BY CHRISTINE PHELAN, Valley Dispatch Staff
Joe Bella — president of the Methuen Historical Society, a rabid history buff and a longtime resident to boot — knows a thing or two about haunted spots in and around this 18th-century city. The 59-year-old Bella has been collecting stories of area spooks for more than 20 years in a longhand journal, as well as everything from old postcards, to ink blotters , to milk bottles from now defunct dairies.
He even has the gift of second sight, something he shares with his now deceased great aunt, though he confessed he rarely “reads jewelry” outside of cocktail parties and among friends.
Q. How’d you become known as the go-to person for all things local history?
I’m a former state worker for the Division of Employment and Training, was a veterans interviewer. I retired two years ago and decided to pursue my main interest, which is local history. I’ve really gone all the way. I’m a member of the Historic District Commission and a commissioner for that organization, a board member of the Lawrence History Center, and president of the Friends of the Lawrence Heritage State Park. People have been coming up to me, my association with local history and all that, and families would tell me stories about what they knew, what they’d seen happen in their old homes.
Q. Talk a bit about Methuen’s history.
Methuen had three millionaires, the Tenneys, the Searles and The Nevins. The Tenneys had a hat factory (now the Berkeley Shoe Store) and lived in the Gatehouse (on Pleasant Street) while they built the (Greycourt) mansion, starting in 1890, which was finished in 1893. (Father Charles) Tenney lived here until the family moved to New York City right around the beginning of World War II, when they took the company there. The rest of the family came to Methuen in the summertime until the 1950s after Charles died in (roughly) 1919. After that, the family donated the building to St. Basil’s for drug and alcohol clinic Challenge House. (The mansion eventually burned in the 1980s, and the city razed the stone remains at the hilltop, though a few of Greycourt’s original gardens remain.)
Q. What do you know about haunted Methuen?
(In one downtown home), the owners told me that at night, their kitten’s fur would rise, like it was afraid of something. And silverware would fall off the table, and for no reason. The owner’s father had built the house — he’d also died in it.
In another home, a couple was going to bed and the woman felt something at the foot of the bed (that was not her husband). They also reported that a knick knack flew off a shelf. Another time, the woman was pushed off a ladder, which shook her up. Their home, too, had been built by someone who’d died there.
Twenty years ago, I heard stories about the tower light (in the Tenney Gatehouse). It would turn on for no apparent reason. When the New England Ghost Project visited the Gatehouse, their medium … felt a presence. Her throat constricted, and she spoke of Eliza (Eliza Whittier, one of the original inhabitants, was said to have died of consumption).
The (later added) Tower Room was the room where one of the brothers from St. Basil’s died of throat cancer. He couldn’t speak, and in order for him to get his nurse’s attention, he would flick the lights on and off. I always feel a presence there. I’m never here alone. I definitely feel something weird.
Q. When you visit a place where there might be lingering spirits, what do you feel?
It’s almost like an ominous yet a questioning, curious feeling. Not that there’s something wrong, but just as though something’s happened.
I’ve felt things more as I’ve gotten older than I did years ago. Sometimes there are minor feelings of something having happened, and it’s an uneasy feeling, but not necessarily a dangerous uneasy feeling. I can be passing, and something’s telling me, not danger, but it’s an odd place, and just to be aware. It’s like a minor warning that things aren’t quite right, an invisible aura. And it’s not just restricted to an ancient place, a Colonial or a Victorian — I can get feelings in new places, too.
Sometimes when I read jewelry, it’s a feeling of not knowing how, or why (I’m saying what I am). I’m just the mouthpiece. I don’t like bad news, and never take any money. I (read jewelry) off and on, and don’t really broadcast it to people. I like to do it only as a challenge, to see if I can do it, to see if I’m still accurate as I had been in the past. I’ll roll (the person’s jewelry) around in my hands. I’m just the loudspeaker now. It wears me out a little bit. But it’s fun.
Q. What do you collect?
I collect soda bottles, cans, containers, posters, especially of Thelma Todd and Bette Davis. (Davis) answered my fan mail. And I’ve been reading and collecting for so long, there’s very little I don’t know. One thing that surprised me was that (Davis) was the first female lifeguard in Ogonquit, Maine. She used a photo I’d taken of her Chester Street home in Lowell in her autobiography.