Rick and Vivian Wolin are the current owners of The House of Three Gables located on High Street in Lancaster. They are pictured here with a rare copy of 'The Upland Mystery' that was written based on the Bugbee-Towne deaths. (Photo by Tara Giles) (click for larger version)
January 15, 2018LANCASTER — In last week's issue of the Democrat, a story regarding the mysterious deaths among the Bugbee-Towne families appeared. In 1881, three members of the famous Col. Francis Town family and three members and a servant of the Bugbee family all died within a few months of each other. The two families lived next door on High St, here in Lancaster. One home being the current Col. Town Community House, the other The House of Three Gables where the Bugbee family lived.
Among the dead were Harriet and Barton Towne (Col. Francis Town's parents), Dr. Frank Bugbee along with his wife Maria and 14 year old daughter Hattie and an 18 year old servant named Hannah Regan.
Dr. Frank Bugbee was married to Maria Towne, making the families quite close. Put on trial for the mysterious deaths was Nellie Webb, a girl from Guild Hall, Vt., who came to live with the Towne's after her mother was deemed unfit due to setting a barn on fire. Webb attended Plymouth Teacher's School however returned to Lancaster to begin a trade in taxidermy. Autopsies revealed that three of the six bodies contained arsenic, a deadly chemical used by taxidermists. Webb was put on trial but was found innocent by the Coos County Grand Jury. The famous John Weeks was not in agreement and it was known around town that he thought Webb was easily guilty.
Fast forward to modern times. For years, the children who attended the Lancaster Elementary School have been told the story of the House of Three Gables as part of a town history lesson. As a result, the rumor has always suggested that the house had spirits inside. The Democrat sat down with current owners Rick and Vivian Wolin who tell a different story.
"This is the quietest home I've ever lived in, not so much as a creak in the floors," explained Rick.
Rick and his wife Vivian were living in Stark when they decided they wanted to live in a Victorian style home located in a village. It was in 2008 that they began their search.
"We looked at roughly 30 houses and happened upon The House of Three Gables or The Bugbee House," Rick explained. "We didn't quite know the story but we instantly fell in love with the house. It's beauty and solid structural build sold us. We did however have reservations due to the history that had taken place more than a century ago."
When the couple were first shown the house, they noticed framed pictures of every newspaper article written in The Lancaster Gazette dating back to the 1880's regarding the mysterious deaths. Also in frames were photos of each member of both families. The prior owners have since donated those items to the Lancaster Historical Society and are now on display.
"We looked at the house multiple times to see if we felt any negative energy, and even came to visit one night after dark. What we encountered was absolutely nothing. We also felt that a home surrounded by so many children and activities at Col. Town would be a very warm and homey place to live," said Rick.
As they learned more about the story, the couple began digging into the history.
"It was very difficult to find information due to the fire where most of the old town records were lost," said Rick.
The first Halloween the Wolin's spent in the house was eerie in that they had not one trick or treater. This, they assumed, was the result of the mysterious deaths and the story told to the children in school. The following Halloween, they had a plan.
"We decided that we would sit outside and hand out treats, so that the children would see friendly faces that lived here. We ended up having just over 300 trick or treaters that year and have ever since," explained Vivian.
The couple, who have lived in the home for the past ten years, are sadly selling the house due to a relocation for work.
A rare book written by Mary Hatch in 1887 titled "The Upland Mystery" is based on the Bugbee-Towne deaths. It is so closely related to the real life characters that Col. Francis Town himself was present at the train station when the books were delivered to Lancaster, so he could buy every copy and destroy them. The idea that Dr. Frank Bugbee was romantically involved with Nellie Webb was not something the Colonel wanted floating out of the mouths of town gossips.
"I searched for a copy of the book, but it wasn't easy. I was finally successful with the help of a school librarian. Back then when new books were printed, libraries all over the country would receive at least one copy," explained Rick.
"Living in the home it was very exciting to read the book where the story took place. The similarities between the environment of the home and the layout felt like I was living the story that I was reading which was very cool," said Rick.
"It is neat that a copy of the book actually lives here in the house. After reading it, it made me have the urge to look inside and outside of the house for scenes that had occurred such as where the container that was thrown into the well containing the arsenic was," added Rick.
"There are blemishes on the property where things may have changed, so I found myself looking for where the well might have been. It was neat when the book mentioned the character of 'Nellie' meeting the famous doctor for the first time and the rooms in which they interacted in," said Rick.
After watching several episodes of HGTV's "If Walls Could Talk," Rick decided to dig around the house to see what he could find. He did not tear down walls but did find two flat irons from that time period that were located on beams high up in the barn, likely owned by the Bugbees.
The big question remains, was Nellie Webb guilty?
Rick offered his thoughts, saying "I would say she's guilty. I felt that even though there was no circumstantial evidence she was still guilty. I do respect that they couldn't put her in jail as a result but I'm left with the impression based on what is reported as fact that she was likely guilty. I believe the motive is something we still haven't discovered yet. There had to have been possible romantic drama that has not been discovered. I can also understand why Col. Town destroyed the books because it was so close to the real story."
Vivian has taken the side of Nellie Webb and feels that she is not guilty due to lack of evidence.
What are your thoughts on the innocence or guilt of Nellie Webb? Send us your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.