When someone mentions the term “haunted house,” you usually think of an old house, a big house, a house that sits high on a hill, behind a squeaky, screaky metal gate. You probably conjure up images of dark dusty windows behind which faint apparitions flit about, and cob-web covered porches. Maybe you even think of a candle, or some other faint light, glowing ever so ominously from an attic window.
But in the little town of Crafton, Pennsylvania, the haunted house that I knew about once upon a time long ago wasn’t like that at all. The house that I recall, and that can still bring shivers up my spine just thinking about it, was an old house. Of course almost all houses are old to a kid and l was ten when we moved to Crafton and I first learned about this one. Number 62 Thomas Street, it had been built in the early years of this century, and had been abandoned for at least fifteen. It wasn’t big, it was tiny like most of the houses on our Street, and it wasn’t high on a hill. The house had been built by the Consolidated Coal Company, and had been lived in by coal yard managers and their families. Up until 1939 that is. That’s when what made this house a haunted house happened, on a cold October night.
Swensden their name was. Karl and Olga. They had several children but no one seemed to recall their names. How do I know this you might ask? Kids know this kind of thing. But I also know because I went to the library and found the old newspapers. I can still see the headline in the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph of October 21, 1939. “Coalman Found Murdered,” it said. Reading the article revealed that Karl’s body had been found by the mailman, lying on the front porch. Or at least some of him was on the front porch. Other parts of him were later found in the house, in the basement, and in a coal car of a train that had brought a load of coal to the yard. When the police came, they found Olga tied up in the caboose of the train. She was screaming. She kept on screaming for seven days. Her blond hair had turned snow white. When she finally stopped screaming and the police tried to ask her questions, she could only speak Swedish. In fact she never spoke a word of English for the rest of her life. When the police brought in a translator they discovered that all her Swedish was Swedish gibberish. Something had scared the bejeebers out of Olga, that’s for sure. The paper said that their children had been sent back to Stockholm to live with an Aunt and Uncle as they had no other relatives here.
No one had ever solved the crime. Olga passed away in 1951, never having told anything to a soul, so we kids were left to imagine what had happened, and young imaginations can be pretty vivid and gruesome. We were sure that whoever or whatever had killed Karl Swensden was still in that house. Why else would it be a haunted house, huh?
Of course we weren’t allowed to go near that house, much less think about actually going IN that house. Those were mothers’ orders, all the mothers on Thomas Street. Why is it that mothers never appreciate such neat neighborhood treasures? “Sure Jackie, please go to the haunted house. Please go IN to the haunted house. Get cut up in little pieces, just like old Mr. Swensden. That would be nice.” No, that just wouldn’t be a motherly thing to say. I don’t think my mother ever knew exactly what really happened there, she just knew it was an old dilapidated house where a kid could get hurt or killed maybe, just by falling through the floor, or having the roof cave in. It was something to worry about, and mothers seem to need those kind of things. Floors and ceilings were real dangers, but not to eleven year old boys. Things in the basement of the old Swensden house– now those were the dangers.
We boys wanted to find out what was in the basement. Or did we? Of course we did! Hmmmm– At least we each told the other that we wanted to, and that we would bravely lead the way, all the time hoping that one of the other kids would push his way to the front of the line. Sure we all wanted to go and find out about the basement. It was just that none of us wanted to go first.
In addition to the boys (me and Remy Guilmart and Joey Givvens and Tommy Jones and Punky Trievel ) there was one girl in the group. Barbara Matessa was the fastest runner on Thomas Street. We used to play a race game where if the boys beat the girls they got to give them a kiss. Barbara Matessa had never been kissed. She was what you would call a tomboy, a cute redhead, and we all new that if we ever actually went down those basement stairs of the haunted house, Barbara would be in the lead.
I was thirteen years old on October 21, 1956. After years of talking about it, and daring each other, and declaring that we each would do it soon, the time had finally come. It was late afternoon on a Saturday, seventeen years to the day of Karl Swensden’s murder, when we all just sort of gathered in the coal yard in front of the old house. The fence which had once surrounded the place was nothing more than a few rotted posts and remnants of boards. The gate had long since fallen away. There was nothing to impede us as we slowly, very slowly, made our way up the broken concrete of a sidewalk. There was but a single thought going through each of our minds. How could we find a reason to turn back without letting the others know we were scared silly? None of us could think of a one, so we continued on, up the three steps to the porch.
