As the sun sets on a small hill overlooking the Harlem River, it bathes a wooden mansion surrounded by spring blossoms in its warm light. In the bustle, the house sits still, wrapped in golden warmth. It doesn’t stand out just because of how peaceful its gated residence is among the massive apartment buildings cramping the streets of Washington Heights; it also looks like it’s stuck in a different era.
In fact, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a villa built in Palladinian and Federal style with a façade of large ivory-colored columns and a small sunken flower garden, is kind of stuck in the past. It is the oldest house in Manhattan, and it has lived many lives. But besides being drenched in American history and culture, it is said that some of the great personas that inhabited the house still linger in the creepiest of ways, haunting its visitors and staff regularly. During a weekday sunset when the house was tired from a day of tours and the gates locked out the New York traffic, I joined a professional paranormal investigator to learn more about what secrets the house held.
Over the years, the mansion has taken on many shapes and duties. Built in 1765 by the British Colonel Morris as a summer villa with fruit trees, cows and sheep, the house, ten years later, was the fulcrum of the Harlem Heights battle, and where George Washington found refuge and hosted the first cabinet dinner amidst the war. After that, it became a farm, then a tavern, and later was bought by a rich French man and his wife, Stephen and Eliza Jumel.
The two sent each other romantic letters describing what wallpapers and what furniture the husband should bring back from his travels; they planted vineyards of French grapes, they had furniture gifted from Napoleon and Josephine, they painted their fire mantel a specific type of orange to remind visitors of their wealth, and had gorgeous stained-glass windows custom made. Eliza became the wealthiest woman in New York by learning the ropes of real estate, buying and selling property; her passion for art and architecture enriched the estate with valuables, making it to this day a testimony to the culture of the American Revolution.
After Stephen died—a controversial death that Eliza was often accused of orchestrating, she re-married, taking former vice president Aaron Burr (who killed founding father Hamilton) as her husband on the mansion’s front porch.
With time, Eliza went from being one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century to losing lucidity to senility. She’d arrange banquets with food and drinks, for example, just to let the food rot in the rooms for weeks, never realizing that there was no party to host. She died in 1865, and the Daughters of the Revolution sold the mansion to New York City, which turned it into the museum it is now.
As these fascinating people interwove their personal stories with the mansion’s history, they seemed to also have left a little of themselves in the mystique of the landmark, depending on who you listen to. Over the years, neighbors, visitors and residents of the area told stories about the house, sending in letters to complain that the house had become haunted to the staff of the mansion. Believers of the paranormal have kept tallies of all the ghosts they’d seen or heard, with apparitions ranging from soldiers to serving staff. Some have said they’d seen Washington himself, or Eliza’s lovers, Jumel and Burr, but most often, the tales describe the spirit of an elderly lady, most likely Eliza, screaming from the balcony.
The house’s staff and board always dismissed these claims as rumors and tall tales and tried to stray away from as much of the controversial history of the house as possible. Instead, the house was first marketed as Washington’s headquarters. Only recently, less than a decade ago, the house’s board embraced the idea that these tales might have a kernel of truth in them and hired a professional paranormal investigator to be part of its team and learn more about the house’s haunted history.
Vincent Carbone, a paranormal investigator and co-director of Gotham Paranormal Research Society, a private research and investigations business, has been looking into claims of the paranormal throughout the United States since 2011, the same year he became the mansion’s resident paranormal investigator, as well as the official investigator for historic Richmond Town on Staten Island. Carbone said after he had enquired about the house to organize his best-friend’s bachelor party there, the staff realized there was a possibility to build on the mansion’s ghostly reputation. Now, the mansion has been featured in Ghost Adventures, Haunted USA: New York, and the Today Show hosting paranormal experts and mediums such as Hans Holzer or the Tennessee Wraith Chasers.
Carbone and I spent a tepid spring Wednesday evening testing out investigation equipment on the house, so I could learn about the psychology of ghost hunting. With some very simple pieces of equipment, such as an electromagnetic meter or a motion sensor, it’s possible to scope out areas of the house where energy levels are higher, and where there could be some paranormal activity, he told me.
“The equipment used for paranormal investigations can easily be found online or in warehouse shops, because most of the times they’re used in everyday life, in construction for example,” Carbone explained. “Last time I checked, you couldn’t sit in a lab and test equipment on a ghost!”
