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Other titles in the Haunted America series:
Haunted Heritage: A Definitive Collection of North American Ghost Storiesby Michael Norman
A Revolutionary Haunting
Monuments to Americas Revolutionary War heroes adorn the landscape in countless New England villages and counties. From Boston Harbor to Fort William Henry on Maines rugged seacoast, inland to historic old Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga, patriot homes, battlefields and birthplaces mark the intense interest Americans have in that bloody fight for independence.
One of the emerging nations first martyrs, Nathan Hale of Connecticut, is just such a Revolutionary hero, a soldier-spy whose exploits are known to countless schoolchildren. Though his life was short, his valiant efforts on behalf of the patriot cause are still held as a model of unselfish bravery. Several monuments commemorate his life.
A boulder marks Halesite, near Huntington, New York, the place where it is believed the British captured him.
In South Coventry, Connecticut, is the remarkable Hale Homestead, where Nathan was born in 1755, the sixth of twelve children of Deacon Richard and Elizabeth Strong Hale.
The Homestead today is open to the public, administered by the Coventry Historical Society for the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society of Connecticut. The home and grounds are evocative reminders of the colonial era as costumed docents guide visitors through the intricacies of eighteenth-century life. Nathan Hales Bible and fowling gun are on display.
Tourists may not know, however, that the colonial Hale family must have been fonder of their home than even the family could have anticipated. The Homestead is reputedly haunted by the ghostly visages of Nathan Hales own family.
* * *
The story of the Hale Homestead must begin with the Revolutionary hero himself. Ironically, Nathan Hale could have avoided the great conflict. A graduate of Yale College at the age of eighteen, the calm, pious young man with remarkable athletic skills accepted a teaching job in East Haddam, Connecticut, in 1773. By all accounts, Hale was quite a good teacher during his year in East Haddam. He moved to New London the next year and began what he probably assumed was going to be a life of teaching and scholarship.
It was not to be.
Hale was excited by the ideals embodied in the American Revolution and volunteered to fight in July 1775, one month after his twentieth birthday. He was commissioned a lieutenant by the Connecticut assembly and joined colonial troops in driving the British from Boston.
When His Majestys forces invaded the New York area, Hale, by now a captain, marched with colonial troops to drive the Redcoats from their new encampment. Captain Hale was a daring and resourceful soldier, commended by his superiors for many acts of bravery. On one occasion, his men captured a British supply ship from under the cannons of a British war vessel.
The ragtag American soldiers, however, were growing dispirited. General Washingtons troops were facing disintegration in New York. Soldiers began to desert, slipping away from their posts, headed for home. The commander-in-chief needed information about British troop movements in order to prepare his tactics, and he needed it badly. He turned to an elite fighting force, the Rangers, for help. Washington asked their commander to find a volunteer who would penetrate the British lines to collect intelligence on enemy positions, tactics, and troop strength.
Captain Nathan Hale had been awarded a place in the small Rangers outfit after he captured the British supply ship. On the Rangers commanders second call, Captain Hale stepped forward. He would take the assignment.
Disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster, a role ideally suited to his background, Hale successfully crossed British lines and gathered the vital information. But, as every American knows, the young patriot-spy was captured by British troops on September 21, 1776, as he attempted to make his way back to the American side. A British loyalist cousin may have betrayed him.
Hale was tried as a spy before General William Howe, the British commander, and sentenced to hang on the following day. Calm and courageous even as the noose was dropped over his neck, Captain Hale asked for a Bible and gave the executioner, Major Cunningham, a letter to his family. The British officer denied him the Bible and ripped up Hales last letter.
So, just three months after his twenty-first birthday, Nathan Hale met his death. His reputed final words have been included in history books for decades: “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Contrary to generations of history books, however, he probably didnt say that. According to a recently found war diary penned by British Captain Frederick Mackenzie, who witnessed Hales execution, the young soldiers final words were: “It is the duty of every good officer to obey any orders given him by his commander-in-chief.” Mackenzies record of what Nathan Hale actually said is not as stirring as the oft-quoted passage cited above, but certainly still befitting the mans stoic nature.
