Is Graeme Park Haunted?
Mention Graeme Park to a Horsham resident, and most will tell you it’s haunted! The stories of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s ghost have been circulating since her death in 1801 and continue to be experienced by our staff and volunteers today. The Horsham police dread the nighttime alarms they are sometimes called upon to answer at the Keith House. I can only vouche for what I myself have seen, heard, and smelled. Read for yourself and see what you think.
Betsy Stedman was one of Elizabeth’s closest friends. The two women lived together at Graeme Park after the Revolution. Elizabeth’s husband, Henry Hugh Fergusson, had returned to England, branded a traitor for his Loyalist support during the war while Elizabeth struggled to regain title to her ancestral home, which was confiscated by the state for Henry’s politics. The never-married Betsy had a small inheritance that the women lived off of until Elizabeth was able to regain title to her home and sell Graeme Park and move into rooms in a boarding house. Shortly after Elizabeth’s death in 1801 Betsy was apparently back visiting Graeme Park and reported “passing Elizabeth on the stairs.”
Margaret Marshall Strawbridge
Mrs. Strawbridge and her husband Welsh purchased Graeme Park in 1920. They lived in what is now known as the Penrose-Strawbridge house, elsewhere on the property and used the Keith House for entertaining. Mrs. Strawbridge had a real love of history and delighted in taking visitors down to “the old house” to show it off. The couple donated 42 acres of their property, including the Keith House, to the state of Pennsylvania in 1958. In 1989 she participated in an oral history project, allowing the staff at Graeme Park to interview her and record her memories on many subjects, including Graeme Park. The following excerpt is her accounting of the “ghost stories” associated with Graeme Park:
Interviewer: Do you believe in the ghost stories about Elizabeth and Hugh Fergusson?
MMS: It’s hard to say just how much I believe. I nearly always had Irish help. And the Irish help always could see … she used to see the Governor with a yellow satin waistcoat, and silver buckles on his shoes. She could tell me all the wonderful things she saw, I used to wish I could see, and almost made myself believe I did. I tried, with imagination, to see all the family. And it was very exciting.
Interviewer: But you never saw Elizabeth?
MMS: Not actually, but I really did think I heard the rustle of her skirts on the stairs. And, of course, I thought she was coming down the stairway. And it was easy to imagine a little breeze making that happen.
Interviewer: But you feel her presence?
MMS: I felt very strongly her presence.
One of the stories that was told to me shortly after I began working at Graeme Park had to do with a Christmas tour that had been held several years before. The volunteers had been in the house decorating the windowsills with artificial greenery and when lunch time came around, they locked the house, ate their lunch in the Visitor’s Center and went back to the house to complete their task. They found the greenery on one of the windowsills in Elizabeth’s room had been strewn around the floor. According to the history, Elizabeth sat in one of the windows of her bedroom on the terrible day in 1772 that she decided to tell her father of her marriage to Henry Hugh Fergusson and watched him drop over dead as he made his way through the gardens and back towards the house. Perhaps this greenery was in the way of her favorite spot to sit and observe her grounds.
Elizabeth’s bedroom also contains her portrait, which a number of years ago was sent down to Washington DC to be cleaned and repaired. While it was gone one of our volunteers took a woman and her young daughter down to the house for a tour. While they were in Elizabeth’s room the girl began tugging at her mother and whispered something to her. The mother said to the guide “she has her grandmother’s gift, and she sees a dark haired woman sitting in the chair over there smiling.” The girl was very young to be making up stories and the painting of Elizabeth, which shows her as a dark haired woman, was not in the room at the time.
Another more recent account took place a few years ago. The weekend before our annual Celtic Festival a couple from New Jersey came in for a tour. I took them around the house as usual and after the tour the man, who represented a Scottish Clan indicated his interest in setting up a table at the festival. He filled out the paperwork, handed over his check and they were on their way. The following week when he arrived to set up his space, he pulled me aside and asked “do people report strange things about the house?” When I inquired as to why he asked, he said when they got home his wife said she was convinced she’d heard children laughing outside on the grounds, but when she’d looked out the windows there was no one else around. Neither I nor her husband remembered hearing anything. The room we were in at the time, the master bedroom, is beneath the children’s dormitory on the 3rd floor and because of the busyness and activities associated with setting up for the Festival, we skipped the video which has Mrs. Strawbridge speaking of her experiences with Elizabeth’s ghost.
My Own Experiences
While all of the stories that have been passed down are fun to retell at Halloween, in general I will not mention them on a typical tour of Graeme Park. If my visitors should happen to ask, however, I will tell of my own personal experiences with Elizabeth’s ghost.
