Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sandy Flash & Square Tavern

Square Tavern (photo by Mary Ann Fiebert of the Delco Times)
James Fitzpatrick was a highwayman who specialized in robbing victims traveling the West Chester Pike in the mid-to-late 1700s. He was popularly known by the name Sandy Flash, and although a royal pain in the behind to law officials, who he often contemptuously taunted, Fitzgerald was a bit of a folk hero, cast in the Robin Hood mold.

The gallant was reputed to have given gifts to the poor and was never known to steal from the needy or mistreat a woman; there were enough rich dudes running around to keep him rolling in pounds sterling. If business was slow, he'd ride into town and find a likely target to refill his larder.

In 1778, Flash went to the Square Tavern in Newtown Square and relieved its patrons of their cash. That led to his downfall, as he was finally captured after that last bit of larceny and sentenced to hang; his death warrant was said to have been signed by none other than Ben Franklin.

After repeated unsuccessful escape attempts, he was hung, more or less...actually, his legend goes that the rope was too long and his toes touched the ground, so the hangman jumped on his shoulders (kinda lazy, if you ask us) and in effect strangled the outlaw to death.

The Square Tavern is famous on its own merits. Built in 1742, it also is known as the Square Inn and the James West House, noted as the childhood home of American artist Benjamin West. It weathered some rough times, but after being restored in 1981 and again in 2008, the building on Newtown Square and Goshen Roads is a museum and home to the Delaware County Tourist Bureau.

Sandy Flash and the Square Tavern seem fated to remain forever linked. Visitors to the historic building have reported seeing mysterious lights - orbs, if you prefer - flashing through the windows. Local lore has it the lights are the spirit of Sandy Flash returning to the scene of his last crime.

Why would Flash gently haunt the Tavern? No one is really sure, but Widener University's folklorist Joseph Edgette, who related this tale to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Dan Hardy, said "'s fascinating to know that Fitzpatrick's story is still alive today because of stories of the haunting."

And what better reason to haunt a house than to keep your name on people's lips through the centuries?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Cursed Bed of the Monongahela House

Abe Lincoln slept here (photo by Steve Mellon of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette)
This tale isn't too spooky; no ghosts and a curse that last worked in 1901. But it is a fairly well-known bit of Pittsburgh lore and rich in 19th century Steel City history that's still preserved today.

The Monongahela House in downtown Pittsburgh was once the Ritz of Three Rivers hotels. Built in 1840 at the corner of Smithfield and Front streets (Front later became Water Street and then Fort Pitt Boulevard), the five-story hostelry featured 210 rooms and was considered among the first of the grand hotels west of NYC. Pittsburgh's Great Fire of 1845 reduced the hotel to ashes, but by 1847, it was rebuilt at the same spot, bigger and better with nearly 300 grand rooms.

The hotel's diverse guest list of the famous included Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Stephen Foster, PT Barnum, Henry Ward Beecher, Robert Ingersoll, Lilly Langtry, Buffalo Bill, Tom Thumb and Chang the Chinese giant. Politicos that slept there were Prince Edward (who became Edward VII) of Great Britain, James Blaine, Teddy Roosevelt, Ulysses Grant and Grover Cleveland.

Abraham Lincoln, who stopped overnight in 1861 on his way to his first inauguration, was a guest, and after his visit (the only time he came to Pittsburgh), the room was considered a special lodging where only the creme de la creme could stay. James Garfield and William McKinley met that criteria. They shared two fates with Ol' Abe: they slept in the same walnut bed at the hotel and later were assassinated. And that in a nutshell is the legend of the cursed bed.

(As a side note, Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe's son, may be even more intimately associated with the assassinations. He was supposed to be at Ford Theater when his father was shot, but returned to Washington late from duty as an aide to US Grant and instead turned in. Both Garfield and McKinley were said to have contacted him about dreams of future doom, having Lincoln-like premonitions of death, and he was present for both assassinations, arriving too late to speak to the presidents about their foreboding omens.) 

The bed those souls slept in went to a small county museum in South Park after the Monongahela House closed in 1935, ignominiously razed for a bus depot. That museum closed during World War II, and the bed was stored away in a county work shed until a carpenter discovered it in the early 2000s. Covered in decades of...well, you can imagine the detritus, it was positively ID'ed from old photos.

