Haunted Ground

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The superlative ghostly hangouts of Downtown Manhattan

By Annie Lubin

Most (Proven) Haunted Place: Merchant's House Museum

The Merchant's House Museum is the oldest New York City home to have survived virtually intact. Built in 1832 and occupied by the same family for 100 years, the house would be interesting if only because it's a portal into the New York of the past. But walk amongst the 170-year-old furnishings, clothing and personal items and you might feel a slight chill in the air or hear some distant footsteps. That's because the Merchant's House is famous for another reason: In the realm of things that go bump in the night, it is as close as any place gets to the real thing.

"The human brain has a great deal of power, so who knows if all this stuff isn't manifested from us thinking about it," said Anthony Bellov a museum board member with over 30 years of volunteer time invested in the home. "But as far as I'm concerned, there is something very unexplainable about this house."

As Bellov pointed out, many of the stories from decades ago are exact duplicates of those happening to people today. Audio recordings of voices, footsteps, already closed doors slamming shut and the mysterious ringing of bells, just like the Treadwells would have done to call their servants, are among the commonly reported incidents.

"It leads me to think there is something going on in this house," said Bellov. But it's one thing to think and another to know for sure.

So for the past few years, the museum has been engaged in an investigation led by paranormal expert Dan Sturges, who brings a team in once a month and uses tools such as EVPs (electronic voice phenomenon) to find out whether the accounts of strange occurrences are real or imagined.

The results startled even Bellov.

"We had recordings of [spirits] speaking very clearly, responding to comments and questions being asked of them," said Bellov. One such recording is of an investigator saying, 'You don't need to be afraid, we're not here to harm you,' and only in playback does the crystal clear voice of a child come through: 'I am not afraid.' The investigators caught something similar on tape when they entered the kitchen and asked, 'If anyone is here, what was your role in the house?' Upon playback they heard the clear voice of a male answer back, 'Servant.'

"This family committed themselves to that house when everyone else was leaving the neighborhood," Bellov continued. "They stayed in that house because they loved it. Why wouldn't they want to stay on afterward?"

Bellov said he and the other staff acknowledge the spirits; they greet them with a good morning, forewarn them of any events that might bring a mass of unfamiliar people and tread lightly when it comes to home repairs, which always seem to stir things up.

While the collected evidence might be proof enough for some, Sturges thinks there's more to be had.

"We need the kind of proof that no one can ever refute, the kind that is going to make a nonbeliever a believer. But we haven't gotten that yet," said Sturges. So for his next investigation, Sturges wants to bring in a psychic medium who will attempt to speak to one of these apparitions and ask the sort of questions that only a Treadwell or a member of their staff could answer.

Bellov and the rest of those involved in the museum are excited to see what else Sturges' team might find. "For a lot of us, it's not even scary anymore," Bellov said of the staff and board members, who have all had their fair share of strange occurrences.

For those who want the chance to witness this firsthand, the museum is running ghost tours the last two weekends of October in which they share with the public some of the audio findings from the investigation. And on Halloween night, they will hold a drawing in which one lucky winner and a guest will be able to accompany the team on an upcoming investigation.

The Merchant's House Museum isn't the only place where spirits linger, so if you're looking for more Downtown haunts whose folklore and character will leave you spooked, you won't have to travel very far.

To hear audio snippets from Paranormal Expert Dan Sturges' investigation of the House, click here.

Most Haunted Restaurant: One if by Land, Two if by Sea

The West Village restaurant, at 17 Barrow St., was once the carriage house of Aaron Burr, and is supposedly haunted by Burr and his daughter, Theodosia. Theodosia was on her way from South Carolina to see her father when legend has it pirates kidnapped her and made her walk the plank. The ghosts have been known to mess with diners, tipping over glasses and pulling off the earrings of bar patrons, pushing people down the flight of stairs and so on. The staff confirms this, saying they will have things disappear only to reappear somewhere else entirely, and they can't shake the feeling that they're being watched-and not by an overzealous manager.

Dom Villella, the leader of Paranormal Investigations of NYC, the oldest paranormal group still active in NYC, has conducted a few investigations into the restaurant. On his website, he pointed out several odd experiences during a 2008 investigation, including a strange presence in the bathroom, an unexplained image and a phantom leg that appeared in a photo he took and audio of an unusual music note that was not heard during the time of the recording.

Most Haunted Campus: NYU

NYU is not only the jewel of New York's private university education, it's also the eeriest campus in Downtown Manhattan-nay-New York City, possibly even New York State and beyond.

In the 1830s, NYU used cheap prison labor rather than local stonemasons to construct the facades of its new buildings. This not only sparked the Stonecutter's Riot in 1834-the first labor riot in New York City-but as rumor has it, propelled a lot of rage aimed directly at the University.

