Vladimir Nabokov

The Florence Houghton Room, a ghost story

By john_behan, 2 May, 2024

Dear Friends:

I write with a bit of speculation about an influence on Pale Fire and a request for corroboration, falsification, and theorizing. 

Not being an academic, I don’t know whether this has been noted before: I do not have access to an academic library. If, as is likely, I am not the first to make these connections, any directions to the relevant literature would be greatly appreciated.

K’s commentary to line 949 reads includes the following line: “...No, wait a minute, you better just keep going west till you hit the Florence Houghton Room…” (pg. 281 in First Vintage International Edition, April 1989, emphasis added). 

As has been noted, this may be a reference to the Houghton Library of Harvard University, which was founded by Arthur Houghton, Jr. in 1942. The library is an important repository of works related to Dr. Johnson, which is an obvious connection to PF. 

But a subtler reference may also be intended. The Houghton family is closely connected in New England lore with a ghost story, a haunted mansion, and a suicide. Many of the motifs of the history – car accident, horses, suicides, barns, ghosts and hauntings, glass, prominent families, New England, university life, specific names like “Sutton” and “Sybil” and “New Wye”– chime with PF. Those with a deeper familiarity with PF than I may well be able to ferret out further and more important connections. I include some descriptions of relevant details in a block quote below as well as in some attachments. 

Surely someone has hit upon all this before. If so, can someone point me to the relevant literature and perhaps any discussion of the significance of the connection?

Articles on the fatal car accident and the mansion (note the strange contradiction on the names of the some of the car's occupants  – Dutton or Hutton?)

The History of the Houghton Mansion


Paul W. Marino

Albert Charles Houghton, President of the Arnold Priont Works and first Mayor of the City of North Adams, built what is now the Masonic Temple in the 1890's, shortly after his term as Mayor Expired.  It was his third home in North Adams, and the most extravagant, reflecting his wealth and status in the community.  Built in the Neo-Classical Revival style, it has strong Greek features with many influences from diverse sources.  Its roof was of Spanish tile, and the Clapboards were thinner near the bottom to make the house appear taller then it actually was.  There was a formal garden in the rear, which was often used for parties to raise money for the North Adams Hospital.  The Houghtons moved in circa 1900, the family then consisting of Mr. Houghton, his wife Cordelia, and their youngest survinving daughter Mary, then 23 years old.  Another daughter, Cordelia died in infancy, while three others lived to grow up, marry, and produce children of their own.  In 1905, when Mr. Houghton was 61, his health began to fail.  At that point, Mary resolved that she would never wed, but devoted her life to taking care of her father.  A manic workaholic with a passion for business, Mr. Houghton did not in fact retire, but only cut back, dividing his time between the APW sales officer in New York City and North Adams, leaving the major decisions to his son-in-law, William Arthur Gallup.

     In the spring of 1914, the Houghtons invested in their first car, a seven passenger Pierce-Arrow touring car, and sent their long time chauffeur, John Widders, to learn to drive it.  On August 1st of the year, Mr. Houghton and Mary decided to go to Bennington, VT for a pleasure drive.  Mrs. Houghton chose to remain at home, and they were accompanied instead by Dr. and Mrs. Robert Hutton of New York.  Sybil Hutton was a childhood friend of Mary's and a daughter of the North Adams shoe manufacturer WG Cady.  With Widders at the wheel, the car left the Houghton mansion at 9:00am; at 9:30 it was in Pownal, VT heading up what is now Oak Hill Rd.  The road was under repair, and a team of horses was parked on the right hand side.  Widders went around them on the left, at about 12 mph.  On the left shoulder, the car tilted and went down a steep embankment, rolling over three times before coming to rest in an upright position in a farmer's field.  Everyone except Mary Houghton was thrown out of the car.  The men all escaped with minor injuries:  Cuts, scrapes, bruises, minor fractures.  Mrs. Hutton, on the other hand, was killed almost instantly when the car rolled over her.  Mary Houghton was just as badly hurt and died of her injuries five and a half hours later at the North Adams Hospital.  Expecting to survive, Mr. Houghton was taken home.  The investigator for the State of Vermont exonerated Widders of all wrongdoing, blaming the accident instead on the soft shoulder of the road.  But Widders still blamed himself and, at 4:00am on the morning of August 2nd, he shot himself in the head in the cellar of the Houghton Barn.  Mr. Houghton died on the 11th of the month.

