Halloween 2020 is upon us folks and this year has certainly proved to be an interesting one (so far!). However, even with all of the craziness of these past months, we still come together whether virtually or at home to celebrate the wonderful holiday that is…Halloween.
I’ve had a tradition here on WOTM of writing about the legends, lore and twisted tales of Stamford in hopes of getting more and more of you interested in our history so that we can help preserve what is left of it.
History doesn’t have to be boring, in fact, it can be downright creepy! So what a fun way to learn about our past, pique some interest and help keep the stories alive.
As I’ve said in past editions of this series, these are but snippets of time. While the research that goes into these pieces is extensive, (and the full writings will hopefully be coming in a different form one day), these passages are here to allow you the reader to get a peek into our past. All folklore comes from somewhere and I’ve taken it upon myself to find their origins…or at least…try my best to do so.
So let us get to it…Welcome to the Lost Legends of Stamford!
from my personal collection
The Addicted; The Insane; The Exhausted: Once upon a time, Lock City was home to several sanitariums. When I first started doing the research on this topic, I thought there were only two. But the more I dug into the subject, the more I found that there were at least 8 documented hospitals labeled sanitariums here in our fair city.
Not going to lie, there was so much information that my original write up for this post could easily have been its own entity. However, these facilities have a disturbing history. So whether you checked into the “elite” Dr. Givens Sanitarium with its tennis and croquet courts, views of Long Island and the Sound and (my personal favorite quote from their advertising), where the “climate is free from extreme heat in summer, and is exceptionally mild in winter” or were sent to the Stamford Town Farm aka Poor Farm/House or Alms House (depending on the writing)…these hospitals were not the luxury vacation spots that some tried to mask themselves to be.
In the case of the Dr. Barnes Sanitarium alone, there were reports of suicides and sudden deaths of some patients who were admitted for one ailment but died of something completely different. In a strange twist to this place, their head physician, Dr. Frances Lawless, passed away by taking a sleeping potion and then died at Grand Central Station. The facility had such a creepy vibe to the local residents that parents would sometimes use it as a threat to their kids by saying such things as, “shape up or I’ll send you to Dr. Barnes”. I dont’ know about you, but that would certainly have made me do MY homework!
The Stamford Town Farm was a notoriously sad place as it was a town run facility that housed the poor, the sick, the ‘crazy’ and those who were substance abusers. Patients were often referred to as ‘inmates’ and there were many, many deaths which unfortunately included several infants. There was even the murder of the superintendent Mr. James Parker of the House when in 1898, according to newspaper articles, after Mr. Parker went to break up a fight between two female patients, one took an iron bar and smashed him in the head killing him. This was not a place you would wish anyone to be in but was all that was available at the time for those who had nothing but were in need of ‘treatment”.
Remember too that in the late 1800’s-early 1900’s medicine was much different than it is today. Lobotomies, electric shocks and restraints as well as experimental drugs were often performed and used on those who were deemed “insane” and these inhuman treatments were unfortunately all too common. There were reports of escapes from Stamford Hall with a few making it all the way to New York City.
Oddly, these Stamford facilities also had a run of fires as well. Dr. Wiley’s on Palmer’s Hill was destroyed by a fire in 1911; Dr. Gray’s on Strawberry Hill was also destroyed by a fire in 1931 and in this case, there was the added tragedy of the death of patient Alice Emerson in the fire. Dr. Given’s place also had a couple of fires including one in 1900 and the other in 1910. No deaths were reported or massive damage done, just part of the history of the property.
This leads us to what was left behind. Some say that where there were tragedies or sudden deaths, spirits linger. Many who perished at the Poor House, were buried in the Potter’s Field nearby without proper markers but rather numbered markers stripping what was left of their dignity away even in death.
While I have previously written about the Potter’s Field location, where the Givens facility was, (lower Ridges area from Lord & Taylor, Long Ridge and up to Roxbury Rd), there are stories of strange happenings in the buildings from those who worked in the offices built on the land where the Santiarium once stood. Shadows, things being moved, noises and more have been reported. Same can be said for those who live near the former Dr. Barnes site. Also of note, Dr. Givens himself is buried on the former grounds of his namesake Sanitarium.
While I personally have no doubt that those who perished are hoping to be remembered in some way, the question is, just how far is their reach? Stone from the Dr. Barnes site was used to create such roads as Oaklawn and Belltown. Poor Farm stone was also used in the roads creation project in North Stamford…so it makes you wonder then doesn’t it? Did their already restless souls attach themselves to the very earth they once stood on which is now distributed around the city? Or by the scattering of these stones, were their spirits released and set free? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was the latter?
photo credit: national maritime historical society
A Pirate’s Life For Me: After travelling around the world, taking treasure, ships and even lives, the infamous pirate, Captain Kidd sailed the waters of Long Island Sound. Thinking he would be granted clemency, he was tricked into going up to Boston, where he was ultimately captured and arrested in 1699. Before he made it up to Massachussetts, he set sail from New York where he traveled the Sound burying treasure along the way so as not to have it all in one place for his enemies to find. The most famous of rumored spots is Charles Island in Milford. However, there are stories that he made a stop here in Stamford to bury some of his riches.
There is also there is also a connection to Stamford involving Major Selleck and his warehouse along the water. The man received goods and treasure brought to him by “one Clarke of this town from Kidd’s sloop and lodged with Selleck,” which added even more to the Captain Kidd legend in our area.
While exact locations have not been found, who knows? Maybe the next time you venture out to one of our beaches or take your metal detector out for a spin, you may just come upon some extra special treasure that Kidd had hoped would be buried forever!
