The Ghosts of New York’s Past – The New York Times


A soldier’s ghost searches for his missing head. A reclusive spirit lingers in a building frozen in time. And a mysterious presence announces itself at the doors of a Brooklyn house.

New York State and the city that bears its name are steeped in centuries’ worth of supernatural lore.

You’ve likely heard of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the ambling spirit of Aaron Burr. But in anticipation of Halloween, here are a few local ghost stories you may not already know about.

For nearly a century, members of the Tredwell family occupied the house at 29 East Fourth Street, near Washington Square Park. If you believe the reports, at least one of them still does.

The ghost of Gertrude Tredwell is said to have roamed the house since she died there in 1933, in the same bed in which she was born.

One of the first sightings came just weeks after her death, according to Anthony Bellov, a board member of the Merchant’s House Museum, which occupies the house and preserves it as a testament to the Tredwells and the era in which they lived.

“It was hot, people were on the stoops, people were on the fire escapes,” Mr. Bellov said. “Suddenly, the front door of the house flew open and an elderly woman in a long, brown dress rushed out onto the stoop to chase the children away. Scores of people saw this and, immediately, everyone recognized her as Gertrude.”


CreditJackie Molloy for The New York Times

CreditJackie Molloy for The New York Times

The museum opened to the public only three years after Gertrude died. One of its early caretakers, a woman named Florence Helm, later described having several mysterious experiences there. Once, she told The New York Times in 1953, she watched a silk tassel twist and turn as though someone were playfully twirling it. Other times, she heard a consistent tapping on the wall.

“It was not unlike telegraphic code, which I cannot read,” she said. The couple that took over her duties reported hearing the knocking, too.

Visitors have reported seeing Gertrude as she appeared at various stages of her life, from her late teens on. Most say she was wearing a long, brown taffeta gown, though that description matches none of the 40 gowns in the museum’s collection, Mr. Bellov said.

But Gertrude isn’t alone. Guests and museum workers have reported seeing the spirits of servants and members of her family, too.

One museum docent was leading a tour when a door to the servants’ chambers opened and she found herself face to face with a woman “clearly not of this time and place,” Mr. Bellov said. “Their eyes made contact and they both jumped,” he said.

The Tredwell family moved into the house in 1835, when Gertrude’s father, Seabury, retired from a successful career in the hardware business. Five years later, he and his wife, Eliza, had Gertrude, their eighth child.

Legend has it that Seabury prevented Gertrude from marrying her true love, which may explain why she remained in the house over the years, even as her family members slowly streamed out. By 1909, she was the last Tredwell still in the house, which she made few changes to over time. Aging and weak, she rarely left the residence in her final years there and died poor and alone.

Despite that sad ending, the Tredwell ghosts have shown no signs of malevolence.

CreditJackie Molloy for The New York Times

“It’s really up to you how you’re going to react to them, because they’re nothing menacing,” Mr. Bellov said, adding that he addresses the ghosts whenever he enters and leaves the house.

A few weeks before Christmas in 1878, Edward F. Smith was at his home at 136 Clinton Avenue, in Brooklyn, when the doorbell rang, according to a contemporaneous report in The New York Times. Smith opened the door, but found no one outside. The ringing continued throughout the night and was eventually joined by a violent banging at the back door, but, still, Smith could not identify a source.

The commotion became a nightly occurrence. At first, Smith enlisted the help of his family. But even with people stationed throughout the house and in the yard, they couldn’t pinpoint the cause. He sprinkled ash and flour along the path to the door, expecting to find footprints left behind, but the substances were undisturbed and the noises continued.

Eventually, Smith persuaded the authorities to look into the matter. A police captain and detective visited the house one night, but they were “utterly unable to fathom” what was going on, according to The Times. So they returned the next night, with reinforcements.

That second night, a brick flew through the dining room window. It could only have been thrown from a path near the house, but officers stationed outside swore they had seen no one near it.

The house was thoroughly searched for hidden wires or anything else that might solve the mystery, but the police found nothing. The Times reporter wrote that he himself ventured out to the house, “whistling to keep his courage up,” but found only a small, curious crowd gathered outside.

Smith himself was skeptical at first that supernatural activity was taking place, but after weeks of torment he could think of no other explanation. “He is now convinced that the invisible cause of all the phenomena is no less a personage than his Satanic Majesty himself,” The Times reported in a follow-up story.


CreditMustafa Hussain for The New York Times

As is often true of restless spirits, love is central to the story of the headless soldier said to haunt Old Fort Niagara, north of Buffalo. The legend, as described years ago by the folklore expert Louis C. Jones, dates to before the nation’s founding.

It was 1759, in the middle of the French and Indian War, and the British had isolated Fort Niagara, which sits on a piece of land that juts out at the point where Lake Ontario and the Niagara River converge.

Life at the fort had been stressful enough, but then, for two weeks, the British bombarded the French soldiers and their Native American allies stationed there.

“Petty jealousies, long controlled irritations, a thousand annoyances united with the normal fears of battle to make life close to unbearable,” Mr. Jones wrote in a 1944 speech before a joint session of the New York State Historical Association, which he led for a quarter-century, and the New York Folklore Society. (He later included the account in a book of ghost stories.)

Two French officers stationed at the fort had fallen for a Native American woman, according to Mr. Jones, and it was during the siege that they decided to settle the matter once and for all.

Mr. Jones said that the two fighting soldiers, whom he did not name, caught the attention of those around them, their swords making “bright arcs of light” as they fought in a central courtyard. Other accounts of the fight differ, reporting that the battle unfolded in private, between Jean-Claude de Rochefort and Henri Le Clerc.

In the end, de Rochefort won and Le Clerc lost his head. As the story goes, his body fell into a nearby well (or was hidden there intentionally by de Rochefort). Le Clerc’s ghost, it is said, can be seen from time to time emerging from the well in search of its head.


CreditMustafa Hussain for The New York Times

CreditMustafa Hussain for The New York Times

Even the most sensational ghost stories can be lost to time — sometimes for good reason.

In the early 1860s, New York City went “wild with interest” in what had become known as the “27th Street Goblin,” according to a New York Times report.

The ghost had long been the subject of vague rumors, but two women appeared to confirm its existence after moving into a home on the street and awaking the next morning to find their furniture rearranged, even though the windows and doors were locked from the inside. Thousands of people thronged the area and fueled the hysteria with “entirely new and strictly original” stories of what they claimed to have seen.

But, as The Times would later uncover, there never was a ghost: The whole craze was caused by a lazy police officer.

It all began when a few “disreputable” people moved onto a block on 27th Street, prompting concern among the neighbors. To flush out the unwanted newcomers and the presumed illicit activity in which they had engaged, the existing residents of the block reached out to a police official who agreed to station officers outside their homes at night.

The officers dutifully stood guard, but eventually grew weary, whistling at each other and doing jumping jacks to pass the time and stay warm. But one night, they discovered an unlocked sidewalk hatch that led to an empty house. Before long, they began using it as an escape from the cold. Because the officers worked nights, they didn’t hear that the house had been rented or see that a furniture delivery had arrived.

After moving some of the furniture in, two members of the family decided to spend the night. Later that evening, as usual, one of the officers sneaked through the hatch and into the house only to discover the furniture. Without stopping to wonder why it was there, he decided to move several pieces near the fireplace and use them as couches to sleep on.

But, just as he finished, the officer heard a noise and realized that the house had new occupants. Fearful of being caught sleeping on the job, he quickly crept out and kept his mouth shut, leaving the two women there to discover the furniture the following morning.

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