Friday, October 18, 2019

Before the memory fades: A haunting tale from Windham’s Parson Smith House

By Walter Lunt

Roger Barto bolted upright in his bed. Sleep had almost taken him, but something, a noise in the hallway outside his upstairs bedroom, brought him back to full wakefulness. Now his senses were on full alert as he stared across the darkened room at his bedroom door. On the other side, in the hallway, came the sound again: a thump – then another – and another, becoming more pronounced as it seemingly approached his bedroom door.

“It was like the sound of a (heavy) shoe or boot. But just one. It was like (whatever it was) only had a sock on the other foot.” recalled Roger.

Former caretakers of the Parson Smith House recall
a haunting night in the early 1960s that may involve
this boot
The sounds continued: thump – pause – thump – pause…

“(I remember) it grew louder until I knew it was just outside my door. I grabbed my bee-bee gun and sat wide-eyed and unblinking for over an hour.”

But the hallway, and the whole house, became quiet for the rest of the night. Eventually, Roger slept.

This incident, we’ll call the haunted hallway, took place in 1961. Roger and his brother and sister, all in their teens had moved into the historic Parson Smith House on River Road in Windham with their parents, Malcom and Betty Barto. They would be caretakers of the nearly 200-year old mansion, which was owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, based in Boston.

The family loved the big old house. Spacious and homey, Roger and his sister, Sue, recalls how great it was to finally have their own rooms. Outside, there were open spaces - fields and woods, and across the road swimming and fishing in the Presumpscot River. Their mom, Betty, was attracted to the house’s architecture and history. It was the home of Windham’s (New Marblehead’s) first settled minister, Parson Peter Thatcher Smith. Initial construction began after the Indian wars in 1764 but was not finished until the early 1800s. As a result, the ancient structure exhibit features of Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival architectural styles.

There were no incidents of paranormal activity right after the family’s move into the house. But within the first couple of years, both Betty and Roger became aware of an unseen presence.
There were times, especially when alone in the evening, Betty would later recall, when one would experience an omnipresence; more than once she would be startled by unexplainable sounds coming from various parts of the house. One time, footsteps, another the rattling of chains.

It was Roger who found an old boot tucked away in a basement crevice. Obviously not modern footwear, it was a man’s large-sized black leather galosh with wooden pegs in the sole, well-worn and very old.

Speculation at the time was that it may have belonged to either Parson Smith or to Edward Anderson who later lived in the house. The boot soon became a conversation piece. Displayed prominently on a shelf in the original colonial kitchen, it fit in well with the historic ambience of the old house.

Fast forward to the 1970s or ‘80s and an altered version of Roger’s haunted hallway story emerged. This one incorporated the old boot and a search for deceased children.

As told to legions of Windham school children and to visitors on a tour of the Parson Smith House, it went something like this: One June night a young boy in his upstairs bedroom awoke to the sound of a footstep descending the stairs. Knowing that his family was all tucked into their beds, the frightened young lad took refuge under his covers for the rest of the night. The next morning the boot was found at the top of the stairway, ostensibly having moved by itself from its display perch in the downstairs kitchen.

Research later revealed that one or more of Edward Anderson’s children had died very young in the month of June. And so, as the story goes, the long-dead father wearing the single boot walks in search of his young offspring every June.

Asked recently about the veracity of the updated version of his haunted hallway experience, Roger Barto responded firmly, “Never happened!” The earlier hallway story did happen, he insists, and retells it like it happened to him only yesterday.

Like the old parlor game ‘whisper circle,’ a group of players can change or embellish a word or phrase with each new telling around the circle. So, before the memory fades, it’s often worthwhile to return to the source of a story. In this case, Roger Barto. Perhaps his haunted hallway story will start around the whisper circle again. And perhaps that’s okay because when it comes back, it tends to be more fun and entertaining. At the very least, such stories tend to generate an interest in history.

Asked if they believe the unusual events at the Parson Smith House were the result of a haunting,  or if they feel there is a reasonable explanation behind them, most of the people who have actually lived in the house agree that spirits, though benign, do reside there. Elaine Dickinson, who has lived in the Parson Smith House with her late husband, Don, for over a quarter century has a more pragmatic take on the question:

“Once, I had to move a lot of heavy boxes from one end of the attic to the other. I asked that boot spirit to help me. And you know what? Those boxes never moved!” 

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