Code brown: the Lady of Raynham Hall

When I was about 5 years old, my family squeezed into a minivan and took a trip through the English countryside. I have a lot of scattered memories from that vacation, among them mist, cobblestones, and seeing this picture on the back of some tourism brochure and being scared sh*tless by it.

Raynham_Hall_ghost_photograph

I never knew the story behind the photo–to be honest, had forgotten about it entirely–I until this week, when happened upon it again by chance. I knew then that I was fated to write this blog post.

The photo’s subject is a spirit called the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, so named for her customary 18th-century brown brocade dress. It’s not surprising that I stumbled across her (I’m embarrassed I haven’t covered her already); her photo is among the most famous paranormal images in the world.  

lady_dorothy_walpole
Dorothy in life.

Let’s start at the beginning. Our most fearsome lady is reported to be Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726), sister of the first Prime Minister of England and 13th child of a Whig member of Parliament. Dorothy fell madly love with one Lord Charles Townshend, who loved her in return. But when Dorothy asked her father for permission to wed, he refused, fearing that people would assume he had arranged the marriage for his own monetary gain. So Lord Townshend went off to marry someone else, leaving Dorothy alone.

Lord Wharton
The notorious rake, apparently.

Enter Lord Thomas Wharton, a politician and rake “void of moral or religious principles.” It’s unclear if Dorothy actually had an affair with Wharton, or if their relationship was nothing more than a mild flirtation. It’s possible that she went for it–after all, she’d lost the man she loved and Wharton was a smart, charming dude willing to comfort her. But Wharton was married and kind of a douchebag, and theirs could not have been a long-term thing.

Then Lord Townshend’s wife died, and suddenly he was available again. He hadn’t heard about the business with Wharton, and asked Dorothy to marry him anew. Dorothy’s father was no longer around to get in the way, and she gladly accepted.

Now, I feel obligated to mention that contemporary sources–as well as recent documents uncovered by the descendents of the Townshends–indicate that the two’s 13 years of marriage were happy and normal. But if crime television has taught us anything, it’s that a cheerful facades can hide terrible secrets. According to legend, the Townshends had terrible secrets.

Lord Townshend, love of Dorothy’s life, was none too happy when he finally discovered that she’d hooked up with Wharty-poo (never mind that he himself had abandoned her to bang another woman). Some versions of the story go that she was still hooking up after she and Townshend had married, which would have been a bold move, considering her husband’s violent temper. However it went, Townshend took his revenge by locking Dorothy away, refusing to let her even see her children.

Eventually, she died. Officially, the cause was smallpox. Unofficially, people wondered if Townshend hadn’t pushed her down the stairs, or worse, if the funeral was a sham and he wanted her to die alone, shut up in Raynham Hall. Either way, no one would ever see Dorothy alive again.

raynham_hall_1937
Raynham Hall.

About a century later, one of Townshend’s descendants held a Christmas party at Dorothy’s old estate. As they headed to bed, two guests were surprised to see a woman standing at the end of the hall, wearing a very dated brown brocade dress. Before they could approach her, she faded out of sight.

They might have assumed that they had been seeing things. But then, the next day, one of them ran into the woman again, this time face-to-face. Her pale skin all but glowed in the dark, and her eyes had been replaced by dark, gaping holes.

When this story came out, several servants quit and abandoned the premises. The legend of the Brown Lady had begun.

There were, of course, detractors. One was author Frederick Marryat, who decided to stay in the haunted section of Raynham Hall to prove how bunk the ghost stories were. Here’s his daughter’s account of how that went:

…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. My father was in his shirt and trousers, but as the hour was late, and everybody had retired to rest except themselves, he prepared to accompany them as he was. As they were leaving the room, he caught up his revolver, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” he said, laughing. When the inspection of the gun was over, the young men in the same spirit declared they would accompany my father back again, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” they repeated, laughing also. The three gentlemen therefore returned in company.

The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father. Now the bedroom doors in that corridor faced each other, and each room had a double door with a space between, as is the case in many old-fashioned houses. My father, as I have said, was in shirt and trousers only, and his native modesty made him feel uncomfortable, so he slipped within one of the outer doors (his friends following his example), in order to conceal himself until the lady should have passed by.

I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham.”

candle_in_the_dark
Ambience!

