Before reaching the front door of the S.K. Pierce Victorian Mansion in South Gardner, Mass., for some paranormal investigation early this month I could see its cupola over the tops of the surrounding buildings.
As I got closer, I could see the house looming over the street in all its haunted glory, looking like a giant macabre dollhouse with its gingerbread trim and Mansard roof. I remember thinking it looked like the dwelling of Gomez and Morticia Adams, or maybe the house where Norman Bates’ mother resides.
With all the stories I’d read and heard about the house, it would make sense if I quickly turned the car around and headed home instead of approaching the giant ornate door to spend the evening ghost hunting, but instead I was bursting with the thrill of the unknown behind that door. I had been looking forward to this excursion since I’d made the reservation a few months before.
The event was hosted by The 555; Paranormal Productions, a series led by Keene psychic medium Brandie Wells – 555 means at each historic location there are five para-psychics who serve as tour guides, lead investigators, film crew, psychics and paranormalists; five hours of paranormal investigation; and five cameras recording footage produced by the psychics and film crew so attendees can have a DVD to commemorate their experience.
There were a couple of reasons I was intrigued by the idea of visiting the S.K. Pierce Mansion, one being a story I’d been told by a man who visited the house and left with mysterious scratches from an unknown source on the back of his neck. I’d also read on the mansion’s website that visitors need to sign a detailed injury waiver before entering because “the entities in this mansion are extremely advanced and have demonstrated a unique ability to impose their will physically on guests.” Another warning was issued to not behave “in an antagonistic manner towards these entities at any time, as you may be placing yourself and other guests in danger.”
After attending two other paranormal investigation events led by Wells I’d admittedly become somewhat of a ghost-hunting addict, so of course I had to see what the fuss was all about.
Here’s what I found out about the history of the house: Sylvester Knowlton Pierce was a wealthy business man who achieved his fortune as the owner of the S.K. Pierce and Sons Furniture Company, which was located across the street from the mansion. The success of the company and the furniture industry led to Gardner, Mass., being known as “Chair City.”
The nearly 7,000-square-foot mansion was built in 1875. It has 26 rooms, 10 bedrooms (our tour guide told us it also has 68 closets) including servant quarters and formal butler and maid pantries, hand-carved mouldings and cornices and took 100 men a year and a half to build.
Pierce’s illustrious guest list at the mansion included President Calvin Coolidge, P.T. Barnum, Norman Rockwell, Bette Davis and, because it boasted a billiards room, Minnesota Fats stayed there.
Then the story turns dark. During the Great Depression, the family fortune dwindled – the eldest Pierce had died by then and his son Edward turned the mansion into a boarding home and some unsavory activity took place such as drinking, gambling and prostitution.
Darker still are the stories of a prostitute’s murder in the house and a boarder named Eino Saari’s death from smoke inhalation in his room (some consider it a spontaneous combustion as there was little damage to the surrounding room), not to mention at least four other deaths by natural causes that happened under that roof. One of those deaths was Pierce’s first wife, Susan, who mysteriously succumbed to a bacterial illness weeks after moving in. Another story has a young boy being drowned in the basement cistern.
The mansion has the distinction of being cited as the second-most-haunted house in Massachusetts and the ninth-most-haunted in the country. Well-known paranormal groups from the television shows “Ghost Hunters,” “Ghost Adventure” and “My Ghost Story” have visited the house to investigate the paranormal activity there.
Over the years, countless stories of paranormal activity in the house have been recorded. Among the ghosts reported are that of S.K. Pierce himself; his first wife, Susan; his son Edward; a nanny named Mattie Cornwell; a man named David believed to have committed the murder of the prostitute in what’s known as the “red room” on the second floor; two young children; and Eino Saari, who reportedly still likes to play a hand of poker with visitors.
Edwin Gonzalez and Lillian Otero purchased the house in 2008 and only lasted two years there. During that time, they experienced a lot of paranormal activity, probably the most chilling being Otero’s message from a spirit to walk down to the basement and dig in an old kiln, where she found several old bones, one of which was identified as a child’s pelvic bone. Author Joni Mayhan wrote about the couple’s experiences in her 2014 book, “Bones in the Basement.”
In June 2015, after only being on the real estate market for two weeks, Rob and Allison Conti bought the house sight-unseen and turned it into an attraction. Only within the past year have they opened the house for overnight stays. They are also in the midst of a significant renovation project on the house. It’s now filled with empty rooms waiting to be furnished, adding to its spooky factor.
Guests have experienced every kind of activity, from hearing voices and seeing full-body apparitions, to moving furniture, phantom footsteps and slamming doors, feeling sudden temperature changes and smelling foul odors. There was one report of a visitor being pushed down a flight of stairs.
I experienced none of these phenomena during my visit, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my own experiences with the paranormal that night. Nothing was shocking to me only because I’d attended paranormal investigations and I knew what to expect.
I could sum it up best by saying I could feel spirit energy all over the house, which was measured by the team of psychics in many ways using different pieces of ghost-hunting equipment. The group of about 25 of us was split into smaller groups, each then rotated to different locations in the house to investigate with each of the five team leaders.
My group, which consisted of my two travel companions and two others, worked most closely with Colleen Costello, a Massachusetts psychic medium featured on the program, “Paranormal Lockdown.” We investigated several rooms in the dark together, including the infamous red room, the nanny’s room, billiards room and nursery.
Because Costello is a talented psychic medium, she was able to deliver messages she was receiving from the entities in each room. It’s believed we heard the voice of the spirit of the murder victim in the red room on the spirit box, a battery-powered device that uses radio frequencies to capture spirit voices. We also heard from the spirit of Mattie Cornwell, the nanny, who communicated with us by answering yes or no questions by turning on a couple of flashlights. One thing was certain, she did not like having a man (one of the team leaders) in the room because she wouldn’t communicate until he left.
An interesting occurrence took place in the billiards room, where I had an encounter with what was believed to be the spirit of P.T. Barnum. I communicated with the spirit with the use of a pair of dowsing rods, divination tools that respond to spirit energy. The rods were so active when I asked questions that it became the joke of the night in my group that P.T. Barnum liked me.
In the basement, we encountered a spirit Costello determined was of someone who had worked for the Pierce family and had some unresolved business because he’d been falsely accused by them for something. All I remember is my pendulum (another divination tool) I’d brought was swinging wildly in that basement, picking up on some significant energy.
None of the energy I felt inside the mansion was malevolent – nothing like what others had experienced in the past. It was simply fascinating.
Costello was the only person in our group who reported some concrete evidence of the paranormal. In the middle of the night (she spent the entire night there) she heard mystery footsteps up the stairs to the second floor where she was staying. She double-checked with everyone staying in the house to make sure it hadn’t been one of them climbing the stairs in the middle of the night – the only others awake at that time were downstairs in the dining room.
My travel group decided to drive home at about midnight and forgo staying the night so we missed out on the action. Next time I will most definitely spend the night, even if I have to bring an air mattress and camp out on the floor.
I’d have to say the most concrete paranormal evidence I gathered on my own without the use of any tools was at the beginning of the evening when the distinct sweet scent of pipe tobacco was in my nostrils. A few others around me smelled it, too, although there is no smoking allowed in the house. I was told there had once been a caretaker of the mansion who smoked a pipe.
Maybe I do have a gift after all.
The 555; Paranormal Productions is hosting two more investigation overnight events at the S.K. Pierce Victorian Mansion in June; one a singles event June 2 and another June 23. Many other events throughout New England and beyond are planned throughout 2017. Visit The 555; Paranormal Productions on Facebook for tickets and more information.