Donald Carter, is author of Connecticut's Seaside Ghosts and investigator/historian of the New England Paranormal Video Research Group [NEPVRG]. He is currently working on a new book, Ghost Towns of Connecticut, which should be out in summer 2009 and features places such as Bara-Hack, the Barkhamstead Lighthouse, Gungywamp, Fort Saybrook, Fort Trumbull, Old New-Gate Prison and Holy Land USA, Little People’s Village in Middlebury. Connecticut's Seaside Ghosts is available through Schiffer Books, as well as Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
In January 2009, Carter graciously took a few minutes to chat with us.
Damned Connecticut: Can you talk a little about your background and how you got into writing Connecticut's Seaside Ghosts.
Donald Carter: I was working campus law enforcement at the time; I was the midnight sargent at the University of Hartford and one of my co-workers, Matt Sinsgalli, was a public safety officer there, and knew that I had done a lot of research on a lot of different places. At the time, I had really no interest in the paranormal, per se, but he knew I was researching a lot of Connecticut and that I had read a lot about Dudleytown from different sources, and even at that stage, that I knew there was a big difference between the legend and the actual history of the place.
The history is interesting enough as it is, so I couldn't understand why people had embellished so much. And I realized that a lot of it was just misinformation; newer sources had just recylced bad information from back in the '70s -- without naming names, some very famous people who have a huge following had been there and just passed on some misinformation and had been quoted and re-quoted.
Matt and I got to talking about it and then he told me about the paranormal group he had. It sounded interesting -- it sounded like a good excuse to actually get out and go to these places and do more research on them. And when I started doing it, I had a lot of fun.
I became their case researcher; they didn't have a historian. So I realized, in checking out some of the paranormal websites, that hardly anybody employed a historian as part of their paranormal group. I had just finished my degree in history at the University of Hartford, so I started going on field investigations and more interestingly, I did the research as well. I also started to enjoy the photography angle of it -- I was getting great pictures of these ruins.
Because I was doing the background research, we started picking out possible sites for investigations, trying to get away from doing things like Carousel Gardens and Pasco's Restaurant -- places that have a lot of publicity and everyone has been there already. There are so many great historical places that have these great supernatural legends surrounding them.
One of the first investigations we did was one that I found from reading David Phillips' Legendary Connecticut, and that was on Gay City, which is a ghost town in Hebron. In every way, it's just as good as Dudleytown. It's got some cool old ruins of the old mill site, some foundations that are still there, and it also has a 200-year-old ghost legend and another ghost legend from the mid-1800s. Two great ghost legends in that place. We went there, we had a great time, we photographed lots of things, some people had some interesting experiences while they were there and we have some good video.
The more I kept going to these places, the more fun I had. The idea for the book was always in the back of my mind, to write about our experiences because we had been to a bunch of different places and I was chronicling it all to put it on the website.
I've always had the writing bug, and I had just gotten my history degree, so I wanted to write something that had more of a historical foundation than any of the other paranormal books that had come out so far that I had read. Things that actually had a reference in old newspaper articles on historic hauntings and old histories. It's amazing what you find in these dusty old books. You can't find it online. You actually have to go to libraries and find these things and crack open these old books. I found some wonderful stories, going all the way back to the 1600s, like the ghost ship of New Haven.
Damned Connecticut: That's one of the things that struck me while going through Connecticut's Seaside Ghosts -- you've clearly done a tremendous amount of historical research, which isn't always done going into these kind of investigations. How do you think this helps your investigations?
Donald Carter: I think it makes it more rewarding, not just for me, but for the rest of the group. Typically, I’ll research the background beforehand, know the history and the legends, including the supernatural legends, that surround these places. And then we actually get to the places and we start photographing, I’ll start telling everyone the history and the stories that surround the place that I found in my research. And it makes it more interesting for them. They’re like, “Really? That happened here?” You know, “This is the site of a murder a hundred years ago, and supposedly, people have seen these sorts of apparitions surrounding the place.”
And [I tell them] what the legends are loosely based upon, the actual historical events that did occur there. It makes it more exciting for them because they know I'm speaking from authority, not from something I got from one of these websites that I referred to. I think that makes it more enjoyable for all of us.
I archive all the articles I find. I use ancestry.com a lot to research family backgrounds. I also use sites like the Hartford Courant archives – the Courant being the longest-running newspaper in the country. It has a great online search engine. I use it quite a bit.
When I find a place and I want to research it further, I find the town history and I talk to the historical societies. It means a lot of driving and going out there.
