- Historic Sites
The Ghost Of Sagamore Hill
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
The best times were the Christmas holidays, when all the family gathered to eat the great Christmas dinner, with its turkey and suckling pig that fathers and uncles vied with each other to carve. After lunch we would go through the pantry, admiring its archaic wooden icebox, to the huge kitchen to congratulate Bridget, the cook, a merry miniature of a woman with a lovely, lilting brogue.
Following this heavy meal we were sent upstairs to nap. The stairs themselves were in Stygian blackness, and we had to feel our way along. This caused much talk among our parents of the dangers of falling, but we children got a certain thrill from these dark, mysterious stairs. The second-floor hall surrounding the stairwell, which gave into the bedrooms, was equally dark and was hung with pictures of vaguely threatening ancestors. It took a bit of courage to cross this hall to the bathroom during the night, especially when I looked at an ancestress known as “The Lady with Eyes.” Her eyes followed me malevolently as I crept along guided only by a tallow light flickering on a table. (This had been placed there years ago for Uncle Quentin—the other ghost in the house—who as a small boy had been afraid of the dark. He was later killed in World War I.) Occasionally I had a nightmare in which that light slowly flickered out, leaving me in the dark hall alone!
There are ten bedrooms on that floor, counting Grandfather’s dressing room, and as a child I slept in every one except, of course, the master bedroom. Each had a distinct character and history, as did the big bathroom that for a long time had been the only one in the house. Its huge antique tub stood magnificently on a pedestal, and the old-fashioned washbowls still sat in various spots, unused since Grandfather’s day.
The ancient facilities of the house, commonplace to our parents, were a constant source of fascination. We discovered the speaking tubes, stuffed up with paper and no longer in use. We soon corrected that and for a day or two amused ourselves by exchanging messages from distant parts of the house until the tubes were stopped up again by a grandmotherly ukase. Then we found the dumbwaiter, used primarily to transport wood to the fireplaces on the upper floors. For us it turned out to be a delightful mode of transportation up and down, until we got a bad fright when cousin Quentin lost control of the pulleys and crashed to the cellar, shaking the whole house and thereby producing another ukase.
And best of all, at the end of a dark hall on the third floor, was the gun room. Here—amid shelves of books about exploration and big game and a large collection of guns—Grandfather came on strongest of all, especially at his desk, where he once looked out the window over a broad panorama of Long Island Sound. It was very much his room. Grandmother—and even our parents—almost never went up there, and our ghost very kindly did not object to our playing with his weapons. The prize one for use was a wonderful rusting six-shooter, and we played the sort of games that nowadays would not meet with general approval. I once came to grief acting out the part of a Chinese general. My prop was an old sword—possibly the one Grandfather used as a Rough Rider. Its scabbard had rotted, and when I drew it to charge, I nearly cut off my fingers.
We did not mind which bedroom was assigned to us, but our parents did. They complained of the hardness of the mattresses, especially that of one bed, which for its stoniness was known as “Pharaoh’s Heart.” But we could hot tell the difference. I felt Grandfather particularly haunted two of the rooms. One was the bedroom in the southwest corner where he died, which had a bedspread designed as an American flag. So strongly did I sense his presence that I once had a conversation with him there in which I asked him to help me be worthy of him. He never answered, but I thought he might be listening. The other room was his small dressing room on the north side, where the wind, whistling eerily in the winter night, made it easy for spirits to return.
Oddly enough, I never felt his presence in the master bedroom. This was so much Grandmother’s domain, with Irish Mary, the upstairs maid, hovering in the background. We would go in there only occasionally for a brief levee, when she would receive us after breakfast, sitting up in the massive double bed.
The largest room in the house, the North Room, was closed off and absolutely forbidden to us except on holidays. Grandfather had built this room to hold his game trophies and various presents from potentates all over the world, and to serve as a family feast room. We made the most of the rare occasions when we were allowed in. It was the most fascinating room of all, with its skins of lions and other beasts, two great bison heads over the fireplaces, and a pair of huge, splendid elephant tusks given him by the Emperor of Ethiopia. The ceiling was twenty feet high, and I remember the room as very cold, so that much of the time we huddled in front of a roaring fire in its wide fireplace. Once a year a tall Christmas tree was brought in, and after Christmas lunch the whole family would gather to collect their spoils. To me the most evocative thing in the room today is the Rough Rider’s hat, thrown casually over the horns of an elk.