* * *
In the same year Nathan Hale lost his life, 1776, his father, Deacon Richard Hale faced a daunting challenge: How could he provide room for his own twelve children and a cluster of pretty teenage girls brought into his life by the widow he had married in 1769?
Born at Newbury, Massachusetts, in 1717, Deacon Hale had moved to Coventry in the 1740s. He bought a large farm and married a local girl, Elizabeth Strong, in 1746. To that union were born twelve children, eight boys and four girls. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Hale died in 1767 following the birth of her twelfth child. Little Nathan was twelve.
Two years later, in 1769, Deacon Hale married Abigail Cobb Adams, the widow of Captain Samuel Adams. She brought to the marriage several teenage girls. One of them, Sarah Adams, married John Hale, one of Nathans older brothers.
The precise date of Deacon Hales house remodeling isnt known, nor do records indicate if it occurred before or after Captain Nathan Hales execution. He rebuilt the mansion as a two-family house shared by father and son, and their wives who were also mother and daughter. As the children of this blended family grew to adulthood they moved away, although several members of the family lived at the Homestead over the years.
* * *
The haunting of Hale Homestead has been documented since at least 1914. In that year, the great American antiquarian, George Dudley Seymour (1859-1945), purchased the vacant Hale Homestead and spent the rest of his life making it a centerpiece in his quest to immortalize his favorite American hero, Captain Nathan Hale.
He also came to believe the Homestead was haunted.
Indeed, one of the first documented ghost sightings involved Seymour himself. He had completed the acquisition of Hale Homestead in the spring of 1914 and embarked on a journey to visit it. He had gone by train from New Haven to Willimantic where he then rented a buggy to take him and an unnamed friend to South Coventry. Heavy rains had turned the roads to muddy ruts. Both men were tired from the long trip.
Seymour recorded his impressions of the Homestead in his diary:
“Isolated, dilapidated, unpainted, and vacant, the (Hale) house presented a forlorn picture, heightened on the inside by streamers of paper falling from dampened walls.…[Seymours friend] jumped out of the buggy and ran to the window, and what should he see but Deacon Hales ghost looking out of the [school room] window to see who had arrived. As my friend put his face against the pane, the Deacon stepped back to the inner end of the room and vanished into thin air. My friend was so jarred by the apparition that he did not mention the matter to me for hours. I must say that the Deacons ghost never appeared again to my knowledge.”
A patent attorney by profession, Seymour probably did more than any other single person to make Nathan Hale famous. He not only “collected” houses associated with the Hale family, but also commissioned artist Bela Lyon Pratt to sculpt a new statue of Hale. There were three already in existence, but Seymour disapproved of them all. Pratts statue is now almost universal, gracing the headquarters of the FBI and CIA, the Chicago Tribune building, Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and three Connecticut cities. A miniature version is at the Hale Homestead.
Seymour successfully campaigned for Nathan Hales portrait on a postage stamp. Bela Pratts one-and-a-half-cent stamp carried his portrait from 1925 to 1938. Interestingly, there is only a “shadow portrait” of Hale extant, so Pratts statue and stamp are, to some extent, imaginative likenesses.
But George Dudley Seymour was also keenly aware that not all history is to be found in dusty tomes. He collected all manner of legends and stories connected with Nathan Hale, indeed he seems to have been addicted to writing down nearly everything he thought or heard…including accounts of the ghosts at Hale Homestead.
Local residents told Seymour that the ghost of Lydia Carpenter, one of the Hale familys servants, “was said to be always listening to catch scraps of household gossip.” It may also be Lydia who has been seen sweeping the upper hall toward morning and the woman in white who putters around the kitchen at an early hour.
In addition to Deacon Hale, Seymour found that another member of the Hale family had been sighted at the Homestead.
Seymour wrote that the ghost of one of Nathans brothers, Lieutenant Joseph Hale, “who was confined, it was said, in one of the British prison ships off the Jersey coast…came home to die, and his ghost clanked his chains in the great cellar of the house.”