The Brittany Hotel, which is now an NYU dorm building, is said to be haunted, as reports of strange noises and eerie feelings are continuously brought up.

And the current NYU Physics building? It was once the site of one of the early 20th century's most gruesome work disasters: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 factory workers, mostly young women, were killed. Reports of seeing women in the ninth and 10th floor windows of the building, where the fire took place, have made many a science geek reconsider their course load.

But it is Washington Square Park, the unofficial quad of NYU, which has the eeriest past of all, a history that is probably unknown to the hordes of students, tourists and locals who cross through the park every day. Buried underneath the grounds are somewhere close to 20,000 bodies, as the area was used as an execution and burial ground in the early 1800s.

"Cemeteries are lousy places. They're dead, they're not getting up," said Gordon Lizner, a guide who leads ghost tours throughout Manhattan. "But execution grounds, those are big exceptions. You'll find a lot of angry spirits there."

Most Haunted Brownstone: 14 W. 10th St.

West 10th Street is perhaps one of the nicest streets in Manhattan, populated with picturesque brownstones within the congestion of New York City. But one of those brownstones holds a dark past.

Constructed in the 19th century, this brownstone is where 22 different people took their final breaths of life. And all of them supposedly haunt the house, including one famous ghost, Mark Twain, who lived there briefly from 1900-1901 and whose ghost supposedly haunts the house's stairwell.

This house might just be a blip on the city's haunts if not for a gruesome crime that took place there a while back. In 1987, a New York lawyer by the name of Joel Steinberg was living in the brownstone with his partner and two illegally adopted children when, under the influence of cocaine he beat the eldest child, a 6-year-old girl, to death. The grisly case not only caused a media frenzy, but for those who believe in the psychosis that the presence of evil apparitions can bring about, it also served to add modern-day proof to the legend that there is something not right about 14 W. 10th St.

Most Haunted Church: St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery

The second-oldest church in Manhattan is said to be haunted by New Amsterdam's last Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant owned a large portion of what is now the East Village and built a family chapel on the land that is now St. Mark's Church, 131 E. 10th St. He was buried in a vault under the chapel in 1672. Stuyvesant's grandson later sold the land to the Episcopal Church and in 1799, construction was completed on St. Mark's Church.

But Stuyvesant's legend remained even after death, and rumors have persisted that he haunts the church. People have claimed they've heard Stuyvesant's unmistakable peg-legged walk throughout the church, and rumors of church services interrupted by Dutch hymns and the mysterious clanging of church bells have all contributed to the preservation of the legend.

Most Haunted Bar/Eatery: The Bridge Café

With the number of writers, artists and tortured souls who met their untimely deaths at the bottom of a double old-fashioned, the folklore surrounding the bars of Downtown Manhattan is rampant-and rightly so. Whether they were once speakeasies, brothels, boarding houses or the chosen hangout of Washington Irving or Dylan Thomas, the number of pubs that claim to be haunted is a little too high for comfort. The White House Tavern, The Ear Inn and Chumley's have all reported the presence of ghosts lingering around their watering holes. But if there has to be one that stands out amongst the crowd, it is the Bridge Café, at 279 Water St.

The oldest drinking establishment in New York City would be the first place one looks for ghostly spirits. Built in 1794, the café has a long and tumultuous history, one involving boarding houses, brothels and an attraction for rowdy pirates and criminals. But it is the bar's old bouncer who is said to haunt the place. The 6-foot tall Gallus Mug would drag rowdy customers out of the establishment, then named "The Hole in the Wall," with her teeth clamped down on their ears-the unlucky ones got their ears bitten off, which were then put in pickle jars behind the wooden bar. This tactic was Mug's undoing, when in 1861 she was shot and killed by a criminal whose ear she had previously bitten off. The Hole in the Wall was soon shut down, but rumor has it that Mug never left and continues to harass the bar's patrons.

Most Haunted Neighborhood

As is the case with most territorial rivalries, this one is chalked up to East vs. West. Dr. Phil Schoenberg, who runs ghost tours throughout the city, said it comes down to the East Village's Peter Stuyvesant versus Greenwich Village's Edgar Allan Poe in the all-out bout for ghostly supremacy.

Schoenberg lists the ghosts and different haunts as if he's an overly enthusiastic announcer introducing a fight: "We've got Lincoln, we've got Washington and we've got celebrity ghosts! We've got all these great ghosts we can tell people about!"

But is there actual legitimacy to the notion that these places are haunted? Is it just a way to attract customers? For Schoenberg, it's more about the legends themselves than the promise of a ghostly sighting.

"Some have had experiences, others have not," said Schoenberg. "But it's more about the story. We do our best to provide information about the folklore and the history."
But ask anyone who's witnessed firsthand the presence of a ghost and they'll tell you, they can't make this stuff up.

Top photo: Merchant's House Museum


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