Where my travels take me, I often have occasion to check out a “haunted” tavern or inn. In several months’ time in 2015–2016, for example, I visited two such places in Australia, others in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, Vancouver’s Gastown, and Niagara Falls, NY, and then in June 2016, the Tavern on Main in Chepachet, RI.
I was in those areas during visits to investigate strange mysteries or talk about them at conferences, or both, and since I have to eat somewhere, I am always glad to do so, as it were, among the spirits.
This time, I was in Rhode Island at the request of Norma Sutcliffe who, with her husband, has lived for three decades in the house central to the scary movie The Conjuring (2013). They are non-believers in demons and have had no encounters in all that time. (See my “Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at The Conjuring House,” Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2016).) Before I began my trip back to Buffalo (via a couple of other stops), Norma and I had dinner at the Tavern on Main. (See photograph.)
According to the town historian, it was built as a colonial dwelling in the eighteenth century, later converted to a tavern, and long utilized as a stagecoach stop and inn. As Sprague’s Tavern in 1842 it was briefly involved in a failed insurrection known as the Dorr Rebellion, a conflict over political disenfranchisement. In the twentieth century the structure became, in turn, a “drab apartment building,” billiard parlor, pub, and, finally, a restaurant named Stagecoach Tavern (Kent 2016).
From even this brief sketch of its checkered past, we sense that the historic property has not always fared well financially. One reason may be the town’s low population, (1,675 in 2010), another that it is somewhat off the beaten path—save perhaps for stagecoaches. Maybe as a consequence, ghost hunters seem especially welcome, since advertising ghosts may lure patrons. And so the Tavern on Main has offered “Ghost Hunt Dinners” at various times. In April 2016, for instance, it was claimed, “The tavern is especially active this time of year”; Halloween was another “active” time (D’Agostino 2016; Tavern 2016). Such promotion takes advantage of the power of suggestion.
My experience with many such haunted taverns, restaurants, and inns—where ghosts are thought to be good for business—has been that hoaxes and apparent hoaxes are common. I have even caught a few prankster “ghosts” of this variety (Nickell 2012, 319–324). At the Tavern, a second-hand story of an object tossed at one ghost hunter (Wagner 2016), a bartender’s report of toilet paper strung out in a bathroom (Homer 2012), and some of the numerous accounts patrons wrote of their personal encounters with ghosts there (kept in a dining-table drawer) (D’Agostino 2016a) may well involve mischief.
As to ghost-hunting buffs—who are invariably non-scientists trying to seem scientific, but engaging in rampant pseudoscience—their antics at the Tavern are just the usual nonsense. Their claims include filming “orbs” (usually light reflected from dust particles), monitoring electromagnetic fields (which they wrongly associate with ghost “energy”), and others, including recording Electronic Voice Phenomena (typically one or two glitch sounds they interpret as syllables of words) (Ghostriders 2016). None of these is scientifically evidential. Neither is their, or their psychics’, or the Tavern patrons’ goosebumps, “cold chills” or feelings of a “presence.” (For discussions, see Nickell 2012, 144–146, 269–274.)
As for me, while I supped at the Tavern on Main—a place of ambiance, good food, friendly staff, and, I think, not a single ghost—I again remembered the adage of my late best friend, psychologist Robert A. Baker: “There are no haunted places, only haunted people.”
D’Agostino, Tom. 2016a. Tavern on Main Haunting. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRRD0gximWQ; accessed November 22, 2016.
———. 2016b. Schedule of events. Online at https://www.tomdagostino.com/schedule-of-events.html; accessed November 22, 2016.
Ghostriders Paranormal. 2016. Tavern on Main Full Episode. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHshdTMhDYQ; accessed November 22, 2016.
Homer, Wayne. 2012. Tavern on Main. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3VK2r252so&t=434s; accessed November 22, 2016.
Kent, Edna Whitaker. 2014. Dorr Rebellion Museum: Sprague’s Tavern. Online at https://www.dorrrebellionmuseum.org/spraguestavern.htm; accessed November 22, 2016.
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Tavern on Main. 2016. Online at https://www.tavernonmainri.com/home.html.