When a woman sells her home and doesn’t disclose that friendly ghosts haunt it, the subsequent court case leads to the New York Supreme Court officially declaring the house haunted.

In 1989, Helen Ackley sold the 18-room Victorian mansion that she’d lived in for 24 years. Located at 1 Laveta Place in Nyack, New York, overlooking the Hudson River, and lovingly restored by Helen and her late husband when they first purchased it in the 1960s, it was the perfect home for the Stambovskys, a Wall Street Trader and his wife, who purchased it. Except for one thing–the house was haunted.

Helen Ackley was proud of her ghosts, and seemed to consider them close friends.

When a local architect mentioned the house’s paranormal reputation to the new buyer, Stambovsky immediately sued to get his down payment back, and refused to move into the home. That led to a court case, widely known as the Ghostbusters Ruling, that went to the New York Supreme Court–twice–and cumulated with a pun-filled ruling that quoted the ghost from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as the hit 1984 movie Ghostbusters. The judge had spoken: “as a matter of law, the house is haunted.”

Highlights include:
• Fun facts about haunted houses
• The ghost of a Revolutionary War naval officer
• A fixer-upper with ghosts
• A spirit-approved paint job

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Episode Script for The Ghostbusters Ruling

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • From a 2017 survey by Realtor.com:
    • In fact, according to the Haunted House Real Estate Survey realtor.com® released today,
    • Open to living in a haunted house?
      • 33 percent of approximately 1,000 respondents said they are open to living in a haunted house,
      • 25 percent might be, and
      • 42 percent are not open to the idea.
    • About 40 percent of people who are open to a haunted home said they’d want to see that home price go down to put money down on it.
      • Another 35 percent said it would have to be in a better neighborhood to make the move,
      • 32 percent said they wanted extra footage and
      • 29 percent said they’d move in if they had more bedrooms.
      • Only 8 percent of respondents said they require no additional perks to purchase a haunted home
    • 47 percent of those surveyed said they would live in a home where someone died,
      • 27 percent said they might, and
      • 26 percent said, “NO WAY.”
    • For example, 48 percent who agreed they’d make a haunted house home said they could tolerate cold or hot spots in their home.
    • Things that go bump in the night? Here, 45 percent of respondents said, “no problem.”
    • That feeling when the hair stands up on the back of your neck? Thirty-nine percent said they were okay with strange feelings in certain rooms.
    • A strange shadow over your bed while you sleep? Well, 35 percent said “meh” to unexplained shadows.
    • But, when it comes to floating tables or creepy, unknown touches, only 20 percent of respondents felt comfortable with this.
    • According to the survey, 28 percent think they have lived in a haunted home,
      • 14 percent think they may have, and
      • 58 percent indicate they have never lived in one.
    • When asked what made them think the home was haunted,
      • 58 percent said they heard strange, unexplainable noises,
      • 51 percent felt that creepy feeling in certain rooms and
      • 40 percent said they’ve seen objects move or just completely disappear.
  • From a 2018 Realtor.com survey:
    • most buyers probably wouldn’t know their home-to-be was haunted.
    • Only about 34% of sellers would disclose ghosts to interested buyers,
    • while another 27% would only tell them if they were asked about it.
    • The study also saw that millennials were the most likely generation to buy a haunted house
    • Living in a haunted home is more common than one would imagine, and not necessarily a surprise to the occupants.
      • Nearly two in five people believe they have lived in a haunted (or possibly haunted) house, and
      • 44 percent of them either suspected or were fully aware of said haunting before moving in.
      • In fact, the majority of people under 55 years old suspected — or were sure — their home was haunted before they moved in, a decision possibly incentivized by a lower home price or better neighborhood.
      • Hearing strange noises (54 percent) topped the list of most common spooky behaviors, followed by
      • odd feelings in certain rooms (45 percent) and
      • erratic pet behavior (34 percent).
  • This is a case that’s taught in law school, I think mostly because it’s fun?
  • This inspired many funny article names:
    • from the NYT: 18 Rms. Riv Vu. Ghosts
    • From the Star Tribune in Minneapolis: Buyer fears ghost of resale future but judge won’t slime the deal
    • Capital, Annapolis: The Realities of Real Estate: Buying a haunted house
  • The house we’re talking about today is an 18-room Queen Anne Victorian house. The Queen Anne Victorian style is what you think of when you think of a really ornate victorian, with towers and turrets, gingerbread trim, fancy windows, and a really asymmetrical façade. The house is 5,000 square feet. It has 7 bedrooms, 4.5 baths
    • nowadays it also has:
      • a 3 car garage,
      • concrete countertops and a renovated kitchen,
      • an in-ground hot tub
      • it retains the original inlaid floors, arched doorways, and stained glass accents throughout
      • it has a wraparound porch that faces the river
      • a turret
      • pocket doors
      • window seats
      • coffered ceiling
    • located at 1 Leveta Place, at the end of a dead-end street with a beautiful view of the Hudson River, in Nyack, NY. There are views of the Hudson from almost every window.
    • It’s walking distance from downtown.
    • AT the time of this story it was painted gray, but it’s blue now.
    • Nyack is a town in Rockland County.
    • It’s right across the Hudson River from Sleepy Hollow
    • I found an interview with a paranormal investigator named Linda Zimmerman who claimed that Nyack is the most haunted town in the most haunted county in NYS (basically b/c of the history of colonialism)
  • It was built around 1890 and was originally a boarding house, but then it became a private residence.
  • In the 1960s, Helen and George Ackley moved in. The house was in disrepair so it was a fixer upper.
  • Apparently everyone in the town (which was really small, with just 7K inhabitants) knew the house was haunted, but no one told them
  • The owner, a woman named Helen Ackley, had talked about how haunted her house was before, including in a Reader’s Digest article from 1977, and in local ghost tours.
  • The ghosts sounded pretty nice:
    • From Readers Digest piece: ”He was sitting in midair, watching me paint the ceiling in the living room, rocking and back forth,. I was on an 8-foot stepladder. I asked if he approved of what we were doing to the house, if the colors were to his liking. He smiled and he nodded his head.”
      • From Steve Lee.com: Helen believed this aforementioned gentleman to be Sir George, wife of Lady Margaret. The couple lived in the area during the 18th century. In addition to this couple, Helen asserted that there was another ghost in residence, a Navy Lieutenant from the American Revolution.
    • one ghost watched her paint a room and approved of it, one woke up her daughter every day for school, and small gifts appeared mysteriously (including a small ring left on the stairs, and a small knicknack box, and a silver sugar tong). Also, she said that one ghost remnded her of Santa Claus, and another was wearing clothes from the Revolutionary War era
  • From the Village Voice:
    • There were at least two actual ghost sightings over the years, too, both of which Ackley described in detail, right down to the spooks’ fashion sensibilities. One apparition, spotted by a friend who spent the night, was “a man dressed in a long jacket of the Revolutionary period.” Ackley herself encountered the other while home alone painting the living-room walls:
    • “What did he look like? He was the most cheerful and solid-looking little person I’ve ever seen. A cap of white hair framed his round, apple-cheeked face, and there were piercing blue eyes under thick white eyebrows. His light-blue suit was immaculate, the cuffs of the short unbuttoned jacket turned back over ruffles at his wrists. A white ruffled stock showed at his throat. Below breeches cut to his kneecaps he wore white hose and shiny black pumps with buckles.”
    • She asked the spirit if he approved of her remodeling decisions; he was there for only a minute, and then he was gone.
    • “No, I wasn’t drinking that day,” Ackley wrote. “No, the paint fumes hadn’t got to me…he seemed happy to be there, and I was proud to meet him.”
    • The lot of them got along famously from there on out, and by the time she penned her piece, Ackley had come to “savor these happenings…if the time comes for us to move again,” she wondered, “is there any way we can take our otherworldly friends with us?”
    • Ackley made a concerted effort to publicize her visitors. There was the piece in the Digest, of course, and she even had the place featured on a walking tour of Nyack. She was proud of her ghosts.
  • From at 1990 NYT article:
    • As for whether he will see the ghosts in Nyack – in 22 years, the owner, Helen V. Ackley, has seen only one
      ”He was sitting in midair, watching me paint the ceiling in the living room, rocking and back forth,” she said. ”I was on an 8-foot stepladder. I asked if he approved of what we were doing to the house, if the colors were to his liking. He smiled and he nodded his head.”
      Mrs. Ackley said one of the other ghosts would waltz into her daughter’s bedroom. ”We don’t know whether or not she was the one who woke the children up by shaking the bed,” she said.
      Ghost No. 3 was a Navy lieutenant during the American Revolution. ”My son saw him eyeball to eyeball outside the basement door,” Mrs. Ackley said.
  • I found a great story from a man who married one of Helen’s daughters, Cynthia, about his experiences in the house:
    • The first happened on Christmas eve. I was home alone due to various activities. I was playing Christmas elf in the living room putting gifts together. It was totally quiet in the house. After a while I kept hearing a muffled conversation coming from the dining room around the wall. I would get up and walk over, and nobody was there. I felt like I was being watched. I had purposely turned on every light in the surrounding rooms. I was getting nervous. Then my future Brother-In-Law suddenly pounded on the door making me jump out of my skin, and the talking stopped.
    • The second incident happened in our bedroom on the third floor. It was a clear dark night, Cyn had already fallen asleep and I was drifting. Then I heard the bedroom door creak, and the floor boards squeak. My back was to the edge of the bed. Suddenly the edge of the bed by my mid-section depressed down, and I felt something lean against me. I went literally stone stiff! I was speechless and could hardly move. I was able to twist my neck around enough to see a womanly figure in a soft dress through the moonlight from the bay windows. I felt like she was looking straight at me. After about minute, the presence got up and walked back out of the room. I finally relaxed enough to shake my wife out of sound sleep acting like a toddler who just had a nightmare.
    • Later I reflected on the incident. I believe the ghosts were checking me out because they knew my wife and her ex-husband. They probably wanted to see if I was a “good” person for her. It was the women that used to shake Cyn’s bed every morning to go to high school. After that episode no other sightings occurred. I did get the impression that they did “approve” of me, and my wife and I were married about 18 months later.
  • After more than 24 years of living there, Helen Ackley decided to sell their house and more to Texas or Florida, in part because the property taxes on the house were through the roof. (her husband had died years before)
  • In 1989, she sold it to Jeffrey Stambovsky, was a 38-year-old Wall Street bond trader, and his wife Patrice Soriero (who was pregnant at the time.) They put down a $32,000 down payment on the house, which sold for $650,000 ( $650K is about $1.3 million now)
  • when he found out about the ghost stories, he said it threatened his property value and wanted to pull out
    • From the LA TImes:
      • Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky, who had decided in 1989 to buy the old 18-room mansion in Nyack for $650,00–but changed their mind after a local architect said, “Oh, you’re buying the haunted house.”
      • It seems they were not told, before they put down a $32,500 binder, that the owner, Helen Ackley, claimed for years that she had been seeing poltergeists. In a 1977 article in Reader’s Digest, she said one of them was a “cheerful, apple-cheeked man” who looked like Santa Claus.
      • In a local newspaper in 1982, she described the spirits as “dressed in Revolutionary period clothing, perhaps frozen in a time warp, waiting for someone or some reason to move on.”
      • In a 1989 article about a real estate tour in suburban Nyack, the house was described as “riverfront Victorian–with ghost.”
      • “I feel they are very good friends,” she said last year. Occasionally they would leave little gifts. “It’s very comforting to have them around when you are by yourself.”
      • … “Would you want to bump into George Washington in the middle of the night?” their [the Stambovskys’] lawyer asked.
      • Since Mrs. Ackley hadn’t said boo to them about the hauntings, they demanded their money back.
      • “My feeling is that Mrs. Ackley is a very neat old lady who likes to spin tales,” Stambovsky said. “But if my wife is influenced enough by that stuff to feel uncomfortable, that’s a good enough reason not to sink our life savings into the place.”
      • “We were the victims of ectoplasmic fraud,” he added.
      • The Stambovskys backed out of the deal and sued to get their down payment back.
      • From the Village Voice:
        • The couple wasn’t worried about ghosts, court records make clear. They weren’t superstitious. They were worried, effectively, about other people’s superstitions. Their argument was that a house reputed to be filled with restless spirits wouldn’t top the list of most house-hunters; at the very least, a certain population would be averse to the news, and that would make the house less marketable. They were worried they might have trouble selling the place in the future, at least for its maximum, unhaunted price. They backed out of the sale, which meant forfeiting their $32,500 deposit. But because Ackley hadn’t disclosed the home’s reputation, they didn’t think they should have to eat those costs, so they sued.
      • From a 1990 AP article:

That’s all well and good, but what if the ghosts only like the Ackley family, Soriero said.

″They might not like it if she moves,″ she said.

Once she sells the house, Ackley said, she plans to move to Orlando. She noted that ghosts usually get attached either to a particular person or a specific place and she doesn’t know what kind of ghosts she has.

″If they want to come with me, I’d be glad to have them,″ she said.

. . .

The ghosts can be heard going coming down the stairs in the morning and going back upstairs in the evening, Ackley said.

She said that when her four grown children were young, the ghosts would shake their beds to get them up in the morning.

  • In 1990, a New York Supreme Court judge said that he couldn’t get the down payment back; he said that there was precident in “buyer beware” cases where ppl bought houses and found they were on landfills or were about to have their sewers disconnected.
  • Some choice bits of testimony from the case:
    • Testimony of Helen Ackley
    • Q: You knew the house was haunted before you bought it yourself, isn’t that right Helen?
    • A: Yes. I knew.  Some kids from the neighborhood told me it was. I’m not afraid of ghosts.
    • Q: Are there ghosts in that house at 1 LaVeta Place.
    • A: Definitely. At least three – a married couple; and, a Navy Lieutenant from the American Revolution.
    • Q: And there was a book written about those ghosts?
    • A: Yes:  Sir George, The Ghost of Nyack.
    • Q: Did you ever see Sir George?
    • A: Yes, sir: Sitting in midair, watching me paint the ceiling in the living room, rocking back and forth…I was on an 8-foot stepladder.
    • Q: Did you say anything?
    • A: I asked if he approved of what we were doing to the house.
    • Q: What did he say?
    • ATTORNEY: OBJECTION: HEARSAY!
    • COURT: Counsel, please. OVERRULED! Please answer the question.
    • A: He smiled and he nodded his head.
    • Q: In fact, you wrote about that close encounter.
    • A: Yes.
    • Q: And you had it published in Reader’s Digest, right?
    • A: Yep; and the local Nyack papers.
    • Q: And in the Reader’s Digest article you wrote about spirits waking up your daughter for school?
    • A: Yes. Like it says in the article, the spirit would wake my daughter for school by shaking the bed. When she was out of school for Spring Break, my daughter would shout before going to sleep that she did not have school the next day.
    • Q: And what happened the next day?
    • A: The next day, the bed did not shake.
    • Q: Now, Helen, you never told any of this to Jeff before you signed the contract of sale, did you?
    • A: Nope. Didn’t have to.
    • ATTORNEY: OBJECTION! Move to strike everything after “Nope.”
    • COURT: SUSTAINED as not responsive to the question.
    • Testimony of Jeff
    • Q: Are you afraid of ghosts.
    • A: Terrified! You ever seen the movie  Poltergeist?
    • Q: Would you have entered into the contract to buy 1 LaVeta if you had known the house was haunted.
    • A: Never!
    • Q: Were there any other problems with the house?
    • A: None. It was perfect as far as I or the inspectors could see. But I don’t want to live in a house that is haunted. And it is haunted.
  • A NYT article from 1990 about the NY Supreme Court ruling closes with:
    • Mrs. Ackley said yesterday that she had not seen any ghosts recently, but that her son-in-law had a few months ago.
  • There were 50 prospective buyers, including the Amazing Kreskin, a mentalist who was looking for a place to keep his collection of paranormal things.
  • Another 1990 NYT article:
    • . . . By contrast, Kreskin, a performer who describes himself as a mentalist and who uses only one name, wants the house only if it really is haunted. This has some people in Nyack thinking about deeply held beliefs and just how deeply they hold them.
    • ”If I can sell a house, I believe in ghosts,” said Murray Jacobs, a real-estate agent who is to show Kreskin the house today. ”I’d believe in fairies, too, if that’s what it takes.” Mr. Jacobs and other agents have just had 25 to 50 calls about the house.
    • Kreskin has gone house-hunting in the past, and has narrowed his search to something haunted. He wants a place for the memorabilia he has collected in a lifetime of doing experiments that come as close to demanding psychic powers as a man who says he does not have them can come: finding his paycheck anywhere in an auditorium, even in a stuffed turkey, for example.
    • –Then the article talks about other houses Kreskin viewed, which he was able to find rational explanations for
  • From a NYT article, after:
    • THE AMAZING KRESKIN says no deal on that turreted turn-of-the-century Victorian house in Nyack, N.Y. – the one the owner says has ghosts.
      Kreskin, a performer who describes himself as ”the world’s foremost mentalist” and uses only one name, said he decided not to bid on the three-story clapboard house after the owner’s son told the Fox News program ”A Current Affair” that videotaping a seance Kreskin had been thinking of holding there would cost $50,000.
      . . .
      The owner, HELEN ACKLEY, said the $50,000 came up in a conversation with her 29-year-old son, William, after she decided that reporters and camera crews were taking up too much of her time. ”My son said to me, ‘Would you do this for $50,000?’ I said sure. I laughed. He picked up the phone and when he told them that, it was a good stopper and I thought it was a good time to stop.” She said she told Kreskin he could have a seance, but without television coverage – a condition Kreskin said he could not accept.
      ”As a matter of policy, ‘A Current Affair’ does not pay for stories,” said a spokesman for the show, Jeff Erdel, ”so I think it would be highly unlikely that we would pay for a seance.”
      Kreskin, who toured the house briefly last month, said he was ”disappointed.” It went on the market after Justice EDWARD H. LEHNER ruled in State Supreme Court in Manhattan that a would-be buyer, JEFFREY M. STAMBOVSKY, had no right to his $32,500 down payment. Mr. Stambovsky backed out of a $650,000 contract on the house after finding out about the ghosts.
  • From an LA Times article from the time:
    • Meanwhile, Kreskin, who calls himself the world’s leading mentalist, said he would consider buying the house if the ghosts proved to be real. He wanted to hold a seance in the house in 1990–to take a head count, or maybe a headless count–but Ackley’s son objected to “stunt publicity” and prompted Kreskin to back out by imposing a $50,000 fee for reporters to attend.
    • The house was sold to someone other than the Stambovskys for slightly under $650,000.
  • After the Stambovskys backed out, film director, screenwriter and actor Adam Brooks bought it and lived there for 20 years.
    • He wrote Definitely, Maybe; Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Wimbledon–and Practical Magic
    • he never encountered any ghosts
  • Helen moved to Orlando. Apparently she struggled with leaving the ghosts, and asked them to come with her, but they didn’t.

Back to the court case, where the Stambovskys appealed the decision and tried to get their down payment back

  • The Stambovskys won the case on appeal in 1991; they were told thay they could sue to get their down payment back. They ended up getting most of it back.
    • the court felt the haunted nature of the house was deliberately concealed. they also had a problem with how Ackley had publicized the hauntings and made them known to just about everyone but the buyers.
    • Real estate agents were required by law to tell prospective buyers that a house was haunted, if the seller told them it was haunted.
    • From the NYT:
      The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan said that since the former owner of the house told many people in town that her house was possessed by ghosts, she was legally obligated to tell the buyer, too. . . .
      Andrew C. Bisculca, the lawyer for Mrs. Ackley, said she sold her house, moved away and had no comment. Mr. Stambovsky bought another house in Nyack, apparently with no poltergeists.
  • There were five judges; 3 of them were in favor of the Stambovskys getting their down payment back, and two dissented.
    • From the majority opinions:
      • . . . While I agree with Supreme Court that the real estate broker, as agent for the seller, is under no duty to disclose to a potential buyer the phantasmal reputation of the premises and that, in his pursuit of a legal remedy for fraudulent misrepresentation against the seller, plaintiff hasn’t a ghost of a chance, I am nevertheless moved by the spirit of equity to allow the buyer to seek rescission of the contract of sale and recovery of his down payment.
      • . . . “Pity me not but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V [Ghost]).
      • . . From the perspective of a person in the position of plaintiff herein, a very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of a paranormal phenomenon: “Who you gonna’ call?” as a title song to the movie “Ghostbusters” asks. Applying the strict rule of caveat emptor to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineer and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale. It portends that the prudent attorney will establish an escrow account lest the subject of the transaction come back to haunt him and his client — or pray that his malpractice insurance coverage extends to supernatural disasters. In the interest of avoiding such untenable consequences, the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.
      • . . . Finally, if the language of the contract is to be construed as broadly as defendant urges to encompass the presence of poltergeists in the house, it cannot be said that she has delivered the premises “vacant” in accordance with her obligation under the provisions of the contract rider.
  • From the Village Voice article, Judge Rubin, who wrote the judgement for the appeal, said:
    • It was a real estate case, a fairly routine case, actually,” Rubin said. “It was never about whether anyone believes in ghosts.”
    • Fair enough. But what about Rubin himself?
    • The judge had his hands clasped in front of him. “Of course not.”
  • From Helen’s son in law:
    • Around 1993 Helen was contacted by a paranormal researcher from Portland, Oregon. He was interested in the house and had a friend who had already communicated with her former roommates in Nyack. Helen went out to visit our family here in Oregon and arranged to meet with the researcher, Bill Merrill. She also met the channeler, Glenn Johnson.
    • They were able to contact two ghosts from the Nyack residence from a location in Southern Oregon. One ghost called himself Sir George, the other called herself Margaret. The ghosts stated that it wasn’t as much fun in the house since the Ackley’s moved out. It is true that the eventual buyers played down the haunting, and did not want the ghosts. Anyway, the ghosts went on to explain various parts of history of the area along the Hudson between Nyack and Upper Nyack and Hook Mountain. Later Historians in Rockland County checked out the recounting and most of it held up, or could easily be true. The facts presented were highly obscure, and not readily available. In one meeting with the ghosts, they stated that they were to board and it was time to move on. So just maybe the Ghost of Nyack is no more…
    • In 1995, Bill and Glenn published a book about these events. It is entitled: Sir George, The Ghost of Nyack by Bill Merrill & Glenn Johnson
  • However, by the 1995, NYS passed the Stigmatized Property Laws, which basically said that real estate agents only had to tell prospective buyers about physical issues with the home, not murders or suicides that happened there, or paranormal activity, unless they’re specifically asked about it.
  • Helen Ackley died in 2003, and her son believes that her spirit now lives in 1 Laveta Place.
  • From the New York Post:
    • Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, who lived on the property from 2012 to 2015, says the home is enchanting — but not creepy.
    • “I absolutely adored living at One LaVeta,” Michaelson says. “It’s a magical home. It’s a memorable home. It’s a home where people gather, it draws you in and comforts you. And the view is unbeatable.”
  • Matisyahu owns it now (a Jewish singer and rapper.
  • In September 2019, the house went up for sale for $1.9 million.

 

 

Sources consulted RE: The Ghostbusters Ruling

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stambovsky_v._Ackley
  • http://www.ghosttheory.com/2015/09/03/the-haunted-house-on-the-hudson
  • http://www.ktransit.com/Kavanagh/Ghost/ghost-update.htm
  • https://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/20/nyregion/phones-ringing-eerily-for-nyack-spook-home.html
  • http://www.ktransit.com/Kavanagh/Ghost/ghost-background.htm
  • https://nwsidebar.wsba.org/2013/10/31/halloween-law-lawyers/
  • https://loweringthebar.net/2008/09/case-law-hall-o.html
  • https://io9.gizmodo.com/this-new-york-mansion-is-legally-haunted-1788327098
  • https://www.coasttocoastam.com/article/legally-haunted-mansion-for-sale/
  • https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2019/10/legally-haunted-mansion-up-for-sale-in-new-york/
  • https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/new-york/legally-haunted-house-ny/
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-ghost-of-nyack-nyack-new-york
  • 18 Rms. Riv Vu. Ghosts. Sullivan, Ronald.New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]16 Mar 1990: B.3.
  • Buyer fears ghost of resale future but judge won’t slime the deal: [METRO Edition] Star Tribune; Minneapolis, Minn. [Minneapolis, Minn]31 Mar 1990: 01R.
  • The Realities of Real Estate: Buying a haunted house
    McWILLIAMS, BOB; McWILLIAMS, DONNA.Capital; Annapolis [Annapolis]27 Oct 2013: C.14.
    “Let Buyer Beware? Indeed!” New York Times, 19 July 1991. New York State Newspapers,
  • https://link-gale-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/apps/doc/A175292062/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=0ad920f8. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.
  • Anderson, Susan Heller, and James Barron. “CHRONICLE.” New York Times, 9 Apr. 1990. New York State Newspapers, https://link-gale-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/apps/doc/A175484954/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=b2b6f33c. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.
  • Barron, James. “Phones Ringing (Eerily?) For Nyack Spook Home.” New York Times, 20 Mar. 1990. New York State Newspapers, https://link-gale-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/apps/doc/A175445997/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=409f4992. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.
  • “‘Must home sellers disclose that a home is haunted?’.” Washingtonpost.com, 30 Oct. 2015. Gale OneFile: News, https://link-gale-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/apps/doc/A433186038/STND?u=nypl&sid=STND&xid=7110d7be. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.
  • Tinning, Andrea. “Four ways to avoid having a ‘deadbeat’ roommate.” UWIRE Text, 31 Oct. 2017, p. 1. Gale OneFile: News, https://link-gale-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/apps/doc/A523809066/STND?u=nypl&sid=STND&xid=97a701c3. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.
  • https://www.realtor.com/homemade/haunted-house-survey/
  • https://www.realtor.com/news/trends/millennials-more-likely-to-buy-haunted-houses/
  • https://news.move.com/2018-10-23-Millennials-Most-Likely-to-Purchase-a-Haunted-Home-for-Something-Extra
  • https://www.realtor.com/news/trends/haunted-house/
  • https://www.villagevoice.com/2015/10/20/how-a-quintuple-murder-and-a-dream-house-on-the-hudson-brought-the-paranormal-into-our-legal-system/
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-ghost-of-nyack-nyack-new-york
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kreskin
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghFzI9zq-WY
  • https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-07-28-mn-274-story.html
  • https://nypost.com/2019/09/19/legally-haunted-new-york-manor-is-for-sale-again/?utm_campaign=iosapp
  • Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 A.D.2d 254 (N.Y. App. Div. 1991) (https://casetext.com/case/stambovsky-v-ackley)
  • “‘HAUNTED’ HOUSES HAVE BECOME TRENDY.” Cincinnati Post [Cincinnati, OH], 29 Oct. 1996, p. 3C. Gale OneFile: News, https://link-gale-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/apps/doc/A72811237/STND?u=nypl&sid=STND&xid=accdb265. Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.
    https://books.google.com/books?id=ehWLF6yYepYC&pg=PA72&lpg=PA72&dq=ackley+reader%27s+digest&source=bl&ots=oQ2WJZwoXb&sig=ACfU3U1F4I7-9nuZGO12hOsr0G9aT9UMeQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjh8sOwt-DoAhWjgnIEHfVEA944FBDoATAFegQIDBAz#v=onepage&q=ackley%20reader’s%20digest&f=false
  • https://books.google.com/books?id=eU7rj_hooGIC&pg=PP34&lpg=PP34&dq=ackley+reader%27s+digest&source=bl&ots=Hnm9mUpsY8&sig=ACfU3U19j_oZP1gmcGywif-_AW4Fmw9vVw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjh8sOwt-DoAhWjgnIEHfVEA944FBDoATACegQIDBAt#v=onepage&q=ackley%20reader’s%20digest&f=false
  • http://www.ghosttheory.com/2015/09/03/the-haunted-house-on-the-hudson
  • https://www.stevelee.com/featured/stambovsky-v-ackley-aka-ghostbusters-ruling/
  • https://pnlawyers.com/a-cup-of-joe-house-in-nyack-held-haunted-as-a-matter-of-law/
  • https://apnews.com/ff183e209fd81e5d716aeb344a457fa9
  • https://www.trulia.com/p/ny/nyack/1-laveta-pl-nyack-ny-10960–1100346429
  • https://www.lohud.com/story/money/real-estate/homes/sell-this-house/2015/09/01/ingrid-michaelson-nyack-home-sale/30567473/
  • https://nyacknewsandviews.com/2012/10/nyack-sketch-log-1-poltergeist-place/
  • https://athomeinnyack.wordpress.com/2010/10/29/nyacks-legally-haunted-house/
  • http://www.ghosttheory.com/2015/09/03/the-haunted-house-on-the-hudson
  • http://www.ktransit.com/Kavanagh/Ghost/ghost-background.htm
  • http://www.ktransit.com/Kavanagh/Ghost/ghost-court.htm
  • https://www.realtor.com/advice/buy/queen-anne-victorian/

Don’t miss past episodes:

In the 1690s, a Transylvania-born mystic, occultist, musician, and writer named Johannes Kelpius led a group of 40 Rosicrucian monks to colonial Philadelphia to wait for the end of the world.

