“Is this place haunted?”
When you work in an old mill building, as I do, people ask you this question a lot.
Sometimes I say no, but only after waiting a beat and remembering to smile. I try to soften the fact that I have given a one word answer. This is never the end of the conversation, anyway.
More often, I skip the no, and instead, I hedge a bit. I acknowledge that many people are curious about who or what may be haunting the old mill museums in and around New England. As I am giving this answer, I can usually sense that none of us will leave this conversation satisfied.
I don’t think I’ve ever come right out and said yes, yes it is haunted–much to the disappointment of those who profess a deep interest in meeting the dead while on a field trip or vacation.
For what it’s worth, I do actually believe in ghosts. Yet when I am asked about the spiritual world at work, I find that I often stumble, wondering how I can best express myself. On the inside, my mind is reeling. I am thinking: yes, no, maybe…how could there not be ghosts? Also: what are they really asking? Am I being filmed? On the outside, I am doing my best to look unaffected. I could scoff at this question, dismissing it entirely, but I won’t, because too much is at stake.
For more than half my life, I have worked in a range of interesting historic buildings and structures, from mansions to mills. At every single one of them, people have wanted to know if there are ghosts among us on the tour. To be clear, I am not paid to lead ghost tours and never have been. At the mill where I lead tours now, there are no signs or advertisements promising such things, either. No one on my team is paid to put on a costume or to do jump scares. Still, people ask about hauntings all the time. Visitors wonder aloud about the presence or absence of ghosts, and sometimes more specifically, the ghosts of children. They do this as if it were the most mundane thing in the world, in line with asking about the location of the bathroom.
Occasionally, very patient visitors wait until the end of the tour to pull me aside. They ask me about ghosts in a hushed tone, not wanting to cause any panic among the others. To these people, I often affirm that they’ve asked a good question. I also explain that the answer is more complex than just a yes or a no. Some have just seen a ghost hunting show and are eager to know what’s real and what’s not. I can’t say I blame them, because I also have that instinct.
To be clear, it’s not unreasonable for people to want to ask someone they perceive to be an on-site expert about ghosts. After all, visitors get told many times to ask me, the guide, a question about anything, anytime. When I say that, I mean it. So, this is not a complaint about the fact that people boldly ask about ghosts and hauntings (really, it’s kind of an honor that they can trust me to ask at all). Instead, this is a reflection on why I feel so consistently conflicted in how I craft an answer. Getting asked about ghosts is common for most people who work at historic sites. Yet I rarely see people acknowledge the deep ambivalence many of us carry about how we reply.
Since 2016, I’ve done historical interpretation work at industrial history sites. Whether the building is brick or wood, standing strong or falling apart, people want to know what kind of spirits are stuck there, and whether the humans once employed on the site ever suffered. The short answer to the latter question is that yes, unfortunately, they did. People dealt with pain and loss in the places where we stand on the tour. It’s not a pleasant fact, but it is a true fact. From that common ground, some visitors make the leap to presume that there are ghosts. For them, there’s a direct connection between suffering and haunting: if someone died in the mill, they might still be around, lingering while assigned to an interminable shift for the ages. I hope they are not, but really, what do I know?
I do feel more confident in how to talk about work in the mill and the ways of the machines. When we are on those topics, I try to make the real people who used or made them feel real. At least once a day, this leads us to talking about things that are honestly somewhat grotesque. I find that people are fascinated by injuries sustained by workers in factories and mills. A simple explanation for this trend might be that people are drawn to the macabre. I don’t find that fully satisfying, however–-it’s too neat, and really, dismissive. I give people more credit.
Let me explain further. At a historic site where I was previously employed in Lowell, MA, a video of workers’ experiences in local factories would play on a loop. This video included intense and frankly, graphic descriptions of workplace incidents. Upon hearing these stories, some people would seem shocked or upset. It was not uncommon to hear visitors in the museum gasping when certain oral histories would play aloud. Notably, this museum also has a copy of an old log book with short descriptions of workers’ injuries. I never heard anyone gasp around that panel. Considering the abstract idea of people being hurt at work is different from hearing about it from a firsthand witness, a person brought to life on a screen. What people think they want to know and what they are scared to learn are often overlapping topics.
Anyway, back to the present. At the 1793 mill where I do tours now, children ran the machines. None of those early laborers can speak directly for themselves on the tour. There are no recordings to play, no photographs to show of their lost childhoods. We’ll never know for sure what it was like to hear them laugh or how they smiled when the day was done. We have to do the hard work of imagining, for there are no magic tricks I can deploy to easily conjure them. No, the stories my colleagues and I share are built on evidence: primary sources and other records. Reading those can offer their own kind of eerie feelings, but that’s a conversation for another time.
