The Many Hauntings of the S.K. Pierce Mansion – Part 1

The S.K. Pierce Mansion

She made her money on her back and that was just fine by her. She was tough and knew what it took to make a living in this world and no one was gonna get in her way. That massive old Victorian was an eyesore, anyway. Who cared if one of the boarders in this rundown shithole brought her Johns in to seal the deal? The Red Room was HER room and she could do as she pleased. She didn’t bother no one and no one bothered her.

Then she felt his fingers close around her throat. They were thick and calloused and crushed her windpipe like a steel vise. That’s what you get when you sell yourself to the factory workers just outside the door. She never knew when one would lose his mind and assault her before leaving her with no money for her time.

There was no telling what set this one off. Maybe she rushed him or maybe he just couldn’t get it up and wanted to take it out on her. It didn’t matter. What mattered was the heaving of her chest as her body screamed for air. She tried to take a breath but no air would come. She tried to cry out for help, but no sound escaped. She was together with a maniac in her bed and yet still utterly alone for the very first time in her life.

People walked the stairs and enjoyed late suppers just on the other side of her wooden door. Good people, who wouldn’t hesitate to rush in and beat this monster off of her. Good neighbors who would chase him away and protect her while she gasped and finally felt the cool air rush in to soothe her burning lungs.

But here she was, mere inches from help and completely unable to call for it. Her arms flailed and her legs swung wildly. The man held her firmly under his weight and sneered into her pleading eyes. He even leaned in close as her waving and striking against his back finally began to subside. His greasy, crinkled nose touched against hers and his fingers managed to tighten even more around her neck just as the world started to grey.

The prostitute’s last living thought was at least a positive one. Her muffled pleas gave way to one long, low moan and her limbs drifted ever downward until they hung limply off the bed.

“At least,” she thought, “I don’t have to smell his foul breath anymore.”

Her body was unceremoniously shoved into her closet to hide the deed for just long enough for the man to make his escape. He got away with nothing more than a guilty conscience, but the woman would always remember him. She would relive that night for the rest of eternity and always find herself completely alone in the Red Room. No matter how many new neighbors came and went and no matter how many hands the house passed through, she would always relive it.

Her body is long gone now, just like the boarding house that used to operate out of the old Victorian. She remains, though, and will never leave. This is, after all, the Red Room. This is HER room, and always will be.

Red Room! Red Room!

A brief history of S.K. Pierce and the building of the haunted Victorian

There’s no history of the S.K. Pierce mansion without the man himself. Sylvester Knowlton Pierce was born to Jonas and Achsah on the 11th of April in 1820. His parents gave him his life and not much else, though not for a lack of trying. This was the early 19th century when having kids was basically the only pastime available to people. He had six older siblings and lived a simple and modest upbringing, working odd jobs and trying to help make ends meet until he met his destiny.

Ladies.

It was in his one lifetime that he would go from literal rags to the kinds of riches that even wealthy people today would envy and he did it all on his own. He was the quintessential self-made man and that would figure heavily into his desire to build a lasting monument to his success.

His father died when he was just three years old and his mother followed when he was eleven. He was taken in by his paternal aunt and her husband until the age of fourteen when he moved in with yet another set of aunt and uncle who lived on a farm. It only took him one year to leave and end up working at a chair factory in Gardner, MA. Sylvester stayed there for just one year before leaving to work at a different chair factory in Putnam. This factory ended up relocating to Ashburnham, so he found himself changing his employment yet again to finally work for the man who would change his life.

Steven Taylor owned a chair factory (did people really need that many chairs back then?) in South Gardner and took him on as an employee. He would spend five years as his boss, but S.K. had been up to something this entire time.

Now twenty-five years old, he had been working since the age of fifteen and had saved up every last, damn cent that he could muster. In the year 1845, Sylvester Knowlton Pierce, the broke orphan from three different families, bought Steven Taylor’s chair factory and turned it into the third largest furniture manufacturer in the country in the coming years.

Just remember that the next time you want to bitch about how tough life is. This guy saved money from working in factories to become one of the richest men in the world and he had to do it all with a name like ‘Sylvester.”

It should also be noted that Gardner, MA was the absolute Mecca of furniture back in the 19th century. So much of it was made there that it was, and still is, known as “Chair City.”

No, seriously.

That’s likely why S.K. Pierce was a furniture man. If Gardner were called something like “Fancy Ascot City,” then this would be a very different story.

Anyway, the time came for S.K. to build himself a mansion befitting of his social status. You can’t really hobnob with your elite brethren if you’re stuck renting a studio apartment, now can you? He bought a small house directly across the street from his factory and had it demolished. Then he used the lot and foundation to build the glorious Victorian mansion that you see today in 1875. With 6,661 square feet, three floors, 26 rooms and a grand, sweeping staircase, this monument to money has dominated the Gardner landscape ever since.

S.K. knew what he wanted and he knew that he wanted it fast. He employed two hundred men to build it and all of them worked around the clock to make it happen. It only took a year to construct this massive house and that was a hell of an accomplishment with hand saws and hammers.

It wasn’t just a cookie cutter McMansion, though, oh no. Remember that Sylvester was a furniture man. That meant that he had to go all out when it came to the woodworking in the house. He didn’t let a single cent in his bank rest until he was happy with the intricate carvings and finish work that still decorate the house.

He didn’t end things there, though. There was a newfangled technology on the market known at “gas lighting” and he tricked out every single room with it. It was still a rare treat to be able to see by anything that wasn’t candlelight back then and he was all about it. He even went crazy and had a furnace installed in the basement. The house has all the fixings of the modern world and would have turned many an eye back then.

