Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cape May's Working Girls

The Merry Widow

Hey, it's been a while since we've taken a road trip, and while it's not summer yet - darn groundhog! - we decided to head east to the Jersey seashore and Cape May.

Founded by Dutch explorer and seaman Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, the town began as a whaling community in 1620, named Cape Mey. By 1720, it was known as Cape May and had morphed from a whaling port to a seaside resort town.

It also picked up the reputation as New Jersey's most haunted city over the centuries, making it the perfect vacation Eden for us. First we visited the Queens Hotel, on Ocean and Columbia Avenues.

Now it's a nicely laid-out bed and breakfast. It began in 1876 as Ware’s Pharmacy, a local apothecary. But you could get more than a prescription filled there; it also sported a speakeasy, a gambling den and a third floor brothel. Well, it was a resort, and you gotta keep the tourists healthy and happy, right?

One city-wide fire raged through Cape May in 1878 and damaged the Ware’s Pharmacy building, and it had to be extensively remodeled. It became bigger to support its thriving businesses, and was rebuilt ala the then-current Victorian architectural fad.

And one of its working girls is still working the house. Her haunted hang out is on the third floor where the old cathouse operated, and she's been blamed for all sorts of little antics.

You can tell when she's present by a powerful scent of perfume drifting through rooms and the accompanying cold spots. She also likes to play around some, moving objects around and rearranging the furniture more to her liking.

The ethereal lady of the evening has more physical attributes, though - she enjoys bumping into the upstairs beds, where she no doubt spent a great deal of her time.

Even more cattily, she's been known to jostle the other lady guests in the upstairs hallway, maybe in jealousy, or maybe just to let them know that they're intruding on her territory. Can't make any money if there's too many girls on the same corner, hey?

If you want to avoid her, local lore says she's just looking for a little appreciation for her services, so if you leave a buck or two on your third floor dresser, she'll consider her work satisfactorily rendered and will let you be.

That's the story of one working girl; we took a jaunt to Jackson Street - supposedly the most haunted street in the the most haunted city, how could we resist? - to check up on another, at the Merry Widow B&B. (Most of this tale is told by Susan Tischler in the Cape May Magazine.)

The spook here is an honest, hard working domestic, and dates back to the 19th century. She first became known to the owners in 1899, when the proprietor heard a knock and opened the door to a distinguished gent who asked if his old companion, Esmerelda, was still around - as a ghost!

As they spoke, the temperature in the foyer inexplicably dropped lower and lower. Feeling a little spooked, the landlady shut the door on her chilly visitor, but in a second reopened it, feeling a bit impolite and a lot curious. But, of course, all traces of the man were gone.

A short while later, one of the guests wondered if the home was haunted after seeing an unexplained female form wandering around on the first floor. Hmmm...

She asked the upstairs tenant if there was anything odd about her stay in the Turret on the third floor. "Nah," she says, "just the woman sitting at the end of the bed."

Now the innkeeper was worried. Haunted B&B's weren't exactly the rage at the turn of the century, and she knew her job was closely intertwined with the number of guests the Merry Widow took in. So in the off season, she did some exploring.

She discovered an old laundry chute under the third floor Turret bed, and found out the room belonged to a nanny named Esmerelda who worked for J. Henry Edmonds, the original owner of the house.

Did one of the kids come back looking for his old nanny? Is she still tending the place she called home? Or is the Merry Widow trying to drum up a little PR noise? They do offer a "Physick Tour," and the Inn is part of the Cape May Haunted Tour.

Hey, all we know is that the French Turret room is small, and been described as "spooky" by many of its guests, although we haven't found any of them willing to collaborate Esmerelda's presence.

So hey, go find out yourself. Jackson Street alone is supposed to have eight haunted homes, and Cape May has a list of eerie spots a mile long. My spook sensitive bud from Philly, LC, is fascinated by the place and assures me that there are more spirits there than you can shake a scary stick at.

