The Legend of Abel Sanford

When I was young, the neighborhood house I remembered the best was a large brick colonial on Sport Hill Road about a half mile north of the Easton – Redding town line. We knew it then as the Marshall House.

Caroline Clark Marshall was the daughter of William Clark, the President of Aetna Insurance in Hartford. She was born on December 18, 1883, in Hartford. Her first husband was Rufus Guy Hinton, a pharmaceutical researcher, who on July 19, 1916, took his own life.

In 1917, Caroline Clark Hinton published her first book of poetry, “The Pinnacle: A Book of Verse.”

In 1927, Caroline sponsored a man for citizenship by the name of Ernest Mackenzie Marshall. Marshall was a trained chemist (who never seemed to ply that trade in this country) who was then employed by her as a “manuscript reader.” Marshall, who was divorced, had come to the US from Scotland in 1914. On November 19th, 1928, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. It was sometime within this timeframe that they married and Caroline, who was undoubtedly rather wealthy, purchased the Sport Hill Road estate with the big brick house in Redding. Caroline gave birth to a daughter, Caroline Hollister Marshall, in Redding sometime in 1928. Caroline Clark Marshall was then 45 years old & her husband, 55. Sometime in 1931, the couple adopted another daughter, Alice, who was born in that same year. Alice was also the name of Caroline’s older sister who passed in 1915. Nowhere other than the 1940 U.S. Census is there another mention of this little girl, including none of Ernest’s, Caroline’s, and their other daughter’s obituaries. Whatever happened to her has remained a mystery to this day. But there were many mysteries involving the Marshall House.

The Squire James Sanford House in 1937 when Caroline & Ernest Marshall owned the property.

Ernest Marshall passed away in 1952. Caroline moved to Westport shortly thereafter but retained ownership of the house on Sport Hill Road, visiting it only occasionally during the next fifteen years.

In the 1950’s that stretch of Sport Hill contained only three houses. The southernmost house had been built by stone mason James Mellen, who cut the great granite cornices for the house that Caroline Marshall bought in 1927. The main house, built of brick by Squire James Sanford in 1848, sat on the eastern side of the road and there was a large carriage house that sat on the western side. The carriage house was also the residence of the Marshall’s caretaker during the 1930’s and early 1940’s. The other residence was a late 1800’s Victorian that had been built and occupied by members the Sanford family, the last one being one of the Squire’s youngest sons, Charles.

As the 1950’s progressed, the main house gradually took on the look of abandonment. The once prominent and well-manicured English gardens became overgrown as the weeds slowly choked out the iris and peony beds. The shrubs grew tall and wide, soon looking more like natural vegetation than neatly shaped accents of the once great estate. There were brick paths that led from the main house to a stately brick tea house at the north end of the lawn, but by then, they were largely obscured by the grass that had slowly invaded their territory, while the tea house had become enshrouded with wild vines.

There were a couple of shutters that had come lose from the upper story windows and then lay in the garden beds below. The lawn was still being mowed two or three times each season but the leaves that fell each fall were largely left to self-compost and return their nutrients to the soil.

The elegant iron gates began to rust, the driveway crumbled as the harsh New England winters heaved the ground below, and the painted trim of the windows faded and peeled away.

For all the world, that house took on a sense of despair and gloom that would have likely appalled the home’s original owner, Squire James Sanford. Sanford had been a successful Redding businessman, owning a foundry in the valley that produced iron plows and decorative fencing like the one that surrounded his home. He built that elegant brick house on the hill back in 1848. He raised several children and his sons manufactured buttons in three separate factories that were powered by the waters of the Aspetuck. The good squire was buried in the family cemetery at the southern end of the original estate, and as kids living in that neighborhood, we were certain that he or one of his heirs was still watching over the place.

Easton and Redding had once been favorite places for writers, actors, and successful New York business executives to spend their summers. Many of those summer places were hidden in the woods along some of the local dirt roads that by the 1950’s saw little traffic and even less maintenance. As I write this, I can think of at least eight or nine of those summer homes that spent much of the 1950’s closed up and mostly unoccupied for at least several years running. As curious young boys, the five of us closest in age in that neighborhood, spent much of our summer vacation exploring the crumbling foundations of the long gone factories and the seemingly abandoned cabins and houses where gala summer parties had once hosted the likes of Ida Tarbell, Noble Hoggson, and Jeanette Gilder.

1910. Party goers outside the stone walls of Noble Hoggson’s Fairfield Manor summer estate on Poverty Hollow Road in Redding.

