Radio Field Trip: Exploring Portsmouth's Haunted History
For this week’s Radio Field Trip, we’re getting in the Halloween spirit.
(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)
It’s bitter and cold on this fall day in downtown Portsmouth. I’m standing in front of the large, yellow house of Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones.
The wind howls through large maple trees and the sun peeks through half bare branches casting moving shadows on the ground. A white picket fence surrounds the house making it feel somewhat secluded.
I’m meeting with local historian Roxie Zwicker. She she’s been leading tours of Portsmouth’s spookiest sites for almost 17 years.
“It is an amazing city to show people the haunted history,” Roxie says.
And the John Paul Jones House has some hidden legends.
“It’s operated and maintained by the historical society, and if you know anything about historical societies, if you can’t document it, it didn’t happen,” Roxie says. “So if they’re telling ghost stories, I’m going to listen.”
That’s right, ghost stories. Roxie says people have reported strange occurrences from the attic of the house on many occasions.
“People tour the house, and you see someone coming out of the attic dressed in 19th century finery, walking into one of the rooms,” she says. “So you might assume that it’s a reenactor and that they’re going to tell you a little bit about the house, and you follow them into the room and they’re gone.”
Roxie leads me along the streets of downtown to our next stop along this haunted tour – The Music Hall. Its colorful marquee stands out among the surrounding buildings boasting hundreds of years of history.
I imagine all the good ghost stories that must be here since its one of the oldest theatres in New Hampshire.
“I think that’s what delights me so much about The Music Hall is the variety of the stories that you have here, almost as varietal as the performers that have been here over the years,” Roxie says.
There have been reports of all kinds of activity here, including cold spots, strange twinkling lights, and music playing from an empty stage.
People have seen audience members appear in the seats with clothes that don’t belong to this time period. Perhaps they are patrons who never left.
“It’s almost as if the building itself is a living, breathing entity,” Roxie says.
She says if someone tells her a story about hearing footsteps on the staircase behind us only to find no one there, she would consider their experience.
“It’s an old building,” she says. “Is it still settling from 150 years ago? Or is it someone going up the staircase as they would 100 years ago?”
The last stop on our tour, which is definitely the creepiest, is the Point of Graves Cemetery.
It’s the oldest burial ground in New Hampshire dating all the way back to 1671. There are about 125 gravestones that remain today.
Some of the headstones are broken and eroded after standing through hundreds of New England winters. Others still show the incredibly intricate carvings of skulls and crossbones that are almost lifelike.
And many people think this place is haunted.
Roxie says in any old New England cemetery people will hear footsteps behind them, maybe sense another presence, look over their shoulder behind them. But she says at this cemetary, there have been times at certain graves when people feel that they’ve been touched.
“They truly feel like there’s someone standing next to them,” Roxie says. “We’ve had people break out into tears at certain gravestones and they don’t know why. People are very moved by the energy that’s in here. They get moved by the energy in more than one way.”
Roxie says one of the markers that people are most drawn to is a large tomb at the end of the graveyard. The tomb belongs to the notable Vaughn family who emigrated from England in the 1600s.
Roxie says when descendants of the Vaughns went to build the monument for the tomb in the 19th century, they found a staircase under the original headstone. The staircase led to the door of a crypt that held 28 skeletons sitting on shelves. And to this day, no one knows exactly who those skeletons were.
Roxie says since then, there have been reports of ghosts emerging from the tomb and walking through the graveyard at night.
“So do you want to go with the belief that there are people climbing out of the ground, or that there’s just shadows from light in here?”