These are just a couple of tales of gently haunted homes. Cape May seems like a place no one likes to leave - ever.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Liberace's Midnight Visitor

White Nun from Wikipedia

On November 23, 1963, Liberace was scheduled to play a gig at Monroeville's Holiday House in suburban Pittsburgh. Assuming the show would be canceled because of JFK's assassination, he busied himself with cleaning his costumes. He used a cleaning solvent with the toxic carbon tetrachloride as its' base.

Liberace napped once or twice in the unventilated room, and it almost cost him his life. While performing, he collapsed on stage and was rushed to St. Francis Hospital in the City's Lawrenceville section, suffering from kidney failure from inhaling the deadly fumes.

The doctors told him to get his affairs in order while hooking him up to a new device for that time, a dialysis machine. He was given a 20% chance of surviving. During those long nights, drifting between life and death, he dreamed of many things.

But he recalled one vision clearly, and it was a turning point in his recovery. As he later wrote in his autobiography The Wonderful Private World Of Liberace:
"A very young and lovely nun wearing a white habit came to see me late one night, when I was very near death. She said she was going to pray to Saint Anthony for me, and he would make me well.

The very next day, I began to get well. I described the nun to the Mother Superior at the hospital and asked who she was. The Mother Superior said 'There are no nuns in the hospital who wear white habits.'"

Of course, there was no nun in white at the hospital. The Franciscans wore dark habits. Did St. Anthony send Liberace an etheral messenger, or was he just the fortunate recipient of Dr. Thomas Allen and Dr. Frank Mateer's deft handling of the new fangled dialysis machine?

Maybe they go hand-in-hand, with the spiritual realm coming to intercede in the work of the physical world. After all, not all spirits are evil harbingers.

Dialysis took off after it saved Liberace, and St. Francis Hospital gained a new, life-long benefactor. He raised funds for the hospital, even having a lobby dedicated to him, and made sure that the sisters had tickets whenever he performed in Pittsburgh.

Saint Francis Hospital, like Liberace, doesn't exist anymore. It's been replaced by a modern, state of the art Children's Hospital. But hopefully, the good sister in white will stay to watch over her youthful charges as diligently as she watched over the showman. The story is also recounted in his biography Liberace: An American Boy by Darden Asbury Pyron.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Wraiths of IUP

Sutton Hall Bell Tower

Indiana University of Pennsylvania started out as tiny Indiana Normal School in 1875, hosting classes in Sutton Hall. It became a university in 1965, and grew from an original class of 225 students to its' current enrollment of 14,000. But it still holds to the old traditions - its ghosts predate the University.

Breezedale Hall: Breezedale Hall was built in the 1860's by James Sutton and sold to John Elkin. The Victorian mansion is now IUP's Alumni Hall.

According to school legend, a man in a beige suit can be seen lurking at the back stairwell before he disappears. There have also been reports of strange sounds and lights going on and off. James Sutton's brother-in-law, William Bell Marshall, lived in the mansion and committed suicide there. Maybe he's still roaming the halls.

Keith Hall: Keith Hall today is the place where students study the social sciences, but it had a humbler start.

The Hall is one of the favorite spook spots of the Ghost Researchers in Pennsylvania, who use it as a training grounds for would-be investigators. There's Bill, the "lounge lizard" in Room 233, who will only make contact with the group when they sing. GRIP has orb pictures of him. They have EVP's of an unknown British spirit, too. All in all, it's considered the hub of eeriness at IUP.

Stapelton/Stabley Library: Stabley Library, which was built in 1961, was later joined with the newer Stapleton Library. And in a hush-hush place like a library, its paranormal calling card sticks out: voices can be heard (although at a whispered volume) with the Paranormal Society of IUP taping some EVPs.

Sutton Hall: This is IUP's original school building, built by John Sutton, James older brother, in 1875.