Though Kelpius and his group of highly-educated mystics were disappointed when the day of revelation didn’t come, they made the best of their new home, building an observatory, a botanical garden, and an orchard. They also wrote poetry, composed music, and studied alchemy, divination, and conjuring.

Records show that they experienced a number of paranormal events, including the sighting or a ghostly figure at the edge of the woods during a celebration around a bonfire, blue flames emerging from a fresh grave, and more. There are also stories of Kelpius’ followers performing astral projection, and Kelpius himself possessed a magical stone that he guarded fiercely, but which has since vanished.

Highlights include:
• A ghost who appeared at a bonfire-lit celebration
• Blue flames emerging from a fresh grave
• A cave full of serpents
• Astral projection into a London coffeehouse
• The philosopher’s stone?

Follow the podcast on instagram @buriedsecretspodcast

E-mail the podcast at buriedsecretspodcast@gmail.com

Pictures of Johannes Kelpius

Cave of Johannes Kelpius

Cave of Kelpius. Image credit: Steven L. Johnson – Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenljohnson/7996580601/

Johannes Kelpius

Painting of Johannes Kelpius by Christopher Witt – The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, http://www.hsp.org

 

Episode Script for Johannes Kelpius and Occult Monks in Philadelphia

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“Deep in the woods, where the small river slid

Snake-like in shade, the Helmstadt Mystic hid,

Weird as a wizard, over arts forbid,

. . .

Whereby he read what man ne’er read before,

And saw the visions man shall see no more,

Till the great angel, striding sea and shore,

 

Shall bid all flesh await, on land or ships,

The warning trump of the Apocalypse,

Shattering the heavens before the dread eclipse.”

 

– John Greenleaf Whittier, “Pennsylvania Pilgrim” 1872

 

The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness

  • Now, let’s take a look at this doomsday cult.
  • It went by several names, including “the Hermits of the Wissahickon,” “The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness,” “the Hermits of the Ridge,” or the “Mystic Brotherhood.” The Woman in the Wilderness was a character from the Book of Revelation, and I just love the image that the name evokes–it’s very scary and mystic.
  • Today, one of the caves where this cult lived, called the Cave of Kelpius, stands in philly, on a hillside in Philly’s Fairmount Park, above the Wissahickon Creek near a Hermit Lane.
    • The cave isn’t technically a cave: it’s been described as “a manmade structure about the size of a springhouse”
      • A springhouse was a building that was constructed on top of a spring, to keep things from falling in and contaminating it. Some people believe that this wasn’t Kelpius’ cave at all, and that it was just a basic springhouse.
      • The structure once had a fireplace and chimney, which were removed in the 1940s because of vandalism.
    • There’s a marker that the Rosicrucians put there that says that this was the site where Philly’s first mystical guru came to meditate and wait for the second coming.
    • So, let’s go back to the 1600s and look at the story of Johannes Kelpius, the mystic who led his group to Philly to wait for the end of the world.
    • Philadelphia had recently been founded in 1682 by a Quaker named William Penn.
    • Pennsylvania Colony had a reputation for being very tolerant when it came to religion, so it was the perfect place for Kelpius to bring his doomsday cult.
    • Kelpius was born in Transylvania–yes, really, Transylvania–in 1667. His birth name was Johann Kelp, but back then, it was customary for academics to receive Latinized names, so after attending a university in Bavaria, he received his new name, Johannes Kelpius
      • When he was 22, he’d earned a masters degree in theology, and he’d published some stuff.
      • While at the university, he became interested in Pietism, which is a Lutheran movement that emphicizes biblical doctrine, as well as piety on an individual level.
      • I’d never heard of this, but I guess it was a big influence on Protestantism in North America and Europe. It sounds like it emphacized frugality, restraint, and order. I guess there’s also a sort of mysticism tied into it. Apparently esoteric and heretical Christian ideas were often lumped into Pietism.
      • When he was 20, Kelpius became a follower of Johann Jacob Zimmerman, a German noncomformist theologian, mathematician,  astronomer, and former cleric whose belief in the upcoming end of the world, and criticism of the state church, cost him his religious position. Zimmerman’s followers were all highly educated, and Zimmerman called them “the Society of Perfection” or “Chapter of Perfection”
        • Though nowadays we tend to view the occult and religion as separate, people used to view them as connected. So Zimmerman’s group was full of highly educated religious people who I’ve seen referred to as cabbalists, hermeticists, rosacrucians, and just generally students of the occult.
        • There’s a great article called German Cabbalists in Early Pennsylvania by Elizabeth W. Fisher that talks all about Kelpius and his comrades, and it has a good summary of what Rosicrucianism meant at the time. Apparently two 16th century authors wrote about Rosicrucianism and popularized it; one of those authors is Johann Valentin Andreae. To read a bit from the article:
        •  In the Fama, or Discovery of the Most Noble Order of the Rosy Cross,  Andreae created a fictitious character, Christian Rosencreutz, who  had lived for one hundred and six years, from 1378 to 1484. The  story held that Rosencreutz had been a great traveller, and in the  course of his travels is in the Arab countries and Spain, he learned the “Magia and Cabala”–a “treasure surpassing that of Kings and Emperors.” But Rosencreutz believed that the time was not yet right to reveal this knowledge, and so he “appointed loyal and faithful heirs of his arts and also of his name”–a Rosicrucian fraternity–to  guard this knowledge for posterity. These brothers were all evangelical Christians, and confessed “to have the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
        • This secret knowledge was powerful; it gave the Rosicrucian brothers the ability to read “that great Book of Nature.” This book was open to all, “yet there are but few that can read and understand the same.” Borrowing the fundamental premise of the cabbala, the Rosicrucians argued that God imprinted the same characters and letters that he had incorporated into the Holy Scripture “into the Wonderful Creation of Heaven and Earth.” Like astronomers and mathematicians who could predict eclipses, the Rosicrucians could “fore-see the darkness or obscurations of the Church and how long they shall last. We have borrowed our Magick writing, and have found out, and made a new Language for our selves in the which withall is declared the Nature of all Things.”23
        •  Nature was the key to knowledge, for God had revealed divine meaning in the hieroglyphic characters he had written in the Universe. Since his whole creation was harmonious, and the microcosm corresponded to the macrocosm, then men could attain knowledge of divine things through mathematical-magical systems.
  • From his published works, it’s clear that Kelpius was familiar with Rosicrucianism, and it seems likely that Zimmerman and Kelpius met at a Rosicrucian or cabbalistic meeting
  • Zimmerman determined that Revelation, or, you know, the end of the world, was at hand, and that the place to be was Philadelphia. Philadelphia means the city of brotherly love in Greek I believe, but it also means something else.
  • I’d forgotten this, since it’s been a while since I last read Revelation, but if you take a look in your Bible at Revelation 3:7-13, there’s a section about the church in Philadelphia. I’ll read a few verses from the NIV:
    • “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
    • These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
    • [and skipping ahead a bit]
    • “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.
    • 11 I am coming soon. “
    • Or, from the NAB:
    • ““To the angel of the church in Philadelphia,[a] write this:
    • “‘The holy one, the true,
    •     who holds the key of David,
    •     who opens and no one shall close,
    •     who closes and no one shall open,
    • says this:
    • 8 “‘“I know your works (behold, I have left an open door[b] before you, which no one can close). You have limited strength, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
    • [skipping ahead a bit]
    • “10 Because you have kept my message of endurance,[c] I will keep you safe in the time of trial that is going to come to the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming quickly.”
  • As the group that followed Zimmerman prepared to leave for the American colonies, Zimmerman suddenly died, leaving 27-year-old Kelpius as the leader of the group.
  • Around 1694, the group of about 40 people arrive in Maryland and went onto Philadelphia (which at the time was what we’d consider very small, with only about 500 houses in the whole city,) and it was on the edge of the wilderness.
    • The number of monks who came–40–is significant. During the Biblical flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses spent 40 days and night at Mount Sinai. Moses and co wandered the desert for 40 years. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. And so on, there are a LOT of 40s in the bible.
  • In the Philly area, they built a large meeting house, which was 40 square feet, and which they may have lived in.
    • However, they may actually have been living separately in nearby caves or cabins.
    • Been said that they kept books and scientific equipment in the caves, though I’ve also read that the meeting house contained an observatory to be used for astronomy.
    • Some people said that they even had a telescope, but at any rate, it was the first observatory set up by colonizers in the New World.
  • They thought that the world would end–or, you know, the events of the book of revelation would happen, in 1694. To read a bit of the wikipedia page, which put it very poetically:

“Though no sign or revelation accompanied the year 1694, the faithful, known as the Hermits or Mystics of the Wissahickon, continued to live in celibacy, searching the stars and hoping for the end.”

  • Meanwhile, they build a school for kids in the neighborhood, held worship services that were open to the public, and, since they were well educated, shared their medical knowledge. They also opened a botanical garden and orchard, studied astronomy, and wrote poetry and music. They also dabbled in alchemy, divination, and conjuring.
  • Every year, the celebrated the anniversary of their arrival on June 23, which is St. John’s Eve. I’ve never head of St. John’s Eve, but it’s the day before the feast of John the Baptist, and because it nearly coincides with the summer solstice, it can be a pretty big celebration in some places. Traditionally, people light bonfires and collect medicinal herbs.
    • The monks would light a bonfire in the woods and then scatter embers. The idea was that this symbolized how the sunlight wanes between summer and winter solstice.
    • In 1701, after the St. John’s Eve bonfire, the monks are reported to have seen  “a white, obscure moving body in the air, which, as it approached, assumed the form and mien of an angel…it receded into the shadows of the forest and appeared again immediately before them as the fairest of the lovely.”
  • Things seemed to be going pretty well, you know, aside from the end of the world thing not happening.
  • Kelpius apparently believed that he’d be transfigured like the prophet Elijah and brought into heaven in the flesh.
  • He spent 3 days praying for that, but when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, he spoke to his friend Daniel Geissler, gave him a sealed box, and asked him to throw it into the Schuylkill River.
  • Geissler knew that Kelpius had been searching for immortality, and he thought that the box might contain something to help with that, so instead of throwing it into the river, he hid it on the riverbank.
  • When Geissler returned, Kelpius looked at him and said  ‘Daniel, thou hast not done as I bid thee, nor hast thou cast the casket into the river, but hast hidden it near the shore.’
  • Now convinced that Kelpius had mystical powers, Geissler went back and threw the box into the water. He claims that when he did it, the box exploded, followed by thunder and lightning.
  • We have no idea if this story is true, of course: there’s an article in the Philly Voice that points out similarities to the King Arthur myth, when Arthur tells a knight to throw Excalibur, his magic sword, into the enchanted late. Though the knight doesn’t want to at first, eventually he throws it in, and the lady of the lake emerges to take it. Folks have pointed out that since Kelpius and his followers were highly educated, they would have been familiar with the legends of King Arthur.
  • Then, Kelpius died of tuberculosis, or maybe pneumonia, in 1708, at the age of 35. His death was supposedly caused by exposure during the cold winter; as a mystic who probably worked to deny bodily pain, he probably didn’t always make healthy decisions. When they lowered his coffin into his grave, they released a white dove.
  • We don’t know where Kelpius was buried.
  • After his death, the community declined.
  • It’s said that 6 monks still followed the lifestyle after the others left. People in the area would occasionally see them walking single file, wearing hoods and sandals. It’s said that 6 ghostly figures are still seen on Forbidden Drive, which I guess is a nearby road.
  • I wanted to read a story about one of Kelpius’ remaining disciples from the Southern Cross Review:
    • Conrad Matthai possessed both healing powers and psychic ability. He cast horoscopes, exorcised demons, prophesied, and had the ability to project his “astral body.”  In 1740 the wife of a ship captain consulted him. She inquired about her absent husband who had left on a voyage to Africa more than 6 months previously.  Matthai excused himself, then repaired to his bedroom for over an hour.  The woman peeked in at one point and saw him lying on his bunk, “pale and motionless as if he were dead.” (Sachse 394)  When Matthai emerged from his bedchamber he told the lady that her husband sat in a London coffeehouse at that moment and would soon set sail for Philadelphia. 
    • As predicted, the captain returned three months later.  After hearing his wife’s account, he decided to visit the fortune-telling hermit.  Upon seeing Matthai the captain declared that he had met him before in a London coffeehouse just prior to leaving for Philadelphia.  The old man had given him a start by walking up to his table and saying:  “you haven’t written your wife; she’s worried sick about you.”
  •  The monks’ story seems to haves mostly been forgotten, aside from the cave in the park in Philly, and an oil painting by Christopher Dewitt, or maybe Christopher Witt (he’s been called both names), an English doctor who painted Kelpius in 1705.
    • That painting is apparently the oldest oil portrait in the US.
    • Dewitt had also built a pipe organ for the group, who heavily featured music in their religious practice. That was the first pipe organ in what would become the US.
    • And in 1738, Dewitt apparently bestowed the first medical degree in Pennsylvania, to one of his interns.
    • Dewitt was the last surviving member of Kelpius’ group. To read a bit more from the Southern Cross Review:
      • “Witt’s healing powers were so remarkable that some superstitious folk in Germantown called the doctor a “hexenmeister,” and crossed themselves after passing him on the street.  Most of us know that Amish farmers put hex signs on barns to repel evil spirits.  A “hexenmeister” is a kind of warlock who can impose and lift curses.”
    • I assume this tradition and superstition is tied to the practice of folk medicine in Pennsylvania, also called powwow. Practicioners of powwow in the past were often seen as witches or warlocks.
    • A botanist named John Bartram once wrote a nice little account of visiting Dewitt:
      • “I have lately been to visit our friend Dr. Witt (in Germantown  near Washington Lane & Gtn. Ave.), where I spent four or five hours very agreeably—sometimes in his garden, where I viewed every kind of plant, I believe that grew therein…We went into his study, which was furnished with books containing different kinds of learning; as Philosophy, Natural Magic, Divinity, nay even Mystic Divinity; all of which were the subjects of our discourse within doors, which alternately gave way to Botany, every time we walked in the garden.  I could have wished thee the enjoyment of so much diversion, as to have heard our (conversation.)…”
    • Though one bad thing we know about Dewitt is that when he was 70 years old, Dewitt purchased an enslaved man named Robert Claymoore to help him with household chores.
      • Claymoore was very mechanically minded, so Dewitt taught him clock making, which was another of Dewitt’s random skills.
      • People in the area who believed that Dewitt was a “hexenmeister” often claimed that Claymoore was his familiar.
      • After Dewitt died, to quote the Southern Cross review: “Robert Claymoore received his freedom, a dwelling, small plot of land, furniture, clock-making tools, and other household contents.”
      • So that’s something at least, I guess. Dewitt left most of his land to a tailor who had apparently showed kindness to the monks, and he also left 60 pounds to the hospital to treat indigent people.
    • And I want to read one more bit about Dewitt’s burial:
      • “Mourners wrapped Dr. Witt’s body in a linen sheet and put it in an unvarnished pine box.  As the early February sun set, they interred him beside Daniel Giessler, Christian Warmer, and a few anonymous Hermits of the Ridge in the community’s graveyard on High St. between Baynton & Morton Sts., which measured 40 feet by 40 feet. “Spectral blue flames were seen dancing around his grave…for weeks.”  (Sachse 422)   In 1859 the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia built St. Michael’s Church on top of the burial plot, which locals then called “Spook Hill.””
  • But there is one lingering mystery. There’s a legendary stone that Kelpius was said to have, which may have been inside the box that Kelpius had thrown into the river. To read a bit of a headline from the DC Evening Star from 1909:

Philadelphia Girl Owns Stone of Wisdom

Mystics and believers in the occult often have occasion to refer to the teachings of Father Kelpius–prayed and taught and underwent visions which have puzzled the students of latter days–inspiration of visions was a mysterious stone brought from India–mystic Kelpius had found it on the floor of a cave inhabited by vicious serprents–broke the stone in two pieces and brought only half to the new world–before his death he ordered his half thrown into the Wissahickon, and the half left in the old world has now come to Miss Yetta Norworthe of Philadelphia

  • The article goes on to talk more about the stone:
    • Through its powers, real or imaginary, he could read the future, he could conjure up wonderful dreams, visions much like those of Swedenborg.
      The stone enabled him to wield over his mystic followers an influence such as can hardly be understood today, and a cult grew up around him.
      Along the stream in caves and in an abbey which has now been turned to the highly modern uses of a gold club the followers of Kelpius read and studied, dreamed and prayed.
      And ever their inspiration and guiding star was the sacred stone which the great leader had brought with him from India.
  • The stone apparently had “curious carvings, bearing the message of the serpent, symbol of all wisdom”
  • I wonder if that’s the ouroboros? This feels linked in with alchemy to me, with the snake (recalling the ouroboros) and the stone (recalling the alchemical philosopher’s stone) and the whole sense of mystic hermeticism.
  • Apparently, a handful of Kelpius’ followers wanted to inherit the stone on his death, but to prevent that from happening, apparently because he feared people would use the stone for ill, he threw the stone into the Wissahickon river.
  • However, Kelpius had left half of the stone in Europe, so in 1909, that half was brought the America by one of Kelpius’ distant descendant (the article says she was a collatoral descendant, which I assume means a descendant of a sibling or cousin or something)
  • So this descendant, Yetta Norworthe, became interested in the occult. Supposedly some of her other relatives owned the stone at one time or another, but she’s the only one who understands its message: she said that she can tell the future using it.
  • Her studies brought her repeatedly to the shores of the Wissahickon, where she meditated and reflected like someone on a pilgrimage, and she said:
    • “I have now progressed to the point where I, too, can conjure up visions, and I am convinced that these are genuine and not merely the imagination of a sensitive and impressionable woman.
      “I can shut my eyes and produce a most wonderful picture of Kelpius, in his cowl, teaching the lessons of gentleness and humility to the hermit monks that lived with him. There are religious ceremonies the like of which I have never known in this modern world of ours, queer rituals, chanting hyms, odd prayers.
  • She goes on to talk about Kelpius, who was very young when he took the stone from the cave of serpents in India, and apparently by the time he was 21, he started experiencing dreams and visions, which impressed occultists at the time, who began to follow him. He took his followers to the new world, and in fact, one of William Penn’s friends paid for their passage.
  • She said that some followers lived in the meeting house, of abbey, as she called it, but Kelpius chose to live in the cave that remains today. He studied the stone there.
  • He gave specific instructions about the stone that he left in Europe, saying that it should pass down from the male head of the family, and not to be given to a woman in the family until there was a woman who understood what the markings meant
  • So as a child, Norworthe began studying the stone, and soon enough she knew more about it than anyone else, and was given the stone.
  • She said something that sounds very tied to hermeticism and alchemy:
    • People of the west are apt to be unjustly prejudiced against the wisdom religion of the east, owing to the unpleasant things they are told about serpent-worship in India and Greece. And while I may not speak fully, I may explain how the fate of the world is linked with that of the serpent in wisdom religion. The Term serpent means wisdom, and nothing else, to the occult student.
      To the mystic the serpent represents the perpetually renovated world, typified by the casting of his skin and the return to a second youth every year. To me the symbol is perfect. The mathematical figure of life is likewise complete in the symbol, where the serpent coils himself into a perfect circle with his tail in his mouth, having neither beginning nor end. This depicts eternity, or more properly speaking, immortality, of which all mystics are assured.”
  • She also says something interesting about how Kelpius knew that a “woman’s era” would be dawning, which is why he left the stone to her

Sources consulted RE: Johannes Kelpius

Articles

Websites

  • http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/Johannes_Kelpius
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Kelpius
  • https://www.ushistory.org/oddities/kelpius.htm
  • https://hymnary.org/person/Kelpius_John
  • http://dictionnaire.sensagent.leparisien.fr/johannes+kelpius/en-en/
  • https://vugradhistory.wordpress.com/tag/kelpius/
  • https://www.montgomerynews.com/roxreview/news/diving-into-the-cave-of-kelpius/article_73e2b896-c5ad-588e-b749-99dd8b6a7739.html
  • https://infogalactic.com/info/Wissahickon_Creek
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philadelphia
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principality_of_Transylvania_(1570%E2%80%931711)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transylvania
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pietism
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakob_B%C3%B6hme
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Jacob_Zimmermann
  • https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Pennsylvania_Pilgrim
  • http://kelpius.org/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/share-your-kelpius-stone-of-wisdom-stories/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/heinrich-bernhard-koster-and-irenia/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/june-15-2013-kelpius-society-hosts-summer
  • solstice-program-at-philadelphia-museum-of-art/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/193/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/46/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/request-for-research-and-information/
  • https://hiddencityphila.org/2011/11/doomsday-cult-on-the-wissahickon/
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cave-of-kelpius
  • https://denamerlino.com/the-hermit-of-the-wissahickon/
  • https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation%203%3A7-13&version=NIV
  • https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation%203%3A7-13&version=NABRE
  • http://www.oddthingsiveseen.com/2007/08/cave-of-kelpius.html
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cave-of-kelpius
  • https://www.phillyvoice.com/did-wissahickon-hermit-have-fabled-philosophers-stone/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_house
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_John%27s_Eve
  • https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-americas/cave-kelipus-place-where-ardent-believers-waited-second-coming-007048
  • https://www.ushistory.org/oddities/kelpius.htm
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/request-for-research-and-information/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/46/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/193/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/june-15-2013-kelpius-society-hosts-summer-solstice-program-at-philadelphia-museum-of-art/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/heinrich-bernhard-koster-and-irenia/
  • https://kelpiusblog.wordpress.com/
  • http://kelpius.org/aboutus.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principality_of_Transylvania_(1570%E2%80%931711)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philadelphia
  • https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Pennsylvania_Pilgrim
  • Map: http://www.phillyh2o.org/backpages/Maps/FairmountPk_1871_FHS.jpg

Don’t miss past episodes:

It only took 15 minutes for the New York Crystal Palace, a beautiful building made of iron and glass, to be destroyed.

Financially insolvent and falling apart, the building had seen better days. New management attempted to save the beautiful edifice, but its ruin was too far gone. What had once been a glamorous tourist attraction became a decrepit mess.

New York City considered selling it for scraps, or moving the building to Philadelphia, but the screws that kept it together had rusted, making the Crystal Palace too expensive to even take apart. It was almost a blessing when a fire–which was blamed on arson but was more likely the rest of some cost-saving compromises on the gas lines–burned the building to the ground.

But, as the New York Tribune said: “We shall never have another Crystal palace. Its glorious dome . . . is no more; its galleries, its treasures, its magnificent expanses indispensable to the mass-gatherings of this great metropolis–its superb memories are all gone, and gone forever.”

Highlights include:
• PT Barnum’s attempts to save the Crystal Palace
• An elevator safety demonstration that involved repeatedly cutting the cord
• An exclusive gala organized by conmen and ending in a brawl between ultra-wealthy guests
• How a sensation like the Crystal Palace could have been forgotten

Follow the podcast on instagram @buriedsecretspodcast

E-mail the podcast at buriedsecretspodcast@gmail.com

Pictures of the New York Crystal Palace Destroyed

 
New York Crystal Palace Destroyed

Souvenir coin (source: Museum of the City of New York)

New York Crystal Palace Destroyed

(source: Museum of the City of New York)

Folded souvenir with views of New York buildings, including the Crystal Palace, 1857. (source: Museum of the City of New York)

Folded souvenir with views of New York buildings, 1857. (source: Museum of the City of New York)

New York Crystal Palace Destroyed

Flyer for a sale of relics (source: Museum of the City of New York)

 

Episode Script for The New York Crystal Palace Destroyed (Part 2)

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

 

“Your chief motive, of course, in coming to New York at the present time, was to see the Crystal Palace. Not that you had any very correct or decided idea as to what the Crystal Palace was or is—but that, as every body has been for some months past talking and writing about the Crystal Palace, and as you have been told that all the world is to be there, you naturally feel that you ought to be there too ; and so, here you are.”

