Your Sunday Brunch Special: A Ghost Story

Early America was replete with ghost stories, hauntings, and the like. While transcribing a diary/autobiography I came across this one, which I share for your enjoyment.

This story is set in a large farmhouse near Paris, New York, ca. 1810. The narrator recalls his childhood, one that was relatively carefree, though not unacquainted with death. At the time of the experience, a younger brother was quite ill, and the narrator had just suffered a severe case of complicated measles. The family were attentive Presbyterians, and apparently a little hell-fire was preached in their local congregation.

A circumstance occurred about this time which as it had a serious and salutory effect upon my mind, it may not be amiss to relate. In my retirements I often thought of my situation as a sinner exposed to death, and while musing upon my ways and my danger, sleep often departed from my; and I often spent the greater part of whole nights, while all others of the family were locked in sleep, in thinking of death, judgment, and eternity. At one time while these employed and no one but myself awake in the house, as I suppose, I heard strange noises in various parts of the house, as of a person walking below and attending to the various household affairs, doors opening and shutting, &c. supposing that my Mother had arisen as she sometimes did to see if the family were sleeping safely, I raised myself in bed and called her, but received no answer. Soon however I distinctly heard the noises approaching my bedchamber. Supposing my mother coming up, I continued sitting- heard footsteps-the ringing of a candlestick- &c. In a moment the noise ceased and was heard no more, but while I sat listening, suddenly a fiery ball of considerable dimensions passed across my chamber and stopped remaining stationary at the foot of my bed about two feet from the floor. I sat and for a short time viewed it, it appeared round and bright, but did not at all illuminate the room. Becoming alarmed I covered my head and endeavoured to awake my older brother who reposed by my side but could not, he seemed fast locked in sleep. I continued sometime, then summoning resolution resolution,[sic] uncovered my head and again saw the ball still remaining steady and bright. I then covered my head and remained till day dawned.

In the morning I questioned my friends but no one had been up or awake. I told them the circumstances but no one believed me awake. It made however a deep and strong impression on my mind, and I will merely say, my little brother, then unwell, was immediately taken worse and in a short time died, and when the family were called up at the midnight hour to bid farewell to the spirit struggling for a departure from its clay tenement, and while my mother walked the floor wringing her hands in the agony of grief, I thought of the midnight warning.

These sorts of stories were relatively common from the period, and I have a few that were passed down from my mother of similar ilk. The narrator of the story above, though only about 5 or 6 years of age by his own count, carried a powerful burden of concern for his soul, something shared by Joseph Smith in some reports of his first vision. The narrator eventually sought training as a minister at a seminary in Amherst, Massachusetts, but became disillusioned with the “Platform” and left. Eventually he experienced a powerful conversion connected to Methodism and became a minister for nearly a decade. In December 1840, he joined the Mormon church. His adventures were not done yet, but that’s another day.

Any ghost stories in your family?


  1. Ghost stories? I assume my New York ancestors had some, but they didn’t survive the pioneer trek. All I’ve seen is a fragment of a treasure-divining story and a hint about a c.1790s prophecy. These stories didn’t leave much of a trace and were replaced in the family lore by events that happened after the family joined the Church: a miraculous healing and other other similar stories.

  2. In 2002, while my grandma was ill, my family took it in turns to sit by her bedside in case she needed anything (she lived alone). There was a large pool in the backyard and my grandparents had always let people from their ward and the neighborhood use it by accessing a side gate into the backyard. However, we had put a sign on the gate saying that grandma was ill and the pool was closed.

    One day I was taking my turn watching over her. She was asleep and I was reading when I heard children laughing and splashing around in the pool. Annoyed at their disregard for her illness and worried they would wake her, I immediately went out to the backyard to tell them to leave, but when I opened the door, there was no one there. The backyard was completely quiet, the pool was still, and there were no signs of splashed water on the concrete. I went back inside and about fifteen minutes later, the same thing happened. This time I did a very thorough search of the backyard, looking over the walls, calling out if anyone was there, etc., but found no sign of anyone. None of my grandma’s neighbors had children, so I was incredibly confused but decided I must be hearing things and went back inside. Everything was quiet after that, so I didn’t mention the experience to anyone.

    Two days later when my mom came home from her turn watching over grandma, she had a very perplexed look on her face. When I asked what was wrong, she told me of her experience that afternoon, which matched mine almost identically. Grandma’s housekeeper (we’ll call her Arlene) had also been at the house that day. When my mom came in from the backyard, she told Arlene she thought she’d heard someone outside. Arlene, whom we’d always considered a bit on the odd side, just nodded and said, “Oh, the children? I hear them all the time.”

    My grandma passed away a few months later. I have no real explanation for this experience. But the fact that my mom and I experienced it independently makes me less able to just dismiss it. Still, I really wonder what was going on. That will be one of the first things I investigate when I die.

  3. A member of my family claims to have seen a recently deceased relative comforting another (living) relative. I won’t go into more detail since the witness considers it a sacred experience and doesn’t casually discuss it. I’m usually pretty skeptical about such stories, but this one comes from a rational person who I can’t imagine would invent it, so I don’t know what to make of it.

  4. My daughter saw her great-grandmother in our kitchen shortly after Gramma Bess died. She was under 2 at the time, and hadn’t known Grandma very well, but she popped her head up in her high chair, pointed into the kitchen, and said clearly, “Gramma Bess!”

  5. Rob, What you may make of it is that it was real–and that’s wonderfully comforting to all of us.
    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Reminds me of a James Thurber story, but in his the phenomenon wasn’t a warning of anything bad if I recall correctly.

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