This tale of a haunted house is true and because it is, every other haunted house story you have ever read also may be true. It was written by a patient of William Wilmer, after whom the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Clinic is named, and published by Wilmer in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in 1921. His patient, Mrs. H, describes what happened after her family and servants moved on November 15, 1912, into a “large, rambling, high-studded house, built around 1870, and much out of repair.
“It had not been occupied for the owners for the past ten years, though occasionally it had been rented for the winter. The house was situated on a sunny street, and although the sun bathed the outside of the house, it rarely seemed to penetrate through the tall and narrow windows. All the floors and stairways were heavily carpeted. Absolute silence reigned through the house, not a foot-fall could be heard. There was no electricity, the house being lit throughout by gas. …
“G [Mr. H] and I had not been in the house more than a couple of days when we felt very depressed. The house was overpoweringly quiet. The servants walked about on thickly carpeted floors so quietly that I could not even hear them at their work.
“One morning I heard footsteps in the room over my head. I hurried up the stairs. To my surprise the room was empty. I passed into the next room, and then into all the rooms on that floor, and then to the floor above, to find that I was the only person in that part of the house.
“I had not been in the house more than a couple of weeks when I began to have severe headaches and to feel weak and tired. I took iron pills three times a day and spent a couple of hours each afternoon in my room, lying down and resting, a rather discouraging process, as after resting my headache was always worse than it had been before.
“It had always been G’s habit at night before going to bed to sit in the dining room and eat some fruit. In this house when seated at night at the table with his back to the hall, he invariably felt as if someone was behind him, watching him. He therefore turned his chair, to be able to watch what was going on in the hall.
“The children grew pale and listless and lost their appetites. The playroom at the top of the house they deserted. In spite of their rocking horse and toys being there, they begged to be allowed to play and have lessons in their bedroom.
“I grew more tired and indifferent to everything, and also felt very cold in the evenings, and wore shawls and scarves most of the time. The children seemed so poorly and I was so tired, I took them away the day after Christmas for the holidays.
“While we were away, G was frequently disturbed at night. Several times he was awakened by a bell ringing, but on going to the front and back doors, he could find no one at either. Also several times he was awakened by what he thought was the telephone bell. One night he was roused by hearing the fire department dashing up the street and coming to a stop nearby. He hurried to the window and found the street quiet and deserted.
“Soon after the New Year, the children and I, with the nurses, returned to the house. We all felt better for our change and returned quite glad to settle down again. Soon, however, the gloom of the house began to cast a shadow over us once more. The children grew paler and had heavy colds. When out of doors their colds grew less and they seemed better.
“My headaches returned, and I frequently felt as if a string had been tied tightly around my left arm. One night I was awakened by a heavy door slamming quite near me. It woke G too, and he said to me, ‘What was that?’ ‘Only the door of the room,’ I replied; but as I grew more wide awake I realized that it could not be any one of the doors of the room as they were tightly closed.
“Another time, a little before daylight, I was awakened by heavy footsteps going down a staircase behind the wall at the head of my bed. Then a number of crashes downstairs, as if several pots and pans had been hit together or against the kitchen stove. Soon I realized that there was no staircase behind the wall, only the thickly carpeted front stairs on which no footsteps could be heard. Also that it would be impossible in my room to hear any sounds from the kitchen, no matter how loud.
“On one occasion, in the middle of the morning, as I passed from the drawing room into the dining room, I was surprised to see at the further end of the dining room, coming towards me, a strange woman, dark haired and dressed in black. As I walked steadily on into the dining room to meet her, she disappeared, and in her place I saw a reflection of myself in the mirror, dressed in a light silk waist. I laughed at myself, and wondered how the lights and mirrors could have played me such a trick. This happened three different times, always with the same surprise to me and the same relief when the vision turned into myself.
