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The House of Lost Souls

When a down-and-out doctor finds his rundown mansion is haunted, he pulls the quintessentially American move: opening the house to the public for a fee. Everything goes wrong from there.


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smoke clouds the moon while a room is on fire in a dark house
a mansion sits in gloomy fog

Concluding that the sound must have come from outside, he spun toward the back door. Then he froze. Framed in the circle of light from his beam hovered a swirling white cloud. Regaining his senses, Laughlin assumed the sight must be smoke and rushed toward it in search of fire. But as he reached the spot, he found himself enveloped by what he described as a freezing, inescapable mist. Laughlin claimed “icy fingers, fiery in their coldness” clutched at every part of him. Paranormal researchers categorize mist as one of several manifestations of spirits, along with orbs, ectoplasm, shadows, and the more traditional apparitions that appear as they might have in life. Typically, mist is described as hovering above the ground and lasting only briefly. According to those who believe, the supernatural mist represents a spirit’s initial attempt to transform itself into a full-bodied apparition, manifesting either because it does not know or will not accept death, or fears the terrible judgment it knows it has earned.

view down a banister to a ransacked room empty of nearly anything but scattered papers

a snake in the grass
various newspaper clippings reporting haunted house things

silhouette of a person behind foggy glass of a dilapidated door

Every guest that walked through the door represented hope. Even with the small admission fee, the more people that showed up, the better chance Laughlin had of digging out of his financial hole. Financial redemption gave him a shot to win back his estranged wife and, most importantly, to repair his relationship with his son.

To think of his son was to think of one particular night sleeping in the station wagon. The cold kept Laughlin from sleep, so he decided to set up a portable heater. As he dozed off, invisible fumes seeped from the heater and spread, strangling his son, who woke in a coughing fit. The whole family wound up hospitalized. It proved the breaking point. He no longer controlled his circumstances as much as they controlled him.

Now, Laughlin was turning the darkness of 1161 North Liberty into a second chance to prove himself. His openness to the abnormal could lead him back to normalcy.

Jack Sweeney was living proof of the house’s ability to provide second chances. His stint in the military, so often advertised as giving young men direction, had left him as aimless and detached as ever. Even his closest friends tended to describe him as aloof. But at 1161 North Liberty, he finally seemed to find a connection. As long as the house stood, Jack Sweeney had a purpose and a place.

Maybe part of it was that Sweeney had so few other places to go. All of his siblings had been killed in a house fire four years before he was born. When he was two, another fire engulfed his home and killed his father shortly before illness claimed his mother. It seemed little wonder he could often be found poring over books on ESP and the occult or jotting down his thoughts on the same. The house seemed to hold a strange and ever-growing attraction to him. Sweeney and the growing group of regulars became a kind of ragtag family.

To make it all work, Laughlin needed to keep up the cash flow. He made every effort to get the word out, and by the end of the year counted 2,000 paying visitors. He often had to keep admitting visitors until five in the morning. He held a dinner and dance on Halloween night, at inflated prices. He relished sharing the “new and startling experience” of the house.

One night, a couple who had been on the tour rushed to confront Laughlin on their way out. The girl was in hysterics, while her date, clearly frightened himself, demanded to know who the tall blond man dressed in black had been. He’d followed them into every room. Through her fits, the girl managed to join the boy in swearing he had vanished before their eyes.

Laughlin tried his best to comfort the pair as he helped guide them out of the house. But later he beamed, feeling a perverse thrill as others confirmed the strange phenomena of the house. Guest after guest insisted upon the presence of the young blond man in black, even though, bafflingly, Laughlin had not encountered that apparition himself. He began taking detailed notes. Mostly the same description, but others as well. A woman in gray, sobbing inconsolably. An old man with a gray mustache, dressed in tweeds and cap like a well-to-do fox hunter.

Accumulating his “data” on the house, Laughlin recorded ongoing reports of slamming doors, furniture rising from the ground and hovering in place. Vague, sourceless voices. And the mist, freezing cold as it surrounded visitors, confirming his own encounters.

More and more of the visitors left before finishing. Laughlin began to incorporate a challenge into his promotions: If you make it through by yourself — money back. He felt more and more certain he had mastered the vagaries of the house. As the year concluded, Laughlin described himself as “rather smug about living in the place,” and “very much in command of the situation.”

It must have seemed like the ultimate vindication when KDKA of Pittsburgh, the same news outlet that had ruined Laughlin with its damning investigative report on his medical practice, made the trek to New Castle to film a tour through the house’s darkened rooms. Other film crews came from as far away as Nashville. When a reporter from Ohio wrote a story, the Associated Press picked it up and ran it in papers across the country. The house that had been dormant for so long became “world famous,” as Laughlin couldn’t resist boasting.

The town’s leaders did not appreciate the publicity. The world was being introduced to the little-known town through a house that was at best rundown and at worst demonic. Meanwhile, hundreds of cars snarled up the roads, parking on lawns all along North Liberty Street.

With the Vietnam War reaching its zenith, draft cards tucked into the wallets of young men felt heavier than the paper they were printed on. This cohort flocked in ever greater numbers to 1161 North Liberty — drinking, smoking, railing against their fate in the company of ghosts. A place that had scared away so many became a sanctuary for them from a world that wanted to use them, blame them, discard them. Most seemed more interested in the freedom they enjoyed in the home, and the company of fellow outcasts, than in its increasing reputation as haunted. At some of the house’s events they would dress up for the benefit of the paying guests. One kid, who had learned to appreciate his club foot when it got him out of the draft, now displayed it proudly as he clomped around Laughlin’s house in a cheap Dracula costume. Another hanger-on, dressed as a ghost, had a habit of dismissing any claims of the supernatural and brashly declaring that “it takes a lot to scare me.”

