The flash of lightning made it possible to read the number, "29," above the door at the top of the steep steps leading up from a pair of wrought iron gates. Less than a second later a rumble of thunder rolled through the sky. The storm seemed to be right above East 4th Street, New York City.
Get it? A dark and stormy night? Most good ghost stories start out with one. And dark and stormy nights might actually be conducive to paranormal activity. It's just a theory that, as a paranormal investigator, I and many others in the field have been entertaining for years.
The house at the top of those steps is called The Merchant's House Museum, located at 29 East Fourth Street between Bowery and Lafayette here in Manhattan. There are those who believe that The Merchant's House Museum is haunted. In fact, not only has it been listed as one of the most haunted places in New York City but it's well known by paranormal investigators across the country, if not the world. But is it really haunted? For the last four years I've been working to find that out.
The Merchant's House was built in 1832 by Joseph Brewster who, three years later, sold the home to Seabury Tredwell, a wealthy merchant, for $18,000.00. Seabury, his wife Eliza, and their seven children moved into the home in 1835. In 1840 the eighth child, and only one to have been born in the house, arrived. They named her Gertrude. The family, four servants, and assorted relatives all lived together. Only one son and two daughters ever married, which was unusual for the time considering the affluent family's social position. On March 7, 1865, Seabury Tredwell died (I was born exactly 100 years to the day after), and the remaining family members all lived in the house ‘till old age. Gertrude lived alone for 24 years after her sister, Julia, the last immediate family member died. For decades she kept the house in its original condition, "as Papa would have wanted." In 1933, Gertrude passed away in bed. According to legend (and this is probably true) it was the same bed she was born in.
Following her death, her distant cousin George Chapman purchased the house, saving it from foreclosure. After much needed repair and restoration, he opened it as a museum in 1936. It has remained a museum ever since, having been designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The Merchant's House Museum is the only 19th century home in the city that is preserved both inside and out. The furniture in the house is the furniture that the Tredwells used. The dishes and silverware are the dishes and silverware that the family ate from. The clothes in the home are the clothes that were worn by them and the beds and sheets are the same that were slept on in the mid 1800s. Everything is original. It's all still there.
As I mentioned, The Merchant's House is a notoriously haunted location in NYC. Anybody doing field research in parapsychology has heard of the house and as a result, the curators receive hundreds of requests to investigate the home each year. In 2005, after a bad experience with a certain television program, the Board of Directors decided to stop allowing paranormal investigations. But in 2007, I managed to persuade them to allow me into the place and, like a tick, I embedded myself. Nothing was going to pull me free.
To a paranormal investigator, this place is pure gold. The family, and the house and its history, are all meticulously documented. There are even written reports of paranormal experiences that the workers had during the renovation in the 1930s that coincide with experiences reported by visitors to the museum as recently as this year. A woman in a brown dress, walking down the stairs and into the kitchen was reported over 50 years ago and then again in 2002. The same woman in the same brown dress, drinking a cup of tea and staring out the kitchen window, was reported by different people decades apart. Piano music and the sounds of a party have been reported numerous times by people outside on the street, passing by the closed windows of the front parlor. People who aren't connected in any way and separated by decades are experiencing the same seemingly unexplainable events.
Since June of 2007, I've investigated the house fifteen times, most recently this past May. Eight of those investigations have yielded what I believe to be credible data or "evidence." I've sent this "evidence" to digital forensic examiners, photography experts, and audio analysts for examination who have all, to a person, concluded that the data has not been manipulated in any way.
I like to think I'm a pretty level-headed guy, and I'm a bigger skeptic than most people I know in this field, but there are things that I've captured on various types of recording media that seem to defy traditional and logical explanations. I've taken photos of what appears to be lightning in a second floor room: on a clear night. I've recorded voices and music that were not heard at the time of the recording but only during playback some days later. These recordings were only captured on specific recording devices while not showing up on others that were recording at the same time and in the same location. Called EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena), some of these voices are direct answers or comments in response to questions or statements made during the investigation. When asked what his or her purpose in the house was we hear what sounds like a male voice say, "servant." When told not to be afraid of us we hear what sounds like a little girl saying "I am not afraid." I've had Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Meters that measure fluctuations in natural electromagnetic fields respond after I ask anybody who I couldn't see in the room to wave their hand over the meter in order to register a "buzz." This has happened on different meters placed around the same room.
Could all of these examples be explained away as natural occurrences? Sure, absolutely. As a single, one-time event the above examples wouldn't be anything to write home about. But my experience tells me that all these little events happening in the same location to different people at different times add up to something larger. I've been on countless investigations at other locations and none of these things have happened. Ask any paranormal investigator worth his salt and he'll tell you that most times nothing happens. With the exception of my investigations at The Merchant's House, I've gone years without collecting data that I would consider interesting.
You must be wondering: Why bother? Why would such a smart guy like myself waste hours upon hours and energy in dusty old houses or old embalming rooms (seriously, I've done that) when he should be out, say, trying to date supermodels or making a good living? Well, that's a helluva longer story than I have space for here.
My favorite and most compelling evidence doesn't come from a piece of equipment, though. It doesn't come from a box that beeps, buzzes, or need batteries. It comes from a gentleman named Richard Schoeller. Richard is about 6'5" tall and weighs in at about a buck fifty soaking wet. Richard radiates a warmth that reminds you of your most favorite friend in the world. He's quick-witted, intelligent, and more than a little bawdy. Obviously I'm quite fond of Richard. I'm grateful he's become a good friend. And, oh yeah, did I mention? Richard happens to be the most talented and gifted Psychic Medium I've ever met.
