by Joe Sheppard
With a little help from his friends...
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her ArmI've mentioned before in this column that my first home at LA, back in the 1960s, was, as Mr. Ferguson described it to me in a summer letter, "a single room and bath in Waters House." For the first year or two it was just that. No kitchen, one room, one closet—with a trap door. It was bright and sunny, though, and there was a nice fireplace. After a year or two I did persuade Fergie to give me a small adjoining room, a single that was originally part of the hallway, so that at least my bed didn't have to be in the living room.
Cramped quarters notwithstanding—I had shared a huge suite of rooms with three friends for the last couple of years of college—I quickly became fond of the old place and all its faded glory. The inlaid oak floors creaked, the ancient radiators clanked, the wind rattled the loose and dried-out window frames. But the house was full of mysteries and stories, and it didn't take long for the kids, with help from Jack and Peg Burckes, who lived downstairs, to bring me up to speed on Waters lore.
Many of you know the stories. The house was a stop on the Underground Railroad after the Civil War, and the builders had included hiding places for former slaves on their way to freedom. The trap door in my closet opened to reveal one such space, a cubbyhole next to the chimney that could hold two or three people. I used it to store stuff I had confiscated from the kids. There was another one downstairs, and probably more that we never found. Sadly, my trap door was covered with subfloor when the closet was made into a small kitchen after I moved out, so that little bit of history is lost.
A couple of blocked-off stairways were the stuff of legend. The broom closet in the upstairs hall had once been a staircase leading to the third floor, where the maids had lived back in Miss Waters' day. Apparently she was a cantankerous old woman who gave her poor maid a hard time. My living room was her bedroom. The story goes that Miss Waters, who was ill, called her maid to bring her medicine. The maid, out of spite, didn't bring it, and Miss Waters died. In my living room. Where I slept every night. The maid was so despondent over her own cruelty that she hanged herself in the hall stairway. So there was a ghost in my apartment, and another one right outside my door. Great.
This brings me to the second staircase, the top end of which is closed off in the rear of the second floor, in the original part of the house. The kids called that area the Jungle. The steps once led down into a kitchen, as I remember. Anyway, there was a freshman named "Freddy" who lived in a single room in the Jungle. He was a nice boy, kind of slow-moving, quiet, and, as it turned out, supremely gullible. Early in my first year, the older kids had filled Freddy with Waters ghost stories, properly embellished. One night around ten o'clock, as I was checking everyone in for the night, I heard a horrible, gut-wrenching scream. Freddy came galloping up the corridor from the Jungle, breathless, saucer-eyed, face drained of color. He didn't need to say anything, and probably couldn't have anyway. Someone had popped out of a doorway wearing a bed sheet and shrieked at Freddy. Nobody heard much from Freddie after that.
Then there was Norm, near the end of my time in Waters. Same deal—bolting out of the Jungle as if he'd seen a ghost—but no one had done anything to scare him. He swore, between gasps, that something shapeless and ghostly had risen up in front of him out of the boarded-over stairs near his room. That one we left alone. It was a little too freaky to investigate.
The other great Waters House legend, of course, has to do with a tunnel, built for the Underground Railroad, that supposedly connected the house with the basement of the Groton Inn. I remember going down to the cellar with kids on more than one occasion to examine the massive stone walls, in search of a bricked-up entrance or some other sign that there had ever been such a thing. We even looked outdoors around the bay window facing the Inn, and I once was sure I had unearthed the remains of a brick arch. There might have been all of four bricks, but the "discovery" gave the story a bit of new life for a while. Alas, according to Dick Jeffers, who has done a great deal of research into town history, the tunnel theory has been "pretty much disproved." It was fun while it lasted.
The most surprising story of all, however, concerns the house's former owner, Miss Yssabella Waters. You’ll have to check in next month for that one. Meanwhile, check your closets for ectoplasm and click here.
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