Jan 02, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Haunted S.K. Pierce Mansion - Home of Ghosts and Spontaneous Combustion - Becomes a Historical Landmark

What makes an old American home worthy of inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places? According to the National Register Criteria for Evaluation, the building must be old enough to be considered historic (at least 50 years old) and look like it did in the past. More importantly, it should be associated with events, activities, people, architecture, landscaping or engineering that were important in the past. Would an old haunted former brothel where a person once died of spontaneous combustion be enough? Those are just two of the many paranormal and historical events associated with the S.K. Pierce Mansion in Gardner,  Massachusetts – the newest member of the National Register of Historic Places.

Do ghosts help a building get into the National Register of Historic Places?

“(Demolition) was discussed. And a few people who I know that are involved in the paranormal field joked about saying they would chain themselves to the front of the house to avoid that from happening. But I’m happy to say that now we know the house isn’t going anywhere.”

Bob Conti, the current owner since 2015 of the S.K. Pierce Mansion at the corner of West Broadway and Union Street in Gardner, Massachusetts, describes to the Telegram & Gazette how it took him nearly six years to prepare the paperwork to nominate the building for inclusion in the National Register. That went on at the same time as he was personally and singlehandedly restoring the S.K. Pierce Mansion to its former glory while keeping as much as possible of the original structure – a key criteria for consideration by the National Register. While one  of Conti’s goals was to get national historical recognition for the mansion, he also needed to pay for the renovations and upkeep. As a result, he opened the S.K. Pierce Mansion for tours – historical and paranormal – in September 2022. (Photo here.

“We’ve had a lot of people come through the house. We hired 10 wonderful tour guides who have become very knowledgeable about the house. We’ve brought in some guest tour guides, and the response has been great – during October we pretty much sold out every tour.”

Historically, the three-story house was built in 1875 by Westminster resident Sylvester Knowlton Pierce, who owned the S.K. Pierce Chair Factory across the street. The original house was equipped with a tunnel under the road so that Pierce could visit the factory in any weather. The tunnel was also used to deliver steam heat from the factory to the mansion. The 6,661 square foot building had many modern – for the time -conveniences, including gas lighting in every room and running water throughout. Unfortunately, the home immediately appeared to also have a curse. A mere two weeks after moving in, Pierce's wife, Susan, died from a flesh-eating bacterial infection. Sylvester Knowlton Pierce died in the house in 1888. His second wife, Ellen Pierce, inherited the house and the curse, dying there as well. S.K.'s three sons then fought over the house and the furniture business before the two oldest sons moved away and the youngest, Edward Pierce, took over the mansion … and the curse. His two-year-old daughter, Rachel Pierce, died in the home of a bacterial infection.

But wait … there’s more!

The house stayed in the family but in and the furniture business fell into disrepair after the Great Depression, forcing Edward and his wife to convert the mansion into a boarding house. In 1963, boarder Eino Sauri, a World War II veteran, burned to death at age 49 in the main bedroom after his mattress mysteriously caught fire. Because of the circumstances, one cause suspected by many and told to this day is spontaneous combustion. With a history like that, it is no surprise that the S.K. Pierce Mansion is considered to be heavily haunted – starting with the ghosts of these persons who died there. Residents and visitors have reported smelling something burning in the main bedroom. The spirits of the Pierce family members are said to appear or make their presences known regularly. In particular, the spirit of Rachel Pierce is often seen playing in the rooms on the third floor.

But wait … there’s more ghosts!

House Beautiful tells of neighbors seeing a little boy with "yellow hair" running back and forth between the mansion’s windows despite the fact that the owners who bought the house from the Pierce family, had no children living there. Owners Edwin Gonzalez and Lillian Otero lived there from 2009 to 2011 and reported hearing footsteps, doors slamming and objects moving on their own. They also encountered ghosts, including a shadow figure in the basement, and a dark-haired woman with a creepy smile. These and more stories are told in the book, “Bones in the Basement: Surviving the S.K. Pierce Haunted Victorian Mansion” by Joni Mayhan. And yes, there are ones in the basement. However, there is also at least one good spirit - psychic mediums and paranormal investigators have reported contacting Maddie Cornwall, a young nanny who cared for the Pierce children, whose ghost now protects the mansion and babysits the other ghosts.

What about the brothel?

Did the mansion have any red lights?

According to the official records, the mansion was a boarding house but never a brothel. There are stories of a prostitute being strangled there and her body found in an upstairs closet, but it has never been verified. The spontaneous combustion story was debunked by records showing the boarder died of third-degree burns and smoke inhalation after falling asleep while smoking in bed … but the old rumors and the scent of smoke linger on. There are no celebrity ghosts at the S.K. Pierce Mansion and the rumors that celebrities like Norman Rockwell, Bette Davis, Calvin Coolidge and billiards player Minnesota Fats stayed there are not supported by the records. However, one spooky aspect of the house – that the nine bedrooms on the second and third floors appear to be numbered in an oddly random order – has been solved. It turns out some members of the Pierce family, including Edward, belonged to the Freemasons and the rooms, when mapped out in order, become a Masonic infinity symbol – a symbol found throughout the house.

Did the ghost stories and sightings, spontaneous combustion tale, Masonic links and other eerie happenings help the S.K. Mansion make it into the National Register of Historic Places? They probably didn’t hurt, but the history of the  S.K. Pierce Mansion, the furniture factory, Sylvester Knowlton Pierce’s influence on the area, and Bob Conti’s research and restoration effort were the driving factors. Congratulations are in order for him … and any of the ghosts who helped out.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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