For my current project, and even in the earlier stages of doing my first book, my criteria for deciding if a place is even worth writing about usually includes three things I’m looking for:
- First, what kind of history does the place have? Does it a have a rich history that I can footnote and document well and say, “I’m not just making this up." These are the stories that have occurred and these are the newspapers and books they’ve appeared in -- eyewitness accounts, sometimes you get those and they're great. And is the story interesting enough to really grab people and make for an interesting narrative.
- Secondly, does anything remain? Has it been built over? Is there a mall there now? It’s horrible when you have these great places, you know, it used to be an asylum and had this horrible and rich and morbid history, and now it’s gone, it’s been built over and now it’s a parking lot. Nothing to see any more so I can’t get any good photographs. If there is something remaining that will make for good photographs, that’s a good second criteria.
- And my third criteria is, how accessible is it to the public? Like even though it makes for a great narrative, the Norwich asylum I wrote about in Connecticut’s Seaside Ghosts, is completely closed to the public – not everybody is going to get in there, so it’s going to be very difficult for them. And I’ve looked at that for Ghost Towns of Connecticut. I have found that quite a few places, a lot them are on public land and in parks and such, and people just don’t know about them. They have this wonderful history behind them.
We have six or seven genuine ghost towns here in Connecticut. They’re not like ghost towns in the West, where there are still wooden buildings standing because they are much newer. Our ghost towns tend to date back 300 years, so there’s nothing wooden remaining. It’s all stone now, usually cellar holes and pits, and such like that. But some of the history does remain in a lot of these places.
There are the old forts, too, like Fort Saybrook and Fort Trumbull. Fort Griswold, I wrote about in the first book so I won’t be doing that in the second book. And the old Nike sites are great, too. We have a couple of those that remain, and a couple of the buildings are still standing – they’re abandoned, they’re sitting in the middle of the woods and trees are growing up through them, but they’re still there. They make for great photographs.
Damned Connecticut: Is there a favorite investigation you have from Connecticut’s Seaside Ghosts?
Donald Carter: Well, the most exciting one was Norwich State Hospital. That was definitely the spookiest. Seaside Sanitorium came in a close second. Both of those were abandoned hospitals.
Of course, Norwich was spookier because it housed the criminally insane from 1914 to 1971 or ’72, when the criminally insane were transferred to Middletown. But up until that time, the very worst of the worst were housed in Norwich, and there’s a whole cycle of legends surrounding it, particularly in Salmon Hall, which was the building where they had the cages they kept people in, and the hydrotherapy tank where did what they thought was therapy back then but seems kind of cruel to us today. They packed the insane in ice to calm them down and thought it was therapeutic. Plus, there was electroshock and all that.
There are some great stories surrounding the place, and it was very spooky to walk around there. It made for a very interesting narrative, the stories coming out of that place.
Damned Connecticut: What is your general overall take on people calling themselves paranormal investigators?
Donald Carter: The groups run the gamut. Some are very good. I’m good friends with Barry Dillinger of Creepy Connecticut, and he and I actually explored the ruins at Gungywamp – great set of ruins there. A very interesting history and strange, strange ruins that nobody can seem to explain. It seems to be a combination of Native American and early Colonial and possibly some pagan influences. It’s hard to say for certain, but there’s lots of interesting stuff there.
Barry and I have talked quite a bit and he’s writing a book right now. We compare notes sometimes, and try not to overlap too much. He and I also explored Bara-Hack, the ghost town up in Pomfret. So I’ve been doing work with him sometimes, and he has his own group separate from ours. I fully recommend his as one of the better groups out there because they do a lot of research and when they do present opinions, they make it clear it is an opinion or a theory, and when they state fact, he’s sure to have footnotes to reference his sources. That, I respect greatly. We’re kind of brothers of the same mind, in that regard.
There are other groups . . . some of them are very young and starting out, and they may come along, too. Some make absolutely no attempt at all to find out the truth behind anything, and that’s disappointing when you read that, especially because simply when a lot of people see something in print, they take it for gospel. They think, “This is someone speaking from authority, they have a website. Oh, they’ve written this down, so it must be true.” And it’s just not.
As to how decent a group is how they write about something like Dudleytown. It’s a great test case to judging any website on the paranormal because they all write about it eventually. Whether they print the legends or the history determines, in my opinion, where they are or where they’re going or what they’re angle is.