If you come out at midnight and look at the top of the Sutton Hall bell tower, you're supposed to see a figure appear at the window. Faculty members have reported seeing a man in a top hat wandering the halls, and staff has heard music in the stairwells. The fourth floor is supposed to be a hive of paranormal activity, with feelings of uneasiness, sounds of running, and voiceless sobs and crying.

Waller Hall: Originally designed in 1926 to be a gymnasium, Waller Hall is now used for the theater department. And like any good stage, it has its cast of spooks.

Sarah, a little girl who drowned in the gym pool (its tiles can still be seen on the floor of the experimental theatre), has been spotted quietly playing in the corner, and sometimes she even makes an appearance sitting on the house lights. There's also an older guy ghost who's a little more disruptive. He's always slamming doors and moving things around, and his usual haunts are the studio theatre and its lighting platform.

Wilson Hall: It was constructed in 1894 and now serves the criminology department. It started as  the Model School, where a young Jimmy Stewart attended classes before World War I, and was a library in between. Since its conversion to a crime lab, its activity, consisting mainly of books flying off the library shelves, has abated.

So hey, when you visit campus, just remember that IUP may have all the trappings of a 21st century university, but it still clings to its eerie past.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sideling Hill Spooks

Sideling Hill Tunnel taken by Ross Sieber and shown on Wikipedia

Sidleing Hill is part of the Allegheny Mountains, and crosses West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It's part of what the early settlers called Side Long Hill in the mid 1700s, and the ridge was part of a cross-state trail back in the day that carried them over, not under, the mountains.

The spot we're interested in is located about a 1/4 mile from the old Sideling Hill Tunnel, a partially built Southern Penn RR tunnel that the Turnpike finished in the 1930s and opened in 1940, close to Breezewood.

It was deserted after a 1968 bypass took it out of business, and it's now part of a bike trail. The hill is in Wells Valley, Fulton County, and has been the site of a couple of work camps.

A CCC camp was set up there during the depression, and then during WW2, it was surrounded in barbed wire and reopened as a camp for CO's and German POWs. It's pretty much in ruins now, except for the Commandant's House, which park rangers from Buchanon State Forest still use.

Otherwise, all that's left standing is a wall, some crumbled foundations, and a few rusted pipes. You'll know you're there by the sense of angst that fills most visitors.

The spooks don't really seem to care about the camp's condition; it's still home to them. Two GI's in uniform have been sighted, roaming the campgrounds and then disappearing when you approach them, on eternal patrol of their POW barracks.

Others have seen an older man that runs towards them, yelling in German, before vanishing. He's probably asking if the war is over yet and whether he can finally go home. We suspect he'll never lay eyes on the Fatherland again.

Some report still seeing youngsters at work, digging and chopping trees. There was once a car accident while it was a CCC camp that claimed the lives of a pair of teen workers by the tunnel. Maybe they're still working off their karma at the camp.

The old tunnel, even without any spook stories, may be more frightening than the hillside camp. The original plans date back to the year 1881, and the Sideling Hill Tunnel was built by December 1884 for a RR line.

On July 6, 1885, a blast occurred at the end of the Sideling Hill Tunnel that claimed the lives of three people. Just sixteen days later, another blast occurred in the tunnel, taking the lives of six more workers. The bodies were so mutilated by the rocks during the blast that the people were almost unidentifiable. It never opened.

But the Turnpike Commission finished the job in 1940, using it until 1968. It was boarded up when it closed, but later reopened as a test facility for PennDOT. When it was abandoned for good, they kept the portals open.

Since 2001, it's been part of the Pike2Bike Trail, and features 6,782 feet of sheer black darkness, graffiti covered walls, and a debris-filled roadway. So if you're a bike fan, break out the ten speed and take a ride. Let us know if the old hole in the mountain or the deserted camp is spookier; the history of the tunnel are eerie, too.

If you'd like to do a little research first, read about the camp in Mark
Nesbitt and Patty Wilson's Haunted Pennsylvania.