by Christine Kalina

What phantoms linger within these old walls?

The following article originally appeared in the Castle Chronicle, the newsletter of the Cocumscussoc Association, under the title "Smith's Castle: Haunt of Phantom Spirits?", in Fall 2005. It is reprinted here with permission.

On early fall evenings, as shadows lengthen, the question beckons: Of the many who have lived and died at Smith's Castle's throughout its long history… who still roams its halls at night?

Given the trials and tribulations of former residents, it would be understandable if one believed that some remnant of a long ago event or trace of a restless spirit lingered still. In grand New England tradition, most "old" houses lay claim to at least one ghost, and over the years many whispered tales of spirits have been passed amongst those who visit, volunteer, and work at Smith's Castle. Visitors frequently inquire if the house is haunted. There are many legends that tell of things amiss and unusual. Following is a sampling of these tales for your Halloween pleasure. For full effect, read by candlelight in the dark of night with a thunderstorm raging.

Perhaps no story is as widely known as the mysterious fate of Elizabeth Singleton. Elizabeth, whose portrait hangs in the front stairwell of the Castle, is said to tread the floorboards in the night. Nate Fuller, a former president of the Cocumscussoc Association, in an interview for the Standard Times in the 1980s described [how she might be the source of mysterious sounds]:

"She was a distinguished Newport lady. She attended many balls here, fell down the stairs and died, probably had too much rum. It is rumored that she is buried on the property in an unmarked grave. She did attend balls here, her dress caught in the stairs and she fell to her death. The noise heard could be that of a lady falling down the stairs delicately and breaking her neck."

Docents have reported that out of special consideration of Elizabeth's spirit they always wish her a good day when opening the house for tours. (A recent reevaluation of the painting indicates the young lady it portrays is Elizabeth Simpson, not Singleton. Further study may reveal not only the painter of this beautiful portrait, but perhaps details of [the subject's] genealogy and possible connection to the Castle).

Another portrait that hangs in the Castle is rumored to hold the spirit of a past inhabitant, Phebe Congdon. Phebe's portrait hangs in the eighteenth century bedroom of the Updikes. Phebe and Benjamin Congdon purchased Homestead Farm, which included Smith's Castle, from Wilkins Updike in 1812. It should be noted that Phebe's portrait does not reveal a particularly hospitable countenance. She is rather grim-faced and appears quite stern. Perhaps that is why many sense her presence in the house. A former docent, who asks to remain anonymous, reports an unusual impression of Phebe's presence in the house.

"I can't say I ever saw her. But there were times when I was totally alone in the house but didn't feel totally alone. Just to calm my nerves I would talk to her—say hello and goodbye."

Last spring an artist painting a watercolor scene of the cove had her own brush with Phebe. The house was closed to visitors but when she was invited to come in to see the interior she declined. When asked why she was reluctant, she related seeing a face in the bedroom window. The face was uninviting and ghostly. When pressed for details, the painter, who had never before entered the house, described Phebe's portrait in detail. She is one of many who feel that Phebe's spirit roams the second floor.

The most well-known story of a ghostly appearance occurred in the 1970s. The curator reportedly called the police after hearing noises in the early morning hours. When the responding officer entered the house to look for an intruder, he opened the front door, so the tale goes, and encountered a figure in colonial clothing standing halfway up the stairway. When ordered to halt the figure aimed the musket he was holding and fired at the officer. The officer reportedly dropped his gun and ran.

Ken Burnham, another former caretaker at the Castle, had his share of encounters with the spirits. "It was not unusual to hear noises outside the building at night moving along the side toward the front door." Though watched for, no one was ever spotted. On one such occasion the footfalls reached the door, which was heard to open and then close. The mystery remains.

While most tales of ghosts come from volunteers and staff from the past, a group of psychics from Massachusetts who visited the Castle in 2004 reported their own encounters with the unusual. Their hope was to document and record their observations of the Castle's spirits. Those who participated arrived with no knowledge of the Castle and its history. In fact, the leader of this group kept that day's meeting location secret until the last moment to insure that advance research on the site would not be possible. The psychics walked through the Castle room by room in silence. Each recorded their impressions on large sheets of paper, including diagrams of various rooms, notations of cold and hot spots, and names of spirits. These were then shared with the docents and the other psychics in the historic kitchen. Several retold events that could have taken place within the house and correctly noted names of long ago residents. Of the many spirits they believed walk the house, three, reported by several with similar detail, are of particular interest.

