Findings #3: The Weird and Mysterious

Some former residents don't just drop historic hints in old houses. They haunt them. In the 1980s, Kathleen Boren bought a 1736 house in Mendham, New Jersey. It was a beautiful house situated on a nice property, with one disturbing feature: Set in the ground at the edge of the woods was a small, rounded tombstone carved with a single name: SOPHIE.

Boren feared she had stumbled upon a little girl's grave, and the mystery haunted her. She researched for weeks in the town library—to no avail. She finally learned the truth from a neighbor: Sophie, to her relief, was a donkey. A previous owner had kept her as a pet.

Nonetheless, when Boren put the house on the market three years later, the gravestone spooked potential buyers, even when agents told them that the deceased was a beast of burden and not a child. Boren eventually moved the stone into the woods, murmuring apologies to Sophie. It worked: the house sold shortly after.

One ghostly presence actually stared Richard Alleman in the face: a photograph, found behind the mantel of his Greenwich Village apartment, of a young man in the late 19th century. The picture spooked Alleman right off, because the man in it looks exactly like him. His doppelgänger seems to have placed the photo deliberately, along with a business card for a Manhattan hair products store, knowing that somebody would find it in the future. But while another person might have scrammed, Alleman decided it was a sign that the apartment was meant for him.

People used to do this sort of informal "time capsuling" a lot, though not always so artfully. Workmen found a horse's skull in an interior wall while renovating Rocky Foley's 1776 house in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. From inside the skull Foley fished out a rolled piece of paper with the names of a militia colonel, his wife, and six children, who lived in the house during the 1840s.

What made the colonel think that the skull of a dead animal would be a fit way to memorialize his family? It's a mystery, which constitutes at least half the skull's value. Or maybe just a prank. If so, it's one that took a century and a half to spring.

Still, the moment that Foley picked up the skull, the colonel came to life, and those 15 decades vanished in an instant. And that's the value of finding someone else's possessions in your house. You're extending that person's existence into the present, while stretching your own reach into the past. It's immortality done in two directions. By giving up its secrets, a house proves it has a history and, at the same time, makes us, the owners, feel a little less mortal.
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