The Phelps Mansion Haunting

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash

The Phelps Mansion Haunting in Stratford, Connecticut, is a case of poltergeist activity that has intrigued me for decades, in part because of the bizarreness of the activity. It is remarkable for the extraordinary nature of the haunting: at the heart of it were multiple creepy religious life-sized dioramas built in remarkably little time out of household materials and the family’s clothing.

It’s also been covered by many different ghost sites and books about haunted New England, so I’m going to synthesize what I’ve found and add in a bit of historical research of my own. Let’s start with a discussion of the “hero” of the tale, Reverend Eliakim Phelps.

A Short History of the Reverend Eliakim Phelps 

The Phelps family has been knocking around New England for quite some time. William Phelps, the original immigrant, arrived in 1630 on the Mary and John. He helped found Dorchester, MA, and Windsor, CT. His son, Nathaniel Phelps, was one of the first settlers of Northampton, MA; Nathaniel’s son William and grandson William remained there.

William Jr’s son Eliakim Phelps was born 1709 in Northampton; he moved to Belchertown in 1731 or 1732 (the town was first settled in 1731) and died in 1777. His first wife, Elizabeth Rust of Northampton, died in 1752, age 40, and by her he had 6 children. He then married Elizabeth Davis of Springfield, and had, as his second son, Eliakim (who died in 1824), who had 6 children: Abner, Daniel, William, Eliakim, Asenath, and Diana. (I think Asenath is a cool name!)

Phelps family tree

It is this last Eliakim, son of Eliakim, who stars in our story..

Some highlights from his life:

  • Eliakim was born March 20, 1790, in Belchertown, MA.
  • In 1814, he graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY. 
  • In 1816, he married Sarah Adams (b. 1791) in Wilbraham, MA.
  • In 1818, he “settled in the ministry in West Brookfield” and was the 5th pastor of the West Brookfield Congregational church. (This is worth noting as most sources identify him as a Presbyterian minister.)
  • In 1826, he resigned his ministry to become (briefly) principal of the Female Classical Seminary (founded in 1825 and no longer in operation by 1853, though I can’t find when it closed exactly) in West Brookfield, MA. 
  • In the aftermath of leaving the Seminary, he “afterwards settled at Geneva, NY, and [was] dismissed from there.” It was apparently a Presbyterian church, indicating that he had engaged in some of the crossover between Congregationalists and Presbyterians. No clue about the dismissal!
  • In 1835, he was elected Secretary of the American Educational Society, and the family moved to Philadelphia.
  • In 1840, he and his family were living in Moyamensing, Pennsylvania (now part of south Philadelphia). 
  • In 1844, he received an honorary degree from Delaware College. 
  • In November 1845, his wife Sarah was carried off by fever, leaving Eliakim a widower with 3 more-or-less adult children (1 of the 4 children died young).
  • In 1846, he remarried to a young widow, Sarah B Kennedy Nicholson (b. 1814, only 6 years older than his oldest surviving child)), and took in her 3 children by her previous husband: Ann, Henry, and Hannah Nicholson.
  • In 1848, he purchased a house in Stratford, CT, and moved his family there.
  • In 1858, his second wife Sarah died in Philadelphia of uterine cancer.
  • In 1860, Eliakim and his young teen son Sidney were living in what appeared to be a boarding house in Woodstock, CT.
  • In 1880, Eliakim was living with his son Henry Martyn Phelps in Weehawken, NJ.
  • Eliakim died on December 29, 1880, age 90, in Weehawken..

Our story also features Eliakim’s second wife Sarah and her 3 children by her first marriage (Anna, Henry/Harry, and Hannah), as well as their toddler son Sidney.

Now that we understand some of the major players, let’s talk about another major piece of this story: the house.

The House

The mansion was built in 1826: a 3-story Greek Revival home at 1738 Elm Street, Stratford, CT. It was built by General Matthias Nicoll (1758-1830) for his daughter Eliza Hopkins Nicoll (1786-1851) and son-in-law Captain George Robert Dowdall (1782-1829). The center hallway of the home was apparently designed by Eliza for George, and was meant to be reminiscent of the main deck of his clipper ship: 12′ wide and 70′ long, with twin staircases leading to the second floor. The house had 4 Doric columns across the front, and the interior was elegantly appointed with chandeliers, carved paneling, and molded plaster work.

Rendering of Phelps Mansion, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Vol. XXIV, 1878, p. 34.

Some sources say that Phelps purchased the mansion from Captain Dowdall, while other sources say that he bought it after the deaths of both Dowdalls — Findagrave.com gives different information though: Captain. Dowdall was long dead (died in 1829), and Eliza was clearly in her sunset years (died in 1851), so Phelps likely purchased the house from Eliza, who then moved to Otisville, NY, likely to live with a family member until she died.