     Following the tragedy, one the the surviving Houghton daughters, Florence, moved into the house with her husband, William Arthur Gallup, and made their home there, looking after Mrs. Houghton until her death in 1916.  They continued to reside in the house until Mr. Gallup retired in 1926, when they sold it to the Masons and moved to Boston to be nearer their son.  The Masons did away with the formal Garden and erected their lodge building in it's place.  In more recent years, for the sake of economy, the Spanish tile roof was removed and replaced with asphalt, and siding has been put on over the clapboards.  Otherwise, the house continues to look as it did when it was built.

A Fatal Accident 

By Paul W. Marino

Saturday, August 1, 1914 started like any other summer day: bright, sunny, warm, with no hint of what was to befall later in the day.  What would befall was a car accident that would take the lives of two young women, cause the suicide of the driver and the slower death of the car’s owner, Albert Charles Houghton.

A.C. Houghton was a phenomenon in North Adams.  Born on a farm in Stamford, VT, he worked his way up to become an entrepreneur, a real estate magnate, an industrialist and politician.  Under his leadership, the Arnold Print Works became the largest printing and dying operation in the world, with offices in New York City and Paris, France.  His first venture into real estate created a village that bore his name for many years, Houghtonville.  After drafting the charter of the City of North Adams, he became its first Mayor, serving two one year terms.  And on the day of his funeral, every mill, office and place of business in the city closed.  He was one of only three men to be so honored.

In 1914, Houghton bought a car, a seven passenger 1914 Pierce Arrow touring car, which his long-time chauffeur, John Widders, began learning to drive.  On August 1, Houghton and his 37 year old daughter Mary decided to go to Bennington, VT for a pleasure drive.  For reasons unknown, Mrs. Houghton elected to remain at home.  Instead, they were accompanied by a Dr. and Mrs. Robert Dutton of New York City.  Mrs. Dutton was Sybil Cady by birth, a daughter of the shoe manufacturer W.G. Cady and a childhood friend of Mary’s. They were in North Adams visiting her mother.

The car left the Houghton mansion at 9:00am, with Mr. Widders at the wheel.  At 9:30, they were in Pownal, VT, going up Oak Hill Road toward Pownal Center at about 12 miles per hour.  One modern writer, wanting to sound dramatic, wrote that Widders headed up “....the daunting Oak Hill Road.”  But the truth is, there was nothing daunting about it.  For one thing, Route 7 did not yet exist, so Oak Hill Road was THE road to take to get to Bennington via Pownal.  While the hill it climbs is steep, the road runs parallel to the hill, with a very gentle grade.  The issue with it is that it’s a textbook example of a paved carriage road.  In essence, it was not designed with cars in mind.  Even today, it’s so narrow that there’s just enough room for two vehicles to squeak past each other.  This is one of the elements that caused the accident.

About a half a mile south of the village of Pownal Station, they came to a point where the road was being repaired.  There was a team of horses parked on the right (uphill) side of the road, and Widders turned left to go around them.  As he was getting past them, the car tipped to the left, off the road, rolling over three times on its way down the hill.  Everyone except Mary Houghton was thrown from the car.  The men all escaped with minor injuries:  cuts, scrapes, bruises, and minor fractures.  The women were not so lucky.

Mrs. Dutton was killed almost instantly when the car rolled over her on its way down the hill. When it came to rest, in a farmer’s field below, it was upright.  Mary Houghton was still in her seat, suffering from a variety of serious injuries.  She went in and out of consciousness, and whe conscious she complained of back pain.  An alarm went out and presently, doctors began to arrive on the scene, the next contributing factor in the tragedy.

