Ghost Hunters Chase Spirits at Manhattan's Oldest House

By DNAinfo Staff on October 31, 2011 7:20am

By Serena Solomon and Carla Zanoni

DNAinfo Staff

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — There is a house on a hill in Washington Heights that has inspired more ghost stories than any this far north on the island.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan, has a rich and storied history, including two stays by George Washington — once as a general in the army and another when he was the nation’s first president.

But the historical home’s alleged otherworldly inhabitants often trump historical stories, with spooky tales of apparitions, clocks possessed with a sexual appeal that lure in men, and paintings that come to life.

Rumors of the haunting have persisted throughout the years, with stories dating back to the 1960s when a group of schoolchildren said they saw Eliza Jumel, the 19th century owner of the home, dressed in period garb and shushing them for being rowdy.

A Hessian soldier, who supposedly died by falling on his bayonet while living in the house when the Hessians took over Northern Manhattan during the Revolutionary War, was supposedly seen stepping out of a painting by a schoolteacher.

And then there is the tale of Jumel's maid who committed suicide by jumping to her death from a second story balcony after a lover jilted her.

With those stories in mind, DNAinfo tagged along with the paranormal investigation group the MI:ST Society last Thursday to investigate those things that go bump in the night.

As the rain came down and the wind bent the trees on the mansion’s sprawling property at 62 Jumel Terrace the MI:ST team, made up of co-founders John Galvin, Tom Vullo and teammates Brendan McGinn and Anna Harreveld, scoped out the rooms for signs of mystical life.

Armed with a small black hard case filled with ghost-sensing equipment, including electromagnetic force detectors, light readers, contact and surface thermometers, cameras and a video recorder, the group tried to capture anomalies.

Galvin tried to put any potential ghosts at ease about the gadgets.

“This is not of the devil, it’s something Benjamin Franklin would have been crazy about,” he said of a meter that flickered green and red lights. The monitors registered energy flow several times near the room where George Washington slept, but nothing substantive was recorded.

“At the moment I have to rule out that it was a natural, yet anomalous, bit of energy floating around the room,” Galvin said. “We have to rule it out as a paranormal act. Too bad.”

Moving from room to room, the group monitored the devices for abnormalities as Galvin began to prod the potential ghosts with questions that ranged from informational to accusatory.

He asked if Jumel likes having strangers walk through the museum, her home; if she had an affair with Napoleon Bonaparte, who was rumored to have bought her a bed; or if she allowed her husband to bleed out when he was stabbed with a pitchfork.  

“I’m not trying to incite them, but I am trying not to have them be boring,” he said. “A ghost is no different from a person, except that they don’t have a body. You don’t like to have a boring conversation either.”

“I tend to believe they feel chained or fettered to a spot where they had such strong ties they don’t want to give up,” Galvin said. “Some people think people get trapped, because they did or didn’t do something in this life, I tend to think it has to do with emotions keeping you here.”

When asked if he gets frightened while investigating, Galvin laughed.

“Excited, yes. Frightened, no,” he said.

“We usually run toward something, not away from it,” co-founder Vullo said.

Before the investigation took place, historian Ken Moss, who serves as the mansion’s executive director, said he remains skeptical of the manse’s rumored paranormal existence, saying nothing supernatural has occurred in the home since he began working there 12 years ago.

“That’s not to say that I don’t think that there is a certain spirit in a house like this,” he said, describing the historical figures — including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams in addition to George Washington.

“I mean you’re standing on the spot that every one of those guys stood on. Sure, that gives you a sensation, a feeling of something being there, but I don’t think it’s ghosts."

Despite Moss’ skepticism, the rumors persist.

For Northern Manhattan historian James Renner, the stories are an innocuous sort of urban myth and he indulges visitors when asked about the tales. But he remains unconvinced.

“I’ve been to the house several times already and I have not seen a one,” he said of the ghosts.
For the MI:ST Society team, the jury is also still out on this American haunting.

“My first initial response is that it probably wasn’t haunted tonight,” Vullo said, leaving the possibility open that on another stormy night an apparition might appear.

For the paranormal investigators, that is alright with them.

“We’re not trying to debunk here, we like to keep an open mind,” Galvin said. “We’re just trying to find answers or reasons for things happening.”

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