Great ghost stories stand the test of time.
One such story had its roots at Bates College late in World War II. It was told one night to a group of young U.S. Navy men who were guests on a “dark and stormy night” at the historic home of a master storyteller.
Joseph E. LeMaster was teaching at Bates in the mid-1940s when the U.S. Navy introduced its V-12 program that sent thousands of sailors to more than 100 colleges for advanced education required to become officers.
LeMaster often entertained the V-12ers at his home, known as Sunny Crest Manor. It was built in 1790 by his great-great-grandfather, Maj. David Marston.
The house was said to be an Underground Railroad stop in the Civil War era for escaping slaves, and it was complete with a hidden room.
An early spring storm of heavy snow had knocked out power to the old house on the night 18 sailors had been invited to dinner. It was a perfect setting for LeMaster’s plan to treat them to an experience they would never forget.
The story was recorded in detail by a reporter who used LeMaster’s own words some 15 years after that notorious night.
It was nearing nightfall as LeMaster, well known for his cooking skills, finished his preparation of the large meal on the wood-burning stove. A neighbor had been enlisted to bake some pies, and LeMaster sent a few of the men to fetch them.
As they headed for the nearby house, LeMaster casually said to them, “Ask her to tell you about the madman of the orchard.” That stopped them in their tracks, but LeMaster would say no more, and the neighbor, who had been tipped off, and was equally tight-lipped. The men pushed LeMaster for the story, but he said just enough to prime their curiosity.
The meal was enjoyed in candlelight with a wind whistling at the windows. The scene was set, and LeMaster gradually pulled the attentive men under the spell of his tale.
Eventually, he said to his breathless audience, “I am revealing to you a great family secret.” In dramatic whispers, he told of seeing a movement through his window. A hooded figure in gray climbed the orchard wall, crept to the house and entered through a window that mysteriously opened by itself.
LeMaster spun the story slowly and dramatically. Trapped by an intruder, following the sound of footsteps up the stairs, he saw the figure disappear through “the door that leads to nowhere.”
That door, boarded up for years, now revealed stairways to a cellar he had never seen. Weird violin music and dim lights led LeMaster to a horrific scene. A banquet table was prepared, and two figures were seated at it … corpses.
“I fled up those stairs into the house,” LeMaster told the men.
He told of a family curse that began with a trip taken by his great-grandfather who returned to find his wife entertaining a stranger. In a violent rage he killed them both.
With mounting drama, he told how a coffin was prepared for the wife, and sealed before neighbors saw the body. In fact, LeMaster said, he had taken both bodies to the cellar where he set up the table, chained them to it and sealed that part of the cellar.
The coffin was weighted with stones, the funeral and false burial took place, and the family curse began.
On the anniversary of the killing, any skeptics would view “the Feast of Death.”
With that explanation, they learned it was that anniversary night. It was late, they had to spend the night in the old house, and their imaginations ran wild.
Back at Bates, the V-12ers told other students the story. The legend was growing, and in years to come, LeMaster learned that the sailors had taken the story with them to all parts of the world.
Rose O’Brien, a popular writer for the Lewiston Evening Journal, heard the story at a beauty parlor a dozen years after LeMaster’s elaborate prank. She wrote about it in the magazine section of the Oct. 26, 1957, edition.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by emailing [email protected]