And so it went. King George himself visited the property at one point, and woke up to find the lady standing over his bed, hair disheveled, eyes wild. He fled immediately, swearing to “not spend another hour in the accursed house, for tonight I have seen that which I hope to god I never see again.”

Now we come to the famous photograph. In September 1936,  London-based photographer Captain Hubert A. Provand visited Raynham Hall along with his assistant Indre Shira with the aim of capturing property photos for Country Life magazine. According to their account, they were setting up a photo of the stairway, Provand with his head under the camera’s fabric, when Shira spotted a vapoury form coming at them down the stairs. He cried at Provand to take the shot. The photo that resulted is the one that the world wonders at today.

Since then, the Lady has not been seen much. Doubt is back in style. People maintain that the Country Life photograph could be easily faked–that there is damning evidence of double exposure and maybe even prop placement with a Madonna statue. I could also point out that Marryat’s story was doubtless exaggerated–not only did Marryat write fiction himself, but his daughter (who wrote the passage I quoted above, which is often quoted by people telling the story of the Lady) also wrote sensational novels, in addition to being an ardent Spiritualist. Between the two of them, it would be hard not to embellish.

Still, Dorothy Walpole’s legend has a nice ring to it, and has survived the better part of 300 years. The current owner of Raynham does not believe the photo was a fake. When asked about his infamous relative, he simply replied: “She isn’t there to haunt the house but she is still there, I know she’s there and I’m glad she’s around.”

 

What’s the most terrifying thing you’ve ever taken a photo of? Share your story in the comments below.

 

 

All images–except that the candle–were pulled from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain. The candle photo is by Paolo Costa Baldi [CC BY-SA 3.0], also from Wikimedia Commons

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You Used to Beat Me with our House Phone: The Haunting of 57 West 57th Street

Ah, New York. There’s so much history here, and so much madness. In the case of the penthouse at 57 west 57th street, that madness left an impression.

57 West 57th street began its life as a Medical Arts Building in the late 1920’s, and originally wasn’t supposed to lease apartments at all. Devoted mostly to private practitioners, one of the building’s most prominent features was an entire floor dedicated to Doctor Browning’s Sanitarium. Less than three months after said floor opened, 27-year-old Esther Glasser evaded the nurses and her sister to leap out the 14th-story window. A cab driver below witnessed her body explode against the sidewalk; the event likely didn’t get the building very good press. Still, things continued well enough until Edna Crawford arrived.

Born in Kansas City, Edna had moved to New York with the hope of finding a wealthy husband. Albert Champion, who had rapidly come into money after inventing the spark plug, seemed to fit the bill–never mind that he was already married and eleven years her senior. Albert took one look at beautiful Edna and saw no reason to argue. He divorced his long-suffering wife (she had once been his childhood sweetheart, and had lately sued him for “extreme cruelty,” citing his numerous affairs) and married Edna instead.

albert_champion
A photo of the unfortunate Albert, courtesy of the Agence de presse Meurisse at Wikimedia Commons

Any happiness in their marriage didn’t last. Albert was jealous and possessive; he lavished Edna with gifts but refused to give her her own spending money. On a trip to Paris, Edna found some relief in Charles Brazelle, who was as taken with Edna’s money as Edna had been with Albert’s. Albert discovered their affair and confronted them. He threatened to leave Edna penniless, and Charles punched him so hard that Albert died a few hours later, alone in his hotel room. Edna and Charles claimed he died of a weak heart. The police didn’t argue, and Edna left Paris $12 million richer from her late husband’s will.

Charles, who was technically still married; (no word on what his wife thought of all of this) accompanied Edna back to New York, and started pestering her immediately for a modern penthouse of their own. That’s when they stumbled upon the “housekeeping apartments” on the 17th and 18th floors of the 57th street Medical Arts Building. The apartments were not for rent, so Edna bought the whole building.

Edna and Charles renovated the 17th and 18th* floors into an apartment for each of them, with a secret staircase between the two. They decorated as opulently as possible: gold and silver walls, marble mantels, stained glass windows, fountains, exotic plants, etc. Edna took $30,000 worth of Russian clerical vestments and made them into a canopy for her bed, and then commissioned a 40-foot mural of her and Charles as central figures in a Venetian carnival, herself wearing nothing but a mask and high heels. Meanwhile, Charles started a club in the basement of the building and began to gleefully collect rent.

