This is what I know to be true about the New Vernon House in Chepachet, Rhode Island.
In 1835, the Vernon family home burnt to the ground, claiming the lives of Constance Vernon, 38, and Matthew Vernon, 7. Thomas Vernon, 45, and his surviving sons, George, 16, and John, 13, buried their loved ones on the property before rebuilding what is now known as the New Vernon House. Upon his father’s death in 1849, George Vernon sold the property, reportedly saying “it was a fine home . . . but haunted to me.” These facts are not in dispute: the tragedy was covered at length in the New-England Telegraph, and digitized articles are now accessible through the Library of Congress. George never again publicly commented on the home, leaving locals and historians to wonder what he meant by the word “haunted.” Did he experience something supernatural there? Or was the house just a painful reminder of the loss of his beloved mother and brother?
Over the years, the New Vernon House has been the subject of speculation and gossip, as well as the scene of several reported ghost sightings and paranormal occurrences. Some say the house smells faintly of smoke, even today. Others swear they’ve seen a woman in black walking the property at night, clutching her chest and calling for help. Separating fact from fiction, rumor from reality has proven difficult. But I’m trying, and here’s why: there’s something else I know to be true about the New Vernon House. It’s the last place my daughter was reportedly seen alive.
Kristina was compassionate, brave, and impossibly kind. She was a diminutive little thing, just over five feet tall, but had such a big personality. When she smiled, everyone around her did, too. You just couldn’t help it.
She was 18 years old and a freshman at Rhode Island College when she went missing. Kristina called me after her last class one Friday in October and told me how she was looking forward to her first “grown up” Halloween party. We talked about her costume (she still hadn’t decided) and who she was going with (her roommate Annie and Janelle from down the hall) and I made her promise she’d be safe. It was an ordinary, uneventful phone call. And it was the last time I’d ever speak to my daughter.
I didn’t hear from her the next day, but that wasn’t unusual. When she didn’t answer any of my calls on Sunday, though, I started to worry. I didn’t want to be overbearing, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. My husband and I debated driving to campus to knock on her door and tell her off for not letting us know she was alright. We didn’t want to embarrass her, though, so we settled on leaving a message with her RAs, asking that she call us back. By Monday afternoon, fear bloomed hot in my chest, and I couldn’t think of anything else beyond my daughter. Where was she? Why hadn’t she returned my calls? We contacted campus security and requested a health and safety check. Hours later, a local police car pulled up our gravel drive, shattering the illusion we were desperately clinging to, that Kristina had just forgotten to call, that she was fine, that she was safe.
Though John and Mary Brewster were aware of the tragedy that claimed two lives on the Vernon property, they reportedly felt no qualms about moving their growing family into the home. In a letter dated June 1850, Mary implored her younger sister to visit. “My dearest Anne,” she wrote, “You must have mother accompany you to Rhode Island . . . We pray as we rise in this blessed home and we are so content here with our children and our animals. If only my beloved sister were by my side, my happiness would be complete.” By all recorded accounts, the Brewsters were generous and kind neighbors, regularly attended local religious services, and never reported anything out of the ordinary occurring on the New Vernon House property.
A diary kept by their youngest daughter, Alice Brewster, is currently on display at the Rhode Island Historical Society. According to her entries, eleven-year-old Alice was given a set of two blank journals for Christmas in 1861. Over the course of the next two years, Alice faithfully documented life as she knew it, describing in detail her chores, education, family, and friends. From Alice, we know that as early as 1862, neighbors were speculating about ghostly activity at New Vernon House. In an entry dated May of that year, Alice wrote, “During a trip to market, Fannie Mills asked me a vulgar question. She said, ‘Is it true? Do you really sleep among the Vernon ghosts?’ I was shocked.” In a later entry, Alice described visiting the burial site of Constance and Matthew Vernon. “Today, Father commended me for caring for the Vernon graves,” she wrote in March 1863. “Later, I sneaked down to the plot. Indeed, it appears someone has cleaned the stones. They now gleam, and there’s nary an errant stick nor leaf left on the ground beside them. I can think of no one who would do this.” It is unclear if Alice ever learned who was responsible. This was her last entry in the diary; the second book was never recovered.
My husband fussed over coffee for the two detectives while I sat stone still, anchored by my dread. The officers told us that campus police went to Kristina’s dorm but found only Annie. She said that the girls went to a Halloween party together on Friday night, but that Annie left early with her boyfriend, Derrick. She thought Kristina intended to leave later with some friends from class, but she wasn’t sure who. Annie spent the weekend at Derrick’s apartment; She wasn’t aware Kristina was missing until officers knocked on her door. They checked with security and found that Kristina’s student ID hadn’t been used since Friday night; administration confirmed that she didn’t show up for any of her Monday classes. At that point, they turned over her case to the Providence Police Department.
