Photo: First State National Historical Site
Declared by Presidential Proclamation on March 25, 2013, First State National Historical Park is the first national park unit in the State of Delaware. Designated as “First State National Monument,” Congress later changed the park name to “First State National Historical Park” and added the Dickinson Plantation, Fort Christina, Old Swedes' Church, and the Ryves Holt house via the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. By pure coincidence (or perhaps by spiritual intervention), I visited one of the properties now part of this first-for-Delaware national park on March 25, 2016. Since my initial visit, I have visited this home numerous times as a volunteer with the Lewes Historical Society. This is my story of the presence I have met there and the stories told about its haunting.
The Ryves Holt house, one of the structures included in First State National Historical Park, is believed to be the oldest standing house in the State of Delaware. Built in approximately 1665 by Dutch settlers (dated using dendrochronology), it served as one of the earliest inns in the region. Known then as an “Ordinary,” an inn or a tavern was an essential hub in colonial life. It often served as the post office, court may have been held there, and local issues of the day were likely discussed and “hammered out” there. It was also a place where games or diversions might be found to take one’s mind off the difficulty of everyday life. It is important to note that the difference between an inn and a tavern was that the inn provided full accommodations, while a tavern only provided food and drink. The Ryves Holt house was a licensed inn.
Photo (left): The current Ryves Holt house (Note that the right side is the original 1.5 story structure/inn.)
Purchased in 1685 by Phillip Russel and his wife Sarah (Gush), the Inn was permitted operation (“Lycensed”) on September 28, 1685. Devout Quakers, the Russels were actually brought to court on at least 2 occasions, further evidence that it did, indeed, function as an inn. It is also interesting to note that many court decisions are found in the historic record with Phillip Russel as the witness or legal representative, suggesting that perhaps court was held in the inn, as well. (In later years, Mr. Russel is acknowledged as a lawyer and a judge.) The two indictments filed against Mr. Russel were for “suffering persons to play Cards in his house” (February, 1687) and “selling of beer at More then the law directs or allows” (June, 1688). The former was dispatched with a fine of “5 / 8” and the latter was dismissed due to lack of sufficient evidence. In both cases, Mr. Russel appears to have been innocent and in keeping with his strict religious beliefs as a Quaker, but they are mentioned here to demonstrate how closely the operation of the inn was monitored in those days.
The Rumored Murder
Perhaps it is merely a rumor, or perhaps it was envisioned by an inexperienced Medium visiting the house, but there is word that a woman was murdered there. When asked about it, I was told that after extensive research by the historical society, there is no evidence that this occurred. During my visits to this house, I have never felt a spirit experiencing this type of trauma or death, either. It’s worth noting, though, because the rumor is out there and some paranormal groups continue to talk about it (see the video link in the References section). That said, there is definitely a spirit that is active in the house!
The Door That Wouldn’t Stay Shut
According to the Docents that work there, the Ryves Holt house has had spirit activity in the past. A man, working in the basement, left his tools there scattered about late one afternoon. He locked the basement door to make sure no one disturbed the work. Upon his return in the morning, the door was ajar and all of his tools had been gathered and placed carefully in order in the basement. He was baffled, to say the least. That afternoon, he finished his work, only to return the next day and find the door open and his tools laid out carefully once again. Very upset, he finished the job and nailed the basement door shut. Legend has it that he returned to show the caretaker that the job was complete and the door was wide open again. The nails were missing from the door frame and never found.
The Spirit at the Inn
During my visits, I have felt a very strong spirit presence in the back room (to the right, which is the original side that was the inn), just a few steps from the door to the basement. Now, mind you, I did not know the story I just related to you about the basement, nor had I watched the paranormal group’s video. I just sensed it. I also understood that is was a woman and her name began with an “S”.
Additional spirit guidance focused my attention on Sarah Russel, Phillip Russel’s wife. While Sarah did not pass in the house, the spirit I felt was a very strong, protective one, which would make sense. She would also be the one to “tidy up” the basement and remain as a protector of the inn, which was a place she was strongly connected to. The feeling I had of her was one of a fiercely protective “guardian spirit” that loved her years running the inn and raising her family there--she communicated to me that those were the best years of her life. And protect it, she does!
I hope if you’re ever in the Lewes, Delaware, area that you’ll visit several of the haunted homes there, especially this one, and thank Sarah for sharing her story with us. Soon, the National Park Service will begin to manage this site, and I’m excited to hear that they plan to interpret the house as an inn - won’t that be cool? I hope this is a positive experience for Sarah, too!
Carol Pollio, Ph.D.
Director and Lead Investigator
Biography: Dr. Pollio has worked and lived in national parks since 1977, when she began her career at Gateway National Recreation Area. Her first experience with spirit was at that park, sparking her interest in and belief of the paranormal. Now retired, she is finally able to tell the many paranormal stories she has experienced and been told first hand as an insider in this incredible organization. Her own intuitive gift made itself known during her pre-teen years through a variety of experiences, including clairvoyance as primary, clairaudience, and clairsentience. Dr. Pollio put those experiences aside and chose instead to pursue a career in science, eventually obtaining her Ph.D. in Environmental Science and obtaining the rank of Captain (O-6) in the USCG Reserve. Dr. Pollio also served as a Professor in academia for more than 20 years. She now chooses to write about, investigate, and help others using her inherent psychic abilities. She currently serves as a member of Maryland Paranormal Research team and is the Director of Intuitive Investigations, LLC, serving Delaware, Maryland, and D.C. She currently lives in Milford, Delaware.
Disclaimer: National parks and refuges are federal property. This series does not approve nor give permission to anyone to enter national parks or refuges without any required permits or permissions. Many parks also include hallowed ground, such as battlefields, memorials, cemeteries, and sites of mass casualties. It is not this author’s intent to encourage unprofessional or unethical behavior on these sites or to suggest visiting them in any other manner than by legal and ethical means.
Ancestry.com. Sussex County Misc. Records (court cases).
American Institute of Dendrochronology, Inc., of Blacksburg, Virginia, Final Report. Verified that wood used in construction of the Ryves Holt House came from oak trees hewed and sawed after the growing seasons of 1665 and 1666. Online: http://www.lewestown.com/lewes_history/Ryves_Holt.html
Delmarva Historic Haunts Investigation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91ZBvbsKAuw
Ghostly Innkeeper Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg. Online: https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.com/
Lewes Historical Society. Online: https://www.historiclewes.org/
The Role of the Tavern in Society. Online: