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October 2008

A Hopkinton Haunting

Inside a historic house of spirits

Photograph by Aaron Hobson

MAUREEN MCCARGAR IS a reasonable woman. She’s a devoted wife and mother, has an important career, is a well-respected member of the community. And she swears her house is haunted. Not creaky floorboards, flickering lamps haunted-lite stuff, either. What Maureen and her family have experienced in their Hopkinton home is every-single-hair-on-your-neck-erect, molar-clattering, full-blown spooky: toys that turn on without batteries, thermostats inexplicably cranked to the max, apparitions who make regular appearances.

That’s why, on a Sunday afternoon, Maureen and a crew from the Northern New York Paranormal Research Society stand in the McCargars’ dirt-floor basement, where cobwebs stretch like badminton nets from the low ceiling. Everyone’s listening, barely breathing, waiting for the society’s leader, a woman who goes only by “Dale,” to translate the activity down here.

Dale says she feels the presence of a “playful young male,” and follows his path with her finger as he ricochets around the room. She says he’s touching pant legs, rushing between people in the group—a sensation you’ll know, she explains, when “you feel something cold.”

Maureen and her husband, Jared—who’s stuck at work today—are thinking of leveling the floor down here, pouring concrete, converting this space into a playroom for their young sons. “I would not dig here at all,” says Dale. “It would not be a good idea.”

THE SAME YEAR this house was built, along what’s now Route 11B within the most northwestern boundary of the Adirondack Park, the War of 1812 was raging. The British burned Washington, and fights were waged across America, including a bloody battle close by, on Lake Champlain. Military activity reached Hopkinton, too, when 30 British soldiers, tipped off that the United States Army had stashed flour in the village, searched every structure in the wee hours of a winter morning. According to Franklin B. Hough’s 1853 A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York, “They found some three hundred barrels of flour stored in a barn owned by Judge Hopkins, and occupied by Dr. Sprague.” The soldiers destroyed some of the flour, but “dissuaded by the inhabitants, they desisted, and distributed the remainder among the citizens.”

That barn was long gone by the time Maureen and Jared bought the house in front of its site in 1999. The McCargars knew very little about the history of their new nest. Jared had gutted the house, ripping out and insulating walls, pulling up shag carpet and layers of lino­leum to reveal a cherry plank floor. It was clear the place was very old. Then in 2002, during Hopkinton’s summertime bi­centennial celebration, Maureen noticed that a small sign had been staked in the front yard. Soon there were folks with brochures wandering from the adjacent village green to her lawn, sizing up the house, strolling behind it. Their property was part of a historic walking tour.

There was the flour incident, of course, but the McCargars also learned that their simple, two-story, 188-year-old house, built by Dr. Gideon Sprague, sat on land purchased from town founder Judge Roswell Hopkins. Sprague was the second medical man to settle in what was then remote, tangled wilderness. As the area doctor, his responsibilities were innumerable: treating the sick, delivering babies, dealing with the dead and at­tending to injuries that occurred in the backcountry, like encounters with the panthers, wolves and bears so often mentioned in ac­counts of North Country pioneer life.

Another important fact about the parcel was revealed: a cemetery once spanned from the neighbors’ lot across the McCargars’ backyard. In his 1903 Early History of the Town of Hopkinton, Carlton E. Sanford wrote, “The first burying ground was situated west of the Green and just behind the lot known as the Goodnow place [today the yellow house beside the McCargars’], and extended east behind the Dr. Sprague lot or part of it.”

Hopkinton town historian Mary Converse confirms that the cemetery was deeded to the town by Judge Hopkins in “April 1817 and came into use around 1820.” She adds that, according to Sanford’s book, in the mid-19th century “the remains of those buried in the first burial ground were taken up and transferred to the new grounds,” a mile north of the village center on what’s now Route 49.

So the bodies that once rested beneath the McCargars’ patio and their kids’ sandbox had been moved down the road. At least that’s what was supposed to have happened.

DALE AND HER paranormal research society colleagues Merrill McKee, of Malone, armed with a voice recorder and infrared digital thermometer, and Sheri Armstrong, of Westville, who totes a clipboard, investigate Sam McCargar’s room. Maureen’s pretty sure this is a haunted hot spot. It’s a place where her son Sam, who turns eight on Halloween, has mentioned a boy who talks to him and, a few years ago, sometimes poked him in the eye when he wanted to play.

When Sam began reporting these incidents, Maureen and Jared figured he had an imaginary friend. Then Maureen experienced a late-night encounter with a woman dressed like a character from Little House on the Prairie. “She just stood at the door, looked at me, then turned right and walked down the hall,” recalls Maureen. There are other freaky things: someone taps Maureen’s shoulder when she’s in the shower; the curtains in the upstairs hall window are constantly pushed open. A few years back one of the boys’ toys lit up—without batteries. Maureen insists that five-year-old Carson, who had breathing problems as an infant, was saved because “someone” tapped hard on his dresser until she ran to his room and was able to rush him to the hospital. Another night the McCargars, while sitting on their sofa, felt a rush of air, as though someone ran by—“Jared was so freaked out he grabbed his handgun,” says Maureen. And recently Jared awoke to the sound of a child stomping up and down the stairs. He checked on the kids—both were fast asleep. After all of this, the McCargars had to believe their son.

