The Phantom Inn: A Tale of Thanksgiving Eve

If you thought Halloween was the only holiday with scary stories, you were wrong. The following Thanksgiving tale was written by Hezekiah Butterworth and appeared in the November 26th, 1893 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer:

I’ve gone down to Greenharbor from Boston in an old stagecoach on many cold nights like this, with the wind rising in the tops of the trees, and clouds scudding over the moon. I’ll tell you a tale of one of those nights, but be warned, some folks say that it makes them lie awake at night when the shutters bang.

The coaches in those days had great leather boots that covered the driver’s legs. When the weather was cold they could be raised high enough to protect nearly the whole body. Many a time I have driven my horses, protected from the rain or snow by the boot. Under the boot, I carried the mail bags and such packages as we today send by express. I had an old dog that would ride with me.  A sailor gave him to me, and that dog would ride under the boot at my feet among the mailbags. He was an unusual animal. I was teaching him some tricks one day, and he was begging for a treat when he made a sound like my name. I repeated it, and he uttered it again. After that, I would hold him back from his food until he had made that sound. “Say Silas,” I would command, and after a time he would utter the word. In time he would rise on his hind legs shake his paws, and say “Silas” whenever he wanted food. I was very proud to have him call me by my name, and I had him do it whenever I met my friends. He became a kind of neighborhood wonder, and was called the ‘talking dog.’

I sometimes took my coach on side tours through the Dedham woods. Those woods used to be a lonely place. It’s mostly farms now, but the forest used to stretch all the way to the coast. There were no towns like Hyde and Park then, no costly summer homes. The forest had a woodsy smell in the fall, and the air was full of the odor of sassafras in the spring. The crows had nests in great groves of pine trees that looked like islands amid the white birches. The sunlit spaces between the trees were full of blue jays that would eye my coach with outstretched necks. I can seem to see them now. Oh, but those were lonely roads in the winter. The winds used to whistle. They seemed to catch the spirit of the sea which was not many miles away.

There came a time when strange happenings were reported in the Dedham woods. Several travelers who had gone through those woods at night had met with strange adventures. They had seen a window and a light in a lonely place, a little distance from the road, and heard the ringing of a bell like a supper bell. Two of them had turned toward the window, but as they attempted to approach it, it seemed to draw back into the heart of the woods. After walking toward it for a considerable distance it seemed to them no nearer, and they had become alarmed, and suddenly turned and fled, believing it to be a ghost. One traveler, who had entered the road at dusk, had never been heard of again.

After these events, anyone who saw the window at night took to his heels and at last few persons would go through the woods after dark, except in a carriage, or in company. No one riding in a carriage had ever seen the mysterious window, but one man riding there alone had been attacked by an unknown person and robbed. The Dedham woods began to bear a bad reputation, and the dark events that happened there were assigned to ghosts, and the vanishing window and light were spoken of as the “Phantom Inn.” Around that time I was frequently warned to beware the Phantom Inn, and I used to answer such warnings with a laugh and say to my dog, “We aren’t alarmed, are we? Speak, dog!” and the dog would rise up and shake his paws and say, “Silas!”

Was I ever afraid when riding alone in the old Dedham woods? I always speak plainly and must say that I sometimes was. A sort of shadow of fear would come over me. I never truly believed in ghosts or haunted houses after my early years. Yet a superstitious nature clings to me. It has often made me feel jittery until I stop to reason.

Then came the time that people began to move away from Boston to New York State. They called it “up country” then. The Mohawk valley seemed as far away at that time as the prairies do now. I had a good offer to go to Albany and drive the stage route from there to Buffalo. I caught the “up country” fever and resolved to go. One of my greatest regrets on parting was that I left my coach dog behind at Greenharbor when I made the move.

One day as I was stopping at the old Scituate Inn, just before setting out for Albany, I met a stranger there. He called himself Searle. I shall never forget the eyes of that man. There seemed to be a hidden spirit, not himself, looking through them. It was unsettling. My dog seemed to see something mysterious in that man’s eyes too because he leaped into the air when Searle appeared and said ‘Silas!’ He shook all over, dropped to his feet, and ran round and round me, whining in a fearful tone. It used to be said in old New England times that dogs would see ghosts coming before people could see them, and that was one reason they would start up and howl without an apparent cause.