The detectives sat together on my floral couch, looking as out of place in my home as they felt in my life. We ran through our last several phone calls and visits with Kristina; I wracked my brain for every detail she mentioned about that party. Was there something I was missing? Why hadn’t I asked more questions? We lived only about twenty minutes from campus—why hadn’t she called or found her way home by now?
We let the officers search her bedroom. I couldn’t bear to watch those well-meaning strangers sift through my daughter’s life, so I stayed downstairs. Bits of their conversation with my husband floated through the house, punctuated by heavy footsteps as they made their way through her room. At one point, my husband asked, “Is that really necessary?”
“I’m afraid it is,” came the disembodied response. In the silence that followed, I ran over her words in my head, again and again. I’m afraid it is. I’m afraid it is. I’m afraid it is I’m afraid it is I’m afraid it is I’m afraid it is. Until all I could hear was, I’m afraid.
The detectives left with a promise that they would do everything they could to bring our daughter home. I wanted so desperately to believe them.
The New Vernon House stayed in the Brewster family until 1921, when it was purchased by Gilbert Palermo, a banker who worked on Providence’s Federal Hill. Palermo owned the home for just seven months before he decided to sell, placing the advertisement which would ultimately cement the property’s status as one of the most infamous homes in America. On January 18th, 1922, The Providence Journal ran Palermo’s ad with the headline, “HAUNTED HOUSE FOR SALE!!” Palermo described the home as “solidly built . . . with an excellent foundation” and “possessing charming, handcrafted features.” However, he cautioned would-be buyers of “regular supernatural occurrences, including but not limited to furniture and belongings moving of their own accord, sporadic fluctuations in temperature independent of the season, and ghostly apparitions.” Of the property, Palermo described it as “nearly one acre of unspoiled land, save for the small, aging cemetery on the northwest corner of the lot.”
Palermo’s ad was an instant hit; he received hundreds of offers to buy the home, from as far west as California. Many questioned his motives in writing such a fanciful description, accusing the banker of lying to drum up interest in an otherwise mundane home. Regardless of his motive, Palermo’s ad worked: he sold the property just two months later. Until his death in 1961, Gilbert Palermo maintained that every word he wrote in that ad was wholly, utterly, and categorically true.
In the weeks following Kristina’s disappearance, police learned a great deal about her movements that Friday night, right until she slipped away, seemingly lost to the world. Witnesses saw her arrive at the off-campus Halloween party with Annie and Janelle. She wore a black sweatshirt and leggings, with plastic cat ears protruding from her dark hair. She danced with friends, played flip cup at least twice, and seemed to enjoy herself. At 10:15, Annie was seen leaving the party with Derrick. She stopped to say goodbye to Kristina on her way out, kissing my daughter on the cheek. Shortly after, witnesses say they began swapping ghost stories. It was meant to be a fun thing, they told police, in the spirit of Halloween. Sometime before midnight, a 22-year-old man named Zachary Maynard reportedly told the group that he knew of a real haunted house in Chepachet. He dared the group to leave the party with him and sneak into the New Vernon House. At first, only his cousin, 20-year-old David Maynard, agreed. As they were leaving, my daughter—my beautiful, brave, adventurous daughter—volunteered to go with them.
The New Vernon House changed ownership several times in the decades following Gilbert Palermo’s sale. New families never stayed for long, if they even moved in. It seemed the house was cursed with bad luck: windows and mirrors reportedly shattered, even in fair weather, and small fires broke out with regularity. Residents said they’d often wake to the smell of smoke, though they could never find the source. In 1969, a nor’easter swept through the area, dropping roughly two feet of snow. The house itself was nearly entombed, though winds were much kinder to the Vernon graves. Neighbors swore the two small headstones sat untouched by snow through it all.
Police transcripts show that Zachary and David Maynard lied several times about the night my daughter disappeared. First, they denied knowing Kristina and then, leaving the party with her. David swore they dropped her off at her dorm, though he was unable to recall where Kristina lived; Zachary maintained that she never got in his car. Both promised that she was “fine” the last time they saw her—they just couldn’t agree on where that was.
Eventually, David Maynard offered what might be the closest version of the truth we’d ever get. He said they drove to Chepachet and let themselves in to the New Vernon House, which was in the process of being restored. Zachary worked on the crew that was replacing the building’s roof; he knew the front door didn’t latch properly. They brought flashlights and a six pack, and slowly made their way through the house, looking for signs of the supernatural. They weren’t serious, he told police. It was supposed to be fun.
They picked their way through the darkened rooms, drinking and trading whispered jokes. Kristina was so excited, David said. Even when Zachary tried to scare her, grabbing her from behind, she’d just laugh and continue exploring. She was not easily frightened, my daughter. For some reason, that seemed to bother Zachary. “He couldn’t let it go,” David told police, “that she wasn’t scared. He wanted her scared.”
