Hampshire Gazette, 30 October 1928

Sessions House

Secret Passage In Sessions House

Smith Girls Observe Halloween by ExploringHouse

Built in 1742.

Romance and tradition have supplanted ghosts at Smith Collegewhere the students of Sessions House, a college dormitory, devote Halloweento a search for a secret passage connected with the love affairs of GeneralBurgoyne. Dewey House, the oldest dormitory, is said to be haunted on thisevening by the ghost of a girl who climbed out of a window for a rendezvousduring forbidden hours, fell into a porch pillar, and languished to death.

When Sessions House was built in 1742, it was the onlybuilding outside the stockade in the isolated Northampton settlement exceptfor the kitchen ell of the Manse. The Manse was built by Solomon Stoddard,a minister of the First Congregational church of Northampton, to escapethe crowd and noise of the village.

Since Sessions House was unprotected from hostile Indianattacks, a secret passage was built with a postern gate leading to the ConnecticutRiver, down which the settlers could float to the protection of their sistercolonies.

During the Revolutionary days, according to the tradition,General Burgoyne was held prisoner in the house, unfortunately falling inlove with the beautiful daughter of the owner. He met his lady in the secretpassage to escape observation of her angry parents. It is whispered thatthe ghosts of Puritans and lovers still haunt this passage on Halloween.

Every year the students of this dormitory gather in thecellar and in cobwebs and darkness and commence their search for which twentyminutes are allotted. An upper classman who has found the passage in previousyears is hidden there to receive the explorer. Having found it, her successis reported immediately to her house mother. This must be accomplished withoutbeing seen by fellow searchers and demands great ingenuity.

The results are kept secret until Thanksgiving when thenames of the successful participants are announced. The recent remodelingof Sessions House has not affected the tradition.

Hampshire Gazette, 30 October 1929

Secret Passage In Sessions House

Smith Girls Conduct Search in Cellar of BuildingEach Halloween

Intriguing mystery and romance are inextricably mingledwith the grotesque, witches and pumpkins of Halloween for the students livingin Sessions House, one of the college dormitories along Elm Street, as theybegin their annual search for a secret passage famed by tradition in Northamptonand in Smith College.

Bound up with the search for the winding stairway is alegend of love, war and privation. When Sessions House was built in 1742,it was the only building outside the stockade around the far western Puritansettlement of Northampton, except for the kitchen ell of The Manse. Thislast is reputed to have been built by Solomon Stoddard, a minister of theFirst Congregational Church of Northampton, because he wished to get awayfrom the noisy crowds and congestion of the village. Unprotected as SessionsHouse was at this time, it was necessary to build a secret exit as a meansof escape when hostile tribes of Indians swooped down on the colony. Thepostern gate led by a devious route to the Connecticut River, down whichsettlers might float to the protection of their sister colonies.

Years later, as the tradition goes, General Burgoyne washeld prisoner in this house and at this time occurred one of those lovestories believed to be peculiar to romance. On seeing the beautiful andaccomplished daughter of the owner of the house, Burgoyne had the misfortuneto fall in love with her. During the course of affairs, he is said to havemet his lady in the recesses of the secret passage safe from the spyingglances of her father.

Though many years have passed since then it is still whisperedthat on every Halloween the ghosts of the austere Puritans and of Burgoyneand his lady haunt the old house. Now every year on this evening the studentsin the dormitory gather in the cellar of the building. The lights are extinguished,and in their oldest garments the girls begin the hunt for the passage amongthe cobwebs of the basement.

The twenty minutes from 9:40 to 10:00 are allotted forthe search. A student who has found the passage in previous years is hiddenthere ready to receive anyone who is fortunate enough to stumble upon theentrance. Having found it, it is now her duty to report her success to thehead of the house, who has been detailed to remain in her rooms during theevening to await results. Each of the successful hunters must announce theoutcome of her search before twelve o'clock and when doing this must allowno one of her companions to see her. Consequently many ingenious methodsof reporting without observation are attempted. One clever student is reputedto have thrown a note with a stone attached through the open window.

Having found the passage and duly informed the head ofthe house, the lucky ones are honor bound to say nothing of their achievementuntil Thanksgiving dinner. On this day, the names of the successful participantsare announced amidst the admiration of their colleagues.

On the strength of this tradition, Smith college studentsstand ready to challenge any statement that romance is dead.

Current, 27 October 1949

Sessions Halloween Celebraters

To Search for Legendary Staircase

Leaving the conventional black cats and grinning jackolanternsto the rest of the world, Sessions house will celebrate Halloween this Mondaynight with a unique hunt for a hidden staircase, veiled in dark secrecyand ghostly tradition.

Although the rules and customs surrounding the annual searchchange slightly from year to year, the traditional party has remained essentiallythe same.

The history of the old house that makes possible this unusualHalloween celebration is an interesting one. The house was built about 1700by Jonathan Hunt, and was sold to Mrs. Ruth Sessions, who took in collegegirls as boarders in 1900. A year later she sold the house to the college.

The secret staircase was unknown until Mrs. Sessions stumbledon it one day by accident. That Halloween, she organized a game of hide-and-seek,and hid in the staircase. Since then it has been the annual custom to searchfor the staircase on Halloween. Only at this time is investigation permitted.