It’s important that you know that a lot of people come to this mill already aware that children worked there. Many visitors first came years ago on a field trip, and that fact has stuck with them. After conceding that they seem to have forgotten most other details, some will ask about kids getting hurt. Years later, they feel compelled to share that they remember a story, sketchy now, about a child losing a finger or hand. Was that true, they ask? If so, how often did such things happen?
Folks looking to make a real, human connection with the past are likely to bring up what they already know. It’s natural to be curious about what happens when something goes wrong. But here’s what is most troubling to me. I’ve lost count of how many people say that this kind of story (a literal horror story) is the only thing they remember about the mill. This is why I am extremely careful when I choose my words about the harm that children endured. I know that if I talk about injuries and accidents in the mills, people may remember what I say for years or a lifetime.
This context might help us understand the fixation on whether the place is haunted or not. Sometimes, I think that people are bringing up these stories because it is too hard to ask other questions instead. By resurrecting a vague recollection of loss or injury, we don’t have to think about any individual children. Such stories almost never include a name or other details. They are true enough to be credible but not grounded in hard facts. Talking about ghosts or a mysterious missing digit (not attached to a real, documented person) invites visitors to stay in the world of abstractions. This comes with its own dangers, for this allows us all to sidestep the question whether any of the mill itself was worth it. We don’t have to say, out loud, in broad daylight: did children really lose their lives to make spools of thread a bit faster? The truth is that children are still put in harm’s way, today, now, to achieve this same end.
I don’t want to diminish the fact that many visitors really do seem concerned with how difficult this place was for working children. Some also want to speak to the problems with fast fashion today, drawing a connection between the children of the past and the child laborers who work today. The fact that I can interact with people for an extended period of time and talk these things through is part of what makes in-person tours important. These discussions are different from what takes place in other public spaces, like the internet. I can hear the tone of someone’s voice and study their affect when they probe to learn more about how kids were treated more than 200 years ago. Experience has taught me that people are often keen to empathize with these children.
This is why I am so alarmed by the sharpness and power of unfounded stories about death and injuries. Over time, when other details about working in the mills have faded away, visitors take what they can remember and make those facts the only facts worth knowing. Some also jump to conclusions. If all they can recall was someone getting hurt, certainly that means that children were suffering horrific injuries, and dying, all the time. People share this idea with me so casually, as if it is not something almost too terrible to contemplate. But we can see how it happens. A complex song becomes a simple melody, repeated and fine tuned into a single note. At last, the truth becomes elusive to them, and the people who did face real pain are lost, silenced by the din created among fictional ghosts.
I’ve been interested in when and why people want to talk about death and dying on tours for a long time. Recently, a friend reminded me of a conversation we’d had years ago during a visit to Atlanta, Georgia. We’d been talking about the function of ghost tours, and of course, we also paid to take one downtown. That night, we wondered what ghost tours were really about, and why we went on them at all. Many ghost tours, we surmised, served as safety valves. They made space for guides to talk about topics not discussed elsewhere, topics regarded as “too dark.” In part, we’d concluded that a ghost tour was a place to learn what local people might regard as something to feel guilty about, whether that was a singular act such as a murder or a systemic problem such as slavery or child labor. As other historians have pointed out, challenging histories should not be relegated to “dark” tours. Yet there is something about the framing of a ghost tour that has allowed people to delve deeper into histories that might be ignored otherwise. Maybe all guides just need a cape and a lantern to signal to visitors that the history they’ll be hearing is about to take a turn away from what was in their tenth grade textbooks.
While I explicitly don’t offer ghost tours, that doesn’t stop people from looking for them on a daily basis. I think this is partially because I do acknowledge the real problems and dangers within these industrial workspaces. In a perverse way, I sometimes feel as if I am disappointing people with the truth, which is that children were not being maimed and hurt constantly. The workers whose lives we discuss in great detail rose with the sun and spent most of their waking hours in front of mind numbing machines until a bell dismissed them. Some did get hurt by the machines they were paid to tend. There were moments of genuine trauma when workers of any age were injured on the job. It was horrible and difficult, but not the stuff of a manufactured haunted house.
There’s even more nuance when we talk about disease as opposed to injury. Tracing exactly why or how someone got sick or hurt in a mill was not always easy. Generally, though, workers knew what was happening to them, and insisted on better treatment, even when trusted authorities dismissed their concerns. Andrew Ure, writing about the early machinery used in England, explained: “Arkwright’s water frames were built very low in the spindle-boxes to accommodate children, and consequently sometimes caused deformity, by the frequent act of stooping.” Usually, machines were made for children (it was not coincidental that children were the right size) but they were not made for children to work comfortably. In her study of gothic literature about mills, Bridget Marshall recounts the story of Moses Heap, a child laborer in England who remembered being kept awake by “an effigy, the full size of a man, made of cotton, and when required, was carried around the room on a man’s back to waken us all up.” Some nightmares happen in the bright light of day, as it turns out.