Shockingly, this union based on violence and greed didn’t last. Charles turned out to be even worse than Albert. He hired French staff to monitor Edna’s movements, attempting to confine her to her apartment. The couple had a lot of drunk fights, some of them violent. Worried for her safety, Edna’s family hired her some bodyguards. Charles countered by using his master key to sneak through the building’s offices, hunting Edna while avoiding confrontation. Sometimes he would disappear in the building for days at a time; no one could find him, but they could feel him watching.

At last there came the night when Charles attacked. Edna, drunk and on drugs, failed to fight him off, and he beat her to death with a telephone. Her bodyguards (who apparently weren’t competent enough to stop him from killing her) tossed Charles out the window, and he slammed onto the terrace below, dying not long after.

scene_carnival_tiepolo1750
An example of a Venetian carnival painting that Edna and Charles might have inserted themselves into. It’s titled Scene de carnaval, ou Le Menuet by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It took the building a few years to rent out the penthouse after that. Once they found someone, however, it quickly became apparent that it would be hard to keep the rooms occupied.

Carlton Aslop, a well-respected socialite (and friend of Judy Garland), was the first to finally move in, bringing his new wife and four Great Danes along with him. They redecorated, settled in, and tried to relax. This proved difficult, as the Danes began to suffer from nervous breakdowns, staring at odd spaces in the room or at the walls with their ears flat and their eyes wide. Both Carlton and his wife heard the clicking of high heels and muffled arguing when they should have been alone. Mrs. Aslop began to behave oddly, and within a year fled the building–and her husband–without a backward glance.

Depressed, Carlton tried to throw parties to cheer himself up, but the apartment frightened his guests as badly as it had his wife and pets. They would come back from using the bathroom upstairs white-faced and shaking, unable to articulate what they had seen. One was followed by something on the stairs–she demanded to know who was responsible for the practical joke, but no one at the party owned up to it. Carlton at last had his own nervous breakdown and committed himself to the sanitarium downstairs. Once he got out, he never came back to the apartment again.

In 2011, the company fordProject bought the space* and opened an art gallery there. The New York Times reported that their first exhibition was called “When the Fairytale Never Ends,” which the curator described as an “an artificial paradise” with a dark side. The reporter noted that the gallery did not really feel like a gallery, with the odd shapes of the walls obstructing sightlines and the video viewing room upstairs feeling rather “claustrophobic.”

From what I can tell, the gallery might have continued for some time after that, but it’s no longer clear if it still exists. The 57 West 57th street website makes it look like the floors are available to rent, so if you have a lot of money and and balls, you might be able to go up there and find out if the apartments are really haunted yourself. For the rest of us, there are a number of dental and dermatologist offices on the lower floors for a lower-budget, health-conscious supernatural tourism.

 

Would you be interested in living at 57 West 57th street? Even with a broker’s fee? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

*In researching this post, I found some conflicting reports on whether the apartments were on the 17th and 18th floors or the 18th and 19th. The New York Times seems to think it was the latter, but the Daytonian in Manhattan blog (which seems to have done marvelous research into it) claims it was the former. Either way, I’m not sure I’d want to hang out anywhere around that part of the building.

Spring-heeled Jack: An Energetic Victorian Nightmare

Eighteen-year-old Jane Aslop did not want to go outside. It was dark, cold, and too late at night for any ordinary visitor, but the ring at the gate and her curious family compelled her to investigate. As she crossed the yard, she picked out a cloaked figure hunched just beyond the wall.

“Hello?” Jane asked. “Can I help you?”

“I am a policeman,” the figure snapped. “Quick, bring a light! We’ve caught Spring-heeled Jack!”

Jane knew that name, and trembled as she ran to fetch the officer a candle. He snatched it from her, pulling her arm. Then, instead of turning away, threw back his hood and held the light to his face.

Jane screamed. The man was not an officer, but a hideously ugly devil, with bulging eyes and a strange helmet. He grabbed her face and neck with metal talons, pulling her towards his chest, and then opened his mouth and vomited blue fire.

Jane screamed again, and, struggling, managed to break away and run back to the house. The thing caught her at the doorstep, pinning her down and scratching her, ripping out chunks of her hair. Her sisters, hearing her cries, came and managed with difficulty to pull her away. They stumbled back inside as a group, slamming the door her attacker’s face. The fiend did not stop, but pounded at the door.