But by far and away the most interesting place was the grand brick mansion on Sport Hill Road. The longer it sat empty, the more we began to formulate tales as to why. By the late 1950’s we were convinced something sinister had occurred there and that the place was haunted. Adding to the mystery was the occasional appearance of an aging black Packard that would quietly appear deep in the driveway for no more than a day or two at a time before silently exiting the neighborhood for months on end. Not one of us could recall seeing who came or went in that car.

It was late in June and dusk was approaching one evening when the five brave souls of Sport Hill Road conjured up enough collective courage to venture beyond the rusting iron fence that had always been the official boundary which we had never dared to cross. We had no intent to disturb anything or do any damage. We mostly respected other folks’ property and privacy – unless perhaps, they weren’t around to catch us looking.

We had reached the point where we just had to know if that house was completely abandoned, or if perhaps there was still someone who lived there on occasion. It was pre-Hitchcock’s “Pyscho”, so we certainly weren’t expecting to see Norman Bates’ mother’s taxidermized carcass sitting in the window, but we were rather nervous about what we might run across as we began to peer through the dirty windowpanes.

Sixty-five years ago, we didn’t know what the impending weather was going to be until it was virtually upon us. That evening, it had been a bit cloudy but there had been no distant booms of thunder to warn us of an approaching storm. Five young boys were nervously peering through the windows at the rear of the house when it happened.

A bolt of lightning struck so close by that the large iron bell that hung on the south gable on the far end of the house rang out along with the enormous boom of simultaneous thunder.

We were halfway home in less than ten seconds. No more doubt about it, that house was haunted.

The large bell on the southern gable that rang when a bolt of lightning struck nearby.

It was about two weeks later when we were at the family farm in Maine. I remembered my grandfather’s hired man, whom I had nicknamed “Hi,” had once mentioned he had worked on the old brick house when he was younger. Hi was now in his mid-eighties, so who better to ask about who that ghost might be than old Hi?

Hi was a great storyteller – perhaps the best I had ever met at my young age. But he liked to embellish a bit, and he definitely liked to put a little intrigue into his tales. I told him about the incident with the ringing bell.

He smiled.

“That must have been old Abel. He always did look out for the place, especially after the Squire passed away.”

“Who is Abel?” I eagerly inquired.

“Abel Sanford, and he ‘was’ not ‘is.’ Died back in the Nineties as I recall, when I was maybe 18 or 19. Wasn’t much of a talker from what I understand. His mind wasn’t sharp enough to form the right words most of the time, I guess. He was a ward of the Squire when old James was getting on in years. but when the old man died, his daughter, Abbie, kept Abel on and looked after him. In turn, Abel kept by Abbie’s side like a faithful dog.”

“What was the matter with his mind?” I asked.

“Folks back then referred to people like Abel as being feeble-minded. Abel’s mind was like a young child’s, not sharp or developed enough to concentrate and learn very much. No teaching reading and writing to Abel, couldn’t grasp the concept, I guess. Abel’s parents must have given up on him because the boy ended up living in the poor house for quite a while. The town paid Irad Carter to keep him for a spell. Eventually, the Squire took him in. He lived upstairs in the attic of the main house with the servants. He collected the eggs from the hens and carried in the firewood. Did simple jobs – that was about all he could handle, I guess.

“When Abel died, Abbie paid for his headstone and had him buried in the family cemetery just south of the main house. Some folks think he’s the spirit that watches over that place.

“When we was building the rear addition for Missus Marshall back in ’29, we had the roof pretty much ready for the slate when a freak summer wind suddenly came up and lifted the roof clean off the addition. Nobody ever seen such a thing around here and there weren’t any real damage to anything else.

“Wouldn’t be at all surprised if it weren’t Abel trying to scare the Marshalls off, but they stayed and after that everything was just fine.”

“So, you believe in ghosts?” I asked the old man.

“Be a fool not to. Maybe they exist, maybe they don’t, but why take the risk of upsetting one if they are real? Better to be on a ghost’s good side if you ask me.”

George “Hi” Favreau in 1957

Hi told me a few other stories that day, including one about the quicksand on the old Sanford property. As kids, we had heard some of these tales before, so we never once ventured too near any of those marshy areas surrounding the Marshall’s place. One story that Hi recounted was that Mrs. Marshall had lost a tractor in that quicksand when they had attempted to dredge part of a swamp to make a pond for swimming.

It had to be a month or so later when I stopped by the then abandoned Sanford Cemetery to look for Abel’s grave one night after dinner. It’s not that I didn’t believe my old friend Hi, but like I mentioned earlier, Hi spun a good tale and it would sometimes turn out to be a bit embellished. Some of the granite headstones were easy to read, while many of the older marble stones had been worn by the weather and were hard to decipher in the fading light. I was about half done with my detective work when the thought of remaining much longer in such an eerie place by myself suddenly seemed a lot less appealing than it had thirty minutes earlier. I hadn’t yet found Abel’s headstone, but the ten-year old boy in me told me that remaining alone in that old cemetery much longer might be a poor choice. It was getting quite dark when I jumped onto my bike and headed home.