We discussed how much our perception and understanding of the paranormal affects our findings in these investigations, and how so many factors, such as previous paranormal experiences or whether a person is in a positive state of mind, can come into play when scoping out ghosts.
“I like to call myself a skeptical believer,” said Carbone. He recalled several times that something strange and eerie happened, such as a voice in recordings or a shadow in the corner of the eye, and he could not explain it. “Does it mean it’s a ghost? I don’t know! I’ve never been dead!” he said, throwing his shoulders into a shrug. “But, it sure is strange!”
We started our tour at the entrance, where an ornate lemon-yellow chaise lounge is so delicate and ancient it cannot even be sat on, and there’s a sitting room with a chimney and a piano, and all the furniture in teal green. Next comes the octagon room, where Eliza would let her banquets rot, and then up the stairs to the rooms and Eliza’s half-empty room, where most of the activity, says Carobone, takes place, especially when only women are present in the space.
“If the men leave the room, the EMFs start to go off,” explained Carbone, recalling a time that a group of women heard a thud and some heavy steps coming from the attic.
I followed as quietly as possible and observed, but my shoes felt heavy on the ancient wooden floor, as they made an eerie creaky noise every move I made. I carried my camera around the odd rooms, recording a little bit of what a paranormal investigation of Morris-Jumel Mansion looks like.
I half expected (maybe hoped) I’d see a transparent figure or a shadow of an old woman wandering the halls or hear someone cackling, but I don’t think I really did. This one time, I was only told fascinating and odd tales of the plenty of ghostly presences that have been documented.
This black spiral bound notebook hidden between the office’s work stuff is what the staff calls “the book of haunts.” Everybody who works in the building is free to record any strange encounters or things they hear and see that make them uncomfortable. Page after page talks about loud thumps and noises from above floors, or the doorbell ringing and the lights switching on and off even though there is nobody at the entrance or in the house. Although I have always thought that creaky floorboards and bad electric circuits are the quintessential make-up of an ancient historic house, I have to admit that as I leafed through the pages, the sheer number of recorded incidents creeped out even this sceptic. Carbone also mentioned that the house has also experienced break-ins from burglars, so incidents are often recorded by the police too.
As for us on this Wednesday evening, we relied on tools and instruments to tell us—or show us—what we couldn’t see. This is a simple motion sensor, and it beeps and lights up every time it comes into contact with something, or senses motion. We left it on the corridor floor at the entrance of the house, but it didn’t show any presences. Maybe the ghosts didn’t want to reveal themselves with a stranger in the house, or they float too high about the floor to send the motion detector beeping?
Although no physical motion was detected, ghostly figures sometimes may manipulate electric waves in the air, said Carbone. So we tried out equipment to test that.
Ghost hunters use EMFs, a magnetic-field detector used by electricians to monitor changes in energy levels, to see whether there’s a change in the surrounding electric fields. We placed these meters in locations all over the house where people would have interacted in the past – at the meeting table, on the sofas in the lounge. The lights on the EMFS changed according to what room we were in and even according to the questions we were asking. “Could you please let me know if you’re joining us?” Carbone asked several times, for example, and sometimes the lights would spike as they detected energy, going from green to red.
I questioned Carbone on whether the different rooms had different energy levels simply because of the materials they were built with, or the location in the electricity route of the neighborhood. “Of course! All of that makes a difference!,” he responded and then asked. “But why are the energy levels changing and responding to each other?”
What was most fascinating, however, was how the three EMFS blinked on an off on the sofa and chairs as if they were entertaining a conversation amongst themselves. One monitor would go off first, then the other would react, and they would continue like that for whole minutes in a dance of lights between them. I couldn’t help but wonder: What if the monitors were really capturing the remaining energy of the people who sat there decades ago? Or better still, what if some ghostly presences were actually sitting there in those chairs, mocking me and Carbone?
As I stared at the lights flashing from green to red, I realized I could picture the ghosts in my head. I came to join Carbone, first taking a stroll in the mansion’s beautiful peaceful park, as somewhat of a skeptic, thinking this would be a fascinating tour of a historically and culturally rich household. But I soon realized that the personalities of the people living in the mansion were as important to the house as the architecture, and the thought of them still holding ownership over the house and embodying it in some unearthly way was also part of the story of the mansion.
Intrigued? Check it out for yourself. Paranormal investigations of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, led by Carbone, are open to the public twice a month. Tours cost 30$, they are three hours long, 18 and over only. More information can be found here.