room and feeling out the energy. “And it can be scary – sometimes, just like in day-to-day life, people don’t like a super cheerful lady walking in. Sometimes we’ll actually have homeowners or business owners introduce us to them. It’s just manners,” Bruni explains.

Bruni and Berry go where they’re invited, and the scope of their investigations varies. Sometimes it’s homes plagued with unexplained phenomena. In those cases, “I think a lot of it is understanding,” says Bruni. “To a family, they’re living with door slamming every day and footsteps and voices and that’s terrifying until maybe Adam and I come in and provide some perspective. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”

For locations steeped in history like Fort Adams or Rose Island, “There’s just so much information to draw on,” says Bruni. They conferred with Joan Quinn, a historian and tour guide who has worked for the Newport Preservation Society, on their visit to Rose Island Lighthouse. A former lighthouse docent, Quinn is not only an expert of the island’s history but has also spent lots of time there.  

“I feel like the lighthouse has always had a very friendly kind of feel,” says Quinn. “I would say it’s very spiritual, but there is some spooky stuff, too.” Two mass graves, barracks that once housed a cholera ward, and a deadly ship collision that happened close to its shores all make the small island a prime source for otherworldly activity; but inside the lighthouse itself, both Bruni’s team and Quinn detected the more peaceful presence of its long-time keeper. Charles S. Curtis is rumored to still make the trek up the stairs every night to turn the light on, and appearances of a child could be grandson Wanton Chase.   

“Maybe some people get stuck, maybe it’s some kind of trauma, or maybe it’s, ‘oh I love this house, I never want to leave.’ I think Rose Island was very much that,” says Quinn. “I think he still wanted to do his job. It was that important.”

STORIED PAST

“Bristol is where a lot of the chiefs were born, and Warren is where they were buried,” says Quinn. It’s in 1600s Sowams – the rich, resource-abundant land inhabited by Native tribes, including the Pokanoket people, spanning Barrington, Bristol, East Providence, Providence, Warren, and parts of Massachusetts – where she begins her history tours. 

At the foot of First Baptist Church on Main Street in Warren, Quinn sets the stage of winter 1635. Bristol and Warren are tribal base camp, sacred ground. Sachem Massasoit’s home is along the Kickemuit River, and his sons Wamsutta and Metacom live in present-day Mount Hope Farm. Roger Williams has just fled religious persecution in Massachusetts and Massasoit comes to his aid, offering shelter from the treacherous New England cold.

The first treaty in America – between the Pokanoket Tribe and the Puritans – spelled peace for more than 50 years, even ushering in what many locals believe to be the first Thanksgiving at Mount Hope Farm, but all the while tensions brewed. As more colonists encroached on Sowams, bringing diseases and conflicts, tribes joined forces to drive settlers out. After his death in 1661, Massasoit was succeeded by his eldest son, Wamsutta, who died under mysterious circumstances after meeting with pilgrims in Plymouth. Metacom, known as King Philip to the colonists, took over with the intention of keeping the peace, though relations by then were shaky. 

“Now the original ghost story goes back to that,” says Quinn. Hugh Cole’s Warren settlement was ransacked and burned by Pokanoket warriors, one of whom was killed by a settler in the attack. The warriors returned to enact revenge, and “they killed the men they battled with the day before, which was common at the time – they cut off their heads, which were never found.”

This was the start of King Philip's War in 1675 and the bloodshed to follow. Ever since, people have claimed to see the eight heads of the killed colonists floating along Kickemuit River at sunset, sometimes glowing and sometimes on stakes. 

“The Native Americans say ‘man might forget, but the trees and the grass and the rocks, they remember,’” says Quinn. On almost every block of downtown Warren and Bristol are buildings and old architecture from colonist history, while sacred and private indigenous sites, like King Philip’s Chair, also remain, serving as reminders of the region’s complicated past. 

Quinn, who speaks of local history and paranormal encounters with both relish and reverence, absorbs tales relayed by guests in her haunted history tour groups and – with their permission – adds them to her repertoire of lore, which has expanded to become a sort of oral history collection of East Bay experiences over the years. She has witnessed glowing orbs in graveyards, heard doors slamming in the Rose Island barracks, and found mysterious streaks of light on photos. Others have entrusted her with stories of hearing Revolutionary war flutes in the Bristol Town Commons, apparitions on Tower Street, and other echoes of the past.  

