A Guide to the Empire State’s most macabre and ghastly sites
J.W. Ocker is eager to explore the places that would easily send chills down the spine of any average visitor. He runs the website OTIS (Odd Things I’ve Seen) where he chronicles his visit to various oddities of culture, art, nature, and history.
His travel writing has been featured in Rue Morgue and CNN.com. He is also the author of The New England Grimpendium, and won a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of America Travel Writers. The New York Grimpendium was also singled out as one of the best travel books of the year by SATW.
The New York Grimpendium features tales from some of America’s most frightening ghost stories, from murders, to notable graves, to monsters and famous horror movie filming sites. So much of America’s fascination with the afterlife and unknown started in New York, and Ocker is ready to take you back in time to explain how a ghoul or spirited séance might be waiting for you around any corner.
Excerpt from the book:
Fox Sisters Lily Dale, Newark, Rochester, Brooklyn
In 1692, a couple of girls in Massachusetts turned a community upside down by pretending to be in cahoots with the devil. In 1848, a couple of girls in New York turned the country upside down by pretending to be in cahoots with the dead. Those are probably the only two historical anecdotes any alien race needs to work up a psychological profile of the human race.
It all started in a small cottage in a western New York hamlet that doesn’t exist anymore, Hydesville. Today, that area is part of Newark, about 30 miles east of Rochester. On March 31, 1848, Kate and Margaret Fox, aged 11 and 15, respectively, told their parents about certain mysterious knocking sounds that they kept hearing. Soon after, the parents started hearing them as well. The girls insisted that it was a spirit, whom they nicknamed “Mr. Splitfoot.”
Eventually, Kate and Margaret were able to communicate with Mr. Splitfoot and discovered that the source of the sounds was actually a dead peddler named Charles B. Rosma who had been murdered on the property. Oh.
Word spread, neighbors dropped by to witness the supernatural shenanigans and the entire community experienced an excitement that J.W. Ocker in front of a memorial to the Fox sisters in NY.rivaled the Great Firefly Copulation of ’39. The sisters were promoted to the bigger stage of nearby Rochester, where Kate and Margaret’s older sister, Leah, lived. She immediately joined the party, making the mystical Fox sisters a proper female trinity along the mythic lines of the Fates, the Furies, and the Supremes.
They became celebrities. Both the living and the dead lined up to talk to them. They started touring the entire country, conducting public séances where the dead communicated with them through disembodied rappings. They even hit the proverbial big time in New York City.
From there, modern spiritualism became a Thing, and it took off faster than the soul leaves the body, with both supporters and skeptics. Some accounts claim that a couple million people were actively involved in talking to the dead. And there were probably ten times as many actively involved in denouncing or debunking it.
Heck, when he wasn’t bound by chains and hanging upside down in midair, Harry Houdini made exposing as counterfeit those who claimed to be communicating with the departed a part of his life’s mission.
Part of that rapid expansion was because the country was suddenly swollen with mediums. After all, if a couple of teenage girls could talk to the dead, (and become famous for doing so), why couldn’t anybody else? Just like today when anybody can grab a camera and run around an old house at night photographing orbs, back then anybody could put up a table for a séance and do more passive ghost hunting.
Far from any other claim, it’s that spirit table that best supports spiritualism’s entitlement to being considered a religion. Religions are often symbolized by furniture. Pulpits and altars and thrones. Crosses, depending how stretched your definition of furniture is. For spiritualism, it’s the table. Just like the three-card monte dealer and the guy selling pirated movie DVDs on the street corner.
In fact, the Rochester Historical Society has on display an example of a table used by some charlatan lost to history, which has a spring-loaded rod and ball mechanism to simulate spectral rapping.
In the late 1880s, infighting arose among the sisters, especially between the two younger ones and Lean. The former were suffering from alcoholism and they all had different ideas about the practice of spiritualism.
The situation got bad enough that in 1888, Margaret went onstage in front of a large audience, and, with the apparent support of Kate, publicly recanted the whole big fat spiritualism deal. Margaret explained that the noises she and her two sisters made were from practiced ability to crack joints in their toes. She demonstrated accordingly.
Still, the sins of the mothers didn’t stop spiritualism, which is still practiced to this day, albeit in fewer numbers. The Fox sisters, on the other hand, continued down their VH1 Behind the Music spiral to its conclusion.
All three sisters were dead by 1893: Leah passed away in 1890, and Kate and Margaret ended up on the other side of the séance table in 1892 and 1893, respectively, and buried in adjoining graves.
In 1904, the Fox sisters found themselves posthumously spotlighted when a skeleton of the murdered peddler was claimed to have been found in a trunk in a false wall of their Hydesville cottage. Today, the discovery is touted as vindication by spiritualists and as not worth really even considering by skeptics.
Today, you can trace the lives of the Fox sisters almost entirely through memorials set up by those faithful spiritualists who were inspired by them. The Hydesville cottage where it all started was moved in 1916 from its original location to the spiritualist community of Lily Dale in western New York.
Memorial garden marks the site
Unfortunately, in 1955, the cottage burned down as a result of unknown circumstances. A memorial garden and plaque-embedded rock now mark the site. Across the street, in the Lily Dale Museum, are whatever artifacts that were salvaged, including aforementioned trunk claimed to hold the bones of the murdered peddler.
In Hydesville, on the spot where the cottage originally stood, the stone foundation has been excavated as carefully as a new species of dinosaur, and sheltered in a small, protective building. A sign on the front reads, “Hydesville Park, Birthplace of the Religion of Modern Spiritualism, March 31, 1848.”
The building sits at 1510 Hydesville Road, right where it intersects with Parker Road, in Newark, nicely kept but lonely looking. It was locked when I visited, but ample windows all around give great views of the whole of the foundation.
In Rochester, near where the sisters lived, is an 18-foot-tall granite obelisk commemorating both them and the advent of spiritualism. Erected in 1927, the obelisk bears an image of the cottage, below which is a plaque with some dedicatory words that end with, “There is no death. There are no dead,” which, if true, pretty much makes this entire grimpendium moot.
The obelisk is located downtown on Troupe Street, right where it intersects Plymouth Avenue, across from which are a few grand old houses that date back to the Fox sisters’ day.
And while there might be neither death nor dead, there are at least tombstones. Leah’s grave can be found in the famous Green-Wood Cemetery at 500 25th Street in Brooklyn. She’s buried with her husband, Daniel Underhill, and their family in Section 172, beneath a squat, four-sided stone.
Margaret and Kate are in a pauper’s grave in Section 3 of Cyprus Hill Cemetery, also in Brooklyn. A headstone was erected later and reads, in barely legible script, Mediums of the Advent of Modern Spiritualism. A small paper sign tacked into the ground designates the gravesite as one of Cyprus Hill Cemetery’s notable ones.
To think that the whole thing got started because two teenage girls got bored one night in their bedroom.
Daniel Peltier is a freelance writer from Massachusetts.
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