Exploring North Adams’ most haunted mansion

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North Adams’ Houghton Mansion holds a variety of creepy sights, including an abandoned Freemason meeting room, an old barber chair and dusty Victorian bedrooms. (Irene Loewenson / The Williams Record)

Before the Freemasons sold the Houghton Mansion to developers in 2017, you could stay the night there for $80 so long as you followed three rules: no alcohol, no drugs and no ouija boards.

So said Williamstown  resident James “Cricket” Wondoloski, who estimated that he has spent the night in the purportedly haunted North Adams mansion 13 times. Wondoloski would stay in the mansion with a group of friends who were also interested in ghost-hunting. On his first overnight, he and his friends saw a lantern-like light float up the stairs and heard creaking but did not see anyone walking. Then, the light went out. 

“We all freaked out,” he said. “And then we were quiet and we could hear footsteps right above our heads… We went up, and there was nobody there.”

The mansion is rumored to be haunted by the spirits of Albert Charles Houghton, the first mayor of North Adams, and his family, who died in a car accident in Vermont in 1914. The Houghton chauffeur, who had been driving the car and was apparently racked with guilt, took his own life soon after.

In 1926, surviving members of the Houghton family sold the mansion to the Freemasons, and the space became a Masonic lodge. The Freemasons would open the house, which has been featured on the television shows Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, to paranormal enthusiasts who were willing to pay a fee.

“It was quite fun to go,” Wondoloski said. “Sometimes a lot of things happened. Sometimes nothing happened.”

On more eventful nights, he has felt a 40-degree gust of air in the middle of summer, heard a girlish giggle and been scratched on the back of his neck, he said. His friend reported feeling a tug on his ponytail.

In 2017, the Freemasons sold the lodge to Tourists hotel developer Benjamin Svenson for $160,000, according to The Berkshire Eagle. As a result, Wondoloski said, the mansion is  no longer open for visitors. I messaged the Houghton Mansion’s Facebook page and received confirmation that the house was closed to the public.

Still, I felt I at least had to check out the exterior, so  I drove to the Houghton Mansion with my father, who was visiting me. We planned to spend about five minutes looking at the house from the outside and then get lunch in North Adams.

Even from the outside, the Houghton Mansion unsettled me. The chipped paint and unkempt garden looked like something out of Scooby-Doo. A peeling Freemason decal adorned the front door. All the windows to the basement bore metal bars. On one windowsill, I saw a piece of rusty metal that looked like the blade of a scythe. 

As I peered into the garden, I heard a plaintive, high-pitched voice behind me. 

“Ireeeeeeene,” it said. “Help meeeee.” 

But it was no ghost; it was my father pranking me.

We were just about to leave when two cars pulled up and about a dozen people got out. I overheard one of them say something about a tour.

I asked him if the house was open for tours, and he said that it wasn’t but that his brother had special dispensation to give one to the small group assembled with him, who seemed to be family and friends. I asked the brother if my father and I could tag along, and he graciously said yes. I thanked him and we followed the guide in.

Having just entered the creepiest house I had ever laid eyes on, I expected to see dilapidated furniture, at least a few bloody handprints and maybe a skeleton. Instead, I found myself in a sparkling, well-lit kitchen, where Mason jars full of shishito peppers and oregano lined the walls and chefs sprinkled cinnamon on apples. The tour guide explained that some of the local restaurants use the Houghton Mansion for extra kitchen space.

The tour group headed up to the second floor, an area that could more plausibly have been inhabited by tormented spirits. There was no electricity, so it was dim. Peeling paint and dust detracted from the otherwise attractive 19th-century ceiling moldings and hardwood floors.

We walked into the room once belonging to Mary Houghton, the daughter killed in the car accident. The tour guide placed an unlit flashlight on the table and launched into the saga of Mary’s grisly death. 

No one had touched the flashlight, but it soon began to emit a flickering glow.

The flashlight was the ghosts’ method of communing with the living, the guide explained; on meant “Yes,” and off meant “No.” Throughout the tour, the flashlight would turn on, people would ask it questions, and it would flicker, seemingly in response. Sometimes, people would ask conflicting questions and receive the same response from the flashlight:

“Are you the ghost of Mr. Houghton?” Off. (No.)

“Are you someone else?” Still off. (Another no.)

Which was, as my math professor might point out, a contradiction. 

I later discovered from Googling “ghost flashlight” that many ghost hunters use the Maglite Mini flashlight to mimic spectral communications. If you slightly unscrew the bulb of that flashlight, the light flickers in a ghostly manner. Maglite Mini was, perhaps not coincidentally, the brand of flashlight the tour guide used. 

While we were in Mary’s room, the flashlight began to roll from side to side on the table. By the time I realized that a woman on the tour was sitting with her foot near the table and had possibly jostled one of the legs, I had goosebumps.

The other highlight of the upstairs was the abandoned Freemason meeting room. A once-grand space, it had come into such disrepair that slabs of paint had fallen from the ceiling onto the floor.

The tour guide said the Masons sometimes heard noises in the meeting room. Occasionally, he said, when the Masons played the first five notes of “Shave and a Haircut,” they would hear a two-note reply. He banged out the tune on a table but received no response.

While the upper floors of the house were a little creepy, the basement was the scariest place I have ever been. It was dank and dark and dusty. In one corner loomed a spooky-looking furnace. In another corner sat a rusting barber’s chair; the tour guide said it was used in an old Freemason initiation ritual, long discontinued, in which initiates would be strapped to the chair and administered electric shocks. 

I indicated to my father at that point that it was time to get out of there, thanked our guide and left the basement as quickly as I could. We walked out through the gleaming kitchen. Despite the aura of death and gloom in the rest of the house, it smelled of freshly baked flatbread.