The County voted to send the bed to an appropriate space, the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, and from there it went to the Heinz History Center in the Strip District. There, it was featured as part of a major exhibit during President Lincoln's 200th birthday in 2009, and is now included with the Special Collections display on the center's fourth floor.

So it's still there for the viewing over 150 years after Honest Abe laid his head to rest on its downy pillows. Oh, and a word to the wise...don't take a nap on it. Just sayin'...

Friday, November 8, 2013

Chestnut Hill College

Chestnut Hill College Entrance
Chestnut Hill College entrance: Image by Kiran from Wikipedia Commons

Philly's Chestnut Hill College is located on the northwestern edge of town on 75 acres overlooking the Wissahickon Creek. The College opened in 1924 as a Catholic school for women, then became Mount Saint Joseph College. The College was renamed in 1938 as Chestnut Hill College.

And that's given the school plenty of time to pick up an unexplained spirit or three to help expand the students' worldview...

Fontbonne Hall: The ghost of a girl who is thought to have died during the 1793 flu epidemic haunts the third floor, along with a male spirit. She isn't just seen in the hall, but it's claimed that she even appears in roomies' dreams simultaneously. There are also tales of poltergeist type shenanigans involving doord, windows and electronics. The hall has catacombs and tunnels underneath it that lead to the mother house and are allegedly haunted by a crying woman.

Fournier Hall: The "Red Eye Room" is located on the second floor, so named because at night, it's said that two red eyes appear floating throughout the room. One suite across the hall features paranormal phenomena like slamming doors, window shades that fly up and radios that turn on and off. The third floor is reported to be haunted by the ghost of a young boy, dressed in 1920's clothing.

Logue Library: Books move on their own, as do their carts. The library was allegedly built on top of a cemetery, which according to lore had to be relocated twice. If you're in the building after 11, it's said that you may share the stacks with some disgruntled spirits who were disturbed during the construction.

Lower Parking Lot: Located by the sports field, it's said to be haunted by the spirit of a girl that was raped and murdered at the site, near a marker erected in her memory.

St. Josephs Hall: On the fifth floor, you can sometimes spot the spook of a young sister in a long robe floating by, taking her suicide leap from the Bishop's Steps as she did many years ago when she found out she was bearing a priest's child. There are a set of locked doors with a crucifix above them that some say was where the sister put her newborn before her jump. The lore is that if you knock three times on the doors, you'll get three raps back in return. The basement is also haunted, and the fifth floor is supposed to be the realm of a departed art teacher.

And we're only tapping the surface. Other sightings have included visions of a young lady, a kindly old man in robes, little girls playing, and a boy with a hair of fire and emerald eyes. The mausoleum, the Chapel basement and the old gym in the basement of Fournier Hall are all supposed to have tales to tell, too.

And every year, CHC Student Activities hosts a lecture on ghosts and the paranormal, followed by a ghost hunt around the campus led by paranormal investigators.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Screaming Tunnel

Screaming Tunnel image by Cathy Simpson, on file at the 
Niagara Falls Public Library

Slowly I turned...inch by inch...ooops sorry, not that Niagara Falls story. This one is much more gruesome, befitting a Halloween week. All it needs is a bit of sulphur...

The Screaming Tunnel is a small limestone channel running underneath what once was known as the Grand Trunk Railway line (now part of the Canadian National Railways), located outside of Niagara Falls, Ontario, just off Warner Road. The rough-cut tunnel, constructed in the early 1900s, is 16' high and 125' feet long.

Often thought of as a railway tunnel, in reality it serves as a culvert to divert water blocked by the raised RR tracks away from the fields. The water would follow the stone passage under the rail bed, and when dry, the channel was used by farmers to move goods and animals safely under the active railroad line.

The story goes that the tunnel is haunted by the ghost of a young girl. She escaped from her burning farm house (or barn), located at the south end of the tunnel, with her hair and dress on fire, and died within ithe tunnel walls after losing a race to douse herself in its water. (Look for a a small hill and a path that leads to where the girl’s home was; the structures are gone.)

Several offshoots of the legend exist locally. It's oral lore, and versions do mutate over the generations.

The most passed-along Plan B tale has the girl being set on fire by her unbalanced father, enraged after he lost custody of his children during a bitter divorce (a version, btw, supported by The Paranormal Seekers when they investigated). In this setting, he set the house ablaze and then ran down his fleeing daughter, catching her at the tunnel, where he splashed gas on her and incinerated the girl.

