In 1850, the Rev. Eliakim Phelps and his family returned to their home one day –the scene of what was known as the Stratford Knockings – to discover their house was draped in black funeral crepe. It hung on the door and over the mirrors, traditionally a sign that someone had recently died.
On one of the beds, they discovered Mrs. Phelps' nightgown laid out with the arms of her garments folded over the chest, as if worn by a body that was laid to rest in a coffin. While many might have taken this as a threatening sign to move along, for Phelps and his family it was just a fairly routine day in their house.
The Phelps mansion, as everyone at the time knew, was haunted. Two kinds of spirits inhabited it. There were evil ones who broke windows, pricked people with pins and committed other threatening acts like knocking people around. Then there were the helpful spirits who communicated with raps and knocking and brought people lost objects.
Welcome to the age of spiritualism. Spiritualism, within Christian circles, exploded in popularity in 1848 in New York when three young women – the Fox sisters – became celebrities claiming they were communicating with a spirit of a dead person in their home. At that point, the dead began to speak up in a number of places.
On March 10, 1850, the phenomenon moved to Stratford, Conn. Eliakim Phelps was a Congregational minister and, as he told the story, he was shocked the first time he discovered his house inhabited by spirits. It was after church one day, and the family returned home to find the house had been invaded. Clothes were thrown around, drawers left open, belongings strewn about.
Suspecting burglary, Phelps took a quick inventory. While the family silver was plain to see, along with money and other valuables, nothing was missing. Puzzled, he assumed that perhaps the burglars had fled upon the family’s return, or had simply lost their nerve.
Phelps had owned the mansion for two years. It had been built by Matthias Nicoll for his daughter Elizah and her husband Captain George Dowdall in 1826. Dowdall made his living in the China trade, and the second floor of the house was fashioned to look like the upper deck of a sailing vessel. Dowdall died in China several years after the house was built and never used it as a retirement home, as he intended.
Phelps acquired it and used it seasonally, also spending time in Philadelphia. The Phelps were a blended family. Both he and his wife were widowed and both brought children to the marriage. They had a three-year-old together.
In the days ahead, more strange things began occurring. Books, fireplace tools, a potato began appearing in odd locations. Things fell from the shelves and objects were removed from locked containers. Windows were smashed.
Phelps began consulting others, including ministers and spiritual investigators, to figure out what was going on.
The newspapers, meanwhile, heard of the story and began publishing accounts of the strange happenings. Since everyone loves a good haunting or curse, curious strangers began stopping by, hoping to glimpse an unusual event or witness the Stratford knockings first hand. The events were well documented in popular books about spiritualism, including Modern Spiritualism: Its Facts and Fanaticisms, Its Consistencies and Contradictions, published in 1855. Phelps spent a good deal of time explaining and defending the stories about the house.
Spiritualism, meanwhile, was exploding in popularity, with both defenders and detractors drawing crowds to debate its merits.
In the Phelps home, 11-year-old Harry seemed to be the most often visited by the spirits, and he was declared to be a medium. Séances were held, and the spirits tapped out answers to questions, explaining at one point that they were smashing windows and disrupting the house purely for the fun of it.
In the fall, the family left for Philadelphia. Phelps sent the rest of the family along ahead of him, curious to find out if the “happenings” would continue. They diminished, but he still observed the odd item falling to the floor or being misplaced.
When the family returned in 1851, the strange occurrences restarted, with objects going missing. Conversations with ghosts via rapping on the table continued. Friendly spirits would help the family locate lost objects. Evil ones set fire to Phelps papers.
All the while, newspapers, ministers, spiritualists and skeptics had a field day arguing over the merits of the story. The Phelps family left Stratford in 1852 and sold the house to the publisher of the New York Sun, Moses Beach, in 1859. Beach’s paper was among the many publications that made hay with the Phelps story.
Over the years, the hauntings were legendary in town. Some speculated that they were connected to the death of Goody Bassett, a woman who was hanged near the house in 1651 for witchcraft.
Most, however, believed it was Phelps' bored, much-younger wife and his stepchildren who created the story to liven up their sleepy lives in Stratford. Given that events largely started and stopped whenever Harry left or rejoined the household, most of the blame has been focused on him. It's unclear if Phelps was merely duped or was part of the conspiracy.
The house itself has long since been demolished, and the spirits haven’t been reported in many years.