Dale certainly does. In fact, she says the boy upstairs is “a sweet, dark-haired, dark-eyed six- or seven-year-old.” His name is Philip, he drags his leg and he died of pneumonia in this house, perhaps more than a century ago. Dale can see him, because “children are pure energy,” she explains. (Apparently, some spirits are stronger than others. Some materialize in human form, others are only audible on tape.) Philip relates how he opens the curtains in the upstairs hall and looks out the window, waiting for his mother. He tells Dale, who crouches before Sam’s small, tidy bed, that he and his mom slept in Dr. Sprague’s chilly attic in exchange for helping around the homestead.

This is a happy spirit, reassures Dale, but she worries he has an unhealthy attachment to Sam. (Philip tells her he’s anxious for Sam to return home from his grandparents’ hunting camp; Maureen insists she never shared her son’s weekend whereabouts to anyone here.) Dale and her team can help the child “cross over,” otherwise, she says, spirits “wait—sometimes forever.”

Despite her urging to “show himself,” Philip does not. So the group reconvenes around the dining room table, beneath a plaque painted “Live Well, Laugh Often, Love Much.” This house is immaculate, decorated with early-American furniture, quilts and hand-painted stenciling. It’s hard to imagine ghosts lingering in a place so full of good humor, though it’s probably hard to imagine ghosts, period, concedes Maureen.

Add to that Dale’s clairvoyance. The power of suggestion is a phrase that’s entered Maureen’s mind more than once today. She’s vulnerable and eager for answers, and it shows. “When Dale first came to the door I was thinking, OK, what is this lady going to tell me?” says Maureen. But Dale took Maureen’s hands, relayed some very personal messages from family and friends who had passed on—“things she just couldn’t have known,” says Maureen, who couldn’t hold back tears—and that was it.

There’s something comforting about Dale, who is 60ish, originally from Long Island, but now lives in Moira. She smells good, like the air after a downpour. Her voice is coarse like a smoker’s, and at certain points during the day she looks withdrawn. She admits to having health problems, plus this process “takes tremendous energy and tremendous focus.”

Dale’s honed her skills all her life, first as “a closet psychic.” Her visions appear “like movies,” trumping whatever else she sees at that moment—her reason for not having a driver’s license. (After a disastrous long-ago driving lesson, Dale recalls her father saying, “Honey, I don’t think you’re going to be able to do this.”) She says she concentrated on her studies, finishing high school at 15, wrapping up a bachelor’s degree at 17, a master’s by 19 and then moving to England, where she received a doctorate in parapsychology. (Dale won’t disclose where she was educated.)

Her gift brings burdens. She claims she knew her son, one of three children, “would die and he did.” But she believes her ability can help people. “We are surrounded by total good, total love,” she explains. “If people can understand the other side, maybe they’d live their lives differently.”

In addition to her work for the Northern New York Paranormal Research Society, which she cofounded seven years ago, she “does readings” for an international clientele, including prominent figures, even an infamous dictator. “Her Rolodex is shocking,” adds Merrill, who, with Sheri, clearly reveres their leader.

“What Dale does,” continues Merrill, who is cofounder and president of the group, “is bring validity to what we do.” It’s more than ghost hunting. The group’s mission, according to its Web site, nnyprs.com, is to “establish belief and proof of paranormal activity, and to aid in the transition of lost souls.”

“We want people to know there’s somebody to turn to, someone to say, ‘OK, you’re not crazy,’” says lead investigator Sheri. Most people “think you’re nuts, on drugs, crazy, wacko. A nonbeliever is someone who has never had an experience.”

Each case—there are currently six in progress, reports Merrill—involves paperwork for the client, including a liability waiver, confidentiality agreement and a battery of questions. There’s in-depth research of property maps, the house’s history and its abstract—knowing names of past occupants helps identify those who Dale encounters. Sheri logs long hours in li­braries and museums; multiple on-site missions with recording devices, electromagnetic detectors and other equipment add to the data. After an arduous process that can take up to three months, a report is presented to the homeowner at no charge, though donations are appreciated, especially with such steep gas prices, and some of the society’s 15-person team living in Albany.

Most hauntings are benign, but there are exceptions. One client is so terrorized by the activity in his Westville house that he sleeps in his car. “I’ve walked up to some homes and walked away. They [the spirits] can follow you home,” says Dale, who’s been “bitten, scratched, pushed.”

Though there are almost two centuries’ worth of spirits in this Hopkinton home, Dale finds no malice here. “It’s all good,” she tells Maureen. “You have nothing to fear.”

THE INVESTIGATORS ARE gone and the McCargars, minus Sam, who is upstairs unpacking from the weekend, un­wind in the living room. Jared’s had a long day at work, Maureen’s overwhelmed from her afternoon. “I found it extremely draining,” she says. “I’m still trying to drink all this in.”

What’s transpired here—and what’s to come, since Maureen’s invited Dale and her crew back—doesn’t change how she feels about the house. Yes, they get freaked out, she says, “but we’re content here.”

Soon Sam makes his way downstairs. He chats with his parents about his time with his grandparents, then says, “Mommy, I have to tell you something. The little servant boy is back.”

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