Ghosts of Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, New York

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In a little hamlet called Oyster Bay on the East Coast of the United States stands a home with a fascinating history and a few permanent incorporeal residents. The house is now called Raynham Hall Museum, and if that name sounds familiar, it's likely because you've heard about one of the most famous ghost photos: Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England. The two places are often confused because of the nearly identical names, and it doesn't help that they were both built by families with the Townsend name and have reports of a ghost on a staircase. In fact, Raynham Hall Museum took its namesake from Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, but the similarities between the two houses are only superficial, and the history and hauntings are quite different.

Let's explore and unravel a bit of the intriguing past of Raynham Hall Museum and follow a winding path of sources to see how it may have ended up with a few restless spirits.

History of Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, New York

On the North Shore of Long Island, New York, is a town called Oyster Bay, home to 300,000 people. The area has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for thousands of years and was colonized by Europeans in the 17th century. In 1738, a man named Samuel Townsend purchased a saltbox-style house in the Township of Oyster Bay from Thomas Wheedon, who is believed to have built the house himself. Samuel Townsend made a few additions that doubled the number of rooms from four to eight and dubbed it a "Homestead."

Map showing the location of Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, New York.
Location of Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, New York.

When the American Revolution broke out, Oyster Bay was primarily Loyalists, except for a few people in the area—like Samuel Townsend—who supported the war and rejection of British rule. In August of 1776, the Battle of Long Island saw the Patriots defeated, and a few weeks later, British soldiers arrested Samuel Townsend for being an outspoken Patriot. Fortunately for Samuel Townsend, he had friends on both sides. A merchant Tory, Thomas Buchanan, paid a considerable sum for Samuel Townsend to be released before being taken onto a prison ship in New York Harbor.

Map showing the location of Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay on Long Island, New York.
Location of Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay on Long Island, New York.

Samuel Townsend returned home and signed an oath of allegiance to the king so he could keep on that whole being alive thing. Having probably crossed his fingers or winked a few times when he signed the oath of allegiance, Samuel Townsend kept meeting with revolutionaries. British Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe moved into the Townsend home with the Townsend family and turned the place into the headquarters for the over 300 Loyalist Queen's Rangers. Historical records indicate that the two groups, the Townsend family and the British soldiers, got along quite well, even though they were actively working on different sides of the war. So well that America's first Valentine was written by British Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, addressed to Sarah Townsend, and alludes difficulties of loving an enemy.

As it turns out, Sarah "Sally" Townsend and her brother Robert Townsend were both members of George Washington's secret organization of informants: The Culper Spy Ring. I'm talking real spies here, with invisible ink, encoded messages in newspapers, and such secrecy that members didn't even know who the other members were. The existence of the Culper Ring wasn't even known to the public until the 1930s.

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, "What does any of this have to do with the ghosts?"

Oh, just wait.

It has everything to do with the hauntings.

Before we get to the restless spirits, we should cover more of what happened in the Townsend house after the Revolutionary War to find out how it went from a simple home to a hall and then to a museum full of ghosts.

The Townsend house was passed down to Samuel Townsend's descendants, with a period where it was officially owned by the husband, Dr. Ebenezer Seely, of Samuel Townsend's daughter Phebe. Robert and Sally Townsend lived in the home with the Seelys until Dr. Seely sold it back to Samuel's grandson Solomon in 1851.

1852 drawing of the Townsend home from the Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution by Benson J Lossing.
1852 drawing of the Townsend home from the Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution by Benson J Lossing.

Solomon Townsend made several additions, including a water tower and a rear wing, and renamed the "Old Homestead" to "Raynham Hall." He took the name from the Raynham Hall of Norfolk, England, where the now famous photograph of the ghost of the "Brown Lady" was shot in 1936. Despite both families having the Townsend name, they appear to be unrelated.

The newly named Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay, New York, was kept in the Townsend (American) family for decades until it was sold by court order to repay some bad debt. The home was purchased again by Julia Weeks Coles and brought back into the extended family of the Townsends. Julia Coles owned Raynham Hall for nearly twenty years and eventually deeded Raynham Hall to Oyster Bay Daughters of the American Revolution. The Daughters of the American Revolution donated the property to the Town of Oyster Bay in 1947, under the condition that the Town of Oyster Bay would maintain Raynham Hall "as a public shrine, and as far as possible, make perpetual a memorial to the brave men and women of revolutionary times, for the use and benefit of the general public of the nation under agreements, covenants and conditions which will best secure to our people the diffusion of knowledge and the inspiration of our forebears in cherishing freedom, love of country and the fostering of patriotism." (More here on Raynham Hall Museum's website.) That's a lot of changing hands and a long history directly involved with an incredibly bloody war.