All of the psychic visitors reported the presence of the resident colonial soldier armed with his musket prepared for a fight. It was felt that his spirit remained after the Great Swamp attack. One psychic described the Narragansett razing of the building in 1676 in great detail. She felt this soldier remains to protect the Castle from further attacks. Might this be the ghost of Richard Updike, the only Updike to perish in the Great Swamp attack?

Many of the psychic visitors sensed that Hannah Robinson, a Rhode Island woman whose story many know, continues her visits to Smith's Castle. Hannah, a reputed beauty, the daughter of Rowland Robinson and Anstis Gardiner, was born in 1746. A fair young lady of exceptional charm, she was always a welcome guest at Cocumscussoc. Although she had many suitors, she fell in love with Peter Simons, a music master at the dancing class she attended in Newport. When their affair was discovered she was, of course, forbidden to see Peter Simons again. The young lovers hatched a plan. One evening Hannah was driven to Cocumscussoc to attend a ball hosted by her Aunt Abigail Updike. At the top of the hill near the Updike's great gate, Simons arrived with his own carriage. Hannah joined him, and off they eloped. Their marriage proved an unhappy one and her parents sent for her to return home. On her return to South County Hannah stopped to look back over the bay to Newport (at the site of the legendary Hannah Robinson Rock). She died later that evening, October 30, 1773. She most likely succumbed to tuberculosis. The spirits of Hannah and her husband are said to roam the second floor of the Castle, in particular the small bedroom, attempting to rekindle their lost affection.

One final "spirit" of note is that of a slave. Slavery began at Cocumscussoc in its earliest days as a trading post in the 1600s and extended well into the eighteenth century when it was a profitable northern plantation. This other-worldly presence is described as a young black man who sits upon the stone stairs behind the half door in the front entrance. The stairs lead to the cellar below. In this spot he remains, secretly reading his master's books and planning his escape.

Not all these legends speak of spirits inside the house. Many who come visit the common grave of the forty men buried at Smith's Castle following the Great Swamp attack in 1675. Although its exact location has been lost, the burial site is commemorated with a plaque on a large boulder near the waterfront. "Here were buried in one grave forty men who died in the Swamp Fight or on the return march to Richard Smith's Block House, December 1675." For a time in its long history Cocumscussoc was a dairy farm with large herds of cows. According to legend, cows would never graze on the site of the grave.

Of all the traumatic and dramatic events that occurred at Cocumscussoc, perhaps none matches the fate of Joshua Tefft, who met a ghastly end at the hands of United Colony troops under the leadership of Captain Richard Smith, Jr., following King Philip's War. One would think he would be entitled to freely haunt the property having been hung until nearly dead, cut down and disemboweled, and then drawn and quartered. His head was chopped off and left on a pike to remind all of what became of a traitor. Yet no one has encountered his spirit. Or have they, but not come forward?

The Tefft story is terrifying partly because it is true. [Historian] Carl Woodward has related several "largely unverifiable" stories from this same period of barbarity against Indian captives. One is the hanging of an Indian from an iron hook in a kitchen beam. Some members point to the large iron hook in a beam in the dining room today as evidence. Another tells of a drunken colonial officer who, during dinner, boastfully drew his sword, turned on an Indian servant, and sliced off his head. Woodward noted, "With such horror and bloodshed on its threshold, it is no wonder that the Castle has long been suspect as the haunt of phantom spirits."

Perhaps on your next visit to Cocumscussoc, you too will join those who have experienced the haunting of Smith's Castle. Happy Halloween!

Christine Kalina is a past president of the Cocumscussoc Association. She resides in North Kingstown.

This article last edited December 17, 2006

© 1999–2021 (with the exception of elements provided by contributors, as noted).