Afraid for their lives, the family rushed upstairs and hung out the windows, screaming for the police. Only then did the devil laugh, turn, and vanish back into the dark. Jane collapsed against the door and sobbed with shock.

Spring-heeled Jack had come again.

springheel_jack
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Though he might be familiar to British audiences (as well as fans of the show Luther, as I learned after writing this article), Spring-heeled Jack is, at least to me, new news. Most accounts put him in and around London from about 1837 through ‘67, though there have been sightings of him as late as the 1930’s. Miss Aslop’s was one of the first–and biggest–cases that brought real attention to his name. Jack was said to be a tall creature (with some reports putting him at ten feet), often dressed in a light-colored suit or oilskin and a dark cloak. He had talons in place of fingers, bulging eyes, and a strange lamp held to his chest. Most important of all, Spring-heeled Jack was said to be able to bound fifteen to twenty feet in the air, which he often did to attack his victim or escape the police. He was impervious to bullets. More than once he breathed fire.

Jack was fond of leaping through the night to terrorize people on the street–especially women walking alone–and, when that didn’t entertain him enough, attacked people at their own homes, playing games where he rang the bell and waited to reveal himself as a monster. He sexually assaulted, scratched, slapped, and beat people, tore chunks of hair from their head (as mentioned in the Aslop case), and caused carriages to crash by jumping suddenly into the middle of the road. People were driven into fits of fear at the sight of him, and did not recover for days. Many efforts were made to apprehend him, but none were successful–scapegoat after scapegoat passed before the local judges, but even when a few men were put away, the attacks continued.

As time passed, the monster morphed: a flame-spitting demon became a transparent ghost, a poltergeist, or just a good, old-fashioned assailant. Toward the end of his heyday, Jack took to torturing a group of sentries, sneaking up during the night watch to slip a cold, clammy hand over one of their faces, or slap them, hard, before laughing and bounding away again. Those in charge of the station issued threats, but to no avail–Jack continued to torture them, even giving one guard two black eyes. The attacks only stopped when the guards started to carry guns with live ammunition with them during their shifts at night.

And there was the curious thing–the thing that has led many to believe that Jack might not have so been supernatural after all. He seemed to respond to violent defense, even as people claimed he was impervious to their weapons. There were those that whispered, too, of a wager between a handful of young aristocrats to scare the public–a wager that got out of hand. Perhaps Jack was human, after all.

But if that were the case, not all of his appearances could have featured the same person. Fire breathing alone, for example, is a very particular skill. The money and time one would have to have to buy and craft so convincing a costume limits the candidates who might have pulled it off, as well–never mind the time it could take to do the pranks themselves, and in varying parts of the country. Even if the game was solely that of those aristocrats, and if two or three of them spread out to do it, they surely would have aged over the thirty years that Jack reined, which would make his exploits rather difficult at the end.

There remains also the issue of the jumping–even an Olympian champion might struggle to make the types of bounds ascribed to our bogeyman. Though we cannot underestimate the power of public imagination, the original claims must have come from somewhere. In his comprehensive and well-researched paper on Jack and his legacy, historian Mike Dash discusses the possibility of a special type of shoe that might assist such dramatic leaps, but ultimately dismisses it as an invention as likely to be dangerous to the wearer as to his victim, especially on as varied terrain as that of London and the English countryside. So if it wasn’t a shoe, and the accused aristocrats weren’t all better than Olympians, how do we have accounts of Jack bounding over carriages, or onto buildings?

Even if we ignore the issue of the jumping, and how particular a person would have to be to able to convincingly pull off Jack’s antics, the fact remains that, if we accept that he is human, more than one person must have done it. And that brings us to the true horror of the story. We know for certain that the original Sping-heeled Jack spawned dozens of copycat criminals who sought to hide their rape, burglary, and murders under his supernatural guise. Add the possibility of several people acting as the original Jack himself, and we have an enormous number of brutalities committed under his name.

Perhaps it does not matter so much whether or not Jack himself was real, if the horrors he inspired were.

spring_heeled_jack-penny_dreadful
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Have an excellent full moon my friends, and a better Thanksgiving.