However, more recent research casts doubts on Seymours account of Joseph Hales war service. He served in the Lexington alarm with several of his brothers (six Hale sons fought for the patriot cause) and was a Knowlton Ranger with the rank of lieutenant and when a musket ball grazed him he was captured at Fort Washington, New York. That was on November 16 or 17, 1776, barely two months after his brothers execution.
Whether Joseph ever was confined to a prison ship is unknown but he certainly didnt “come home to die.” Records indicate that he was exchanged for a British prisoner and was serving as a lieutenant in Colonel Elys regiment by 1777. He met Rebeckah Harris, the daughter of prominent judge Joseph Harris, in New London, and married her on October 21, 1778. They returned to Coventry where they bought a house near his fathers farm.
In 1784, he became “low in consumption,” a term used in earlier days to describe tuberculosis. He died that same year, leaving his young widow with four small children born during the Revolution.
George Seymour wrote that Joseph “was assigned the northwest chamber of his fathers house” during his final days. According to a historian at the Hale Homestead, it is possible that Joseph did “come home to die,” in 1784 even though he had a house nearby. His widow and children did live at the Hale Homestead following his death.
So if it is Joseph Hale rattling around in the Homestead cellar, the chains he drags are not those that he wore when he died.
There are two additional candidates for the ghosts at the Homestead—John and Sarah Hale, Nathans older brother and stepsister who were married, lived and died in the house.
John Hale emulated his father in many ways. Born in 1748, he died shortly after Deacon Hale in 1802. Like his father, John became a deacon of the church and served in various public offices. From 1791 to 1802, he was a delegate to sixteen sessions of the Connecticut General Assembly. He served as justice of the peace, town clerk, and treasurer for many terms between 1786 and his death. Earlier, he was a lieutenant in the Revolutions Knowlton Rangers.
He continued to live at the Homestead after his marriage to his step-sister, Sarah Adams Hale. Their only child was stillborn. Sarah died a year after her husband, in 1803. She was fifty.
Another person who believed the Homestead is haunted, perhaps by the ghosts of John and Sarah Hale, was Mary Elizabeth Campbell Griffith, of Manchester, Connecticut. Her late husband, Harold Griffith, was the Hale Homestead care-taker for George Dudley Seymour.
Mrs. Griffith moved to the Homestead in 1930. She lived in the buildings ell for many years. Her two daughters were born there.
In an oral history of the Hale Homestead collected in 1988, Mrs. Griffith recalled one perplexing episode:
“It was early in the morning. Harold (Mr. Griffith) was out milking. Everyone else was in bed. I heard somebody come down the back stairs. I didnt even look. I asked Harold when he came back, and he said, no, he hadnt been in the house at all…Clump, clump, clump. It was so plain. I never could explain that.…”
George Seymour believed the house was haunted, Mrs. Griffith said. But she seemed to excuse that eccentricity by adding, “Hed been to England, and liked that sort of thing.…”
* * *
According to Mary E. Baker, Hale Homestead Administrator, staff members have not seen any ghosts nor found evidence of their presence.
“However, we strongly believe in bringing history to life,” she said. “Sometimes that includes bringing the people who lived here back for a few hours for special programs. This is done at Halloween time and on special weekends when the Nathan Hale Fifes and Drums put on colonial encampments and battle reenactments. On such occasions, ‘Nathan Hale himself can sometimes be seen here, trying to recruit men to join the militia, or signing autographs with his feather quill pen for children. Even on ordinary days, it is not uncommon for one of the Hale family members to be on hand.”
Visible and invisible.
Coventry and South Coventry are located on the Willimantic River in Tolland County in east-central Connecticut. The Homestead, 2299 South Street, is open from mid-May to mid-October for a small admission fee.
Visitors may also want to visit the Nathan Hale Cemetery above Wangumbaug Lake. A 45-foot-tall granite obelisk is dedicated to the memory of the famous patriot.
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Norman and the Estate of Elizabeth C. Scott
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