There’s an excellent book called The Legend of Dudleytown by Gary Dudley, and he really pulls no punches with the Warrens, which was very brave of him because they have a huge following. He was able to challenge [their claims], by research and being able to go back to the primary documents. With his training as a genealogist, he knows how to do this, he knows how to research a family tree and to go to the death records and find out how these people really died. He was able to debunk a lot of what was put out by the Warrens in their book Ghost Hunters, and it was great that he did that.
The interesting thing is that if you compare the two – the book by Gary Dudley and the book by the Warrens – the interesting things are the things he doesn’t debunk and doesn’t talk about. Those are kind of curious. It’s like wait a minute, if he’s so good at debunking the rest of this, why didn’t he say anything about this or that? There are still a few things that are questionable about Dudleytown, certainly enough for somebody who is interested in it to dig further.
Damned Connecticut: You spoke earlier about one of my favorite books, David Phillips’s Legendary Connecticut – I tell anyone who is even remotely interested in this kind of stuff, this is where you start.
Donald Carter: I agree. Anybody who wants to do research, even a history buff or if you’re connected to a paranormal group, if you only buy four books to help you with your research, that has to be one of them because that’s a good starting place for so many things.
I quoted him in my chapter in my upcoming book on the Barkharmstead Lighthouse. It’s a great legend – of course, he goes more into the ghost legend, but there’s a great history there. A great love story between the white woman Molly Barber who ran away and married the Narragansett Indian James Chaugham, and they started this multiracial community there in Barkhamstead way out on the mountain. It’s just a great story all around, if you include the ghost legend or not. That’s a good story. But that’s one of the four I recommend anyone buying.
Damned Connecticut: What are the other three?
Donald Carter: You have to have John Warner Barber’s Connecticut Historical Collections. It was written in 1837 – you can buy an inexpensive paperback version now, so you don’t have to buy the actual one printed in the 1800s, which is ridiculously expensive to try and get a first edition now, but there has been a reprint done. At that time, in the 1830s, he traveled all around Connecticut recording the stories of all the towns. Back then, I think there was 169 towns in Connecticut. He dedicated three or four pages to each town, and wrote not only the history, but recorded interesting anecdotes, too. Sometimes it’s supernatural, sometimes it’s not, but always a wonderful little story. He’s a great source like Legendary Connecticut. He had a different perspective – he was writing as a traveling researcher. That’s No. 2 on the list, an excellent reference.
Another one is The Connecticut Guide. That one was written in 1935 – Edgar L. Heermance is the editor.
And you need Benjamin Trumbull’s Complete History of Connecticut: 1630-1764. He was the son of the first governor of Connecticut, the actual only Colonial governor to keep his position after the revolution because he sided with the colonists. I have the 1818 edition.
Each book is about 100 years apart [from the next], so each gives you a good perspective on that century and what the stories were from that time. Each one also gives you a pretty good patchwork of stories from throughout Connecticut. There are other wonderful books on different areas, but they’re more specific.
Another one I liked was Ellsworth Grand’s Connecticut Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival. That’s where I got the information on the Remington explosion and the ship the Atlantic that went down. That’s a great source for places that have suffered serious tragedies, something really big that happened. Of course, he doesn’t get into the ghost stories that have grown up around these tragedies since then.
I also did like Cheri Revai’s recent book, Haunted Connecticut. That’s a nice place to start. It’s usually only a few paragraphs on each one. She goes into just about everything – the black dog of Meriden to some of the places I’ve covered.
Damned Connecticut: How often do you actually get out into the field to actually do investigations?
Donald Carter: It goes in cycles, depending on my work schedule. We’re all professionals who work full-time jobs. We do the best we can. It’s a hobby, it doesn’t really pay well -- the book is really the only source of income I get from this. It’s a labor of love and you end up investing a lot of money. The money I’ve invested into cameras and a GPS for when I’m walking in the woods and trying to find these ruins – I got a little Garmin, the hiking tracker so I get the GPS coordinates for people so that they can find these places, too.
You invest a lot in infrared technology, too. The Sony handicams are really the only ones that have good infrared. For still cameras, the Sony still are the only ones that have really good cameras that you can get pictures at night. I’ve invested a lot of money in that, so I’ve come away with a loss. You don’t make a whole lot of profit unless you’re selling t-shirts and hats like some others.
Damned Connecticut: Is there a particular or odd moment that stands out in your mind from when you’ve been investigating?
Donald Carter: My most disturbing experience was probably the closest I’ve ever come to acknowledging the paranormal. It’s kind of a tough one to explain. It happened in East Hartford at this great old historic house that the East Hartford Historical Society owns, the Makens Bemont House (also called the Huguenot House). It’s supposedly haunted by the Blue Lady. It was our first and only overnight investigation. We never did that again after that – we learned from our experiences. Simply because cramming that many people into a limited space for that long a period of time wears on everybody’s nerves. I’m sure there would’ve been at least one more corpse if we stayed longer!