There were no ambulances in 1914, nor anything resembling Emergency Medical Technicians.  The first doctor to arrive took Mary Houghton in his car and brought her to the hospital in North Adams, where she died of her injuries at 3:00 in the afternoon.  Neither were there any Emergency Rooms then, nor any understanding of Emergency Medicine, so the second doctor on the scene took Mr. Houghton in his car and brought him---not to the hospital---but home.  His visible injuries were minor, and he was expected to live, so he was brought home.

Mr. Widders, the chauffeur, was understandably in a high emotional state.  In fact, he was so distraught that it was decided he should be watched to prevent him from doing anything foolish.  Frank Hacking, the chauffeur of the Wilkinson family and a long time friend of Widders, sat up with Widders that night in Widders’ apartment in the Houghton barn until 1:00am.  At that point, a man named James Hynes, another old friend, took over.  At 4am, Widders said he was going to tend to the horses.  Hynes no doubt thought this was a good idea and would take his friend’s mind off his troubles.  Hynes went to look for him after a while, but couldn’t find him.  He called the Police, who dispatched two officers.  They found Widders in the barn’s cellar, where he had shot himself in the head with a horse pistol, a large caliber gun used by carriage drivers to quickly dispatch an injured horse.

It’s interesting to note that the Houghtons did not blame Widders at all.  In fact, they held him in such high regard that they buried him in their family lot in South View Cemetery.  Houghton himself died on August 11.  It would be romantic to say that he died of a broken heart, after seeing his daughter and her friend die and the chauffeur kill himself, but the truth is that the injuries he sustained in the accident were more serious than anyone realized.

The emotional strain caused by the other three deaths was certainly a contributing factor, but it’s doubtful that that would have been enough to kill him.

Of course, the question remains, what caused the accident?  An investigator for the State of Vermont exonerated Widders, blaming it on the soft left shoulder of the road.  A student from Williams College, doing a research paper on Houghton in the 1990s, suggested that maybe Widders was not as familiar with the operation of the car as he ought to have been.  The truth is much deeper than either of these theories.  It was actually a series of circumstances that, collectively, brought about the disaster.

The first might well be the soft shoulder of the road, but the second has to with the car itself.  When I sent a copy of the accident photo to the president of a Pierce Arrow club, he forwarded it to their technical expert, who replied that there was something wrong with the photo, which shows the spare tire mounted on the left side of the car.  On the 1914 Pierce Arrow the spare tire was indeed on the driver’s side of the car, but the driver did not sit on the left side; he sat on the right side.  This means that---for whatever reason---the photo had been reversed.  It also means that, sitting on the right (uphill) side of the car, Widders would have been unable to see how far off the road his tires actually were when he went around the team of horses.

Now throw into this the extremes that drivers take to avoid things in the road.  Walking in the gutter in the winter, I’ve seen drivers go all the way to the opposite side of the road to avoid me.  Widders, no doubt, did the same, pulling as far to the left as he could.  And again, being on the right side of the car, he couldn’t see how far off the road his left tires were.  Then comes the element nobody knew in 1914.  Modern stunt drivers can tell you that if you’re driving a car down a hill, always turn in the direction of the downhill.  Because if you try to turn up the hill, you set up the car to roll.  And this is what happened to Widders.  While he was passing the team, his left tires---barely on the shoulder of the road---were all pointing straight, maintaining balance.  But when he turned to the right, his left front tire was out of formation.  This gap, plus the forward momentum of the vehicle, set up the roll and the car toppled.



2 months 2 weeks ago

 Hello John,

You can search this site and find a few references to Florence Houghton, including one from me! I don't know if the car crash is significant, but the connection to Dr. Johnson (a Mason, btw,  as was Boswell) is interesting. The Houghton mansion became a Masonic lodge after Florence's death.