Historic Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay, Long Island, is rumored to be haunted so I decided to check it out one afternoon. Besides that, it has something to do with the A&E TV show Turn, about George Washington’s Culper spies during the Revolutionary War. I learned this house was also the setting for the first Valentine and first Christmas tree in the U.S.
Raynham Hall has a pretty interesting history. If you can’t get there, check out their website, which is where I found most of the information in this article. Here, I tried to simplify and define their info, as when I visited the house I was completely confused reading the histories, and I know if I was confused, I can’t imagine what the fifth graders who visit get out of it. If you just want to read about the ghosts, scroll down – I’ve included a few videos and an EVP.
Raynham Hall was bought by Samuel Townsend in 1740. He had been living in his father’s home in Jericho. He wanted to move to nearby Oyster Bay to be closer to the waterfront, as he owned a shipping business with his brother Jacob. The original house was 4 rooms with an apple orchard across the street and a narrow meadow that led to the harbor. Soon after the purchase, he enlarged the house to 8 rooms. When a lean-to was added on one side, the house became a saltbox (structure with 1 side of the roof sloping downward much lower than the other side). It was called The Homestead and later renamed Raynham Hall by Samuel’s grandson, Samuel, when he renovated it in the mid-1800’s in the Victorian style of the day. (This Raynham Hall should not to be confused with Raynham Hall in England. More about that one later.) Samuel lived there with his wife, Sarah, their 8 kids, and several slaves.
By 1765, the brothers owned 4 ships, which were used in trading many goods, including logwood (for dying textiles), tea, lumber, molasses, sugar, china, wine, textiles, dye and rum. Samuel also owned a general store in his house, selling the goods he imported from Europe, Central America and the West Indies. He was the town Justice of the Peace and Town Clerk, was a member of the NY Provincial Congress for 3 years, and after the American Revolution, was a NY State Senator from 1786 to 1790. So, Samuel was a successful and respected guy.
At the time of the American Revolution, most people in the town were on the side of the British. Samuel, however, was on the Patriots‘ side. It was an unpopular choice, especially after the Patriots were defeated at the Battle of Long Island in 1776. All of Long Island and New York City were then occupied by the British, and prisoners were treated viciously. Citizens who didn’t toe the line were held captive on brutal prison ships. (By the end of the Revolution in 1783, more than 10,000 people in this area died of illness or starvation. At the time Manhattan’s population was approximately 20,000.) In September 1776 British soldiers came to arrest Samuel and put him on one of these ships. He was forced out of the house and led through town to Pine Hollow. His daughter, sister and her husband happened to be passing by and saw what was going on. The husband paid several thousand pounds (a lot of money) to bribe the soldiers to set Samuel free.
For 6 months Raynham Hall was commandeered by the British and acted as the Queen’s Rangers headquarters. Their commander was Lt. Col. John Simcoe. He lived in the home with the Townsends. British soldiers were in and out, and officer meetings were held every day in the front parlor.
The earliest written evidence of the Townsends owning slaves came from a 1749 receipt stating a man was bought by Samuel for 37 pounds (approximately £5,244 today = US$8,031). A family bible lists 17 slaves. There are no last names, but some of the slaves had the first names of Hannah, Violet, Susannah, Jeffrey, Susan, Elizabeth, Catherine, Lilly, Harry, Gabriel and Jane. This bible also lists births, deaths and a partial genealogy. Elizabeth escaped in 1779 with the British Queen’s Rangers (British soldiers). When Samuel’s oldest son, Solomon, married his cousin Anne in 1782, they were gifted Gabriel and Jane. Gabriel and Jane’s children also became slaves to Solomon, as well as a few others. A “Negro ledger” was found in the home which recorded purchases of goods sold in the house’s general store by area slaves for their masters.
CULPER SPY RING
In 1778 George Washington strategized that since the British had a stronger army than the Patriots, he had to find an advantage, so he created a spy ring. After Nathan Hale, 21, was hanged by the British in Manhattan for being a spy, Washington tapped Benjamin Tallmadge, who had been Hale’s classmate at Yale, as chief recruiter and operator of the spy ring. Tallmadge’s first recruit was Abraham Woodhull, because he was a childhood friend who he trusted.
