Just after 2:20 on the morning of Friday, October 9th, 1970, the thirty or so members of the New Castle, Pennsylvania, volunteer fire department woke to the sound of squealing radios.
Fire Chief Jack Stoner bypassed the station, which was out of his way, and tore off for the scene, only two-and-a-half miles from his home. Following the curve of the Shenango River, he watched the blaze transform the black sky into a swelling neon bruise as he swerved south onto Atlantic Avenue. Intense heat shot from the rambling brick mansion with a low, crackling gasp.
As the first trucks arrived on scene and underequipped volunteers laid hose and began dousing the blaze, the water pressure inexplicably dropped. It was as if some grand, invisible force were silently willing the fire to finish its work.
By the time Stoner radioed for additional units and manpower from West Pittsburg, five miles south, an uphill battle had become a lost cause.
There were no victims to save or survivors to comfort in the home, which had been abandoned four months earlier. The last firefighters left the scene before the sun rose, concluding the sort of dull and exhausting battle referred to in the fire service as a surround-and-drown. The fire had brought to a close the brief and strange history of the first haunted house in America open to the public, but it wasn’t done yet.
Forty-five minutes later, the firefighters’ radios shrieked to life for the second time that morning. The house, saturated with thousands of gallons of water, had burst into flames again.
Three years earlier, in the summer of 1967, the Sonntag Real Estate Agency got a nibble on a property they worried they might never unload, 1161 North Liberty Street on the western edge of New Castle. In its industrial heyday, the town had been called “Little Pittsburgh.” Not anymore. In less than a decade, nearly fifteen percent of the town’s population had left.
In the two decades since an out of town investor had purchased the dilapidated mansion, the agency had only managed to rent it out to a single family. The family did not stay long, even though the sprawling estate cost less per month than most of the compact ranch houses that peppered the rest of the town on quarter acre lots. It stood atop a slope overlooking the road at the base of a hill that faded into looming pines and old maple trees. A shallow angled roof crowned the second story, supporting a tall, white cupola. A trio of high windows glared down beyond the grounds at the road, the railroad tracks, the river. A shaded porch competed with the wild vines snaking around its front columns.
At first glance, Dr. Gerald A. Laughlin seemed an unlikely taker. A man with round proportions and well-groomed facial hair that brought an Old World colonel to mind, he had a conspiratorial smile that tended to pull people into an easy confidence. No one could have looked more out of place in a rundown house with a leaky roof and busted windows. His previous home was tidy and nestled in a row of prim houses with broad front lawns in Bethel Park, a fashionable suburb of Pittsburgh.
But under the respectable veneer, there had always been something different about Laughlin. A doctor, yes, but a doctor of chiropractic medicine, a discipline founded only a few decades before on the idea that all diseases stemmed from an interruption in the flow of divine presence. He was also one of only eighteen qualified hypnotists in the Pittsburgh area.
Born to older parents, his nearest sibling was twelve years Laughlin’s senior. When he was three, the economy tumbled into the Great Depression, then at five his mother died after a mastectomy failed to rid her of cancer. His father, a salesman, was forced to send Laughlin to live with an aunt. Just the same, like so many people forged by tragedy, he grew into a gregarious young man, described by his high school classmates as “our funny man, known by everyone.” His senior yearbook photo shows a pale, plump face with a smile fighting back laughter.
Upon graduating in May of 1944, he enlisted in the army, and by December he was overseas. Shortly after being discharged, he met and married a woman a decade his senior. Being an unmarried woman in her thirties at that time would have branded her an old maid to most people, but like Laughlin she had her own strange allure and was even elected Most Excellent Chief of the Pythian Sisters of Indianapolis, a secret society. As they settled into a life in Bethel Park, they proved every bit the outwardly perfect family the 1950s expected. They had one child, Gerald Alexander Laughlin, Jr., and by all accounts lived happily.
If lives wax and wane, the man being shown the house in New Castle in the summer of 1967 was more crescent than full moon. A few years earlier, a radio documentary had launched an undercover investigation into the chiropractic office he shared with his partner and claimed to have discovered irregularities. The program, called “The Shadow World of Medicine,” made clear its distaste for the relatively young homeopathic practice. Merited or not, the public nature of the charges ensured the demise of Laughlin’s livelihood. The Bethel Park property was foreclosed and put up for auction, and the family found itself sleeping in a station wagon.
Under the weight of such strains, it is not surprising that by the time Laughlin toured the deserted home, he did so as a single man. And the house must have been more appealing to him than most. Beyond the benefit of not being a station wagon, it retained a grand and imposing character undiminished by the scars of time. You could say Laughlin sympathized.
Besides, the lease came with an option to buy for $7,500 at a time when the median price for a house stood at over three times that. Laughlin shook hands with the relieved realtor and signed the lease. As he received the keys to the mansion, he became its final resident.
Laughlin threw himself into repairs. Most of the houses window’s were broken, and the days found him sweeping endlessly. Repairing the house quickly proved every bit as daunting as repairing his life and reputation. “Work progressed slowly,” he later recalled, “and I became exhausted.”