-Fifteen Minutes Around New York by George G. Foster, 1854

 

“The old burial ground was built over briefly during the 1853 World’s Fair by New York’s own magnificent Crystal Palace, which burnt down in 1858. Over one million people visited the Crystal Palace during the fair; over one million walked across another of New York’s forgotten burial grounds.” -Peripheral Memory: New York’s Forgotten Landscape by Deborah Ann Buelow

 

“For some time to come — the Crystal Palace will be the great crowning object of attraction to all classes.” -New-York in a nutshell

 

“Crystal Palace Relics! Mrs. Richardson, of New York (who was one of the unfortunate persons burnt out by the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace,) by permission of the MAYOR OF NEW YORK, and of John H. White, Esq., Crystal Palace Receiver, obtained a number of curiosities very valuable for a cabinet, produced by the melting of the Building, and articles on exhibition, which she now offers to visitors at the FAIR AT PALACE GARDEN, as interesting souvenirs of all that remains of the finest building ever erected in America–a building made entirely of glass and iron, except the floors–and supposed to be almost wholly free from danger of fire; yet, it was utterly destroyed on the 5th of October, 1858, in fifteen minutes’ time.” -an advertisement for a sale of Crystal Palace Souvenirs

 

“Crystal Palace Relics! Mrs. Richardson, of New York . . . obtained a number of curiosities very valuable for a cabinet, produced by the melting of the Building . . . which she now offers to visitors . . .  as interesting souvenirs of all that remains of the finest building ever erected in America–a building made entirely of glass and iron, except the floors–and supposed to be almost wholly free from danger of fire; yet, it was utterly destroyed . . . in fifteen minutes’ time.” -an advertisement for a sale of Crystal Palace Souvenirs

 

  • Barnum made a lot of sense as a board member: he was very rich, and more importantly, he knew how to put on a good show and draw people in. However, he was also famous for his hoaxes and weird novelty displays, like the time he displayed a “Feejee Mermaid” that was really a mummified monkey sewn onto a fish tale, among many other hoaxes and creative flourishes to charm the masses.
  • I do think that a lot of the opposition to Barnum being on the board was because he was kinda a crass showman who didn’t seem to despise ordinary people, at least not the same way a lot of wealthy people did. If the goal of the exhibition was to train people to have good taste, bringing Barnum on wasn’t exactly a recipe for that.
  • One stockholder said that the palace should be “an arena for artistic competition, and not a mere toy shop for common huckstering” as a dig against Barnum (FBA 149)
  • Barnum wasn’t totally thrilled with the idea, though.
    • Originally, back in 1851, he’d been asked to help create NYC’s Crystal Palace, but Barnum thought it was a bad idea: he said it was too soon after London’s Crystal Palace, and that it’d lose money
    • Barnum claims that he took on his new role on the Crystal Palace board “much against my own judgement”, and a week after he joined, he was asked to become president of the Association
    • He agreed grudgingly, but demanded to examine the books, and said he’d quit if he didn’t like what he saw
    • I guess he was okay with the books, because he spent a few months revitalizing the Crystal Palace–or trying to.
    • He loaned what were supposedly large amounts of his personal fortune so the Association could pay their creditors (he got a $40K mortgage on the Crystal Palace in exchange for that)
    • He raised money by getting hotels and railroads to buy tons of tickets in advance
    • He also let exhibitors show their wares for free and advertise their prices (making it sort of more like a mall, than a museum), he negotiated with train and steamboat companies to get reduced fares between NYC and popular vacation spots like Newport and Cape May, made admission cheaper, and said that the “refreshmen saloons” would have reasonably priced snacks
    • He made alterations to the building, closing it for a month, before what was set to be a big re-inaguration
    • He would later claim that “I never labored so hard, night and day.”
    • Things went better for Barnum than for the previous president, but he still encountered issues
      • The publisher of Scientific American, sued the Association, saying it’d borrowed too much money and violated its charter, and an injunction related to that made it hard to settle the Associations debts
      • A six-person envoy from England had checked out the Crystal Palace, and they published their very negative report about the exhibition. To be fair, it was kinda a mess: for example, when they got to the states, the exhibition wasn’t even ready, so the group had to split up and travel all over the country
    • The night before the big re-opening in May 1854, there was a very heavy rainstorm, but apparently Barnum was there, bright eyed and bushy tailed, waving his umbrella around and getting everyone into position. It was a parade that included a band, veterans, clergymen, government employees, tradesmen, etc.
      • The crowd of 10,000 people who gathered at reservoir square to watch the parade was smaller than expected, and when it started drizzling again, people with tickets went in to listen to a ton of speeches, which were mostly inaudible because the acoustics of the building were truly awful. Also, since people couldn’t hear, they kept leaving, which made it even harder to hear
    • Barnum started some new programming to draw people in, including Sunday concerts, which newspapers said disrespected the fact that it was the sabbath. And anyway, despite the 1,500 performers, people really couldn’t hear anything
    • The hired a famous balloonist to take off from the Crystal Palace grounds, but the balloonist crashed in Queens, fell out of the basket, and lost the balloon, which kept going on without him until it ran out of steam and grounded itself in Connecticut
    • One nice thing that happened was that Elisha Otis demonstrated his safety mechanism for freight elevators: it was an automatic brake that stopped the car from plummeting to the bottom in the event of a broken cable
      • His demonstration elevator was very tall, so it had to take the place of honor beneath the dome, where Otis apparently would ride up and down, occasionally cutting the rope to demonstrate the brake’s effectiveness
      • Of course, this was a hugely important invention, and one that allowed skyscrapers to begin to be a thing.
    • By July 1854, Barnum resigned, because his changed hadn’t really made a difference.
      • Barnum told a friend: “I was an ass for having anything to do with the Crystal Palace.”
    • The next president of the Association was a lawyer and trustee
    • The Association decided to close the Exhibition in October and auction off unclaimed items .
      • After the announcement, even fewer people visited the Crystal Palace, and by fall of 1854, Harper’s called it a “glittering mausoleum of happy hopes and betrayed confidences
      • There was debate about what to do with the building.
        • Some said to tear it down and sell it for scrap
        • Some said they should move it to Philadelphia
      • When they set up the auction for unclaimed items, no one was interested in buying, so they cancelled the event
    • Not everyone was happy it was closing, though. The Ohio State Journal said:
      • In spite of all the sneers upon it, the Exhibition has been most important to the country. It will be a long time before we again see such a magnificent and beautiful edifice as the Palace, or such a collection of statuary and paintings as have been on exhibition there
    • And I think that’s a really good point. The Metropolitan Museum wouldn’t open until 1870 so it’d be a while before NYC had another big museum–I don’t think there were any other major art museums in the city before the Met

 

 

So now what?

It’s a sad situation: there’s this beautiful building, but nobody really knows what to do with in, since the Exhibition fizzled out and investors were wary about being burned again.

When it first opened, a lot of sideshows and businesses catering to the Crystal Palace’s clientele had opened, but now they mostly moved on, leaving the Crystal Palace on its own in the shadow of the Reservoir.

The Latting Observatory went out of business, and was purchased by a marble company who inexplicably removed the top 75 feet of the tower

The exhibits had been cleared out of the Crystal Palace, and where enormous crowds had once thronged, a single cashier manned the palace. For 25 cents, curious visitors could walk around the empty building

The Crystal Palace Association was dissolved and its assets were given to a receiver who needed to either find a new place to move the palace, or to give it to the city, per the palace’s lease

People suggested that the city council tear down the palace, or turn it into a produce market, museum, or train station–something respectable

Also, for context, around this time, the economy took a turn. There’d been a boom in the early 1850s, but by the winter of 54-55, things were getting grim, with lots of layoffs, evictions, etc. That caused a lot of civil unrest and tensions between the rich and the poor, as labor leaders asked for things like rent freezes and guaranteed employment and wealthy New Yorkers ignored their cries.

Meanwhile, the Scientifc American publisher was still suing Barnum and airing all the dirty laundry of the Associations bad management and missteps

And they still didn’t know what the building would be used for

In June 1855, a giant tree from California, marketed as “Washingtonea Gigantea or Monster Tree of California,” was shipped to NYC in pieces. It was a sequoia 300 feet tall, 31 feet wide, and it was supposedly older than the Pyramids, and from Moses’ time

  • It was revealed on July 4, and 7,000 people paid .25 cents to see it
  • But there wasn’t as much excitement as they expected, and because the tree was sliced up, with the pieces stacked on top of each other, people thought it was just a bunch of different trees stacked on top of each other and passed off as a really big sequoia
  • So later, once it left the Crystal Palace, the tree was set up in London’s Crystal Palace, where people were more into it
  • So the tree was a bust
  • Next, they tried renting out the palace for conventions and stuff
    • The Association of Publishers had an event there
    • An inventors convention was held there
    • There were some weddings
    • The American Institute moved its annual fair there
      • The fair was usually very popular, though it’d done poorly when the Exhibition was happening at the Palace in 53, since it was stiff competition and people were excited to see the building, etc
      • So in 1855, when they had their fair at the Crystal Palace, it was a hit–the organizers said it had been profitable, even
        • They had more art and industrial items to exhibit, and had a lot of the best pieces of artwork from the Exhibition
        • They kept the two saloons open for refreshments
        • The sequoia was still there
        • There was also a beautiful display of fruit and flowers
        • There were some cool gadgets,  like a steam-powered wood-splitting machine, an automatic grain scale, and an elevated railroad that constantly ran around the interior of the building above visitors’ heads. There was also a window washing device and a “petticoat lifter” that made it easier for women wearing hooped skirts to go up and down stairs
        • They also held contents, like a competition between fire engines, which was won by a water pumper who was able to shoot a stream of water up 162 feet, along the side of what was left of the Latting Observatory
        • The fair was such a hit that the institute tried to buy the building, but they couldn’t settle on a price with the court-appointed receiver. But they did continue to hold the fair there for the next few years
    • So, around the beginning of 1856, the receiver tried to renew the five-year lease that the palace had with the city
      • That seemingly simple thing became a HUGE issue, because different people wanted to do different things with the palace
      • But long story short, the lease was not renewed
    • Then, in August 1856, in a moment of foreshadowing, the Latting Observatory burned down in a fire that also destroyed more than 24 tenements, leaving what I assume were hundreds of families homeless
    • The Crystal Palace was mostly unhurt: some hot embers landed onn the roof, and the heat of the fire melted off some of the solder between glass panels
    • In early 1857, the lease on the land that the Crystal Palace stood on expired, and the receiver tried to sell the palace to the city. The building had cost more than $700K to build, and the parts could be sold for scrap for $80K. The receiver said he’d sell it to the city for an incredibly cheap $150K
    • But some people believed that since it was now on city land, the city owned the palace
    • So there ensued a bunch of fighting, during which the palace began to decay, since no one wanted to take responsibility for maintaining it (And it was a high-maintenance building: for reference, they would’ve needed to hire 40 full-time glaziers just to keep the glass in the building)
    • The city council looked into it and found that thousands of screws and maybe millions of bolts that held the building together were terribly rusted, meaning it would take about a year to take the building apart
    • For a bit of context, things weren’t going so well in the city: there was a lot of civil unrest and wealthy people in NYC were becoming more and more afraid of the poor people they’d been ignoring and condescending to and whose labor had made them so wealthy.
      • In August 1857, the Panic of 1857 began when the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust, a really solid bank whose president had been on the Board of the Crystal Palace association, went down because the company had made risky loans and the manager had taken to lining his pockets with company money
      • The resulting credit squeeze took down hundreds of other financial institutions, and by mid-October, the banks were unsteady, business had ground to a standstill, half the wall street brokers were now unemployed, and Europe and South America were also suffering.
      • By November, tens of thousands of working men and women in NYC were out of work. And winter was coming.
      • The mayor of NYC hired unemployed people to work on big city projects like Central Park. The laborers were paid in cornmeal, potatoes, and flour. Only a few thousand people were hired in this program, and of course the mayor was accused of being a communist
      • Remember that, much like today, the ultra-wealthy thought that charity was showing up at a fancy ball or gala, not making sure that people had jobs and got paid
      • So because rich people love a ball, a “colossal charity soiree” happened at the Crystal Palace in April 1858.
        • It was a huge event, and 10K-15K people crowded into the Crystal Palace
        • It seemed to be going okay, until around 1 am, when a huge number of people, ready to go home, went to the cloakroom and there was absolute chaos. They turned over barricades, knocked down shelves, and wealthy gentlemen started to brawl
        • Many women fled to the street, leaving behind their coats
        • Around 3:30, two hours into the melee, two men got into a knife fight, though they weren’t seriously injured
        • So we’re seeing these wealthy people behave just like the uncouth poor people they love to vilify
        • Then, after ALL that, it turns out that most of the money raised in the event had gone missing, and instead lined the pockets of the people who organized the event. The charitable society who had created the gala also conveniently vanished.
        • So, to recap, this party that was supposedly for charity just ended up being charity for already-wealthy con men, and turned into a drunken brawl that would rival any that might have happened in the parts of town that the wealthy wouldn’t be caught dead in
      • The economy would eventually get better once the civil war started
    • Meanwhile, the building kept slowly falling apart: during the summer of 1858, a huge chandelier that had been suspended beneath the dome fell down. No one was hurt, but it was a bad sign.
    • In 1858, the new mayor of NYC proclaimed that the city owned the Crystal Palace, and would take it apart it if the receiver didn’t do it by May 1858
    • The mayor ended up sending out the police and comptroller, who took possession of the palace and confiscated $100K worth of property
    • The city didn’t demolish the palace, though. It hosted a celebration of a transatlantic cable in September 1858
    • Then, on October 5th, as the American Institute fair was just starting up, the Crystal Palace burned down.

 

  • We aren’t totally sure why it burned down, but here’s what we do know:
    • It happened during the day, when people were inside–luckily everyone escaped and no one was seriously injured.
    • The fire broke out in a storeroom.
  • The official narrative is that an arsonist started the fire, because people were confused about how a building made of mostly steel and glass, which was supposed to be fireproof, could burn down so quickly. Because this fire happened really, really fast, way faster than a building built of less fireproof materials. That’s literally what the NYT said, that “its destruction was more rapid than any building of wood could possibly have been.” And that is suspicious, for sure.
    • There are stories about a man in a dark coat leaving the storeroom with his hat pulled down to hide his face, and conjecture that he was hired by local landowners who didn’t like how seedy the area had become.
  • But that’s not at all what I think happened.
    • This is an Occam’s razor thing for me, and I believe an eyewitness who had a much more plausible account, even if the account was hushed up a bit:
    • This unnamed eyewitness told the NYT that he’d heard someone say they were going to light the gas, and then right after that, he hear the shouts of “fire”
    • He said:
      • “I saw streams of fire like snakes running in all directions through the building and setting it on fire nearly as fast as a man could run. The color of the smoke, the intensitiy of the flame, and two or three small explosions, forces the idea to my mind that, to save a few dollars, the gas pipes of the Crystal Palace had only been gutta percha instead of wrought iron tubes; and that shortly after the gas was turned on there was a leak somewhere in [the] rear of the north nave which set fire to the gas tubes . . . [which] was the true and legitimate cause of this lamentable disaster.”
    • Gutta percha is latex, by the way. (FBA xii-xiii)
    • The witness returned to the scene the next day and searched for evidence of iron tubes in the rubble, but didn’t see them. Which seems a little weird, since there had been 30,000 feet of gas lines in the Crystal palace.
    • The firm that installed the gas lines said they were made of wrought iron with lead fittings, and that they were inspected and in good condition.
    • We already know that the builders of the Crystal Palace wanted to cut corners and save money. For example, during construction, it wasn’t uncommon for materials like metal beams to arrive and be the wrong length, forcing workmen to have to use a method called “cut and ty” or “cut and try” which is exactly what it sounds like. However, that’s something that’s used for carpentry, not precise metal work. The American Phrenological Journal said that “every part of [the Crystal Palace] had to be more or less sprung, in order to bring the parts into place. The author of The Finest Building in America suggests that maybe construction techniques hadn’t caught up to the new materials being used in construction.
    • So I think the contractors were lying; it wouldn’t be the first time someone lied under oath. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Crystal Palace Association, who built the Crystal Palace, knew it. That could be a reason for the story of arson spreading so far and wide.
    • But, whatever happened, the Crystal Palace was no more. One detail I wanted to share was also a description in the NYT of what the palace sounded like burning down, which was the sound of: “the cracking of glass, and roaring of wind & flames, as they rushed up through the roof and sides of the building.”
    • The New York Tribune said: “We shall never have another Crystal palace. Its glorious dome . . . Is no more; its galleries, its treasures, its magnificent expanses indispensable to the mass-gatherings of this great metropolis–its superb memories are all gone, and gone forever.”
    • An enterprising woman named Mrs. Richardson, an exhibitor whose display had been destroyed in the fire, sold lumps of melted glass and iron from the ruins, describing them as “curiosities very valuable for a cabinet”
    • So nobody really wanted to rebuild the palace, since it’d been almost as good as slated for destruction. So the city moved on, and the Crystal Palace, which had gained so much acclaim and fascination in its early days, was thoroughly forgotten.
    • And, as the author of The Finest Building in America says, “Even before Reservoir Square became Bryant Park, a leafy oasis in the concrete desert of midtown Manhattan, what had once been the most famous destination in the United States was all but forgotten. . . . It has been the subject of no more than a handful of scholarly articles and earns at best passing mention in a few standard narratives of the period.”
      • So if you want to know more, I highly recommend picking up The Finest Building in America by Edwin G. Burrows, which came out about 5 years ago and seeks to correct how everyone has seemingly forgotten the Crystal Palace.

 

Sources consulted RE: the New York Crystal Palace Destroyed

Books

Articles

  • A Mammoth Tree. NEW-YORK CITY. New York Daily Times (1851-1857); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]09 Aug 1855: 1

Websites

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crystal_Palace#The_Great_Exhibition_of_1851
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latting_Observatory
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Crystal_Palace
  • http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/digital-publication/
  • https://nypost.com/2018/02/03/nycs-first-architectural-wonder-went-down-in-flames/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Crystal_Palace
    bgc.bard.edu/gallery/exhibitions/3/new-york-crystal-palace-1853
  • https://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2015/03/the-crystal-palace-americas-first-worlds-fair-and-bizarre-treasures-of-the-19th-century.html
  • https://books.google.com/books?id=XRNBAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=crystal+palace+new+york+guide&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NCcMVabVJ8elgwTkhoPABQ&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=crystal%20palace%20new%20york%20guide&f=false
    https://books.google.com/books?id=9ecZAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=crystal+palace+new+york+guide&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NCcMVabVJ8elgwTkhoPABQ&ved=0CCIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=crystal%20palace%20new%20york%20guide&f=false
  • https://lithub.com/the-question-of-homoeroticism-in-whitmans-poetry/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilded_Age
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Greeley
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._T._Barnum
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art
  • https://aleteia.org/2019/10/07/thorvaldsens-christus-was-once-considered-the-most-perfect-statue-of-christ-in-the-world/

Don’t miss our past episodes:

The New York Crystal Palace: A look at New York City’s ill-fated Crystal Palace, a beautiful structure built on an abandoned cemetery on the outskirts of town.

In the mid-19th century, a castle of glass stood in the wilds of what is now a bustling part of New York City. It was an answer to a similar Crystal Palace in London, which had hosted an exhibition a couple years before.

The Crystal Palace and the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations was meant to represent American industry and ingenuity, but ended its days as a decrepit symbol of excess and mismanagement before going up in flames. Here’s part 1 of its story.

Highlights include:
• The story behind how NYC became a tourist destination
• Weird inventions like the “mechanical leech” and the “typeographer”
• The gardener-architect who built the world’s tallest fountain
• A sort of mini Eiffel Tower that sprouted up next to the Crystal Palace

Follow the podcast on instagram @buriedsecretspodcast

E-mail the podcast at buriedsecretspodcast@gmail.com

Pictures of the Crystal Palace

New York Crystal Palace

Birds Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs 1853 (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

Latting Observatory broadside ca. 1853 (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

Latting Observatory from Valentine’s manual of old New York

August Petermann and Karl Gildemeister, designers; August Petermann, lithographer. New York Exhibition Building, 1852. Lithograph. Museum of the City of New York

New York Crystal Palace Illustrated Description of the Building (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

The Crystal Palace Dome (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

New York, 1855. From the Latting Observatory. (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

From New-York in a nutshell by Frederick Saunders

The Crystal Palace Exterior View. Victor Prevost, photographer, New York. 1853–54. Salted paper photograph (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

The New York Crystal Palace and Latting Observatory 1853 (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

Present Appearance of the Crystal Palace (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

From Old New York yesterday & today by Henry Collins Brown, 1922

New York Crystal Palace

Birds Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs 1853 (from http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/)

 

Episode Script

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

Sources

  • The main source for this episode is The Finest Building in America: The New York Crystal Palace 1853-1858 by Edwin G. Burrows (2015), though the full source list as always is in the shownotes at buriedsecretspodcast.com

 

Inspiration

  • There had been a Crystal Palace in London, which had been an international sensation and which is still pretty famous today, even though the building no longer exists (it burned down in the 1930s).
    • London’s Crystal Palace opened in 1851 in the bucolic setting of Hyde Park. It had tons of green space around it, and was really a beautiful setting.
    • The palace was made of plate glass and cast iron, and it had the most glass ever used in a building. These were really new materials, and the technology to create sheet glass had only come about in 1832, so it really was groundbreaking.
    • The architect was a gardener named Joseph Paxton, who at the time that he submitted his design, was the Duke of Devonshire’s Head Gardener for the Chatsworth House estate.
      • If you’ve seen the Kubrick film Barry Lyndon, it was the filming location of Castle Hackton, or, if you’ve seen the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie, that estate was the filming location for Pemberly, Darcy’s home.
      • So at first I was wondering why a gardener would be qualified to do an architecture project, and was wondering if he was an amateur or self taught like a James Renwick Jr type. But I looked up Chatsworth House, and the improvements that Paxton made to its grounds, and during his tenure there, Paxton did a lot of design and architecture type projects, including:
        • A rockery and pond
        • A fountain that was built for a visit from Tzar Nicolas I, which was built in only six months (they had to work during the night using flares as light.) The idea was that it would be the tallest fountain in the world, which involved building a lake an 8-acre on the moors above the house so they could get the right water pressure. The fountain’s jets reached heights of 296 feet, so about as tall as a 21-story building, but the Tzar’s visit never happened, and Nicolas I died about a decade later without visiting Chatsworth.
        • He also built the a lily house, which is where the giant Amazon water lilly was cultivated for he first time, as well as a set of greenhouses
          • And one thing I wanted to mention that was related to the greenhouses: one thing that Paxton grew there was bananas, specifically Cavendish bananas (they were named after the Duke of Devonshire, his employer, whose name was William Cavendish.) Today, Cavendish bananas are the main type of bananas that are eaten around the world today. So if you’ve enjoyed a bananas recently, you can thank Joseph Paxton
        • And, most importantly for our purposes here, he built the Great Conservatory, which was completed in 1841 and was the largest glass house in the world at that time. At the time, you couldn’t get sheet glass bigger than 3 feet long, but 4-feet pieces were specially made for the Conservatory. Since tropical plants were grown in there, it had to be heated, which was accomplished with 8 boilers and 7 miles of iron pipe. There was also a carriageway in the center, and when the Queen came by and was driven through, the Conservatory was lit with 12,000 lamps.
          • Sadly, the Conservatory is no longer around: it was really expensive to maintain, and wasn’t heated during WWI, so all the plants died, and the Conservatory was demolished in the 1920s
        • But basically the Conservatory was a testing ground for the Crystal Palace, so it makes a lot of sense that he was hired for the job–he had pioneered this new thing
        • The Commission in charge of the Crystal Palace needed something build quickly and cheaply, and Paxton delivered: it took 2,000 men 8 months to build, and cost less than 80K pounds
    • Visitors were stunned by, for example, how the building didn’t need lights inside, since it was illuminated by sunlight for the glass.
    • 13,000-14,000 exhibitors came from around the world
    • 6 million people were admitted to the exhibition between May and October 1851
    • The Crystal Palace was 990,000 square feet
    • It was so tall that it contained full-grown elm trees
    • It was heavily publicized in America, and journalists wrote articles praising it, so the Crystal Palace in London became such a big deal in the states that, in typical fashion, Americans decided that we needed one too
  • The idea that many elites had was that an American Crystal palace would increase industrialization by making people appreciate and want manufactured products. A lot of people had a lot of lofty-sounding ways of putting it, but basically it sounds like they wanted to teach people consumerism, especially poor people. Some folks seemed to think that young craftsmen could come and get ideas for new inventions and products, but for the most part, it seemed all about “civilizing” or “cultivating” poor rubes who, apparently, weren’t smart enough to know they needed a bunch of useless stuff.
    • A Unitarian minister named Henry Bellows, who preached to a wealthy congregation, had this to say about the exhibition; it was “a great popular advertisement–a plan for letting the people know what is to be had, and who has it–a scheme for creating wants by exhibiting ingenious means of supplying them, and thus developing new forms of labor and new markets for them.”
    • I just think this whole line of thinking is really gross.
    • However, I do love the idea of the Crystal Palace, especially since the US didn’t have big museums like we do now, so it would be an opportunity for people to see great art and learn about interesting new technology. It’s just that I find the motivations of some of the Crystal Palace Association, who led to charge to construct a Crystal Palace in NYC, really despicable
    • It’s important to remember that there was also a ton of civil unrest around this time, and the gap between the rich and the poor was widening a lot.
      • Wealthy people spoke out often about how they needed to suppress workers rights and human rights movements, and poor people resented the people who were growing rich on their labor while also looking down on the laborers who created their wealth.
    • This wasn’t an issue that was going to be solved by building a Crystal Palace, and maybe there’s a metaphor or joke here about throwing stones in glass houses, but at any rate, it was decided that NY would have its own Crystal Palace.

 

Construction and opening

  • First, they needed to find a block to build it: the idea had been to construct the crystal palace further downtown, where Madison Square Park is now, but the rich people who lived near there objected.
    • So, instead, they located it in what today is the heart of midtown but back then was an undeveloped area of muddy empty lots: 42nd street, on the east side of 6th avenue.
    • You may remember this location from two past episodes:
      • In the Victorian Egyptomania episode, I talked about the Croton Reservoir, a giant Egyptian revival structure that held the clean water that came from upstate via the Croton Aqueduct. There was a promenade around the top that people would stroll around, but on the whole, it was apparently known as a pretty grim structure, and didn’t last that long.
      • And then also, in the Potter’s Fields of Manhattan episode, I talked about how they attempted to build a nice cemetery beside the reservoir, but the ground was swampy and gross, and no one wanted to buy plots, so it became a potters field. Most of the people buried there had died from cholera, pneumonia, smallpox, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever.
    • The Reservoir was where the main NYPL building, the one with lions in front, and which was featured in ghostbusters, stands now. And the potter’s field was where Bryant Park is today.
    • So the site of the former potter’s field on Reservoir Square is the location that the city allowed the Crystal Palace to be built in.
    • Not exactly an auspicious beginning, to be put in a spot where even a cemetery hadn’t been able to flourish.
    • It’s unclear exactly what happened to the bodies when the Crystal Palace was built. The book The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries, says:
      • “The remains in this cemetery may have been removed to another burial ground in 1852 to make way for The Crystal Palace, an entertainment venue, which opened on this site the following year.” 
  • A ton of famous architects submitted proposals for the building, but the design by two foreign architects, a Danish man named Georg Carstensen and a German man named Charles Gildemeister, won.
    • Carstensen had been one of the architects of Tivoli Gardens, in Copenhangen, which is still around today.
    • Things didn’t really go well with the architects.
    • First, the budget for the building was $200K. Their plan called for a budget of $300K, they claimed, though really it would have cost more than that.
    • Some cost-saving measures really hobbled the construction. For example:
      • There was supposed to be a basement level. That was important because 1) it would have elevated the whole building by 6 feet, allowing it to obscure the huge Croton Reservoir behind the Crystal Palace, and 2) it would have allowed a beautiful fountain to be installed.
        • However, the basement level was nixed to save money, which really ruined the intended impact of the palace
        • The fountain was replaced by what was, by all accounts, a hideous statue of George Washington
    • The architects were blamed for everything that went wrong with the construction, which took longer and was more expensive than planned, though it doesn’t sound like it was really the architects’ fault.
      • The architects were supposed to be paid $5K, but were only ever paid $4K
      • Carstensen returned to Copenhagen in 1855 and supposedly died penniless and forgotten there in 1857
      • Gildemeister returned to Germany in 1857 and died in 1869
      • Neither of their deaths were really remarked upon in the American press, which seems right, since during the opening ceremonies of the Crystal Palace and other publicity, the architects were neither honored or mentioned, really
  • People flocked to the palace’s construction site to watch it being built, which was apparently a grand sight, even though construction wasn’t going so well
    • Aside from the delays caused by argument, cost-cutting, and mismanagement, there were other hold-ups, like a hailstorm that killed 3 workers, broke a bunch of windows, and flooded the exhibition floor (FBA 68)
  • Across the street from the Crystal Palace, an enterprising inventor named Waring Latting began construction of a strange looking structure called the Latting Observatory.
    • It was a large octagonal observation tower which had a 75-foot-wide base and came to a small point at the top, where it was only 6 feet wide.
    • It afforded panoramic views of the area, which had never been seen before, in this time before aviation and tall buildings.
    • At 27 stories tall, it was the tallest building in NYC, and one of the tallest human-made structures at the time. The only taller structures were the Great Pyramid at Giza and some European Cathedrals (FBA 70)
    • If you look at images of the NY Crystal Palace, you’ll usually see the tall, pointy Latting Observatory beside it, so much so that people often thought it was part of the exhibition (it wasn’t)
  • But it wasn’t the only structure to pop up and capitalize on the crowds of visitors to the Exhibition–there’s a great quote from the NYT at the time:
    • “There are Crystal Stables, and Crystal Cake Shops, and Crystal Groggeries, and Crystal ice-cream Saloons. One old woman has set up a Crystal Fruit Stall, at which oranges and bananas, in every stage of decomposition may be purchased. We noticed a dilapidated hovel on Sixth-Avenue, which was called by its proprietor the Crystal Hall of Pleasure.”  (FBA 54)
  • Basically, in real NY style, everyone who could profit off of the excitement over the palace did so, with gusto. The area around the Crystal Palace became somewhat seedy, and plenty of people moralized about it.

