The wintertime holidays that inspired modern Christmastime have everything to do with the prevailing sense that, at the darkest and coldest point in the year, the ghosts have an express thruway to our human world. And that, friends, is why people tell spooky stories on Christmas. Oh, you aren't familiar with this tradition? Allow me to expand.
Almost everyone associates the supernatural more with Halloween than Christmas, but in fact, Christmas—which traces its roots back to midwinter celebrations like the Germanic Yuletide and Roman Saturnalia—neatly encapsulates the eat-drink-and-be-merry-because-tomorrow-you-might-be-dead spirit of the season. As professor, religious studies chair, and Penn Ghost Project coordinator Justin McDaniel put it to the University of Pennsylvania's blog, "The darkest day of the year was seen by many as a time when the dead would have particularly good access to the living."
To my mind, it makes sense to treat Christmas as a celebration of life and death, light AND dark. In winter, when everything feels more precarious, it feels appropriate to share a scary story to keep you company around the fire. I imagine that the originators of this practice kept bringing up spirits for roughly the same reason I keep weaving the goddamn climate reports into my holiday interactions: Unable to wipe the stress imposed by this looming fright from my mind, I must talk about our probable fate constantly in casual conversation. Sorry!!!
Anyway, most people probably trace "scary ghost stories," per that one festive jingle, back to Charles Dickens's classic, A Christmas Carol. In it, Ebenezer Scrooge awakes to find that his deceased former business partner transfigured his bedroom door into a portal to the grave. Somehow, this tale cemented Christmas as the commercial holiday we celebrate today, but did not bring the ghost storytelling tradition with it. So with that in mind, and because what the hell else do you want from the Internet today, I bring you a selection of spooky New York City legends.
Hellbeasts Knocking: The Haunting of 136 Clinton Avenue
In early December of 1878, Edward F. Smith sat at home with his family and their two boarders. Everyone seems to have been minding their own business, just having a normal night in, thanks, when the doorbell rang. Not expecting anything like a "sulphurous visitant," as a subsequent NY Times report phrased it, Smith dislodged himself from what I'm imagining as a cozy fireside embankment and answered the door. "Nobody was there," the NY Times reported on December 20th, 1878, and further: "No small boy was seen running down the street."
Absent adolescent pranksters, what other culprit could we reasonably suspect, if not ghosts?
The wind! one of you is scoffing, I am certain. That's what Smith, thought, too: After that first clang, he closed the door in disgust (per the Times), disgust that must have mounted when the doorbell rang again—and again, and again, now with doors and windows clattering in their frames all through the night, SLAM SLAM SLAM for hours. Unable to pinpoint any other culprit or reasonable explanation, Smith blamed powerful gusts (the Times does not say whether or not the night in question was in fact blustery), but when the same ghoulish orchestra cued up again the following evening, and the evening after that, and the evening after that, his airtight hypothesis began to sag.
The whole phenomenon having become "exceedingly monotonous," the Smith family resolved to crack the case. Sentries stationed themselves by the rattling doors, and while one person stood watch outside in the yard, Smith sprinkled the path to the threshold with flour and ash, assuming he'd throw open the door to clear footprints that, in turn, would lead him straight to the villain. But when the cacophony resumed, as loud as ever before, he opened the door and (probably) gaped slack-jawed at the scene.
His trap lay entirely undisturbed. No footprints, no errant stones, and no one sighted in the yard.
Flummoxed, the Smiths called in the Brooklyn PD, which dispatched a police captain and a detective to do what the family could not: "capture the ghost." The officers arrived and, hearing with their own ears the holy hell being raised by some unseen force, positioned themselves inside the door, while another officer—backup, presumably—stood watch outside. Per the Times: "In a moment or two the bell rang violently, and several heavy blows were struck upon the door in quick succession. The Captain sprang out of the door and clutched just what the officer on guard outside had seen—empty space, and nothing more."
And as the Captain stood there shocked, a brick came crashing through the dining room window, although none of the officers stationed along the house's perimeter could explain where on earth it had come from. The police subsequently "ransacked the house from cellar to roof," and found nothing to suggest the haunting had been rigged.
The Times reported that 136 Clinton Avenue had once been inhabited by a lawyer who committed suicide on the premises. Some speculate that his disgruntled spirit may have haunted its halls, but Smith had a different theory. According to the Times, Smith became convinced that the cause of all this phenomena [was] no less a personage than his Satanic Majesty himself." And this being Christmas, that's the only explanation I'll accept.