The front door had cobwebs all over it, and the glass panes in it were so dirty that try as we might, we couldn’t get a peek inside. Not that we knew what we either wanted or didn’t want to see. We nonetheless walked along the porch looking in each of the other windows fronting the street, but they were dirty too. Barbara pushed the door open a tiny bit. We expected it to screech, but it didn’t. It pushed very easily as a matter of fact. Too easily! Like maybe it opened and shut frequently when somebody or something went in and out. Using the baseball bat that I had brought along, I pushed the door open all the way. We all jumped back, expecting who knows what, but nothing happened, absolutely nothing. One by one we went in the door. There we were, all inside the house. The floor was so dusty we were making footprints. I picked up a piece of tattered cloth from the floor that must have once been curtains and wiped some of the dirt off the inside of a front window. The tiny bit of light that entered through this cleaner spot didn’t help much. It was dark and definitely spooky in there.
“Let’s see what’s in here,” said Tom, as he went off to the right. We started to follow him when, “Wham!” the front door slammed shut. “Must have been the wind,” we all said at once, but we knew better. We turned back to follow Tom into what had been the kitchen when we heard the door open and close again. We turned to see Joey hurrying down the sidewalk. Now there were only five of us.
There were old cans still on the shelves in the kitchen, above a dirty and rusty gas stove. The labels were gone but they looked like soup cans. A small sink had several dead mice and the skeleton of some small bird in it. We turned on the faucets, half expecting water to still come out, but nothing happened.
Room by room we walked through the house. It wasn’t a very big house. Two rooms and the kitchen downstairs, and three rooms and a bathroom on the second floor. There was a knife sticking in the wall in one of the upstairs rooms. We looked closely for blood on it but couldn’t find any. Remy pulled it out and stuck it in his belt. “Might come in handy,” he announced.
We weren’t really getting any braver. We were just dallying, putting off as long as possible what we had come for in the first place – going to the basement. Eventually we went back down the stairs to the first floor. There was the cellar door. Right ahead of us, beckoning us to come, to open it, to go down this other flight of stairs. “You go first, Remy. You’ve got the knife!” said Tom. “No, I’ll go first,” answered Barbara. “I’ve got the flashlight.” I was suddenly glad I didn’t have either a flashlight or a knife. I thought about offering to stay here and make sure the door didn’t lock behind them. If I did that the others would have thought I was scared, and of course there wasn’t any truth to that. Was there?
Barbara opened the door. This one screaked, every inch of the way. “I don’t think it will go shut on us, but we ought to make sure,” she said. Punky had a piece of rope in his pocket. Since his dad was the Scoutmaster, he was always tying knots, so he used the rope to tie the door open. “If we have to leave in a hurry, Remy, you come last and cut that rope and slam the door shut behind you.”
The door had screaked. The steps squeaked. Each step squeaked twice for each of us as we went down, first one foot and then the other. If something was down there, we weren’t sneaking up on it, that’s for sure. Barbara’s flashlight wasn’t very big or very bright, but it was better than no light at all. We heard a scurrying noise that we hoped was only a rat. “Hand me that ball bat,” said Barbara. “I’m getting cobwebs all over me.” That was a good sign. Nothing big had come up these steps recently. I looked up to see a snakeskin hanging from the ceiling above. Snakes, rats, we could handle them. We still didn’t know if anything else was there.
After what seemed like ages, we were all at the bottom of the cellar stairs. We were all crowded so close together that we were practically wearing each others shoes. Barbara began to pan her light slowly around the basement floor, revealing dirt, more cobwebs, parts of what had been wooden crates, an old dented metal bucket, and . . . a bone. Ten feet started to turn as two, to beat a hasty retreat back up those stairs. “Hold on guys,” I said in my bravest voice. “It’s only a bone.”
But what kind of bone, and where is the rest of whatever it came from? That’s what we were all asking ourselves. “Perhaps you would like to go and check it out?” asked Tom. What could I say? I had to keep on being brave, so I took the light and moved slowly to the bone. I wasn’t alone. Tom and Remy and Punky and Barbara were no more than two inches behind. They weren’t about to wait in the dark. I picked up the bone and looked at it closely. It really wasn’t that big. “I’ll bet it’s from a raccoon, or maybe even a dog, I speculated. “It certainly isn’t human.” I don’t know whether I really believed that or was just trying to sound convincing.