In one of the upstairs windows, people have supposedly seen this woman in a blue dress. I did a lot of background research on the place and came up with two names that I thought might be possibilities [including Abigail]. We had Gail Syring with us, our sensitive – she has since withdrawn from the group to devote herself full-time to her ministry, she’s a Unitarian minister. At the time, she was also doing some mediumship and was communicating, and she said it was the name Abigail, which was absolutely a hit.
The sensitive is the one person who I don’t tell about the history because I don’t want to contaminate anything she comes up with. Of course, that’ll never convince a skeptic – I mean, it’s not true that I never talked to her before, but I know from my experience that I hadn’t talked to her [about this] and she didn’t know this already. I wrote down a bunch of names, about 20 names, and I said, “Do any of these come to you?” And I didn’t tell her about the Blue Lady or anything else, and she picked out that one, Abigail, who was the one I thought [the blue lady] was.
I knew that both Abigail’s sons died in the same year; I don’t know how. They were both 19 years old. We weren’t getting any communication from her, so I said, “Ask her about this.” We were all holding hands at the time – it wasn’t a séance, per se, she was just trying to communicate – and I got a clear image in my head of this woman trying to send me a message. I don’t really share the specifics of it with anybody, but it was so deeply disturbing to me – it felt like she pulled a memory from my own past in my own life. I wasn’t aware that anything could do this, that they could actually, you know, attack you in that way, and bring back a very painful memory and make you re-live it. At the same time, I was seeing what happened to her, which was very similar in feeling the loss of her children because I lost a child once. And all that pain . . .
I felt like an ass for having tried to use a traumatic experience from my life to try to get her to manifest or to communicate. I know it sounds funny to hear – any skeptic would say I was crazy for feeling that way, but it felt at that time like I’d been contacted, and it was so disturbing that I had to leave for a while and go outside and be by myself.
That has never happened since, and it’s never happened before. Usually, I’m the most stoic one of the group. I have no problem going into a room or going into tunnels or an abandoned hospital full of bad memories or going anywhere else, or going in the middle of the night to ghost towns or down into cellar holes where people have died. None of that has bothered me at all. But this was the only experience that ever bothered me.
I realized after that to be respectful of the dead just as you are of the living. You have to be respectful. Some things are off limits. Unlike things you may have seen on the Sci-Fi Channel or other places, where some investigators try to provoke by insulting – “You’re just a coward!” “You won’t manifest!” “You won’t do this!” or “I think you’re scared, why don’t you knock this glass over.” I learned the hard way from this experience, not only is it rude, but you’re just inviting trouble.
Damned Connecticut: I notice that you started off as a skeptic, but how would classify yourself now having gone through some of these experiences?
Donald Carter: I still consider myself a skeptic – I consider myself an open-minded skeptic. Like I say in my introduction of Connecticut’s Seaside Ghosts, I do believe in a soul, and I do believe in the possibility of displaced souls, that for whatever reason, didn’t pass on to wherever they were supposed to go. Call it what you will. It may have been because of the tragedy of their demise, it may have been an unfulfilled quest or a desire to pass on a message to someone who is among the living. For whatever reason, some part of them remains, even if it’s only for a little while.
So I do believe in the possibility of a displaced soul. I still haven’t met one, I haven’t seen one . . . well, except for the whole thing I just told you about. I don’t know. I haven’t had my great paranormal awakening yet. To me that’s less important than making sure the stories survive anyway. I like to bring back narratives from the past like the Stratford rappings and this great poltergeist phenomenon, which was very well documented, in the 19th century especially – different places in Connecticut that experienced this sort of phenomenon and was documented at the time in newspaper accounts.
Like David Phillips did in his wonderful book – he preserved the stories. That’s the most important thing. That we, as human beings, don’t lose our imagination and don’t forget our past. Whether or not I ever see a ghost is immaterial. It’s not going to matter one way or another in the great scheme of things when I die. But I like to think that the stories that I brought back for people to read will live on, people will check them out and people will have their own experiences. And the legends are just as important as the history – they may not be based on fact, but they’re part of the overall story, too.
-- Again, a big thanks to Donald Carter for taking the time to talk with us. Connecticut's Seaside Ghosts is available through Schiffer Books, and can be found at Borders and other bookstores.