Step inside this haunted Staten Island mansion, if you dare. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Staten Island Murder Mansion
When brickmaker Balthasar Kreischer, a German immigrant, established himself in Staten Island in the 1800s, business boomed: Much of New York City had burned to the ground in 1835, making Kreischer's purportedly fireproof product a particularly useful (and lucrative) one as his neighbors rebuilt. Indeed, things went so well that the area where he lived—Charleston—soon became known as Kreischerville, and by the time Balthasar died in 1886, he'd amassed a fortune large enough to construct two identical hilltop mansions for his sons Edward and Charles.
The family's success, however, went up in smoke when their fire brick factory burnt after Balthasar’s death. Possibly because of the sudden plunge into hardship, or because of a factory-related, brotherly squabble, Edward committed suicide inside his gothic manse, shooting himself in the head. Then, during the Great Depression, the second mansion burned down—reportedly with Charles and his wife trapped inside. In all my reading, I have not pinpointed a cause for any of the plague of fires upon this family's houses, and invite you to speculate wildly as to their (probably supernatural???) cause.
The first mansion—the Kreischer Mansion—still stands, though; we toured it in 2015. According to local lore, still serves as a home to a handful of restless spirits who refuse to leave the grounds. According to this 2010 Village Voice story, the spectral cast includes Edward's wailing widow, whose sobs can still be heard echoing along the house's leather-papered corridors. Then, there's the ghost of a cook who was allegedly murdered on the property and who now clatters up and down the hallways, banging together pots and pans in an unholy, eternal racket. An intrepid few have taken up temporary residence in the Kreischer Mansion, but none has ever stayed long—driven out, perhaps, by the eerie scratching coming from inside the closets, which some believe to be the work of two small spirit children, punished for bad behavior with a stint behind a locked door.
The house saw its reputation for violence cemented in 2005, when a caretaker named Joseph "Joe Black" Young carried out a mob hit in the basement. Young and three of his mafia associates brought their mark, Robert McKelvey, to the abandoned mansion, where they supposedly planned to stab him to death and dispose of the evidence. McKelvey, though, proved harder to kill than his assassins anticipated, and survived Young's attempts to knife and strangle him. In the end, the group drowned McKelvey outside the house, in a shallow, weedy pool roughly the depth and length of a grave. Later, they dragged McKelvey's corpse back into the basement, where they dismembered the body and threw the pieces in the furnace.
I have not found any evidence that visitors have encountered a disgruntled mafioso within the mansion's walls in the years since the murders, but then again, no one stays in this Victorian manor for long. A musician would seem to be renting a studio there, though, so maybe ask him who else is sharing the space.
The Hellmouth at Hell Gate
Stretched across the East River, the Hell Gate bridge draws its name from the treacherous waters below, dubbed Hellegat—which either means "Bright Passage" or "Hell Hole," depending on how optimistically you translate—by the Dutch.
Personally, I find the latter to be more appropriate, considering the sheer number of ships the river's swirling eddies and whirlpools have swallowed over the centuries. According to Boroughs of the Dead, the numbers look something like this: "During the 1850s, an average of 1,000 ships a year were damaged or sunk in the Hell Gate. By 1873, there was an estimated one million dollars of property damage a year because of the Hell Gate. One story involves an 1879 expedition in which a British [ship], filled with 200 lbs of gold, sunk."
In 1904, a steamship fire aboard the General Slocum took the lives of over 1,000 passengers—primarily women and children on an end-of-school outing, according to Smithsonian magazine—bound for a picnic in Long Island. As the ship made its way up river, a fire broke out below deck. The crew attempted to put it out, but untested, rotted hoses burst when water began pumping through them. The captain set a course for North Brother Island (reportedly haunted by the ghost of Typhoid Mary), but accelerating speed coupled with strong winds worked like fuel on the fire. Crew members distributed life vests, which turned out to be as rotten as the hoses, as passengers jumped overboard. Quoting a contemporary newspaper account that described the disaster as "a spectacle of horror beyond words to express," Smithsonian reports:
Passengers trampled children in their rush to the Slocum's stern. One man, engulfed in flames, leaped over the port side and shrieked as the giant paddle wheel swallowed him. Others blindly followed him to a similar fate. A 12-year-old boy shimmied up the ship's flagstaff at the bow and hung there until the heat became too great and he dropped into the flames. Hundreds massed together, only to bake to death. The middle deck soon gave way with a terrific crash, and passengers along the outside rails were jolted overboard. Women and children dropped into the choppy waters in clusters. In the mayhem, a woman gave birth—and when she hurled herself overboard, her newborn in her arms, they both perished.
Just over a decade later, in 1916, construction on the Hell Gate Bridge completed, and the passageway over the deadly Hell Gate strait opened to railway traffic in 1917. According to Boroughs of the Dead, local lore holds that if you see a train stop stop in the middle of the bridge after midnight, the horde that spills from its doors will be the trapped souls of the many unfortunates who've perished in the water below.