I stuck the bone in my pocket, and continued to shine the light around. A large rat that looked as if it had been dead as long as Karl Swensden lay in a corner. Out of the corner of our eyes in the dim light of the flashlight, we were sure that something moved. “Probably another rat,” we all agreed.
Continuing to shine the light around, we found two words scrawled on the east wall. One of them was “Karl”. The other was “Wonatee.” “What does that mean?” we all whispered at once. “Sounds like an Indian word,” said Tom. “Or an evil spirit!” Barbara blurted. The words had been painted with something blunt, like a stick, and were a reddish brown. Blood maybe? Karl’s blood?
The only other thing we found was a shirt, a very dirty blue shirt with a sewn-on patch by the breast pocket that said “Consolidated Coal Company.” Below those words on the patch was the name “Karl”. This was Karl Swensden’s very own shirt. We were all half way up the stairs before we caught ourselves that time. “Geez, Mr. Swensden’s very own shirt!” Punky exclaimed, as we went back and looked at it more closely. Although it had eighteen years of dirt and dust on it, we quickly noticed several vertical rips in both the front and back. The dim illumination of the fading flashlight made it impossible to tell if the edges of the rips were blood-stained or not. But in this closer examination, we also noticed that the left sleeve of the shirt was missing. “Maybe this is an arm bone”, I said, as I drew it out of my back pocket and looked at it again. “Did they ever find all of Mr. Swensden?” None of us knew the answer to that question. I still didn’t think the bone was human, but I sure wasn’t sure. I quietly let the bone slip down my leg and resume its place on the floor, quietly apologizing to whomever might be able to read my thoughts for disturbing it in the first place.
We had searched almost all the way around the basement, and were starting to feel like the bravest of explorers. After all we were still alive and in one piece. Better than Karl Swensden! Barbara, who had taken back the light when we started to flee up the stairs, cast its dim rays under the cellar stairs. Our new found bravery vanished as we looked upon. . . another door! It was a low and narrow door, with a rusty hasp that was held shut with an even more rusty padlock. “Let’s look in there some other time.” “It is getting pretty late, isn’t it?” “Maybe we should go and find some new batteries for the light.” Everyone was talking at once. “No!” I stated boldly. “We have to do it now. If we leave now, we’ll never come back and we all know it.”
“He’s right.” agreed Barbara. “Let’s do it now.” Remy took the knife from his belt and pried at the padlock. The screws holding the hasp to the door were rusty too, and it didn’t take much prying to dig them out of the soft wood. The hasp fell to the floor, just as the flashlight batteries gave up the ghost. (Oops! Bad analogy.) There we stood, in total darkness, with an unlocked door behind which waited heaven only knew what right in front of us. “I’m going to use the knife to pry open the door,” Remy told us. His words coming in the darkness were enough of a fright, and they were followed closely by more creaking as the long unmoved hinges slowly moved. We could feel cold air coming out of this little door.
We all stepped back a bit as the opening door swept us out of the way. Remy had the knife. Barbara had the ball bat. Who was going in there first?
Thirty-nine years later that question remains unanswered. Nobody went in first. Nobody went in that little door at all. A brief moment after the door opened, we had all become aware of a low, moaning, mournful sound coming from somewhere within the un-seeable space which we had found. The sound slowly became louder. It slowly became ever more eerie. We stood transfixed by the sound. The air coming out of the door into the rest of the basement felt even colder. We heard another sound, a sort of clomping sound. “I think… it’s coming… out…” Tom said gulpingly.
In the next thirty seconds all five of us were up the stairs, across the living room, out the door, down the walk, down the street, and standing in line at the window of the Dairy Queen. Remy had even remembered to cut the rope at the top of the stairs and slam the cellar door shut.
As we casually drank our milkshakes or ate our DQ cones, we never said a word to each other about our recent adventure. We never ever mentioned a thing about it to each other again, or to anyone else. About the closest I ever came was the next day when Joey Givvens asked me what we had found in that old haunted house. “Haunted?” I asked. “Nah. Just some old clothes. You should have come along. It was a lot of fun.”