The Phelps family owned the house until 1859, when Rev Phelps sold it to Moses Beach, founder of The New York Sun. The home was later inherited by his son Alfred, who was a long-time editor of The Scientific American and ran a private school from the home called the Stratford Institute. In the 1940s, the mansion was covered into a nursing home, the Restmore Convalescent Home, and was bought by Alliance Medical Inns in the 1960s. Financial issues prevented the plans the company had for it, and it boarded up and abandoned the house by 1970. Vandals caused considerable damage to the building, and it was demolished in 1972, by some accounts, and in 1974 by others.

From the house to the greater environment, let’s discuss what was going on in the world at this time.

Historical Context

Many Spiritualists point to 1848, when the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, NY, had their first momentous night of communicating with spirits, as the beginning of Spiritualism. Basically, the home of the Fox family began to be troubled by noises, shaking, and persistent knocking sounds. When the 2 younger girls fled their bedroom one night in apparent terror, they began asking the “spirits” to respond to their counting with knocking, and the spirits accommodated. So began their long and storied careers as mediums, communicating with spirits such as “Mr. Splitfoot” and others. The Fox Sisters moved to Rochester, and newspapers of the time (specifically, the New York Herald and New York Tribune, that I could find) referred to them as the Rochester Ladies as of 1850. Maggie confessed that their work had all been a hoax in 1888. But while the confession destroyed their careers, it did not stop Spiritualism from continuing to grow.

David Chapin, in his book Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, notes:

Sporadic reporting at this time mentioned rappings that were occurring in a variety of locations outside the [Fox] sisters’ influence. In the home of the Reverend Eliakim Phelps in Stratford, Connecticut, that March, witnesses heard raps and saw objects hurled through the air in the presence of an eleven-year-old boy. These “spirits” seem to have had more malevolent intentions than those at Rochester. Objects often struck witnesses and caused damage, leading the Reverend Phelps to conclude that “wicked spirits” were at work, and that “their communications are wholly worthless” and “devices of Satan.” Other rappings were heard in Newark, New Jersey, while strange, unexplained movement of objects was reported in both Richmond, Virginia, and the West Indies. Clearly the sisters’ hoax was taking on a life of its own.

Eliakim was known to be fascinated by Spiritualism, as well as mesmerism, and this interest carried through much of his family. At least one of his children (Austin) went on to also become Congregationalist clergy, and Austin’s daughter became a prolific feminist writer, producing nearly 60 volumes of prose and poetry in her life, including Biblical romances, antivivisectionist works… and 3 Spiritualist novels. So I think there’s plenty of evidence for the effects of Spiritualism on the Phelps family.

We have the players and the stage — what was the play?

The Haunting

On March 4, 1850, an old friend of Eliakim’s came calling on him at Elm Street, and after dinner and conversation, they apparently decided to try a seance. They apparently heard “intermittent, disorganized rappings” but nothing else. (Citro, 28)

On Sunday, March 10, 1850, the family returned from church to find all the doors standing open and the family’s belongings were strewn across the floor. In one bedroom, chillingly, Mrs. Phelps’ nightgown was laid out on a bed, sleeves crossed over the chest in imitation of a corpse and stockings at the bottom. Nothing appeared to be stolen — his gold watch and the family silver were in view and undisturbed — so they straightened the house and Eliakim sent the family back to church for afternoon services. Meanwhile, he lurked in the upstairs of the house, waiting for the burglars to return. He heard nothing, and then crept downstairs and saw that the dining room was filled with eleven women, some kneeling, some standing, some holding Bibles, and all completely still: all of them seemed focused on a tiny demonic figure suspended by a cord in the center of the room. 

The figures were made by stuffing rags and other materials into the family’s clothing.

According to Joseph A Citro’s book, Passing Strange:

An account of the event published in the New Haven Journal said, “From this time on the rooms were closely watched, and the figures appeared every few days when no human being could have entered the room. They were constructed and arranged, I am convinced, by no visible power. The clothing from the figures were made was somehow gathered from all parts of the house, in spite of a strict watch. In all about 30 figures were constructed during the haunt.”

Other events occurred during the next 6 months, such as objects moving through the air, family members being carried or pinched and slapped by invisible forces, windows breaking (some 71 windows broke, which seems like an appalling amount of money for repairs if it was a hoax), food appearing and being flung at family members, and loud rappings, knockings, and cries. In one incident, an umbrella leaped into the air and flew some 25 feet away, and smaller objects would fly from locations without any visible force to fling them.