 

What was displayed inside the crystal palace?

  • There were 4,300 exhibits from 6,000 contributors from 23 foreign countries
  • The initial idea was that it would be way better curated and organized than London’s Crystal Palace, which some people had said felt cluttered and confusing
  • This is a pretty good illustration of the Crystal Palace in general–you know, it’s creators are like, “We’ll do everything better than they did in London” and then they did the opposite
  • So the exhibition in London has 30 categories of items, and the America exhibition, which was supposed to be simplified, had 31–they added a category for musical instruments. Some of the other categories were “substances used as food”, “philosophical instruments,” “mixed fabrics,” wearing apparel,” and “fine arts” (FBA 107) Fine arts included at least 675 paintings, for example, so they definitely went hard on this.
  • Basically, the exhibition had lots of cool things, though also junk. The list included: a map of the US drawn by a public school student, stomach pumps, a “mechanical leech,” birdcages, doorbells, wigs, fake diamonds, sugar tongs, iceboxes, clothes, a much more. A NYT reporter wrote: “The mind becomes very quickly exhausted from the quantity of material crowded on the view and very soon produces additional physical lassitude. To-day we saw may faint-looking and wearied persons, looking sorrowfully around for some place to rest themselves.”
  • One visitor called it “a wilderness of objects”
  • Gaslights weren’t installed until later on in the summer, so some things were so in shadow that you just couldn’t tell what they were, especially items on the east side of the building, where they ended up in the shadow of the reservoir until the afternoon.
  • And even if you could see something, there often wasn’t anyone who knew what it was who could explain it to you, and things didn’t seem to be well labeled.
  • There also weren’t many new innovations that hadn’t been previously displayed or revealed elsewhere, aside from an electric motor and an early typewriter called a “typeographer”
  • Mostly the exhibition was noteworthy because there was so much stuff.
  • Also, the machine arcade, where all the machines were held, got really loud, especially the part that had looms, spinners, and other textile manufacturing machines–it really sounds pretty overwhelming
  • A 124-year-old man, who had been enslaved and owned by George Washington, was intended to be displayed as a curiosity at the exhibition. A writer from the London Weekly News wasn’t impressed by the exhibition as a whole, and wrote “What do you think of the showing up of a slave as an article of American manufacture?” (FBA 84-85) It’s unclear if this person was ever displayed, but it sound like he wasn’t, thankfully.

 

Responses

  • Until the Crystal Palace was built, people in the US vacationed in the countryside. It wasn’t really a thing for people to go into cities to see the sights there.
    • If they went to the city, it was only to transfer trains on their way to a more bucolic location.
    • John Dalberg, an English historian, writer, and politician, who was famous for saying “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”, had this to say of NYC at the time:
      • “There is little to be seen in New York; it is not a fine city.”
    • So basically, people might travel to cities for work, but there weren’t really tourist attractions in the city, as we understand them now.
    • That all changed with the Crystal Palace–suddenly, NYC became a destination for folks.
    • So when all the rich people left NYC in July and August (much like they do now), tourists came in to see the Crystal Palace
  • A 17-year-old Samuel Clemens–who would later be known as Mark Twain–went to the Crystal Palace and was transfixed. He’d recently moved to NYC, and wrote to his family back in Hannibal, Missouri, that the it was “a perfect fairy palace–beautiful beyond description.” (FBA 87)
  • Walt Whitman, whose famous book Leaves of Grass would be published the next year, in 1855, was a young poet from Brooklyn at the time, visited the Crystal Palace so many times that the cops became suspicious and started following him around. He returned so many times to look at a Danish statue called Christ and his Apostles, which people said was the best piece of art at the exhibition. (FBA 94)

 

Issues

  • So, you might be wondering what happened to the Crystal Palace. If it was this beautiful and beloved structure, so why isn’t it still there?
  • If you’ve been listening to the show for a while, you can probably the answer to this: the NY Crystal Palace, like so many beautiful buildings in history, burned down.
  • But this building didn’t just burn down–after all, buildings are destroyed in fires all the time, but their stories often survive. So why did people just sort of forget about the Crystal Palace, and why wasn’t it rebuilt?
  • So, from the beginning, the Crystal Palace Association had financial issues.
    • In February 1854, stockholders learned that even though the Association had earned $350K in ticket sales from the 1.2 million people who visited the exhibition, they still owed their creditors $125K. (That’s about $3.8 million in today’s dollars.)
    • They’d even had to mortgage the building
    • So the Association got a new board of directors of 25 men, which was made up of many business magnates, bankers, and lawyers, and also included Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley was a real character–I find him pretty delightful–and supported causes like socialism, vegetarianism, feminism, temperance, and of course, the abolition of slavery. He was kinda an interesting choice for the board, I think, but also he was a really important figure in NY at the time, so in that way, it makes sense.
    • Well, Greeley had a friend who also made it onto the board, someone who was actually controversial: one Phineas Taylor Barnum, aka PT Barnum, the famous showman.

And we’ll pick back up next week, and take a look at what PT Barnum did to try to save the Crystal Palace, as well as the disaster that claimed the palace.

 

Sources consulted

Books

Articles

  • A Mammoth Tree. NEW-YORK CITY. New York Daily Times (1851-1857); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]09 Aug 1855: 1

Websites

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crystal_Palace#The_Great_Exhibition_of_1851
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latting_Observatory
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Crystal_Palace
  • http://crystalpalace.visualizingnyc.org/digital-publication/
  • https://nypost.com/2018/02/03/nycs-first-architectural-wonder-went-down-in-flames/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Crystal_Palace
    bgc.bard.edu/gallery/exhibitions/3/new-york-crystal-palace-1853
  • https://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2015/03/the-crystal-palace-americas-first-worlds-fair-and-bizarre-treasures-of-the-19th-century.html
  • https://books.google.com/books?id=XRNBAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=crystal+palace+new+york+guide&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NCcMVabVJ8elgwTkhoPABQ&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=crystal%20palace%20new%20york%20guide&f=false
    https://books.google.com/books?id=9ecZAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=crystal+palace+new+york+guide&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NCcMVabVJ8elgwTkhoPABQ&ved=0CCIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=crystal%20palace%20new%20york%20guide&f=false
  • https://lithub.com/the-question-of-homoeroticism-in-whitmans-poetry/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilded_Age
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Greeley
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._T._Barnum
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art
  • https://aleteia.org/2019/10/07/thorvaldsens-christus-was-once-considered-the-most-perfect-statue-of-christ-in-the-world/

Don’t miss our past episodes:

A look at haunted St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the second-oldest church still standing in Manhattan, which is full of hauntings both legendary and questionable.

Highlights include:
• A wealthy man’s remains being stolen and held for ransom
• A very grumpy ghost
• An heir who convened with his ancestor’s ghost instead of marrying
• A mysteriously ringing church bell

 

You can listen to more audio on patreon ($3/month): https://www.patreon.com/buriedsecrets

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E-mail us at buriedsecretspodcast@gmail.com

Pictures of Haunted St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery

St Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery_Etchings of Old New York, 1875

St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery from Etchings of Old New York, 1875

St Marks Relics of Manhattan (1869) by Eliza Greatorex

St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery from Relics of Manhattan (1869) by Eliza Greatorex

Stuyvesant Bowery House from_Etchings of Old New York, 1875

Stuyvesant Bowery House from Etchings of Old New York, 1875

Episode Script for Haunted St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • After St. Paul’s, the second oldest church in the city is St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, and the fourth oldest building in the city.
  • The location has been a place of worship since 1660, when the last Dutch governor of New York, Peter Stuyvesant, bought the land for a farm and built a chapel on the site of today’s St. Mark’s church. The 300 acres of farm were the best farmland on the whole island of Manhattan.
  • Peter Stuyvesant was known for being a jerk, a bigot, and an anti-Semite. Most websites tend to call him stuff like “a stern leader” but let’s call a spade a spade here.
  • He had lost a leg during a conflict with the Spanish in the West Indies, so he used a peg-leg with silver studs.
  • In 1672, Stuyvesant died, and was buried in the vault beneath the chapel.
  • Throughout the 1700s, the chapel fell into disrepair. Eventually, there was just the foundation and the Stuyvesant family vault beneath it.
  • In 1793, Peter Stuyvesant IV, the original Peter Stuyvesant’s great-grandson, donated the chapel to the Episcopal Church (the family had converted), on the condition that a new church be built there.
  • In 1799, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery was completed. It was the first Episcopal parish that was separate from Trinity church, which we talked about last time.
  • During the first half of the 19th century, there were two burial sites affiliated with the church.
    • The first was the yards around the church, which was for vault interments
      • The first vaults were built in 1807.
      • Many of NYC’s rich and famous were buried there.
      • In 1876, a millionaire named AT Stewart was buried in the east yard.
        • Stewart had an early department store, which made him rich
        • two years after he was buried, someone stole his remains and held them for ransom.
        • The case was never resolved as far as the public is concerned, but some people say that his widow negotiated to get the remains back in 1881. The ransom was supposedly $200K and she negotiated it down to $20K. His body was supposedly hidden at his department store until an Episcopal church was built on Long Island in 1884, and his remains were moved there.
      • Some people claim to see his restless ghost. And during the 19th century, it seems that people claimed to see his ghost at his store and at St. Mark’s.
    • There was also a nearby cemetery, east on 11th street, for regular graves. Peter Stuyvesant IV had donated it as a burial ground in 1803, on the condition that any of the current or former enslaved people who he owned, or their children, would be buried there for free. And yes, there were slave-owners in NYC in the 19th century, until 1827; check out the last episode for a bit more about slavery in NYC.
    • It’s unclear how many people were buried there, but the burial ground was closed in 1851, and then the remains were moved to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn in 1864 and residential buildings were built on the site.
  • The Stuyvesant vault is still at the church, beneath the east wall, but it was closed for good when the last Stuyvesant was buried there in 1953.
    • The Stuyvesants were always the richest or second-richest family in NYC until they died out.
    • Apparently the last Stuyvesant didn’t marry, but he was known for going to the church every Sunday for hours to commune with Peter Stuyvesant’s spirit. At his funeral, some people claimed to hear the rapping of a peg leg as if it was greeting him as he was buried in the vault.
    • Though the Stuyvesants are gone, their ancestors remain. For example, the Wainwrights–like Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, and Martha Wainwright, are descended from the family.
  • Legend has it that Peter Stuyvesant haunts the church. Though before haunting the church, he haunted his family mansion, scaring the servants into dropping and breaking dishes and crockery. One of his daughters claimed to see him.
  • After the mansion burned down in 1744, people started seeing him where his remains were buried. He was also sighted inspecting the remains of the destroyed mansion.
  • Then, in 1831, he was sighted again, as the city built second avenue through his family’s farm, and again in 1900, when second avenue was widened. He was not successful in scaring off the workmen.
  • He’s supposedly unhappy with how the city has grown and how his old farmland is overrun with so much noise and activity. It’s said that he was once so disturbed by the sounds of the city that he awoke from his slumber to ring the bells of the church angrily.
  • He also supposedly interrupts services by stomping around and singing Dutch hymns, since as I talked about last week, he was anti-pretty much every religion than the Dutch Reformed Church that he was a member of. So apparently he doesn’t appreciate being buried beneath an Episcopalian church.
  • There’s a story about a sexton who went into the church late at night to grab something for the rector, when he saw the ghost of Stuyvesant. The sexton ran away, and then Stuyvesant walked through the locked church door and began pulling on the bell rope.
    • Back in the day, church bells were rung for emergencies like a fire or big announcement.
    • So the story goes that when people rushed to the church to see what was going on, the church was empty. But the bell rope had been torn and the lower part of the rope was gone.
  • To read a passage from a 1966 children’s book called The Ghost of Peg-Leg Peter by M.A. Jagendorf
    • “His body had been put into a closed vault. But that did not stop the ghost of the governor from stomping around on black or moonlit nights in his old haunts; his farm and the city hall where he had once reigned. Folks heard his stomping peg leg with the silver band, and saw him — and ran away in fear. Â That pleased him, particularly if they were English. He wanted no one around his grave, least of all the enemy who had robbed him and the Dutch Government.”
  • I’ve also read another version of the story, which I’m inclined to believe more, because it makes more sense and has more specificity. According to the book Haunted Manhattan, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the church bell began ringing. The rector hurried out to take a look, and saw a ghost with a peg leg in period Dutch clothes running away. What made this strange was that the bell was rung without the rope: the bell rope had been cut off a few days before. Then, the next night, the bell rope was seen on the Stuyvesant family vault.
  • There’s another great story in the same book, which is that during the 1930s, a priest always noticed that a young man sat in the same corner and stared in his direction during his sermon. I don’t know why that would have stood out, unless the priest really wasn’t used to people paying attention, which does seem possible.
    • The priest finally asked the young man what he was looking at, and the man said that when the priest gave sermons, he saw a man in Dutch period costume with a peg leg, alongside a woman in Dutch period costume
  • There’s a different version of that same story in Hans Holzer’s books Real Hauntings and This House Is Haunted. I’m inclined to believe Holzer’s account over the story from Haunted Manhattan, because it has more specificity and because Holzer seems to have conducted the interviews personally. Both Real Hauntings and This House Is Haunted tell the same story almost word for word, but I’ll read the version from Real Hauntings:
    • “I talked to the Reverend Richard E. McEvoy, later Archdeacon of St.John’s, but for many years rector of St. Mark’s, about any apparitions he or others might have seen in the church. Legend, of course, has old Peter Stuyvesant rambling about now and then. The reverend proved to be a keen observer, and quite neutral in the matter of ghosts. He himself had not seen anything unusual. But there was a man, a churchgoer, whom he had known for many years. This man always sat in a certain pew on the right side of the church.
    • Queried by the rector about his peculiar insistence on that seat, the man freely admitted it was because from there he could see “her”—the “her” being a female wraith who appeared in the church to listen to the sermon, and then disappeared again. At the spot he had chosen, he could always be next to her! I pressed the rector about any personal experiences. Finally he thought that he had seen something like a figure in white out of the corner of one eye, a figure that passed, and quickly disappeared. That was ten years before.”
  • Holzer tells another story about a man he spoke to on the advice of the rector, a Foreman Cole, who came regularly to wind the clock at St. Mark’s, and who’d been in and around St. Mark’s for 26 years.
    • Cole once saw someone in the balcony at 1 am.
    • And 15 years before that sighting, he had a more specific and dramatic one. I’ll read directly from Real Hauntings since Holzer tells the story so well:
    • “It was winter, and the church was closed to the public, for it was after 5:00
    • P.M. That evening it got dark early, but there was still some light left when Cole let himself into the building. Nobody was supposed to be in the church at that time, as Cole well knew, being familiar with the rector’s hours.
    • Nevertheless, to his amazement, he clearly saw a woman standing in the back of the church, near the entrance door, in the center aisle. Think-
    • ing that she was a late churchgoer who had been locked in by mistake, and worried that she might stumble in the semidarkness, he called out to her, “Wait, lady, don’t move till I turn the lights on.”
    • He took his eyes off her for a moment and quickly switched the lights on. But he found himself alone; she had vanished into thin air from her spot well within the nave of the church.
    • Unnerved, Cole ran to the entrance door and found it firmly locked. He then examined all the windows and found them equally well secured.
    • I asked Cole if there was anything peculiar about the woman’s appearance. He thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, there was. She seemed to ignore me, looked right through me, and did not respond to my words.”
    • Six weeks later, he had another supernormal experience. Again alone in the church, with all doors locked, he saw a man who looked to him like one of the Bowery derelicts outside. He wore shabby clothes and did not seem to “belong” here. Quickly, Cole switched on the lights to examine his visitor. But he had vanished, exactly as the woman had.”
  • Holzer reports that Cole had other experiences as well, including hearing frequent banging, “uncanny” feelings, chills in some areas of the church, and footsteps when no one was there.
    • One caveat here: I’m not sure whether the church has radiator heat, but I assume that it probably does (rather than having been retrofitted with a more recent climate control.) If that’s the case, it’s very common for radiators to build up calcium deposits which then bang loudly through the pipes. I experienced this when I was at Fordham, which was the last place I lived with working radiator heat, and it was always a surprise how erratic and loud the radiators could be. So anytime I hear about banging in an old building, without an explanation of why it couldn’t be a radiator (like if it was summer or something), I’m a little wary.
  • Holzer also brought in a psychic, who had been to the church once when she was in the neighborhood and felt it was haunted. The psychic said that she felt  “a man with a cane walking down the middle aisle behind us.” Holzer supposed that was Peter Stuyvesant. Then she said she saw a woman in wide skirts near the back door of the church, and, to quote her: “I see a white shape floating away from that marble slab in the rear!”
    • I mention this psychic story because they’ve been written in a couple books and therefore are part of the lore of the church, however, I find them extremely dubious, especially since St. Mark’s is a famously haunted church and I’m sure the psychic had heard some of its stories.
    • My philosophy when considering paranormal events is this:
      1. If someone believes they saw something, and genuinely believe it was something paranormal, then I give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they had some sort of paranormal experience, in their own personal perception, whether or not they have any real proof.
      2. However, I’d say that I’m a skeptical believer. And I find stories credible when there are a bunch of different inputs or data points that point to something being the case, particularly when someone didn’t know the history of whatever paranormal spot where they were.
        1. So for example, I experienced a few things during a trip to Salem that I went on last year, as did Jen, who’s been on the podcast in the past, and my wife, Amy. Because several disparate things happened to us: all three of us experienced the estes session, which was spooky but only partially conclusive, and then Jen had a possible sleep paralysis experience, and then I found an extremely clear EVP on a recording that Jen also listened to and corroborated, then I feel like we were genuinely onto something.
        2. My suspicions were confirmed when I did additional research on the Hawthorne Hotel and that part of Salem months later, and learned things that 1) I hadn’t been aware of, 2) which weren’t readily available online (I had to really dig through historical records), and 3) fit together as part of a narrative that made some sort of sense to me, though I still have many unanswered questions
        3. So there are some things that I feel like are as solid as they can be, and which I don’t have a problem asking other people to believe  my experience for the most part. However, I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if people were skeptical about my experience of the EVP, since Jen and I heard it really clearly in Salem, but once I left Salem, the recording sounded fairly different and it was much less clear when I listened back to it. And because it was recorded on a sleep tracking app on my phone, I haven’t been able to successfully share it with other people.
        4. Because of that, if someone wants to say my EVP experience was BS, then I totally get it, though for myself, I believe it was real, and I have a lot of questions about why I could only hear it clearly in our hotel room where it was recorded.
      3. So with that example out of the way, when someone has no narrative proof for what they experience (like if they just get a vibe or impression), that might suggest that something’s up, or it might not. There just isn’t enough information. But the story becomes more suspect if they have a vested interest in having had an experience, or if it fits neatly into a story and confirms an existing bias. And that goes doubly if it confirms and existing and widely-known story.
  • Also, I know that Hans Holzer was criticized for sometimes having unsubstantiated claims and being not totally trustworthy.
  • So, with that out of the way, I wanted to move onto another story about St. Mark’s from Haunted Manhattan: On Christmas Day 1995, the congregation heard someone singing “One hundred bottles of rum” and when they went to the room that held refreshments, they saw someone in Dutch period costume and a peg leg walk into the wall. The punchbowl had been drunk down an inch
  • And the author of Haunted Manhattan said he spoke to a woman in 2003 who attended late-night services, and she heard what sounded like a peg leg behind her.
  • People have also said that they’ve seen strange shadows in the windows from the street, and the sound of a peg-leg has been reported inside the church
  • Supposedly there’s also the ghost of a woman in the church, though I see that fewer places. She’s supposed to be wearing period clothing–though I’m not sure from which period–and disappears when you get too close. She’s been seen in the pews and the balcony.
  • Apparently St. Mark’s Church rents out some rooms in the rectory; according to the book Ghosts of Manhattan, a writer reported that when she lived there, her dog got really scared and wouldn’t go into one room unless she was there. She also said she saw people’s shadows even when no one was there.

 

Sources consulted RE: Haunted St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery

Books

Websites

  • https://www.businessinsider.com/the-haunted-history-of-lower-manhattan-2015-10
  • https://www.huffpost.com/entry/wall-streets-slave-peddli_n_1147314
  • https://www.nps.gov/afbg/learn/historyculture/enslavement.htm
  • https://peoplesworld.org/article/slavery-in-new-york-uncovering-the-brutal-truth/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_slave_trade
  • http://www.slaveryinnewyork.org/history.htm
  • http://www.slaveryinnewyork.org/about_exhibit.htm
  • https://www.nps.gov/afbg/learn/historyculture/enslavement.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Director_of_New_Netherland
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Kieft
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kieft%27s_War
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Amsterdam
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Church_(Manhattan)
  • https://untappedcities.com/2017/06/09/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-st-pauls-chapel/?displayall=true
  • https://didyouknowfacts.com/the-headless-ghost-of-st-pauls-chapel/
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/archivists-mailbag/trees-inside-st-pauls-chapel
  • https://untappedcities.com/2017/06/09/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-st-pauls-chapel/?displayall=true
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Paul%27s_Chapel
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Mark’s_Church_in-the-Bowery
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery_in_New_York_(state)#Half-slavery
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_of_the_Blacks_(Manhattan)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_African_Methodist_Episcopal_Zion_Church
  • Information about Little Africa and the history of Black people in Greenwich Village: https://greenwichvillage.nyc/blog/2020/02/10/look-black-history-village/
  • https://atlantablackstar.com/2015/06/16/burial-remains-tell-the-story-of-new-yorks-little-africa/
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/02/nyregion/in-their-footsteps.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algonquian_peoples
  • https://untappedcities.com/2015/02/25/today-in-nyc-history-a-1643-massacre-of-the-lenape-almost-dooms-new-amsterdam/
  • https://www.ncai.org/resources/resolutions/national-american-indian-holocaust-museum
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_Burial_Ground_National_Monument
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/trinity-notes/ghosts-trinity
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Church_Cemetery
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_J._Walker_Park
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s_Burying_Ground
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/archives/mummy-trinity-church
  • https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/74852371/mary-elizabeth-tisdall
  • https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/mary-elizabeth-tisdall/
  • https://keithyorkcity.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/st-johns-graveyard-little-leaguers-now-play-ball-above-10000-corpses/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/st-johns-cemetery/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/st-marks-in-the-bowery-churchyard-and-cemetery/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/st-pauls-chapel-churchyard/
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/544841964/
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/75469677@N00/4420876543/in/set-72157623465293193/
  • https://www.6sqft.com/10-offbeat-spots-that-reveal-new-york-citys-haunted-history/
  • https://ny.curbed.com/maps/new-york-city-haunted-buildings-halloween
  • https://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2015/10/the-ghost-of-peter-stuyvesant-may-still-haunt-the-east-village.html
  • https://www.nypl.org/blog/2010/02/02/where-st-johns-old-burying-ground
  • https://nypost.com/2014/10/25/the-hidden-cemeteries-of-nyc/
  • https://www.6sqft.com/what-lies-below-nycs-forgotten-and-hidden-graveyards/
  • https://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/05/burying-ground-below-ballfield-james.html
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2389220
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Church_Cemetery
  • https://the-line-up.com/haunted-churches
  • https://nyghosts.com/st-marks-church-in-the-bowery/
  • http://www.weirdus.com/states/new_york/ghosts/st_marks_church/index.php
  • https://nyghosts.com/st-marks-church/
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2014/07/adam-allyn-comedian-trinity-church-cemetery/
  • https://the-line-up.com/ghosts-st-marks-church-in-the-bowery
  • https://the-line-up.com/the-headless-ghost-of-st-pauls-chapel
  • https://untappedcities.com/2017/06/09/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-st-pauls-chapel/?displayall=true
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/archivists-mailbag/church-wee-hours
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/archivists-mailbag/trees-inside-st-pauls-chapel
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Mark’s_Church_in-the-Bowery
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Turney_Stewart
  • https://gomadnomad.com/2011/10/25/new-york-city-haunted-cemeteries/
  • http://www.liparanormalinvestigators.com/haunted-places-on-li/the-five-boroughs/trinity-church-cemetery/
  • http://www.scoutingny.com/the-masked-lady-of-broadway/
    https://nyghosts.com/st-marks-church/
  • https://keithyorkcity.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/st-johns-graveyard-little-leaguers-now-play-ball-above-10000-corpses/
  • https://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/05/burying-ground-below-ballfield-james.html

Don’t miss our past episodes:

A look at two of NYC’s oldest and most haunted churches: Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, two famous houses of worship in Manhattan’s Financial District with cemeteries tucked into their churchyards.

Highlights include:
• Disinterring corpses to free up space in the cemetery
• A body (and ghost?) with a missing head
• Edgar Allen Poe’s possible cemetery cottage
• 2:30 am church services
• A child’s Egyptian-style sarcophagus found during a playground’s construction
• A look at some of the forgotten evils that happened in Manhattan

 

You can listen to more audio on patreon ($3/month): https://www.patreon.com/buriedsecrets

Follow us on instagram @buriedsecretspodcast

E-mail us at buriedsecretspodcast@gmail.com

Pictures of Haunted Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel

Haunted Trinity Church

Ruins of Trinity Church from Etchings of Old New York, Illustrations from “Old New York: from the Battery to Bloomingdale” by Eliza Greatorex and M. Despard (1875)

Haunted Trinity Church

Trinity Church from Walks in Our Churchyards: Old New York, Trinity Parish By John Flavel Mines · 1896

St. John’s burying ground, from the New York Public Library’s collections

St. John's cemetery

St. John’s burial ground from the New York Public Library’s collections

 

Haunted St. Paul's Chapel

View of the churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel from Etchings of Old New York, Illustrations from “Old New York: from the Battery to Bloomingdale” by Eliza Greatorex and M. Despard (1875)

 
Haunted St Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s Chapel from Etchings of Old New York, Illustrations from “Old New York: from the Battery to Bloomingdale” by Eliza Greatorex and M. Despard (1875)

Haunted St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s seen from the south side; from Etchings of Old New York, Illustrations from “Old New York: from the Battery to Bloomingdale” by Eliza Greatorex and M. Despard (1875)

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Episode Script for Haunted Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, NYC

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

 

“The dead have company here. The feet of the living pass up and down the street hard by, and among these footfalls are those of descendants of the quiet ones. . . They are sleeping, too, in the shadows of the homes in which they lived and were happy.” -Walks in Our Churchyards: Old New York, Trinity Parish By John Flavel Mines · 1896

 

  • As you may have guessed from the cold open, we’re talking haunted churches! We’ll be looking at two churches that are located in Manhattan’s Financial District: Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel. They’re both big tourist destinations near the World Trade Center, so if you’ve been to NYC as a tourist, you’ve almost certainly seen them.
  • The book I read from for the cold open is all about the churchyards of Trinity church, which held over 100,000 bodies. I really love that quote because it reframes the world basically from a ghost’s point of view, describing what the world must be like to one of the dead in the churchyards of a bustling city.

