The Huston family greatly influenced the area surrounding the mansion. Dr. John Huston tried to start the first-ever hospital in Salisbury. His attempts fell show when he was unable to raise enough money to fund the operation. Dr. Huston owned the Poplar Hill Mansion from 1805 until 1827. The property remained in family hands under the ownership of John’s wife, Sarah Huston, until the mid-nineteenth century.
It’s rumored that many spirits haunt the Huston’s beloved family home. Various sightings, encounters, and experiences with ghosts have occurred in several rooms throughout the 200+ year old mansion.
According to local legend, a slave girl named Sarah perished in the home after suffering extremely severe burns while tending to the Huston’s children in an upstairs rear bedroom. Sara, a 19-year-old unmarried helper without children of her own, stepped too closely to a fire burning in a fireplace. Her full skirt became engulfed in flames. Sara struggled to free herself from her fire-covered clothing as the Huston children watched in horror.
Today, scorch marks are still visible on the wide-wood floor planks that surround the bedroom’s fireplace. It’s said that Sara’s spirit is often found in the children’s bedroom where she opens dresser drawers, arranges clothing in the dressing cabinet, and pulls apart the linens on the large wooden bed.
In an inventory of the home taken after the death of Dr. John Huston’s death and dated May 17th, 1828, shows documentation of several slaves that belonged to the mansion’s owners. One helper noted on the sales receipt named Sam, was marked as being 23-years-old and worth $250.
“Many of the ghosts here are quite happy and pleasant, except for Samuel,” said Aleta Davis, a Chairman on the Board of the Friends of Poplar Hill Mansion organization.
Samuel seems to believe that he is the keeper of the estate. It’s believed, as communicated by mediums who have spoken to Samuel, that Sam’s spirit has been trapped in the basement of the mansion. Recently, his spirit has been released. Now, Sam makes sure that he alerts a select medium that he’s present in the home when she visits.
He is known to say, “Ma’am, there are people here.”
Davis says that Sam doesn’t like it when other people enter the home. He wants to protect the property and only likes it when family members are at the home. The medium that connects with Sam’s spirit has explained that the people who come to the mansion are there to help it and take care of it.
Sam often hums while he tends to the home. His humming can be heard throughout the home every now and again.
Besides Sam, other spirits can be found in the basement, too. Spirits of individuals who traveled the area’s Underground Railroad are trapped in the basement. The Poplar Hill Mansion was a stopping point of slaves running on the railroad and chasing freedom. Individuals who didn’t make it to the Pocomoke River in attempt to travel away from the southern states are said to haunt the basement of Poplar Hill, their last stop on the railroad.
During Dr. Huston’s ownership of the plantation (including 357 acres) the land comprised a large tract of Salisbury that became referred to as ‘Newtown’ – a large neighborhood in the city. Its location outside of the city proper at that time aided significantly to its survival by escaping destruction during the ruinous town first of 1860 and 1886.
The home also was one of the only to survive the War of 1812. It’s believed that the Huston’s home was not destroyed by those fighting in the war because Huston was the area’s only doctor. It’s assumed that Dr. Huston used to help the soldiers, operate on the wounded, and give them medicine – and for that, his home was saved.
On the lower level of the home, there is a formal dining room. The walls are painted a soothing sage green color and the bright yellow doors, characteristic of 19th century design, are an intense contrast. While pondering the idea of why anyone would paint doors this shade of yellow, one might take notice to the fancy peep-hole lock covers on the stately wooden doors.
“This is the only room in the entire home that has covers over the keyholes. We think it’s because Dr. Huston used to practice his medicine in this room,” said Davis during a visit to the mansion.
The notable doctor most likely didn’t want to jeopardize the privacy of his medical patients while he practiced his profession in the home – or else he didn’t want his young children peeping through the keyholes while he was mid operation. Think about how frightening that might be!
While visiting the mansion one morning recently, a young woman, who had never been to the mansion before and was unaware about spirits wandering through the home, asked, “Have you ever felt the presence of ghosts haunting the home before?”
Poplar Hill’s curator began answering the question, “Actually, there are many stories of spirits lingering around the house…”
She paused after hearing a soft thump. Just then, all of the lights went out in dining room. The curator peered into the hallway and said, “The electricity shut off. Weird. That’s never happened during the day before.” She looked at Davis. The visitor looked at Davis.
The visitor had he answer. Yes, sprits do live in the 200-year-old home and yes, they do make sure their presence is felt.
This past weekend, Poplar Hill Mansion hosted their annual Halloween Party. The party featured Andy Nunez, the author of Ghosts of the Eastern Shore. Nunez signed autographs and shared stories of spooky mansions and overgrown graveyards of the Delmarva Peninsula.
For more information about Poplar Hill Mansion, check out the following ShoreBread articles:
Color photos taken by Ami Reist. Black and white photos and list of inventory are from the Maryland Historical Society library.