One night, this skeptic slipped out of his ghost costume for a break in the kitchen where the tours never went. The most grizzled veteran of wars may spend years in the midst of combat without ever thinking back on it, but still be perpetually haunted by the movement of a shadow across the closet door of their childhood bedroom. To this day, the man can never forget standing there in Laughlin’s kitchen as he watched the refrigerator, with its heavy-handled latch, suddenly burst open.

As teens and young adults continued to gather, the police showed an interest in the house they never had before. They materialized at parties and threw the most extreme charges they could come up with at anyone they managed to collar. At one point, Corbin took in a girl who needed a place to stay. She turned out to be a minor and a runaway, and both Laughlin and Corbin got thrown in jail until a judge summarily threw the case out.

Another time, Sweeney thought to put his passion for writing to use by creating, with a pair of others, a magazine. Laughlin supported the idea, probably motivated more by a desire to foster the boy’s talent than to make any real money. He helped with the printing and promised he would take care of getting a license to sell it. He neglected to get around to the latter. Sweeney and his “accomplices” found themselves tossed in jail, along with Laughlin, for distributing indecent literature. When it turned out there was nothing indecent about it, the charges were quietly reduced to distributing without a license. Sweeney, Laughlin, and one of the other boys managed to make bail after only a night in jail, but the other alleged conspirator spent two months incarcerated before going in front of a judge, who dismissed the charges out of hand.

It became a rare month that the paper did not record someone from the house getting hauled in. In one case, a young man was arrested for burglarizing Laughlin’s house. Preposterously, Laughlin was arrested, too. The young man had been living there.

Several of the boys blamed “Doc” for the trouble. Most stopped coming around, though Sweeney remained. If the town authorities wanted to keep people away from the house, the house seemed to have its own agenda.

Jack Sweeney and the diminishing crew of locals weren’t the only regulars. There were the visitors, too, who came time and time again after experiencing the unexplainable. Fascinated, morbidly attracted, seemingly compelled to return.

Nancy, whose actual name was withheld from contemporary accounts, regularly made the drive from Youngstown, Ohio, to New Castle to revisit the halls and rooms and passageways. While other young, midwestern women turned to communes and political protests, Nancy sought a different way of making sense of a world out-of-balance. Sometimes she brought a friend or a relative, but on one occasion Nancy came alone.

After finishing the loop of the second story, candle in hand, Nancy stood at the top of the staircase about to start down when, according to her account, some disembodied force threw her forward. She tumbled, colliding with the hard ground floor. The candle, flinging itself from her hand, extinguished in the rush. It rolled slowly away in the darkness as the girl lay there, terrified but miraculously unhurt, catching her breath in the pitch-black and silence.

The darkness was suddenly broken as the candle, lying on its side a few feet away, fluttered back to life with a bright flame. Then the silence too came to an end as the high-pitched laughter of a woman echoed down the stairs.

With the police and a faction of his surrogate sons turning against him, Laughlin saw the changes in the house as a foreboding sign. The furniture that had once reportedly floated gently in the air was suddenly being picked up and dropped with terrible force. The slamming doors and crashing sounds became deafening.

Laughlin confided to a visiting reporter that “the temper of the manifestations began to change.” A door swung open with incredible force, barely missing a visitor approaching it. Explosions began to rock the house like bombs. Subsequent investigations usually revealed no sign of damage and no hint of what had caused the sound, but once, a solid fire escape door was sent flying off its hinges and outward into the night, landing in the yard. An examination of the door’s frame and the room behind it showed no sign of anything to provide any sort of explanation.

Another time, Laughlin, rushing up to the attic with a group of others, described marveling to find heavy doors reduced to splinters.

Just past midnight on the morning of September 15th, Donald Glaeser concluded his tour of the house and walked to his car. A hole was torn through the roof of the convertible; the story wound up the next morning in the local paper. Not long after her tumble down the stairs, Nancy returned from Youngstown with her mother and sister in tow. After an uneventful walkthrough of the house, it’s impossible to know whether Nancy felt reassured or crazy. But as the three of them passed out of town into the dark and overgrown fields of Western Pennsylvania, they reported a pair of faint green lights just beyond the windshield. Suddenly, the lights took on the appearance of a pair of eyes. Nancy’s sister, who was driving the car, had little time to take the sight in before the vehicle began to shake uncontrollably and sway across the road. Unable to get control of the car, Nancy veered it off the side of the road where the three of them, “badly shaken,” sat stunned for a half hour before trying to drive on.

At the same time, Laughlin began to become, by his own admission, unhinged. As more and more visitors described a certain sense of being indescribably overcome, he himself was engulfed by a paranoia that “something or someone was trying to possess my own mind as well as my body.”

Increasingly, the reports that Laughlin documented involved visitors driving away from the house following a visit. A pattern emerged. Though details differed, several reported entering some bizarre trance, losing control of their car, or being overcome by an unstoppable compulsion and finding themselves driving to the gates of the cemetery a mile north of the house: The Crawford family cemetery.

In his accounting of the mysteries of the house, Laughlin’s final report is of three “young lads in their teens.” They came, toured, and left.

The next day, Laughlin recognized their photographs in the newspaper. Upon leaving, they had been in an unexplained one-car accident. Only one had survived.

“My conscience nags me unmercifully,” he lamented of the tragedy. It may have been the first time he wondered “if [he had] done a proper thing in opening the house to the public.”

a dark window with fire burning behind it

newspaper clipping reporting about a man's mysterious death

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This post originally appeared on Truly*Adventurous and was published October 30, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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