If one can jump for joy, can they also jump for horror? Perhaps Jack was merely trying out a new aerobic routine? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Clean-up on Aisle 15: The Haunting of Toys ‘R Us Sunnyvale

There is nothing more banal than a chain store. But one store in Sunnyvale, CA is not quite as *soulless* as the others: the East El Camino Real Toys R’ Us.

*Not actual Sunnyvale Toy’s R Us due to licensing issues, but in the same spirit! Photo credit to Flickr user Nicholas Eckhart.

By all accounts, the spot has been haunted for some time, but no one really investigated it until around 1978, eight years after the store opened and ninety-four after the alleged haunter’s death. Local writer Antoinette May began to document complaints from employees and customers alike: cold spots, toys jumping off the shelves, weird voices calling people’s names, an unseen hand stroking their hair. Aisle 15C appeared to be a hot spot for the phenomena: several people reported the scent of fresh flowers there at odd hours, overpowering  the plastic and rubber of new toys. Dolls that shouldn’t have been able to talk began to. Lights snapped back on moments after they were shut down; women were frightened out of going to the bathroom alone by water suddenly bursting out of the  faucets and the feeling of someone standing there, watching them.

One night, very late, an employee locked up the building, only to jump at a loud, insistent banging from the opposite side of the door. Assuming he had inadvertently trapped someone inside, the man unlocked and reopened the door, but there was no one there. Unnerved, he  locked everything back up and turned to go to his car, but the banging started again, just at his back. This cycle was to repeat a few more times before the employee finally gave up, ran to his car, and sped home.

All this mayhem attracted the attention of the media, as well as of media celebrities–namely, the infamous Sylvia Browne.  Bowling over teenagers and other, lesser known supernatural enthusiasts, this self-proclaimed psychic decided to hold her own seance in aisle 15. She brought with her several employees, a camera crew, and photographers armed with two 35mm cameras: one high-speed, and one infrared. Browne had all the lights turned off save for the one directly over them, way down at the end of the aisle. She sat everyone down, took a beat, and then began to commune with the Toys ‘R Us  spirit world

Up to this point, everyone had assumed that the ghost was that of John Murphy, original owner of the ranch the store was built over. Instead, Browne directed herself toward a spot just beyond the group and described a tall, lanky man in his early thirties–much younger than Murphy should have been. No one outside of Browne could see anything, but some reported hearing or feeling a buzzing in the silences after the medium spoke. The ghost, she reported, was a man named Johnny Johnson.

Johnny (or John, or Yon, or Johan) ostensibly informed Ms. Browne that he had been a preacher and ranch hand in the 1800’s. He joked that she had better move before her feet got wet–a cryptic remark until later research revealed that Browne had been standing in a spot where there used to be a well. Browne discussed Johnny’s life with him–how he had been desperately in love with his employer’s daughter, Elizabeth, and how Elizabeth had left to marry a wealthy lawyer on the east coast. Johnny was still waiting for her to come back. Browne tried to get him to cross over to the other side, but he refused.

Meanwhile, both cameras’ shutters snapped like popcorn. When the film was developed, the regular, high-speed roll would show nothing but Browne and an uncomfortable circle of employees at the end of a dark aisle. But the infrared showed an extra man there, indistinct, leaning against a shelf with his hands folded before him. He was tall, young, and lanky, and stood not two feet away from the farthest employee.

Who was this strange, mournful figure who would sigh “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away…” over a toy store intercom some hundred years after his death? Paranormal researchers scrambled to find out. In the end, they uncovered the tale of a preacher suffering from encephalitis (a swelling of the brain), who after beginning to work on the ranch slowly lost his mind. In his compromised mental state, a day of chopping wood became Johnny’s nightmare when he slipped and buried the ax in his own leg. Alone in the woods, Johnson screamed and bled to death before anyone could find him. According to Sylvia Browne, he has never come to terms with the fact that he’s dead, and you can’t blame him. Neither does he seem inclined to move forward.

Now, this is all a wonderful, terrible story, but we cannot avoid the fact that Toys ‘R Us is a business, and because of Johnny, business is booming. The manager admitted (at least in the mid-nineties) that the ghost sightings brought about consistent boosts in sales, so it’s hard not to wonder if this isn’t all some highly finessed–if desperate–marketing ploy. If it is, you almost can’t even be angry. In the spirit of marketing, I will leave you today with the wisdom of Google reviews: 

We’ll see you on the 17th.