“As I was dressing for breakfast one morning B (four years old) came to my room and asked me why I had called him. I told him that I had not called him; that I had not been in his room. With big and startled eyes, he said, ‘Who was it then that called me? Who made that pounding noise?’ I told him it was undoubtedly the wind rattling his window. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it was not that, it was somebody that called me. Who was it?’ And so on he talked, insisting that he had been called, and for me to explain who it had been.
“The days went on, and the children grew paler and more listless. Some days, as their colds seemed worse, I kept them in bed. Then again, as there did not seem to be very much the matter with them and they appeared to be growing too fond of staying in bed, I made them get up and go for a walk in the sun. It was very hard to make them eat. B would play vigorously for a little while, and then would lie, stretched out, limp and listless upon the floor, a toy in front of him clasped in his hand, his eyes glued upon it and yet apparently neither seeing nor thinking about it. About half an hour later, perhaps, he would suddenly get up and play again.
“About this time my plants died. Some of them I had had for a number of years. At this time I had a cold and cough, and ached all over as if I were going to have an attack of flu, but as I had no fever, I went about as usual. G was not feeling at all well either. He had a great deal of pain at the back of his head and felt as if he was going to have typhoid fever for a second time. The servants, too, had grown pale and moved about the house listlessly.
“On the night of January 15 we went to the opera. That night I had vague and strange dreams, which appeared to last for hours. When the morning came, I felt too tired and ill to get up. G told me that in the middle of the night he woke up, feeling as if someone had grabbed him by the throat and was trying to strangle him. He sat up in bed and had a violent fit of coughing, which lasted about five minutes. His first thought had been that burglars were in the house, but as everything was quiet he instantly dismissed that idea. It then flashed across his mind that I had been playing a joke on him, but upon looking at me, he saw that I was in a heavy sleep, very much as if I had been drugged. Until we lived in this house, I had always been a light sleeper, waking at the slightest sound. In this house, however, nothing seemed to wake or disturb me. Quite the contrary with G, for in the past he had always slept heavily, never hearing a sound and nothing disturbed him. Now he was continually waking, answering the telephone and the doorbell, which had never rung, and looking for burglars, who never materialized.
“That morning after breakfast, as was my usual custom, I sent for the children’s nurse, a Scotch woman who had lived with me for several years. She looked worn out, and when I asked how the children had slept she burst out with, ‘It has been a most terrible night. This house is haunted.’
“I laughingly told her that that was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. ‘I would have said the same thing three months ago,’ she answered, ‘but I have had such experiences that I am now convinced of it, and everyone in the house has had experiences too.’ She said that after being in the house two or three days, things had begun to happen. She had not told me before, as she and the rest of the household had made up their minds that I ought not to be disturbed about it. ‘But last night,’ she continued, ‘when the children were attacked, it became my duty to let you know at once. While you were at the opera,’ she went on, ‘about half past eight, B woke up and ran screaming through the hall to my room, “Don’t let that big fat man touch me.” He was terrified. It took Fraulein and me until ten o’clock to calm him. He slept the rest of the night with me, in my room. Fraulein slept in B’s bed, besides G Jr., to protect him.
“G Jr. did not wake up all night but the muscles of his face kept twitching, as if someone was continually pinching him. In the morning when he woke, he said indignantly to Fraulein, “Why have you been sitting on top of me?” And when she told him that she had not been sitting upon him, but had been in the bed next to him, he said, “No, you have been sitting on top of me, and you were awfully heavy, too.”
‘Often in the evening, after the children have gone to bed, never until after dark and the lights are lighted, Fraulein and I may be laughing and talking, when all of a sudden we hear the heavy tread of an old man walking slowly and steadily along the hall on the floor above us. It has not been one of the servants, for I have often run up stairs to see, and I have found the whole upper story of the house in darkness and empty. Sometimes as I walk along the hall I feel as if someone was following me, going to touch me. You cannot understand it if you have not experienced it, but it is real.