Simply walking down the street, it’s impossible to not be taken in by the grandeur of the haunted Victorian at 4 West Broadway. A long, concrete walkway beckons you from the sidewalk. Three massive bay windows, three double windows, and the widow’s walk watch you while you pass by, hoping that there’s no one on the other side of them. As more than one person has put it, this is a house that just LOOKS haunted.

See?

Lots of fame in one place

Like they say in Hollywood (I’m assuming), you’re only as successful as the people who visit your house. S.K. Pierce was no stranger to his famous friends and he had plenty of them. Just some of the names that crossed his threshold were P.T. Barnum, who I’m guessing he met at the “initials for names club”, Bette Davis and both of her famous eyes, Norman Rockwell, and president Calvin Coolidge.

These are just some of the famous people who visited the mansion while it was under S.K.’s ownership and it’s no doubt that it was quite the sight for its day. It also didn’t hurt that he had his own pool room on the third floor. This is where the men of industry would convene to smoke expensive cigars and challenge each other to billiards. It’s also speculated that the walls of the room would reverberate with boisterous toasts and the laments these older, rich, white people had about the youth of the day and their damn music.

Damn kids these days!

Tragedy couldn’t help itself

Things were looking great for S K., but fate wouldn’t smile as kindly at his wife, Susan Pierce. The mother of his children was only able to enjoy a few weeks in the (soon to be) haunted Victorian before losing her battle with erysipelas. This was a bacterial infection that caused her great pain as lesions spread all across her face and hands. It wasn’t a pleasant way for her to go and she passed away in the very house that her husband had built for her and their family.

Not one to shy away from the newer model, S.K. Pierce ended up marrying a 28 year old woman two years after the passing of Susan. He was pushing 60 at this point, so it’s safe to say that the marriage ruffled a few feathers. While it wasn’t uncommon for widowers to marry much younger women at this time, it was his children who had the biggest issue with it.

Ellen West Pierce was an active member of the local church and a member of several community groups. All of that was well and good for her, but S.K.’s children saw her as a woman seeking an upwardly mobile arrangement with their father. They believed that she only married him to become a part of the high society that she had always envied and things weren’t great between them.

No matter what his kids thought of her, S.K. still had two children with his new wife and made her a large part of his estate. In fact, there’s still a safe in the house with her name on it on the second floor. Getting a personalized safe like that was a statement to everyone that she had a say on what happened in the family and with the money. It was basically the old timey equivalent of getting your name on the company letterhead and her stepchildren fumed at it.

One of her biggest detractors was Frank, one of S.K.’s three sons. Frank was the eldest and the man most closely associated with the furniture company in the waning years of his father’s life. He wanted the family business to remain with Susan’s children and not be taken over by a usurper who was no more than a few years older than he was.

Of course Ellen had her own quarrels with the older Pierce boys and she never let an opportunity to disparage them pass her by. She constantly accused Frank of squandering his father’s wealth and set up her youngest son, Edward, as the sole proprietor of the property in the event of S.K.’s demise.

This had a demoralizing effect on the other children and most of them would end up moving away from the house rather than continue to fight a losing battle. The family war set the mansion up for a tumultuous future after its creator and first loving owner passed away and left it in the hands of his feuding descendants and all of their bad blood.

The S.K. Pierce mansion after S.K. Pierce

S.K. Pierce, the great furniture titan of Chair City, died in the mansion on January 28, 1888. Things didn’t go well for the house after that. Ellen ended up inheriting most of his estate and sharing the furniture business with Frank. They were constantly at odds with each other and the rest of the family. Just a simple list of the lawsuits that flew between them all could fill volumes.

It was after the death of Ellen in 1902 that things really went crazy, though. Edward, Ellen's youngest son who had been set up as inheritor, got the house and the deaths just wouldn’t end. His own youngest daughter, Rachel, died from gastroenteritis in 1916 and his wife, Bessie, followed her in 1951.

Edward was broke after the years of mismanagement that S.K.’s fortune had endured and he turned the house into a grand Victorian inn and later a boarding house. It would stay as such for decades until Edward really hit rock bottom.

The wealthy person's version of rock bottom, apparently.

The story isn’t 100% confirmed, but it’s said that he lost the house in a poker game in 1965. While that makes for a fun, if dark, idea, it’s likely just hearsay. The more plausible story is that Edward was unable to afford the S.K. Pierce mansion at the end of his life and sold to it a man named Jay Stemmerman, who agreed to let him live in the basement for the rest of his days. That’s exactly what the last Pierce in the house would do until his death in 1967.

It’s after this that the Victorian really started to fall into disrepair. It had just spent a few decades filled with boarders, gamblers, and prostitutes and it wouldn’t get any easier. The new owner dumped a few thousand dollars into some restoration work, but he never saw it through. There’s no telling why, but he closed down the boarding house in 1965 and just abandoned the property for decades to move back home to Florida.

It sat empty and crumbling until it was purchased by Mark and Suzanne Veau in 2000. Once again, things wouldn’t work out for the embattled mansion. The husband and wife were fated to end their marriage in divorce and put the house right back on the market a few years later.

Damn, can't a mansion catch a break?

2008 brought in two brand new owners in Edwin and Lillian from Dorchester. They made a go of it but ultimately sold the house yet again. That’s not to say that they didn’t leave their mark on it, though.

Their tenure was when the ghostly goings on really started to kick off, but this entry is already starting to get a little long in the tooth. Let’s consider this to be part 1 of a two part series. The story of the S.K. Pierce Mansion is just too massive and complicated to cover in one post. There have already been a ton of deaths and we haven’t even gotten to the hauntings yet. That’s exactly where we’ll pick up next time, though, so make sure you come back soon for The Many Hauntings of the S.K. Pierce Mansion - Part 2!

 

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