The most common experience I have with her is in trying to set the alarms at the end of the day and they won’t set. I push the buttons that tell me what the problem is, and it tells me that there is motion being detected in Elizabeth’s bedroom. I trudge down to the house, knowing full well there is no one there, unlock the door with a large skeleton key, and call up the steps “Good night Elizabeth, the house is yours again.” Back in the visitor’s center I am then able to set the alarm. These instances frequently occur when we have stormy weather, Being somewhat rational, I’d like to attribute it to a fault in the alarm system triggered by the rain or wind, but perhaps it is on these dreary days that Elizabeth is more likely to be at home rather than out visiting her friends or enjoying the grounds at Graeme Park.
On another occasion I took a rather large group into the house, maybe 10 or 12 people. As we entered the office, I thought I heard footsteps beating it up the stairs in the adjacent stair hall. I did a quick head count to make sure no one from my group had slipped out of the room to explore on their own, but all were accounted for. So what ghostly presence had we caught unaware on the stairs?
More recently I was in the house with one other (female) volunteer setting up or cleaning up candles for an evening tour. As I descended the stairs between the 3rd and 2nd floors, I thought I heard a man’s voice quietly say a few words. I could not make out what he said, and when questioned, the volunteer, who was down in Elizabeth’s room at the other end of the house, said she had not spoken. On another recent occasion I took a mom and her young son through the house. As soon as we entered Elizabeth’s room the boy, who was about 8 years old, said “this is the ghost room.” I tried to ask him if he’d heard about the ghosts at Graeme Park before or why he thought that – he had not, and he could not articulate why he felt that in the room.
The closet in the third floor dormitory has a pin on the inside of the door that slips down into a hole in the floor, locking it from the inside. Before our evening candlelight programs I like to get the fire extinguishers out of the closets “just in case” but before one such program a few years ago, I was not able to open this one. I reached down and could feel under the door that the pin was engaged and there was no way to open the closet from the outside. No one of this earth was hiding inside. Several weeks later I tried the door again and it opened just fine, the pin being lifted and latched into place as it should have been. No one would admit to being in the house or accessing this closet for any reason.
On occasion I am unable to unlock the front door either. The locks are somewhat tricky if you’re not familiar with them, but after many years of working here, I know just how far to insert the key and which way to turn it. Every once in awhile it is locked up tight and no amount of hammering will release it. Until suddenly it is fine.
In November, 2006, Sue Serio, a weather anchor on one of our local morning shows broadcast a segment she calls “Sue’s Clues” from the parlor of the Keith House. She does the weather from a mystery location and viewers call and email in to try and guess where she is. During the 7:00 o’clock hour, their camera battery, which was at 80% capacity, suddenly went dead on them. I too have had problems taking photographs inside the house. The camera just malfunctions and won’t take the picture, but when I go back outside everything is fine.
Perhaps my most dramatic experience with Elizabeth’s ghosts occurred a few years ago when we did an evening “Anniversary Tour” the day before her wedding anniversary with her husband Henry Hugh Fergusson. Elizabeth and Henry did not have the happiest of matches. She was 11 years older than he and married him in secret and against her father’s wishes. She was said to have tripped on a tombstone as she left the churchyard after the ceremony, which was considered a bad omen. Henry served with the British during the Revolution, which broke out a few years after their marriage, separating them during the war and after when he returned to England. There were allegations of an illegitimate child, which Elizabeth could not or would not get over. Our tour focused on this history, and likely would have stirred up some unhappy memories for Elizabeth if she were to overhear. I tagged along with one of the groups to get photographs of the actors presenting the program. In Elizabeth’s room, I smelled a sweet, flowery smell. I thought maybe someone had overdone it on their perfume, but did not smell it during the rest of the tour, some of the rooms being much smaller and the crowd bunched in much tighter than they were in her room. After the tour, which was on a rainy night, we had our usual problem with the alarm system detecting motion in her room. As I went down to the house to check on things with the volunteer who had played Elizabeth that night and been stationed in her room she mentioned having smelled this floral smell all night too. There are not many flowers on the grounds or Graeme Park and the windows are sealed up tight. So was a perfumed Elizabeth with us that night, enjoying the performance or bemoaning her rascal husband? Did scents from the once lush formal gardens to the north of the house and destroyed by encamped soldiers waiting to fight the Battle of Brandywine suddenly waft their way into her room as they may have back in the 18th century?
Since that tour, I have smelled that scent only one other time. I was giving a tour who shared a surname with Elizabeth’s cousin, Debra Senior. Debra lived in Jamaica, where her husband was a sugar planter. The family’s recent ancestors came from the same town in Scotland as Sir William and their 18th century relations were in Jamaica. We do not know if they were related to Elizabeth’s cousin, but given the small population of plantation owners in Jamaica at the time, it seems likely. As I was telling the above story I had to pause, as I felt as if a cloud of that scent was descending down over me. The father, who was standing next to me, could clearly smell it as well. If I were Elizabeth and could make my presence known, doing so at a time when visitors were in the house who were from the same town in Scotland as my grandfather and potentially related to me dear cousin, would be the time that I would do so.
So what do you think? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think they haunt the Keith House?