Originally appeared in the Journal Inquirer Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
HARTFORD, Conn. — There are very few rooms in the Mark Twain House that haven’t been the reported site of a supernatural encounter: an apparition passing an open doorway; the sudden, heavy odor of cigar smoke in the upstairs billiard and writing room (Twain, or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, smoked around 20 cigars a day); or footsteps crossing the dining room floor.
Employees have for years been telling stories about their personal encounters with paranormal activity in the house, but they were discouraged by earlier management from sharing it publicly, says Mark Twain House director of communications Jacques Lamarre.
However, when it became clear four years ago that the museum was in danger of closing, Lamarre, the new director at the time, didn’t want to turn down anything that could bring attention to the house. When the Smoking Gun Research Agency contacted the Mark Twain House in 2009 after receiving reports from guests claiming to have witnessed paranormal activity, Lamarre said they could conduct an investigation.
And after being told by an employee that he’d been contacted by the television show “Ghost Hunters” but had never responded, Lamarre called “Ghost Hunters” himself to ask if they were still interested in coming out.
The teams visited the house, and their findings – along with the stories and testimonies of employees and guests, the history of the house, and that of the family that lived in it – combined to create what can be called the current map of the ghost tour.
The ghost tour is much like one of the standard Mark Twain House tours, but with a few slight modifications. The home and family history are part of the presentation, to be sure, but guests are also brought to areas of the house that aren’t part of the regular tour, like the servants’ quarters and the basement, where employees have said they encountered … oddities. (If you consider having a serving plate tossed at your head by no one in particular an “oddity.”)
Also unique to the ghost tour is that only one group is allowed in the home at a time. That way, Lamarre explains, if someone hears footsteps or a door slamming on another floor or in another room, the sounds can’t be attributed to lost or wandering visitors.
The hour-long ghost tour begins in the front hall. Lamarre says some guests have seen “childish figures” playing there on the stairs, and it’s also where security guards locking up at night would hear voices coming from the floor above. “Who’s up there?” they would call, and the voices would stop. Searches revealed only empty rooms, Lamarre says.
Another stop on the tour is in the dining room. A facilities worker was vacuuming one day with his cherished Kirby vacuum cleaner, which, Lamarre says, “he takes better care of than I take care of my family.” The man stopped to meticulously coil the cord and left the room. When he returned a short moment later, the cord was in knots.
Adjoining the dining room is the library, where people have felt their clothing being tugged or their jewelry being played with. And for three ghost tours in a row, Lamarre says, guests experienced their bracelets or watches falling off.
Lamarre tells the stories with a hint of excitement in his voice, and asked whether he’s a believer or a skeptic, he says he’s right on the line.
The only unusual occurrence Lamarre has witnessed in the house, and he hesitates to call it “paranormal,” was the sudden flickering of a chandelier on the third floor landing between Clemens’ writing/billiard room and the former room of freed slave and family butler George Griffin.
He knows it wasn’t a defective bulb that caused the outage, because there were several bulbs in the chandelier, and every single one went dark. And it wasn’t a fuse — all the bulbs turned back on with a flip of the switch.
“But it could have been something electrical,” he says.
Even if he’s not completely convinced, strange activity in the house may well have changed the mind of a man Lamarre believes was at one time a skeptic.
A cameramen for the “Ghost Hunters” team told Lamarre that he had never seen a ghost in all of his years working with the crew. But one day, while at the Mark Twain House during one of their investigations, he was putting away his camera when he saw the figure of a woman in period dress pass by an open doorway, Lamarre says.
“He said his hair stood all on end.”
Maybe it should have. Particularly if the woman he saw was the same woman who rushed up the stairs toward a tour guest on the third floor and physically accosted her on the landing. (The incredible details of this story are available on the tour.)
Fortunately for visitors, only a few of the ghost encounters can be called assaults. Most of the touching, when there is any, is reported as playful. Tugs on sleeves and pants, a puff of air in an employee’s face, the sensation of a hand passing over someone’s head.
And unless and until it’s experienced first-hand, it’s difficult to say whether anything but memories, artifacts, and imagination reside permanently in the house.
After all, many guests take the tour without seeing anything at all. And only two or three of the guests in one of the tour groups saw the tall, black male figure standing immediately behind the tour guide who was speaking in front of Griffin’s room. If some saw him and others didn’t, was he really there?
And how reliable are the stories people tell?
“The number of reports, and the similarity of a lot of the reports, lead me to believe there’s something to it,” Lamarre says. “But you always want to see for yourself.”
The Mark Twain House and Museum is at 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford. For more information, call 860-247-0998 or visit the website.