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Genial Spirits Still Haunt Concord's Old Manse

By Tom O'Malley, a professor of English and Education at Canisius College, and a freelance writer published in The Christian Science Monitor, the English Journal and The Buffalo News. Married with three children, Concord has been like a second home to him ever since he read Walden in college.

"Our ghost used to heave deep sighs in a particular corner of the parlor..."
Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have always enjoyed being afraid. Ghosts scare me. Therefore, I must like to be around ghosts. I know that sounds a bit odd, especially given the fact that I have only seen one ghost up close. I was thirteen and my brother Brian was nine. We were both sleeping when I awoke, or at least I think I awoke, and saw a shadowy blue woman standing by his bed. For all the world she seemed to be tucking him in. A benign smile spread across her face and light surrounded her entire body. Why this spirit should choose to come to earth just to give my little brother a tuck in, I'll never know.

"De gustibus non disputandum," my father always said. There is no accounting for taste even in the spirit world. The benign blue spirit lady vanished by the time my eyes actually got into focus. The experience shocked me into wakefulness.

"Brian, did you see that?"


 "Brian. Wake up."

Brian never woke up until morning, and I spent several delicious evenings in a state of fear and pleasure waiting for my blue spirit lady to return. She never did. My family chalked the whole thing up to indigestion but I know what I think I saw.

And that's why I came here to Concord. Concord's Old Manse is probably one of the most historically significant houses in the United States. Built a few years before the Revolution, it has sheltered generations of the intellectual Emersons and hosted an encyclopedic guest-list of American literati. Travelers come here for all sorts of reasons. Some admire the architecture, others, the furniture, still others to walk the historic grounds.

I came to the Old Manse is search of ghosts. I dreamed of flying dishes, rattling chains and voices moaning in muffled chambers. I did not expect to see my blue spirit lady, but ghosts are smart, and I guessed they would know that I -- or at least my little brother -- had been visited, by one of their own.

As twilight approaches, mists rise from the cool waters of the Concord River. It is a perfect setting for a haunting. Insects are everywhere, slowing in the chill night air. I arrived at the Old Manse along a path by the river's slow moving waters, which the Native Peoples called Musketaquid river of grassy banks. The river is popular with local canoeists who can easily paddle in either direction due to its sluggish current. As I arrived behind the house, fingers of sunlight edged the Manse 's windows, reflecting orange and red back into the evening. It is as if those windows form a distinctive face, eyes into other times and other places. If Hawthorne's ghost still lingers; he is content to stay hidden in the shadows and the wind whispering through the trees.

It is easy to imagine the Reverend William Emerson admiring this same view as he inspected his new home back in 1770. The river sighs behind me. There are shadows in the upstairs window. Overhead, a pair of bats gorge themselves on a banquet of mosquitoes who, in turn, are gorging themselves on me. A full moon climbs through the zodiac.

It is hard to tell what time it is in Concord. Perhaps it is 1775. Phebe Emerson, the Minister's wife, sits in her sewing room. She is knitting a blanket for her eighth child. A portrait of quietude in unquiet times. All day rumors of impending war have blown through town like leaves before a storm. From her upstairs window she watches as British Troops line up at the Old North Bridge. The Concord Minutemen are facing them from atop a rise, muskets at the ready. When the men see smoke rising from the village, they believe the Brits are razing their homes. Shots ring out and blood from both armies stains the ground. Days later, the Reverend Emerson rode off to join the Revolution, never to return home. People say that Phebe Emerson often looks for her husband from that same window where she saw the American Republic being created, though tonight, the window remains shrouded and empty.

Since that day, many others have left their mark on this house and its windows. Ralph Waldo Emerson, William's grandson, came to the Old Manse after the death of his wife Ellen in 1834. In despair, Emerson returned to the home of his grandparents looking for a foundation on which to build a new life. Perhaps he looked out these same windows and drew peace from the placid waters of the Concord River as it drifted beneath his room. From this vantage Emerson watched the change of seasons, felt the regular pulse of nature, and formulated his groundbreaking understanding of democracy and man's place in the natural world.

Now the darkness is deepening. In the moonlight I can read the letters scraped into the upper window by Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia. "Man's accidents are God's purposes." The Hawthornes came to the Manse in 1842 seeking to set up a home for their young family. These were happy times for them as Nathaniel was close to such literary friends as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. Here, Nathaniel wrote a volume of stories entitled Mosses from an Old Manse and Sophia gave birth to their first child, Una. Often, on nights like this, the gloomy Hawthorne liked to walk though the local fields or row along the river in a handmade boat he bought from Thoreau. He found the solitude to be a fountain that refreshed the well of his creative genius. And his writing flourished during his three years in this house.

Genial Spirits still haunt Concord's Old Manse. Their presence is as palpable as the solid grandfather clock purchased by William Emerson in 1770. It still marks the minutes as surely as the steady march of history flows toward our shadowy future. And while I came to the Old Manse searching for ghosts, I left filled with something more. For here in this peaceful corner of Concord, where blood was once spilled, the air is sweeter and the pathway is lighter, thanks to the words of the writers who lived inside. Back in town a church bell rings, and through the curtain of dark enshrouding three centuries, I walk back toward the Musketaquid and off the beaten path toward home.

Artwork: Frosty leaf photos by Jacques H; the rest courtesy of Word of Mouth Web Design.
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