Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The First Presbyterian Church House

I am obsessed with ghosts.  Two of my favorite television shows include A Haunting and Haunted Collector.  I may not actively seek out ghosts, but I’ll eat up any true ghost story and read any novel on the subject that crosses my path. 

Enter: the ghosts that haunt the Church House of the First Presbyterian Church on Genesee Street in Utica. 
My friend, Stephanie, volunteers at the Oneida County Historical Society, also in Utica.  She mentioned to me that a fellow volunteer was a member of the First Presbyterian Church and had mentioned that the house – rightly, a mansion – attached to the church was haunted.  She loves the world of the paranormal too, and he offered to give us a tour.  Of course we brought our families along. 

Any good old-fashioned ghost story deserves to start with the facts.  Robert MacKinnon owned the house first, back in 1898, then known as 435 Genesee Street.  You may dream about living in a mansion, and the MacKinnon life was one of extravagance and glamour, but it isn’t a fairytale with a happy ending like Annie.  Robert MacKinnon lost his fortune in 1910, going from millionaire to very poor in a short amount of time.  I can’t imagine what that must have been like for him. 

Before Robert MacKinnon lost the mansion, he helped raise three daughters and two sons.  You might drift back into the fairytale mindset, where all that glitters is gold, but again, there lies a shadowy undertone. 
One daughter, Mollie, disappeared.  She had been engaged to a man who was said to be of upper class background, but who was really a lawyer from California who left that state in a cloud of uncertainty.  Once she was married, she discovered something about her husband that was so shocking she could never again face her family.  She vanished and was never seen again. It was only recent years that her burial place in a Long Island cemetery was discovered.  She had died of tuberculosis in the charity ward of a New York City hospital.

Another daughter married a Jamaican plantation owner and died within a year of her marriage.  Her death certificate indicates she died of a complication from pregnancy, which was at the time untreatable.
Charles Borst took over the mansion in 1911.  Owner of the Clinton Hermatite Mines, he died in his office in Clinton in 1918.  His wife, Grace Borst, tried to keep the mines going, but eventually sold the house to investors who intended to turn it into apartments. One of the Borst daughters, Carlina, passed on in an untimely manner.  She became an actress and died of tuberculosis in New York City when she was just 33.  When her husband died a few years later, her sister, Beatrice, became guardian of her children.  In 1942, she wrote a novel based on her life in the Utica mansion.  Although names and places were changed, the descriptions of the rooms are clear to those who know the house.

Stepping into the mansion, you can feel the history in the air.  The downstairs has been refurnished into elegant meetings rooms and offices, with a professional, dignified atmosphere.  When you get upstairs, you experience the decay of the years.  Without being fixed up to proper standards, the remains of the past decade whisper into your ears.  You can imagine what Mollie’s coming out party in 1905 had been like in the ballroom, and you can picture the servants hanging their sparse clothing in the attic closets.  The dormers, flooded with light from outdoors while carpeted with interior darkness, leaves a chill down your spine.  From the exquisite tile in the bathroom to the sparkling fireplaces, you can experience what a grand life the occupants must have lived.  It is the perfect type of home you long to live in, and when you close your eyes, you imagine what it might have been like back then, in the early 1900s. 

George Abel, one of the church members, gave us the tour of the rooms, complete with commentary.  He explained the history and pointed out locations where people have witnessed paranormal activity.  Mollie MacKinnon is the most popular ghost for the mansion.  If you believe it is her spirit haunting the grounds, you can imagine she returned to her home, a place where she felt safe, after her unfortunate demise.  Stephanie and I snapped photos with our digital cameras as we followed him.  When we got home and reviewed our footage, she didn’t see anything in hers.

In three of mine, however, I spotted what might be ghost orbs.  Of course, I would have much preferred a full body apparition or a face in a mirror.  One orb appeared over a fireplace.  The white ball was very transparent and small, and in the brightness of the room, it could easily be called dust.  Another orb appeared when I snapped the inside of a closet.  That one, too, could be called dust, since the air felt heavy and the closet was cluttered. 

The third orb sends chills down my spine, and I can’t call it dust.  It appeared in the upstairs sitting area near the stairs where people have claimed to see Mollie’s ghost.  The orb is in the upper right-hand corner of the photograph and seems to be moving.  It is much brighter and whiter than the other orbs captured on film.  It also seems to be moving, with a bit of a streak or tail following it.  You decide: ghost orb, dust, or a speck on the lens?  Nowhere else did a light like that appear on the photos, and I’ve never seen it on another photograph I’ve taken anywhere else. 

The house has been the site of multiple ghost hunting experiences, as well as part of the 2013 summer tour for the Landmarks Society of Utica.  Keep your eyes open for an opportunity of your own to tour the expansive grounds and maybe catch a glimpse of the ghost, or ghosts, yourself.  The church can be reached at http://www.fpcutica.net/

If you know of a haunted area you’d like me to tour and write about, or something else you’d like me to write about, you can contact me at SignedJori@gmail.com.  Happy adventures!

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