Who Knew: The Spookening


It's spectacular: the Cohen family's Halloween display at 252 Buttery Road

‘Who Knew?’ is sponsored by Walter Stewart’s Market.

How’s this for paranormal: I’ve sat directly behind the Long Island Medium on a plane not once, but twice. 

And, ok. This may not be bone-chilling campfire fare, more the banal coincidence that two Delta loyalists with vastly different thoughts on acceptable hair height would both fly to a lot of boring American cities for work. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining spectacle: Theresa Caputo gets hugs, high fives, and selfie requests from nearly every other passenger who boards her flights. She even stands at her seat, a tiny pontiff with a mitre made of bottle blonde, anticipating the adoration of her subjects. Whether she’s the real deal or not, people clearly derive true comfort from knowing there might be a way to communicate with the departed.

Who would we be to ruin their faith?

6th grade slumber parties were lit. Photo: James Frid, Pexels

Belief in ghosts has risen, dipped, and risen again in American society over the past few centuries. The Victorians loved their séances and invented Ouija boards. In the 1940s, folklorists noted that ghosts had adapted to the automobile era, with dozens of stories of vanishing hitchhikers bubbling up throughout the western United States. Spikes in spiritualism have been provoked by both the Pandemic and the Civil War–suggesting that widespread grief can sometimes correspond to a more profound cultural need to know more about the other side. 

Anecdotally, it seems to me that people don’t believe in ghosts until they do. And they only do because they experience something that’s completely impossible to explain otherwise–noises, apparitions, movements, flickering electronics, or a door slamming in a draftless room. Just like we can’t say with certainty that ghosts are real, nor can anyone falsify their existence. Plus, it’s a little more fun to live with the occasional goosebump than to dryly deny the possibility. 

Since we live in such an old, long-inhabited corner of the country, a place where, in autumn, moonlit shadows, bats, and owls make every evening walk to the mailbox a bit of a Blair Witch situation, it somehow follows that we’d over-index on spirit activity. A few months ago, I searched “why is Connecticut so…” and the third auto-filled suggestion the algorithm gave me was “haunted.” Other suggested options were: ”rich,” “boring,” “expensive,” “weird,” “humid,” “cheap,” and “ghetto,” so perhaps we’ll pursue some of those leads later. For now, ghosts!

Let’s poke around New Canaan for evidence. 

The Benedick-Eels-Thatcher House, Carter Street

The Benedick-Eels-Thatcher house when the Butterworths lived there. Possibly pictured: Mabel

The oldest house still standing in our town will turn 300 next year, and for a while, it was haunted. Former residents Tom and Libby Butterworth loved the place so much, they bought it twice, calling the Carter Street residence home while their five children were growing up and again for nearly a decade before selling in 2018. “It was a very wonderful house, and it seemed to smile all the time,” Libby says. “You felt enfolded in it.” And as far as hauntings go, the Benedick-Eels-Thatcher House seems downright amicable. 

Libby Butterworth painted this mural of the house in the early days of bucolic New Canaan

Tom and Libby didn’t consider themselves to be “ghost people” before, but Mabel’s was an undeniable presence. Think of Mabel as the grande dame of the New Canaan spirit scene–everyone’s heard of her, and she was very effective at her job. Thought to be the ghost of Mabel Thatcher, who lived in the Carter Street house from 1926 until she died in 1978, Mabel would appear to various Butterworths from time to time as a woman in her 60s or 70s. “Mabel formed a special bond with our youngest daughter,” says Libby, “and she’d visit her, particularly when Carrie was just about to head back to college.” The house’s previous owners had spotted Mabel too, and to all involved, she most often would just silently appear in rooms or doorways, and then “disintegrate,” vanishing slowly into space. 

The Butterworths both wonder if Mabel was most interested in sticking around to make sure the home would be properly protected. “So many people who buy antiques in New Canaan want to scrape them and start over,” Tom said. When they bought the house a second time, they worked to restore it and preserve its pre-Revolutionary character, also adding all the modern amenities new buyers would hope to find. “For the first time,” says Tom, “the land is worth more with the house than without it!” This seemed to appease Mabel, who, insofar as we know, hasn’t been heard from since. 