“Being a religion minor, it always made sense to me that there is another step after this, another reality, maybe,” says Quinn. “I always ask people on my tours, ‘are you believers?’ I don’t even know what I think, but there’s definitely something going on. What we see is very minimal of what is really out there.” 

PARSING THE TRUTH

For investigators like Bruni and Quinn, the search for spirits begins in courthouses, historical societies, and libraries before ever setting foot inside a haunted house. And often, the discoveries made in old paper trails can be more rewarding than the lure of the supernatural. This is true for Marjory O'Toole, executive director of Little Compton Historical Society.

“I find a lot of what I do is start with the old histories and compare them to primary source documents and find that many of them need adjustment in order to be more factual, more accurate,” says O'Toole. “The legends are fascinating and often start with a grain of historical truth, but it’s really rewarding to try and discern what is truthful and what is legend.” 

Even when ghosts can’t be conjured between the lines of historical records, there’s evidence of colonists’ superstitious belief found in small details like silver jewelry stuffed in children’s shoes and hidden behind fireplaces for protection, or circles and lines etched into wood to ward off witches.

Apotropaic marks, or witches marks, can be seen in Little Compton’s Wilbor House, on furniture originally from the Waite-Potter House in Westport, MA. “They were purposely tangled marks and designs because that would help tangle up and catch the witch as she was trying to get into your house,” explains O’Toole. “New England colonists would try to protect themselves from evil spirits with these marks…we have this impression of Puritans as not being superstitious people but in reality, not everyone was a Puritan, and English colonists brought European superstitions with them to the new world.” 

Their concern over evil spirits was deeply rooted. “I think it was a fear of things they couldn’t control or understand and attaching that fear to imaginary things like witches and spirits that would come and hurt them,” speculates O’Toole. “The real fear, the greatest fear of all, was illness. There’s no antibiotics; something as simple as strep throat could kill your children.

“And they feared the wrath of God. Quite sadly, there was also a belief that God was punishing them. The witches marks and hidden shoes weren’t connected to God – they were connected to the opposite of God: evil creatures, evil spirits.”

The story of Jonathan Dunham – known as Shingleterry – and Mary Rosse taps into New England’s obsession with witches. O’Toole recounts the story as it’s told in The Naked Quaker by Diane Rapaport. In the 1700s, across the street from the Quaker Meeting House in Little Compton, the crime-committing duo broke into the home of John and Elizabeth Irish, barricading their children inside and setting the house on fire. John Irish was able to rescue his children, and Shingleterry and Rosse were “turned over to the officials – local judges – who decided that they needed to be tied to the back of a wagon and whipped on their way out of town. So they were sent out of town but not imprisoned,” explains O’Toole.

Tracing out-of-town court records, you can chart the pair’s destructive path, and eventually their crimes caught up to them – or at least to Rosse, who was declared a witch. “The court decided that Shingleterry was under Mary’s spell and he was innocent. From what I understand, he became a minister and had congregations down in the New Jersey/Maryland area, and I’m not sure what happened to Mary but I’m sure she wasn’t treated as well by the courts.”

Little Compton Historical Society, and its Wilbor House museum, is a bottomless well of these kinds of stories, as well as lesser-known tales of ordinary people living in the town at different periods of time. O’Toole notes the wealth of new information digitized records gives us access to. “In the past, people would think, you can’t do the history of people of color in New England because there just aren’t any records. That’s simply not true. There are lots of records, but they’re hard to find, so it really comes down to how hard we are looking.”

It’s this process of uncovering the facts behind the myth that drew O’Toole to the field of history, though she doesn’t dismiss the tantalizing lore that circulates our region.

“The main thing is that the stories are really fun and there’s nothing wrong with a story – even an exaggerated story – if it piques someone’s interest in the history,” she says, “but I think as interesting as the stories are on their own, it’s even more rewarding to try and do a little bit of digging to find the truth behind it.”

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