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 makes 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 the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
The book’s new edition has a chapter on vampires, which he said have a long tradition in Maine.
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 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 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 she heard footsteps as though an invisible presence got up and walked out of the room, sounding 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 awakened 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.
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
Later, family members, psychics and seance attendees reported making contact with specific spirits with gruesome tales to tell.
In 1970, the National Enquirer reported on 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.
After Tanous taught Alan Linnell to do automatic writing, in which a spirit supposedly communicates through the writings of a living person, Linnell said he had made contact with the ghost of the woman identified by Tanous, whom he named as Sally Flagg. Newspaper accounts at the time said the last name matched that of Gershom Flagg, 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.
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. 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.
The house’s current resident has a different point of view. Marty Golias, is from Salem, Mass., scene of 17th century witch trials and much present-day ghost-enthusiast focus.
Golias had an otherworldly experience before she heard of the Linnells, their ghosts or the foot in the wall.
On the day she moved in, her cat watched something come down the same stairs that the Linnell children heard footsteps on in the ’60s, though Golias could not see the spirit. When the invisible presence got to the bottom of the stairs, the cat approached and turned, as if asking to be rubbed.
She said her current Maine coon cat does the same greeting behavior three or four times a year.
“She’ll do it to whoever our house guest is,” Golias said.
“Or whoever we’re the house guest of,” she said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:[email protected]