It’s not often that we hear about ghost stories with infants as the protagonists, I’ve heard a couple (the disembodied crying baby or weirdness with baby monitors), but usually, if it’s a halfling ghost, it’ll be a child. But that wasn’t the case in Needham, Massachusetts in 1839–
Just past Cook’s Bridge over the Charles River at 27 Dudley’s Yard was a double house surrounded by a white fence with two large elm trees in the front yard. The house was built in the early 1830s and Ezra Dudley lived there and operated a small textile mill (perhaps using the river current to power looms).
It was unusual for ghost stories to get established in these little insular communities at the time, everyone knew everyone going back generations. Yet, when a “wee spectre” of a naked 10 month old baby started appearing on a rock in the river in the morning hours in 1839, the townspeople determined that it must be the ghost of an infant killed in the Dudley house “long ago.”
Now, I have some questions: the house was built within the decade. Had there been suspicions about the family living there before this spectre appeared? Was the original family still living there? Suddenly throwing out an accusation of infant murder on one particular household is– well– that’s harsh.
For a week people gathered on the bridge in the morning, between 10 and 12 as the spectre was only visible for around an hour each day. People described seeing a naked infant around 10 months old, running between the rock and river back and forth until the spectre faded. They also claimed to hear the sound of the child’s cradle rocking beneath the water.
Each day that the spectre appeared the town became more and more agitated, people traveled into town to see it. Finally, a young man decided he would go inspect this spectre up close. He waded across the water to the rock, and under the water, lodged in a crevice was a large piece of glass.
That’s right. The ghost baby was the reflection of the sun off the glass just under the surface of the water, flashing as it rocked back and forth with the current. And the limited daily appearance of the wee spectre was simply the sun moving across the sky.
Even though this was massively anti-climactic, I am struck by the fact that the townspeople accepted that a ten-month-old baby was capable of running, we know that cultural infant care practices can influence physical development (though by the time children are preschool age differences attainment of developmental milestones for healthy children is moot). So I wonder if something about how infants were cared for in 1830’s Massachusetts resulted in early walking and running. Or if this was assumed part of the supernatural ability of specters. I have met one 10 month old who could do something approaching running for short bursts… but it usually didn’t end well. Not, like, resulting in discorporation but certainly an ice pack.
Do you have any ghostly baby-related stories? Shadow people on a video monitor? Your baby engaging in peek-a-boo with an unseen figure? Walking into the nursery to find all the toys in a perfect circle? Please share them in the comments.
I’d like to thank the Needham Historical Society and Wicked Needham for sharing this story and there are links below to them.
Have a happy (and safe) Halloween!
Proficient nerd on most things baby/ culture/ history/book related. Disability advocate. Has a penchant for photography, languages, and panics when low on chocolate rations. Will embarrass self in any social situation to point out or pet other people's dogs. Habitual stumbler and tea drinker. People watcher, pizza slayer.