Wednesday, October 26, 2011
The Haunted House Next Door
The house next to mine has always intrigued me since the first time I saw it when I was five years old. The year was 1958 and our family was the new one on the block having moved in a few weeks before my sixth birthday in July. At the time there was an old Italian couple who lived in it and it was clear from the beginning that they were not fond of a family with three kids moving in next door to them.
As a matter of fact on our first night in the neighborhood the old woman next door snuck into our yard and stole some potted plants from our back porch that my mother had sat out, and within a few days I had my first scary encounter with the old man, one that would incite my dad to knock on his door and grab him by the collar and promise bodily harm to him if he ever spoke to me or anyone in our family the way he had to me.
What he said to me was that if I ever came into his yard he would throw me into his well and that no one would ever see me again. That well was barely visible beneath a creepy looking arbor heavily covered with grape vines. As the years would pass I would hear stories from other neighbors who believed that well was full of carcasses of neighborhood pets that wandered into his yard.
Aside from that early encounter I can still remember vividly when the huge stone stable that still stands behind that house still had a horse and wagon in it that the old man used to drive up and down the alleys looking for anything he thought was of value that he could either use himself or perhaps sell. One story told by a neighbor who lived behind us both was that sometime in the 1930s that horse raised up on its hind legs and kicked his little girl in the head and left her comatose for several weeks The rest of that story ended in a bloody fist fight between the two men.
In 1961 the old man died and his wife was taken away to live somewhere else and the house was sold twice before 1965. That year it was purchased by a woman who would pretty much keep to herself but who was not necessarily unfriendly. By the early 1970s I had gotten married and moved away but in 1997, following the passing of my parents I returned home and bought the house I grew up in.
And in all of that time the lady next door never married and her personality hadn't changed much. She still kept to herself most of the time but all-in-all I was happy she still lived there because most of the other neighbors who surrounded us in those early years had either passed on or moved away. I will admit that there was some comfort in knowing there was still a familiar being on my block. As a matter of fact she was only one of two still within sight or even walking distance of the people who were here in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.
Because of that I began mowing her lawn each time I mowed my own. I wanted to be a good neighbor and I also wanted to finally get a peek under that iron lid that covered the well in her backyard to satisfy a decades long curiosity. When I told her my reasons why and of the stories I had heard through the years she told me that if I lifted the lid I wouldn't see anything besides a bunch of bricks and busted up shards of concrete and rocks. She went on to explain that the privious owners filled it up with them.
She was right. When I opened it I was disappointed but no less curious.
As the years ticked away I began to notice that she was becoming less and less friendly. I never knew why but it was okay, I still felt good that a connection to my own past was still residing in the house that had a strange complex about it to me for so many years. One that every time I look at it even to this day seems to hold some sort of mystery as if maybe something tragic had happened in it long ago, or maybe just something very sad.
It wasn't until late September of 2011 that I decided to search the records of the Franklin County Auditor's office in hopes of learning something about the house and those who lived in it since it was built sometime in the late 1800s. What I discovered was that the old man who had threatened to throw me in a well more than fifty years ago bought it from a man named Silvio Paini whose death record showed him as an artist.
As I began researching Mr. Paini I learned that he was an immigrant who had come to this country in 1869 from Austria. He and his pregnant wife Terista and their one and a half year old son Amerigo landed at Ellis Island in August of that year. The auditor's records did not state the year that Paini bought the house next door to me but it did record the transaction to sell it to Francesco Longo in 1921. Longo was the old man whose well I had feared as a child.
Through my research I found out that Silvio was a painter who used to roam the neighborhood selling his paintings and that he would be spotted often in nearby Schiller Park sketching landscapes and then bringing them home where they would be turned into beautiful art works that he created in a second story art studio that he had built on the back of his house.
This was information that I now wish I had bothered to learn years ago. That studio, built over the kitchen of the home was something that always attracted my attention anytime I was in my own backyard. Of course until recently I never knew what it was but I did often find myself looking up at it and remembering when the aluminum siding wasn't there and when there were more windows that wrapped around all three sides of it.
I guess we all suspected that it was just a sun porch or maybe an extra bedroom. But according to the other neighbor, a woman in her eighties whose family has lived in her house since the turn of the century, it was where Silvio Paini would sit at an easel and create beautiful art. To me that meant that one hundred years ago he would be up there and he would have a spectacular view of my entire backyard. He would have seen the people who lived in my house that was built in 1907 as they went about their business and he may have even painted a picture of what he saw below.
His children, when they were small may have played with the kids who lived in my house. I found all of these possibilities especially interesting as I began to learn more about the Paini's. His death certificate and other documents I found show that he is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery here on the south side, as is at least one of his children who died young. And as I learned these things I began to wonder if any of this might be the reason I have many times felt like someone was watching me anytime I was in my yard. I'll get to that in a moment.
Having never been one to hold much stock in ghost stories I will admit there were times I believed someone in that room was "spying" on me because I have seen the curtains move as if someone was many times. Until recently I just figured most of the time that it was my neighbor who lived alone all of these years watching me for whatever her reasons might have been. But there were times when I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me because I can swear I have seen the curtains move in the dead of winters when she was not home.
You see, every year she leaves Columbus around the holidays and goes to her other home in Florida and doesn't return until the spring. On those occasions when I thought I saw the curtains move I allowed for the possibility of it being a draft coming in through a crack or a seam and I never really dwelled on any other possibilities. The whole ghost scenario never entered my mind but a few times I did find myself wondering if there might be a burglar up there. To my knowledge the house has never been burglarized.
In the photo that accompanies this story a light can be seen in the window adjacent to Paini's long ago art studio. Anytime my neighbor is gone she leaves that light on, I suspect to make it appear that someone is home, especially during the winter months when no one is there or should be there. I am used to seeing it and have never really thought much about it until tonight. I went into the yard for the sole purpose of photographing it for another story I was working on and for a moment the light went out and then came back on.
Over the years I wouldn't normally give that much thought but I know the woman isn't there. She left about two weeks ago. Not to go to Florida but to a hospital for a routine medical procedure that went very wrong and she died unexpectedly the following day. Before leaving for what would be the last time she turned on that light as she always has and it has been burning continuously since. That is until about an hour and a half ago when it flickered.
The last old neighbor still on the block now (besides me) told me recently that it is believed both of Paini's children died in that house but she never knew why. She also said that she remembered being told when she was very young that the Paini children died within a year of one another and it was upon the death of the second child that Paini sold the house. That led to years of speculation buy some in the neighborhood that it was indeed haunted. I have no reason to doubt what she told me and I am not suggesting that I believe the house is haunted and I am hesitant to say that when the light went off and came on again I felt something. But I did.
Maybe it was just a sense of sadness that my neighbor who I have been so used to seeing come and go from there for so long is gone forever. Perhaps it is in the irony that she died a few weeks after I began researching the history of her home or maybe it was only the chill of the damp night air and its accompanying breeze. Or maybe my eyes were merely playing more tricks. But maybe there is another explanation.
What I am sure of is that the light that she turned on is still on even if it appeared not to be for a moment. It will be sad when someone does turn it off. And if it goes out again before someone does I will have to believe the bulb has finally burned out. I think I will believe that.