What a Dame!

The spirited matriarch of the Dames Inn

By Mark Holmberg     Photographs by Rick Riccozi

If central casting searched for a haunted house in Wilmington, 1519 Princess St. likely would not jump out and grab them.

The yard is pristine and invites the soul to come rest on the arched veranda. There’s not one sag in the 92-year-old roofline and nary a skewed shutter waiting to bang in the breeze. The buff brick structure is tight and true. The basement is dry and happy, and the attic wouldn’t scare a child.

Inside this bright and airy Prairie-style home, the floors don’t creak and the furnace won’t groan, although, from time to time, “you have to down and kick it in the right spot,” says Patricia Peters. “Pat” is the current owner of the Dames Inn, although, truth be told, the home owns her.

“I am possessed,” she admits with a wry, Martha Stewart-like smile. A couple of hours with her inside this amazingly original and personally decorated house proves just how true this is.

The 1924 home, built for Walter Bergen, secretary to mercantile magnate Alexander Sprunt, has become known as a gently haunted inn, thanks to Peters’ possession. It’s listed among the historic haunts of the Port City. Plenty of ghost hunters have combed through it, one of them posting a YouTube video with recorded ghostly voices, laughter and orbs.

“Yes, it is well and truly occupied by a spirit,” says Bonnie Sandera, a local medium, shamanic healer and hypnotist with Cape Fear RIP (Researchers Investigating the Paranormal).

“She’s kind of a trickster,” Sandera says of the spirit. “A good sense of humor. She’s very attracted to the property, and she’s very protective of Pat.”

She, of course, is The Dame of Wilmington, Catharine Carpender, a delightfully complex and some might say vexing woman known for strong drink and matching language who died at the age of 85 in the upstairs master bedroom in 2000.

That’s when Peters, a Jersey girl, arrived on the scene by way of Nevada en route to Australia — of all things. Her daughter was attending UNC Wilmington and they were looking for a small investment house so her daughter would have a place to stay.

They happened upon a listing at 15th and Princess.

“My daughter said, ‘That looks like the house from “Psycho.”’ For grins and giggles I called the Realtor,” Peters recalls, laughing.

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It was 5,000 square feet — twice the size of what she wanted. But the price was amazingly affordable. And while she was walking through the house, she noticed index cards with the word “stay” written on them, indicating which furnishings would stay with the house. While she was in the dining room, standing right where the grand dame of the house would sit, a “stay” card affixed to the chandelier “flies off and lands on my foot,” recalls Peters.

That fateful card — which is now framed and sitting on the dining room mantle — sealed the deal. But not for her daughter.

“She told me, ‘I’m not living in that thing,’” Peters says. “So, she moved to Florida.”

Peters and her husband bought the house, but moved to Australia, and the house sat mostly empty from 2001 to 2009.

When Peters, who had worked as a researcher for a group of authors, returned to Wilmington, she got to work running down the story of her home.

As the story of Dame Carpender began unfolding in the most haunting and addictive way, the Dame herself began reaching out to her, Peters says as we tour the house. Much of the house remains exactly as it was when Walter and Mary Bergen first turned the key, right down to the wallpaper. (Dragons in the dining room, oh my!)

The Dame likes it that way, Peters says with a knowing nod.

If Peters tried to use a wall color the Dame didn’t like, “she’d get a little cranky” and pictures would fall off the wall or a painting ladder would mysteriously tumble.

One time she came downstairs to find “all the curtains had fallen down.”

She soon learned to ask, “Do you like this?” when proposing even the most subtle change.

Peters also learned the Dame was quite particular about who came into her home. “She pushed my sister-in-law down,” she says, “but she deserved it.”

Another time, a new remodeling worker came to the front door and immediately “the attic door slams,” Peters says. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to go.’”

But the attic door didn’t budge when a different worker arrived. Peters could feel the Dame smiling when he told her he remembered the house from his youth, saying, “I’d ride my bike to school and see the lovely lady on the porch.”

Was Catharine Carpender lovely? Peters thinks so.

Photos indicate a rather serious and tough woman, known to be as absolutely dedicated to her liberal causes as she was to her champion Scottish terriers. At one point, Peters believes, the Dame had as many as 15 dogs living in the house.

Reportedly, there was a sign at the front door: “This house is for the comfort of my dogs. If you don’t like it, you may leave.”