The loveseat in question where a visitor stopped by

Another ghostly visitor to the Butterworths’ home stopped by when the couple was watching a Ken Burns documentary. Libby felt “a presence next to me on the loveseat in the kitchen, and I looked over, and there was a husky man with longish hair, a collarless shirt, and suspenders. Tom was washing dishes, as he should [hooray, Tom!] and I called over to him and asked, ‘Is there someone next to me?’”

Tom turned to look at Libby and confirmed that, yes, there was a presence near her. 

As far as I know, not even the most deluxe boxed DVD set of Ken Burns’ The Civil War comes with an apparition. But what a way to find yourself immersed in the era! One thing we can say for certain: these ghosts seem to have great taste in the company they keep. Everyone in town knows that the Butterworths are a truly lovely, friendly couple, exemplary contributors who define New Canaan’s community spirit. If I were a ghost, I’d probably show up at their house regularly, too. 

Sighting on Canoe Hill Road

A classic story of an apparition that gave me immediate chills, from New Canaan’s Elizabeth Stuart:

“About 10 years ago, my son and I were driving back from a football game in the early evening, just after dark, and it was lightly raining. Both of us saw a little girl in a white nightgown by the road on Canoe Hill, next to a stone wall. I turned the car around, because I thought a little girl shouldn’t be out at that time of night. Then we couldn’t find her anywhere. We realized we had seen a ghost. I’m not sure exactly where it was–it was on the lower end of the street.”

Um. That’s major goosebump fodder. 

It also prompts a question: why do ghosts so often appear to us in nightclothes? In 150 years, when our generations are the ones doing the haunting, will we be wearing Lululemons and Patagonia vests? And if we are, who will take us even remotely seriously?

I Can’t Say Which House, I Won’t Say What Street

A New Canaan woman, we’ll call her Shannon, and her family lived in a restored and modernized 19th-century antique house that was, by all accounts, “super haunted.” Shannon speaks under the condition of anonymity because the house has since been sold, and while it’s perfectly legal in Connecticut to sell a house you believe to be haunted without disclosing it to the buyers, a medium has worked with the house to clear the house of stuck spirits. Shannon,  understandably, doesn’t want more tsuris to follow her after a freaky few years living with multiple ghosts under her roof. “From day one, my kids were complaining about noises and doors opening and closing. One son said he constantly felt like he was being watched. But old houses creak and settle, you know. I didn’t give it that much thought.”

These things don’t just move on their own.

Then, one day, Shannon was in the kitchen, and she saw a La Croix can move across the kitchen island two feet. Of course, she searched for any possible explanation–was the can sitting in a pool of condensation? No. Is the island even level? Her iPhone’s level app answered yes. The can had just… moved. On its own. So they named the ghost La Croix.

But from there, things got unnerving. A pencil was found to be sharpening itself on an electric sharpener in the middle of the day, something that was determined to be impossible without a significant amount of downward force. TVs would turn themselves on at all hours of the day and night. A playroom closet door opened itself, and a stored painting was flung out several feet. Toys the kids swore they put away in one spot were found somewhere else. Shannon felt a hand caressing her hairline at 4 in the morning. 

Things got concerning enough that Shannon’s friends all became invested in this haunting. Through the friend network, she was given holy water, and sage to burn, and, when none of this did the trick, she was put in touch with a medium (not my travel buddy; I checked.)

When the medium arrived, the amount of work to do became evident. Says Shannon, “It was terrifying. I thought there was one ghost in the house. But the medium says that there are two kinds of ghosts that can visit–ones that are connected to the land or the house [like the Butterworths’ Mabel] and others who are your family members or friends, connected to you.” Both kinds were regularly visiting Shannon and her family–grandparents from both sides, and spirits from a less determined time who had apparently come with the house.

The pencil sharpener, toys, and electronics? In the playroom, the medium discovered the spirit of a Victorian-era little boy, who loved Thomas Edison and all things innovative from the turn of the 20th century. 

