as told by Anita Rafael

More than one kind of spirit at one of America's oldest taverns.

The following is an edited transcript of a talk given by Anita Rafael at the White Horse Tavern on December 16, 2000.

Maybe he was hungry?

I do walking tours. In the old days they used to leave the tavern door unlocked for me in the morning, and I used to come in here and [show people] around. One day I was with my walking tour and we were coming into the building, ready to walk around, and a lady on my tour—it wasn't a ghost tour, it was a regular tour, with history and architecture—a lady said, "I'm not going in there."

I thought, well, no, we're just going in for a minute. [But] she goes, "I'm not going in there." I explained, "We're just going to go in and walk out." I thought maybe she'd had a heart attack and didn't want to go up stairs or something. She began to turn purple on me.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

She said, "I had dinner there last night. It was my anniversary, and my husband and I were seated at the corner of the fireplace, over in that little room upstairs, but that damn ghost was bothering me so much, that we had to have our very expensive dinner packed up, and we ended up eating it back at our room."

And I was like, "Okay, lady, whatever you say."

Like an old Abbott and Costello movie

Every member of the staff, practically, has had some kind of encounter. We've had reports of being tapped on the shoulder, being told to lock up even though it's not lock-up time, people hearing footsteps in the other room. All of these stories, by the way, take place in the room on the other side of this chimney.

Two people here late one night for the lock-up were sitting downstairs, counting out the money, locking up the bank, when they heard footsteps across the room. One [person] came up this flight of stairs with a peppermill, one came up this flight of stairs with a wine bottle. They met in the middle. They were about to kibosh each other, until they realized there was absolutely nobody [else] in the building.

Here we go 'round the mulberry bush

A little boy came to luncheon late one afternoon with his family. The dining room was closed, so they were seated downstairs in the bar for a cup of soup and a sandwich. The little boy, about seven or eight years old, eventually said he needed to use the bathroom, so they sent him up these stairs and he went to the men's room right over here in the corner. He didn't come down for a really, really long time. His parents were a little worried, but they weren't too worried, because they could hear him walking around. You could hear every footstep up there. So they knew the kid was up there, and hadn't left the building.

After a really, really, really long time the kid finally showed up back downstairs. And his parents said, "What were you doing up there?" You know how little boys go exploring. The kid said, "Well, when I came out of the bathroom, I went in the big room and I thought maybe I was going in the wrong direction so I went around the other way and there was a man there and he followed me around, and so then I went back around the other way, and then he wasn't there, and then I started to go down the stairs and then he was there."

So this kid has this whole story of how he had walked around—because you can walk around the whole chimney in a circle—and how he had gone up and down the various stairs and the man followed him or didn't follow him. So the parents were worried. They were like, well, what's going on upstairs in the men's room with their seven-year-old?

They were worried, and they started really questioning the boy. Well, what did he look like, and what was he wearing, and where did he go? And the little kid said, "Well, he was an old guy, and he had on an old coat, an old-fashioned coat, and old-fashioned clothes and things like that."

Well, at this point the waiters were bug-eyed, because they knew what the little kid had seen, and that was the figure that they themselves had seen [in the past]: a guy, an older man, in old-fashioned clothes, old coat, old boots, old hat.

Finally, the mother kept bugging the little boy more and more and then the kid said, "Well, you know mom, I'm pretty sure it wasn't a man. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure it was a ghost." So when the kid said that the mother went, "Okay honey, eat your soup."

Mysterious death

Two travelers arrived late one night in the 1720s, when Robert and Mary Nichols owned the tavern. They arrived by boat, and they were given food and lodging here at the tavern. Now in those days you didn't get a room to yourself. You just got a place to sleep. If you had a bedroll, you rolled it out. If you had some straw in the corner, or whatever, you were lucky. If you got a bed, you had to share with a stranger.

Well, the following morning, neither of the men came downstairs to breakfast. So Mary Nichols and her Indian girl, who had waited on the two men the night before, went upstairs to investigate. One of the men was gone. No one had seen him or heard him leave in the night. He had just vanished. And the other man was dead where he lay, over by the fireplace, in the other room.

Now, he hadn't been shot, he hadn't been strangled, there had been no sign of a struggle. He was perfectly fine the night before, and because his death was so suspicious and sudden, they feared it might be some kind of a terrible epidemic. In those days they feared smallpox more than anything else... so the dead man's body was immediately taken away and buried in a pauper's grave. They had no idea who he was, there were no papers on him, nobody knew him.

Anyway, because Mary Nichols and the girl had come in contact with the two guys, and because the other guy had fled, they figured he knew something, that he didn't want to be put into quarantine. So Mary Nichols and the Indian girl were sent off to quarantine. The quarantine island was Coaster's Harbor Island, where the War College is now. Well, Mary Nichols and the Indian girl didn't get some terrible disease from the dead guy—I mean, he could have died of a heart attack or stroke, they never did figure out what he died of—but they feared it was an epidemic.

Mary Nichols and the Indian girl did get smallpox when they got out to Coaster's Harbor Island. The Indian girl died, but Mary Nichols recovered.

Now the reason we know this whole story is because it was in the newspapers: "Happily on this day, we are pleased to report that the wife of the innkeeper, Robert Nichols, at the Nichols Tavern, at the corner of Marlborough and Farewell... Miss Mary has lately returned to her duties as the innkeeper's wife after a bout of smallpox." And the article goes on to tell the whole story of how she got sent to the island, about the two travelers, about the dead guy, about the missing guy, and the article ends with a plea, that if anybody knows the whereabouts of the missing man, or his identity, if anybody knows why he left, or what happened... please notify the authorities. Apparently that mystery was never solved.

Set an extra place for an invisible guest.

There are lots of reports of ghosts here, and that story has been told over and over again. And lots of people, ghost hunters, come to the White Horse Tavern and they always go right to the exact spot where the ghost is. Now I'll tell you where it is, in case you want to go over there. In the other room is a fireplace just like this one, and if you stand at the right-hand side of the fireplace, right around here, that's where our ghost is usually seen. They believe that that's our ghost, after all these years, that guy waiting for the mystery of his death to be solved, or his identity at least, to be revealed.

Anita Rafael is the former curator of the White Horse Tavern, one of the oldest tavern buildings in the United States. Anita also runs Newport on Foot, leading private historical and architectural walking tours of the city.

This article last edited September 8, 2015

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