HARTFORD - — Ghosts were companions of Mark Twain throughout his life.
They were something he encountered way back when he was a newspaper reporter in Nevada, writing of "spectres starting up from behind tomb-stones, and you weaken accordingly — the cold chills creep over you — our hair stands on end — you reverse your front, and with all possible alacrity, you change your base."
Later, they were the subject of one short piece of writing, "A Ghost Story," in which "three little spheres of soft phosphorescent light appeared on the ceiling directly over my head, clung and glowered there a moment and then dropped."
Even Huck and Tom visit a haunted house, sensing something "weird and grisly about the dead silence" in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," a book Twain wrote while living in Hartford.
So it may not be a stretch to imagine spirits still roaming the large, fanciful Victorian in Hartford's West End, where Twain lived for 17 years.
Whispered about for years, the stories have accumulated enough to draw TV's popular "Ghost Hunters" to town last month for a full investigation. And seeing a trend, the Mark Twain House & Museum is opening its doors this month to point out the spooky doings for a series of special "Graveyard Shift" nighttime tours.
Tours of the house that go into some areas previously closed to visitors, such as the basement, begin Friday and continue Friday nights until Halloween.
"Every day people ask on the tours, 'Is it haunted?'" says Rebecca Floyd, manager of visitor services at the Mark Twain House. That's to be expected with any dark, old, unoccupied Victorian house with creaky floorboards (and acorns pinging loudly off the conservatory ceiling).
But a number of unexplained stories have accumulated over the years: Lights that had been turned off suddenly turned on. The sound of children giggling when there were no children on a tour. A tug on the shirt of one guide and no one there when he turned around. Lights that dimmed when a certain child was spoken of. Figures darting at the edge of the eyes, in corners and shadows. A sudden blast of cold in the drawing room. Loud, jarring noises. The smell of cigar smoke up in the pool room, where the fire alarm would inexplicably go off. The sound of footsteps above, in rooms known to be unoccupied. Children darting up the ornate stairs. And most spectacularly, a tray flung toward a guard stationed in the basement.
"I don't think the personnel took the supernatural stories seriously, until visitors started reporting things, too," Floyd said.
They'd start to report seeing things. Whole groups would witness unexplained loud noises. And one family taking nighttime pictures of the house were astonished to find children seeming to appear in one upstairs window. There had been a death in the home, of the oldest Twain daughter, Susie, at 24. But younger children have been seen as well, possibly representing the time when the building was a boarding school.
The Mark Twain House had been contacted over the years by various paranormal investigators as the stories leaked out, but mostly they were turned down. This was, after all, an august literary landmark, not some spooky spectacle.
New management meant an opening for investigators. First the Smoking Gun Research Agency of Stratford came up for an all-night investigation that stopped short of saying the place was haunted but concluded it was "energetically active."
Then came the most famous amateur investigators, in another all-night investigation late last month.
"This is gorgeous. He lived in style here," "Ghost Hunter" Grant Wilson said when opening the front door to the house last week, cameras capturing the moment.
"This place is incredible," agreed Jason Hawes.
Together, the two began the Atlantic Paranormal Society in their spare time in Westerly, R.I., where they were Roto Rooter men. Since the TV show started following their activities five years ago, they have done less and less plumbing and more investigating spooky sites, hoping to disprove and provide explanations for unexplainable things they are called to look into.
Because the show usually spends two weeks in each place, the ghost hunters spent a week at the Mark Twain House with some after-hours investigations this past week at the Old State House. Both are expected to be part of the "Ghost Hunters" season Wednesday nights on the Syfy Network before the end of the year.
At the Twain house they got the kind of access with their cameras — and in staying overnight for observation — that nobody else gets, says Patti Philippon, the Beatrice Fox Auerbach chief curator for the house. But staffers also stayed around all night to assist them, and to keep an eye out.
"We can't touch anything," Grant says.
The men are used to crawling around in spiderweb-infested abandoned crawl spaces. The handsomely restored National Historic Landmark is more to their liking. "I'm more interested in the history of the place than paranormal activity," Wilson says.
Twain officials say they hope any interest they get from ghost hunters on their Friday-night tours might spill out into general interest into the Twain House; studies have found that most local people have visited once, usually back in grade school, but haven't found a reason to return.
Mark Twain House, spokesman Jacques Lamarre says, the "Graveyard Shift" tours, rather than sullying the reputation of the house, reflect the interest in spirits that were part of Victorian tradition; at the time, séances were a popular parlor activity. The tours will conclude in the rarely seen basement with actress Ginny Wolfe reading "How to Tell a Story," which includes a ghost tale.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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