What are your feelings about chain stores and ghosts? Do paranormal encounters improve your shopping experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Hell Gate

I’ve never slept well with open doors. As a child, I’d see the light flickering through the crack and imagine it was an otherworldly train, drifting through the dark to steal children who hadn’t properly fallen asleep. It would squeeze down the hall: a luminous blue fog shaped into a car, blank faces pressed against its windows, hands reaching from the gaps to pull any errant child aboard. I’d close my eyes and lay very still, light dancing behind my eyelids, and pray the conductor would pass over me.

I haven’t seen that train for years, but to find it again, I needn’t look far.

By Friedo at English Wikipedia

Finished in 1916, Hell Gate Bridge is a monster made of more steel than the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges combined. In spite of a mid-90’s effort to repaint it, it’s once-violent red has faded to a ghostly pink, giving it a splotchy, desolate appearance. Two stone towers squat at either end, arms and eyes of a structure built so precisely that when the final section was lifted into place, it only had to be adjusted by half an inch.

Since its inception, Hell Gate has been used exclusively for railroad traffic, and today is owned and operated primarily by Amtrak, though it supports some other passenger and freight trains. Its path stretches between Astoria and Randalls and Wards islands, which at the time of its construction housed a correctional facility and mental institution, respectively. The original lattice design of the bridge had to be altered, in fact, to soothe worries that the asylum patients might climb up it and escape. At 1,017 feet, Hell Gate was hailed as the world’s longest steel arch bridge until 1932, when Australia, inspired by Hell Gate’s grandeur, built the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was not the last time Hell Gate would impress.

Even before the bridge was constructed, Hell Gate pass–site of the battling currents of the East, Hudson, and Harlem rivers–was infamously unsafe. Many ships opted to avoid it altogether. In the fall of 1780, the strait swallowed the motherlode of ships–the British man-of-war Hussar–dragging 140 of its crew and its $800 million worth of treasure* down into the silt. The wreckage has never been completely recovered**. Word has it also that when the tide was low, the British would chain American captives to a rock wall in the Hell Gate basin. Then, as the tide time came in, they’d sit in their boats at watch the water rise, relishing the screams of the drowning men. Later, lighthouse keepers claimed that these screams never really stopped, and could be heard echoing through the dark some one hundred years after the river ran over the rebels’ heads. Naturally, the strait continued to be a magnet for death even after the bridge was put in, attracting suicides and Mafia body drops. Once Hell Gate took them, the victims might never be found.

By squirrel83 at Flickr.
By squirrel83 at Flickr.

By the time the 70’s rolled around, the tracks were so seldom used and the bridge had fallen into such disrepair that it’s no wonder its reputation snowballed like it did. Teenagers whispered of a pedophiliac rapist living at the base in Queens–a vagrant that would pull children in to do hideous things to them before murdering (and, according to some, eating) them. The story goes that by the time the police finally went down there, all they found was a room full of photographs of the psychopath’s crime, and a horrible, pervasive stench.

After its new coat of paint in 90’s, Hell Gate was briefly able to pull itself out of the mud. Except that the color faded even as the painters put it on. Except that people started to climb up to explore the tracks late at night, and wonder about how many had died there. Sometimes, stumbling over the black rails, they would see lights. The lights would wax, consolidate into one or two spots, then barrel straight at the traveller along the tracks, only to disappear before running them over.

And sometimes, people would turn and see faces staring back at them from a half-formed train car.

If you’d like to experience Hell Gate in all its glory, the city of New York has made it quite easy, even going so far as to construct a cheerful walking path right along where American soldiers were drowned, where asylum inmates reached up in hopes of escape, where children were rumored to have been dragged to their doom.

Can’t make it right away? Not to worry! Even in the event every human in New York is wiped out, Hells Gate Bridge will last for a milenium more–seven hundred years after all other bridges crumble to dust.

It’ll wait.

* Mimimum estimated 2015 market value.

** Not for lack of trying. For more info, see Myths and Mysteries of New York: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained, by Fran Capo

Hello and Welcome.