His health failing, his finances obliterated by professional disgrace and divorce, Laughlin found himself discouraged. As is the case for most who take up residence in an old home, problems more severe and expensive than dirt and mildew became apparent. The plumbing needed repair beyond Laughlin’s own abilities, but he was loath to invest the necessary funds into a house that he had yet to commit to buying.
There were other peculiarities. In the early days of Dr. Gerald Laughlin’s residence at 1161 North Liberty, he became acquainted with an overwhelming stench he described as “age and an accumulation of dankness, dust and dirt.”
In his second week there, he was jarred out of a dead sleep. Since moving in, there had been no shortage of things on his mind to keep him awake. The what-ifs of his relationship with his wife, his son facing life without a father, the lost earning potential and career. This time, though, it wasn’t his thoughts that woke him, but a sound: A crash that shook the three-story brick structure.
Jumping to his feet and grabbing the bedside flashlight, he rushed from his room in the rear of the house to the main hall. Standing beside a staircase and wondering if the crash had come from upstairs, he stood in the dark, listening.
The beam of his flashlight, a skinny cylinder of light in which the dust floated and played, made the place seem endless and black.
Concluding that the sound must have come from outside, he spun toward the back door. Then he froze. Framed in the circle of light from his beam hovered a swirling white cloud. Regaining his senses, Laughlin assumed the sight must be smoke and rushed toward it in search of fire. But as he reached the spot, he found himself enveloped by what he described as a freezing, inescapable mist. Laughlin claimed “icy fingers, fiery in their coldness” clutched at every part of him. Paranormal researchers categorize mist as one of several manifestations of spirits, along with orbs, ectoplasm, shadows, and the more traditional apparitions that appear as they might have in life. Typically, mist is described as hovering above the ground and lasting only briefly. According to those who believe, the supernatural mist represents a spirit’s initial attempt to transform itself into a full-bodied apparition, manifesting either because it does not know or will not accept death, or fears the terrible judgment it knows it has earned.
For several seconds Laughlin described not being able to move, not even thinking except to repeat silently, desperately, God, deliver me from evil. Shortly after surrounding Laughlin, the mist dissolved. He might have proceeded to open the now-unobstructed door to explore outside, only he discovered that he was no longer standing at the back door but had somehow returned to the door of his bedroom.
There had to be a rational explanation, he told himself. Trembling, he walked to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. He drank in the dark, his nerves settling, then returned to bed, embarrassed over his fear. On the brink of sleep, he felt the icy fingers tickling his toes, feet, and knees, creeping ever upward. Laughlin opened his eyes and saw the mist again. He tried to sit up but could not, tried to scream, despite knowing the giant house would swallow up any sound, but could muster nothing. From the black night he plunged further into the oblivion of unconsciousness.
When he woke, he gave up trying to convince himself of a natural explanation. He rushed out of his room, absorbed in thoughts he could not process, and entered the dawn-suffused kitchen. The cabinets had been emptied, every pot and pan scattered, dishes smashed, towels in wadded heaps. Food strewn across the floor, coated with soap powder like fresh snow.
It was as if the place had been ransacked.
Old timers in New Castle knew well enough the house’s inglorious history.
When Alexander Long Crawford, the richest man the town had ever seen, arrived there in the middle of the nineteenth century, his wife and growing brood were in search of the perfect place to settle down. At first, they took up residence in a home on the town’s west side. It burned to the ground. Undeterred, Crawford decided to build a house on a sprawling estate whose eastern border was bounded by the Shenango River.
Fire was quite literally the cause of Crawford’s fortune. The mere thousand-degree flames that consumed his first house would have been put to shame by Crawford’s industrial, iron-producing furnaces, which burned at twice that temperature. Crawford’s success only grew when he built a furnace run on gas rather than coal, the first of its kind in the nation. A largely immigrant workforce flocked to New Castle to fill dangerous jobs. A newspaper at the time reported how one worker “fell into the funnel-shaped opening used for feeding the flames” and was found hours later with his limbs “completely burned off,” nothing remaining but a “burnt and blackened trunk.” It was the price of doing business.
From the furnace business grew a need for rail to move coal to the factories. Here too, Crawford oversaw expansion, transforming a few short tracks in coal country into the New Castle and Beaver Valley Railroad. And here, too, humanity lost another collision with industry when an employee was “instantly killed” by being “literally crushed between two cars.”
When Crawford completed his thirty-three room brick mansion in 1859, it stood as a manifestation of his success. From its upper cupola, he could watch his boats hauling his products down the Shenango River, his rail cars carrying his coal on his tracks further inland, and his furnaces pumping smoke into the air, filling New Castle with a perpetual, acrid mist. The land, the water, even the sky itself seemed to belong to the Crawford house.
