It was 1970. The Beatles had just disbanded, Richard Nixon was president, phones still rang in their cradles and the Internet was a distant dream.

And one spring night, in a second-floor bedroom in an old creaky house on Falls Road in Benton, 18-year-old Alan Linnell lay terrified in bed as he felt a presence sit on his bed. Then something cold touched his arm.

That experience was one of dozens of strange events Linnell, his seven siblings, his parents and visiting relatives said they witnessed over 13 years beginning in 1964, a year after the family bought the home.

The children’s stories would have likely gone unnoticed were it not for a grisly discovery made Aug. 15, 1970, when, while renovating the dining room, the Linnells found a shriveled and mummified human foot, along with some bones and a few corn cobs, in the wall.

The discovery was front page news throughout the state and was even covered in the tabloid National Enquirer. The family’s previously private tales were transformed into a legend. Benton is one of 25 communities featured in “Maine Ghosts and Legends,” a 1998 collection of paranormal tales updated and re-released this year by author Tom Verde.

Other central Maine communities are also featured in the book. The story “The Haunted Hair Salon” takes place in Fairfield, the University of Maine at Farmington is covered in “The Ghostly Campus” and Skowhegan is the site of “The Ghost in the Aisles.”

“Maine is kind of like the nation’s attic. Everything just ends up there,” Verde said, repeating a sentiment he first heard from a Portland bookseller. “What better place to find a ghost than in the attic?”

Verde said Maine’s geography, full of dark forests, the mist-shrouded coast, isolated old houses and old mill towns make it an ideal habitat for haunts.

Maine is the site of what he said is the oldest ghost story in the country, from 1799, when a recurring ghostly presence in Machiasport was reported by the Rev. Abraham Cummings, a Baptist preacher from Bath who traveled in a sailboat to coastal communities. The ghost, which engaged in conversations with people while floating in the air, eventually told various people that it was the spirit of a woman named Nelly Butler, who had died in nearby Sullivan.

Verde, a freelance writer and former Portland resident, was introduced to ghosts when compiling a series of scary radio stories for Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

The book’s new edition has a chapter on vampires, which he said have a long tradition in Maine.

“There was a particular time in the 1800s when victims of tuberculosis were suspected of being vampires,” he said. “They coughed up blood, they were drawn and haggard.”

The Footless Ghost of Benton Falls

Few stories in the book are as compelling as “The Footless Ghost of Benton Falls,” in which the names of the Linnell family were changed at their request.

Most of the experiences were of the type typical to haunted house stories. Footsteps were heard traveling up and down the stairs. Notes from a music box played, though no music box could be found. The scent of carnations or cigars wafted through a room, with no apparent source. A shadowy figure was seen at the top of the stairs.

Dozens of times, the Linnells said, their family dog, Baby, a collie-St. Bernard mix, barked, apparently at an intruder no one else could see.

Once, in January 1967, a visiting cousin, Joseph McMullen, 3, was put down alone in a room for a nap. His sisters, who were sewing in the next room, rushed in when they heard him screaming.

“I don’t like that man, Mummy” the boy was quoted as saying. “I don’t like that man in there.”

During that same visit, one of the sisters, 12-year-old Mary McMullen, walked into the room and said she heard “an exasperated sigh” come from a wicker chair. She said the chair groaned as if someone was in it, then heard footsteps as though an invisible presence got up and walked out of the room, soundling like one foot was being dragged as it walked.

In 1969, the children said, a bare footprint, larger than that of anyone who lived in the house, was found in the dust beneath a trunk.

Carroll Linnell Sr., the head of the household, was skeptical of his children’s accounts, though he did eventually have two experiences himself, one in which he heard glass breaking and another when he was woken by a rhythmic thumping coming from the second floor.

When the foot was discovered between two beams in the dining room wall, Maine State Pathologist Irving Goodoff, of Waterville, sent it to a Boston lab for analysis. According to the newspaper accounts, the results indicated it was amputated from a 5-month-old child in a surgical procedure around 1900. The small bones found in the wall with the foot belonged to some sort of animal, according to the report.

The newspaper reported that a doctor lived in the house around the time the foot was amputated.

“In those times, it was not uncommon for people to preserve amputated limbs so they could later be buried together with the bodies,” Verde wrote in the book, now available in Maine bookstores and gift shops. “Was the ghostly inhabitant of their home a poor crippled child in search of its lost limb?”

State Trooper Lyndon Abbott, who lived in Clinton at the time, told reporters that the foot could have been stolen from the doctor’s surgery and taken into the wall by a rat.

He also told reporters at the time that in March 1883 a man shot himself in the Linnell home when his daughter and her husband quarreled over the custody of a child.

Psychics, seances and spirits

Some of the events surrounding the Linnell home took on a circus-like atmosphere, as family members, psychics and seance attendees reported making contact with specific spirits with gruesome tales to tell.

In 1970, the National Enquirer reported about a visit to the home by Alex Tanous, a Van Buren-born psychic.

Tanous concluded that a woman had murdered her illegitimate son in the Linnell house and hid his body in the walls.

Tanous taught Alan Linnell to do automatic writing, in which a spirit reputedly communicates through the writings of a living person. After using the technique, Linnell said he had made contact with the ghost of the woman identified by Tanous, whom he named Sally Flagg. Newspaper accounts at the time said the last name matched that of Gershom Flagg, the man who built the house around 1767.

In 1974, the Linnells tried to sell the house, but it was on the market for at least three years.