 

Trinity Church

  • Trinity Church stands pretty close to Wall Street, on Broadway, in the Financial District. When it was first built, it was on the banks of the Hudson River, but landfill has extended the Island out by a lot, so it’s sort of in the middle of that part of FiDi now.
  •  Trinity Church was first built in 1698, though the current Gothic Revival structure dates from the 1830s.
  •  120,000 bodies have been buried in Trinity Church’s small graveyard
  • Alexander Hamilton, one of my more hated historical figures, is buried in the churchyard there.
  • There’s a great quote from Andrea Janes, who founded a spooky tour company in NYC called Boroughs of the Dead, from a Business Insider article, that I wanted to read. She’s talking about how in 1822, the church’s sexton was so desperate to find space to bury more bodies that he would “go around with a spade, testing the earth and see where it was soft, where the coffins and corpses had become decrepit enough that you could dig right into them, and take the bones into the charnel house, and bury somebody new.”
  • Some bodies were buried just 18 inches below the surface.
  • The smell was so bad they had to lay lime down to combat the stench.
  • By 1842, they were really-really out of space, so they bought some land in upper Manhattan from ornithologist John James Audubon and started burying people up there.
  • As a sidenote: If you check out the episodes I did about Calvary Cemetery, I talk a bit about how space had become a big problem in Manhattan churchyards, which led to the Rural Cemetery Act, so check out those episodes for more on that.
  • Trinity also had a third cemetery in the Village, called St. John’s Cemetery, where 10,000 mostly poor and young people were buried between 1806-1852. Most people weren’t able to afford a tombstone: there were only about 800 monuments in the cemetery.
    •  The best-known person buried there was Aaron Burr’s first wife, Theodosia Bartow Burr.
    • Though there was also a sex worker named Helen Jewett, who was famously murdered in 1836, which became a media sensation. She was buried at St. John’s Cemetery, but four nights later, medical students stole and dissected her body.
    • The land was converted to a park in 1897, to much Trinity Church’s dismay. They moved 250 bodies and left the other 9,750 bodies there. The tombstones were buried in place; they just left one small memorial to some fallen firemen.
    • In an 1899 NY Tribune article, it was reported that all of the bones found when digging the park’s “lake” were reinterred beneath a large stone kiosk, which is where the bathrooms and bandstand are.
    • Then, when they later filled the lake, some of the old tombstones were used as fill.
    • It is now James J. Walker Park.
    • Back in 1939, during constriction on a playground renovation, they found a child-sized cast-iron coffin in an underground vault.
      • The coffin was an Egyptian style sarcophagus.

 The New York World-Telegram said  “The girl’s cast iron casket…had a glass window in the top. Her white silk dress still looked fresh and dainty. After 89 years, you could still see that she’d been a pretty yellow haired child.”

  • This was the body of Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, 6 years and 8 months old, died April 14, 1850. She died of brain congestion, and had lived with her family on East 9th Street, near Astor Place, in a house that no longer exists. Her father was a coal merchant from Bristol, as well as a prominent Mason. He was a grandmaster of St. John’s Lodge and he wrote a famous Masonic poem. Mary’s brother outlived her, going on to become a Greek professor at City College.
  • Today, Mary’s body lies in the catacombs beneath Trinity Church.
  • One weird sidenote: There’s an old map that shows the burial ground as it was in 1854, and there’s a little house on the burial ground, where there’s a handwritten note that says “E.A Poe 113 1/2”
    • So it seems possible that Edgar Allen Poe lived in a cemetery in Manhattan for a while, maybe in the 1830s
    • Elsewhere, though, it’s said that Poe lived on nearby Carmine Street and just liked walking in the cemetery.
  • There’s a 2014 blog post by Jeremy Sierra on Trinity Church’s website, where he details his coworkers’ experiences with ghosts in their offices at 74 trinity place, which is right behind Trinity Church. To read a bit of that:
    • “I’d heard about hauntings at 74 Trinity Place, where our offices were located until our move in September. . . .
    • Rita tells me that she saw a ghost on the fourth floor several times. It was almost a shadow, wearing what appeared to be 19th century clothing, including a hat with a big brim, she said.
    • She first time saw it in the storage room where they keep boxes of artwork from a 9/11 exhibit. Later, she found it peering into her office. “I’m not scared of them,” she said of the ghosts.
    • Two other staff members, Luke and Casey, describe a similar ghost on the 10th floor, which was used mostly storage, while doing an inventory. It briefly peeked its big-brimmed hat and head around the corner. They both felt chills. . . .
    • Strangely, though there are many thousands of people buried in the Trinity churchyard, there are few ghost stories in the Trinity archives. Anne, the archivist, can only tell me about 17th century medical students from Columbia University, who robbed the Trinity graveyard for bodies to use in their education. . . .  She does mention the time someone standing at her desk suddenly told her he saw an old man appear behind her.
    • Leah recounts a day in the archives years ago, when several boxes of notecards apparently threw themselves off a shelf. You can see the resulting mess in the photo below (she thinks it’s the ghost of Morgan Dix, former rector of Trinity. Those are indexes of his books).”
  • The blog post also reports that the Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones has blessed some offices that people said were haunted.
  • The book Haunted Manhattan reports that phantom laughter has been heard near the tombstone of one Adam Allyn, a comedian who died in 1768
  • There’s also the story of Robert Fulton, an inventor who designed the first steam-powered warship among other inventions. He was buried at the Trinity churchyard, and has been seen wandering around with a model of his steamboat, the Clermont.
    • He started appearing when most ferries stopped running after WWII, though as ferry service has increased in NYC recently, he supposedly appears less often
  • Since Alexander Hamilton is buried at Trinity Church, he’s been seen at nearby City Hall Park dressed in revolutionary war uniform.
    • He’s also been spotted near his grave
  • Captain Kidd, the famous privateer, is also said to haunt Trinity Church. Back in the 1690s, he provided a winch to raise the stones to for the church steeple
    • Though he was a privateer–which is basically a pirate with permission from the government–he was scapegoated for piracy and hanged in London in 1701. He wasn’t even allowed to defend himself.
    • Though he died in London, he supposedly wished to be buried at Trinity Church, so the story is that he still walks around the churchyard

 

St. Paul’s Chapel

  • If you go a few blocks north on Broadway, you’ll arrive at St. Paul’s Chapel.
  • Located in the Financial District near City Hall Park, this chapel used to be part of my daily landscape. Back when I still worked in an office, my wife Amy and I would go for a few-mile-long walk every morning before work, and we always passed by St. Paul’s Chapel.
  • I rarely took lunch breaks, but when I did, I usually visited the cemetery, which is in the churchyard behind St. Paul’s Chapel, and is full of many worn-down monuments and is a peaceful little spot to walk through, even though it’s next to the Oculus, a major transportation hub, and the World Trade Center.
  • St. Paul’s Chapel is famous because of its proximity to the WTC.
    • Building 5 of the WTC was right across the street from St. Paul’s, and the towers were a block away.
    • Though St. Paul’s churchyard ended up with a lot of debris and some broken tombstones during the attach, the chapel was totally fine.
    • For months after the disaster, it was a relief center for recovery workers and a sort of shrine memorializing the dead.
    • In 2003, the churchyard was restored: the headstones had to be vacuumed and washed, because corrosive particles had gotten into their surfaces because of the dust storm from the towers’ collapse. There were also two inches of ash-filled topsoil that they got rid of and replaced with sod
  • But I mention all of this mostly because that’s what it’s known for now. But its history goes way back.
  • I wanted to read a bit more from Walks in Our Churchyards, became the author really eloquently describes what I felt when I’d go down to the cemetery on my lunch breaks:
    • They who sleep beneath are not the dead, but the living. We know about them; have read of their faults and their virtues . . . We are the dreamers and they are the folk of action. You shall be passing any night when the moon is shining on these grasses and look through the iron rails that keep out a disturbing world, and every stone shall cry out to you from its sculpturings and make you long to know the story of the ashes that was once a man or woman of your world, and then you shall turn away and gaze upon the painted names of men that gleam from the walls of buildings across the way and that eagerly announce their business to the world, and you shall feel no such throb of sympathy nor sense of weird comradeship as when your face was set towards the dead. Did I not say that we are the dreamers?
  • I just love how goth people were in the 19th century.
  • St. Paul’s Chapel the oldest standing church in NYC, in part because when the British captured NYC during the Revolutionary war, they burnt down a quarter of the city in the Great New York City Fire of 1776, including Trinity Church.
  • When the church was completed in 1766, it was the tallest building in the city.
  • St. Paul’s Chapel is a late Georgian Style church.
  • After George Washington was inaugurated as president in 1789, he prayed at St. Paul’s, and he attended St. Paul’s until Philly became the capitol of the US in 1790. So there’s a pew set aside for him there.
  • St. Paul’s has other revolutionary war ties. There’s a big monument to Major General Richard Montgomery, who fought in the Revolutionary war and was killed during an assault on Montreal in 1775. The monument was built in 1776. In 1818, his body was disinterred from where it’d been buried, in Quebec, and brought to St. Paul’s Church to be buried beneath the chapel’s east porch.
  • The churchyard behind the church, on the west side, has 800 gravestones, and there are 30 vaults beneath the churchyard and the chapel.
  • People stopped being buried there in the 19th century when it became illegal to bury people in lower Manhattan, though some people were still buried in family vaults up until the early 20th century.
  • A few other interesting things about the chapel:
  • On and off from around 1904-1918, St. Paul’s had a 2:30 AM service every Sunday.
    • Many of the city’s newspapers and print shops were nearby, as well as the post office and telegraph companies, where people worked 24/7. And their work was lit by the light bulb, since the neighborhood had gotten electricity in 1882.
    • There were about 5,000 nigh workers in the area, and 2,000 of them were Protestant. The nearby Catholic church had late-night mass which many Protestants ended up going to because there was no other option, so a vicar named Montague Geer decided that there should be a protestant option for middle-of-the-night services.
    • Usually around 70-100 people attended
    • In 1911, St. Paul’s got an electric sign on the broadway side which they turned on at 10 pm Saturday nights and had on till 3:30 am on Sundays, to advertise the service
  • In 1962, during some conservation work on the chapel, they found bones and hundreds of oyster shells beneath the flooring.
    • The shells suggested that the area had been a camp for indigenous people (I’d assume the Lenape? Though the report I read didn’t say for sure.)
    • The bones were from sheep, cows, and pigs.
    • They also found, beneath a pew on the far east side, an old flyer from a Barnum show from 1872. PT Barnum’s Museum was once across the street from the chapel, and he had a traveling show associated with it.
    • Then, when they took the casing off the columns that hold up the roof, they found that they were actually huge tree trunks. They’re pine trunks with about a 24″ diameter at the bottom, which had been fashioned into an octagonal shape and then put into stone bases. So they were surprising to discover that.
    • Then, as they removed some marble flooring that had been put down in the 19th century, which had fallen into disrepair, they found bits of old glass bottles. And in the south center aisle, beneath the floor, they discovered fragments of two small tombstones. Strangely, both the people mentioned on the tombstones were buried out in the churchyard, so the tombstones presence beneath the chapel floor was a mystery.
  • So what ghost stories are associated with St. Paul’s?
    • The big one is the headless ghost of an actor named George Frederick Cooke. In life, he’d been a successful Shakespearean actor. He’d also been an alcoholic who owed some people a lot of money. He went to America on tour in 1810, where he played Richard III in NY to great acclaim, and then went on to Boston, Providence, Philly, and Baltimore. But when the war of 1812 broke out, he got stuck in the US. He died of cirrhosis while in NY in 1812, and he was buried at St. Paul’s Chapel, initially in the Stranger’s Vault.
      • He was famous, so people were morbidly interested in his corpse, in a very 19th century way.
      • For example, it’s said that his toe or finger was stolen by another actor who sent it to Cooke’s wife in London. Cooke’s wife was horrified and threw it away.
      • When they moved his body from the Stranger’s Vault to a public grave, his head was missing.
      • Now, there’s probably no big mystery here. To pay his outstanding debts, Cooke had left his head to science. (Apparently they paid for that kind of thing back in the day.)
      • So, after he died, he was decapitated.
      • In 1821, Cooke was re-buried with a new memorial paid for by one of his protegees.
      • The story goes that his skull was used as Yorick’s skull during performances of Hamlet at New York’s Park Theater. It’s definitely not unheard of for famous actors’ skulls to be used in Hamlet performances.
      • In 1938, Cooke’s skull was donated to the Thomas Jefferson Medical School Library in Philly.
      • Starting in 1821, when Cooke’s new monument was put up, people began saying that his headless ghost has been seen prowling around the churchyard and in an nearby alley where a theater once stood. Some people say he’s searching for his missing head.
    • There have also been reports of George Washington’s ghost appearing to pray at the chapel

 

  • Also, this is just an aside, but as usual, it’s a long aside:
    • I’ve said this before, but I don’t think you can really talk about hauntings in a location without talking about the location’s history. And so when talking about hauntings in lower Manhattan, we need to look at the history of real, bone-chilling evil done in Manhattan’s Financial District, which has been happening for a long time.
    • Wall Street has done a lot of bad things in recent years that are too numerous to go into, but I think everyone knows about. But I want to take a couple minutes to talk about the genocide and human rights abuses that occurred in this area, as well.
      • What a lot of people don’t know or forget is that Wall Street was basically built by the slave trade.
      • Enslaved people literally built the wall that wall street was named after, back in the 1600s.
      • And just a reminder, the Transatlantic slave trade was huge: it’s estimated to have involved 40,000 ships carrying about 80 people per day for 400 years.
      • For two centuries, New York was the capital of American slavery. For pretty much as long as New York–or really, New Amsterdam–existed, there were enslaved people.
      • During the colonial period, 41% of New York’s households owned slaves. For comparison, in Philly, that number was 6%, and in Boston, it was 2%.
      • After Charleston, South Carolina, NYC was the largest slave-owning port city. During the mid-1700s, 1 in 5 New Yorkers were enslaved.
      • In the 18th century, Wall Street was home to a major market that sold enslaved people. Established in 1709, it was a privately owned market where grain, meal, and people were sold. It was called the Meal Market.
      • On Wall Street, there’s a big famous building called Federal Hall–you’ve definitely seen it on TV, it’s all white stone and grand columns.
      • Federal Hall, back when it was the British City Hall, used to have a jail on the top floor and a dungeon in the basement. And in 1741, during a slave rebellion, 100 enslaved people were captured and thrown in the dungeon. They spent an entire summer trapped in the dungeon, and during that time, many of them were killed.
      • Also, I talk about this in more detail during the episode about Potter’s Fields in Manhattan, but there’s also a long-forgotten cemetery where both free and enslaved Black people were buried, just north of City Hall park, a short walk north on Broadway from Trinity Church.
        • That burial ground was totally forgotten until 1991, when a big construction project turned up human remains.
        • But about 20,000 Black people had been buried in Lower Manhattan, and back in the late 1700s, a number of bodies were stolen for medical experiments.
      • Slavery in New York lasted until 1827, when it was finally abolished in the state. Slavery had been outlawed in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania 40 years before.
      • Despite NYC’s ties to slavery, that part of the city’s history has been pretty much written out and forgotten.
    • But the dark history of the area around Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel doesn’t stop there, unfortunately. Today, there’s a museum in the Financial District called the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum stands on the location where Fort Amsterdam, the Dutch headquarters on the tip of Manhattan, was in the 1600s.
      • In the 1840s, the director general of New Amsterdam (basically the governor) was a man named Willem Kieft.
      • Kieft was a fail son, as far as I can tell. He had no real experience or qualifications; it seems that the Dutch West India Company appointed him as director because he had family connections.
      • So this fail son came to New Amsterdam, took the helm and decided that he was going to reduce operating costs by demanding tribute payments from the indigenous peoples living in the area.
      • He was told not to do that, by colonists who’d lived in the area for a while, but he ignored them.
      • Tribal leadership said they weren’t going to pay the tribute.
      • So Kieft started pushing for a war, and eventually decided to kill every Algonquin, but especially the women and children.
      • Kieft’s forces killed 120 people, in North Jersey (then known as Pavonia) and the Lower East Side (then known as Corlear’s Hook).
      • This part is very graphic, but a Dutch man named David Pietersz. de Vries wrote in his journal:

“Infants were torn from their mother’s breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents, and pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown”

  • After the massacre, the heads of the murdered people were put up around Fort Amsterdam as decoration.
  • During the ensuing war, white colonizers fled to Fort Amsterdam, and Kieft decided to create a buffer area between Fort Amsterdam and the Algonquian-speaking Lenape, in the land that the white people had left.
    • That buffer area was about 130 acres of land, centering on where Washington Square Park was today.
    • The land was called “Land of the Blacks” or “Free Negro Lots,” and was inhabited by Black people who were considered half-free. 
    • Half-freedom or partial freedom was a thing in New Amsterdam in the mid-1600s, where some enslaved Black people were allowed to earn wages (also, at the time, it apparently wasn’t uncommon for working class white people to marry half-free Black people.)
    • There were about 30 farms in “Land of the Blacks.” And it seems that as the English took over New Amsterdam, the Dutch freed about 40 people who had half-slave status, so the English wouldn’t re-enslave them.
      • I’m not 100% sure, but I think that may have been what happened to some of the inhabitants of “Land of the Blacks.”
      • Though I do think the British ended land-owning rights for Black people.
    • What we do know is that the village was destroyed by anti-Black laws after the New York Slave Revolt of 1712.
    • Afterwards, there apparently was a neighborhood called Little Africa, in Greenwich Village. In the late 19th century, a lot of the inhabitants of Little Africa were from the south, and had moved up to NY after the civil war ended.
    • At its height, more than 14,000 formerly enslaved Black people lived on Minetta Street and Minetta Lane in the Village.
    • It sounds like most Black residents left the area by the mid-19th century.
    • Little Africa also had the first Black church in the city, Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church.
      • The congregation, which was founded in 1796, still meets today in a neo-Gothic building on 137th Street, in Harlem.
      • The current building opened in 1925, but the congregation met several other places over its hundreds of years of existence, and it was an important part of the abolitionist movement, and was an Underground Railway refuge.
  • That was a bit of history that I found really interesting and wanted to share, however, to go back to the 1600s:
  • After the massacre of indigenous peoples and the war that resulted from Kieft’s bloodthirsty and foolish agenda, Kieft was fired in 1647 and replaced with Peter Stuyvesant.
  • Kieft drowned in a shipwreck on the way back to the Netherlands, and good riddance.
  • Peter Stuyvesant also wasn’t great, though.
  • We’ll talk about Stuyvesant in next week’s episode, but he was the last director general of New Amsterdam, and there are a TON of ghost stories about Stuyvesant, one of which I shared in the Ghosts of Hell Gate episode.
  • Stuyvesant was an awful guy.
  • He was famous for hating religious freedom. He was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and had issues with Lutherans, Catholics, and Quakers. But he especially hated Jewish people; he was a famed anti-Semite.
  • A few things he did included denying Jewish people equal rights, as well as saying a lot of awful things about Jewish people. He tried to get Jewish people, even those with Dutch passports, forcibly deported from the colony, though the Dutch West India Company didn’t let him do that.
  • He also ordered the public torture of a 23-year-old Quaker preacher, and he passed a law saying that anyone who harbored Quakers would be punished with fines and imprisonment
  • A lot of stuff in NYC is named after Stuyvesant, including a famous housing development called Stuyvesant Town,  a very good high school, Stuyvesant High School, and a neighborhood called Bedford-Stuyvesant. Everyone calls them Stuytown, Stuy High, and Bed-Stuy, so it’s easy to forget that they’re named after him.

 

Sources consulted RE: Haunted Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel

Books

Websites

  • https://www.businessinsider.com/the-haunted-history-of-lower-manhattan-2015-10
  • https://www.huffpost.com/entry/wall-streets-slave-peddli_n_1147314
  • https://www.nps.gov/afbg/learn/historyculture/enslavement.htm
  • https://peoplesworld.org/article/slavery-in-new-york-uncovering-the-brutal-truth/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_slave_trade
  • http://www.slaveryinnewyork.org/history.htm
  • http://www.slaveryinnewyork.org/about_exhibit.htm
  • https://www.nps.gov/afbg/learn/historyculture/enslavement.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Director_of_New_Netherland
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Kieft
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kieft%27s_War
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Amsterdam
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Church_(Manhattan)
  • https://untappedcities.com/2017/06/09/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-st-pauls-chapel/?displayall=true
  • https://didyouknowfacts.com/the-headless-ghost-of-st-pauls-chapel/
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/archivists-mailbag/trees-inside-st-pauls-chapel
  • https://untappedcities.com/2017/06/09/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-st-pauls-chapel/?displayall=true
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Paul%27s_Chapel
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Mark’s_Church_in-the-Bowery
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery_in_New_York_(state)#Half-slavery
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_of_the_Blacks_(Manhattan)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_African_Methodist_Episcopal_Zion_Church
  • Information about Little Africa and the history of Black people in Greenwich Village: https://greenwichvillage.nyc/blog/2020/02/10/look-black-history-village/
  • https://atlantablackstar.com/2015/06/16/burial-remains-tell-the-story-of-new-yorks-little-africa/
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/02/nyregion/in-their-footsteps.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algonquian_peoples
  • https://untappedcities.com/2015/02/25/today-in-nyc-history-a-1643-massacre-of-the-lenape-almost-dooms-new-amsterdam/
  • https://www.ncai.org/resources/resolutions/national-american-indian-holocaust-museum
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_Burial_Ground_National_Monument
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/trinity-notes/ghosts-trinity
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Church_Cemetery
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_J._Walker_Park
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s_Burying_Ground
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/archives/mummy-trinity-church
  • https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/74852371/mary-elizabeth-tisdall
  • https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/mary-elizabeth-tisdall/
  • https://keithyorkcity.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/st-johns-graveyard-little-leaguers-now-play-ball-above-10000-corpses/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/st-johns-cemetery/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/st-marks-in-the-bowery-churchyard-and-cemetery/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/st-pauls-chapel-churchyard/
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/544841964/
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/75469677@N00/4420876543/in/set-72157623465293193/
  • https://www.6sqft.com/10-offbeat-spots-that-reveal-new-york-citys-haunted-history/
  • https://ny.curbed.com/maps/new-york-city-haunted-buildings-halloween
  • https://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2015/10/the-ghost-of-peter-stuyvesant-may-still-haunt-the-east-village.html
  • https://www.nypl.org/blog/2010/02/02/where-st-johns-old-burying-ground
  • https://nypost.com/2014/10/25/the-hidden-cemeteries-of-nyc/
  • https://www.6sqft.com/what-lies-below-nycs-forgotten-and-hidden-graveyards/
  • https://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/05/burying-ground-below-ballfield-james.html
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2389220
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Church_Cemetery
  • https://the-line-up.com/haunted-churches
  • https://nyghosts.com/st-marks-church-in-the-bowery/
  • http://www.weirdus.com/states/new_york/ghosts/st_marks_church/index.php
  • https://nyghosts.com/st-marks-church/
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2014/07/adam-allyn-comedian-trinity-church-cemetery/
  • https://the-line-up.com/ghosts-st-marks-church-in-the-bowery
  • https://the-line-up.com/the-headless-ghost-of-st-pauls-chapel
  • https://untappedcities.com/2017/06/09/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-st-pauls-chapel/?displayall=true
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/archivists-mailbag/church-wee-hours
  • https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/blogs/archivists-mailbag/trees-inside-st-pauls-chapel
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Mark’s_Church_in-the-Bowery
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Turney_Stewart
  • https://gomadnomad.com/2011/10/25/new-york-city-haunted-cemeteries/
  • http://www.liparanormalinvestigators.com/haunted-places-on-li/the-five-boroughs/trinity-church-cemetery/
  • http://www.scoutingny.com/the-masked-lady-of-broadway/
    https://nyghosts.com/st-marks-church/
  • https://keithyorkcity.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/st-johns-graveyard-little-leaguers-now-play-ball-above-10000-corpses/
  • https://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/05/burying-ground-below-ballfield-james.html

Don’t miss our past episodes:

Paranormal stories about New York City’s Hell Gate abound, from stories about a serial killer living inside the Hell Gate Bridge, to a tale of an encounter with the devil and a possible EVP that Chris just found in a recording from April.

Many of the stories of the Hell Gate center around the grand Hell Gate Bridge, so this episode dives into the bridge’s history, as well as accounts of people sneaking up onto the bridge and exploring it. The episode closes out with a recording that Chris did on the shore alongside the Hell Gate back in April 2020, which Chris thought was just a normal recording, but which maybe actually contains a couple somewhat terrifying EVPs? (Listen to the end for that.)

Highlights include:
• The best place to hide from zombies in NYC
• Other Hell Gates
• The Nazi plot to destroy the Hell Gate bridge
• A funny flaw in the Hell Gate’s paint job

Note: This episode includes brief mentions of suicide.