The New Vernon House sat vacant through most of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It seemed no one wanted to take a chance on the crumbling house with the notorious reputation. A steady stream of amateur ghost hunters and paranormal investigators, as well as history buffs and foolhardy teens, meant the home was never without visitors for long. And so, its legend grew.
A man from Massachusetts swore his ghost hunting group was joined by a woman named Constance, who warned them away from the kitchen before fading to dust. Two teens from Coventry said they saw each window snap open, one by one, before the house filled with smoke. A genealogy expert found that no matter how hard she drew chalk against paper, her etchings of the Vernon gravestones came away eerily blank. Untold photographs and videos were taken, many showing orbs and strange lights dancing amid the darkness of the empty home. And then came sightings of the Wailing Woman, dressed in black and calling desperately for something no one could hear.
Zachary stood up and abruptly announced it was time to leave. “One minute, we were having fun, the next we had to go,” David told police. “It was like a switch flipped for him.” The trio trudged in relative silence back to the car, where Zachary and David climbed into the front seats. When Kristina tried to open her door, she found it locked. “‘Not you,’ Zachary said. ‘If you love this place so much, you can stay.’ And then he drove away. It all happened so fast, so fucking fast. I said, ‘what are you doing? We can’t just leave her.’ But he thought it was funny. He said she was probably pissing her pants back there. He wouldn’t go back.” When asked why he didn’t call for help, didn’t go back for Kristina himself, didn’t do a thing to help my daughter, David Maynard told police he didn’t want to get in trouble. They left her alone, in a remote area in the middle of night, for a joke. Of course, that’s if you believe him. I certainly didn’t.
Some say the Wailing Woman is Constance Vernon, searching for her son Matthew, who perished in that fire with her. Others say she’s cursing her husband and surviving children for escaping, leaving her and Matthew to die. There’s a theory that she’s not Constance Vernon at all, but another haunted woman, drawn to a home filled with so much sadness. Those who have seen her say she prowls the Vernon property, hands clutched to her chest, calling for something. Or someone.
The police could not find my daughter. She wasn’t at the New Vernon House; she wasn’t in the surrounding woods or area. She never made it back to school or home or even a neighbor’s property in Chepachet. It was as if someone plucked her from her own story, erasing her completely.
I didn’t believe that the Maynard boys left my daughter unharmed; I was convinced they had done terrible, horrific things and were getting away with it. I begged police to arrest them, to hold them accountable for my daughter’s disappearance. “There’s just no evidence that we can act on,” the younger detective told me, not unkindly.
Evidence. Evidence. I became obsessed with evidence. And the New Vernon House, too. I drove out there, at first weekly, and then daily. I walked the grounds with a camera, searching for something, anything, that would tell me where my daughter was. I let myself inside the house, scouring the wooden building for traces of Kristina. Did she enter this room? Open this drawer? Did her laugh echo out, filling this space and changing it forever?
I started seeing a therapist, who told me I was “in danger of becoming obsessed.” She was right, of course. I was obsessed. I fixated on that house, hoping if I could uncover its secrets, I might learn my daughter’s. I couldn’t give her up, couldn’t walk away, couldn’t drive off into the darkness like the Maynard boys claimed, leaving Kristina behind. I couldn’t leave her. I wouldn’t.
One night, I realized what I had to do, needed to do. I kissed my sleeping husband, that poor wonderful man, and changed into black clothing. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone; I didn’t want to be interrupted. I drove out to the New Vernon House and slipped inside. From my bag, I pulled out a bottle of wine and orange canisters containing the pills my therapist had prescribed me. She really thought they would help, she said. I swallowed as many as I could and readied myself to meet my daughter.
This is what I know to be true about the New Vernon House in Chepachet, Rhode Island. My daughter was here once, laughing and joking with new friends, eager to explore the home’s haunted history. Her joy, her spirit, her bravery angered a small man, and he punished her for it. Zachary and David Maynard left my daughter that Halloween night, alone but alive. She cried, first out of frustration and then, fear. But she didn’t despair. She followed the dirt road back to town, back to help. She decided to save herself.
I don’t know what happened to her beyond that. I can only see what’s here, where I am. I walk the grounds of the New Vernon House now, searching for a sign that she was rescued, that she survived. It’s funny, I didn’t even realize I was calling for Kristina until Constance told me that I once frightened a group of teenagers. My daughter and I are now reunited only in lore of the New Vernon House. She, the beautiful teenager who disappeared one Halloween night; and me, her bereft, brokenhearted mother. That’s how I prefer to think of myself, anyway—as Kristina’s mother, not the Wailing Woman.