The Sanford Cemetery on Sport Hill Road in Redding

I suddenly felt a presence behind and when I turned, I saw it. What I was at first certain must have been a pterodactyl, it was the largest owl I had ever seen. With a wingspan that had to eclipse five feet, it flew no more than thirty feet behind me about ten or fifteen feet above the ground. It stayed with me for several hundred yards. Maybe it was just an ordinary owl, but maybe it was Abel making sure I wouldn’t be back to that cemetery again. I assumed it was the latter and never returned until I was an adult!

It was a couple of years later that an artist friend of Caroline Marshall bought the old carriage house on the western side of Sport Hill Road. She renovated the place and moved in. It wasn’t long after that when the entire structure burned to the ground, the flames so high and bright that they could be seen from miles away. No one was home at the time and no exact cause that I am aware of was ever determined.

The original carriage as painted by the owner Caroline Clark Marshall c.1940

The carriage house was rebuilt, and the artist stayed. No more trouble.

The main house sold shortly before Caroline’s death in the late 1960’s. Soon after the new owners moved in, there was a fire in the attic. The same attic where Abel Sanford once resided. It didn’t cause any major structural damage, but the owners did need to vacate the house while it was being repaired. But they made the repairs, moved back in, and no more trouble ensued.

Was the spirit of Abel Sanford involved in any of this? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’ll let you decide, after-all, it is the season!

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Long since my talks with old Hi, I have been given notes written by Caroline Clark Marshall sometime in the 1940’s. They confirm both the roof incident and the losing of one tractor and nearly a second as they attempted to build that pond. Hi’s stories had proved to be factual on both accounts.

Last month, as one of Redding’s two official town historians, I was sent an email by the Monroe Historical Society informing me that they have a headstone behind one of the buildings the Society had recently sold. Where it came from or when it first appeared there had long been a mystery, until someone finally found it on one of the Hale lists that had been created in 1934. Charles Hale, the State of Connecticut Military Necrologist, had been tasked by the W.P.A. with listing all the area cemeteries, the headstones within each one, and the inscriptions on each stone. According to Hale, that headstone now in Monroe belonged in the Sanford Cemetery on Sport Hill Road. The Inscription read, “Abel Sanford. Born April 15, 1837. Died February 29, 1892 (the extra day in the leap year, no less!).

I decided to visit the Sanford Cemetery to see if Abel’s headstone was indeed missing. There was no headstone with Abel’s name on it to be found, but there was an “A” and an “S” on a granite marker at the foot of what appeared to be a grave. Stuart Reeve’s 1999 History and Archeology Assessment of Redding confirms the missing Abel Sanford headstone over 30 years ago at Sanford Cemetery and ties it to the initialed granite foot marker that still identifies the grave today.

Abel Sanford’s Headstone, currently in the backyard of a private residence in Monroe

I went on Ancestry and began searching for the history of Abel, and sure enough, Abel was indeed considered to be “feeble-minded.” In fact, in an 1880 official report, Abel was labeled as an “Idiot” by the State – a rather rude term for someone we would refer to as being “learning disabled” today. In the 1860 United States Census, he was living in Irad Carter’s Poor House, a building that sat next to the Carter home on Gallows Hill Road in Redding. By 1880, three years before Squire James Sanford’s death, he was living in the Sanford home of Sport Hill Road. His 1892 obituary in the Newtown Bee referred to him as the Squire’s “faithful helper.” He was interred in the family cemetery as Hale’s listing had confirmed.

1880 Connecticut Census report of Pauper & Indigent Inhabitants Boarded at Public Expense for the Town of Redding.

Through some coordination with the present homeowner in Monroe, the historical society there, and the Redding Cemetery Committee, Abel’s long missing headstone should be returning home to Redding sometime next spring!

So, given that everything that can be factually verified in the tale of Abel Sanford has turned out to be true, is there anyone out there who can say for certain that all the strange happenings at the Sanford homestead were purely coincidental? Or were they the work of some supernatural power? The only thing that is certain, is that whatever powers were behind the strange occurrences of that house seem to have accepted the fact that others have come and stayed through thick & thin. The instances cited here are only the ones I know about; how many more there may have been over the years, I am not certain. But one thing strikes me as odd, in none of these episodes was anyone ever injured. Pure chance, or carefully orchestrated by powers beyond our mortal comprehension? To my knowledge, it’s now been well over 50 years since any unexplainable mischief has occurred there. Perhaps the human spirit is stronger than that of the departed after-all.

Happy Halloween everyone!

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