You can listen to more audio on patreon ($3/month): https://www.patreon.com/buriedsecrets

Follow us on instagram @buriedsecretspodcast

E-mail us at buriedsecretspodcast@gmail.com

Pictures of the Hell Gate Bridge

The Hell Gate Bridge, April 2020

Beneath the Hell Gate Bridge, April 2020

The Hell Gate Bridge, April 2020

The Triboro Bridge (left) and Hell Gate Bridge (right)

The underside of the Hell Gate Bridge, with its red lights, April 2020

The Triboro Bridge with the Hell Gate bridge behind it, April 2020

The Hell Gate Bridge seen from Astoria Park, April 2020

Plaque commemorating the General Slocum Disaster, April 2020

Triboro Bridge seen from near the Hell Gate Bridge, April 2020

The bottom of the Hell Gate bridge

The bottom of the Hell Gate bridge, November 2020

Hell Gate mural beneath the Hell Gate bridge in Astoria Park

Hell Gate mural beneath the Hell Gate bridge in Astoria Park, November 2020

The Hell Gate, with the RFK and Hell Gate Bridge in the distance

The Hell Gate, with the RFK and Hell Gate Bridge in the distance, November 2020

The Hell Gate and Hell Gate Bridge seen from Astoria Park

The Hell Gate and Hell Gate Bridge seen from Astoria Park, November 2020

 

Episode Script for The Haunted Hell Gate, New York City

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“At first he thought that he might be dreaming, for Hell Gate was a place of such repute that one might readily have bad dreams there, and the legends of the spot passed quickly through his mind: the skeletons that lived in the wreck . . . and looked out at passing ships with blue lights in the eye-sockets of their skulls” -Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land by Charles M. Skinner (1896)

 

  • Sidenote, while I was googling stuff like “hell gate haunted” and “hell gate ghosts,” a bunch of other hell gates came up, including haunted houses, but also a few other interesting spots:
    • One is a cemetery in south Carolina called Oakwood Cemetery that’s been nicknamed Hells Gate. It began as a potters field for prisoners who were then relocated, leading to reports of paranormal activity. But then also in 2012, a caretaker found that someone had broken into a concrete vault and pried open a casket, stealing the head of a corpse. Then, a month later, the robbers dumped the head back into the cemetery (without returning it to the casket.)
    • There’s also a cemetery in Kentucky called Kasey Cemetery, which has been nicknamed The Gates of Hell, which has the run-of-the-mill haunting stories.
    • There’s also a ghost town called Huntsville, in Alabama, which has a that has a huge mansion with a creepy, heavy black gate that people have dubbed “Hell’s Gate,” and which sits at the base of  mountain. Supposedly if you drive up to it, a phantom car chases you off and then disappears. But if you get beyond the gate, you reach an area called  “Owens Cross Roads” which apparently is very spooky, and you’ll hear screams and people running around you, etc.
    • There’s also a Hell Gate bridge in Alabama, where a young couple supposedly ran their car off the side and drowned, and there’re stories about the couple materializing in your car, or of seeing a portal to hell full of flames, if you drive across it. The bridge is now is closed to cars and in a state of disrepair.
  • Well, another Hell Gate Bridge that’s closed to cars is our own Hell Gate Bridge right here in NYC. It’s a railroad bridge that was completed in 1916.
    • It was a big deal when in 1917, a Pennsylvania Railroad train went over the bridge, carrying passengers from Washington to Boston, because that was the first time there’s been uninterrupted train travel between the cities.
    • Construction of the bridge was very dangerous, especially since the bridge is over 1,000 feet high, but no one died during the project.
    • The bridge is extremely sturdy. Around 2017, one Astoria resident, who’d been inside the bottom part of the stone pier, told the New York Times that if zombies ever attack NYC, he’s going to the Hell Gate. To quote him: “It looks like an old castle. There’s a room that is seven, eight stories high…. And the view is fantastic.”
      • It’s been said that if humans were wiped out, the other NYC bridges would all crumble within 100-300 years without maintenance, whereas the Hell Gate would last for 1,000 years.
    • The bridge is an important part of rail travel in the Northeast Corridor, but during World War II, it was important for transporting weapons too.
      • Because of that, it was a target for the Nazis–they sent in a group of saboteurs via a U-boat that landed on Long Island in the middle of the night on June 13, 1942.
      • Luckily, a member of the coast guard saw them, but he was unarmed so had to just report them to the authorities. A manhunt began, but the group of saboteurs managed to catch the last train to the city and stay in a hotel near Penn Station for the night. However, one of the group’s leaders lost his nerve and turned himself in, and the FBI arrested the rest of the group, who were all electrocuted. The man who turned himself in was sent back to Germany, but since he was a traitor, the Germans wouldn’t allow him in, so he lived on the American side of the Berlin wall for pretty much the rest of his life, and died in 1992, when he was 89.
    • Nowadays the bridge is owned by Amtrak, and contains two Amtrak tracks and one freight track.
    • The bridge was repainted for the first time in the 1990s. They chose a rich red color, called “Hell gate Red,” but a flaw in the paint caused it to fade to a sort of splotchy pinkish color. The fading started before they were even done repainting.
    • There are some additional stories about the Hell Gate that I didn’t get to last week, so let’s get into those.
      • First, I read some stuff that I haven’t been able to confirm, but which is interesting so I’m gonna repeat it: supposedly, there are stories of British soldiers during the revolutionary war tying American prisoners to rocks in the Hell Gate and so that they drowned when the tide rose. Supposedly people hear their cries to this day.
      • There have also definitely been suicides in the Hell Gate area. I’ve walked across the RFK bridge, which is next to the Hell Gate Bridge, and there are tons of signs imploring people not to jump. It’s been years since I’ve been there but I also remember there being a telephone there that you could call for help from?
        • One sidenote, though, is that since COVID started, I’ve noticed some “please don’t kill yourself” signs that have been added to the Queensboro Bridge, which connects Queens and Manhattan and runs over Roosevelt Island. That’s definitely new.
        • But at any rate, anywhere where there’s been a lot of suicides, there’ll be a lot of ghost stories.
      • Supposedly there were also a bunch of mafia body drops around the bridge.
    • So let’s get into some of the Hell Gate’s ghost stories, which mostly center around the bridge:
      • In the 1970s, there was an urban legend among teenagers about a dangerous insane man living inside one of the bridge’s towers. People said that he set up a torture chamber in there to torment the children he kidnapped. People would dare each other to climb up the hellgate bridge.
        • One thing that kind of made me think about was the Staten Island urban legend, Cropsey, which has some similarities, so if you’re interested in that type of urban legend, there’s a pretty good documentary about that called Cropsey.
        • One thing that unites both the Hell Gate Bridge legends and Cropsey is that both locations are near insane asylums. When the Hell Gate Bridge was first built, people worried that insane patients from the asylum on Ward’s Island, which the bridge connects to Queens, would escape. The idea was that they’d hide out in the towers and attack residents of Astoria. They even reworked part of the plans for the bridge to make the towers harder to climb. So you can see where the urban legend came from.
      • People say they see orbs and lights near the bridge. The story is that they’re the souls of the  many people who’ve died there.
      • Urban explorers have climbed  up onto the bridge, which is of course both dangerous and illegal since it’s an active train line.
        • I read one website (https://www.vanshnookenraggen.com/) that said that the southern arch of the bridge was built to resemble a triumphal arch, like in Rome
        • They said that you could climb up into the arches and see the city from up top, from 7-8 stories high. They said that the spiral staircase inside the arch is pitch black, has a small iron staircase, and has some large slits like arrowslits in medieval castles. They also said that the air inside the arches is extremely heavy and full of particles, and that there’s tons of dirt all over the floors.
        • I wanted to read a bit of this urban explorer’s account:
          • On our way down we happened to catch sight of a light further below in the tower. Climbing down further we discovered that the tower itself was hollow and inside were four great halls, 7 stories tall each. . . . A stairwell led down under the floor to a locked door, one which was familiar to me from my many walks around the outside of the bridge in the day. This was the easy way, the less fun way, the practical way in.
        • I’ll link to the whole account in the shownotes, it’s accompanied by pictures and I really recommend you checking it out.
        • There are also some interesting comments on the post: A commenter named George Hall also had an interesting story about climbing up onto the bridge in the 70s:
          • “Kids used to climb up into the gridwork from the stone base attached to the park and see how far the could or dared to go out over the river. A long rope was somehow involved. The river was much more intimidating then. There were severe whirlpools under the bridge; occasionally smaller recreational craft would get stuck there. “
  • I also wanted to read a comment by an Alexander P:
    • Seeing your beautiful pics of The Hell Gate Bridge brings me back to my youth as a teenager growing up in Astoria in early 80’s.My brother Nick,myself and our friend Perry used to free climb the bridge all the time.We would start at the base of the bridge on the Astoria park side.We would free climb up the
    • Angled beams that ran to the railroad tracks on top.We became so proficient at it that we would have contests to see how fast we could make it to the top. Our fastest time was 68 seconds.We would challenge ourselves all the time by using different free climbing technics.We would even free climb in the rain.We used to climb up and go down the beams on the Randills Island side.When I think back on all the adventures we had on thar bridge I’m astounded as to how fearless and athletic we where,and Insanely stupid!!! we had a few near death incidents but that never stopped us.I sometimes now have dreams about climbing the bridge again,and in my dreams I’m terrified.One of my most precious life memories is sitting in the middle of the top arch on a cloudless warm summer day and looking at the breathtaking view.I was master of all I surveyed.
  • It’s hard to find specific stories of hauntings and ghosts around Hell Gate, even though there are many more vague legends, but I wanted to read this bit from a post on the Newtown Pentacle blog, which is a really cool blog that I recommend checking out:
    • Why the Amtrak people have never sprung for a lighting system for the Hell Gate Bridge, I cannot imagine. It’s like owning a luxury car and never washing or polishing it. Might have something to do with not disturbing those battrachian things, that cannot possibly exist, which live on the bottom of the Hell Gate section of the East River. Peter Stuyvesant is rumored to have left behind a message scrawled onto a piece of yellowed parchment, which every Mayor of NYC has received on their first day in office, advising that there are things in NY Harbor which are best left alone. The Lenape knew that it is best not to delve too deep, nor stare too long into the abyssal water hereabouts, lest that which dwells below takes notice.
    • Do you honestly believe that the United States Army Corps of Engineers set off the greatest explosion in human history here back in 1885, a detonation whose force was only exceeded after the emergence of the Atomic Bomb, merely to aid navigation? . . .
    • There wasn’t much movement in the water, but I was prepared to bolt just in case. I’ve heard tell of an orthodox priest named Kiriglou that would spend his evenings along this stretch of Hells Gate back in the early 1980’s. Rumors and stories, myths and legends, that’s what the native Astorians routinely offer in return for a shot of whisky. Supposedly this Kiriglou fellow would toss some kind of charm, attached to a stout cord, into the water and mutter words described to me as a rough sort of Cretan dialect, one which the teller believed to originate in the rugged Sfakia region of that ancient island. Nobody knew if Kiriglou was associated with one of the wholesome Orthodox churches frequented by the local Hellenic community, or was some sort of heretic or ascetic. What happened to him, and what he was doing with that charm, is just another Astoria story.
  • I’d never heard this story about Peter Stuyvesant’s note, but I love it. (Peter Stuyvesant was basically the last Dutch governor of NYC back in the 1600s) I’m also not sure how many of the story I just read is made up or a joke, but still, it’s evocative and interesting and I like it.
    • The Newtown Pentacle did turn me onto a 1896 book called Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, which had some stories I hadn’t seen elsewhere
    • First, it describes Peter Stuyvesant’s encounter with the devil:
      • “Satan appears to have troubled the early settlers in America almost as grievously as he did the German students. He came in many shapes to many people, and sometimes he met his match. Did he not try to stop old Peter Stuyvesant from rowing through Hell Gate one moonlight night, and did not that tough old soldier put something at his shoulder that Satan thought must be his wooden leg? But it wasn’t a leg: it was a gun, loaded with a silver bullet that had been charged home with prayer. Peter fired and the missile whistled off to Ward’s Island, where three boys found it afterward and swapped it for double handfuls of doughnuts and bulls’ eyes. Incidentally it passed between the devil’s ribs and the fiend exploded with a yell and a smell, the latter of sulphur, to Peter’s blended satisfaction and alarm.”
  • It describes the pirate spook, a person “who used to brattle around the tavern at Corlaer’s Hook, and who tumbled into the East River while trying to lug an iron chest aboard of a suspicious craft that had stolen in to shore in a fog. This . . . Bogy was often seen riding up Hell Gate a-straddle of that very chest, snapping his fingers at the stars and roaring Bacchanalian odes, just as skipper Onderdonk’s boatswain, who had been buried at sea without prayers, chased the ship for days, sitting on the waves, with his shroud for a sail, and shoving hills of water after the vessel with the plash of his hands.”
  • The most famous haunted story about hell Gate is this: Supposedly, if you hear a train stop on the bridge in the middle of the night, that means it’s letting out the ghosts of the people who drowned in the Hell Gate. Some people say it’s not a real train, but a ghost train.
  • Y’all know that I’m both very interested in but sceptical of urban legends. I think that vague urban legends are interesting because they hint at what people are anxious about or scared of, but I don’t think they hold much water in terms of likelihood of being real. For me, the more detailed and specific an urban legend or haunting story is, the more likely I am to think there could be something there.
    • So let’s talk about trains stopping in the middle of the night. I used to live in a weird part of Queens that was sort of a dead zone between the neighborhoods of Astoria, Woodside, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. And my apartment happened to be smack-dab between two train lines:
      • The Amtrak ran right outside my bedroom window, so close that I had people tell me they saw me sitting at my desk. In fact, when we came back from Salem earlier this year, I was able to see into my old bedroom window and saw that the current tenant still has the ikea curtains I bought back in 2012.
      • Then, on the other side of the apartment, at the front of the house, you could see the highway, which I guess would have been the BQE, and another set of train tracks. This carried the freight train, or as I called it, the “trash train” because it often seemed like the cars were full of trash.
      • So you could go to bed to the sound of the passenger train, and then get up an eat breakfast and watch the trash train go by.
      • For the record, it was a huge, beautiful apartment–it was a 3-br, 2-bath with a dishwasher and balcony and my roommates and I had a whole floor, and our rent was really low.
      • But the reason why I bring this up is I can confirm two things, because since I used to sleep literally right next to the amtrak tracks: first, trains don’t really run late at night. Usually, if noise from the tracks woke me up at night, it was just construction workers fixing up the rails. And second, when trains do run, it wasn’t that unusual for the train to just sit for a while on the tracks. I wasn’t at a stop or anything; I was on basically the straightaway where the trains speed by between the suburbs of the city and the final stop in Manhattan. But it really was common for me to look out the window and just see a train full of passengers waiting on the tracks, I assume because of train traffic or delays at Penn Station. So I assume the same thing may happen on the Hell Gate Bridge when there’s traffic down the line.
      • So while I think the idea of the train stopping to let ghosts out on the bridge is very capital-R Romantic, I can say that it’s not strange at all that trains might stop on the bridge for a while. Though it is true that it’s not super common for trains to run late at night.
    • And finally, I will say that I’ve been to Astoria Park alone at night and it’s definitely creepy. I ventured there during the early days of the pandemic, on a rainy Friday night in April maybe, and it was pretty much empty and it was super creepy.
      • I actually did a recording of that trip to the part, so I’ll play us out on that audio–I’ll play three clips from that night where you can hear me getting really freaked out on the recording, after talking about some of the disasters that happened there, and then one where you can hear the waves, and one where you can hear the waves breaking on a beach of broken glass (put in audio for that)

Sources consulted RE: The Haunted Hell Gate

For more sources consulted, check out The General Slocum Disaster, Hell Gate, New York City.

Websites consulted RE: The Haunted Hell Gate

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The General Slocum Disaster: On a summer afternoon in 1904, the General Slocum, a supposedly unsinkable ship carrying about 1,300 people bound for a picnic, caught fire and sank in New York City’s notorious Hell Gate.

The General Slocum disaster was the second-worst maritime disaster in US history and the greatest loss of life in NYC before 9/11. But it’s been largely forgotten. When a church group and their neighbors went on an ill-fated day trip to Long Island, they encountered a disaster of unfathomable proportions, bolstered by greed, incompetence, and cowardice. And they would pay for other people’s mistakes with their own lives.

Over 1,000 people, mostly women and children, died that day, decimating the population of Manhattan’s Little Germany and devastating family members who’d been left behind. While this is an upsetting story, it’s an important one when looking at the Hell Gate’s history, as well as stories of the paranormal in the area.

Note: This episode contains stories about many people–including children–drowning and dying in a fire.

Highlights include:
• Drunk anarchists from Paterson, NJ
• What happened to NYC’s lost neighborhood of Little Germany
• An unsinkable ship that sank 8 years before the Titanic
• Heroic rescue efforts by tugboat captains and hospital employees and patients
• Guilty parties getting away with, if not murder, then manslaughter
• A possibly cursed ship

 

Episode Script for The General Slocum Disaster, Hell Gate, New York City

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • “It is absolutely impossible . . . to describe the horrible scene on the Slocum. The flames spread so rapidly and it seemed only a second before the whole craft was ablaze from end to end.” -an eyewitness quote printed in the New York Times, June 16, 1904
  • Next week, I want to talk about hauntings that have been reported in the Hell Gate area, but this week, I want to talk about one of the tragedies that inspired much of the talk of hauntings, bc it was so horrific. This is pretty upsetting, and includes stories about people drowning and dying in fires, and it also includes stories about children dying. So if any of that is something you don’t want to listen to, you can skip this episode and join me next week for the episode about the Hell Gate bridge and urban legends about the area.
    • In 1904, there was an accident that happened at Hell Gate, and it was the greatest loss of human life in a NYC disaster until 9/11. It was also the second-worst maritime disaster to happen in the US. This is a pretty upsetting story, so if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing, particularly stories about people drowning and children being hurt, maybe skip it.
    • The accident happened onboard the PS Genera Slocum, a passenger steamboat that had been built in Brooklyn in 1891. She was one of those boats with a sidewheel, and was 235 feet long, 37.5 feet long, and was built from white oak and yellow pine. It had a capacity of 3,000 passengers.
    • She had three decks, three watertight compartments, and 250 electric lights.
      • She was said to be unsinkable, because of the watertight compartments.
    • The General Slocum had issues from the beginning.
    • Just 4 months after being launched, in 1891, she ran aground in the Rockaways and had to be pulled out by tugboats.
    • On July 29 1894, she was returning from the Rockaways carrying 4,700 passengers and hit a sandbar with so much force that the electrical generator went out. That means that all the lights went out. Hundreds of people were injured in the chaos.
    • Then in August 1894, the General Slocum ran aground off Coney Island during a storm. And it sounds like during the storm, they had to transfer the passengers to a different ship to be brought away.
    • The next month, in September 1894, the General Slocum hit a tugboat in the East River, which damaged the General Slocum’s steering.
    • In July 1898, the General Slocum collided with a ship called the Amelia, near lower Manhattan.
    • My favorite anecdote is in August 17, 1901, the General Slocum was carrying 900 drunk anarchists from Paterson, NJ, when the anarchists “started a riot” on board and tried to take over the ship. The crew fought back and didn’t let them, and when they came back to shore, the police arrested 17 of the men.
    • Then, in 1902, the General Slocum ran aground again, with 400 people onboard. They couldn’t get the ship out, forcing the passengers to spend the night on the ship.
    • So the General Slocum had a very bad record already, when on Wednesday, June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was located in Little Germany in Manhattan, hired it to take them on an excursion for $350.
      • One sidenote: I’d never heard of Little Germany, because it doesn’t exist anymore, in part because a lot of people who lived there were on board the Slocum with the church group this day. But it had been a neighborhood in the Lower East Side and East Village.
    • It was tradition for the church group to go on a trip like this every year, and they’d done it for 17 consecutive years.
    • Over 1,400 people, mostly women and children, got onto the General Slocum, looking forward to the picnic they were going to have on Long Island. Someone told the NYT that the ratio of women to men on board had been 12:1, so it really was predominantly women.
    • The ship left at 9:30 am. The plan was for the boat to take them up the East River, then over to the Long Island Sound to a place called Eatons Neck, Long Island, where there was a picnic site.
    • It made it up much of the East River, but after it passed Roosevelt Island and passed under where the RFK bridge is today, a discarded cigarette–or maybe a match–started a fire started in the ship’s Lamp Room. Unfortunately, the room was full of straw, oily rags, and lamp oil, which fed the fire. Some eyewitnesses said that the fire actual started at a paint locker which was full of flammable liquides, or a cabin full of gasoline. Either way, there were a bunch of flammable things on this wooden boat.
    • Around 10 am, people noticed the fire.
    • A 12-year-old boy tried to warn the captain, but the captain didn’t believe him. It was 10 minutes before the captain was officially notified.
    • So, let’s pause here. This ship’s had a bunch of problems throughout its life, and the whole time, it’s been owned by the same company. Now, if you owned a boat that tended to have disasters happen to it, you’d think that you’d really make sure your safety protocols were all buttoned up.
    • However, my guess is that the owners’ negligence may have been responsible for some of the ship’s earlier issues, based on what happened here. Though the captain deserves a healthy amount of blame here as well.
      • The captain had a couple options here.
      • He could have run the ship aground, or stopped at a nearby landing.
        • From studying nautical maps of the Hell Gate, I can confirm that there were tons of docks they could have gone to: they were close to Manhattan, but also Blackwell’s Island, which had several docks, and Hallets Point and Hallet’s Cove, which had docks.
        • According to a NYT article from the days after the disaster, the ship was only 300 feet from the shore of Manhattan when the fire started
        • The captain said that tried to go to a pier at 134th street, but a tugboat captain told he he shouldn’t because there was lumber and oil tanks stored there.
        • Some people say that he didn’t do it because of insurance reasons.
        • Still others say that the captain was afraid the steering gear would break down because of the currents.
        • There are stories of people who stood on shore watching the ship burn, wondering why the captain didn’t just steer the ship to shore.
      • So instead he just kept going, straight into headwinds that fanned the flames.
        • Between the wind and the ship’s flammable paint, the fire got out of control quickly.
        • It sounds like he was aiming for North Brother Island, which was a mile away from where the ship caught fire.
    • But that might have been less of a disaster, if the owners had maintained or replaced the safety equipment at all.
      • When the crew tried to use the fire hose, they found it had rotted through.
      • When they tried to get the lifeboats down, they found they were tied up out of reach, and they couldn’t get them down. Some people said that they had been painted and wired in place.
      • The crew had never been made to do a fire drill.
        • Apparently they didn’t even warn passengers about the fire or tell them what to do, so people panicked. The crew was supposedly in such a rush to abandon ship that they pushed passengers out of the way in their haste to get out.
        • The crew reportered that the fire was “a blaze that could not be conquered” and fighting it was “like trying to put out hell itself.”
      • One important thing to remember is that at the time, most Americans didn’t know how to swim, including most of the passengers on the General Slocum.
      • Many of the life preservers were kept up high, where many of the women and children couldn’t reach them. The people who got their hands on them found that they were worthless; they fell apart in their hands.
      • It’s been alleged that the company that manufactured the life preservers had filled them with granulated cork, which was cheaper but less effective than actual solid cork.
        • Also, to meet the weight requirements for life preservers, they’d added iron weights to the preservers.
        • Also, the life vests had hung above deck, in the elements, for 13 years, and the canvas covers had rotted through, so when they tried to use them, the powdered cork scattered everywhere.
      • This part is really upsetting, but mothers found life vests and put them on their children, then threw them in the water to save them from the fire. But the life vests didn’t work, and they had to watch their children drown.
      • Also at the time people tended to wear heavy wool clothing, which when it got wet, became really heavy and weighed people down. Especially if you’re a woman wearing all those layers of clothes.
      • So, many people drowned when they jumped out of the boat to escape the fire.
        • But the people who didn’t jump didn’t fare better: the floors of the boat collapsed, killing more people.
        • Many of the people who survived that ended up in the water with the paddles, which were still turning, and which killed even more people.
      • The captain was able to ground the ship about 25 feet from the shore of North Brother Island. He was the last person off the ship.
      • North Brother Island, a very creepy and interesting island that I want to talk more about later. But the thing to know about North Brother Island is that it had some hospitals on it, so both staff and patients came out to help save people, forming human chains to get people out of the water.
        • Apparently the patients in the contagious wards of the hospital on North Brother Island flipped out because they had to watch the disaster from their windows but couldn’t help. It took 50 doctors and nurses to restrain them, and they were locked up.
        • According to the City Health Commissioner, who was visiting the island, “Along the beach the boats were carrying in the living and dying and towing in the dead.”
        • There were tons of examples of people trying to help: for example, one tugboat captain came up to the General Slocum and was able to save 100 people.
        • Of course, there was also the story of the captain of a huge white motorized yacht who watched the disaster through binoculars without trying to help.
      • The captain and several crew members left the General Slocum as it settled. Apparently they were able to jump onto a nearby tugboat and were hospitalized. Though the captain said that he stayed with the boat as long as he could have, and that his cap even caught fire, though naturally he would say that.
      • The casualties were steep:
        • These numbers are a bit lower than some numbers I’ve seen elesewhere, but according to the Coast Guard, there had been 1,358 passengers and 30 crew on board.
        • 613 passengers were adults (mostly women), and 745 were children.
        • All told, 893 passengers and two crew members were confirmed as dying. (Though the final death count was set at 1,021, though there hadn’t been a ship’s manifest so they couldn’t be sure. The Brooklyn Eagle reporter 1,204 people as dead or missing.)
        •  62 passengers were missing or unidentified.
        • 175 passengers were injured, and 5 crew members were injured.
        • Only 228 passengers escaped without injury, though 23 of the 30 crew members were uninjured.
        • The captain lost sight in one eye because of the fire, and he stayed on the ship until his feet blistered from the heat.
      • After the disaster, a federal grand jury indicted eight people: the captain, two inspectors, and some employees of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, who owned the ship.
        • The captain was the only person who was convicted: he was found guilty of criminal negligence, though the jury didn’t find him guilty of the two charges of manslaughter that’d been leveled against him. He was sentenced to a 10 year prison sentence, and spent 3 and a half years at Sing Sing before being paroled.
          • A lot of accounts of the accident put the blame on the captain, but it looks to me like he was maybe just a scapegoat.
        • His wife tried to get a presidential pardon for him. Teddy Roosevelt, who was president, declined to pardon him, though Taft ended up pardoning him in 1912.
        • The Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid a small fine, even though there was evidence that they’d falsified inspection records.
        • The manufacturers of the life preservers were indicted, but not convicted.
        • Also, the ship had passed inspection, supposedly just a few weeks before.
        • So this, like most other tragedies, is about how greed and cowardice hurts innocent people but the real villains are rarely punished.
      • The remains of the General Slocum were salvaged and turned into a barge, which sank while carrying a cargo of coal in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of NJ during a storm in 1911. Four people were on board, and they all survived.
      • Like I mentioned earlier, this was devestating for the German community in NYC, but there had also been members of the Jewish and Italian communities on board. It sounds like a lot of people from the neighborhood went, even if they weren’t members of the church.
        • It seems that the remains of the Germany community moved up to Yorkville in the Upper East Side, and Astoria in Queens. Which is really grim, since those are two locations on the water looking out toward where the General Slocum disaster happened.
    • So anytime you’re talking about hauntings in Hell Gate, you have to keep in mind that there was massive loss of life there, some of which was young, innocent people who died because of human greed.
      •  If you google it, you can see pictures of bodies being washed up on shore after the General Slocum disaster. Many bodies were swept onto North Brother Island, as well as onto the shores all around there.
      • Officials and rescue parties tried to collect the bodies, though the shores were swarmed with souvenir hunters and people looking to take jewelry off the corpses.
      •  Divers brought up bodies that had sunk with the ship.
      • Crowds of mourners lined the shore, and supposedly many grieving family members had to be stopped from throwing themselves into the river.

 

Sources consulted RE: The General Slocum Disaster

Websites consulted RE: The General Slocum Disaster

  • https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/east-river-shipwrecks/
  • https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/south-carolina/haunted-oakwood-cemetery-sc/
  • https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/kentucky/kasey-cemetery-ky/
  • https://www.haunted-places-to-go.com/haunted-huntsville.html
  • https://www.insider.com/urban-legends-us-2018-1#alabama-hells-gate-bridge-1
  • http://theghostdiaries.com/places-around-the-world-known-as-the-gates-of-hell/
  • https://gothamist.com/news/the-strange-history-of-nycs-mighty-hell-gate
  • https://www.historynet.com/world-war-ii-german-saboteurs-invade-america-in-1942.htm
  • https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/earth-without-people
  • https://www.timeout.com/newyork/attractions/hell-gate-bridge
  • https://boroughsofthedead.com/hell-gate-bridge-a-great-survivor/
  • https://www.stonehengenyc.com/blog/haunted-new-york
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS_General_Slocum
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Evangelical_Lutheran_Church_of_St._Mark
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Germany,_Manhattan
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Germany,_Manhattan
  • https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/13/great-slocum-disaster-june-15-1904
  • https://antiquephotographics.com/the-general-slocum-disaster-ny-harbor-1904/
  • https://stuffnobodycaresabout.com/2014/06/14/the-1904-general-slocum-disaster-had-survivors-that-lived-into-the-21st-century/
  • https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-spectacle-of-horror-the-burning-of-the-general-slocum-104712974/
  • http://behindthescenes.nyhistory.org/general-slocum-disaster-photos/
  • https://history.wikia.org/wiki/List_of_General_Slocum_victims
  • https://www.garemaritime.com/the-general-slocum/
  • https://thehauntedjournal.wordpress.com/2018/04/20/hell-gate-bridge/
  • https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/earth-without-people
  • https://www.historynet.com/world-war-ii-german-saboteurs-invade-america-in-1942.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_Gate_Bridge
  • https://ltvsquad.com/2005/05/13/hell-gate-bridge/

Articles RE: The General Slocum Disaster

  • TALES OF HORROR TOLD BY SURVIVORS: Eye-Witness Stories of Swift and Awful Panic. FAMILY PARTIES WIPED OUT Mrny Brave Deeds on Board the Doomed Steamboat Amid Scenes of Wild Panic. New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]16 June 1904: 2.