But his wife, Mary, a withdrawn spiritualist who became the subject of much speculation for never attending church, tended to look within its walls rather than out its windows. The house that represented her husband’s achievements seemed to cruelly highlight her own tragedies. A vast place fit for a legion of children bore mocking witness to the death of three of her eight sons and daughters. New Castle’s press, reverential to their benefactors, never mentioned the infant deaths, though rumors persisted that one had involved “scalding.”
Shortly after moving into the house, Mary gave birth to one final child, a fair-haired boy named John List Crawford — List being Mary’s maiden name. He arrived in the late fall of 1861, just as his eldest brothers were signing up for the draft to fight for the North in the war against the South.
Mary’s children never spoke publicly of their mother, but, unusually for the era, every one of them left the area when they came of age, all but one leaving the state altogether. Approaching her golden years, Mary Crawford found herself largely on her own in the empty palace, her husband perpetually away for work. A local paper carried an obituary that described his sudden and peaceful passing to eternal reward following a bout of flu. Local rumors, persisting for decades, suggested a different end. Some said he hanged himself, others that he flung himself out a window.
In any event, Mary Crawford was finally, absolutely alone.
In her misery, the house seemed to constrict around her. She was confined to a single story when the stairs became insurmountable, and then a single room as she became increasingly bedridden. Mary could have been forgiven for resenting the house that seemed to have driven away all her children. As the winter of 1891 approached and it became clear that her life was ebbing, her children were summoned from across the country and gathered at her bedside. Only John, barely out of his twenties, was absent. He had left the country and was believed to be somewhere in Germany, but could not be located in time.
John’s absence cast a shadow on Mary’s final moments, leaving Mary only able to conjure him through memory. She died on December 5th, 1891, buried in the family cemetery on the northern edge of the estate, a mile away from the home.
With no family remaining in the area, the house was shuttered. For decades it sat deserted as the far-flung heirs sold off tracts of the surrounding estate. The sleepy, bucolic town of New Castle thrived, its population more than doubling between Mary’s death in 1891 and the turn of the century a decade later. New houses filled the old estate’s grounds, surrounding the empty mansion, and one by one, Mary’s surviving children died. By 1926, only John Crawford remained. On a rare trip to New Castle from his home in New York, John paid a visit to the family cemetery. As he surveyed the graves, a three-foot-long copperhead snake appeared, which John quickly struck and killed. The encounter was so rare as to be newsworthy, featured in the New Castle News the next day. It was the first sighting of such a snake in the area in years.
Crawford returned to New York and immediately sold the house to a New Castle civic group for one dollar. An uncharacteristic bit of charity for a man who had been selling lots from the estate since shortly after his mother’s death at hefty prices. He followed it up with an unsolicited cash donation of several thousand dollars. Shortly after, he stunned the town by offering yet another donation of several thousand more, this one to aid in a rather unusual renovation: destroying or removing every fireplace in the house.
The experience with the mist left Gerald Laughlin shaken, but he resolved to put the incident behind him and forge ahead. He had the leaky roof patched up and the electrical wiring and plumbing redone. As the weeks passed, the summer air cooled. The brambles of sumac that clouded the home’s view of the little-used train tracks tracing the curve of the Shenango River popped with blood-red cones.
The repairs drained what little money there was, and he had trouble making rent. As only the second tenant in over two decades, and one trying to upgrade the place, his landlord could only complain halfheartedly. While the contractors worked, Laughlin continued to explore the house. Though the mist had not reappeared, other things had begun to happen, easier to ignore, perhaps, but no less ominous. Slamming doors. Crashing sounds. It was as if no specific entity but rather the house itself had become displeased.
Beyond the fact that Laughlin had sunk his money into the place and couldn’t afford to start over — he had nowhere else to go, no family to turn to — the strange occurrences began to have the unusual effect of energizing him. He even began to suspect he had been drawn to the house deliberately, as if his experience in this place represented the culmination of his life and interests. He felt a gnawing compulsion to return the house to its former glory.
As his obsession grew, Laughlin spent hours at the courthouse downtown, an imposing structure fronted with Ionic columns that bore the weight of a gold-domed steeple. The hill it crowned made the already tall building loom over the whole town. Looking for hints about his home’s past, Laughlin uncovered nothing of interest. The library and its stacks of newspapers also yielded nothing. Laughlin’s research may have failed as the result of a misunderstanding. He believed the house to be over 150 years old, when it had, in fact, only been built a little more than a hundred years before.
Meanwhile, the repairs were not progressing as he’d hoped. The contractor hired to repair the broken windows explained that whole new frames would be needed. The man summoned an astronomical quote. Laughlin opted instead to simply board up the broken windows with plywood. He admitted that it “gave the house a blank look,” but still “served the purpose.” Laughlin rarely used the electric lights, a choice that saved on bills but also allowed him to further connect with his environment. Hypnotists, such as Laughlin, use candles as a form of “induction,” citing the calming nature of focusing on a single, concentrated source of light in the midst of darkness.
