By Dan Shine
The Story of ‘Widow’ Gill and Her Mansion
Reprinted from a column by past city historian Harriet North:
The other day I came through Forest Road as I was returning from Westville. To my surprise I noticed that already the big orange pumpkins were outside of the vegetable markets. Here it is near the end of September and we are preparing for Halloween, which will be the last of October. Probably we’ll see ads for turkeys about the middle of October. Why are we always rushing the seasons and holidays? Maybe making money for those who sell tranquilizers.
I know I that I do it myself. I rush to get up, rush to eat breakfast, rush to clean up the house, rush to get things to go to the cleaners, got shopping for food, trying to rush to Brown Street. It was built in the pre-Civil War era when New Haven was struggling to compete with the other coast ports for the packet ship trade. At about this time, the Widow Gill came to New Haven. No one knew for sure where she came from or why. She hired two local contractors to build her a mansion. It had quite an assortment of sliding doors, wall panels, trap doors, and hidden rooms. About 1915 when the house was razed, no one had even proved that smuggling had gone on, but people asked obvious questions. Why would anyone take such pains to dig an underground passage to the harbor about 500 feet from the house?
Why too, would she have a huge cellar that could hold a warehouse of contraband?
Years ago, a family of Joseph Michele lived there and even then there were lovely old paintings, a library of 1,000 books. At high tide, one could listen and hear the water in the tunnel. Rats infested it too.
While Widow Gill as alive, she entertained people from Boston and Philadelphia, at lavish parties and balls. When she died in 1890, she left the estate as a home for old ladies, but she neglected to leave enough money to operate it.
As one of the trustees was investigated the place, he disappeared. He was found two days later in a well in the front yard of the house. Whether he was murdered or suicide was never determined.
There was also a pretty young woman, daughter of the gate-keeper, who stayed in a building a short distance from the house between the present sites of Brown and North Streets. Her name was Charlotte Stevenson. She dazzled the people around here and she divided her affections between one Steven Richards and Capt. Benjamin Hale. The arrangement worked quiet well for a while. Hale made mysterious visits to the West Indies. One time Hale returned unexpectedly and to his chagrin found his love in the arms of Richards. A fight ensued and a shot rang out through the quiet stillness. Hale lay dead on the floor. Richards put his pistol in his pocket and left the scene, disappearing forever.
For some time after that, little was heard about Charlotte. News filtered back to West Haven and it was said that she died in an insane asylum, an aftermath of the breaking of her triangle.
In the old days, the children and some of the grown-ups pondered the fates of the man in the soggy well, poor Charlotte, and the Widow Gill.
Halloween proved to be a time that gave people a chance to wonder about them, and to think ghostly thoughts about the whole thing.
All of the aforementioned is not any of any local family here, so no one is maligned, I can assure you.