By David Freeland
Some years back I became intrigued by a real-life New York ghost story that took place during the summer of 1881. It concerned some decidedly strange occurrences on 14th Street, just east of Seventh Avenue. By then the neighborhood was no longer as fashionable as it once had been; many of its elegant townhouses had been converted into apartments for boarders. It was at one of these lodging houses, number 131 West 14th, that a pair of ghosts was causing terror, frightening tenants so badly that most of them were moving out. Faced with financial ruin, the widowed proprietor, Mrs. Carr, had taken her case to the police.
The house had been haunted for a long time. For years new servants would arrive only to leave days later in terror. The New York Times reported how it became common practice in the neighborhood for servants in nearby houses to ask new cooks and maids at number 131 if they had seen any ghosts yet. The apparitions were always the same: a man and a woman, the former with what the Times described as “very large black eyes, which strike terror to all upon whom they are turned”; the latter a young woman of about 20, whose face, “though beautiful, is disfigured by marks which would seem to indicate a life of dissipation.”
Like many such tales, this one had its basis in a true occurrence. Some years prior, when the house had been a single-family residence, a young woman had taken to drink after her fiancé, a merchant, had died on an overseas voyage. Eventually she died of alcoholism. Her brother killed himself soon after by drinking poison. A policeman interviewed by the Times remembered the brother and sister well, and – no surprise – noted that the two ghosts fit their descriptions exactly.
Still, the ghosts seemed content to make their presences known only to servants until Mrs. Carr took possession of the house around 1880. Within a year, they were popping up everywhere, it seemed, and in front of lodgers and domestics alike. The male ghost, in particular, took a liking for nighttime appearances in residents’ bedrooms, where he would engage in all sorts of mischief.
“While the boarder was endeavoring to collect his senses,” the Times wrote of one incident, “the ghost reached forward, and, seizing the bedclothes, pulled them from the prostrate form of the boarder, deposited them on the floor, and then mysteriously disappeared.”
Clearly, someone with access to the house was taking advantage of its reputation, playing tricks on guests either for amusement or, as the Times suggested, for the purpose of exacting revenge upon Mrs. Carr. A suitor whose affections she had spurned years earlier was thought to be one possible cause. Several latch keys were reported as missing, while the lock on the front door was so basic that it could have been, in the words of a reporter, “opened, as burglars sometimes say, with a toothpick.” Strange men had been seen loitering about the house. Still, there were a few strange elements of the case that didn’t fit. Mrs. Carr, who had never seen the ghosts, nonetheless claimed to be accosted, periodically, by “mysterious breezes of cold air” and “rustlings of garments.” Once, while ascending the staircase, she felt a “cold hand upon her face.” Could it be that two kinds of ghosts resided in the house – real and faked?
Judging by the absence of follow-up reportage, the case never appears to have been solved; it is unknown what became of Mrs. Carr or her ghosts. 131 West 14th Street is now occupied by Desco Vacuum, described by one Citysearch reviewer as one of New York’s oldest surviving appliance companies. The present building dates from the early 1920s, although the lack of a demolition notice in the Department of Building’s records for the site indicates that the current address may be an extensively altered version of the original house. Once I went inside to ask the manager if he had ever been puzzled by strange occurrences.
“Only when I’m trying to leave at night,” he said, “and something just won’t let me.”
David Freeland is the author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, available from NYU Press.