  • GRIEF-CRAZED CROWDS VIEW LINES OF DEAD: Scores Prevented from Throwing Themselves Into River. BOAT LOADS OF BODIES Immense Crowds Weeping and Struggling Seek to Identify Them. MANY PATHETIC INCIDENTS Measures Taken by Officials to Safeguard Interest of Relatives — Over $200,000 in Valuables Found on the Victims. New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]16 June 1904: 1.

  • 1,000 LIVES MAY BE LOST IN BURNING OF THE EXCURSION BOAT GEN. SLOCUM: St. Mark’s Church Excursion Ends in Disaster in East River Close to Land and Safety. 693 BODIES FOUND — HUNDREDS MISSING OR INJURED Flames Following Explosion Drive Scores to Death in the Water. FIERCE STRUGGLES FOR ROTTEN LIFE PRESERVERS The Captain, Instead of Making for the Nearest Landing, Runs the Doomed Vessel Ashore on North Brother Island in Deep Water — Many Thrilling Rescues — Few Men on Board to Stem the Panic of Women and Children.
    New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]16 June 1904: 1.

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Sunken Treasure at Hell Gate, New York City: Legend has it that beneath the East River lies millions of dollars in gold.

In 1780, during the Revolutionary War, a British frigate called the HMS Hussar struck a reef and sank to the bottom of the East River. Many people believe that the ship carried an enormous amount of gold as payroll for British soldiers.

Despite its location in the most dangerous waters in the area, treasure hunters have searched for the Hussar in vain for years. One submarine inventor lost his entire fortune in the search for the treasure, while other salvagers have sunk millions into the search. If the treasure is there, it seems that it doesn’t want to be found . . .

Highlights include:
• A loaded cannon found in Central Park in 2013
• Shipworms, aka the “Termites of the Sea”
• Hidden treasure maps found at the New York Public Library
• The inventor of the modern submarine
• The largest explosion before the atomic bomb

Pictures of the Hell Gate

 
Hallet's Point and the Hell Gate

Hallet’s Point and the Hell Gate

The Hell Gate, with the RFK and Hell Gate Bridge in the distance

The Hell Gate, with the RFK and Hell Gate Bridge in the distance

Hell Gate mural beneath the Hell Gate bridge in Astoria Park

Hell Gate mural beneath the Hell Gate bridge in Astoria Park

The Hell Gate and Hell Gate Bridge seen from Astoria Park

The Hell Gate and Hell Gate Bridge seen from Astoria Park

The bottom of the Hell Gate bridge

The bottom of the Hell Gate bridge

 

Episode Script for Sunken Treasure at Hell Gate, New York City

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“There must be some mania at work to explain those who plunge into the violent murk of Hell Gate, looking for a ship that may be nothing more than a splintering of worm-eaten wood.” -from a 2002 article in the New York Times

“But for more than two centuries, an ordinary British frigate pressed into service during the Revolutionary War has been the object of countless searches in and around the East River. The H.M.S. Hussar might have been forgotten along with other shipwrecks lying at the bottom of New York’s waters, if not for one thing: an oft-repeated story that it might have gone down with a fortune in gold coins.” -from a New York Times article, September 4, 2013

“The Hussar sits out there as a ship of dreams. It has value because it’s part of the story, it’s part of the history of New York.”

-James Sinclair, a marine archaeologist who was part of an expedition in 2000 to the Titanic shipwreck, quoted in a 2013 New York Times article

“Simon Lake, the submarine inventor, who announced that he soon is going to try to salvage the gold from the supposedly gold-laden British frigate Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in 1780, is far from the first to attempt it.” -The New Yorker, October 13, 1934 P. 22

  • There are literally hundreds of places in America named after either hell, or the devil. Often, the locations earn their name by some geological element that makes the area especially dangerous, or ominuos looking. It’s also common for places with the name hell to have stories of hauntings.
  • New York City’s Hell Gate ticks both boxes. I’ve heard people compare it to the Bermuda Triangle, because it was once so dangerous that 1,000 ships ran aground there every year.
  • Located in the East River, just north of Roosevelt Island, is a tidal strait called Hellgate.
  • It’s at the confluence of three bodies of water: the Hudson River, coming down from Upstate New York;  the Long Island Sound; and the East River.
  • And to make matters worse, until the late 19th century, the waters were full of huge rocks that boats tended to wreck on. There were also lots of whirlpools.
  • Even though the waterway is safer now, it still looks pretty intense, full of eddies and areas that, to me, look suspiciously like whirlpools. I actually ran along the Hell Gate this weekend, and took a ferry across the east river just south of the Hell Gate. It’s a beautiful view these days, but definitely still feels ominous, even on a sunny day like the one this weekend, when the park along the waterfront, Astoria Park, was packed with people having picnics and working out.
  • The strait was originally called Hellegat in Dutch, which I’ve read means “Hell Channel,” though other sources have said it means “bright strait” or “clear opening,” though those are much less apropos monikers. The area’s also sometimes been called Hurl Gate, which supposedly comes from the Dutch for whirl and for “hole, gap, or mouth,” so basically whirlpool.
  • So today, I want to look at the second-most famous ship to have sunk at the Hell Gate: a British Royal Navy Mermaid-Class frigate called the HMS Hussar. It had 3 masts, 28 guns, and was built in 1763.
    • The ship was 114 feet long, 34 feet wide, weighed 619 tons, and had a crew of 100.
  • So here’s the story, and I’m gonna try to get the Revolutionary War history parts correct, but I’m a little weak when it comes to war history, so forgive me if I get anything wrong:
    • So during the Revolutionary War, by 1780, the British weren’t doing so hot in New York. The French had joined forces with Washington’s troops, who were just north of the city.
    • Also, at the time the British army owed a bunch of back pay to their soldiers.
    • It was decided that the Hussar would bring the 960,000 British pounds worth of gold (which I think is like a billion and a half dollars in today’s money?) That number’s been disputed, but that’s partially because at the time, the British had good reason to downplay the amount of gold that was on board,
    • There were also about 70-80 American prisoners aboard the ship, below deck.
    • The captain decided to go through the Hell Gate, which the pilot had said was a bad idea.
      • Legend has it that the Hussar had used an enslaved man named Swan as a pilot to navigate the Hell Gate. Swan’s widow claimed that she frequently heard him say that “there was a large quantity of money on board the ship when she sunk.”
    • Right before they reached the Long Island Sound, the Hussar hit a reef called Pot Rock and started to sink. The Captain, Charles Pole, tried to run her aground, but instead she sank into 16 fathoms of water.
    •  While most of the British crew survived, all of the American prisoners went down with the ship.
      • A 1856 expedition to the wreck found many bones, which, to quote the NYT: showed “evidently, that a part, if not all the American prisoners on board were manacled and chained”
    • Of course, the British immediately denied that there’d been all that gold on board. But of course they did, since they wouldn’t have wanted the Americans to find it, and wouldn’t have wanted the Americans to know what a huge loss it was.
      • But at any rate, at the inquest, the Captain said there was no gold on board when it sunk, and the first mate said they’d unloaded the gold before going upriver.
    • For several days after the ship sunk, its masts stuck out of the water, though they were eventually swept away.
  • Starting in the 1780s, people have tried in vain to find the ship. And, remember, the Hell Gate is a notoriously dangerous area, so that’d make treasure hunting that much harder.
  • To quote Njscuba.net:
    • “The Hussar is of historic interest only. It is sunk in Hell Gate, in the middle of New York City. The treacherous currents, polluted waters, and heavy traffic make it undiveable, except by professionals with specialized equipment.”
  • Bob Sterner of Freeport, Long Island, who’s a shipwreck diver and former editor of Immersed Magazine, described Hell Gate this way:
    • “Many divers don’t realize the conditions. Just in driving past Hell Gate, the waters appear angry. The currents are unpredictable as they swirl in one direction, then another, always moving and boiling like a hot pot. Slack tide lasts about 15 minutes.”
  • Between the early 19th century and the 1980s, many people tried to find the ship. I wanted to talk about a few of them.
  • Thomas Jefferson financed an expedition.
  • There were at least three British expeditions to try to find the wreck, a fact that for many people reinforces the idea that there really was gold on it.
    • An 1856 New-York Daily Times article said “In the spring of 1794 two brigs were dispatched from England to undertake the recovery of the lost treasure. They came fully equipped with men, a large diving-bell, and other equipments for sub-marine explorations.”
  • In 1823, a man named Samuel Davis invented a machine to raise sunken ships and said he was going to raise the Hussar.
  • In 1830, a group of English people using a diving bell tried to find it, and failed.
  • There was one salvager in 1880 named George M. Thomas, who according to the NYT was “an itinerant street preacher turned patent medicine vendor”
  • In 1900, divers looking for a sunken yacht found an iron anchor that said “HMS Hussar.” They sold the anchor for $20 in a junk shop.
  • In the 1930s, a treasure hunter, mechanical engineer, and naval architect named Simon Lake searched for the Hussar.
    • Simon Lake is an interesting character: he was a really important and influential submarine designer who built his first submarine in 1894 at the request of the navy.
    • He had a bunch of underwater firsts: He took the first underwater pictures and movie and the first underwater ship-to-shore phone calls.
    • Later in his life, he made submarines for non-military usage, including for the purpose of treasure hunting. However, despite his attempts, he didn’t find the Hussar.
    • Or at least that’s what some sources say. Other places claim that he found the ship, but not the gold.
    •  There’s a great New Yorker article about it from October 13, 1934, that I wanted to read from:
  • “Simon Lake, the submarine inventor, who announced that he soon is going to try to salvage the gold from the supposedly gold-laden British frigate Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in 1780, is far from the first to attempt it. A giant vacuum cleaner is his description of the apparatus he is going to use. The first attempts to reach the Hussar were made while her masts were still visible above the water. In 1823 a man named Samuel Davis tried to raise the ship. In 1880 a Captain Thomas financed a salvage ship by selling stock in a company called Treasure T Trove, Inc. In the nineties a syndicate spent 20,000 dollars and got one of Hussar’s worm-eaten, oaken ribs, which was made into a cane and is now owned by a man in Brooklyn.”
  • There’s also a 1935 NYT article which talked about how Lake worked on creating a “baby” submarine to find the Hussar. Apparently, he found three wrecks in the area, all of which were covered in 15 feet of silt.
    • He then installed a glass window at the bottom of the submarine’s bow, and added a probing device that can be controlled from within the submarine.
  • I searched “Simon Lake Hussar” in the historical NYT archives, ad the headlines really tell a story:
    • They start in 1934 with LAKE’S SUBMARINE FAILS OF LAUNCHING: Mother Ship is Unable to Pull It Off Ways at Stratford — New Attempt Tuesday. TREASURE HUNT TO FOLLOW But Tests Come First — Coal Cargoes to Be Sought as Well as Sunken Gold.
    • Then there’re articles about the hunt for the treasure in 1935, including one headlined, “HUNT PIECES OF EIGHT.: Lake’s Submarine Retrieves Pail and Clam Shell in East River.” The article talks about how Lake took journalists down in the submarine, as well as a Miss Mildred Stone. The article closes with “When yesterday’s excursion was over Miss Stone came to the surface with one pail, rusty, and one half of a clamshell in poor condition. Everybody else got grease stains on his clothes.”
    •  Then, in June 1936: LACK OF FUNDS HALTS LAKE’S TREASURE HUNT: His Submarine to Be Auctioned if He Fails to Get $394 to Pay Deckhand.
    • Then, things look up by September 1936: LAKE THINKS HULK IS TREASURE SHIP: Inventor Believes He Has Found Wreck of Frigate Hussar in East River. CARRIED $1,800,000 GOLD Probing Reveals Hard Timbers in Indicated Position, and Treasury Is Notified.
      • The article talks about how Lake called reporters into his office, and said, “If I were a betting man, I would lay 100 o 1 the Hussar has been found at last. For fifty years I have been spectulating on the likelihood of locating this ship and within six weeks I expect to step within her hold. Now, nobody can tell what gold there is. It’s not the gold so much as the satisfaction of solving a riddle, though some gold would do no harm.”
      • Apparently, on September 4, Lake’s 70th birthday, he found the Hussar during a sounding expedition off the shore of the Bronx, around East 130th and 140th streets.
      • He said that the ship was covered in 12 feet of silt, which they were going to pump off, so then the submarine and divers could go down and see the ship.
      • He said that he believed he could raise the Hussar in time to be exhibited at the upcoming World’s Fair, which was scheduled for 1939 here in Queens, NY.
    • But that was not to be. By November 1936, we get this headline: SIMON LAKE AGAIN SUED: Inventor Seeking $4,000,000 Gold In $1,800 Foreclosure Action.
      • Basically he had some issues with back taxes and the mortgage on his house in Connecticut
    • Then, in March 1937, there’s an article about his house being foreclosed on, and in November 1937, there’s an article about getting a delay n the foreclosure. That article says “Mr. Lake ran into financial difficulties about a year ago in attempts to salvage a $5,000,000 treasure in gold which some say sank in the East River at New York with the British frigate Hussar in 1780. The yield from the salvage venture has been meager.”
    • In his autobiography, Lake said “No one now knows precisely where the old hulk rests, and my explorations early in 1937 were unsuccessful. I have not given up the idea, but other things are more pressing.”
    • Then, in June 1945, the times printed Lake’s obituary. He was 78 when he died . The article gives a summary of what happened in the intervening years between his search for the Hussar and his death:
      • He spent three years and a fortune in this venture while the world watched. All he recovered was a handful of modern coins. In 1937, his white-pillared colonial home in Milford, Conn., was sold under foreclosure and was made into a funeral parlor. The inventor moved up the street a few doors to a two-family house and continued to use his three-room workshop in a little factory building.
    • There’s so much to unpack here: It feels almost like this treasure is cursed somehow–it drove this man to his ruin, and there’s something almost poetic about how, after losing his home to a search for a sunken treasure that a bunch of POWs died next to in a treacherous waterway, where so many people had died since then–after losing his house to that, it became a funeral parlor.
  • The next treasure hunter I found good info about was from the 1980s:
    • According to the New York Times, in 1985, a salvage expert named Barry L. Clifford claimed he’d found the ship about 175 feet off the short of the Bronx, beneath 80 feet of murky water. He said he was going to get federal permission to raise the wreck. He said he used sonar technology, like the technology used to find the Titanic.
    • To read a bit from the article:
  • “Visible on the sonograph is some sort of superstructure, perhaps a beam, lying across the bow and two forward holes that Mr. Clifford and Garry Kozak, an engineer with Klein Associates, said could be hold openings typical of a ship of the Hussar’s design. The masts seem to be missing.”
  • Clifford said he wanted to find the artifacts and put them on display for the public.
  • He also said that at 80 feet, the East River is very cold, and, to quote him “the lack of worms means that the ship could be perfectly preserved.”
    • Just a sidenote here: the two mentions of worms really stood out to me, because that’s such a creepy image–the idea of these underwater worms eating away at a shipwreck, like worms in a decaying corpse.
    • So I looked it up, and it looks like the worms referred to here are marine borers. I actually found a 2019 article talking about what a huge issue marine borers have become along New York City’s 520 miles of shoreline.
    • Apparently marine borers have been an issue in ports for centuries. They’re shipworms, so named because sometimes ppl blamed them for sinking wooden ships.
    • Apparently, by the 1960s, there was so much raw sewage, and oil and chemicals, in the city’s rivers that they borers couldn’t survive anymore. People would even bring their boats into the NY harbor to clean marine borers off their boats.
    • But as the water quality in the city’s rivers have improved, that’s made the habitat more hospitable for marine borers, so they’ve returned to NYC. Though to be clear, even though NYC’s waterways are cleaner than they’ve been in a century, apparently whenever there are heavy rains, the city’s sewer system gets overloaded and sewage spills into the rivers.
    • But back to the marine borers, to read from the NYT:
      • “The two most common borers are a kind of shipworm called Teredo navalis, which is actually a wormlike clam, and tiny crustaceans known as gribbles. They often work together, with shipworms boring tunnels inside timber pilings and gribbles chewing from the outside, according to scientists and city officials.”
    • So there are now projects underway to coat wooden pilings in epoxy to try to prevent damage
    • Marine borers are a huge problem now, but shipworms were an issue in the past, as well. People have called them “termites of the sea,” and they ate most of the wood on the Titanic. Also, apparently in 1502 Columbus lost his ships to marine borers while on his 4th trip to the Americas.
    • So they really are a consideration when it comes to salvaging shipwrecks, because you could find a shipwreck only to discover it’s basically been eaten by worms.
  • But a follow-up article in 1987 says that while Clifford’s company had dove the area at least 6 times, and explored 6 different shipwrecks there, he still hadn’t found the Hussar. There was a seventh wreck, buried deep in the mud, or as one article put in “”buried in about 15 feet of soft ooze””, that they thought might be the Hussar.
    • The article quotes an archeologist who’d examined some of the china fragments they’d found while diving, and he said that it was all 19th century stuff, and they hadn’t found anything from the 18th century. I love this line from the archaeologist: he said the china was ”the kind of thing you find almost anywhere on the bottom there.”
      • I love the idea that the bottom of the East River is just strewn with broken china from the 19th century.
    • Clifford said that he was going to try to identify the mysterious 7th wreck. And I wanted to read a bit of the article:
      • The river is contaminated with such curios as abandoned cars and washing machines, he notes, and the visibility – well, ”you can close your eyes right now; it’s like that.”
  • Apparently, Clifford was also working on a sunken pirate galleon in Cape Cod, and he said the East River was a real culture shock after what I assume is much clearer waters there.
  • A 2013 NYT article mentioned Clifford’s work: after diving almost every day during three winters (they dove in winter because the cold made the water clearer), they didn’t find the Hussar. They did, however, find a different ship, which was exactly the same size as the Hussar, and had the same hatch openings. Clifford said:  “Every other day we were breaking open the Champagne bottles because we thought we found it.”
    • And I wanted to read a bit of the article:
    • After sinking over $1 million into the hunt, Mr. Clifford and his crew finally packed up their dive gear. They saw all forms of human waste, and even a dead body, but no Hussar.
    • “It’s a very tough place to dive,” he said. “If you asked me if I’d do it today, I’d say no.”
  • There’s a  2002 article in the NYT about a 41-year-old actor and real estate agent named Joseph Governali, who searched for the Hussar. His stage name is Joey Treasures, of course, though.
    • He claimed to have found a rare old map in the NYPL that showed the location of the Hussar in a spot that no one thought it would be in. And the map was misfiled, so Governali had that info all to himself.
    • He also retrieved several artifacts during East River dives, including part of the ballast, and iron nail, and a 10-pint pitcher.
    • Other experts have said that those artifacts could have come from many different wrecks, and didn’t necessarily come from the Hussar.
  • The wreck has never been found.
  • Many people have looked for it, though it’s important to note that whoever finds it won’t be able to just pocket the money: NYS law says that objects with historic value found on state land belongs to the state.
  • However, bizarrely, in 2013, one of the Hussar’s cannons was found in a building in Central Park, loaded with live gunpowder and shot. To read from wikipedia:
    • On 11 January 2013, preservationists with the Central Park Conservancy in New York were removing rust from a cannon from Hussar when they discovered it still contained gunpowder, wadding, and a cannonball. Police were called and bomb disposal staff eventually removed about 1.8 pounds of active black gunpowder from the cannon, which they disposed of at a gun range. “We silenced British cannon fire in 1776 and we don’t want to hear it again in Central Park,” the New York Police Department said in a statement.
  • In the late 19th century, the Army Corps of Engineers blew up many of the hell gate’s rocks. In fact, one of the explosions during that process was the most powerful explosion of all time, up until the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
  • So it’s very possible that the remains of the Hussar could have been blown up in that huge explosion, or buried during another instance of blasting or dredging in the Hell Gate. It’s been said that the wreck may have been covered up by landfill in the Bronx.
    • In 2013, after Hurricane Sandy, a man named Steven Smith found curved wooden joints on the shores of the Bronx.
    • To read from the NYT:
      • ” They were partially submerged in the river, and had been, until the storm last fall, hidden under layers of concrete blocks and building scrap.
      • “Hey, this could be the Hussar,” Mr. Smith, 60, exclaimed recently, before swearing a reporter and photographer for The New York Times to secrecy about the location, for fear of being overrun by treasure hunters.”
  • The blasting that the Corps of Engineers did improved things in Hell Gate, however, the most famous and tragic shipwreck of the Hell Gate’s history happened after that, in 1904.
  • And that’s where we’ll pick up next week, with the story of that wreck, and a look at the ghost stories of the Hell Gate.
  • “Prior to 1872, huge boulders protruded from the surface of the swirling waters, making navigation at this juncture extremely hazardous. More than 100 ships sank, their crews perishing in the undertows and riptides. This place is called ‘Hell Gate.'” -Roosevelt Island By Judith Berdy

Sources consulted RE: Sunken Treasure at Hell Gate

Articles consulted RE: Sunken Treasure at Hell Gate

  • “HUSSAR GOLD QUEST RESUMED BY INVENTOR: SIMON LAKE IN ‘BABY’ SUBMARINE TO INVESTIGATE 3 HULKS FOUND SUNK NEAR HELL GATE.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Aug 06 1935, p. 19. ProQuest. Web. 8 Nov. 2020 .

     

  • LAKE’S SUBMARINE FAILS OF LAUNCHING: Mother Ship is Unable to Pull It … Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times (1923-Current file); Oct 7, 1934; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index
    pg. 27

     

  • LACK OF FUNDS HALTS LAKE’S TREASURE HUNT: His Submarine to Be Auctioned if He Fails to Get $394 to Pay Deckhand. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]21 June 1936: 23.

  • HUNT PIECES OF EIGHT.: Lake’s Submarine Retrieves Pail and Clam Shell in East River. New York Times (1923-Current file); Sep 27, 1935;
    ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index
    pg. 23

  • LAKE THINKS HULK IS TREASURE SHIP: Inventor Believes He Has Found Wreck of Frigate Hussar in East River. CARRIED $1,800,000 GOLD Probing Reveals Hard Timbers in Indicated Position, and Treasury Is Notified. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]26 Sep 1936: 17.

     

  • SIMON LAKE AGAIN SUED: Inventor Seeking $4,000,000 Gold In $1,800 Foreclosure Action. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]11 Nov 1936: 2.

     

  • Simon Lake’s Home Is Foreclosed. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]06 Mar 1937: 15.

     

  • SIMON LAKE GETS RESPITE: Court Grants New Delay in Foreclosure Sale of Milford Home. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]18 Nov 1937: 18.

     

  • LYONS OFFERS GOLD TO BOOM THE BRONX: It’s Not His Gold and He Isn’t Even Sure It’s There, but He Believes in Hunting It AT BOTTOM OF EAST RIVER Book Says Frigate Hussar, With $4,000,000 in Bullion Aboard, Sank There in 1780 New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]12 Feb 1940: 18.

  • SIMON LAKE DEAD; INVENTOR WAS 78: Father of Modern Submarine Intended Craft Only for Use in Peaceful Pursuits HUNTED SUNKEN TREASURE Lost Fortune Attempting to Salvage Lusitania, Recover Millions in East River Built 100 Craft During the War Experimented in Baltimore Founded Bridgeport Concern Sought Lusitania Treasure Family of Welsh Origin. The New York Times, 1934.New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]24 June 1945: 22.

  • Ship of Dreams: Ship of Dreams
    Vanderbilt, Tom.New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]17 Feb 2002: cy1.

Books consulted RE: Sunken Treasure at Hell Gate

Websites RE: Sunken Treasure at Hell Gate

  • Devil places: https://spookygeology.com/devil-places/
  • Devil places map: https://gizmodo.com/hail-satan-a-map-of-all-the-places-named-after-the-dev-1456016654
  • https://gothamist.com/news/the-strange-history-of-nycs-mighty-hell-gate
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_Gate_Bridge
  • https://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/HellGateRooseveltIsland-uscs-1891
  • Current nautical chart: https://charts.noaa.gov/BookletChart/12339_BookletChart.pdf
  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/870743950/
  • https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/mill-rock-park/history
  • 1886 map: https://picryl.com/media/blackwells-wards-and-randalls-islands-and-adjacent-shores-of-east-and-harlem-31f143?zoom=true
  • https://vos.noaa.gov/MWL/aug_07/hellgate.shtml
  • Hell gate charts:
    https://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/new_york_charts/hell_gate.html
  • Removal of Hell Gate rocks:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Removal_of_Hell_Gate_rocks
  • The conquest of Hell Gate:
    https://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Portals/37/docs/history/hellgate.pdf
    https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/mill-rock-park/history
  • https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/mill-rock-park/
  • Hell gate map 1700s:
    https://picryl.com/media/map-of-new-york-i-with-the-adjacent-rocks-and-other-remarkable-parts-of-hell-cc02a9
  • Hell gate pics:
    https://picryl.com/search?q=hell%20gate
  • Opening hell gate:
    https://picryl.com/media/opening-hell-gate-at-a-cost-of-dollar7000000-map-course-of-wider-hell-gate-ab9a7f
  • Destruction of flood rock: https://picryl.com/media/destruction-of-flood-rock-at-hell-gate-2ef359
  • Rev war map: https://picryl.com/media/a-plan-of-the-narrows-of-hells-gate-in-the-east-river-near-which-batteries
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_Gate
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tidal_strait
  • https://www.givemeastoria.com/2020/09/17/a-treasure-under-hell-gate/
  • https://blogcritics.org/new-york-citys-hell-gate-bridges/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolutionary_War
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Hussar_(1763)
  • https://www.nytimes.com/1985/09/26/nyregion/in-east-river-a-gold-frigate-and-high-hopes.html
  • https://www.nytimes.com/1985/09/29/weekinreview/the-region-raise-the-hms-hussar.html
  • https://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/09/nyregion/follow-up-on-the-news-about-that-gold-in-the-east-river.html
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/04/nyregion/finding-trash-and-worse-but-so-far-no-ship-with-treasure.html
  • http://www.simonlake.com/html/explorer.html
  • https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1934/10/13/hussar
  • http://www.simonlake.com/html/explorer.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Lake
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/13/nyregion/ny-harbor-wood-eating-shipworms.html
  • https://nypost.com/2004/04/19/worm-warfare-borer-destroying-our-waterfronts/
  • https://www.nytimes.com/1986/05/07/nyregion/diver-to-explore-east-river-wreck-for-treasure.html
  • https://mysteriouswritings.com/the-mystery-and-lost-treasure-of-the-h-m-s-hussar/
  • https://numa.net/2019/08/is-hms-hussars-treasure-in-a-landfill/
  • http://www.bronxmall.com/cult/film/page4.html
  • http://thesimonlakestory.com/
  • https://njscuba.net/sites/site_treasure.php

Listen to the Ouija board series:

Don’t miss our past episodes:

A look at the mysterious Gothic lighthouse that stands at the tip of New York City’s Roosevelt Island.

Did a lunatic named Thomas Maxey build the lighthouse? If so, why did a now-missing stone say that an unknown person named John McCarthy built it? Or was it designed by 19th century starchitect, James Renwick, Jr, who was also responsible for St. Patrick’s Cathedral?

