Is the Old Rockwood Mansion in Wilmington Haunted?

The 1800s estate-turned-museum is said to be occupied by the family that built it…and died long ago. Here, we investigate.

Photo by Joe Del Tufo

“If there’s a spirit here tonight, please cross the rods.”

The request comes from Rick Loveless, a researcher and paranormal coordinator at the old Rockwood Mansion in Wilmington. At first, there’s stillness throughout the Black Parlor room, its magnificent windows revealing the inky night of the new moon.

Then, slowly, the two dowsing rods Loveless is holding move toward each other to form an X.

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“Thank you,” he responds matter-of-factly, as if speaking to the Other Side is quotidian.

For Loveless, it is. For those of us attending his evening paranormal tour for the first time, it’s hair-raising.

Built in the mid-1800s by retired banker Joseph Shipley, the Rural Gothic Revival estate—modeled after its owner’s lavish country home in Liverpool, England—sits on 72 sprawling acres. In 1973, the property was left to New Castle County for public use and became Rockwood Park and Museum, offering various guided tours and events to sustain itself. An absence of stanchions allows guests to get close to what are mostly original belongings, fostering a more personal connection.

After Shipley’s death, the property went to his great-nephew Edward Bringhurst, whose family lived here for several years along with their beloved pets and servants. Many visitors to the mansion today say they still encounter its early residents—all long dead.

“We’ve identified 28 spirits,” says Loveless, who has hosted nearly 100 tours and uses a series of paranormal investigative tools—including an EMF meter, thermal camera and “talking” ghost box—to communicate with who he believes are Shipley, the Bringhursts and others affiliated with the family. Visitors, too, are given devices to detect the presence of energy and ask their own questions. While skeptics are quick to dismiss the tools’ usefulness, ascribing interferences like cellphones to their lack of credibility, some phenomena are not easily explained. (Once a staunch skeptic himself, Loveless says he could no longer ignore or deny things he continually witnessed while working here.)

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Frosty pockets of air amid otherwise temperate spaces are common, as are sightings of residual hauntings—shadow figures walking down corridors or through walls. Loveless says some guests have briefly smelled tobacco or flowers, and two of the Bringhursts’ dogs once appeared outside a second-floor window. It’s not unusual to hear footsteps, knocking, whistling or even voices talking, add Loveless and fellow investigator Bill Hamel, who are most interested in what they call “intelligent hauntings”—spirits who appear and interact.

It’s these that have drawn paranormal experts to the mansion from near and far, such as the East Coast Spirit Chasers and even A&E’s Ghost Hunters, which featured Rockwood in Episode 13: “Manor of Mystery,” its series finale after 11 years on the air.

So how does one deduce which intelligent spirits are communicating? It’s as simple as asking questions, Loveless demonstrates. For instance, a person may ask a spirit to hint at their identity, and moments later, a dowsing rod will swing toward a portrait, or a ghost box will spit out a clue word. In one instance on this evening tour, Mary Bringhurst’s music box began playing in her bedroom.

Device activity is often the first sign that energy is present, though apparitions or even being touched by spirits are most compelling. Loveless recalls one visitor who became alarmed when “we all watched her hair get lifted right in the air,” he says. He then shows us an image captured by another visitor, who after taking a photo in an upstairs sitting room with her smartphone, found one extra person staring back at her in the image: a woman wearing a white gown, clearly among the crowd but not otherwise visible to them.

Rockwood Mansion
Paranormal activity at Rockwood Mansion in Wilmington has been known to turn even the staunchest skeptics into believers in the afterlife. Photo by Joe Del Tufo.

As we explore the attic, to which heat typically rises, there is a gust of cold air as devices begin to flash simultaneously. (Credulous but also skeptical, my first instinct is to search for a vent or open window. None.) Moving on to a dark room of the basement, my camera captures several light orbs moving in all directions. At first, I assume they are dust particles, but those only float upward, Loveless explains. My friend Bri, who I’ve come here with twice, hears “leather mini” on the ghost box carried by a woman in front of her. Bri is a handbag designer, working mostly with leather.

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What else did we experience, you wonder? During a previous visit, around Christmastime, we had followed Loveless into Shipley’s former bedroom. As we entered, he gasped. “I was just in here, and these Christmas tree lights were not on!” he said, searching for the switch to turn them off. At the opposite side of the room, the door to a dressing cabinet with a secure latch was wide open, revealing Shipley’s clothing. “And this was closed,” Loveless said. “Oh, wow.” To shut it, he had to wrestle with another Christmas tree blocking the path to the dresser—a clear sign that it was not a human, at least no longer, who’d opened it.

There are no known evil spirits here, Loveless assures us—just a bit ornery.

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