On Halloween night in 1977, Bernice Damon, pastor of the Waterville Spiritualist Church, conducted a seance at the home with about a dozen attendees. During the seance, Damon and a few of the others said they made contact with the spirit of a man who, in life, had thrown a baby down the stairs while drinking. According to them, when they called the spirit a drunkard, a candle would flicker.

In a Morning Sentinel article from that time, Alan and his mother, Cecilia, cited a host of other experiences, including faint, unintelligible human voices, lights that went on and off, doors that opened and closed and pictures that flew off the wall.

Haunting research

Ghost stories abound, both in legend and popular culture, where they are consumed as entertainment or as truth.

A 2005 Gallup poll showed 37 percent of Americans believe houses can be haunted, and 73 percent of people believe in astrology, reincarnation, telepathy or other supernatural phenomenon. The number who believe in hauntings has fluctuated over time, from 29 percent in 1990 to a high of 42 percent in 2001.

“Anything’s possible,” Verde said. “I myself have never had an encounter that I know of, unless I dismissed it as the wind or whatever.”

One of the most extensive haunted house studies was done by a team of British researchers from the universities of Hertfordshire and Edinburgh.

Their results, published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2003, were based on experiments in which they asked hundreds of people to walk through two notoriously haunted locations — England’s Hampton Court Palace and Scotland’s South Bridge Vaults.

The researchers found that, while walking through different rooms of the large properties, about 45 percent of people reported experiencing something unusual, such as temperature swings, a strong sense of being watched, a burning sensation, odd odors or strange sounds.

The experiences were clustered in specific rooms and hallways within the haunted properties.

In their report, the researchers came up with an earthly reason for the clusters — many correlated with naturally occurring magnetic fields, light levels and room size.

“People consistently report unusual experiences in ‘haunted’ areas because of environmental factors, which may differ across locations,” they wrote.

The report found people are susceptible to mild hallucinations or real, physical reactions to these environmental changes.

But Verde said, as he tracked down dozens of ghost stories in Maine, he saw a different pattern than the researchers did. He said the presence of a ghost is more dependent on the person than the place.

“There are some people that tend to have these kinds of experiences, and then there are other people who don’t,” he said. “Why that is, I can’t explain.”

Sometime spirits

The house on Falls Road in Benton, whose spirits are less apparent to some than to others, seems to bear out Verde’s observation.

The surviving members of the Linnell family have not made public statements about the home in decades.

Members of the family did not respond to interview requests for this article, and in 1998, Verde wrote they weren’t willing to talk about the house.

“What they did admit was that something happened there that was very real to them,” he wrote.

Other occupants of the house are split on whether it holds anything unusual.

Priscilla Buzzell, now 94, lived in the house for 17 years before she sold it to the Linnells in 1963. At the time, she worked in the Wyandotte Woolen Mill at Head of Falls in Waterville. 

She believes in life on the other side, she said, but she also believes there are earthly explanations for anything she’s ever heard in the house.

“Every old house has groans and cracks and shadows and trees,” she said. “We never saw anything unusual while we were there.”

In 1977, in a written response to a Morning Sentinel article on the house, E.G. Buzzell, a family member who lived in the house, wrote that, over more than 30 years of occupancy by about 20 family members, “no spirits ever uttered a word” and suggested the ghost stories were the product of overactive imaginations.

The house’s current resident has a different point of view.

Marty Golias is from Salem, Mass., which 17th-century witch trials with at least 20 men and women convicted of witchcraft, have made it a present-day focus of ghostly attention.

With her Salem heritage, Golias is just the person to live in Benton’s most notorious haunt
“Most everybody lives in a haunted house in Salem,” she said. “And being a good Salem girl, I’m very happy to have a ghost here.”

Golias had an otherworldly experience her very first day in the house 13 years ago, before she heard of the Linnells, their ghosts or the foot in the wall.

A lifelong cat owner, Golias said she knows the signs a cat gives when it approaches a person, seeking to be scratched.

“A cat will take the tail and put it straight, which is a sign of being happy, and then flush against my legs,” she said.

On the day she moved in, her cat was at the foot of the same stairs that the Linnell children heard footsteps on in the ’60s. She said the cat watched something come down the stairs, though Golias could not see it. When the invisible presence got to the bottom of the stairs, the cat approached and turned, as if asking to be rubbed.

The cat has since died, but Golias has four cats today. One of them, Lily, an 8-year-old Maine Coon Cat, does the same greeting behavior three or four times a year, always at the staircase.

“She’ll do it to whoever our houseguest is,” Golias said.

Then she paused.

“Or whoever we’re the houseguest of,” she said.

Golias describes most of her experiences in vague terms, of “a grown woman’s presence,” warm and peaceful, she and others have felt in the home.

Golias, who has a friendly but no-nonsense manner, is undeterred by the thought of ghosts and has spoken aloud to the presence in the house, telling them that they are welcome to stay or to go as they choose. 

“I’m the character of my house,” she said.

Golias said that, in her research of the house, she learned it was built by a sea captain for his pregnant mistress.

Once the mistress was installed in the house, Golias said, the captain left and never returned, although it was not clear whether he was dead, lost at sea or had just abandoned her.

She speculated that the ghost could be the mistress, her child, or both.

The answer to the identity of the surgeon, the sea captain’s mistress, and the other former owners of the house, likely lie in the town’s property records, but they are not currently accessible, Benton Town Clerk Patrick Turlo said. The property records from the 1800s are in old, unorganized dusty volumes, and would take a long time to go through, line-by-line, to get the information, he said. Even the books themselves are mixed in with thousands of other outdated records in a vault beneath the town office.

Golias said she’ll continue the hunt for new information.

“When the spring comes again, I’ll go down to the archive and dig around,” she said. “I know there’s more there.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com