WHERE IN MANHATTAN WAS NATHAN HALE HANGED?
According to ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com, the question of exactly where in Manhattan Nathan Hale was hanged is still a mystery.
“A 13-foot statue of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale stands tall in City Hall Park. Yet no one seems to know for sure where he was actually executed for spying on the British. There are two competing locations. A plaque posted on a Banana Republic store at Third Avenue and 66th Street claims that the 21-year-old American spy was strung up on a gallows within 100 yards of that site on September 22, 1776. The information comes from a British Officer’s diary, which stated that the hanging occurred at “the Royal Artillery Park near the Dove Tavern at the old Post Road, now Third Avenue. . . .” But there’s another plaque, on East 44th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, that says this is the location of Hale’s execution and that the “British Artillery Park” existed here. The building the plaque is affixed to belongs to the Yale Club. Hale was a Yale graduate, class of 1773.”
WHY IS IT HANGED, AND NOT HUNG?
According to grammarist.com:
Hung is the past tense and past participle of hang in most of that verb’s senses. For instance, yesterday you might have hung a picture on the wall, hung a right turn, and hung your head in sorrow. The exception comes where hang means to put to death by hanging. The past tense and past participle of hang in this sense, and only in this sense, is hanged. When someone is hung out of malice but with no intent to kill, as described in the example, hung is the conventional word.
What I get from that is if a person was hung and is still alive, he was hung. If a person was hung and was killed, he was hanged.
CULPER SPY RING, CONT’D.
Getting back to the beginnings of the spy ring, Abraham Woodhull, the first recruited spy, asked Robert Townsend, Samuel’s son, if he would be a spy for the Patriots in New York City. Robert ran a shipping company with his brother and cousin in Manhattan. His business allowed him to circulate about town and hear the whisperings of upcoming British troop activities. His spy code name became “Culper Junior.” Abraham Woodhull was “Samuel Culper Senior.” Washington used the name Culper because it was a derivative of Culpeper County in Virginia. Washington didn’t have a spy name like the above, it was more a code: Agent 711.
I was surprised to learn the spy ring used an invisible ink formulated by James Jay, John Jay’s brother, and G. Washington had a special solution to turn it back to visible. I had no idea that had been invented way back then. They also used a complicated numeric code. See the actual Culper Spy Ring codes. Robert sent his coded messages to George Washington via courier (mainly tavern owner Austin Roe) to Woodhull in Setauket. There, a local woman, Anna Strong, was all for aiding the spies because her husband, a judge, spent years on one of the British prison ships. Anna would signal another spy, Caleb Brewster, using laundry on her clothesline. If a message was ready, she would hang a black petticoat on the line. Brewster would then pick up the message from Woodhull and sail to Connecticut by whaleboat and give it to Tallmadge, who would make notes, and then finally to George Washington. It took Tallmadge too much time, so he ended up using soldiers on horseback to get the message to G. Washington. And, yes, G. Washington complained that it took too long to get a stinkin’ spy message. Sometimes the action would already have happened before the note got to G. Washington. The ring’s greatest accomplishment was to send word to G. Washington that the British were planning to attack the French fleet in Newport, Rhode Island. Washington then bluffed that his Patriots were planning an attack on New York City. The British fell for it and Newport was safe for the French.
(Drawing by Townsend’s nephew, early 1800’s)
ROBERT KEPT HIS SPYING A SECRET HIS WHOLE LIFE
Robert moved back into Raynham Hall after his father, Samuel, died in 1790. He lived there with his two sisters, Sarah and Phebe. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that anyone knew of his involvement in the Culper Spy Ring. At that time, a historian, Morton Pennypacker, hired a handwriting analyst to find out who Culper Junior was, and he discovered it was Robert Townsend.