2008 photo of Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, New York.
This place does matter.

Julia Coles never lived in the house, but Julia and her sister Sarah Townsend Coles Halstead maintained it. During Julia Coles's time with the house, she experienced and documented several ghostly encounters and wrote an article about it in the Glen Cove Record paper in 1938. And that is where we find...the spooky.

Tracking the Ghosts at Raynham Hall Museum

Oddly, all of my research on this place pointed back to a single book as the source of information about the hauntings, a book published in 2004 that supposedly referenced the actual article written by Julia Coles. This is unusual because stories about hauntings often don't have a specific, documented origin. Many come from word of mouth, get passed along, and spread as rumors and legends. Because of the unusual specificity involved with the origin of the ghostly encounters at Raynham Hall Museum, I (obviously) had to track down the original sources to find out what I could. Unfortunately, many (many) places on the Internet mentioned the 2004 book mentioned above and the article by Julia Coles, but the actual source material from either wasn't readily available.

Cover for Ghost Stories of New York State by Susan Smitten.
Ghost Stories of New York State by Susan Smitten

Susan Smitten's book "Ghost Stories of New York State" was pretty easy to get, but I suspect new copies might not be getting printed. Books like this tend to have a niche market, and this one is no exception, as indicated by only 19 ratings on Goodreads and 9 ratings on Amazon. There's a disclaimer in the front matter that declares, "The stories, folklore, and legends in this book are based on the author's collection of sources including individuals whose experiences have led them to believe they have encountered phenomena of some kind or another. They are meant to entertain, and neither the publisher nor the author claims these stories represent fact." I found this book entertaining, and the section about Raynham Hall Museum is extensive, considering how little information was available. As far as the article goes, luckily, after writing to numerous people, including the original newspaper, the actual museum, and various libraries, I got in touch with an Archivist & Librarian, J. Lydia Wen, at the Glen Cove Public Library who managed to dig up the original article by Julia Coles. (Thank you!)

Townsend Family Spooks Described by Julia Coles. Glen Cove Record, 1938.
Townsend Family Spooks Described by Julia Coles. Glen Cove Record, 1938.

The article mentions a few strange occurrences at Raynham Hall:

  • An overnight guest saw a white horse with a rider enter her room while she was wide awake. Julia Coles states that the white horse ghost is a "family ghost" that also haunts the original Townsend home in Norfolk, England. (Intriguing, considering the two families are regarded as unrelated today.) The white horse is said to appear a few hours before a death in the Townsend family.
  • A lady who rented Raynham Hall for a tea room often heard odd noises such as phantom footsteps on stairs.
  • On two separate occasions, a year apart, during meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a Pekinese dog owned by one of the members was brought in, became terrified, and "refused to pass a certain place in the floor."
  • Julia Coles's sister, Sarah Townsend Halsted, saw "a little, bent old man walking slowly down the hall" that vanished into the darkness at the end of the hallway. Sarah believed the man to be the ghost of Captain Robert Townsend, who died at age 84 and was buried in the old Fort Hill Cemetery in Oyster Bay.
  • On another occasion, Sarah Townsend Halsted and Howard Townsend went into the home to retrieve books from a cupboard in the library, but the door to the cupboard wouldn't budge (even with tools), even though it wasn't locked. The next day, Sarah returned to try again and easily opened the cupboard door.
  • Julia Coles notes that Sarah had seen ghosts since they were children, and one they called the "Gray Lady" used to haunt a wardrobe in a childhood home.
  • The article goes on to say, "The Gray Lady is a Townsend family ghost," and that it is the very same spirit whose picture was taken on the staircase at the Raynham Hall in England, aka the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Again, the two Townsend families of the Raynham Halls do not appear to be actually related.

