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Ghost in a Gown

The Happy Spirit of Preston Babbitt

by Steve Desroches

In most every time in human history and in every culture there have been ghost stories. From a religious or spiritual perspective, ghosts may represent everything from lost souls to important messages from the “other side.” In folklore, accounts of spirits, specters, and apparitions can be morality tales, romanticized history, or just a thrilling scare around the campfire, at a slumber party, or for Halloween night. Ghosts appear in our most beloved and revered works of literature, from A Christmas Carol to Wuthering Heights, in films like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, and even in classic pop songs like the 1965 teenage phantom sweetheart song “Laurie (Strange Things Happen).” Most everyone, even diehard skeptics, have a story of some encounter that defies explanation. Ghost stories are part of humanity, from antiquity to the modern age, and there is certainly no shortage of such paranormal yarns in Provincetown.

In a town with a long history of eccentricity, tragedy, and imagination, it is no surprise that Provincetown is full of well-crafted and documented ghost stories. How and when they began remains murky, as any folklore often is. Just like monuments and plaques to honor the dead, stories of visitors from the other world are often ways to pass on the legacy of an event or individual that was of some import to Provincetown. For instance, the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House was used as an infirmary during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and was where 47 people died. It was clearly a sad and epic event for such a small town, and the memory of it appears from time to time with stories of sightings of a spirit or the feeling of an invisible presence. Of course, these stories find an annual revival right around Halloween. And one in particular shows that not all are based in long ago and far away or in some spooky chronicle. Sometimes it’s out of a deep love for someone who left such an indelible imprint of joy, compassion, and happiness that their spirit lives on. Such is the case with a tale of a haunting at the Rose and Crown Guest House by one of its previous owners Preston Babbitt.

Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

Built in 1790, what is now the Rose and Crown has a storied history with many incarnations as a private home, shop, and the guest house, with famous residents and guests that included abstract painter Fritz Pfeiffer (who died in a fire there in 1960), Noel Coward, and Wayland Flowers and Madame. With a fabulous fabled history, the Rose and Crown holds the imprint of all of it. And over the years guests have reported strange occurrences and sightings in the inn, whose motto is “where anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” The figurehead over the front door, named Jane Elizabeth, has overseen a lot in her day, especially once the Boatslip was built right across the street on what had once been Grozier Park. The house became a hive of activity when Babbitt bought it in 1979 and redid the entire place, getting rid of the previously bland and generic interior and recreating an old, old Provincetown look that gave the Rose and Crown a floor plan that feels like it was designed by M.C. Escher. It’s part of what keeps so many repeat guests coming back. But it’s the ghosts that have them changing rooms sometimes.

“The general feeling about in the house is a good vibe, a cozy place, rather than malicious or evil,” says current manager Austin Fiszel. “I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise. But let me tell you about the spirits in the house.”

On this day in October, the first with a definitive chill of the season, the Rose and Crown is decked out for Halloween, which complements the ornate, eccentric décor perfectly. A Ouija sits on the coffee table of the main lounge. Haunted novelty portraits hang on the walls and wink or turn skeletal as you walk by. Fiszel is a great storyteller and a believer in ghosts. But the encounters he shares are not meant to convince skeptics, and they existed long before he took the job, which has him living on the premises. Strange knocks on the door with no one there, a feeling of a cat walking across the bed, blankets seemingly pulled off the bed and balled up on the floor in a tight bundle, a shadow zipping past a doorway. These are all events relayed by guests over the years that continue to this day, something confirmed by former employee and friend Danny Goldin, who sits in the parlor nodding his head in agreement.

The best known of all the Rose and Crown ghost stories, however, is that of Babbitt himself. Reports of a seeing a man in a wedding dress, or some other fabulous outfit persist. And each time a guest relays such an encounter, the description always matches that of Babbitt, wedding dress and all. Babbitt was a veritable force in Provincetown, a genuine bohemian bon vivant. He was also a man of conviction and action; he served as a trustee of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, president of the Provincetown Business Guild, and co-founded with Alice Foley what is now the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. He was especially beloved for his costumes, which he created himself for events like the annual Carnival in August and the myriad of other occasions in Provincetown to don sequins, marabou, and chiffon.

“He just loved to be happy,” says Babbitt’s daughter Lauren Mitchell from her home in Florida. “I don’t think I ever saw a day when he wasn’t happy. When I went for a walk down the street everyone there knew me as his daughter, even if I wasn’t with him. My dad was the most amazing man in the whole world. He was the best.”

Mitchell remembers well when her father bought the guesthouse and made it “old again.” She remembers the paintings he hung around the house, including a self-portrait, which has gone missing. She remembers visits to Provincetown where quite quickly she and her then husband were put into costume. One time he dressed them as Pilgrims and they recreated the landing of the Mayflower on the beach. Another time they came for Carnival and he dressed his son-in-law as gay Zorro. It’s clear that not only did Babbitt give love, but he was very much loved in return. Sadly, he died in 1990, succumbing to AIDS as so many did in Provincetown at the height of the epidemic.

Bring Babbitt’s name up around town and those who were around in the 1980s smile and share a memory, often with Babbitt in one of his famous get-ups. For those who didn’t know him personally, his name lives on through his good works and joyful legacy. But as of late he’s been included in several books about ghosts, most recently in Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbians Ghosts by Ken Summers, in the chapter “Here Comes the Bride: A Guest House Ghost,” as the most common sightings have been him in drag in a wedding dress. Mitchell inherited the guesthouse upon her father’s death and sold it to Ann MacDougall, whose family lived across the street from the Babbitt Family in Tiverton, Rhode Island. She pledged to keep the inn just as Babbitt had, and she has, maintaining a wonderfully unique piece of Provincetown history as a tribute to Babbitt, who Mitchell says is still very much a presence at the Rose and Crown.

“I still believe he’s around,” says Mitchell. “I still believe his spirit is in the Rose and Crown. His spirit is still in there. If someone says they saw him, if they saw him in the house in an elaborate costume, I believe it.”

The Rose and Crown Guest House is located at 158 Commercial St., Provincetown. For more information call 508.487.3332 or visit

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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