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A spirited tour of the East Side’s major haunts

Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

During the Revolutionary War, University Hall was temporarily converted to an army hospital.

While the building’s administrative offices bear little evidence of this gruesome past in which soldiers received painful surgeries such as leg amputations, on the right night a passerby might see a contorted soldier’s face staring out a second-floor window — according to the Providence Ghost Tour, one of the walking tours that explore the city’s various “haunted” locations.

In fact, Rhode Island’s capital is filled with ghosts in unexpected nooks and crannies, according to the guides who use their supernatural knowledge of Providence’s paranormal to lead visitors and locals alike through the city’s haunted side. Drawing on archival research and local history, both the Providence Ghost Tour and the Providence Ghost Walk divulge College Hill’s spooky secrets to give customers a taste of Providence’s otherworldly thrills.

Quoth the Raven

The eerie tales of Edgar Allan Poe are always popular during the Halloween season, but Providence residents may not know that Poe once roamed the streets of College Hill with his fiancee, local poet Sarah Helen Whitman. They conducted much of their courtship in the Providence Athenaeum on Benefit Street, and Poe even wrote her a poem, one of the two he titled “To Helen.” 

“They fell in love in that Gothic, cosmic kind of way only the Victorians could,” said Rory Raven on one of his Providence Ghost Walks last week. Tragically, Poe’s alcoholic habits proved to be a deal-breaker for Whitman’s family, and she ended their engagement, said Raven, author of “Haunted Providence,” a collection of local legends about ghosts and strange happenings.

This is Raven’s tenth year running the Providence Ghost Walk, but he isn’t the only one who knows his repertoire of stories by heart. Some attendees keep coming back — it “keeps the stories fresh in my mind,” said Jocelyn Smyth, who attended Raven’s tour for the fourth time Saturday afternoon.

Attired in a long black jacket, a vest and a top hat, Raven focuses his tour on stories from the 19th century, based on historical accounts from local archives.

The walk travels mostly along Benefit Street, once a back alley in which city residents buried family members, Raven said. The many graves have since been reinterred in another cemetery, though some bones may still remain on College Hill, he said.

The Ghost Walk’s other stops include a cemetery, the haunted site where a sanitorium once stood and the yellow colonial house described in horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House.”

Raven said visitors often react to his creepiest stories with “nervous laughter.” A guest once fainted, he said — because she hadn’t eaten breakfast. “It wasn’t anything spooky, just low blood sugar,” he said.

Raven works full-time as a practitioner of mentalism — stage magic that presents the illusion of clairvoyance — and gives lectures on occult topics such as seances and telepathy. But when asked whether he actually believes in the supernatural tales he spins, the self-described “mindbender” was evasive.

“I pass them on as stories,” he said.

Invisible histories

Courtney Edge, who co-founded Providence Ghost Tour, freely admits to personal experience with the paranormal. There was “a tremendous amount of paranormal activity” in her childhood home, including unexplained footsteps and sounds, she said.

Edge and Mike Gertrudes, the tour’s other founder, often went ghost hunting in local cemeteries, a shared interest that led to the creation of the Providence Ghost Tour four years ago. Business has been booming since its founding — Edge and Gertrudes now employ nine tour guides, and last Saturday over 100 people showed up for the tour in the pouring rain, Gertrudes said.  

The tour starts at Prospect Terrace Park around dusk on Friday and Saturday nights. Guides hold lanterns as they recount tales of haunted dormitories and lead attendees through the Brown and Rhode Island School of Design campuses. The tour’s stops include a haunted admissions office, the Brown Faculty Club and a former funeral parlor that has been turned into an art studio — where artists now wash their paintbrushes in sinks previously used for embalming, said Kelly McCabe, who has worked as one of the tour’s guides for two years.

Like Raven, Gertrudes and Edge turned to local history for material. Gertrudes spent so much time researching in the Rhode Island Historical Society archives that he was even offered a job as an independent researcher, he said.

Early on in the walk, McCabe offers a quick primer on the spiritual manifestations that she encourages her tours’ attendees to photograph. She outlines their various forms, which include “orbs,” “apparitions” and “poltergeists.” Pictures of orbs, or “balls of energy” without explained light sources, are the most common, she said.

Howard Hewitt, an amateur archaeologist with a self-described “passion” for the paranormal, took Monday’s tour with a camera in hand and high hopes for encountering some ghostly activity. Hewitt, who has studied “parapsychology” for years, said he had encountered spirits in the past, though never before in Providence.

“I’ve actually seen a full torso’s apparition,” he said.

During the tour, Hewitt filled his entire roll of film with shots of windows and dark corners. He even sensed the presence of a Revolutionary War soldier on the steps of University Hall, he said.

But not all guests had Hewitt’s level of belief.

“I wanted to, but I didn’t,” said first-time guest Shayla Fortin.

Though some skepticism of paranormal phenomena is necessary, doubting visitors can affect the tour experience, McCabe said. “Sometimes you get tours where people are so closed off that it just drains the energy,” she said.

Gertrudes expects a large crowd this weekend — which could be a boon to ghost hunters, according to McCabe. Larger crowds often attract a greater spiritual presence, she said.

Of course, the haunted holiday season also means more discernible supernatural activity, McCabe said. “There’s a reason that Halloween is when it is.”

The Providence Ghost Walk is offered Saturdays and Sundays until the end of October at 3 p.m. Tours leave from the Providence Athenaeum, and tickets cost $7. Providence Ghost Tours are offered Friday and Saturday nights through November 14 at 7 p.m. Tours leave from Prospect Terrace Park, and tickets cost $12.


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