‘Some nights after I have been in bed for a while, I have felt as if the bed clothes were jerked off me, and I have also felt as if I had been struck on the shoulder. One night I woke up and saw sitting on the foot of my bed a man and a woman. The woman was young, dark and slight, and wore a large picture hat. The man was older, smooth shaven and a little bald. I was paralyzed and could not move, when suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder and I was able to sit up, and the man and the woman faded away. Sometimes, after I have gone to bed, the noises from the storeroom are tremendous. It does not happen every night; perhaps a week or ten days will pass, and then again it may be several nights in succession. Sometimes it sounds as if furniture was being piled against the door, as if china was being moved about, and occasionally a long and fearful sigh or wail.’
“The governess, Fraulein Y, then came to me. She also spoke of the heavy footsteps at night – like an old man in overshoes walking slowly along. She also heard the noise in the storeroom, the moving and piling up of furniture. She slept in a big, four-post bed, with a canopy. One night, after she had been in bed a little while, she felt the bed shaken, and the canopy swayed. Thinking that a draught from the open windows might be causing the sensation, she got up and closed them. She returned to bed, and after a short time the shaking of the bed was repeated. Again she got up, examined the room thoroughly, but was unable to unearth anything.
“I interviewed all the servants in turn. They all had heard at some time or another, the footsteps at night going slowly along the corridor outside of their rooms. Each one at first had thought it one of the others, and was surprised, after inquiring, to find none of them about. They all spoke of strange experiences after they had gone to bed; as if something crept around the bed and then over them, and then they were unable to move. Sometimes it lasted for a long time, sometimes shorter. Not every night, but perhaps every second or third night. It never happened to them all on the same night, but to one and then to another.
“Much amused as we were by all these tales, we nevertheless felt as if there was a serious aspect to it. Why had all the servants whom we had had for several years, gone practically mad all of a sudden? We began to trace back the history of the house. The last occupants we found had exactly the same experiences as ourselves, with the exception that they stated that some of them had seen creeping around their beds visions clad in purple and white. Going back still further, we learned that almost everyone had felt ill and had been under the doctor’s care, although nothing very definite had been found the matter with them.
“Saturday morning, the eighteenth of January, G’s brother told us that he thought we were all being poisoned; that several years before he had read an article which told how a whole family had been poisoned by gas and had had the most curious delusions and experiences. He advised us to see Professor S at once. As he was out of town, his assistant, Mr. S, came at once to our house.
“We told him how listless and ill the children appeared. He found one of them lying on the floor, and the other two in bed. We related the experiences of the children and servants, and told him about the plants. He examined the house thoroughly from top to bottom and interviewed the servants. He found the furnace in a very bad condition, the combustion being imperfect, the fumes, instead of going up the chimney, were pouring gases of carbon monoxide into our rooms. He advised us not to let the children sleep in the house another night. If they did, he said we might find in the morning that some one of them would never wake again.
“Early in the afternoon our physician arrived and examined the children and agreed with Mr. S that they were being poisoned. … He also stated that none of us ought to stay in the house another night.”
Here ends the account of Mrs. H. According to Dr. Wilmer, Mrs. H and her family all eventually recovered and never again reported seeing, hearing or feeling any ghosts. Many victims of carbon monoxide poisoning are not so lucky, however, and continue to suffer from similar symptoms for years, even after their exposure ends. Given that carbon monoxide is still the most common cause of toxic poisonings and deaths in America, it is probably still a common cause of haunted houses.
If you or others in your home ever experience any of the ghostly symptoms reported by Mrs. H, you should have your furnace, oven and other gas appliances inspected by a professional for carbon monoxide. While it is also a good idea to install carbon monoxide alarms, these are designed only to save your life from very high levels of carbon monoxide exposure and may not warn you of the lower levels known to cause headaches, depression and the other symptoms reported by Mrs. H.
© 2004 Albert Donnay, MHS, Donnay Environmental Health Engineering