Rory Raven’s Haunted Providence: Strange Tales from the Smallest State is a must-read for anyone who likes to collect every stray fact of local history or hopes to frighten campers around midnight campfires this summer.
Spooky accounts of ghostly happenings, some familiar but most obscure, fill its pages. We know that the Arcade, the 1828 Greek Revival building between Westminster and Weybosset streets, was the first shopping mall in the country. But who knew about sightings of Annie of the Arcade, a 19th-century spinster who had been forbidden to meet her sweetheart there?
Colorful incidents abound. A wine glass is knocked out of a startled guest’s hand by an unseen presence, apparently an intemperant teetotaling specter who previously had broken many an unattended wine or liquor glass, never a water tumbler.
When the market crashed on Black Tuesday in 1929, a stockbroker leapt from the 14th floor of the Biltmore Hotel, we are told. But the incident didn’t end there. As Raven informs us: “It is said that he haunts not only his room, but each room he passed on his final descent. Some guests have reported seeing something — or possibly someone — falling past their window. When they look out, there is nothing there.”
The book doesn’t neglect to include a section on ghosts and such outside of Providence. Raven gives a thorough account of the “vampire” case of the exhumed Mercy Brown, which is familiar in much abbreviated and exaggerated versions. But mostly the book is about Providence haunts.
The author, who originated and conducts the Providence Ghost Walk, doesn’t make more of these tales than they warrant, but doesn’t take the storytelling fun out of them either. Only after he unfolds his first long tale, of a peddler murdered for his money bag, does he point out that the theme and plot are familiar to folklore.
Since Rhode Island was founded by the anachronistically tolerant Roger Williams, the state is not known for witchcraft trials, but Raven does cite a few notable psychics and fortune tellers of yore. One reputed witch he does mention was known as Granny Mott. She suffered a wound out of which a doctor was said to have removed a silver button, an object that recently had been fired from a shotgun at a black cat.
Having a resident ghost is, well, cool. The Barker Playhouse, founded in 1909, is distinctive enough for housing the oldest community theater group in the country. But it must be fun to also be home to a specter named Talma. The spook has demonstrated a sense of humor, such as when she apparently stole a prop dagger that was to be used in a scene. Talma returned it many hours later, only after everyone gave up looking for it. That a corporeal member of the troupe might have been the one playing this prank is not the stuff that ghost stories are made of, so the point goes unremarked upon.