“I didn’t want to scare you” the boy told the medium. He just liked how cool the toys are now.

The medium had to do a return “touch-up” visit when one final terrifying moment transpired: one of Shannon’s children was in the shower, and started screaming “stop scaring me!” at the top of his lungs. He said he’d heard someone speaking a foreign language while he showered, and assumed it was his sister, but the sister had been downstairs with her mom. Shannon mentioned none of this to the returning medium, but fairly quickly, the medium found–in that very bathroom–the spirit of a French childcare worker who had taken ill in that house and died, later, in a hospital. 

Real Estate

I spoke with Inger Stringfellow, realtor at William Pitt Sotheby’s and one of my favorite New Canaanites, about the practicalities of buying and selling potentially haunted houses. Inger doesn’t strike me as a big believer in ghosts; she said that bugs are the only disquieting thing she encounters in the houses she visits for work. I remember, when touring houses for sale back when we were looking to buy in 2014, an enormous tube of Preparation H on the back of someone’s toilet that haunts me to this day, but that’s neither here nor there. 

To be fair, our local bugs are pretty metal in the autumn months

It’s an absolute no for sellers or agents to misrepresent a house they’re trying to unload. “There are four states with any legislation at all,” Inger says, around paranormal activity. Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts all have real estate laws in place that codify hauntings as ‘a non-material fact that doesn’t have to be disclosed to potential buyers.’ 

It’s interesting legal language. Ghosts are, by every account, non-material in that they aren’t made of matter, but tell that to my husband when he saw a cutting board rattle and rock in its spot next to our ovens for no reason. Or the one time, while we were outside on the patio in October (of course), a TV in our upstairs bedroom turned itself on. This could be explained by a dog, but the dogs were outside with us, or a cat, but we didn’t have cats at this point. When we went upstairs, the TV was turned to CBS. We have never actually watched live TV upstairs or CBS anywhere that I know of. It would take, at minimum, five keystrokes on two different remote controls to tune that particular TV to CBS’s live broadcast. This is not to say our house is haunted; in the moment, we shrugged these things off as a little strange and left it there. But still. CBS? Dad, is that you?

Haunting, but Make it Wonderful: 252 Buttery Road

Like clockwork: the haunting of 252 Buttery Road

“When we moved to New Canaan in 2019, I wanted something to decorate for,” said resident Dani Cohen, “and Halloween was it for me.” Dani and her husband have three little boys, ages 8, 6, and 4, and she wants them “to be able to say to their kids ‘Grandma used to do a really ridiculous Halloween display.” Only, her display isn’t ridiculous at all–it’s artful and joy-filled and clearly the result of some intense organizing, planning, electrical work, and a vision. Where some of us may throw up a few gourds and mums, perhaps a spooky skeleton or a witchy tableau, Dani and her family start planning and assembling a series of lit animatronic Halloween props in mid-June to be brought to their front yard by the third weekend in September. There’s a theme to their elaborate setup; last year was a recreation of the Abbey Road cover, and this year, it’s Ghostbusters.  Every year, the display gets bigger and more detailed.

Don’t cross the streams!

Remember that one Saturday in September when it rained five inches? Of course you do! That particular weekend was Go Time for the Cohens. Undeterred by the Noah’s Ark-level downpour, they brought their assorted skeletons, witches, ghouls, and goblins out front, waiting until later to connect the electricals. “It’s engineered so that if you drive by on our side of the road, all the animatronics come to life. Some people will get out and walk along the rock wall, and we have some little kids coming by every night at this point.” 

There’s something decidedly New Canaan in the generosity that compels a family to build something magnificent to which people will make a pilgrimage. We stopped by on a recent night to take it all in, and although it was a warm evening, the air chilled a bit, an owl hooted in the distance, and a cloud passed by the moon overhead. Spooky just feels right here, doesn’t it?

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If you believe your house to be haunted and want to know more about it, or get rid of unwelcome spirit presences, please reach out. I have the medium’s info.

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