RENOVATION OF RAYNHAM HALL
Samuel’s grandson, Solomon Townsend, bought the home from his uncle in 1851 and changed the Colonial style house into a Gothic Revival style home. He also added 14 rooms (now 22 total). A large rear wing and a tower doubled the size of the house and altered it into a Victorian style home. This is when he renamed it Raynham Hall, after the Townshends of England. (Charles Townshend wrote the Townshend Acts in Britain, which imposed duties on products imported to the colonies – glass, lead, paints, paper, and the famous tea). The Americans thumbed their nose at this and reduced imports to Britain. Within 3 years, Parliament repealed all of the duties except the tax on tea. A truce was declared for a few years, but then Parliament passed The Tea Act, and that gave The British East India Company a monopoly on the sale of tea in America. And that led to you know what, which started the American Revolution. So, in essence, Samuel Townsend, who bought the house back in 1740, opposed the British during the American Revolution, had a son who was a spy against the British during the same war, and then had a grandson, who renamed his house in honor of a British man who got the ball rolling on this war.
In the early 1950’s the house was restored back to a 1740 Colonial style, except for the Victorian style kitchen and north wing that were kept the same, to show family history in the mid-1800’s and keep a caretaker’s residence. There were additional renovations after that, and the rooms now have been historically restored to the 18th and 19th century history of the home and family. In the Colonial part of the house, the rooms are furnished to show the 1770’s, when it was used as Simcoe’s British headquarters. The Victorian portion of the home is restored to the 1870’s, when Solomon Townsend, the grandson, lived there.
RAYNHAM HALL SOLD TO OYSTER BAY FOR $10
The house stayed in the family until 1933, when owner Sarah Townsend Coles Halstead sold it to the Daughters of the American Revolution in Oyster Bay for $10. (The Wikipedia page says the house had a $20,000 mortgage at that time.) She had previously opened a tea room (they were popular at the time) in the home, but it was not very profitable. The DAR is a patriotic organization composed of descendents of Patriots, so even though it was still called Raynham Hall, it in a way reverted back to the original sympathies of Samuel. The DAR donated the property to the Town of Oyster Bay in 1947, with the stipulation that it remain:
“as a public shrine, and as far as possible, make perpetual a memorial to the brave men and women of revolutionary times, for the use and benefit of the general public of the nation under agreements, covenants and conditions which will best secure to our people the diffusion of knowledge and the inspiration of our forebears in cherishing freedom, love of country and the fostering of patriotism.”
Currently, the Friends of Raynham Hall, Inc. partners with the Town to maintain the operate the house as a museum.
AMERICA’S FIRST VALENTINE
The first Valentine sent in the U.S. was penned by Simcoe (who, as a British Lt. Colonel, lived in the house with the family for 6 months) to Samuel’s daughter Sarah and given to her on February 14, 1779. Sarah was a spinster until her death at the age of 82, when the valentine was found.
Fairest Maid, where all is fair, Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care; To you my heart I must resign, O choose me for your Valentine! Love, Mighty God! Thou know’st full well, where all thy Mother’s graces dwell, Where they inhabit and combine to fix thy power with spells divine; Thou know’st what powerful magick lies within the round of Sarah’s eyes, Or darted thence like lightning fires, and Heaven’s own joys around inspires; Thou know’st my heart will always prove the shrine of pure unchanging love! Say; awful God! Since to thy throne two ways that lead are only known— Here gay Variety presides, and many a youthful circle guides Through paths where lilies, roses sweet, bloom and decay beneath their feet; Here constancy with sober mien regardless of the flowery Scene With Myrtle crowned that never fades, in silence seeks the Cypress Shades, Or fixed near Contemplation’s cell, chief with the Muses loves to dwell, Leads those who inward feel and burn and often clasp the abandon’d urn,– Say, awful God! Did’st thou not prove my heart was formed for Constant love? Thou saw’st me once on every plain to Delia pour the artless strain— Thou wept’sd her death and bad’st me change my happier days no more to range O’er hill, o’er dale, in sweet Employ, of singing Delia, Nature’s joy; Thou bad’st me change the pastoral scene forget my Crook; with haughty mien To raise the iron Spear of War, victim of Grief and deep Despair: Say, must I all my joys forego and still maintain this outward show? Say, shall this breast that’s pained to feel be ever clad in horrid steel? Nor swell with other joys than those of conquest o’er unworthy foes? Shall no fair maid with equal fire awake the flames of soft desire: My bosom born, for transport, burn and raise my thoughts from Delia’s urn? “Fond Youth,” the God of Love replies, “Your answer take from Sarah’s eyes.”
FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE
According to a plaque in the Victorian parlor, the tradition of a decorated Christmas tree originated in Germany and became popular in 1840’s England. The Townsend tree was decorated with fine glass ornaments, tinsel and blazing candles – with a watchful servant standing by with buckets of water.
There are many stories of sightings, smells and sounds of ghosts in Raynham Hall. When I asked the docent, she admitted to a few occasions when she saw a little something that could have been a presence, but could also be explained away as not a presence. The workers did not want to promote a haunted side to the house museum; they wanted to stress the history. I got the feeling that some unexplained things had happened and they did not want to talk about them. However, I found a few videos online of investigations held at the house.
As far as legends go, I had to rely on the internet: wiki and some other sources. Tales about ghosts in the house go back to the 1930’s. An article about the hauntings was written in 1938 by the owner, Julia Cole. She wrote a guest woke up to the sounds of what turned out to be a ghostly white horse and rider outside the bedroom window. The writer thought it was Major John Andre, who had been in the house shortly before he was captured and killed during the war. Others have said this ghost was in the Raynham Hall in England. The article also told about her sister, who saw an elderly male ghost come down the stairs, turn back toward the dining room and vanish. The sister insisted it was Robert Townsend. It should be noted the part of the house he was seen was not built until 13 years after Townsend died.
More recently, a museum patron heard “the swish of petticoats” behind her as she walked past the stairs. When she turned, she saw a bit of a Victorian-dressed figure go by her toward the back of the house. Unexplained noises have been heard in the house and staff has heard footsteps following them in the front hallway of the Victorian part of the house. Noises have been heard in the slave quarters, as well as the smell of roses. This area is not open to the public. Other unexplained smells, such as pipe tobacco and wood fire, have been noted in the first floor of the Colonial area. This is where Samuel would typically smoke a pipe, while relaxing in front of the fire. Sometimes the smell of a baking apple pie or cinnamon could be found in the kitchen.
In 1999 a ghost with dark curly hair, beard and moustache, about 20-30 years old, and wearing a dark coat with brass buttons was spotted at the servant’s entry, looking into the garden. It’s believed he was an Irish servant, Michael Conlin. Since servants’ records were not rigorously updated, it is not known if there was a servant by this name. Many people have indicated a 5-10 degree colder difference in Sally’s (Sarah) room than in the other rooms. She was the woman who fell in love with Simcoe. By the end of the war, he moved back to England and married someone else. Sarah never married in all her 82 years. The valentine Simcoe wrote to her was found after her death, very creased, as if it had been read over and over and over. If anyone is haunting Raynham Hall, it should be her.
The Brown Lady is a famous ghostly figure photographed for the magazine ‘Countylife’ in 1938. You can see her descending a staircase. She and other ghosts have been seen there many times – but in Raynham Hall in England, not the one in Oyster Bay.
VISIT RAYNHAM HALL
Raynham Hall, 20 W. Main St., Oyster Bay, NY. 516-922-6808. Admission: Adults $5. Students $3. Seniors, service people & under 6 Free. Open Tuesday through Sunday 1-5 p.m.
Tri-Spy Tour: There is an interesting tour in nearby Setauket that takes visitors on the actual trails the British and Patriots once roamed, as well as historic sights relating to the Culper Spy Ring. The Tri-Spy Tour can be taken by foot (3 miles), bicycle (15 miles) or kayak (4 hours).
DOWNLOAD THE ORIGINAL CULPER CODE BOOK at spycurious.wordpress.com.