A Haunting in Barnstable
Cape Cod Life / September/October 2011 / People & Businesses, Recreation & Activities
Writer: Rob Duca / Photographer: Chrissy Caskey
Ghosthunter Derek Bartlett gives thrill-seekers a glimpse of the paranormal presence in Barnstable Village.
The building at 3217 Main St. in Barnstable Village doesn’t look like it’s haunted. But don’t tell that to the lawyer who rented an office there a few years ago. He was working late one night, heard a strange noise, and saw the door latch to a closet drop down. Things got even more eerie the following day when he witnessed a ghostly woman entering his room, wearing a dress and carrying a hatchet. In the next room, he reported seeing a woman churning butter next to the fireplace. He immediately broke his lease. Perhaps not coincidentally, the building is now for sale.
Today, it marks one of the stops on nightly Haunted and History Walking Tours of Barnstable Village led by ghost hunter Derek Bartlett. Bartlett has lectured on the paranormal at colleges and universities and is the founder of the Cape and Islands Paranormal Research Society (CAIPRS). He maintains that he has seen ghosts, heard their footsteps, and even had them whisper his name in the creepy darkness of a centuries-old courthouse. He’s happy to tell his audiences all about it. And many times, even the doubters walk away as frightened true believers.
Imaginations run wild as Bartlett weaves fantastic tales of ghosts sitting by windows, turning doorknobs, moving furniture, stamping on ancient floorboards, and demanding that unwelcome intruders stay away. He spins stories about the Great Marsh that runs from Sandwich to Yarmouth, where kayakers went mysteriously missing, never to be found. Along with these menacing tales, he offers a history lesson on the village’s picturesque Main Street, from the Barnstable Superior Courthouse where Daniel Webster once tried cases, to an inn that was visited by Abraham Lincoln to, naturally, a hillside cemetery with a reputation for its many ethereal apparitions.
Bartlett, 39, grew up listening to his mother’s ghost stories and watching television shows on the paranormal. He began researching paranormal activity in 2000 after taking a photograph that he could not explain. Bartlett had attempted to photograph a woman sitting on a bed. But the flash failed, and when he got home and developed the film, he noticed a blurry image of the woman and what resembled a streak of lightning in front of her. There was no light source in the vicinity.
He founded CAIPRS the following year. A former Marine, he says that while ghost hunting a black cloud of energy has followed him home, and he claims to have been punched, choked, and pushed to the ground by invisible forces. He started leading tours in 2005. He conducts nightly haunted, history walking tours, and ghost hunting tours from April to mid-November in Barnstable Village. His ghost hunting tours are held on Monday and Friday nights. He also has themed tours that include a walking history tour sponsored by the Barnstable Historical Society and a private, 90-minute “Love You to Death Haunted Tour.”
His Haunted and History Walking Tour meets at the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Museum/Old Jail on Route 6A in Barnstable Village, and the one-mile walk stops at eight destinations in two spine-chilling hours. Bartlett encounters many skeptics, who steadfastly insist they don’t believe in ghosts. “And then they have this sudden reaction when they’re actually scared,” he says. “I see them getting closer to their loved ones, especially when I turn off the lights in the Old Jail.”
There are two types of hauntings: residual and intelligent. A residual haunting is a recording of past energy in which the spirit does not interact. An intelligent haunting has been described as a feeling that the spirit is attempting to communicate, like tugging on your clothes. Bartlett’s experience in the courthouse basement was an example of an intelligent haunting.
One of the first stops on the tour is the nearly 200-year-old Barnstable Superior Courthouse. Built in 1835, the courthouse is reputed to have been the scene of numerous supernatural occurrences. Judges have reported seeing dark, shadowy figures strolling across the balcony during trials, which prompted Bartlett to conduct research in 2006 with a Trifield meter that detects fluctuations in the electrical and magnetic fields. It was in the courthouse basement that he heard a whisper calling out “Derek, Derek.” (He was alone at the time.)
At the current location of the Barnstable Tavern, where a hotel stood from 1840 until 1940, Bartlett tells mesmerized walkers about doors inexplicably opening and closing and phantom footsteps in the hallway. It’s at this point, he maintains, that some of his frightened wayfarers head for their cars, refusing to proceed any further. Some of the younger walkers, he says, have trouble sleeping through the night after a tour.
“You can’t always expect something to happen, but it’s really interesting when it does,” says Nathanial Ayala of Hyannis, a regular tour visitor.
Cobb’s Hill Cemetery is perhaps the tour’s most unnerving stop. “You are entering one of the most actively haunted cemeteries on Cape Cod,” Bartlett announces upon arrival. Dating to the 17th century, iron bars border the east and west sides of the ancient burial ground—they were originally placed to keep the spirits in. Walkers are encouraged to stroll past the gravestones with flashlights in hand, dimly illuminating the pitch-black night while searching for signs of life among the dead.
“It’s just something really different and fun to do,” says Courtney Smith-Atkin of Michigan, who made the Haunted and History tour one of the stops on her Cape Cod vacation.
The tour concludes at the Old Jail, the only building walkers are allowed to enter.
Built in 1690 by order of the Massachusetts and Plymouth Bay Colony Courts, it is the oldest wooden jail in America and served its original purpose until 1831. The cramped, windowless cells remain intact, providing vivid evidence of the stark living conditions for the incarcerated. The building was used as a barn after closing down as a jail and was moved to its current location in 1972, where it now sits on the property of the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Museum.
It is also supposedly inhabited by five entities. Bartlett completes his tour by shutting off the lights, standing in the darkness and inquiring, “Is anyone here? If you are, please give us a sign. Make a noise. Anything.” Bartlett believes in politeness when ghost hunting. “Don’t provoke them. Talk nice to them,” he says. (For the truly adventurous, Bartlett has a “haunted overnight” when visitors can spend the evening from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. in the creepy jail hoping for ghosts to appear.)
Ayala was on Bartlett’s overnight tour when he experienced a ghostly presence. First, his tape recorder turned on by itself. And then, he saw a post shift and rock, as though someone had bumped into it. “But no one was sitting near it,” he says.
Past tours have ended with walkers maintaining they felt a ghost push them from behind, that they’ve heard footsteps, or they’ve seen a strange shadow. “I remember once being on a tour and a guy who was sitting at the back of the jail cell (in the Old Jail) suddenly got up, screamed and ran out of the room,” Ayala says. “He told us later that he felt something grab him. He freaked out.”
In the hair-raising darkness, Bartlett mentions all this. He then turns the lights back on and scans the room with a mischievous smile. Are there ghosts haunting this village? He wants you to suspend your cynicism and let your imagination run free. He wants you to consider what the past might hold.
For more information about the Haunted and History Walking Tours, visit www.caiprs.com.
Rob Duca is a freelance writer living in Plymouth.