At one point shortly after the haunting began, Mrs. Phelps begged her husband to find someone to help, so he enjoined his friend Rev John Mitchell to investigate. Mitchell decided that it must be the children having a prank, so he locked them away in the house. However, the disturbances continued, and he witnessed moving objects, among other activities, such as seeing objects appear and drop out of the air, and this convinced him that it could not be a hoax or prank.

Investigators, spiritualists, and journalists began to turn up at the house to document and attempt to prove/disprove the events. No witnesses or investigators were ever able to determine a human perpetrator of the events. These included Eliakim’s son Austin and Eliakim’s brother Abner, both of whom were sober, well-thought-of professional men in the Boston environs who were none too pleased about the family notoriety and had every reason to debunk the haunting. They heard pounding on the front door that they could not ascertain the source of, despite waiting on either side of it — the pounding occurred on the door between them, with no visible source. One night, the pounding had moved to Anna’s door, and according to Citro:

Again they took their positions on both sides of Anna’s door. The pounding continued. It came, Austin wrote, “… on the door between us. Said I, ‘Doctor, the knocking is outside of the door.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘it is on the inside.’

“The young lady was in bed, covered up and out of reach of the door. We examined the panel and found dents where it had been struck.” (Citro, 26)

Anna, the 17-year-old, was pinched and slapped, generally in view of the family, bruises and welts appearing on her arms and face. Henry, the 12-year-old, got the worst of it, apparently: he was pelted by stones while driving with his stepfather, he was carried across a room by something invisible and dropped on the floor, was thrown into a cistern of water, and several times vanished, once found in a hay mound unconscious, once found outside, tied up and suspended from a tree, and once found stuffed into the shelf of a closet with a rope around his neck.

Eliakim had apparently made attempts to communicate with the spirits perpetrating these events early on, but shut those attempts down because the communications had been so blasphemous and offensive. No transcripts were published, so we only have his word for it, and the word of his friend Mitchell, who also attempted communication. The entities apparently occasionally left Bibles open to significant passages, scrawled symbols on walls, and then, in a dramatic turn, began dropping written messages on the family, generally signed “by Sam Slick, Beelzebub, or H.P. Devil. One that fluttered into existence at Mrs. Phelp’s tea party said, ‘Sir Sambo’s compliments and begs the laddyes to accept as a token of esteem.'” (Citro, 29).

Eventually, however, he was worn down and agreed to another seance. The spirit this time claimed to be a soul in hell, requested pumpkin pie and a glass of gin, and then claimed to have been a law clerk who’d done work for Mrs. Phelps and committed fraud. Eliakim decided that this communication — despite discovering that fraud had been committed via a trip to the Philadelphia law firm in question — was worthless and bad. 

Aftermath

Eliakim moved the family to Philadelphia for the winter of 1850-1851, and returned in the spring of 1851, where they were no longer disturbed. According to some accounts, they stayed in the house until 1859, when Phelps sold it to Moses Beach, though they were clearly in Philadelphia in October 1858 when Mrs. Phelps died — possibly Eliakim had taken her to Philadelphia for treatment.

Apparently, there were no other reports of supernatural occurrences until it was a nursing home, at which time some staff reported strange noises and other odd occurrences,. Inevitably, Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated the house.

Supernatural theories for the Phelps haunting range from spirits raised by Eliakim’s seance to the two eldest stepchildren, Anna and Henry, being conduits for paranormal energies, to there being a ghost involved, either a murdered peddler or a woman murdered for being a witch. The non-supernatural theories tend to focus on Henry as the prankster, or on Anna and Henry as teaming up for the hoax. If the latter, perhaps Anna did not return with the family in 1851 — I have found evidence for possibly multiple marriages for her, and she might’ve decided to get away from the family by getting hitched while in Philadelphia, which would have left Henry without his partner-in-crime. Henry, for his part, went to sea, married, and had 2 children. He died in Philadelphia at age 32 of valvular disease of the heart. Of the third child I can find no trace.

Sidney, the child of Eliakim and Sarah, who notably does not appear to figure in any of the stories, married and had one child, and seems to have also died fairly young, around 46, in Philadelphia.

While many of the newspaper articles of 1850 that I’ve managed to find seem to dismiss the entire event out of hand as at least as much of a hoax as they assumed the Fox Sisters to be perpetrating, there do seem to be considerable numbers of investigators who failed to find human sources for the activities. Was the mansion haunted? If not, how were the remarkable tableaus created and how were objects flown through the air in front of witnesses? That no one who subsequently owned the mansion found secret panels or doors, or other automation of deception buried in the walls suggests that at the very least, Rev Phelps was not himself necessarily involved, and may have been an inadvertent dupe of the entire adventure.

Sources

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