Fine food and spirits, too

GLOCESTER, Rhode Island — The Tavern on Main in the village of Chepachet has been serving hearty Yankee meals and liquid hospitality off and on for 212 years. Last night they topped off our meal with a ghost hunt.

They call it Paranormal Night. It’s a presentation of the tavern’s history and hauntings by Thomas D’Agostino and Arlene Nicholson, and it’s held a couple times a year at the old place.

The first time I met Tom, he’d just written Haunted Rhode Island, which to my knowledge is the most complete collection of the state’s “real” ghost stories in print. He’s published at least seven more since then, solo or with his wife Arlene. When ghost hunters come to town, they come to Tom. Maybe you saw him on the History Channel about a month ago, guiding a camera crew through the woods to a haunted factory site in Foster.

If any place in Rhode Island is likely to be haunted, it’s the Tavern on Main, formerly the Stagecoach Tavern. Built at the end of the eighteenth century, the long, plain, two-floor building stands at the very edge of the old pike between Providence and Hartford. It has survived flood and fire and even took a bullet during the Dorr Rebellion in 1842, when Thomas Dorr was righteously but illegally elected governor of Rhode Island, triggering an insurrection that lasted a couple of days and resulted in a leg wound when someone shot through the closed tavern door.

Based on the stories he’s heard, Tom says he’s identified at least five spirits at the tavern: a man in Colonial-era clothes; a little boy; a man in the dining room who may be either one of the early innkeepers or Thomas Dorr himself; a woman named either Elizabeth or Alice; and a woman in Colonial clothes.

As forty of us dispatched our dinners of haddock and beef in the Dorr Ballroom on the second floor, Arlene demonstrated the paraphernalia of paranormal investigation, including thermal scanners, electromagnetic field detectors, cameras, and audio recorders. Ghosts are attracted to high tech, apparently. But Arlene assured us they also respond well to old tech like dowsing rods and Tarot cards.

After dinner we broke up into groups and toured the different rooms of the old place. The new owners have done well to keep the atmosphere authentic. Low, yellow lights mimic the candles and oil lamps of the tavern’s heyday. Beams, floors, and other wood surfaces are nearly black with age. Much of the original furniture remains under its roof, including a remarkable throne-like triple seat.

During the tour we made stops to collect some electronic voice phenomena. In theory, spirits have the ability to harness a hissy mix of radio frequencies in order to communicate with the living via audio recorders. (Did I mention ghosts are drawn to high tech?) Nearly everyone asked questions of the spirits, even trying a little trite conversation with the hope that, when Tom played back the tapes later, they might hear an echo from the other side.

It was a fun night. It was hard to take seriously, though from the looks on some of the faces in my group, it was not impossible.

It may be bad form for a folklorist to admit this, but I’m a skeptic. I’ve never seen anything that convinced me ghosts are real, despite a lifetime of poking around in haunted places. I have other reasons for doubting ghosts as well, most of them based on adherence to scientific method. But that’s just me, taking folklore seriously and whatnot.

Tom may feel the same way, even though he conducts these paranormal investigations with a sober air. During a break in the presentation he told me that, like me, his real passion isn’t ghost stories but history.

Does it really matter that ghosts aren’t real? Even if they’re nothing more than symbols that connect us with the past, they’re just as important. They remind us that warm, thinking, feeling people once stood  where we stand today. Last night, as we rounded the dim corners of the tavern, we felt we were sharing their space. We were dipping into the tavern’s history.

As folklorists, Tom and I have our different styles. I start out every ghost story with a disclaimer that it’s not true. He ends every tale with a shred of hope for believers to grasp. But we’re both trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to make history come alive.

And when you do that, you wake up the ghosts.

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