Closer to home, one of Samuel Slater’s employees, a widow named Rebecca Cole, became ill. He’d heard that she wanted to leave Pawtucket, and that she “wished she had not come.” Death brought her to the mills, and now she might have feared that living among them could be her own undoing. Around this time, Josiah Quincy wrote about his visit to the growing village. He saw the young workers, children like Rebecca’s own, as “little creatures, plying in a contracted room, among flyers and coggs, at an age when nature requires them for air, space, and sports. There was a dull dejection in the countenances of all of them.” Note the lack of dramatic scene setting, the lack of outright violence. One hundred children or more in a wooden mill building, standing in front of machines all day was simply…sad.
What often goes unsaid in stories about the dangers of mill work is the fact that some of the damage took time. Standing in front of spinning frames, people are curious about missing digits or lacerations. What they do not ask about is the long-term effects of breathing in polluted, lint and cotton dust filled air for 10-14 hours a day. Nor do they inquire about the loss of hearing that came with being around machines and energy systems that were almost too loud to contemplate. These are not the kind of scary stories they have been taught to consume in a mill. I am hoping to change that.
Recently, a child on a tour bluntly asked me if a girl had died in the building, right under here in the wheel pit, and if so, whether she haunted the mill. This was a question inspired by a worksheet he was holding in his hand. I actually shuddered at the thought.
Here’s part of what I told him. People have died in wheel pits and in mill accidents. Take Freelove, a woman who “fell in the wheelpit of the mill and drowned,” elsewhere in Rhode Island. Freelove Greene was born in the 1790s and died in March 1839. She was one of eleven children born to Stephen and Sarah Greene. Her family took the time to have the description of her death put on her gravestone, for all to remember. Death in a mill–death anywhere–was not a casual thing. It should not be talked about casually now, either. Now, imagine wanting to find that these children’s spirits, or some semblance of their humanity, might remain trapped in the mill. Imagine wanting to hear their cries, again, for entertainment.
One of the challenges we face at my workplace is that we are asked questions about fantastical ghosts that actually require answers about flawed human beings. While I do believe in ghosts, I hope to never encounter them. I spend enough of my time talking about people who happen to be dead. Historians don’t usually describe their work this way, but it’s part of what’s always pulled me into the craft. I get the privilege of trying to understand people who are no longer with us and for the most part, this means digging deep into the stories of mill workers who have long since passed away. While these people are gone, I want to believe they are present through the work that we do that honors their lives. I think they can still speak to us through documents shoved in old file folders, through notches in wood they’ve carved, and in the deep grooves in floorboards, made ever so slowly by feet moving back and forth, flesh and bone bound to the earth.
But really…is it?
As I write this, it’s late October, 2022. People are especially curious about ghosts.
Earlier today, a coworker finished the last tour of the weekend. “Guess what they asked me at the end,” he said. It was not hard to guess.
When I talk about people who cannot share their own stories, I strive to give answers that are humane and authentic, and above all else, true. For that reason, this simple, direct question about whether the place I work in is haunted poses a challenge for me. The reality is that I find all of the labor history we discuss rather haunting. I am disturbed by the way a machine can disrupt or end a life. We can do justice to these workers by remembering them beyond these snapshots of suffering; by making them fully human, and not just hazy special visions.
Overall, I am heartened by the fact that visitors come and ask questions about people they will never meet on this earthly plane. I appreciate that we have a space to commune with them, to speak of their existence. The young, often vulnerable children who labored and lived in truly harsh circumstances in these mills deserved more in life. The least we can do now is honor them and try to know them, in death.
In this way, I am happy that we don’t need to dwell only on details of their sadness. We can also use the space they labored in to showcase living artists and to teach children fortunate enough to be in school. That leads me to this story. A few months ago, during a summer evening program, I got asked about hauntings at a rate that was unusual for that time of year. It was a busy night, and by the end of the program, the moon seemed to be hanging right behind the bell tower of the mill. It was a stunning sight, giving the landscape a glow I hadn’t seen before or since. A very kind, thoughtful performer chatted with me about the success and energy of the performances. She also asked me what I really thought about ghosts.
“Is this place haunted?”
I’d already answered this question many times that night.
I looked at her, face to face, and without blinking, told her, of course.