Where his search for official records fell short, local lore and gossip flowed freely. Just as he finished the last of the remodeling, he made a pair of startling discoveries. The first, a wall in the house on which had been drawn grids and columns of letters that made no obvious sense, along with a pentagram in which each segment contained equally perplexing letter combinations and symbols. He also uncovered a diary that had belonged to a member of the Crawford family.
Laughlin devoured it in disbelief, fragments in a panorama of heartache and grief. He learned, for example, that the imposing home on Liberty Street had begun a second life as an institution for children in need and was rechristened “Crawford Oakridge.” Dozens of boys and girls found themselves snatched from poverty to live in the former estate of a millionaire.
Members of the community filled the hallways for Christmas recitals in which fatherless children sang “Christmas Wish” and “Santa Claus.” Benefactors responded generously to the annual letters to Santa Claus written by the children and printed on the front page of the New Castle News. In one of the letters, 11-year-old Lena Denako asked for roller skates, gloves, a sweater, and a tam (or cap). Her younger sister Annie also asked for gloves, a sweater, and a tam, but wanted a sewing set rather than roller skates. On their baby brother’s behalf, they wrote: “I am a little boy two years old. I would like to have a boy baby doll and a rubber ball and candy.”
Even amid the cheer, however, shadows fell. Constant grass fires seemed to plague the fields surrounding the three-story home, giving the children a regular view of orange flame dancing between the trees. In the heat of summer, Lena Denako and her sister Annie ventured down to the Shenango River with other girls. They were joined as well by another of their siblings, Jane. After a day of swimming, the girls started back. Crawford Oakridge stood within eyeshot, no more than a hundred yards from the shore. But the path was crossed by a pair of railroad tracks than ran parallel to the river. Jane Denako, who lingered to comb her hair, was the only one of the group to stay behind as the other four proceeded home. A freight train idled deafeningly on the tracks. As they hurried past it, the four girls in a tight pack were struck by a passenger train flying down the next set of tracks, hidden by the freight. All were killed instantly.
A playground was installed afterwards on the grounds of Crawford Oakridge, donated by a local company. The newspapers advertised it as being open to use by local children as well as the inhabitants of the home, but it seemed more a morbid memorial than a place to play. The home closed soon afterward, and the playground was dismantled.
Discouraged leaders of the town discussed converting the mothballed Crawford home into a workhouse for young women, but the plans never came to fruition, leaving the house empty and silent once more, waiting gloomily for its next occupant.
Local legends about a macabre old house would have been ancient history to the younger generation of New Castle by the summer of 1967. After coming of age running drills to prepare for Soviet nuclear attacks, these teenagers and twenty-somethings now faced the terror of war in Vietnam. New Castle seemed hit particularly hard by the draft. Every day, the newspaper ran columns devoted to listing the names of young men who had been inducted, promoted, decorated, discharged, or killed.
One such young man was Jack Sweeney, a round-faced twenty-one-year-old with a compact mouth, thick-framed glasses, and long hair. He didn’t look the part of a Marine Corps veteran recently returned from Vietnam, but his aimlessness upon coming home to New Castle was a hallmark of recently discharged soldiers.
Sweeney found a kindred spirit in another restless soul, Bill Corbin, a seventeen-year-old who had hitchhiked east from California when the rest of the country’s youth seemed to be going the opposite way. It was Corbin who first told Sweeney about a kindhearted man in New Castle, “Doc” Laughlin, who had a soft spot for down-on-their-luck wanderers and plenty of room to crash. Corbin moved in, and Sweeney became a fixture. As for Doc, the extra hands were a godsend. Sweeney and Corbin were also roughly the same age as Laughlin’s son. Helping these two, he could hold out hope that his own son might re-enter his life.
By now, Laughlin was all but broke. While his landlord may have been inclined to ignore missed payments, the electric company certainly wasn’t. Nor the water company. Winter was fast approaching, bringing with it the challenge of heating a poorly insulated, labyrinthine 33-room house with no working fireplaces. For a while, the trio of castoffs seemed to ignore the crisis, passing the days playing pinochle. Laughlin also spent time compiling the contents of the diary he had uncovered, along with various other town legends, recounting the events into a tape recorder.
Sweeney and Corbin started bringing around friends from town to show off the reputedly haunted house. The community in general seemed to have a growing interest in the house and the supernatural things that were said to occur there. It was on this swell of interest, and with his last pennies tied up in the incomplete restoration, that Laughlin alighted on a groundbreaking idea. Appearing in the town offices, he procured a permit. It was a quintessentially American move: finding himself in a haunted house, he would charge admission for the privilege of touring it.
A small advertisement in the New Castle News depicted a menacing looking bat, wings outstretched. It said, simply: “See a real haunted house with secret passages. Reservations only $5 per couple.”
The first big test came when a raven-haired 17-year-old named Helen, who was working as a staff writer for the local paper at the end of her high school summer break, arrived at the house one evening. As Laughlin greeted her at the door, the reek of incense slapped her across the face. Walking in, the first object Helen noticed was a new vending machine filled with candy — an idea Laughlin had cooked up to increase profits. It was less than foreboding, even in the darkened room, which was lit only by candles.
