It was 1 a.m. on Dec. 20, and an eerie silence had settled over the Historical Museum in Palmyra — a night far different from that of 48 years ago when a fire ripped through a small home and claimed the lives of six children and their mother.

It was 1 a.m. on Dec. 20, and an eerie silence had settled over the Historical Museum in Palmyra — a night far different from that of 48 years ago when a fire ripped through a small home and claimed the lives of six children and their mother.

For the group of ghost hunters waiting and anticipating the night’s events, it was almost too quiet. Members of Seekers of the Paranormal, a group based out of Palmyra, spent the night in the museum, joined by Historic Palmyra Executive Director Bonnie Hays and a tag-along reporter, all seeking evidence that the terror and tragedy of that night in 1964 may have left some kind of imprint behind.

It was six days before Christmas, on Dec. 20, 1964 around 2 a.m. when a fire ravaged a small bungalow, home to Ruth Anna Breeden, her husband, Paul, and their six children, Marion “Eddy” Edward, Dennis, Sharon, Susan, Mitchell and Samuel. Reports called the blaze a flash fire, defined by Wikipedia as a “sudden, intense fire caused by ignition of a mixture of air and a dispersed flammable substance such as a solid (including dust), flammable or combustible liquid (such as an aerosol or fine mist) or a flammable gas. It is characterized by high temperature, short duration, and a rapidly moving flame front.” Some have their suspicions about the night that left Paul Breeden widowed, but there is no evidence to prove foul play.

Smoke and flames engulfed the home quickly, and no one is certain how the fire started and why it burned as hot as it did. What is well known is that Ruth Anna and her children died a horrible death, found huddled under a mattress in the basement minus Eddy and Samuel, who were later discovered among the ashes upstairs. The horror of the night’s events left a mark on many of those who witnessed it and to this day refuse to talk about it.

Now the Seekers of the Paranormal are trying to determine if that tragic night left a paranormal mark as well.

“I once had someone suggest I go out to where the Titanic sank and see what I could find,” said Rob Henning, founder of Seekers of the Paranormal.

It got Henning thinking of a place where he could test the theory that residual hauntings happen. Residual hauntings in the world of the paranormal occur when the energy of an intense event, whether good or bad, has imprinted itself in an object or even the ground, claims Henning.

“It’s recorded energy,” Henning said. “Like a skipping record, it repeats itself over and over in a set pattern.”

The spirits that walk the same path night after night in a residual haunting are completely unaware of the human life carrying on around them, said Henning.

This, he said, is different from that of an “intelligent haunt,” where the spirits can interact and possibly even communicate with the living — at least those who are listening. Seekers of the Paranormal said they have collected plenty of evidence that Ruth Anna and her children walk the halls of the Historic Museum. Their latest challenge is to determine if a residual haunting from the fire exists at the museum.

“This is the first time ever anyone has been allowed to investigate the Historical Museum on that fateful night,” Hays said. “Since activity has been so overwhelming for the past month, this evening had many questions, and it was a wonderful experiment.”

Although the fire did not occur at the museum per se — the museum is the former Powers Hotel, which at one point was on nearby William Street — it sits on the home’s very foundation, and ashes from the fire still lay in the basement. It has become common knowledge that Historic Palmyra’s museums have otherworldly guests. For Henning and his group, it was a perfect setting for the experiment.

Cameras were set up in the hallway upstairs where the voices of children have been recorded by many exploring the museum seeking ghosts, said Hays. The ghost hunters gathered in the front parlor downstairs where another camera was recording, and flashlights were placed all over in case someone wished to speak to them. It is believed by many in the paranormal industry that a spirit can complete the connection that will turn on a flashlight and answer simple yes/no questions.

Dowsing rods are said to respond to energy fields created by spirits. Hays uses the rods to speak to the ghostly inhabitants, and in the early morning hours on Thursday, the rods swung. Hays said it was in response to her questions and was revealing the location of each child. Hays said the spirit of Samuel was standing beside a flashlight that flashed repeatedly, and Susan was standing beside the Christmas tree with Eddy. And it seemed as if Sharon was playing with the reporter’s hair, all the while their mother stood off to the side acknowledging her presence when asked and silently observing.

Henning was not surprised by the reported activity around him. His group had been there many times, and he said it was safe to say the children like them. Once the group played a game of hide and seek with the children. Testing the effectiveness of dowsing rods, two members of the group hid in various locations of the three-story building, and with the help of the children, or so they claimed, the dowsing rods pointed out their hiding spots. Three tries and the hiding ghosts hunters were discovered with relative ease, thanks to Eddy guiding the seekers, they believed. Chagrined, Henning admitted that at the time, he was trying to prove that dowsing rods don’t work due to several variables that can affect their use.

Some may find it sad that the children haven’t found their peaceful rest, said Henning, but he believes they have, and they are merely curious visitors at the museum. During previous investigations, claimed Hays, the children have indicated to the ghost hunters that they are not trapped, and they in fact come and go as they please. In essence, say ghost hunters, the museum has become something of a playground for the children, and Hays keeps a variety of toys in the upstairs toy room for the children to play with. She also hangs a stocking up for each child at Christmas.

It was around 1 a.m. Thursday morning that all activity simply ceased. The night was cold and damp, and not even a sound from outside seemed able to penetrate the silence. The anticipation was mounting that something big was about to happen. But it never came. Instead, when the estimated time of the fire’s start arrived, even the flashlights died and responses to questions became haphazard, said the ghost hunters.

In reviewing the data collected the next day, Henning said there were “no significant results that we haven't been able to easily explain.” But he wasn’t discouraged. Ghost hunting is largely about patience and waiting, and there is still some evidence to review he said. But Henning’s group is not one to jump to any conclusions in favor or against the paranormal.

“This does not mean our theory for the night was wrong, and it very well may take a few anniversaries to be able to have a truly definitive answer either way,” Henning said. “We may even try doing some off the anniversary night to see if results differ. So I'm not disappointed that so far my theory hasn't given any results. It's all about the science of it. Try, try again.”

Hays was far from disappointed by the night’s events, finding her own peace.

“The building felt and appeared peaceful and normal with no signs of pending doom,” she said. “The children were downstairs at first and then moved to their usual spots of play upstairs. Everything was peaceful and quiet and the children played. The Christmas tree was lit and their stockings were hung, each with a candy cane peeking out. Their friends who have played with them so many times at the museum stood vigilant for any sign of distress. Questions were asked and answered as flashlights went off and turned on in response.”

Hays said “the evidence is being reviewed and will take some time to complete. I would say that the trauma and devastation of that night does not linger or reappear, but has passed, and now they are safe and comfortable in their new home.”

Ghost hunting
Rob Henning grew up in a house where things he could not explain happened every day.

“I like answers to things,” he said. “I wanted answers and proof that what was happening in the house was really happening.”

Henning and a friend came up with an idea to investigate paranormal occurrences in 2006 and founded their own group of ghost hunters in 2007 with the intent to try everything they could to debunk strange happenings and ultimately find solid proof of ghosts.

“We’re very picky about what we will call paranormal,” Henning said. We’re very thorough and very critical.”

The members of the group each have a specific expertise in a pertinent field that allows them to scientifically explore paranormal experiences.

Learn more or request an investigation by visiting their website at or “like” them on Facebook, search “Seekers of the Paranormal”.

Historic Palmyra Executive Director Bonnie Hays welcomes guests to find spirits among the historical artifacts at the Phelps General Store and the Historic Museum. To go on your own ghost hunt at one of Historic Palmyra’s museums, visit or call 597-6981.