Haunted Newport: The House that Refused to Keep Quiet

One of Newport's many Gilded Age mansions

 "And ever since then, when the clock strikes two,
She walks unbidden from room to room.
And the air is filled that she passes through
With a subtle, sad perfume."

So ends a poem by 19th century author Bret Harte, who chose the above words to describe a haunted house in Newport, Rhode Island.

Since the age of railroad tycoons and steel barons, the coastal city of Newport has been the resort town of choice for the upper crust of American society. The likes of the Vanderbilts and Astors built their mammoth "summer cottages" there, and the city of Newport also boasts a strong naval and military heritage dating back to Colonial times.

With its long naval history, it is not surprising that many of our nation's top admirals and naval commanders have called Newport home. In the early 20th century, the city was home to a Navy hero by the name of Hugh Sweeney. In December of 1905, Sweeney became a national celebrity after he sailed the heavily-damaged gunboat Wasp safely into Newport Harbor.

Although Sweeney's accomplishment in itself has very little bearing on the rest of this story, it's worth telling. The Wasp, under the command of Chief Boatswain Hugh Sweeney, was ordered to render assistance to the brig Henry Smith, which had been caught in a gale and was in distress off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.

This was easier said than done, since the Wasp only had one functioning boiler. But since it was the only vessel close enough to reach the sinking Henry Smith, Sweeney piloted the boat into the heart of the storm in order to save whatever lives he could. By nightfall the Wasp, manned entirely by inexperienced apprentice sailors, reached a point known as No Man's Land, and Sweeney decided to remain there until morning in the hope of riding out the storm.

Unfortunately for Sweeney, the storm gathered strength and the Wasp was buffeted by dangerous icy waves and 70-mile-per-hour winds. The Wasp was taking on water. Sweeney ordered his men to the bilge pump, only to discover that it-- much like everything else on the tiny ship-- wasn't working properly. There was nothing left to do but bring out the buckets and start bailing by hand. After four hours, all hope appeared lost. The engine was dead and the Wasp was sinking. Sweeney fired off his distress rockets, but no help came.
Sweeney had no choice but to turn back and make a desperate attempt to reach Newport before the gunboat sank. With its steam engine dead and lifeless, the gunboat drifted back safely at the rate of two knots per hour (roughly the same speed as an Olympic short-distance swimmer). Miraculously, no lives were lost.

Yet, while letters of praise and admiration poured in from around the country, the private home life of Hugh Sweeney was turning into a living hell; the hero of the Wasp happened lived in one of Newport's most haunted houses.

The troubles began in late July of 1906, when the Sweeneys began hearing a mysterious knocking coming from between the walls of their rented home on Church Street. His family begged him to call the police. Patrolmen arrived a few minutes later and heard the strange rapping sounds for themselves, and the knocks appeared to be emanating from every room in the house. The officers spent an hour trying to solve the mystery, but left the Sweeney home completely baffled.

With each passing day the knocking became louder and angrier; Hugh Sweeney's terror-stricken children found it impossible to sleep. On July 29, Colonel Jeremiah Horton, who was president of the police commission-- as well as the owner of the property-- decided to take drastic measures. He ordered some of the walls torn down but, to his surprise, could not find anything that would account for the terrifying sounds.
The really odd part, however, was that the unseen knockers seemed to be communicating with each other. If a series of three quick, short raps were heard in one room, an identical series of three quick, short raps would come in response from another room.

Trinity Church graveyard, directly across the street from Sweeney's house

And it wasn't just the Sweeneys were were driven to the brink of insanity by the maddening knocks. The upstairs tenants, Mrs. Sarah Muenchinger and her two young daughters, were also plagued by the home's unseen inhabitants. The police, suspecting that one of the two families might be playing a prank upon the other, gathered up all of the members of both households and quarantined them in a single room. But still the knocks continued throughout the entire property, from the basement to the attic.

The house on Church Street became a tourist attraction of sorts; hundreds of people from the Newport area gathered outside the Sweeney home each day. Many reported that they had been able to hear the knocking from across the street where, incidentally, one of New England's oldest graveyards can be found, adjacent to the historic Trinity Church, which was built in 1698.

Sadly, the heroic commander of the Wasp died less than years later at the Naval Hospital in Boston of abdominal cancer. Perhaps in death the brave boatswain finally discovered what, or who, had been tormenting him in life.