Lingering in the entryway, Laughlin provided an introduction, telling the house’s history and describing his unexplainable experiences since moving in. He asked her to follow him as he walked slowly through the rooms of the ground floor. She looked about as they walked, struck by the total lack of furniture. The rooms, altogether empty except for a few mirrors set at odd angles, lent the place a strange, dreamlike character. Peeling paint and dusty woodwork added to the atmosphere.
Helen made it clear she did not think the place was exceptionally different from any other old house. Laughlin had to sweat what she might write for the paper. In a small town, one bad piece of press could be the last. Maybe it was all a mistake, he considered. Maybe by trying to share the experiences he was muddling them.
As she exhaled with boredom and skepticism, an empty bottle suddenly flew across a room before smashing against the floor. Helen looked at Laughlin.
“Were you frightened?” he asked.
“No,” Helen muttered. But even after examining the room, she was at a loss to explain away the bottle.
Cynics often went from dismissive to overwhelmed over the course of a tour. As word spread, something remarkable began to happen: People started to come. They came on jaunts from surrounding towns and on long road trips from other states. No house believed to be actively haunted had ever been open to the public before in the history of America. It was as thrilling as if the beleaguered family in Amityville’s infamous house threw open their doors to the world for a modest fee.
Rather than guiding each tour himself, Laughlin began playing the tape he had recorded, which gave a history of the house and its many tragic and mysterious occurrences. He invited the visitors to follow the red arrows he had painted on the floor, guiding them from room to room. They’d cross through a seance room he set up, a single candle on the table spreading light flimsily into the oppressive darkness. The other rooms had no light at all. Many experienced nothing out of the ordinary, though the pitch black basement, the mirrors casting strange lights and shadows, and the maze of secret passageways were enough to give people chills.
Other visitors saw books tumble from a shelf or windows open and then slam shut. Laughlin documented such occurrences with increasing frequency. He would later remark that it seemed “almost as if they had been waiting to show off, the forces within the house became manifest.”
One night, when Sweeney and Corbin were out and Laughlin found himself alone, a pair of sisters came for the tour. As had become his practice, he played the tape, gave them a candle, and pointed them toward the series of red arrows they should follow.
After they had finished the tour, they gave Laughlin back the candle and inquired in passing who the young man had been and why he refused to speak to them. Perplexed, Laughlin explained that there was no one else in the house. They insisted Laughlin was wrong, and both described him in turn: tall, “very blond,” dressed in black. He had followed them through every room, leading them to the natural assumption he was some sort of assistant, which made it all the more baffling that he would not answer any of their questions. Eventually, they tried to approach him and he backed away, beyond the wan illumination of their sputtering candle. Then he was gone.
Even if the boys had somehow entered without Laughlin noticing, the girls’ description did not match either of them. Laughlin assured the visitors, and himself, that they must have hallucinated, insisting that between the eerie setting and the lack of light from the candle, “almost anything might be imagined.”
Every guest that walked through the door represented hope. Even with the small admission fee, the more people that showed up, the better chance Laughlin had of digging out of his financial hole. Financial redemption gave him a shot to win back his estranged wife and, most importantly, to repair his relationship with his son.
To think of his son was to think of one particular night sleeping in the station wagon. The cold kept Laughlin from sleep, so he decided to set up a portable heater. As he dozed off, invisible fumes seeped from the heater and spread, strangling his son, who woke in a coughing fit. The whole family wound up hospitalized. It proved the breaking point. He no longer controlled his circumstances as much as they controlled him.
Now, Laughlin was turning the darkness of 1161 North Liberty into a second chance to prove himself. His openness to the abnormal could lead him back to normalcy.
Jack Sweeney was living proof of the house’s ability to provide second chances. His stint in the military, so often advertised as giving young men direction, had left him as aimless and detached as ever. Even his closest friends tended to describe him as aloof. But at 1161 North Liberty, he finally seemed to find a connection. As long as the house stood, Jack Sweeney had a purpose and a place.
Maybe part of it was that Sweeney had so few other places to go. All of his siblings had been killed in a house fire four years before he was born. When he was two, another fire engulfed his home and killed his father shortly before illness claimed his mother. It seemed little wonder he could often be found poring over books on ESP and the occult or jotting down his thoughts on the same. The house seemed to hold a strange and ever-growing attraction to him. Sweeney and the growing group of regulars became a kind of ragtag family.
To make it all work, Laughlin needed to keep up the cash flow. He made every effort to get the word out, and by the end of the year counted 2,000 paying visitors. He often had to keep admitting visitors until five in the morning. He held a dinner and dance on Halloween night, at inflated prices. He relished sharing the “new and startling experience” of the house.
One night, a couple who had been on the tour rushed to confront Laughlin on their way out. The girl was in hysterics, while her date, clearly frightened himself, demanded to know who the tall blond man dressed in black had been. He’d followed them into every room. Through her fits, the girl managed to join the boy in swearing he had vanished before their eyes.
