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Ghost stories told at candlelight tours offered at Van Horn Mansion

BURT – Interested in a good scare in the days leading up to Halloween? The Candlelight Tours at the Van Horn Mansion in Burt are just the ($5) ticket. Not only can you hear a spine-tingler or two while visiting the 1823 mansion, but you’re helping the Town of Newfane Historical Society maintain this elegant Georgian-style gem.

The October weekend tours are conducted from 7 to 11 p.m. (with the last tour leaving at 10 p.m.) beginning Friday and Saturday , and continuing at the same times Oct. 14-15, 21-22, and 28-29. Reservations are suggested because tours sell out.

The mansion at 2165 Lockport-Olcott Road was the first brick home built in town. Judge James Van Horn was a New Jersey native who settled in Newfane in 1817 with his wife, Abigail, and their nine children. He built the home and was the first to construct a wool mill in Niagara County, as well. He also built a gristmill and served as town supervisor from 1829 to 1831.

It is one of his sons, James Jr., who is thought to haunt the mansion, as well as his son’s purported wife, Malinda Niles Van Horn. The word is “purported” because her grave, marking her death on Jan. 13, 1837, lies in the rose garden on the north side of the mansion’s grounds, and lists her as his wife. But the historical society has not been able to find any records on Malinda, according to member Rose Schaeffer.

“This is what we do – we dig in and try and find the truth and the proof,” she said.

For decades, mystery has swirled around Malinda’s death at the age of 21. Some believe Malinda was murdered, while others believe she died in childbirth and that “her child was sent away at an early age to California,” Schaeffer noted.

But Schaeffer said the society received a copy of the death certificate of the son of James Jr. in recent years, that of 81-year-old James Carpenter Van Horn, who lived and died in California. His mother is listed as Isabella Harrington.

“The dates match up exactly for this son of James Jr., but the mother is listed as being Isabella, not Malinda,” Schaeffer said. “We don’t know who Isabella was – an acquaintance or nanny or housekeeper, but I think they put Isabella’s baby in, in place of Malinda’s, maybe to save face because this was an important family. It’s all a little twisted.

“We find out something new all of the time and try and connect the dots and that’ll drive you crazy,” she said with a laugh.

“But it’s very interesting and we like doing it.”

Schaeffer said some believe that specters of Isabella Harrington and some young children haunt the mansion, too.

“There are a few children,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “There are little girls who play on the second floor and another in the attic. There’s a little boy in the bathroom under the staircase and I think there’s an opening from that bathroom to a hidden room in the basement.”

The last local surviving Van Horn descendant sold the mansion in 1910 and it went through many changes of ownership and purpose – from an upscale restaurant to apartments – before it was abandoned in the late 1960s. The Noury Chemical Co. purchased it in 1977 to turn into offices, but never did. The company donated it, along with a $10,000 grant to fix it up, to the historical society in 1986.

The mansion has 16 rooms and five bathrooms, restored to early 1800s splendor with original and authentic furniture, toys and clothing. Tours lead guests to all floors, including the basement and attic. Volunteers have also been restoring the carriage house, which includes rooms to house a few carriages and two horse stalls, as well as second-floor living quarters. The tours lead guests through the first floor only.

“We are replacing the windows and still working on the staircase to the second floor of the carriage house,” Schaeffer said.

She said funds raised during the candelight tours will be used to continue the carriage house restoration work, as well as to maintain the mansion itself.

“We’d also love to get a new sign for out in front of the mansion,” she said. “We are in dire need of a Van Horn Mansion sign so people know where we are.”

Reservations may be made by calling Schaeffer at (716) 727-9816 or emailing her at Guests are encouraged to bring recorders and cameras and may also bring small flashlights.

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