“I hear you’re goin’ up country,” said Searle.

“Yes, I have concluded to take the Albany route,” said I. “There is more money in it.”

“Goin’ to take your dog here along with you? He’s a fine one.”

“I am uncertain,” said I. “I’ll have to go by way of New York, and up the river to Albany, and they don’t allow dogs on the boat.”

There came a strange light into the man’s eyes. “Don’t want to sell him, do ye?”

I hesitated. “Stranger,” said I at last, “where do you live?”

“Oh, in a lonely place down by the ponds in Dedham woods. They say it’s gettin’ dangerous there, and I want a dog to guard the house. I need one. Say, as you’re goin’ off, what will you take for him?”

“I don’t know—I wouldn’t sell him for anything. I set a store by that dog.”

“I’ll give you $10 for him. That is high, but I’m lonely like, and they say them woods are gettin’ dangerous. What do you say?”

“You may have him.”

I felt somehow that I had down an unworthy thing: That I had sold my dog to an unworthy master. That dog had such a true nature that he would never have tricked me with any act. There is something dark in any moment of life when a man feels that he is false in anything. The Scriptures of a man’s inner life are true, and they demand, as in old the Hebrew bird’s nest commandment, that a man shall be sincere even with animals, and keep the golden rule with brute creation.

How should I part with my dog? I felt my head ache at the thought of it—the dog had been so faithful. I decided that I would have Searle put a rope on his collar, and would leave him in the evening in the office of the inn with him, and so steal away from him unknown. I did—and if ever I felt like a coward, it was then.

I never could bear to think of that dog, and yet I could never quite forget him. I used to imagine months afterward, that I could feel him lying at my feet on the Albany stage.

Five years passed when one November day I received a letter at Buffalo from Greenharbor. My old friends, the Whites, had remembered me, and they invited me to spend Thanksgiving with them at Greenharbor. My wife’s folks lived in the old town of Dedham, and she urged me to accept the invitation as she wished to go with me and visit her family.

So I secured a driver to take my place for a few weeks, and we set out for Boston and Dedham. One day, late in November, I left my wife among her folks and set out for Greenharbor, intending to visit my old friends. I had expected to start in the morning and make a day of it, but I was delayed until the afternoon. It was delightful Indian summer weather, and I did not mind a night walk, as I could rest at my friends’ home.

“Don’t stop at the Phantom Inn,” said my wife as we parted.

“I shan’t stop at no Phantom Inn,” said I, “if I expect to reach Randolph tonight. There will no acorns sprout under my feet.”

“But,” said my wife’s mother, “they do tell strange stories still about these woods. Are you armed?”

“Yes, as much as I ever am.”

Nightfall overtook me at the border of the old Dedham woods. I still remember the strange, mysterious feeling that came over me as I entered the shadow of the pines on that lonely road. I stopped and looked back. The west was red: corn stacks stood on a hillside farm, and I could hear the merry voices of the huskers. The air seemed hollow and still. As I stood there listening there came a vivid impression that somehow I was in the companionship of the old coach dog, as I used to be. I could feel my heart shrink as I recalled how meanly I had treated him, and I eased my conscience with the reflection that I had done as well for both him, and myself, as I could.

There are subtle atmospheres in which mind may commune with mind, and convey impressions and needs and warnings. That a dog might make its presence felt in some way by a mysterious force is possible, I cannot say, but I repeat it—I seemed to feel that the old coach dog was somewhere near me in these woods and that he knew I was there too.

I entered the lonely way, walking along with a witch-hazel stick for a cane. A great light rose like a fire among the tops of the gray rocks and skeleton trees. It was a full hunter’s moon coming up from the sea. After a time it went into a cloud, but the way was still clear. It was almost as still as death.

Occasionally a timid rabbit would cross the way: once a rabbit leaped out before me, and I felt my heart beat and thought again of the old coach dog, and the tales of the Phantom Inn, at which I used to laugh when I drove the cape stage.

The way grew more lonely, amid the oaks and the russet leaves, pines, and rocks. In places, the road was strewn with fallen nuts, and at some points with rustling leaves. Once, the eyes of a white owl confronted me on a decaying limb—I thought of the eyes of Searle, the man who had bought my dog.