Laughlin tried his best to comfort the pair as he helped guide them out of the house. But later he beamed, feeling a perverse thrill as others confirmed the strange phenomena of the house. Guest after guest insisted upon the presence of the young blond man in black, even though, bafflingly, Laughlin had not encountered that apparition himself. He began taking detailed notes. Mostly the same description, but others as well. A woman in gray, sobbing inconsolably. An old man with a gray mustache, dressed in tweeds and cap like a well-to-do fox hunter.
Accumulating his “data” on the house, Laughlin recorded ongoing reports of slamming doors, furniture rising from the ground and hovering in place. Vague, sourceless voices. And the mist, freezing cold as it surrounded visitors, confirming his own encounters.
More and more of the visitors left before finishing. Laughlin began to incorporate a challenge into his promotions: If you make it through by yourself — money back. He felt more and more certain he had mastered the vagaries of the house. As the year concluded, Laughlin described himself as “rather smug about living in the place,” and “very much in command of the situation.”
It must have seemed like the ultimate vindication when KDKA of Pittsburgh, the same news outlet that had ruined Laughlin with its damning investigative report on his medical practice, made the trek to New Castle to film a tour through the house’s darkened rooms. Other film crews came from as far away as Nashville. When a reporter from Ohio wrote a story, the Associated Press picked it up and ran it in papers across the country. The house that had been dormant for so long became “world famous,” as Laughlin couldn’t resist boasting.
The town’s leaders did not appreciate the publicity. The world was being introduced to the little-known town through a house that was at best rundown and at worst demonic. Meanwhile, hundreds of cars snarled up the roads, parking on lawns all along North Liberty Street.
With the Vietnam War reaching its zenith, draft cards tucked into the wallets of young men felt heavier than the paper they were printed on. This cohort flocked in ever greater numbers to 1161 North Liberty — drinking, smoking, railing against their fate in the company of ghosts. A place that had scared away so many became a sanctuary for them from a world that wanted to use them, blame them, discard them. Most seemed more interested in the freedom they enjoyed in the home, and the company of fellow outcasts, than in its increasing reputation as haunted. At some of the house’s events they would dress up for the benefit of the paying guests. One kid, who had learned to appreciate his club foot when it got him out of the draft, now displayed it proudly as he clomped around Laughlin’s house in a cheap Dracula costume. Another hanger-on, dressed as a ghost, had a habit of dismissing any claims of the supernatural and brashly declaring that “it takes a lot to scare me.”
One night, this skeptic slipped out of his ghost costume for a break in the kitchen where the tours never went. The most grizzled veteran of wars may spend years in the midst of combat without ever thinking back on it, but still be perpetually haunted by the movement of a shadow across the closet door of their childhood bedroom. To this day, the man can never forget standing there in Laughlin’s kitchen as he watched the refrigerator, with its heavy-handled latch, suddenly burst open.
As teens and young adults continued to gather, the police showed an interest in the house they never had before. They materialized at parties and threw the most extreme charges they could come up with at anyone they managed to collar. At one point, Corbin took in a girl who needed a place to stay. She turned out to be a minor and a runaway, and both Laughlin and Corbin got thrown in jail until a judge summarily threw the case out.
Another time, Sweeney thought to put his passion for writing to use by creating, with a pair of others, a magazine. Laughlin supported the idea, probably motivated more by a desire to foster the boy’s talent than to make any real money. He helped with the printing and promised he would take care of getting a license to sell it. He neglected to get around to the latter. Sweeney and his “accomplices” found themselves tossed in jail, along with Laughlin, for distributing indecent literature. When it turned out there was nothing indecent about it, the charges were quietly reduced to distributing without a license. Sweeney, Laughlin, and one of the other boys managed to make bail after only a night in jail, but the other alleged conspirator spent two months incarcerated before going in front of a judge, who dismissed the charges out of hand.
It became a rare month that the paper did not record someone from the house getting hauled in. In one case, a young man was arrested for burglarizing Laughlin’s house. Preposterously, Laughlin was arrested, too. The young man had been living there.
Several of the boys blamed “Doc” for the trouble. Most stopped coming around, though Sweeney remained. If the town authorities wanted to keep people away from the house, the house seemed to have its own agenda.
Jack Sweeney and the diminishing crew of locals weren’t the only regulars. There were the visitors, too, who came time and time again after experiencing the unexplainable. Fascinated, morbidly attracted, seemingly compelled to return.
Nancy, whose actual name was withheld from contemporary accounts, regularly made the drive from Youngstown, Ohio, to New Castle to revisit the halls and rooms and passageways. While other young, midwestern women turned to communes and political protests, Nancy sought a different way of making sense of a world out-of-balance. Sometimes she brought a friend or a relative, but on one occasion Nancy came alone.
After finishing the loop of the second story, candle in hand, Nancy stood at the top of the staircase about to start down when, according to her account, some disembodied force threw her forward. She tumbled, colliding with the hard ground floor. The candle, flinging itself from her hand, extinguished in the rush. It rolled slowly away in the darkness as the girl lay there, terrified but miraculously unhurt, catching her breath in the pitch-black and silence.