The sometimes-salty Dame used even more potent language when the police or anyone else tried to stop her from holding controversial interracial meetings or theatrical plays in her home.

The wealthy Dame had been on a mission ever since a childhood sickness derailed plans for a higher education. The Red Cross, the Naval Affairs Committee, Elderhaus, the Human Relations Council, violence prevention, the restoration of Buddhist temples in far-flung places, anything that could improve the tenor of human harmony got the full and furious attention of this hard-smoking, hard-drinking globe-trotter.

She was knighted by the Sovereign and Military Order of Malta for relentless dedication to a medical clinic in Sicily, giving her the title of Dame. The U.S. Navy also awarded her its Meritorious Public Service Award.

The Dame famously met Mother Teresa when she helped bring the legendary humanitarian to UNC Wilmington in 1975 to receive the Albert Schweitzer International Humanities Award, Peters says, proudly displaying the photograph of their meeting.

The home has so many of the Dame’s history and personal touches, from her writings and her own typed dossier to the bedside buzzer she would press to summon her almost lifelong butler, James. Peters can picture the long-suffering James, hearing the buzzer in the basement, his retreat, “to get in enough sauce to deal with her.”

According to legend, the Dame was furious with the elderly James for getting struck and killed by a car while walking nearby. He was supposed to be there till the end!

Peters absolutely cherishes the grand complexities and contrasts of her ghost, the sweeping benevolence and philanthropy harmonizing with untamed moments like cursing the cops and mashing her servant’s bell while “smoking like a freight train” with a Dewar’s Scotch in hand. And on the rocks, mind you! When the power went out and the Dame had to suffer through her Dewar’s without ice, Peters says, a generator was installed the next day.

Such is the detail Peters has woven into the Dames Inn.

While gently and carefully remodeling the kitchen, she transformed the pantry into a world-class bar in honor of the Dame’s love of a lengthy cocktail hour.

“As soon as we put this in the lights started blowing up,” Peters says as we linger at the bar. “She loves this space!”

Guests who don’t properly toast the Dame have been known to hear the wine goblets tinkling together in the night, warns Peters. (Guests also report hearing dogs scampering about the house.)

And Peters and the inn have hosted roughy 50 wedding parties in honor of the Dame’s love of weddings.

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Even though she never married, the Dame filled one scrapbook with photos of brides, something Peters found while searching the attic.

And while researching the family tree, Peters was delighted to find Catharine’s father was first cousin to a suspect in the 1922 Halls-Mills murder case in New Jersey. Oh, the juicy details! Peters shares them with the same pride as she does the inn’s antique wallpaper: a married Episcopal rector, slaughtered with his choir-singer mistress, love letters ripped up between them, their heads shot, throats cut and the singer’s tongue ripped out under a crab apple tree.

Peters has framed the old articles in the library detailing what was then the nation’s most sensational murder trial and what historians see as an early example of a media circus.

Even a gently haunted house needs a murder to spice things up, and this one was a gem.

Peters believes the Carpender family moved to Wilmington, in part, to escape the notoriety, even though the cousin was acquitted. The Dame’s parents purchased the home in 1947 from the Bergens.

As I toured and listened and marveled at all the care that has gone into this almost undisturbed example of a mid-20s Southern home, it became perfectly clear that Peters loves this house and the Dame who gave it its name.

“It’s not haunted,” Peters says. “It’s spirited.”

Which makes it the perfect match for Peters’ second love: Halloween.

“You don’t have to worry about what family you have to see,” she says. “You can be dressed up as anything. It’s always been my favorite holiday.”

Last year was her sixth annual “All Hallow’s Eve Ball” in which the entire Dames Inn is transformed into a playful haunted house, thanks to a massive collection of decorations stored in that dry basement. The Dame has suggested a break in the themed parties, so this Halloween there will be a tour on Friday, Oct. 28, and an invitation-only murder mystery dinner on Saturday.

What’s next for the Dames Inn? A new roof, garden upgrades and other repairs to keep it worthy of the name. After all, the one thing the Dame won’t tolerate — besides Scotch without ice — is having her home look like it’s haunted.

Meet the Dame: Tours of the decorated Dames Inn, 1519 Princess St., are available on Friday, Oct. 28. Admission is $5. Reservations not required.

Mark Holmberg splits his time between Richmond, Virginia, and the Port City, writing and roaming, believing there’s room for good ol’ printed words about believers and strays and adventurers.

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