Today members of Sessions house conduct the search muchas it was done in previous years. They begin with a costume party in thehouse-mothers room where they portray the spirit of the staircase and otherweird personalities. The ghost of Lucy (a senior dressed in strange attire)appears and tells the following story of the stairway:

During the American Revolution, General Burgoyne is saidto have stayed at Sessions house, sleeping in one of the front rooms. Hefell in love with the owner's daughter, Lucy, and as legend has it, frequentlymet her in the secret stairway to avoid her parents' observation and disapproval.Further legends claim that the young general's ghost haunts the staircase,moaning disconsolently for Lucy, who spurned his love. The staircase originallyis said to have been connected with a secret passageway underground thatled down to Paradise pond, though other stories claim it led all the wayto the Connecticut River.

Seniors Thwart Discovery

The search itself is governed by strict rules. It is carriedon in complete darkness and silence, and any discovery is guarded with theutmost secrecy.

Finding the staircase, however, is only half the game.After twenty minutes have elapsed, the hunt is called off, and the searchers,successful or otherwise, return to the front room where refreshments areserved.

When the food is consumed, those who have found the staircasemust diagram it and secretly get the diagram into the house-mother's room.The seniors who have previously found the staircase attempt to thwart themfrom doing so by setting traps and ambushes and similar hindrances. Ingenioushunters, however, have succeeded by such clever devices as tying the diagramaround a spool and lowering it by a string from the second story windows,or folding the note into a paper airplane and throwing it in.

The chosen few who are successful in both parts of thisendeavor become honorary members of the "secret society" and theirnames are announced to the house at a later date.

Sessions House

By Eleanor Terry Lincoln and John Abel Pinto

In the first quarter of the eighteenth century the frontiersettlements along the Connecticut River began to emerge as colonial villages,aspiring to the elegance of the eastern seaboard. The Northampton evidenceof this ambition appeared in New Boston, the area from Main Street westwardon what is now Elm Street. Among the fine houses, one of the finest andfarthest west was that of Lieutenant Jonathan Hunt, an early planter.

Celebrated as one of the five gambrel-roofed mansions,indeed as one of the only five painted houses in the town, it presenteda shining big brass knocker close to the street. The knocker, mentionedin several recollections, was perhaps its most significant detail, for theHunts made the house a social and cultural center, as it continued to bein a variety of ways for over two hundred years. John Hunt, who inheritedit from his father in 1738, is said to have kept it as a public house forsome years.

One of many distinguished guests in the next quarter-centuryis said, according to tradition, to have been Gentleman Johnny Burgoyneentertained by a later Hunt probably in 1759 when, an attractive young officerand a lavish entertainer, Burgoyne spent August days in Northampton recruitingfor his Majesty's Light Dragoons.

There the "celebrated" Madam Henshaw, the lastof the Hunts to live in the house, dominated social Northampton, "hercoach and footman the envy and delight of the town," the wine cellarattesting to "a lavish hospitality." There until the end of thenineteenth century, Sidney Bridgman was a bookseller whose store on MainStreet was for nearly a century a gathering and browsing and buying placefor readers, authors, and lecturers, his home a source of hospitality forvisiting literary figures.

Then, at the turn of the twentieth century, hospitablestill, the house moved from town to gown. President Seelye in search ofspace for a growing Smith College, enlisted the help of Ruth HuntingtonSessions. She established 109 Elm Street as an "off-campus" house.It became Sessions House and Sessions it remained after it was acquiredby Smith in 1921.

An aura of early Northampton lingers about the house. Thegreat elms planted by John Hunt in the mid-eighteenth century gave a nameto the street. The secret stair discovered behind the central chimney speaksstill of the fear of Indians, all to real in 1725, and of fleeing slaves,more than a few hidden by abolitionists in Northampton. A new generationhas made a Halloween celebration of the stairway and the ghost said to hauntupper rooms, but both attest to an unbroken history of more than two hundredand fifty years close to the street.

Sessions House, constructed around 1725 and possibly theoldest building owned by the College, is a fine example of a type of domesticarchitecture which first appeared in the colonies early in the 18th centuryand continued to flourish until well after the Revolution. While many alterationsand additions have been made to the house, the core of the original structureremains covered by a broad gambrel roof punctuated by a chimney at its center.The finely proportioned street facade is a characteristic "five overfive" composition, with paired windows flanking the central entranceway.The classical motifs present in the porch supported by Tuscan columns andthe window pediments are most likely later additions. The gambrel roof withprojecting dormer windows is characteristic of "double-pile" house,two rooms deep and two-and-a-half stories high, which came into favor earlyin the 18th century. However, the structure of the roof as well as its awkwardproportional relationship to the street facade, suggests that the upperstory, too, may be a later addition.

The internal organization of Sessions House is typicalof many early colonial houses. The masonry shaft of the great chimney constitutesthe central core of the plan. Between it and the street facade are wedgeda narrow vestibule and stairway giving access to the upper rooms. To rightand left of the chimney are the parlor and the hall; both focus on fireplaces.The original rooms situated to the rear of the house beyond the chimneyhave been lost, but most likely included a kitchen centered on an amplehearth. The surviving ground floor rooms of Sessions retain their characteristicallylow ceilings as well as traces of their original wainscotting, and stilloffer a vivid impression of the intimate scale of early colonial interiors.

 

 callylow ceilings as well as traces of their original wainscotting, and stilloffer a vivid impression of the intimate scale of early colonial interiors.