The darkness was suddenly broken as the candle, lying on its side a few feet away, fluttered back to life with a bright flame. Then the silence too came to an end as the high-pitched laughter of a woman echoed down the stairs.
With the police and a faction of his surrogate sons turning against him, Laughlin saw the changes in the house as a foreboding sign. The furniture that had once reportedly floated gently in the air was suddenly being picked up and dropped with terrible force. The slamming doors and crashing sounds became deafening.
Laughlin confided to a visiting reporter that “the temper of the manifestations began to change.” A door swung open with incredible force, barely missing a visitor approaching it. Explosions began to rock the house like bombs. Subsequent investigations usually revealed no sign of damage and no hint of what had caused the sound, but once, a solid fire escape door was sent flying off its hinges and outward into the night, landing in the yard. An examination of the door’s frame and the room behind it showed no sign of anything to provide any sort of explanation.
Another time, Laughlin, rushing up to the attic with a group of others, described marveling to find heavy doors reduced to splinters.
Just past midnight on the morning of September 15th, Donald Glaeser concluded his tour of the house and walked to his car. A hole was torn through the roof of the convertible; the story wound up the next morning in the local paper. Not long after her tumble down the stairs, Nancy returned from Youngstown with her mother and sister in tow. After an uneventful walkthrough of the house, it’s impossible to know whether Nancy felt reassured or crazy. But as the three of them passed out of town into the dark and overgrown fields of Western Pennsylvania, they reported a pair of faint green lights just beyond the windshield. Suddenly, the lights took on the appearance of a pair of eyes. Nancy’s sister, who was driving the car, had little time to take the sight in before the vehicle began to shake uncontrollably and sway across the road. Unable to get control of the car, Nancy veered it off the side of the road where the three of them, “badly shaken,” sat stunned for a half hour before trying to drive on.
At the same time, Laughlin began to become, by his own admission, unhinged. As more and more visitors described a certain sense of being indescribably overcome, he himself was engulfed by a paranoia that “something or someone was trying to possess my own mind as well as my body.”
Increasingly, the reports that Laughlin documented involved visitors driving away from the house following a visit. A pattern emerged. Though details differed, several reported entering some bizarre trance, losing control of their car, or being overcome by an unstoppable compulsion and finding themselves driving to the gates of the cemetery a mile north of the house: The Crawford family cemetery.
In his accounting of the mysteries of the house, Laughlin’s final report is of three “young lads in their teens.” They came, toured, and left.
The next day, Laughlin recognized their photographs in the newspaper. Upon leaving, they had been in an unexplained one-car accident. Only one had survived.
“My conscience nags me unmercifully,” he lamented of the tragedy. It may have been the first time he wondered “if [he had] done a proper thing in opening the house to the public.”
One Saturday night, at his wit’s end, Laughlin gathered the few friends who had yet to abandon him, such as the quietly loyal Sweeney, to talk things over. The conversation was interrupted by a loud crash upstairs. By now, all of those gathered knew that they would find nothing, but they rushed up just the same.
Following the crash, those present agreed they should hold a seance, but first locked every door in the house. The group took up seats around a large table Laughlin had put in to create a certain atmosphere for the public. He never imagined actually using it in a desperate last-ditch bid for help. But everything had changed, and Laughlin could no longer deny it.
The house that had given him a fresh start had turned on him. The mist had grown to the point that it enveloped every part of the house at times, an unsettling re-creation of the fumes in the station wagon that almost killed his own child. The house that had taken him in at his lowest point was now taking everything from him.
“My dream-come-true,” he admitted, “is uncontrollable, a nightmare.”
They blew out the lone candle illuminating the room and found themselves in complete darkness.
Reflecting the secretive nature of the gathering, Laughlin kept details out of his personal notes about the seance. Sweeney’s understanding of the supernatural made him the obvious candidate to oversee the ritual. For Nancy, the seance gave her a chance to explore her obsession with a house that had now twice put her life in mortal danger.
The seance leader, likely Sweeney, “called a greeting and suggested the door was open for the entry of good entities.” Before he could continue, the room’s electric lights, scarcely used, reportedly flashed on, blinding the group. Then off again, and on. There was a thump as one of the attendees collapsed to the floor. Another man — evidence points to Sweeney — began to shout savagely and slam his fists against the table. Though an introvert, the former Marine was capable of great physical force. Others started to shriek as Laughlin, still a doctor at heart, rushed to the side of the one who had fallen. A few of the others who managed to keep their heads hurried to find the light switch amid a scene Laughlin described as “pandemonium.”
When they managed to get the lights on, some measure of calm returned. Silent beyond their heavy breathing, the group watched as Laughlin peered over the collapsed man, who was beginning to come to. The man swore he had never fainted before in his life.