The Legend Laddins Rock: On the western edge of Stamford lies Laddins Rock. While Rosa Hartman Park and Laddin Rock Sanctuary are combined on Stamford/Old Greenwich land, it once was all Stamford property. Thankfully it survived a possible development proposal years ago, something not often done these days. This is a good thing as it is legendary for having a bit of a haunted reputation.
The legend behind the ghosts dates back to the 1640’s…not too long after Stamford’s founding in 1641.
The story goes that after the first round of Dutch settlers took over Manhattan, another group came up to this area to settle on the land. A man by the name of Cornelius Laddin brought his wife and daughter with him and moved into a little colony on what is now, the Waterside area of Stamford. The Native Americans who lived here were feeling very cheated by those who were now making this area their home. Often over bargaining, bartering and taking advantage of the Natives, these settlers created a hostile atmosphere while buying and taking away more land for their own.
According to the story, the Indians had enough and decided to “exterminate the little colony” where Laddin’s family lived. While Cornelius was working in the field, he saw smoke coming from the area where his home stood. Thinking of his family, he rode towards the colony and found many dwellings had been set ablaze. When he got to his own house and after securing his horse, he went inside where his wife and child were. He then barred all the windows and got his gun ready to protect his home and family from possible attack.
As the Natives approched his home with flaming torches, he picked them off one by one, shooting them as they got ever closer to his dwelling. Finally, the Indians teamed up and approached the home in a group. They used a log as a battering ram and broke the door down. His gun failing him now, he was at a great disadvantage. His extraordinary wife called to him and said, “fly husband fly! They will surely respect our sex” and with that, she begged for him to escape and out of the back of the house where his horse was waiting for him and she hoped he would bring help back with him.
Unfortunately, as soon as Cornelius was making his departure in the back, the battering of the front door commenced and with it, came the brutal killings of Laddin’s wife and daughter before his very eyes. The Natives were swift with their tomahawks and they were killed within seconds. Laddin had no time to mourn as the Indians instantly turned their attention to him and began the pursuit to kill the husband/father who had just lost his everything.
Cornelius Laddin, rode his horse to the top of the rocky cliff and realizing he had no other choice, had the animal charge to the edge and the two went over the side and plunged to their deaths.
In total, 15 townsfolk lost their lives in the massacre that day while others were able to flee and escape with their lives. So who is it that haunts these woods? Is Cornelius Laddin still in mourning over the death of his heroic spouse and child? Are those who perished that day unaware that they have left this earth? And what of the horse? He too is a victim! I guess we will never know the answers to these questions, but we can honor their memory by remembering what happened that tragic day oh so long ago.
photo credit: wikipedia
The Great Escape: Halloween and famed magician/escape artist Harry Houdini are synonymous together. Almost impossible to believe that it’s been so long since his passing, his death occured on Halloween 94 years ago today after attempting a new stunt while suffering from a ruptured appendix and peritinits.
Becoming a master debunker of sham psychics who could only pretend to contact the lost and take money from those desperate to contact loved ones, he made it a mission in his life to expose those guilty of fraudulent activity. Even so, Harry had a famous ‘death pact’ with his wife Bess that after he passed, she would hold a seance every year for 10 years on the anniversary of his death to try and make contact with him. He even gave her a secret phrase that only she knew so she would know if anyone was trying to scam her. Since his death occured on Halloween, it was almost a perfect day to hold these seances for the next 10 years as it is the belief that the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest on that day. But alas, Bess did not get the phrase she had waited a decade for and never again tried to conjure up her husband’s spirit.
So where is the Stamford connection you are asking? It turns out that the Great Houdini had a house here in North Stamford! After being diagnosed with an illness a few years earlier, Harry had decided he wanted a place to ‘rest’ a bit and bought a large farm on Webbs Hill in 1904.
Houdini’s stay in Stamford was short-lived and he sold the farm a year later. He had hopes of using the home as a place of rest for himself, his wife and his mother. But “rest’ and ‘farm’ don’t necessarily go hand in hand and his plans for the land had him working quite hard. But why the sale? He was no stranger to hard work and even considered a job here in the city at the Yale and Towne Lock factory. (Who better to work on such locks as the master escape artist himself?!)
The original 1830 saltbox home that housed Houdini and his family had burned down in the 1960’s leaving only a fireplace, foundation and chimneys, but there are original structures that are still on the land that are supposed to have been there when Houdini lived on the hill. There is now a replica of the original home in its place.
According to an old Stamford Advocate article and Stamford historian Renee Kahn, his home was just down a bit from the resting place of Webbs Hill namesake Nathaniel Webb and his three wives, all named Esther. Could it be that the man of mystery and magic had some visits by those who came before him? Perhaps they were not happy when Webbs Hill was nicknamed “Weiss Hill” in honor of Houdini’s given name Erich Weiss, which he used to sign for the land.
While Houdini kept diaries, there is no documentation from his writings that any seances had been performed at the Stamford home during his time there but it is certainly fun to imagine him doing so! I for one am keeping the illusion alive…and Houdini was certainly all about illusions.
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Thank you for helping me keep this tradition alive and more importantly, for helping to keep Stamford history alive! Let’s keep helping to preserve it as best we can!!
To read my previous Halloween posts here on WOTM:
Legends and Lore of Stamford (WOTM Halloween 2019)
Twisted Tales of Stamford (WOTM Halloween 2018)
The Stranger Side of Stamford (WOTM first in series 2015)
Featured in Ignacio Laguarda’s Halloween piece for CT Insider in 2019!
Houdini Museum — more information on the Stamford house.
Stamford History Center — Stamford roads project
Stamford Historical Sketches — While months of research went into these pieces, as soon as I caught the Laddin’s Rock story in this 1922 book, I knew I had to share it. If you are interested in learning more about Stamford’s history, this is a great place to start. Full disclosure, this link is an Amazon affiliate link and helps to support this site.
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