Nicolson House

Posted on August 15, 2017

Nicolson House

Williamsburg house rumored to be haunted by a talented musician.

The Nicolson House, which was built sometime between 1751 to 1753, lies on the east side of York Street. It was built on a sizable piece of land, which was owned by the famous planter and lawyer Mann Page. Though Page was born in Gloucester County, he spent most of his life in Spotsylvania, on his massive plantation known as Mannsfield.

When Page died in 1730, his son sold some of the family’s York County property, including the one acre tract on which the Nicolson House was constructed. Cabinetmaker James Spiers was the first to take over the lot, but he did not build anything on it. Thus, within one year, he sold it to a tailor named Robert Nicolson (some sources spell his name “Nicholson.”)

Nicolson was twenty-six years old at the time, and only just beginning to establish himself as a tailor. In 1773, he acquired a humble, two story building located on Duke of Gloucester Street and launched his career from there. “The front salesroom took up most of the first floor with a counting room at the back, while the second floor was used for living purposes and storage.”1 Nicolson’s little tailoring shop operated as a post office and general store as well.

With the money he made from the store, young Nicolson built a “small, unpretentious two story building”2 on the land he had purchased from Spiers. The Nicolson House was where he and his wife, Mary Waters, raised their seven children. A few of their kids became very famous in Virginia: the oldest, Robert Jr., was an acclaimed Revolutionary War surgeon, for instance, while another (named George) served as the mayor of Richmond twice.

Robert Nicolson used the Orrell House as a template for his home. The Orrell House, which is also located in Williamsburg, can be found on East Francis Street. It has two stories. Both the Nicolson House and the Orrell House have a fireplace and bedrooms on the first floor. Around 1766, Nicolson augmented the western end of the Nicolson House with a two-bay extension. Otherwise, “the house has essentially remained the same for the last 200 years.”3

For a brief period of time, Nicolson decided to rent out some of his home’s bedrooms to weary travelers, in order to get some added income. His advertisements in the Virginia Gazette and General Advertizer targeted “gentlemen who attend the General Courts and Assembly.”4 He promised to provide boarders with breakfast, even stabling for their horses. Among Nicolson’s customers was Cuthbert Ogle, “a semi-prominent conductor and concert organizer”5 who sailed to Virginia from London on The Dolphin in February 1755. Unfortunately, Ogle’s time in the states was brief – he died within two months of arriving, on April 23, 1755. He left behind an impressive collection6 of music (ranging from overtures to concertos to sonatas) and instruments. While alive, Ogle strived to contribute to Williamsburg’s music community. From his room in the Nicolson House, he offered to teach Virginians how play various instruments, including the violin, organ and harpsichord.

Today, Cuthbert Ogle is believed to haunt the Nicolson House. Some visitors claim to have been gently touched7 by him on the shoulder, for instance. Others who have stayed overnight at the house believe that he is the source of all the sounds of nocturnal scratching.

Another famous tenant of Nicolson’s was James Mercer, a lawyer who was scheduled to duel with Arthur Lee at five o’clock. The two had supposedly agreed to meet in the morning, on a plain horse pasture located on York Road. However, Mercer was late for the appointment, which, during the colonial times, was very frowned upon.  “Thequestion of time and place were critical ones for James Mercer – the difference, between a rosy future at the bar of General Court and the ignominy due a coward.”8 Nicolson was asked to testify, in order to help the court decide whether or not Mercer’s lateness was intentional or not.

Nicolson became very busy as his business grew. He used the Virginia Gazette to look for both lodgers and employees. Several of his ads expressed his need for experienced journeymen tailors, for instance. He also used the publication to sell off unwanted property and slaves.

Robert Nicolson sold his store in 1776 and stopped taking in lodgers one year later. He continued to live in the Nicolson House, though. Perhaps he wanted to focus more on civic affairs, as he already was pretty well known in Virginia’s political sphere. Before the Revolutionary War, he served on a committee which included the famous likes of William Pasteur, John Minson Galt, George Wythe and Peyton Randolph, for instance. Pasteur and Galt were Williamsburg physicians who partnered up in 1775 to open an apothecary shop. Colonists would go there to buy medical supplies and herbal remedies. George Wythe was an acclaimed lawyer who hailed from Chesterville. He is famous for being our nation’s first law professor (Thomas Jefferson was one of his students!) Throughout his career, Peyton Randolph also taught law, most often at the College of William and Mary. His is best remembered for his leadership skills, and becoming the first president of the Continental Congress.

Ironically, like the Nicolson House, both Wythe and Randolph’s homes are also said to be haunted. Check out our posts on these two creepy houses here and here! They were included on our list of the Top 25 Most Haunted Places in Virginia.

Now the Nicolson House may only have one reported ghost on site, but the Wythe House is believed to have multiple. Unsettled spirits include George Wythe himself and the wife of a wealthy planter, known as Lady Ann Skipwirth. Wythe was murdered by his evil great grand nephew, who poisoned him with arsenic. Lady Ann Skipwirth is rumored to have committed suicide in one of the house’s bedrooms, after seeing her husband flirt with various women during a gala held at the mansion.

But out of all three homes, the Peyton Randolph House is definitely the most paranormally active. In fact, a guest on one of our tours has the photographic evidenceto prove it. According to legend, the house was cursed by a mistreated slave. A lot of people have also died there, including children and soldiers. This explains why so many unexplainable things have happened at the Peyton Randolph House!

What makes the Nicolson House unique, though, is that it is one of the few properties in Colonial Williamsburg which was always “privately owned and continuously inhabited.”9 Robert Nicolson’s children took over the home after he died on July 14, 1797. Nicolson lies buried at Richmond’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. Eventually, others acquired the building, including the Power family and a man named John Slaughter.

The Nicolson House is among the numerous haunted places in Colonial Williamsburg. Perhaps Cuthbert Ogle is sticking around because he didn’t have enough time to teach music while living!

Works Cited

  1. Yetter, George Humphrey. Williamsburg Before and After: The Rebirth of Virginia’s Colonial Capital. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988. Page 84.
  2. Samford, Patricia. The Nicolson House – Report on the 1982 Archaeological Investigations. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986. Page 8-9.
  3. Haas, Shirley A. and Dale Paige Talley. A Refugee at Hanover Tavern: The Civil War Diary of Margaret Wight. Charleston: The History Press, 2013. Page 25.
  4. Haas, Shirley A. and Dale Paige Talley. A Refugee at Hanover Tavern: The Civil War Diary of Margaret Wight. Charleston: The History Press, 2013. Page 26.
  5. “Member: CuthbertOgle.” LibraryThing, n.d. Web. 6 March 2016. Para. 2.
  6. “Member: CuthbertOgle.” LibraryThing, n.d. Web. 6 March 2016.
  7. Hauck, Dennis William. Haunted Places: The National Directory, Ghostly Abodes, Sacred Sites, UFO Landings, and Other Supernatural Locations. New York: Penguin, 2002. Page 441.
  8. Morrow, George T. II. Williamsburg at Dawn. Williamsburg: Telford Publications, 2011. Page 40.
  9. Haas, Shirley A. and Dale Paige Talley. A Refugee at Hanover Tavern: The Civil War Diary of Margaret Wight. Charleston: The History Press, 2013. Page 24.