As the others began to try and explain their behavior, Sweeney appears to have had the most vivid experience. He admitted sheepishly that he had felt hands on his back and was overcome with a certainty that a “force was trying to possess his body.” He had been absolutely convinced that in only a few more moments it would be too late and he would be doomed if the lights did not come back on.
Throughout Laughlin’s final weeks in the house, he welcomed attempts for anyone to find a logical explanation for the increasingly violent occurrences. He provided sworn testimony that the house was not “gimmicked or wired” and insisted that “it is and always has been open for inspection.”
An inspection of a different sort took place when two local police officers, a detective, and two state troopers appeared at the house for a safety inspection. Shortly after, town leaders declared the house at 1161 North Liberty Street condemned and forced Laughlin, Sweeney, and any other remaining guests out.
Authorities struggled to give a consistent reason for the condemnation. “Unsanitary” was the first charge, later escalated to a more ominous “fire hazard,” though other explanations were offered, depending on which authority was asked.
Maybe it was a sense of stubborn defiance, or a concern for where his loyal outcasts would live, or the fact that he himself had no other place to go, or maybe it was just faith that the house could still be sufficiently controlled, but Laughlin decided he had to take a stand. The house had turned into a curse, but to abandon it was to abandon his own last chance for redemption. It had become a part of him, and he had become part of it.
The Department of Labor and Industry consistently refused to present him with charges. After repeated demands, they insisted he comply with fire safety regulations. When he tried to clarify precisely what that entailed, he was answered with silence. Indignant over the loss of his last means of livelihood, he groused to a reporter: “I have already been judged and convicted — but I will go down fighting.”
In talking to the members of the unusual crew who found refuge in the house, a number of whom live in New Castle to this day, there are any number of disagreements about what happened when and to whom. But a common insistence from all of them is that the house was in perfectly good shape, thanks in no small part to the work and money Laughlin had put into it.
Almost exactly four months after the house was condemned, it no longer mattered.
By 6:30 on the morning of Friday, October 9th, 1970, the blaze that engulfed the 110-year-old house at 1161 North Liberty Street had finally been brought under control. It had taken two fire departments four hours and thousands of gallons of water. Now, the last muddy hoses were gathered and rolled and taken back to the station to be washed and laid out to dry.
As the final truck rolled from the scene, water found its way to the joints of floorboards and pooled in the basement. In the still-black predawn, the slosh of water echoed in a silence broken only by the hiss of cicadas and the trills of the chipping sparrows perched in trees looming over the once grand mansion.
But there was another sound, too. Sparse and uncertain at first, emanating from the untouched spaces between wall and beam, a low crackle like the pop of ancient joints. Imperceptible, then louder, more frequent, tiny glowing embers nestled dry in the haven of the house’s skin grew slowly into flames that touched the walls and beams. The flames spread until the whole house blazed again.
1161 North Liberty once more crackled over the scanners. Scrambling back to the scene, the firefighters tore open more walls, filled every crevice with thousands more gallons of water that rushed down the muddied lawn, across the street, down the easy slope to the train tracks and then, finally, into the wide ribbon of the Shenango River.
At last satisfied that every possible corner had been drenched and the last ember extinguished, the firefighters left. Though arson was ruled out, no cause was ever identified for the massive conflagration.
Laughlin all but disappeared after leaving Liberty Street. The last records show him living alone in Pittsburgh before dying in 2007. He placed an ad in the local paper in the early nineties trying to sell an antique medical bag.
Shortly after the last remnants of the house were torn down, Jack Sweeney abruptly walked out of his job at H. Wolfe Iron and Metal Co. He did not bother returning for his last paycheck. A few friends, including those who had been displaced and scattered by the condemnation and then fiery destruction of their old hangout, that refuge for lost souls, grew concerned. They found Sweeney on the banks of the Shenango River trying to build a raft from 55-gallon drums and uncured logs. He had been possessed, they discovered, of a compulsion to raft all the way down to New Orleans.
He ignored their objections and suggestions that if he insisted on some sort of adventure he should go to Canada, or maybe hitchhike as far as he cared to go. Finally, they offered to at least help build the raft, but this too he refused. He was more detached than usual, fixated on the task, scribbling notes in a diary.
Exactly one week after he first devised the plan, Sweeney set out on the raft. Two days later, his body was pulled from the water at the junction of the Shenango River and Neshannock Creek, easily within view of the house that no longer stood.
The investigating detective could find no cause for the drowning and was stuck with the guess that he had either fallen and knocked himself out or somehow been pinned down by the raft. Shaking his head at the notion of Sweeney’s desperate bid to leave New Castle, the officer muttered six words, a eulogy that could have as easily been applied to Mary Crawford, to the workers obliterated while operating the Crawford-backed furnaces and rails, to the girls who met their end on the railroad tracks, or to the carful of tourists who never made it home from visiting the house on Liberty Street, all of them mere yards away from the place of Sweeney’s demise.
“The poor kid never got out.”
Patrick Glendon McCullough lives in Callicoon, New York, with his wife and two sons. His work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and The Believer.
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