Scotchtownis a house in Virginia built by American Revolutionary War patriot Patrick Henry, believed to be haunted by the Ghost of his wife, Sarah.
Patrick Henry made history with his rousing speech in Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775, in which he declared, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Though Henry stands as a patriot who helped with the birth of the nation, his personal life was marred by tragedy and sorrow, most of which centered on Sarah. Henry’s personal misfortunes seem to have begun when he purchased Scotchtown in 1771. The 10,000- acre plantation, 26 miles from Richmond, was originally owned by Charles Chiswell, a wealthy immigrant from Scotland. Chiswell intended to erect an impressive Scottish castle on the land, but instead built a large, barnlike house around 1719. The one-story house is 80 feet long and 40 feet deep, with eight rooms on the main floor, eight rooms in the basement, and a large attic. The estate boasted a school, workshops, and 30 cabins. An aura of bad luck descended upon Scotchtown after Chiswell died in 1737 and ownership passed to his son, Colonel John Chiswell, a man renowned for a bad temper. He suffered financial setbacks and was forced to sell Scotchtown in 1760.
In 1766 Chiswell became embroiled in a drunken fight at a tavern and ran a sword through a friend of his, killing him. He was charged with murder. But before he could be brought to trial, he died under mysterious circumstances—nervous fits” according to his physician. When his body was returned to Scotchtown, friends of the murdered man demanded that the coffin be opened so that they could be certain that Chiswell was not trying to cheat his fate. The body proved to be his, and he was buried on his estate about one mile behind the main house. The new owner of Scotchtown, John Robinson, also suffered financial problems and sold Scotchtown at auction. Patrick Henry bought it for $18,000 in 1771.
At that time, the plantation was in good financial shape and Henry envisioned it as a good place for him and Sarah to raise their children. Plus, it was close to Richmond. Henry’s idyllic vision never came to pass, however. Soon after the birth of their sixth child in 1771, Sarah descended into mental illness. The exact causes are not known. Perhaps she broke under the physical strain of childbearing and the emotional strain of Henry’s neglect, for he was frequently away from home and was absorbed in the politics of the brewing revolution.
Records indicate that Sarah had to be physically restrained in a type of straight-jacket dress in order to prevent her from doing bodily harm to herself. She was confined to two dreary rooms in the basement. When Henry was home, he would visit his wife via a secret staircase in the back hall of the house. Sarah’s condition was kept as secret as possible to prevent troublesome gossip that she might be possessed by evil spirits—a common belief about mental illnesses at the time.
Nonetheless, it was impossible to prevent word from spreading about the plantation. Servants, slaves, and workers were afraid to even go near the house. Sarah died in 1775 and her body was placed in an unmarked grave on the plantation—custoMary burial for “afflicted” persons. Even today, no one knows exactly where she lies. Grief-stricken, Henry still pulled himself together to make his famous speech. He spent increasing amounts of time away from Scotchtown.
He sold it in 1777, when he was elected governor of Virginia, and he moved into the governor’s mansion in Williamsburg. Like many great estate homes, Scotchtown did not fare well over the course of time. It deteriorated and was eventually abandoned to squatters. In 1958, it was purchased by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and was gradually restored to its original glory.
Ghostly phenomena have been reported in the main house since its restoration, but reports also precede the restoration. Patrick Henry’s great-great-granddaughter was convinced the house was haunted and would not spend a night in it.
Passersby have seen lit candles in the windows when the house is dark and also the images of a person holding a lit candle. Motion detection alarms go off inexplicably. The eyes of a painting of Joseph Shelton seem to follow people as they move. Furniture is moved about, especially a cradle that belonged to the Patrick family kept downstairs.
Much of the haunting activity centers around the basement rooms where Sarah was confined and where she died. Paint will not adhere to the walls. Visitors report sensations of an invisible presence. A tour group once heard shrill screaming in the basement. In the attic, sounds of chains dragging across the floor have been heard and strange swarms of wasps and flies have collected at one window.
Mary Adams, who lived at Scotchtown from 1933 to 1940 while a child, heard unusual noises frequently. Once she and a group of children saw a ghostly woman in a long, white fl owing gown inside the house. The figure disappeared in front of them.
- Taylor, L. B., Jr. The Ghosts of Fredericksburg . . . and nearby environs. Private press, 1991.
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