This month, the Cambridge Historical Commission hosted Cambridge Open Archives, online events that allow six of the city’s history organizations to share items from their collections. Looking ahead to Halloween, the theme was “Morbid, Morose and Macabre”, and each participant highlighted appropriate spooky elements from their holdings. History Cambridge has shared several of the ghost stories associated with its headquarters, the Hooper-Lee-Nichols house at 159 Brattle St., West Cambridge.
Now the second oldest in Cambridge, Hooper-Lee-Nichols House was built for the eminent physician Richard Hooper. He died in 1691, leaving his widow Elizabeth Hooper with serious financial problems. She was forced to take boarders and turn her house into a tavern. We don’t have details of the establishment’s operations, but it quickly gained a reputation for being “a dirty, embarrassing business.”
Elizabeth’s body was found wrapped in a sheet inside the house, which tenants and innkeepers had collectively destroyed, in 1701. The mysterious circumstances surrounding her death only added to the story macabre of the house. Was she murdered or did she succumb to an unknown illness? It is said that Elizabeth’s troubled spirit still walks the halls, embarrassed by her tragic end. Some say they saw her slipping on the floor in the same white sheet in which her corpse was found.
In 1850, the house was rented to George and Susan Nichols. That year, the Nichols were celebrating the Fourth of July at their new residence, showcasing the remodel they had done, when their young granddaughter walked over lit fireworks. The open wound became infected and she died shortly thereafter. From then on, the spirit of Granddaughter Nichols is said to haunt the house, responsible for moving objects from place to place without explanation. Some have also reported hearing the sound of crying, which they attribute to the girl’s spirit.
The best-known associated ghost story is that of a group of five Hessian soldiers playing cards in the Chandler Room at the back of the house. Americans used “Hessian” as a catch-all term for all Germans who fought on the British side during the American Revolution, since 65% came from the German states of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau. Around 30,000 Germans fought in the Revolution, representing around a quarter of Britain’s ground forces, and were known for their military skill and discipline.
Most Americans (then and now) think the Hessians were mercenaries, but they were actually auxiliaries. While mercenaries were individual soldiers who offered their services to a foreign government for money, auxiliaries were hired by their own government, with whom they remained in service, fighting under their own commanders and in their own regiments.
Britain’s use of Hessian troops is listed as one of 27 grievances against King George III in the Declaration of Independence. American colonists and British soldiers widely mistrusted Hessian soldiers, stereotyping them as crude, barbaric outsiders unfamiliar with British customs or the English language. Even Conservative supporters were often reluctant to lodge and quarter Hessian troops alongside their British counterparts due to these perceived cultural differences.
Throughout the war, reports of looting by the Hessians are said to have galvanized neutral settlers into joining the revolutionary side. George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River at Christmas in 1776 was intended as a surprise attack on the Hessian army. According to an old myth, Washington encountered slight resistance at the Battle of Trenton because the city’s Hessian defenders had risen late the night before celebrating Christmas. Although not based on fact, this myth was based on the stereotype of Germans as incompetent drunks. The resulting Battle of Trenton ended with 1,000 Hessians being captured and paraded through the streets of Philadelphia to boost American morale; anger at their presence helped the Continental Army recruit soldiers.
Perhaps the most well-known Hessian in popular culture comes from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”.” In this novel, set in Westchester County, New York, in 1790, the mysterious sights and sounds of the village are attributed to the ghost of a Hessian soldier whose head was separated from his body and who rides a horse. spiritual at night on a quest to find it. In its various adaptations, the story has portrayed the Hessian as a savage ghost, unleashing cruel retribution on the living in exchange for his dismemberment.
As for the haunting of the Hooper-Lee-Nichols house, rumors had existed since Revolutionary times that a group of Hessians camped on the property and that at least several of them died there and/or were buried. There is no evidence to suggest this was the case, although it is possible – the Hessian troops were quartered on Brattle Street. Rumor of Hessian bodies on the property dates back to the 1780s, but it wasn’t until renovations and the addition of Chandler Hall in 1915 that sightings began of a group of five Hessian soldiers playing at cards.
It should be noted that the resurgence of this story – and the addition of the ghostly figures – coincides with the start of World War I and Germany’s emergence as a military power in the early 20th century. Just as they had during the revolutionary era, many Cantabrians viewed their German-born neighbors with suspicion, questioning their loyalty to the United States. Nearly a century and a half after the life and death of the Hessians in Cambridge, the reappearance of this ghost story in the air tells us that little has changed in attitudes towards this foreign military power.
More than that, it reminds us that ghost stories and tales of hauntings reveal what – and who – we fear most.
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Beth Folsom is Head of Programs for History Cambridge.