In 1799, John McClellan Hood came to Philadelphia from Northern Ireland. He became a successful tea and coffee importer, married Elizabeth Forebaugh, and began a family. Every summer to escape the regular epidemics that swept through the city, the Hood family would retire to the country. Hood bought a large farm in Limerick, eventually building a mansion there in 1834. The house was name “Bessybell” (you’ll also see it spelled “Bessy Bell” and “Bessie Bell”) after a hill near his native village, Newtonstewart, and was supposedly based on the mayor’s house there.
Now, John McCellan Hood’s oldest son was Washington Hood, who was the 500th graduate of West Point. After graduating, the army assigned him to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Hood traveled throughout North America on assignment for the army. In 1835, he determined the boundary between the state of Ohio and the Michigan Territory. A few years later he was in Florida making maps for the army for the Seminole War. He then went west to map the Oregon Territory. His maps attracted thousands of people west. Washington Hood died in 1840 at the age of 32 of unknown causes. His family buried him in their private plot at Bessybell. Many of Hood’s drawings are held at the Winterthur Library.
John McClellan Hood died in 1848, and the house passed to his daughter and her husband, Sarah and Charles Gilpin, Sr., who was mayor of Philadelphia from 1850-1853. According to Muriel E. Lichtenwalner’s book, Limerick Township: A Journey Through Time, 1699-1987, the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. It stayed in the Gilpin family until 1981, though no one in the family lived there after 1930’s. Throughout the twentieth century the various tenants lived in the house, including a man who allowed his goats to roam freely. In the 1960’s a couple named Kenneth and Virginia Kehler lived in the house, and had it wired for electricity for the first time. During their time in the house, Bessybell made the news for a series of spooky happenings around the family burial plot.
In 1962 the Pottstown Mercury reported, “For the past several nights strange phosphorescent lights have mysteriously flitted through the woods, clanking chains have rattled through the dark and sudden shots have shattered the midnight stillness.” People wondered if it wasn’t the ghost of Washington Hood, who’s mausoleum had been desecrated at some point before 1940 (no one seems to know just when). The family’s very bones were on view to any passersby. A few days after the newspaper reported about teenagers visiting the site looking for the ghost, the state troopers got involved and soon discovered old pretzel tins that had been turned into bells hanging from trees around the burial site. The eerie lights were phosphorescent moss on damp, decaying logs.
Bessybell has changed hands a few times now. The latest news I could find on it was from 2008, when the Times-Herald reported that a company in Las Vegas owned the property. You can see a picture of the house from about 10 years ago on Flickr.
Lichtenwalner, Muriel E., Limerick Township: A Journey Through Time, 1699-1987. Limerick Township Historical Society, Limerick, Pa., 1987.
Pennsylvania Folklife: 1990, vol:39, no:3 pg:131 -139
Pottstown Mercury, August 27, 1962.