By Robert Porter Lynch
When my mother led the rescue of the mansion, there was no caretaker living in the house. As a student at Brown University, I volunteered. After all, what young man wouldn’t wish to have a 28-room mansion for off-campus living? I stayed upstairs in the 18th century part of the mansion.
I didn’t notice anything unusual until I heard the story, narrated by Elsie Williams, who curated the doll’s room at the top of the stairs in the Victorian part of the mansion. Her husband Harold, a descendant of Roger Williams, was the retired handyman who spent most of his time fixing things around the building.
One day, Harold went home, visibly upset, and asked Elsie, “What’s that new doll in the doll’s room?” Elsie replied, “What doll? We don’t have any new dolls.” Harold, not an insecure man, began to tremble. “The tall white and gossamer doll dressed like a man!” Elsie was at a loss. Harold had seen a ghost. He would never go near the doll’s room alone again.
That was in autumn. I didn’t think much about it at the time.
In December of that year, 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 at midnight. Oh how beautiful the mansion looked – people would drive by just to see it glow.
I didn’t notice anything until I went up the Victorian stairs, past the doll’s room and then into the widow’s walkway up on the roof. A terrible, creepy chill came over me. Someone was standing next to me on the stairs. But I couldn’t see it, I could only feel it. This happened night after night in the stairwell. It was frightening, yet inexplicable. I did military training at Brown, ROTC and learned to be a naval officer. How could I fear something unseen? But every night before I climbed the stairs, I took a sword with me.
On New Year’s Eve at Christmas, the mansion’s ballroom was rented out for a large party. After everyone left, my job was to clean the kitchen. As I was about to finish, the doorbell rang. A couple of my schoolmates from Cranston West stopped by to pay me a visit. In fact, some of them had drunk too much and didn’t want to go home, lest their parents question their ability to drive. Of course I invited her. It was a bitterly cold night, and after spending an hour talking about their freshman year, I offered to let them stay with us for the night. We had several beds, as long as there was no bickering.
That morning we all gathered for breakfast in the kitchen of the old part of the building. Each of the boys was strangely silent. I asked if they had a hangover. No Answer. “So what’s going on?” I pressed.
One chimed in: “Okay, who was the smartass that pulled the covers off my bed all night? Everyone looked at the other and denied any guilt. Another said, “Look, that wasn’t me.” I’m really pissed that you guys kept pulling the covers off me. “It was cold in the house!” (We turned the thermostat down to save fuel). After some heated discussion, we all realized that none of them were to blame. They shrugged, but I knew something strange was going on.
In the spring there was a knock at the front door. An elderly couple introduced themselves. The man was the manager of Cranston Print Works many years ago. He and his wife lived in the villa – it was a part-time job. After exchanging pleasantries, they asked if I had met the ghost. I nodded in agreement and asked her to tell me more. The experience began in the wine cellar and then went up the stairs to the second and third floors of the Victorian extension.
After that, I was too curious to get the ghost out of my head. As a budding historian, I assumed the spirit had to be Amasa Sprague, who was killed on 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 contact spirits. I’m quite a linear guy so of course I was skeptical but always up for a little adventure. We made an alphabet and numbers, including “yes” and “no,” out of small pieces of paper arranged in a circle and placed an upside-down wine glass in the center of the circle. We placed the tip of our index fingers on the inverted glass and asked, “Are there spirits present?” To my great astonishment, the glass came to life, began to crack, and immediately moved to “Yes.”
We asked with trepidation, “Can you make your presence known?” anticipating an apparition. Instead, the spirit deliberately ignited the flame of the previously still candle on the table. We were relieved as we didn’t want to stumble upon anything too spooky.
Now it’s important to remember that the story of Amasa Sprague is so ingrained in Rhode Island history that everyone was expecting us to get to the next question, which is, “Are you the spirit of Amasa Sprague?” , would receive a “yes”?” Surprised, we received a resounding “no”. We repeated the question; same answer.
Then the glass suddenly began to become highly charged and began to spell MYLAND several times. We questioned the spirit and asked when it was staying in the house. It pointed to the 1880s, long after the Spragues had gone bankrupt in the wake of the 1873 stock market crash. If I remember correctly, it was owned by the Chaffee family at the time.
We continued the questioning. The ghost indicated that his name was Charles and he was the butler. That seemed strange, not what we expected. Upon further inquiry we learned that Charles had two daughters, Yvonne and Joan. From what we’ve learned, Yvonne fell in love with Chaffee’s son and they wanted to get married. However, since “upper and lower classes” were not supposed to marry (that was a big deal in the Victorian era), the older Chaffees did not sanction the marriage.
Apparently, 80 years later, Charles was still angry. If his daughter had married into a higher estate, he would no longer only be a butler, but his family would have been co-owners of the land. We asked what Charles wanted from us. He indicated that he wanted to tell the story.
It was getting late in the evening and honestly we were emotionally drained and ended the session.
Over the next two weeks, I asked the neighborhood if old people remembered Charles and his two daughters. A man in his 90’s remembered Charles from when he was a little boy and recalled having two daughters but couldn’t remember 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 intentionally omitted as he still doesn’t want to talk about it) to be the mansion’s caretaker during my absence. Rick came home from college and didn’t like living with his parents. So this should have been a great opportunity.
Lo and behold, Rick made it through the night. As far as I know Charles appeared with him on the Victorian steps. Rick fled the house and spent every night in the safety of his parents’ home. He came back every day to make sure the house was safe and sound. To this day, more than fifty-five years later, he still doesn’t speak about what he saw.
When the trail led to the trail, the next year a real caretaker took over my job, I graduated, got married, went to Vietnam, then to graduate school and didn’t return to the mansion for another 25 years. Next time I brought some friends but didn’t tell them about Charles. As they stood on the back servants’ staircase between the two parts of the house, Mary let out a terrifying scream. “Something just flew 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 allegedly inspired by George Washington’s chair for writing the book, a wooden chair with intricate joinery and dark upholstery that George Washington himself is said to have once sat on. Lynch recently loaned the chair, his most prized possession, to the Varnum Museum along with a manuscript he wrote detailing the life and legacy of Sessions. As part of the 251st commemoration of the fire of the British schooner Gaspee, the chair will be rededicated and presented to the public on June 10 at 12:30 p.m. in Pawtuxet Park.