Another version claims that a young girl was raped inside the tunnel and her body burnt to destroy any evidence of the despicable deed. The most outre is a story of a girl who was kidnapped by a butcher and was held captive in his house near the tunnel. She escaped into the tunnel, where the butcher chased her down (wearing a pig's mask!) At any rate, he caught up to the girl and set her on fire.

But it always ends the same way, with a haunted tunnel. If you go into the middle of the passage and light a wooden match, it will be extinguished immediately by a puff of wind and then followed by the haunting screams of the victim. It is a good, spooky site. It's always cold (a condition shared by both spooked-out and normal tunnels), too desolate to see either end from the middle at night, and reportedly the site of give-away orbs flitting to and fro.

The tunnel was eerie enough to be used during the filming of David Cronenberg's 1983 film adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone, a high compliment indeed.

As with most local legends, there isn't anything to collaborate the tale, like a juicy newspaper article. It has been said that the girl and her family are buried in the nearby Warner Cemetery, but without a name, it's hard to hang a hat on that tidbit. And we do have our mandatory nay-sayer.

Spoilsport Stephanie Lechniak of Haunted Hamilton has an alternate tale. At one time, there was a small cluster of homes on the other side of the tunnel, off the main road. One was occupied by a woman who was said to be a bit off mentally.

Whenever she would argue with her husband, she would walk to the middle of the tunnel and scream at the top of her lungs to vent (and maybe to get the last word in). Her cleansing act was what Stephanie believes to be the true origins of "The Screaming Tunnel."

Friday, February 22, 2013

Rolling Hills Asylum

Image by Sharon Coyle for Roadside America

Located between Buffalo and Rochester in East Bethany, Rolling Hills Asylum dates back to 1827 when it opened as the Genesee County Poor Farm, aka "The Old County Home." Its original building was a carriage house and stagecoach stop, operating since 1790, but the land was chosen because it was mid-county and accessible to all.

Its 200 acres (most are now a park) weren't exactly a nineteenth century government housing community. Rolling Hills' population was made up of paupers, debtors, the physically handicapped, unwed mothers, the aged, orphans, the chronically ill and the insane.

At any rate, the times weren't all that kind to folk on the dole for one reason or another. They worked the farm and did other chores, while the mentally ill were no doubt treated with the cures of that century, ice baths and electric shocks. It's thought that hundreds, if not thousands, may have died on the property, and many were buried in now unmarked graves (a memorial was later erected on the grounds)

In 1938, it became a sanitarium, and by the early 1950s, the facility was a nursing home that closed in 1972. After sitting empty for a couple of decades, the building was transformed into the Carriage Village mall. In 2003, it became the Rolling Hills Country Mall, a set of shops that dealt mainly in antiques that are now closed.

During its marketplace era, the shopkeepers and their visitors were spooked by some unexplained going-ons. The reports sure indicated that more than a pack of mall rats were haunting the place.

Doors and windows shut and opened by themselves. Many heard disembodied voices speaking (especially by the kitchen area). People have passed through cold spots, or worse, felt cold hands touching their necks. Hair and clothes are tugged at by unseen hands. Toys in the "Christmas Room" were moved and rearranged by themselves.

Knocks from the walls and footsteps were reported. The sounds of screams and sobs were heard coming from the building and fields, especially at night. It's said that a black mist can be found in the boiler room. Some claim to have seen people inside, staring out the windows when the building is empty. There are stories of shadows and a full-bodied male apparition who roams the hallways at night.

There are also outre tales of boys sold into apprenticeships or worse, Satanic cults, baby sacrifice and that sort of thing floating around that are associated with Rolling Hills. We kinda discount them. Heck, its band of bedraggled souls roaming the halls is plenty enough excuse for some psychic mayhem. And spooky lore suggests that those early psychiatric "cures" and unmarked graves usually result in ghostly blowback, too. It's just what you'd expect from orphaned, destitute and/or insane collection of spirits.

The building has been featured on shows such as the Sy-Fy Channel's "Ghost Hunters" and Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" while being probed by many paranormal groups.

Rolling Hills is now private property, owned by preservationist Sharon Coyle, but is open to the public on select dates and hosts some highly regarded evening and Halloween tours, so you have ample opportunity to check out one of New York's main spook centrals, if you care to dare (and call in advance).