Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mrs. Richardson, I presume?

     While my job as a museum curator involves helping to tell the stories of the artifacts in my care, sometimes it seems as if the artifacts try to tell their own stories!  Last year at Halloween I recounted some of the ghost stories from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, where I work.  Our satellite location, the Pry House Field Hospital Museum has some pretty spooky stories as well.  This seems an appropriate time to tell some of these stories!
This photo of the Pry farm was taken in 1880.  Though the fences and some of the trees are now gone, the house and barn appear nearly the same as they did then.
     Most of the Pry House’s ghost stories center on Brigadier General Israel B. Richardson.  He was wounded during the Battle of Antietam and brought to the Pry House to be treated.  Though his wound was serious enough to take him out of the battle, he was expected to recover.  He was settled into a room on the second floor of the Pry House to recuperate.  His wife, Fannie, traveled from Michigan to care for him, and stayed with him at the house.  In October, he was even visited there by President Abraham Lincoln!  Unfortunately, General Richardson developed pneumonia and died in that room in November of 1862.
Portrait of Brigadier General Israel B. Richardson, officer of the Federal Army.  Library of Congress photo.
This unattributed Civil War era drawing is labeled, “Fitz P[...] house McClellan's H.Q. on the morning of the battle, Wensday [sic], Gen. Hooker was brought here wounded.”  Another note on the side reads, "[...]T. Pry's house."  Library of Congress image. 
General Joseph Hooker was also treated at the Pry House after the Battle of Antietam, but unlike General Richardson he survived. 
     After the war the Pry farm passed to a couple of other owners before the National Park Service acquired it in 1974.  In 1976 there was a fire in the house, which is the source of one of the ghost stories.  While battling the blaze, several of the firefighters reported seeing a woman in 19th century clothing standing at one of the second-floor windows to the room where General Richardson died.  After the fire had been extinguished, it was discovered that the floor around those windows had collapsed.  No one could have been standing there.  No bodies were found in the house.

     The local legend is that the house is still “visited” by the spirit of the General’s wife, Mrs. Richardson.  Over the years many people have reported seeing a woman in Civil War period clothing in the house.  Sometimes she is seen walking down the stairs, sometimes she is standing at a window, and other times she is reported to walk across a room and through a wall!

     After the fire the NPS hired contractors to begin the process of restoring the house.  Some of the workers recounted a similar story to the firefighters.  When they arrived at the house, they spotted a woman standing in a second floor window.  Once again it was a window to the room where General Richardson had died, and once again when they went inside to investigate they discovered that there was no floor beneath those windows!    
This is the staircase at the Pry House, which leads to the “Richardson Room”.  People have reported hearing footsteps here and seeing a woman in “old fashioned” clothing. 
     In 2005, the NMCWM partnered with the NPS to open a museum at the Pry House.  That’s when our museum staff started experiencing some strange sights and sounds.  Our Executive Director, George reports that on his first day there he needed to clear out some items from the interior of the house to make room for the exhibits.  It was a nice day, so he opened all the doors to make it easier to carry things outside.  Starting at the front door, each door slammed shut in succession until they were all closed again.  While the wind could have swung the front door shut, it wouldn’t have then caused all the interior doors to slam shut.  He opened them all again, and this time the back door slammed shut first followed by the rest of the doors, in order, to the front. 

     Our Director of the Letterman Institute, April, had an issue with one of the doors as well.  In her words, “While running an overnight program at the Pry house, during a bad thunderstorm my small group bedded down for the night in the Pry House.  After making my rounds and locking up for the night, I fell asleep, downstairs in what is now the store only to be awakened around 1:30 am to the sound of pacing on the front porch and a strange metallic scratching noise.  When I opened my eyes, I realized that the key was turning in the lock.  It was an old skeleton key that was difficult for me to turn as I had locked up hours before.  I’m not sure whether the key was turning to let whoever was outside in, or to keep them out; but either way, I didn’t want to know then.”

     Guest Services staff member, Garrett, recently spent a night in the house and heard some strange noises as well.  He reports, “I was up rather late after work…in the office above the bookstore.  I was on my computer.  All doors were locked, and had been since around 5 pm.  Suddenly, there was a loud banging noise from the front of the house, sounding like it was coming from the front upstairs hallway between the Richardson room and the green room.  Initially, I thought it was just one of the random noises that the house makes, but several more loud thumps and bangs followed the first one. I thought it sounded like someone was pacing back and forth along the hallway. This back-and-forth continued off and on for about an hour.  I never went to go check it out.

     Starting a little bit after the thumping, banging, and stomping, I began to hear what sounded like a couple of indistinct voices having a conversation in the house.  Most of the voices sounded like they were coming from the formal parlor.  I could definitely identify a male voice and at least two separate female voices, but could not discern anything they were saying…. I barricaded myself in the bedroom for the night.  I had a lot of trouble sleeping, and was glad to see the morning when it finally came.”

     Other museum staff members have reported hearing footsteps in the house and out on the porch, having doors slam and lock behind them, hearing voices, finding the house lights turned back on after the house has been locked and alarmed, and seeing lights moving through the house after dark.  The Pry Barn is included as well!  People have seen lights in there too, and have heard voices talking and singing in the barn.

     It certainly makes for some interesting work experiences at times!
The Pry House as it probably looked at the time of the Civil War.  The people in the photo bear an eerie resemblance to some museum staff members!
     To see photos of a “ghost tour” of the Pry House, click here. 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.


  1. Speaking as the person who had that recent experience in the Pry House Field Hospital Museum, it really freaked me out. And I'm back there again this weekend! I'm hoping for an uneventful stay!

  2. Our Troop 279 from Point of Rocks cleaned out the barn back in 2005 and was allowed to stay overnight in the house. George Wunderlich came by on Saturday, played on his banjo, and told us the stories mentioned above. All the Scouts were of course sleeping in the Richardson bedroom. Nothing was heard that night nor on a following camp out, but I always get an eerie feeling going into the basement. We have stayed in the barn several times and haven't seen or heard anything yet.