When I was arranging my first investigation of The Merchant's House Museum, one of the conditions the Board of Directors set was that along with an equipment-based, scientific (or as close as we could come to being scientific) approach to investigation, I was also asked to arrange a traditional (or as close as we could come to traditional) 19th century style séance the next night. This was not something that I was looking forward to putting together. I was taking this investigation seriously. I had three different types of video cameras ready to roll and they all had night-vision, dammit! I didn't like the idea of dealing with someone who called themselves a psychic. And trust me; I know how ridiculous that sounds coming from a guy who calls himself a paranormal investigator. In this field you meet some pretty far-out people, and I'm putting that politely. Believe me when I tell you that there are more psychos than psychics out there.
Not knowing who to call I decided to turn to the Lily Dale Assembly in Lily Dale, New York. Lily Dale is a spiritualist community of the Modern Spiritual movement. It is largely populated by psychics and mediums and others interested in the paranormal. The nice people at the Lily Dale Assembly gave me a few numbers of psychic mediums close to the city and one of those numbers was for Richard.
After a quick introductory phone call, Richard agreed to conduct the séance. He didn't want any information about the location we were going to, he didn't want to know if it was uptown or down, east side or west. He didn't want any information on the people who would be there. He didn't even want to know the reason for the séance. The only thing he asked was if the location was a private home or business. Not knowing how to answer since the museum was a private home and is now a business, I asked him why he needed to know. Richard wanted to know how to dress and if they would have air conditioning as it was a particularly hot summer. I told him not to expect any AC without having to explain that AC would never be a part of New York's most well-preserved house.
Our equipment-based, scientific investigation went well that night. We covered the house with our gear, took atmospheric readings, recorded video in certain rooms where people have seen apparitions, recorded audio in areas that people have reported to hear voices and footsteps. We checked on the man-made electromagnetic field, which seemed absolutely normal. Exposure to high EMF or Electromagnetic Fields has been proven in the laboratory to cause some people to hallucinate or experience similar things that people would report as a haunting. The house seemed clear of all the usual suspects that could lead someone to believe it's haunted. I felt our first night at the museum worked out well. We tried a lot of different techniques and figured out which might be useful to us during future investigations. Besides being anxious about the next night's séance and being pretty sweaty from our investigation, the night ended without incident.
On the day of the séance, I picked Richard up at Penn Station. We had only spoken once before and I was careful not to slip and reveal any clues as to where I would be bringing him. We jumped in a taxi and headed downtown. I purposely asked the driver to stop a few blocks away from our destination. When we exited the car Richard looked at me and laughed, "Nice try, kiddo." I told him to lead the way, which he did, directly to the Merchant's House.
After Richard took a quick tour of the home, we set up eleven chairs in a circle and began our traditional séance, which isn't much different from a séance from this century. Once the séance began, Richard explained to us that most of the activity people experience in the house has been caused by former servants and not Tredwell family members, Gertrude in particular, who the activity has been attributed to. Richard appeared to be speaking directly to the servants, who gave their first and last names and the years that they lived and worked at the house. Only when Richard incorrectly referred to the house as a flop house did old Seabury Tredwell decide to speak up. He was very angry and Richard apologized profusely. Richard also described Mr. Tredwell as having a ponytail. Which was true, Mr. Tredwell was one of the last gentlemen of his time to pull his hair back in what was then called a queue. Richard was able to pass along a thank you from the servants to the director of the museum, using her proper name and not the nickname she uses. He was able to tell us who slept in what room and the proper placement of furniture in the house. According to Richard, one of the servants asked him about a certain "S"-shaped, red settee belonging to the house.
The eleven people sitting in the circle and most of the other people in the room observing reported personal experiences during the séance. Some saw flashing lights while others described the sensation of someone standing directly in front of them or stepping around them. All in all, it was a pretty cool night.
Afterwards I walked Richard to the corner to catch a taxi back to Penn Station. I returned to the museum to find out what the board members who had attended thought. The director of the museum was honest and told me that she was taking everything Richard had said with a grain of salt. She didn't know him and, for that matter, didn't really know me. She had to trust that Richard had had no idea where he was going that night and that I hadn't told him.
Apparently, Richard had been right on the money with a lot of what he was saying. He could have easily gotten the information off the internet or from any library. That is until he spoke about the "S" shaped, red settee.
It seems the museum director had had a meeting that afternoon in her office with one other person about a piece of furniture that used to belong to the collection of original furniture. A piece they were trying to locate. It might have been taken by one of the children when they moved out or sold or any number of things. Whatever the case, this piece of furniture was the topic of conversation between only two people hours before Richard even knew where he was going. The piece? You guessed it, an "S"-shaped, red settee. And listed in the census from the mid 1800s as living at the Tredwell house are Anne McNulty and Bridgette Murphy, the same names of the two servants Richard said he was speaking to, documented as living at the home when they said they did.
So, you might be wondering, after séances and multiple paranormal investigations, can I tell you if The Merchant's House Museum is haunted? I'd like to give you a definite answer, but I'd be lying. I think it is. It's definitely filled with a lot of positive energy and a lot of love, as the people who run the museum are some of the finest people I've met. They love their house and they respect the Tredwell family. The first person arriving each day says "good morning," and the last person to leave says "good night." But, is it haunted by spirits of the Tredwells and their servants? Are there ghosts haunting The Merchant's House Museum? Well, friends, my investigations are far from over but I'll tell you this: It would be amazing if there were. But, it would be just as amazing if there weren't.