Is there anything better than a ghost story? Some of my favorite moments are the ones spent huddled around steaming mugs of tea and whisky and whispering fantastic tales of things we cannot explain.
As someone who grew up in colonial Connecticut and Rhode Island, ghost stories are my bread and butter, have been since as far back as I can remember. And here’s one of my favorites:
If you’ve ever spent time in Newport, RI, you’ve at least heard of Blood Alley, now of course cleaned up to be known as Brick Alley.
There’s a lovely restaurant that sits at its mouth as the Brick Alley Pub. I went there once when I was 13 with a handful of cousins. We finish our meal and run out to play in the cobblestone alley that holds legends of pirates and pirate brawls. The youngest of us stops and asks if we hear that noise. What noise we ask? The drumbeat, she says, the steady drumbeat. Like a heart. We all strain and hear nothing. So we promptly ignore her. She’s only 6, she must be hearing things after all.
Two years later, my sister, mother, and I decided to attend a ghost tour. We follow a local college student, dressed in Victorian funeral garb, across the docks, main squares, and alley ways of Newport. Every location has a story of what has happened here, and what continues to happen as these stories continue to haunt us. There are stories of burning ships, unhappy hanged men, and mischievous children that refuse to leave our world behind.
After an hour or so, we begin to wind our way through Blood Alley, you can see where the former entrances to pubs and brothels have been wore away, restructured to cleaner manners of business. In the dark that is broken only by the flickering lantern carried by our guide, it is easy to turn shadows into the watchful eyes of lost souls guarding their territory. As the unease settles in, the guide begins her next tale.
A man is cleaning his ship when he sees a dark opening in the rock face by the wharf. He goes for a closer look and finds a tunnel. Thinking of pirates and hidden treasure, he goes to explore its length. He is quickly chased out by the rising tides.
The next day he sets out again, this time at low tide, accompanied by several of his friends. They follow the length of a tunnel until it leads to a sudden shift in size. The tunnel beyond them is too small for them to continue. But a child, a small child, could fit.
What Charles Dickens tells us is true, no one cared much for the orphans in those days.
A small orphan boy is picked up off the streets. He is promised a coin or two from the fortune he is certain to find. He is given a lantern and a drum. He is to beat the drum in a steady beat as he walks. The men will hear the drum above ground and follow him through the town. When he finds the treasure, he will beat a frantic, rhythmless pattern and the men will dig down to bring him, and the treasure, up.
The plan works. The men can hear the drum and begin to follow the beat as he leads them through the wharf, through town and Thames Street, and into Blood Alley.
The men are excited, entering Blood Alley is proof that the treasure must be real. Pirates have been here and have left their gold behind. The boy will find it any second now.
As their excitement grows, suddenly, without hesitation or warning, the drumbeat stops.
It’ll start back up in a moment, they think. He’s seen the treasure and is in shock. He’ll signal us any second now. As the time stretches on, the men decide he must have gotten scared and race to the wharf to beat him when he exits the tunnel. They are there in minutes, taking a direct route rather than the winding chase they followed earlier.
The tide comes in, the tide goes out.
With it comes the lantern, the drum, but no boy, no body.
The boy is never seen again, the men decide against disturbing the forces at work. The tunnel and presumed treasure are abandoned.
Life returns to normal.
But they say, you can often hear a slow, but steady, drumbeat making its way through Blood Alley. It never lasts long, no one past the back entrance of the pub can hear it, but if you stand in the alley, not so far back, you can hear the steady thump of the poor orphan boy still looking for his treasure.
My cousin still to this day will not enter the alley, she never wants to hear that drum beat again.