There isn’t a lot of good information about this online, but a deep dive into newspaper archives had helped get some answers. Chris shares some theories about the lighthouse, as well as more about the industrious “lunatic,” Thomas Maxey, who may have had a hand in its construction.

Highlights include:
• More about Fort Maxey
• James Renwick, Jr, architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral
• Drama with the US Lighthouse Board
• Plenty of wild speculation

Pictures of The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Seen from the ferry, October 2020

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Seen from the ferry, October 2020

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Sign at the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, May 2020

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Bollard at the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, May 2020

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Doorway of the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, May 2020

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, May 2020

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Foliate details, Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, May 2020

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, May 2020

 
The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

The lighthouse seen from Hallet’s Cove, Astoria, November 2020

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

An 1851 nautical chart showing what the northern tip of Blackwell’s Island looked like, overlaid on the island on Google Earth

The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

What the northern end of Roosevelt Island looks like today

 

Episode Script for The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, or The Blackwell Island Light, NYC

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

 

“The lighthouse is a handsome 19th-century structure with an interesting legendary history . . . Was built under the supervision of one of New York’s most prominent architects, James Renwick, Jr. . . . its boldly scaled Gothic detail and rock-faced walls give it a stony, rustic character.”

–from the Landmarks Preservation Commission report on the Lighthouse on Roosevelt Island, March 25, 1976

  • If you look up the Blackwells Island Light or Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, you’ll find a version of this story: The lighthouse was built in 1872, with James Renwick Jr, who was perhaps NYC’s most famous architect, supervising.
  • Until the late 20th century, a stone stood at the base of the lighthouse said, in finely chiseled letters:
    • THIS IS THE WORK THAT WAS DONE BY ME, JOHN MCCARTHY, WHO BUILT THE LIGHTHOUSE WITH HIS OWN HANDS, FROM THE FOUNDATION TO THE ROOF. ALL WHO READ THIS PRAY FOR THE REPOSE OF HIS SOUL.
  • Most accounts online say that McCarthy was a patient at the Lunatic Asylum, an Irish stonemason, who built the lighthouse–maybe under Renwick’s direction, maybe not? Renwick designed many other buildings that were owned by the NYC Department of Corrections and Charities on both Blackwell’s Island and nearby Ward’s and Randall’s Islands, so maybe he was considered the supervising architect by default? So maybe he designed it but McCarthy executed the construction?
  • Then, some accounts claim that McCarthy was the same person as Thomas Maxey, who built a fort around the same location as the lighthouse, and reclaimed the land that the lighthouse was on. And some people seem to suggest that Thomas Maxey didn’t exist, and McCarthy was the one who built the fort?
  • Basically, a lack of good records have made this lighthouse the subject of tons of speculation and urban legends, which like most urban legends, end up being a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy and get distorted.
  • Oh, also, another weird wrinkle: the stone giving John McCarthy credit for building the lighthouse disappeared during the 1960s, and no one knows what happened to it
  • The Roosevelt Island Historical Society points out that the only things we can be certain of are:
    • The lighthouse is 50 feet tall
    • It was made from gray gneiss quarried on the island, like most other structures there at the time
    • It started operating in September 1872
    • It showed a fixed red light at a focal plane 54 feet above the river
    • It was a private lighthouse, that is to say, it wasn’t an official Coast Guard light
      • Despite that, the US Lighthouse Board said it was one of the best “private lights,” and they provided a fourth-order Fresnel lens to use in the lantern room
      • The Lighthouse Board, in their 1883 annual report, criticized private lights in general, because they were unreliable, went on and off without giving mariners enough notice, and confusing mariners because they’re so irregular
      • About the Blackwells Island Light, they said:
        • “It has gone out a number of times recently, and so much to the inconvenience, if not danger, of mariners, that complaint has been made, and the Board has been subjected to unmerited criticism for failing to do what was alleged to be its duty, when in fact it has not the slightest control over that light.”
      • And Blackwell’s island and its lighthouse were right near Hell Gate, one of the most dangerous and infamous stretches of water at the time, so I’d imagine that it was an especially big problem that the light was so unreliable
      • About a decade later, the Lighthouse Board built its own beacon, a new electric light on Hallet’s Point, which is the short of Queens right near Blackwell’s Island, to help mariners navigate Hell Gate
      • We know that the Blackwell Island light was decommissioned in the 1940s, then added to the national register of historic places in 1972, written up by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1975, and made a city landmark. In was partially restored around ’76, and then in 1998, an anonymous donation allowed a total restoration
      • Also, the lighthouse used to have a conical roof, which you can see in a film by Thomas Edison from 1903 which I’ll link in the shownotes, but it now has a
      • Nowadays, it stands at the tip of the island and is very visible from the queens waterfront, from which I see it practically every day
      • In the shownotes, I’ll include some pictures I took of the lighthouse back in May, as well as some recent pictures I took from the new ferry that goes from Astoria to the Upper East side and which gives a great view of the lighthouse.
  • So that’s what we do know I’ve been looking into some of the mysterious things about this lighthouse and trying to get the most solid answers that I can find:
    • What happened to Fort Maxey?
      Who built it? Maxey? Renwick? McCarthy?
    • Why is there so much incorrect information about this?
  • Last week, we talked about Fort Maxey, which was built on Blackwell’s Island–now called Roosevelt Island–by a patient named Thomas Maxey, from the infamous New York Lunatic Asylum. Supposedly, the idea was that the fort would be a valuable defense against the British, or privateers, or some other maritime threat.
    • And Maxey believed that one day, the government would purchase the land and building from him, recognizing how valuable it really was.
    • One thing I wanted to mention especially for people who don’t live in New York City, is that the fort stood on the north end of Roosevelt Island, facing out toward a treacherous (and now famously haunted) stretch of the east river called the Hell Gate, which I’ll probably talk about next week.
    • There’s one detail about that, which I was thinking about last week but didn’t mention. So the about the fort’s location means that it  looks North, toward the Hudson River, which travels further up into New York state. You’re not looking south toward the Atlantic, which is where I’d assume malignant ships might come from
    • I kinda dismissed that detail, thinking that Maxey shouldn’t be blamed for using the land that was available to him, which was of course that northern part of the island near the Lunatic asylum. But also in the back of my head, I was kinda like, “eh, he was a lunatic maybe, so why would I expect him to think strategically.”
    • But to be fair, I learned this week that during the war of 1812, the US War Department built a blockhouse with two cannons on a tiny island just north of Blackwell’s Island, called Great Mill Rock, about 2700 feet away from where Fort Maxey would later be built.
      • They also built fortfications at Hallet’s point, which is on the shoreline of Astoria, about 875 feet away from where Fort Maxey was.
      • And there was another one on the Manhattan shoreline about 1300 feet away from Fort Maxey.
      • So the location of Fort Maxey is actually extremely logical–it was right where three other forts were built earlier in the 19th century.
  • While doing the research for this week’s episode, I found an 1865 article in the New Haven Palladium and and an 1866 article in the New York Times that had some details I hadn’t been able to find out last week. So the info I’m about to share is from both articles:
  • Maxey was Irish, and had been born in county Wexford.
  • In 1866, he was about 70 years old
    • Before going insane,  he was supposedly “a thrifty farmer in the neighborhood of Harlem.”
    • To read a bit more from the NYT article:
      • Domestic unhappiness of some kind unsettled his mind, and he became ultimately an inmate of the Asylum, where being found to be quite harmless (but incurable), he was allowed to roam around, and, as he never abused the priviledge, he became quite a licensed individual. For a long time, the thought that the island was in danger of attack from outside barbarians haunted his imagination, giving shape at last to an idea for its protection, which he proceeded to carry out.s
  • Apparently, in addition to hollyhocks and other tall flowers, Maxey also grew potatoes in his garden.
  • And the roof of the fort was thatched with straw and weeds.
  • He was a little above medium height, and “was dressed in brown pantaloons and shirt sleeves, with his head covered by a woman’s while silk bonnet, which he wore in the manner of a helmet.”
  • When the NYT met him, he was dressed in a tattered asylum uniform, “with a mysterious roll, like a sausage, round his neck, (in which we afterward learned he secreted his money often.” They said his face was dirty and unwashed.
  • The New Haven Palladium reporter says that Maxey talked a lot, “in language more original than intelligible.”
  • The NYT points out that the interior of the fort had some unique cupboards that Maxey had built himself, and to read from the article: “as odd looking as everything else, patched and painted over with grotesque shapes and heyrogliphics.”
  • Maxey kept a sort of wishful guestbook called the “Fort Maxey Register,” which apparently had the names of famous people, including Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Byron, the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon, and Shakespeare, and it listed the amount of money they’d supposedly donated to him (from 5 cents to $1.)
    • That’s the craziest-sounding thing I’ve heard about Maxey, though to be honest, it was a great sales tactic, because it guilted the reporter into signing their name and paying the fee.
    • The reporter said that the register was neatly written.
    • Also, Maxey told the reporter that the city owed him $172,000 for his work building the fort, but he said he would have accepted as little as $1K to buy him some presentable clothes that he could wear when receiving visitors from the City, and he complained of “being made to eat ‘with the poo loonies in the hall'” . . . I think these complaints are pretty legitimate. Basically, he’s asking to be allowed to have some dignity and not be humiliated or forced to spent time in the awful asylum with the abused patients, which seems fair to me.
  • He was really excited to show the Palladium reporter the whole house, and he pointed out how above the doorway, on a sign, there was a word: Communication. To that, the reporter said “This, he seemed to think, possessed some mystical meaning, but we could not make it out.”
    • But that, to me, seems obvious: Maxey was someone who loved talking to people and communicating, and there’s something so sad about him in his little island fort, isolated from everyone just because he’s seen as insane.
  • One thing that I talked about last week was how Maxey had reclaimed a bunch of marshy land at the tip of Blackwell’s Island. Because that’s where the lighthouse is now, I did some research about this land.
    • Well, I happened to stumble upon a 1851 nautical chart of the Hell Gate, which includes what Roosevelt Island used to look like, before Thomas Maxey’s work. The northern end of the island is basically an unrecognizable mass of mostly submerged rocks.
    • By my rough estimate, he turned about 325 feet of water into land, but then there was an additional 837 feet of what looked like unusable marshland with weird little tidal pools or something in it.
      • The New Haven Palladium had a great, clear description of the marsh and the fort’s position in it, so to read from that:
        • It is reached by an elevated causeway of earth, about two feet broad and four feet high, forming a strong, secure, and not ungraceful access through a salt water marsh, for the distance of about 300 yards, to a little promontory on which the fort is built.
      • 300 yards is about 900 feet, so pretty close to my estimate from guessing by comparing google earth and the old map.
      • And the reporter also identified exactly where the gate lay in relation to the fort itself:
        • Midway the causeway is covered by a stone gateway, of no imaginable architectural style, but with a Gothic top, the whole formed by a multitude of stones of every size and color, every side and angle being as rough as the bed of a torrent, but with a certain method in its madness which grows upon the mind of the gazer.
    • So I wanted to make sure to share that info, since I hadn’t found this article until a couple days ago. But to get back to the work that Maxey did on the island:
    • One question I wanted to answer was who actually drained the marsh and turned it into usable land, which seems like happened either shortly before or shortly after the lighthouse was built, but I haven’t had luck confirming that Maxey did it for sure, though newspaper accounts seem to suggest that he did end up draining it.
    • I’ve been trying to find nautical charts from the 1860s-1880s but haven’t had a ton of luck, but I found a 1891 chart that shows the northern end of the island with the lighthouse, looking as it does today.
    • In the shownotes, I’ll include a side-by-side comparison of what it looked like before Maxey’s efforts versus now–it’s really remarkable.
    • Nowadays, that land is home to a Lighthouse Park, which contains the Blackwell Island Light, which we’ll talk about a lot today, as well as a medical building.
  • So, like I mentioned last week, it’s extremely difficult to find any information about Thomas Maxey, Fort Maxey, and the real history of the lighthouse that replaced his fort.
  •  I’ve read that he’d started the work maybe around 1853, or 1863, or 1860, and the NYT article suggested he’d been working on the fort for “half his lifetime” which seems like at least a slight exaggeration, but it also seems more likely than having just started a few years before.
    • This week, when I was doing more research, I found an article that suggested that Maxey started work on the fort in 1818, which while Maxey was apparently a pretty old man in the 1860s, still seems extremely implausible to me. First, the Lunatic Asylum wasn’t even built until 1834, so if Maxey was a patient there, the very earliest he could have started work was in the 1830s. I found an 1865 article that said that Maxey had been an inmate of the asylum for about 25 years, meaning that he would have arrived on the island around 1840.
    • Also, it’s worth mentioning that unless you were a prisoner or patient at one of the institutions on Blackwell’s Island, or someone who worked there, you couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) live on the island. So there isn’t a chance that Maxey would have just been a random island resident who was mistaken for a lunatic. Because there were no random island residents.
  • Most websites about the Blackwell Island Light say that Maxey was convinced to destroy his own fort when city officials bribed him with fake money.
    • In one sense, that tracks: He did believe that the city would want to buy the fort from him, and he was used to accepting weird things like ten-cent stamps as payment for visitors’ admissions fees.
    • But I tried really hard to find any kind of documentation of this deal. The earliest written record of this supposed deal that I was able to find was the 1976 Landmarks Preservation Commission report on the Lighthouse. If this urban legend is a photocopy of a photocopy, the Landmarks report is one of the first photocopies that disseminated a possibly distorted version of what really happened.
      • It’s very clear to me that all of the other websites got this intel from this report, or other websites that referenced this report, because the same language about the deal and specific quotes about Maxey from the warden’s report is repeated everywhere, and it definitely originated from this report.
      • So I spent many hours going through hundreds of articles–pretty much everything that I could find in any databases that the New York Public Library has access to–and I couldn’t find a mention of this deal.
        • I did find a different story, though:
        • On December 29, 1870, the Chicago Evening Mail published a very sarcastic story about the fort, mocking its weakness, and ending with the real news, which is that the Thursday before, the fort had burned down. It sounds like some coals from the fireplace fell on the floor, causing a fire that destroyed the building.
        • But by July 1871, Maxey had rebuilt the fort. Some reports say that he believed he’d sold it to the city for $150K? I wonder if someone from the city “bought” some of the land he’d reclaimed from the sea in order to build the lighthouse?
        • Then, a number of articles from July and August of 1874 say that the new fort had just been destroyed by another fire. Weirdly, that second fire was also on a Thursday, on July 23rd, 1874, at 5 am.
          • It sounds like after the fires, he claimed that the city owed him 1 million dollars, or 500K, depending on the newspaper article you read.
          • Reports said that he planned to build a third fort.
          • And one newspaper article mentioned something important, which is that an engineer on the Island, a Mr. Gormley, sometimes hired Maxey to do work for him. So Maxey wasn’t just working on his fort, he was also doing other projects at the request of public officials.
  • I haven’t been able to learn whether a third Fort Maxey was ever built, but I doubt it. There’s also another issue here: The Blackwells Island Light was supposedly built right around the location where Fort Maxey was in 1872, but Fort Maxey version 2 would have been under construction there at the same time.
  • Were the two buildings right next to each other?
    • If so, it seems likely that Maxey would have helped build the lighthouse, since it sounds like he loved building things and wouldn’t have been able to resist building something as grand and useful as a lighthouse right on his front step.
    • I haven’t been able to find any real answer to this question, since I’m relying entirely on contemporary newspaper accounts, since I haven’t really found anything written since the 19th century that even mentions that Maxey’s fort burned down even once.
  • So, one thing I’ve been thinking about when considering who may have built the lighthouse is Maxey’s construction work. Do I think he was capable of building or helping to build the lighthouse, which was obviously far more polished than his fort?
  • I think he may have been, in part because he built his fort basically just from flotsam and jetsum–the authorities said he could build using any materials he found, but they wouldn’t requisition any materials for him. So if he actually had help, and the materials he needed, maybe he could have made something much more polished.
  • Like I mentioned last week, he obviously had engineering ability.

To read from the NYT:

  • The fort is an almost circular mound of earth, well faced with sods against the action of the river and the soil wheeled there to form it must have weighed hundreds of tons. One side of this mount a fantastic structure has been raised, of no precise order of architecture, but intended for the fighting place when the time comes.
  • This description is from 1866, four years before the first fire that “destroyed” Fort Maxey, and 6 years before the lighthouse was built. A few notable things here:
    1. In 6 years, he may have done a lot more work reclaiming land around the causeway and fort, building out the current shape of the island. But I can’t confirm that–I wish I could find an accurate nautical map of the island from around 1870-1874.
    2. But even if he didn’t build out the island more, perhaps the lighthouse was built on the little island where his fort had been built, or at least where the fighting place was? The thing about the circular mound made be pause, since the lighthouse is on a circular stone base, which from old pictures I’ve seen was surrounded by dirt before being paved over to become part of lighthouse park. Part of me wonders if the lighthouse and its stone base were built first, on the little island, and then later the land was completely filled around it?
      1. I wanted to read this bit of the landmark report about it, to explain:
        1. The lighthouse is encircled by a small yard paved with flagstone. An entry walk at the south is flanked by stone bollards which have pyramidal tops carved with simple trefoils.
      2. Bollards are basically just short vertical posts, which according to wikipedia, used to refer to a post used for mooring boats. In the 19th century, it seems like that’s what they generally were for. So maybe they were put there to facilitate tying up small craft that came up to the lighthouse (I’m imagining like rowboats, since there were a lot of rocks and stuff there.) Or, I could imagine them being ornamental posts that might look nice at the end of a bridge or causeway. Maybe the land hadn’t been totally filled in when they were built, and the bridge to Fort Maxey led right up to the lighthouse door–that’s a sensible reason to have an entry walk there. Right now, it looks kinda silly to have a designated entry walk area around the door to the lighthouse, when there’s land totally surrounding the lighthouse.
  • Another notable thing from the landmarks report is that it describes the doorway, which has “an incised pointed arch above a splayed keystone with flanking corbels . . . Designed in a rustic version of the Gothic style.”
    • This stood out to me because it made me think of how the NYT article described the vaguely gothic top of the gate to Fort Maxey.
    • But more than that, it made me think of an illustration of Fort Maxey from one of the articles last week: it had an arch and windows that are vaguely reminescent of the arch and windows of the lighthouse that was built later.

So that’s some info about Maxey’s construction ability and some similarities between his fort and the lighthouse.

  • But articles about the lighthouse all mention John McCarthy. Who was this guy? People say that he was a lunatic, but I think that’s just people conflating him and Maxey.
  • So I did some research.
  • Unfortunately for me, John McCarthy is a really common name. I did a TON of digging and came up with many John McCarthys from around this time, and several of them are worth mentioning:
    • According to an April 30, 1873 article in the New York Herald about a prison escape on Blackwell’s Island, there was a keeper at the prison named John McCarthy. But we can eliminate him from our list of potential builders, I think. There’s no reason to think that a guard would be enlisted to help build a lighthouse.
    • An April 24, 1889 article in the Evening World mentions a Captain John McCarthy, who was the pilot of the charity boat Minnehannock, and was also the pilot of the tug boat Fidelity during construction of a building on Hart’s Island–a nearby island, which was and is now a potter’s field for NYC. The Fidelity towed all of the stone “used to sink and fill the crib” which I believe refers to a crib dock. That’s the most expensive type of dock to build, and the most permanent kind, which requires a really sturdy foundation, usually a wooden “crib” or container filled with rocks. At any rate, I think we can cross this John McCarthy off too, because a captain wouldn’t have the spare time or expertise to build a lighthouse.
    • An August 8, 1870, article in the New York Tribune lists some convicts who were sentenced to the penitentary at Blackwell’s Island during the Court of Special Sessions. One of those people was a petty criminal named “John McCarthy alias Cockney Jack, an old offender and noted pickpocket in this city . . . Convicted of larceny of a valise, and sent to the Penitentiary for four months.”
      • I think that this is our guy. Here’s why:
        • Prisoners were often forced to do manual labor around the island
        • Even tho he was only sentenced to be on the island for 4 months, it sounds like he was in and out of there, and maybe after his release, he got arrested again and earned a longer sentence. It was pretty common for people to end up back at the island again and again.
        • The inscription, asking people to pray for his soul, definitely feels like something a prisoner, someone with a guilty conscience, might write
        • A 1919 article in the New York Press suggests that this was the McCarthy. The article said, of the lighthouse contruction, plainly:
          • McCarthy was a workhouse prisoner. He had two assistants on the job.
        • The article also mentions Maxey as a separate person–so in 1919, the two of them hadn’t been combined the in the popular imagination.
  • So after all of this, what do I think happened? I like the idea that Maxey had some sort of hand in the lighthouse, and I think it’s possible that his fort, which had a vaguely gothic style, may have inspired Renwick, who I think probably was the person who designed the lighthouse, if I had to guess.
    • I found an illustration of Fort Maxey that really reminded me of the lighthouse–the drawing is of a sort of doorway with window recessed above the arched doorway, in a way that’s really reminiscent of the lighthouse.
    • So even if Maxey and Renwick never spoke (though my guess is that they probably did, if Renwick was surveying the area for the lighthouse) I think that the sight of Maxey’s creation would have influenced the plans for the lighthouse.
    • Maxey at this point would have been old, in his 70s. It sounds like he was maybe still working on fort maxey version 3 at the time, but I wonder if he assisted McCarthy with the lighthouse building
    • At any rate, it seems like McCarthy may have done the lion’s share of the construction work, and wanted to be remembered for it.

Sources consulted RE: The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

See the A Victorian Lunatic’s Fort: Fort Maxey, Blackwell’s Island, NYC, for additional sources for this episode.

Videos of The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Thomas Edison’s 1903 video of Blackwell’s Island, including the lighthouse.

Articles consulted RE: The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

  • The Chicago Evening Mail (Chicago, Illinois) · Thu, Dec 29, 1870 · Page 3
  • https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/668142082 Downloaded on Oct 29, 2020
  • The Meriden Daily Republican (Meriden, Connecticut) · Thu, Jul 23, 1874 · Page 3. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/674763408 Downloaded on Oct 29, 2020
  • The St. Albans Weekly Messenger (Saint Albans, Vermont) · Fri, Jul 31, 1874 · Page 6 https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/443287342 Downloaded on Oct 29, 2020
  • “Facts and Fancies” The Milwaukee Sentinel: July 31, 1874. Page 3.
  • Boston Post (Boston, Massachusetts) · Sat, Jul 25, 1874 · Page 4 https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/74392312 Downloaded on Oct 29, 2020
  • Wayne County Herald (Honesdale, Pennsylvania) · Thu, Aug 6, 1874 · Page 1
    https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/362447557 Downloaded on Oct 29, 2020
  • Fort Maxey, Wednesday, July 19, 1865, New Haven Palladium, 25 , Issue 179
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Wed, Jul 19, 1871 · Page 8 https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/167861583 Downloaded on Oct 29, 2020
  • Black River Gazette (Ludlow, Vermont) · Fri, Jan 13, 1871 · Page 1
    https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/355365618 Downloaded on Oct 29, 2020
  • The Times (Streator, Illinois) · Wed, Sep 11, 1889 · Page 1
    https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/543479332 Downloaded on Oct 29, 2020
  • FOR HARBOR IMPROVEMENTS: SACEESTIOUS AT A MEETING OT THE PILOT COMMISSIONERS
    New York Times (1857-1922); Dec 30, 1896; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index pg. 8
  • A Blackwell’s Island Stampede. New York Herald. April 30, 1873
  • Paid for Twice. The Evening World (New York, New York) · Wed, Apr 24, 1889 · Page 1 https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/78637510 Downloaded on Oct 30, 2020
  • In the Court of Special . . . New York Tribune. August 8, 1870
    “On a flagstone in front of the lighthouse. . .” New York NY Press 1909 – 1257

Books consulted RE: The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Websites RE: The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bollard

  • Dock Construction Guide

  • Sticks & Stones – A Traditional Les Cheneaux Crib Dock Replacement Project

  • https://web.archive.org/web/20090517003017/http://nyc10044.com/timeln/timeline.html

  • The Lighthouse

  • https://gothamist.com/news/the-strange-history-of-nycs-mighty-hell-gate

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_Gate_Bridge

  • https://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/HellGateRooseveltIsland-uscs-1891

  • Current nautical chart: https://charts.noaa.gov/BookletChart/12339_BookletChart.pdf

  • https://lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=75

  • https://www.liboatingworld.com/single-post/2018/05/30/Exploring-NYs-East-River-Some-of-Its-Rich-History

  • https://www.us-lighthouses.com/blackwell-island-lighthouse

  • The Lighthouse

  • https://rioc.ny.gov/179/The-Lighthouse

  • Mysteries of Roosevelt Island: The Madman’s Lighthouse

  • http://www.correctionhistory.org/rooseveltisland/

  • http://www.correctionhistory.org/rooseveltisland/html/chapincards4.html#lite2

  • http://www.correctionhistory.org/rooseveltisland/html/rooseveltislandtour_lighthouse.html

  • https://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/10/mysterious-blackwell-island-lighthouse.html

  • The Lighthouses of NYC

  • https://rihs.us/2020/09/

  • https://www.stonehengenyc.com/blog/Roosevelt-Island-Day-Trip?_escaped_fragment_=#!

  • Lighthouse Park Roosevelt Island 900 Main Street New York, NY 10044

  • https://www.nps.gov/places/blackwell-s-island-new-york-city.htm

  • Lighthouse pics: https://www.loc.gov/item/ny0953/

  • Landmarks commission report: http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/LIGHTHOUSE-ROOSEVELT-IS.pdf

  • https://rihs.us/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2018-August-Blackwells-Almanac.pdf

  • Tuesday, September 1, 2020 -SOME WONDERFUL LIGHTHOUSES NEARBY

  • The Lighthouse

  • https://joebrunoonthemob.wordpress.com/tag/the-whyos/

  • https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/mill-rock-park/history

  • https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/podcast/july17/nop08-historical-maps-charts.html

  • 1903 pic of lighthouse and island:
    https://picryl.com/media/panorama-of-blackwells-island-ny

  • 1886 map: https://picryl.com/media/blackwells-wards-and-randalls-islands-and-adjacent-shores-of-east-and-harlem-31f143?zoom=true

  • http://www.correctionhistory.org/rooseveltisland/html/rooseveltislandtour_lighthouse.html

  • http://americanyc.org/documents/10184/57129/AYC+2013+Spring+Cruising+Notes+Final.pdf/6594f92b-dc97-46ad-95fb-d6ee8c5a8b38?version=1.0

  • https://libraetd.lib.virginia.edu/downloads/1z40kt09r?filename=Dissertation_final_Libra.pdf

  • Report of the Welfare Island Planning and Development Committee : submitted to John V. Lindsay, Mayor, City of New York, February 1969. by Welfare Island Planning and Development Committee. https://archive.org/details/reportofwelfarei00welf/page/30/mode/2up?q=mccarthy

     

  • https://rioc.ny.gov/DocumentCenter/View/56/New-York-1960s-Chap-8-PDF

  • https://daniel-lanciana.medium.com/new-york-icons-harbor-islands-cdfe3097c66c

  • To Be Sane Amongst the Insane

  • http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Blackwell%27s_Island_Asylum

  • CHARLES DICKENS VISIT • AN ISLAND IN THE MIST • ARTWORKS FOR SALE

  • Nellie Bly: Charles Dickens’ Visit to Blackwell’s Island Asylum 1842 – Part 4

  • https://www.melinadruga.com/blackwellsislandasylum/

  • ROOSEVELT ISLAND 2005

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwell_Island_Light

  • https://lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=753

  • https://vos.noaa.gov/MWL/aug_07/hellgate.shtml

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