While searching the NY Times archives recently, I stumbled on a bunch of amusing articles about New York City hauntings from the 1800’s. Today, a modern Times reporter would probably have to shake hands with a ghost before any such article would see print, but back then, superstitions ran high and articles on ghostly occurrences and the supernatural were fairly common. In honor of Halloween just two weeks away, I wanted to take a look at one of my favorites…
Brooklyn – that “city of mystery and sensations.” So begins this peculiar NY Times article published December 20, 1878 concerning the beautiful Greek Revival house at 136 Clinton Avenue near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which still stands today…
According to the Times article, on a night in early December of that year, resident Edward F. Smith heard his door bell ring. He opened the door to find no one there.
This happened several more times that night, and “at the same time, the two rear doors of the house were kicked and rattled and banged with great rigor,” disturbing his wife and their two tenants. Ultimately, Mr. Smith followed horror movie convention and concluded that “it was only the wind,” and went to sleep.
However, the disturbances continued every night from that day on. Showing Paranormal Activity-style ingenuity, Mr. Smith “sprinkled flour and ashes along the approach to the front door…[but] no footsteps were discovered.” The police were called in and spent the night, but despite many further rappings and door bell ringings, they could not determine the cause.
Frustrated, the police set a trap the following night, with numerous officers hiding around the house. The bell rang yet again, but Police Captain McLaughlin opened the door only to find “empty air.”
Suddenly, a brick crashed through the dining room window, despite numerous police officers guarding the path running beside it. The following day, a police detective “ransacked the house,” but could find no internal mechanism by which the supernatural effects could be produced.
Then, after three weeks of unexplained disturbances, it all stopped.
At this point, 136 Clinton Avenue had been inundated by gawkers as well as spiritualists (a paranormal fad of the time), who were begging access for seances and investigations. Mr. Smith would have none of it. “They won’t get in here,” he said. “We consider ourselves perfectly able to take care of any ghost that comes along.”
A follow-up story published the next day in the Times confirmed that the noisy ghost had not returned, though that had not deterred the throngs of spiritualists who conducted “semi-seances” on the sidewalk. The police had to periodically disperse the crowds, and at one point, Capt. McLaughlin was bit on the fingers by “one powerful German who refused to move.”
A possible source for the haunting suggested by locals was a lawyer who allegedly committed suicide in the house. Smith, however, had now decided the culprit was Satan himself, and claimed to have driven him off with a “long and earnest prayer.” The police, while “not prepared to accept the devil hypothesis,” were “ready to swear that they have heard and seen the startling demonstrations, and they are morally certain that it is beyond all human probability that any earthly hands pulled the bell, pounded on the doors, or threw the brick through the dining room window.”
And so ended the haunting at 136 Clinton Avenue, which, as far as I can tell, has been completely forgotten by history.
The gorgeous house at 136 Clinton Avenue is actually known as the Lefferts-Laidlaw house, and is sadly the only landmarked building in the Wallabout neighborhood (an area between the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Myrtle Ave). Built circa 1836-1840, it could be the last remaining temple-fronted Greek Revival-style residence in Kings County, and “typified the villas that were erected in Brooklyn’s early suburbs in the early- to mid-nineteenth century.”
Oddly, the very detailed record of 136 Clinton Avenue’s ownership in the Landmark report doesn’t mention an Edward F. Smith; in 1878, the property was owned by leather merchant William Mannheim. However, throughout its history, the property was frequently leased to tenants, which might explain Smith’s presence.
Be sure to read the two Times articles (part 1, part 2) – the reporter CLEARLY doesn’t believe any of the reports, and it’s the The NY Times at its most hilariously tongue-in-cheek.
What do you think?
PS – While trying to dig up further information on the story, I came across this awesome Times article from the February 21, 1881 issue. It’s probably not the same Edward F. Smith (obviously a common name), but even so, it’s worth re-posting simply because this sort of news story sadly just doesn’t seem to make the paper anymore:
Whatever happened to those days when people randomly had attacks of insanity (and could accurately predict them?).
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