by Rory Raven

What evil lurks beneath the streets of Providence?

135 Benefit Street, Providence

If you find yourself strolling down Benefit Street on an autumn afternoon, preferably around sunset, stop for a moment to admire #135. A fine yellow clapboard house set up on and built partway into a little hill, it has a good-sized yard where the current inhabitant grows roses. This is the Stephen Harris House, built in 1763. It is also known as "The Shunned House," from the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name. But the Harris House's sad history begins long before Lovecraft wrote the tale.

The House in History

Benefit is one of the oldest streets in Providence; it was originally much narrower and called Back Street. None of the original houses are left; all the houses you see are built on the sites of older houses, dating from the original settlement.

Because of its policy of religious tolerance, early Providence had no common burying ground, no single place where everyone agreed to bury their dead. So, in accordance with the practice of the day, each family had a plot on their own land which served as a family graveyard. To us, this might seem a bit ghoulish, but it was just business as usual in colonial America.

Around the time of the Revolution, Back Street was widened and straightened and renamed Benefit Street, to relieve the heavy traffic along the Towne Street (now South Main) and to be "a Benefit for All." The remains in all those little family plots were removed to North Burial Ground, then just recently opened. Allegedly, though, some of the bodies were left behind, and still remain buried here to this day. And, according to local legend, a Huguenot couple lived, died, and was buried on the site of #135, and were among the bodies that were missed.

When Stephen Harris built this house, his family fell on hard times. Harris was a well-to-do merchant in Providence, and owned several merchant vessels; it is said that a few of those vessels were lost at sea shortly after the completion of the house. This led to other financial problems. Mrs. Harris also had a hard time—several of her children died, and others were stillborn. (I was told by the current resident, who has done her own research into the house's history, that there was never a live birth in the house.) Probably the most (melo)dramatic part of the legend, however, is Mrs. Harris's descent into madness, and her confinement to an upstairs room. She was occasionally heard to shriek out the window of this room, but in French—a language she didn't know. Where could she have picked it up? Dead Huguenots, anyone?

The house had a bad reputation for years, and stayed in the Harris family for generations because they were unable to sell it. It subsequently fell into a state of general disrepair and decrepitude. This may have had as much to do with its history as with the fact that Benefit Street became a slum around the 1920s. Finally, during the revival of the 1970s, the current inhabitants of the house bought it from Harris's descendants and restored it beautifully. You may notice some signs on the gatepost, in French—clearly they have a sense of humor about the unusual history and reputation of their home.

The House in Fiction

H.P. Lovecraft was a noted horror writer who (aside from a short time spent in New York City) lived in Providence his entire life, from 1890 to 1937, and he frequently wrote for pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. (Interestingly, when Lovecraft submitted "The Shunned House" to Weird Tales in 1924, it was rejected by the editor, Farnsworth Wright, as being too wordy and slow. It was finally bought by the pulp's subsequent editor, after both Wright and Lovecraft had died.) Lovecraft often incorporated actual historical events and bits of local folklore into his stories to add verisimilitude to the fantastic events he described, as he does in "The Shunned House," even though he changed the name Stephen Harris to William Harris.

The story begins with its narrator informing us that "From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent." He then describes Edgar Allen Poe's frequent strolls along Benefit Street, a route which took him by the Shunned House.

Now the irony is this: In this walk, so many times repeated, the world's greatest master of the terrible and the bizarre was obliged to pass a particular house on the eastern side of the street; a dingy, antiquated structure perched on the abruptly rising side hill, with a great unkempt yard dating from a time when the region was partly open country. It does not appear that he ever wrote or spoke of it, nor is there any evidence that he even noticed it. And yet that house, to the two persons in possession of certain information, equals or outranks in horror the wildest phantasy of the genius who so often passed it unknowingly, and stands starkly leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous.

At another point, Lovecraft mentions that the Harris family hired a servant by the name of Ann White, "a morose woman" from rural Exeter, where folks had some pretty "uncomfortable" superstitions.

There are other references and bits of lore along the way, but I won't spoil them for you. Go read the story.

Ideas to Ponder

Lovecraft was an incredibly prolific letter-writer, as can be seen in Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters (edited by S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000). The collection groups Lovecraft's letters loosely by subject, but there is one section, entitled "The Blank Period" (1908-1913), when Lovecraft apparently wrote no letters at all. He was evidently very reluctant to speak of this period of his life, and makes only vague mention of it in his later letters. Joshi and Schultz, along with other scholars, suspect that Lovecraft may have suffered some kind of nervous breakdown during this time; the letters have passages such as "my health completely gave way," and mention "shadowy depressions."

The woman who now lives at #135 Benefit Street told me that, in researching the house, she found that Dr. Bates's Electropathic Sanatorium stood next door. (You can still see the outline of the former building on the wall of the next house: On the site is now a vest-pocket park.) She speculated that Lovecraft may have been a guest of Dr. Bates's during his blank period. After all, madness did run in his family—both his parents died at Butler Hospital—and his characters go mad regularly. And, Lovecraft was in his late teens and early twenties then, which is the time that many mental illnesses manifest themselves. So perhaps he got the idea about the Shunned House when receiving treatment next door, or perhaps he wasn't a patient and the mere proximity of the Shunned House to the Sanatorium got him thinking.

There's also another possible Lovecraft connection to the Shunned House. In L. Sprague de Camp's Lovecraft: A Biography (Doubleday, 1974) there's a mention of Lillian Clark, one of Lovecraft's aunts, living in the house for a time shortly before the death of Lovecraft's mother. She may have rented there for a time; no one knows.

So obviously, the Shunned House has a few mysteries in it yet…

Rhode Island native Rory Raven is a mentalist, mind reader, and host of the Original Providence Ghost Walk. He is the author of Haunted Providence, a collection of strange local tales.

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow 5 minutes

Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk.

This is a private residence; please be respectful.

Finding it: from Route 95 North, take exit 23 for State Offices; at Orms Street go straight across to State Street; take a left onto Smith Street, proceed through the light at the bottom of the hill and take a left onto North Main Street; take an immediate right onto Star Street; at the top of this steep incline, take a right onto Benefit Street; keep an eye out on your left for #135, the Shunned House, just past Bowen Street.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to roads or glandular hellhounds. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited October 24, 2001

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