It’s just after sunset as I walk down an alleyway in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, trying to make out the numbers on the buildings I pass. After double-checking my ticket for the right address, I join a group of people standing outside a building with a sign that reads “Deadwick’s Ethereal Emporium.” Glancing around, I’m getting a very touristy vibe from the group. I’m clearly the youngest, except for two pre-teen girls who stand with their mom clutching Starbucks cups between their mittened hands. I take a moment to wonder why I didn’t get Starbucks first. That was the move. With the sun down, it’s getting cold fast, and I’m wondering how much longer we’ll have to wait. I turn to a nice-looking elderly couple on my right.
“Are you here for the ghost tour?”
“We sure are!”
I feel reassured, not that the spooky lantern-filled carriage and stack of cauldrons bubbling dry ice on the sidewalk weren’t suggestive enough that I was in the right place. Finally, the door behind us bangs open and a woman dressed as witch comes out and greets us. She introduces herself as Roxie Zwicker. I know from the website where I bought my ticket that she is the bestselling author of “Haunted Portsmouth” and will be leading the tour. As Roxie checks our tickets, she invites us to grab lanterns from the carriage before we begin with the tour (I refrain).
Once she checks us all in, Roxie has us gather around and begins to set the scene for our ghost-filled experience. She tells us that the quaint town of Portsmouth, established in 1623, has quite the criminal history. As a port, sailors were constantly coming and going, which supported a prominent red-light district along with other kinds of scallywaggish activity. Out of all the cities in New Hampshire, Portsmouth holds the record for the number of unsolved murders, making it a hub of ghostly activity. Roxie says she’s been leading these tours for 14 years, and more often than not, at least one person will tell her he or she felt the presence of a ghost. After pausing dramatically, she leads us to our first stop.
We’re standing in a parking lot off of State Street, Portsmouth’s main drag. During the early 1800s, Roxie tells us, a rooming house stood here that was owned by a woman named Mrs. Woodward. Two young women worked for Mrs. Woodward, helping her run the house. One of them, Ms. Colbath, would often stay late into the evening, secretly entertaining the gentlemen boarders. One night, the story goes, Mrs. Woodward caught her leaving a man’s room with two bottles of alcohol in her hand. Her suspicions having been confirmed, Mrs. Woodward fired the young woman on the spot. Ms. Colbath stormed off to her friend’s house in anger to plot her revenge. Later that evening, she returned and set fire to Mrs. Woodward’s barn. But what began as revenge escalated to catastrophe. One hundred and twenty-eight shops, 64 homes and 30 other barns were burned over three days in what is known as the Great Fire of 1813, the most extreme conflagration in New Hampshire state history. The path of the fire, Roxie says, went right down State St.
Now, while it was certainly the biggest, this was not the only fire in the town’s history. In 1802 and 1806, fires burned down Portsmouth’s Market Street and Bow Street, respectively. All three of these fires happened during the week of Christmas, and all three before Portsmouth finally built a fire department in the 1840s. Roxie points out its location, about a block away, coincidentally right behind where Mrs. Woodward’s barn stood. But what of our arsonist, Ms. Colbath? Well, no one actually saw her set the fire that night so all the record books deemed it accidental. She moved into a poor-house a few blocks away on Chestnut Street, the next haunted stop on our tour.
We walk off State St. and over into a dimly lit alley lined with old, somewhat dilapidated buildings. Roxie comes to a stop across from a whitish-grey brick building with an old marquee and the words “Music Hall” barely distinguishable across the top. What we’re looking at is New Hampshire’s oldest theater, Roxie tells us, the Chestnut St. Music Hall. The alms house where Ms. Colbath lived in the early 1800s stood across from it, where we are now standing. Another of the house’s more infamous residents was a woman named Molly Brigit, who lived there in the 1770s. Molly Brigit worked as a fortune teller, but this being the 18th century, she was quickly deemed a witch. One day, Molly was walking along the outskirts of town and passed a local farm. Soon after, the farmer found that the cows had stopped milking, the chickens weren’t laying eggs and the pigs weren’t eating — all because of Molly Brigit, the witch. So the farmer sought help from the local minister, who advised him to cut the ears off of his pigs and burn them in the witch’s residence. He told him that if he did so, the curse would break and the witch would die. Heeding this advice, the farmer brought his severed pig-ears to the alms house and burned them in the first fireplace he found. According to the story, Molly Brigit ran from room to room, screaming in terror. When the fire died out, she dropped dead.
A hush has fallen over the group at the story’s conclusion, and after a brief pause Roxie turns our attention to the old Music Hall. The hall was built in 1870, but eventually fell into disrepair until 100 years later, when it was resurrected as Loews Theater. What happened during that century is unclear, but when the theater reopened, movie-goers began reporting ghost sightings. These specters were described as shadow-people, who some thought were in fact ghosts and others believed occupied the space between the living and the dead. In any case, soon enough the theater fell into disuse, until being opened again in the late 1990s and restored to its original function as a true theater. The ghosts, however, seem to have never left. In fact, the Music Hall keeps a “ghost courtesy light” on during shows, which warns the house ghost not to bother anyone until the show is over and the light is turned off. Before we head to the next stop, Roxie mentions that in certain places, you might even catch the spirits on film.
“If you’re looking for the best place in Portsmouth to take a bathroom selfie, it is here, at the Music Hall,” Rosie says. Mental note made — I will return for a ghost selfie in near future.
As the group follows Roxie throughout the streets of the quaint seacoast town, each stop provides a spookier story. Occasionally, locals who recognize the tour will yell “boo!” as we round a corner or shout things like, “The only things scarier than the ghosts are the locals!” Most of them probably have not taken the tour, which would account for such ridiculous claims. Because really, the ghosts are very scary.
We visit the haunted mansion (now swanky condos) of Portsmouth’s historic mayor, Frank Jones, where a mystery woman frequently appears in a nightgown on the top floor. Roxie tells us that the mansion is not only haunted, but also connected via underground tunnel to Jones’s other estate across town. So I would venture a guess that said tunnel is also pretty haunted. After that, we crunch through the fallen leaves of a giant maple tree to an old boarding house where the buccaneer (a.k.a. pirate) John Paul Jones often rented a room. Jones, who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and also served for Russia’s Catherine the Great (casual), died mysteriously at 45. Jones’ spirit now haunts the boarding house, which is maintained and curated by the Portsmouth Historical Society. According to Roxie, reports of ghosts in this house are as recent as about a week ago, when a woman on a guided tour felt something walk through her and grew so hysterical that an ambulance was nearly called.
After many more stories involving sibling murder, haunted law offices and library books to name a few, we finally travel back to our starting location, Deadwick’s Ethereal Emporium.
I feel a wave of relief when I spot the smoke-emitting cauldrons outside the store and hurry inside to warm up before my long walk back to the car. After 90 minutes of ghost stories, it’s hard not to feel a little on edge in a shop filled with other-worldly artifacts. On my way out I buy some chocolate pumpkins and candy corn for the road and shove my gloves back on my already-numb hands. I step out of the shop, take a few steps until I round the corner and run all the way back to the car.