Maine town appears quieter than its ‘spirits’

By William A. Davis
Globe Correspondent / October 31, 2010

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BETHEL, Maine — Centuries ago it was widely believed that Halloween, the evening before the Feast of All Saints, was the one time in the year when spirits of the dead freely roamed the earth. There are still people who believe in ghosts and some who think there are places where numbers of these restless spirits are present all the time.

One such reputed haunt haven is Bethel, an old resort town of some 2,400 year-round residents on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest. “I think we have a dozen ghosts here, maybe more,’’ says Stanley Howe, research director of the Bethel Historical Society.

Bethel was founded in 1774 and its historic district has some 40 houses ranging from late-18th-century cottages to turreted Victorian mansions.

Howe lives in a house in the historic district built in 1821. When he first moved in, he says, he would occasionally feel a presence coming up behind him. “I would spin around and my cat would turn at the same time,’’ he recalls. “We both felt something.’’

A student of the paranormal, Howe is a follower of the late Hans Holzer. The Austrian-born Holzer was a self-described ghost hunter and author and popular lecturer on parapsychology. Howe shares Holzer’s view that ghosts are “just fellow human beings who are confused about their status and in distress.’’

Bethel’s transformation from farming community to a resort began in 1895 when Dr. John G. Gehring, a physician from Cleveland, established a clinic for people suffering from what were then called “nervous disorders.’’

Gehring used innovative therapies with an emphasis on exercise and outdoor activities, including having patients cut down trees and clear brush for what is now the Bethel Inn’s golf course. The inn, which opened in 1913, was largely financed by a group of well-to-do former patients.

The Gehring Clinic closed in 1920 but a number of buildings that housed patients still stand. The original clinic building, which was also Gehring’s home, was built in 1896 and is Bethel’s grandest 19th-century house. After the clinic closed it was later occupied by the National Training Laboratory’s summer institute, which offered programs in human relations and group dynamics. Howe says a few years ago two women, who were sharing a room while participating in an NTL program, reported waking up in the night and seeing what looked like a young boy jumping up and down on a bed.

At The Oaks, now part of the Bethel Inn but built in the 1890s and once used as a clinic dormitory, there have been sightings of a mysterious woman in black along with sounds of high heels where no one could be seen.

Recently, a guest in the inn claimed to have had a 15-minute conversation with an apparition. The guest reported that the ghostly woman said her name was Julie and that she was trying to find a nurse. Just before vanishing the apparition supposedly whispered: “Don’t tell!’’ Bethel Inn housekeeping manager Laura Taylor says she has several times seen a strange woman who fits Julie’s description.

The Chapman Inn, which like the Bethel Inn looks out on the common, is said to have at least one but possibly two resident ghosts. One is suspected of being the daughter of the building’s original owner, a girl named Abigail Chapman, who died in her teens in the house after a long illness; and the other a woman who had been her paid companion.

“We kept hearing from guests about strange things such as the sound of women’s voices coming from empty rooms, a mysterious black cat, and a girl in a white dress who disappeared,’’ says Fred Nolte, who runs the inn with his wife, Sandra Frye.

The innkeepers contacted ParaPatrol, a Massachusetts-based organization of volunteer paranormal investigators who will check out suspected haunted houses anywhere in New England free of charge. The ParaPatrol team set up “ghost detection’’ equipment in the four rooms where the most unusual activity had been reported. Their conclusion: The inn “exhibited definite paranormal activity consistent with an intelligent haunt.’’

William A. Davis can be reached at

If You Go

Bethel Historical Society 10 Broad St., Bethel, Maine
Bethel Inn
21 Broad St.
Chapman Inn
2 Church St.