I am glad to be here, and glad you are here, too. Sit down, have a drink–don’t worry, it’s red, but it’s not blood. Don’t mind the dust on the chair, or that strange smell. We’re all friends here. And we’re here because we like monsters.

So let’s talk monsters.

You are doubtless familiar with the basics; pop culture is saturated with them now: vampires, zombies, werewolves, dark-eyed, grinning demons. I love those guys–they’re what got me started in this, my Stygian profession. But we’re getting bored of them. It would seem that our time is lacking in imagination–that as we go about our daily lives, we’re running out of things to be unreasonably afraid of.

No longer!

There are plenty of other things that go bump in the night (or in the day, right behind you) that are still lurking in the shadows, waiting for their moment in the spotlight. They deserve a chance to make someone shudder, squeal, or laugh a little too loud.  This is a blog about those guys–the unique ones. The specific ones. The ones you won’t see coming.

So sit back, sip your drink, and let’s warm up with something more familiar–a real-live ghost story that was related to me just over four years ago.

***

It was late December, just after Christmas, in an underground metro station just outside the Oregon Zoo. When I say underground, I mean *deep* underground–at about 260 feet below the surface, Washington Park is the deepest subway station in the United States. It’s set up with a set of elevators at either end of the platform, which has an island of wall in the center to divide the city and suburb bound trains. The only normal way in and out of the station is to take one of those elevators; as I would find out, they shut down the platform after a certain hour at night, and when they do, those elevators get locked with it.

Of course, were you to get locked down there, I suppose you could always try to escape through the tunnel. It dumps right out into a graveyard. In fact, they had to relocate 14 bodies when they were building it.

Anyhoo, it was around 10:30 pm. I had worked late, and got off the elevator just as my train was pulling away. The next one wouldn’t be by for 40 minutes. I settled in on the cold stone seats, and prepared myself for a miserable wait.

Now, being a person somewhat small in stature, my wait was complicated by a fear that someone would show up on that empty, echoing platform and decide to harass or mug me. Imagine my relief when I heard the elevator bang, and not a vagrant but a security guard came strolling down the platform.

“Hello, there!” he said.*

We exchanged pleasantries, and I expressed my gratitude that there was someone on duty. The guard smiled and acknowledged that it could get creepy down there, alone at night. But no night, he said, could compare to a shift he worked there in ‘04.

I bit.

He had to close the elevators that night, and he and one other guard were the only ones left–had been for hours. It was around 1:00 am. Our guy was the only one physically underground; the other was manning the camera feeds remotely, coordinating with him over the radio. The two of them were supposed to work together to make sure no one else was still down there, so that when they shut the elevators they wouldn’t inadvertently entomb anyone under 24 stories of rock.

The platforms were both empty and the radio man gave our friend the all clear to shut down the first set, which he did. All seemed well, but as our friend walked down the platform towards the other, his companion came over the radio.

“M23-10–hold up, we have someone else on the platform.”

 

By Bruce Fingerhood from Springfield, Oregon, US (tunnel Uploaded by Mackensen) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The cold Trimet station got a little more interesting. “Someone else?” I asked.

“It happens,” the guard explained. Sometimes some hapless traveller will come down while security is closing the first set of elevators. So he took another walk around, trying to find them–even called out. Nothing. He assumed his radio friend had made a mistake, and told him so. He headed back to shut the rest of it down.

But the radio stopped him again.

“M23-10, do not proceed. There is another person on the platform.”

The train echoed down the tunnel as he continued. He raised his voice over it.

“So I looked around again, but nothin.’ He even tried to give me instructions, but I swear the station was empty. So by now, I’m a little freaked out. Finally I go and I stand on the walkway and look up at both of the cameras and wave my arms around.” He demonstrated; the train lights illuminated the station. “’See?’ I say. ‘No one else here!'”

“And he says to me,” the guard leaned in, “all shaky-like, ‘M23-10. They’re standing right next to you!'”

The train ripped out of the tunnel and slowed to a stop in front of us. He grinned, and I did, too.

There’s something  magical about a well-timed ghost story. I got on the train that night electrified by the thought that there could be monster lore on a site built less than ten years before. Age was no longer a prerequisite for supernatural fun. And I thought, what else could be out there?

What have you seen?

 

 

 

* As this happened four years ago, all quotes are paraphrased, and the radio codes are deliberately pure nonsense.