In her book "Ghost Stories of New York State" Susan Smitten writes that the families are related and that the Oyster Bay Townsends actually built the home (instead of purchasing it as current records indicate.) Weirdly, Susan Smitten's book doesn't mention anything—at all—about the Gray Lady. Though there are quite a few new strange occurrences mentioned since Julia Coles's article:

  • Sally Townsend's lovesick spirit supposedly haunts the home because British Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe left her and the home and never returned, leaving Sally to die alone at the age of 82.
  • The ghost of a family gardener named Michael Conlin is said to still be on duty, pruning and weeding the property. No one sees him outside but instead sees him by a grandfather clock near a staircase.
  • The ghost of a woman dressed in a dark hooded cloak passes from room to room, often headed into the kitchen.
  • Phantom smells of apple pies, candle smoke, tobacco smoke, roses, or fireplace smoke. Parts of the house get sudden icy chills, and sometimes disembodied footsteps can be heard on the stairs or in parts of the house where no living person is.
  • Windows that were latched are later found to be open, and light switches that were turned off are found to be turned on.
  • 2002 Long Island's Ghost Hunters Investigation: apple pie smells and orbs captured in digital photos. An audio recording also captured one of the ghost hunters asking if anyone was there, and a voice (caught on the recording but not heard in real-time) said, "Yes, there is." The group caught other recordings of a similar nature during their investigation.
  • In 2003, guests and guides at a series of Halloween tours encountered electronics malfunctioning, orbs in photos, lights turning off, and strange smells.
  • Around the same time in 2003, a brand new ghost was discovered—that of a "very beautiful woman with upswept hair and wearing a dark, floor-length dress." The spirit was seen standing at the top of a staircase before disappearing through a door. She was again spotted in the kitchen, along with a strange smell and flute music played from somewhere else in the house. The ghost woman looked straight at the man who saw her, then went upstairs and vanished.
  • 2003 New York Ghost Chapter Investigation stated, "there's a vortex in the house at one of the fireplaces" and that Raynham Hall Museum was the "Grand Central Station of ghosts!"

That is a lot of paranormal activity!

It is noteworthy that the article written by Julie Coles came about two years after the famous photo of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, was published. Around that time period, the ghost craze (and seances) of previous decades still going, as well as debunking efforts by various individuals and groups.

In case you were wondering, as of now, December 2022, Raynham Hall Museum does have an entry on Wikipedia, but it appears as if no one has actually read, updated, and certainly not cited the original article about apparitions by Julia Cole. Also, in one section, it says the Townsends of Oyster Bay and Norfolk aren't related, and in another one, it alludes that the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in England has been spotted in the Oyster Bay Raynham Hall Museum. For an even more glaring example of how stories change across mediums and time, take this one:

"Some psychics and ghost hunters have come to the house and found Sally's aura to be one of sadness."

— From Wikipedia, claiming it came from Susan Smitten, Ghost Stories of New York (Canada: Ghost House Books, 2004), 52.

Having a copy of the actual book by Susan Smitten, I can tell you for a fact that page 52 doesn't say that. In fact, it doesn't say that anywhere in the book. Susan Smitten does mention a psychic on a 2003 Halloween ghost tour caused a mannequin to be removed after saying they felt an "unhappy presence upstairs," and in another part, Susan Smitten asks a rhetorical question to us, the readers, "Could it be that her [Sally Townsend] heart grew cold in all her loveless years, or is her sad spirit just patiently waiting for her love to return?"

Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, does Susan Smitten write anything about Sally's aura—and that's just one example of the inconsistencies on Wikipedia compared to the sources that are cited. But, again, one of the most stunning examples is that Julia Coles's actual words from her article haven't been read or cited, and the Gray Lady that Julia Coles describes is completely missing.

Make of that what you will, I suppose.

While writing this, I made a wholehearted attempt at updating the Wikipedia entry with accurate information, but I was quickly bogged down with confusing rules of editing, citations, my lack of having a "confirmed account," fair use related to differences in what Wikipedia vs. Wikimedia will allow, and apparently, it's bad form (but not necessarily against the rules) to cite yourself. I was just trying to upload and reference the original article by Julia Coles. I may give it another shot at some point, but for now, dear readers, you have information that seemingly no one else in the world does. Which is...weird, but certainly not the first time this has happened in my research for Into Horror History.

As far as what's going on with the strange occurrences in Raynham Hall Museum, I don't think anyone has a solid explanation, but seeing how the stories have changed over the last century sure is interesting, isn't it?

Relevant & Related

Whew! Raynham Hall Museum has quite the history! If anyone reading this spots something amiss, just let me know so I can correct it.