Here and there the faint poisonous odor of the wild dogwood bushes drifted across the cool air—I met the old familiar scent of the wild grapes, which hung in the crevices of rocks, and the cidery smell of some wild apples. The moonlight fell in rifts, as the clouds scudded, driven by some ocean wind along the sky.

I hurried on, hoping to reach Randolph before midnight, when, suddenly I heard a sound that stopped my feet at once, and sent a chill over me. It was a hollow tone, like the ringing of a supper bell, such as used to be common in the farmhouses and inns. I looked in the direction of the sound when I saw a little way from the road a window and a light among the trees.

“Is it imagination?” I asked myself. “Is it a dream of the old story? Shall I run or turn toward the bell?”

I was frightened, and my heart beat fast, but I am not a man to run. After hesitating for a few moments, I turned into the wood in the direction of the window and the light and found a path there, which I began to follow cautiously. I walked to the place where I had first heard the bell and seen the window and the light, but the window and the light were as far away now as when I started from the road. As I watched, I could see it move, but I could hear nothing. I stopped again. The window and light seemed to stop. Should I run? No, I would shout. So I cried out, “hullo!”

The rocks answered my loud call with many echoes. A startled partridge rose on whirring wings from some wild alder bushes near me. Then, all was still, or—did I imagine it?—I thought I could hear the low piteous suppressed whine of a dog. The light vanished.

I knew not what to do. The forest was dark, and I could hardly see. I went forward very slowly and cautiously. The path grew soft, and the earth began to crumble beneath my feet. I paused and listened—

A cry pierced the hollow air. How can I describe it? It thrilled every nerve in my body. I can hear it now. It seemed as though all the intensity of a human heart was in it—

“Silas!”

I knew the voice. It was a warning tone. I stepped back and listened again. I heard a splashing struggle down in the distance. Where was I? It came to me. I was on the border of a ledge of rocks. Below me was a pond. Had I taken a few steps more, I would have gone over into the water. I had been drawn into a trap to destroy me. My every nerve quivered with terror.

As I stood listening, a fearful oath rose from the pond. Then all was still. I looked up to the sky. It was the only object that seemed friendly. The clouds parted below the hunter’s moon, and a wide silvery light swept over the scene. I was surely on a projecting edge of rock or platform over the pond.

Suddenly I heard a sound in the bushes. It was a patter of feet. A dog came bounding out toward me. He rose up, springing as it were into the air, shook his paws and cried, “Silas!”

It was my old coach dog.

I hurried back to the road, followed by the dog. Was it a dream? What had happened?

At near midnight I came to old friend’s farmhouse at Randolph and roused the family. Before anyone could speak, I pointed to the dog.

“Tell me, for heaven’s sake, what is that?” I cried.

“That is a dog,” said my old friend, “your old coach dog What did you think it was? Where did you find him?”

We went the next morning to the scene of my night’s adventures. One of the first things we found was Searle’s dead body floating in the pond.

The light in the window of the Phantom Inn had allured me to the edge of a broad precipice, and I was just about to fall into the pond when my old coach dog saved me. The dog had evidently dragged his dark-minded master over the rocky cliff into the pond.

Searle had carried the window and light in his hand and with covered feet had moved back to lure travelers into the woods where he could trap and rob them.

Nothing ever made me so thankful as that one word, “Silas,” and I never passed a Thanksgiving when I didn’t reflect on it.

The dog? Yes, I must answer that question. What became of him? I took him back to Albany with me where he lived out the rest of his days.


I hope you enjoyed this story.  If you like spooky stories, I think you’ll love my novel Some Dark Holler. It’s available on Amazon.com as an ebook, hardcopy, and audiobook. 

2 Comments

  1. Jay Wright November 14, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    Luke, this was one I really liked and enjoyed. It reminded me very much of Some Dark Holler because of the vivid detailed description of the various settings – the sights, the smells, the sounds. That is great writing and not only spoke clearly to me and put me into the scene, it also deepened my interest in the story. By the end, I honestly felt like I’d just watched a movie about the coach dog, the Phantom Inn, the rocky cliff. Great one, man.

  2. Amy Harlib November 15, 2017 at 8:08 am

    I second Jay Wright’s emotions – describes this excellent atmospheric story perfectly. It’s also close to home, I live in NY State also famous for the Headless Horseman story!

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