By Karen Zautyk
Here is something fascinating I learned Friday evening at the Kearny Public Library: Never ask a ghost, “When did you die?” This is because some ghosts do not know they’re dead.
This bit of advice was garnered during an interview with L’Aura Hladik, author, researcher and founder of the New Jersey Ghost Hunters Society (NJGHS), who was at the library for a pre-Halloween program on hauntings.
I had asked Hladik for some ghost-hunting tips because, as much as I would like to, I have never encountered a ghost. At least, to my knowledge. (Sometimes I wonder if people I shared NYC subway cars with late at night were actually among the living.)
I have friends, people not given to flights of fancy, who claim to have seen a spirit, and others who have reported inexplicable experiences, such as feeling a cold breeze sweep over them in a shuttered room. But for me, zilch.
It is now my intention to visit some of the reputedly haunted places in New York and New Jersey that Hladik described in her lecture.
I had hoped to start with the Bridge Cafe on Water St. in Manhattan, but apparently it has been closed since being flooded by Superstorm Sandy. (If you have info to the contrary, let me know.) My choice of the Bridge, which first opened in 1794, has more to do with a weird coincidence than anything else.
Last Thursday, I was thumbing through Herbert Asbury’s “The Gangs of New York,” and my attention was caught by the story of Gallus Mag, a female bouncer at a waterfront dive called the Hole-in-the-Wall in the early 1800s. Standing well over 6-feet tall, Mag preferred dealing with unruly customers by hitting them with a bludgeon and then biting off an ear. On the bar, she kept a large pickle jar filled with ears.
Guess what the Hole-in-the- Wall’s name is now? On Friday, as Hladik gave the history of the Bridge Cafe, she retold the tale of Gallus Mag, and that was creepy. I mean, what were the odds that I’d “meet” the same obscure character twice in 24 hours? According to Asbury, the city police, who could be a pretty vicious bunch themselves back then, “shudderingly described her as the most savage female they’d ever encountered.” I suspect we might,be related.
During her library lecture, Hladik introduced the audience to a number of haunted places that are among those described in her books, “Ghosthunting New Jersey” and “Ghosthunting New York City,” both part of the “America’s Haunted Road Trip” series.
Here in N.J., you’ve got the Burlington County Prison Museum in Mt. Holly, which is worth seeing not only for possible ghosts but for its “Dungeon.” Despite its name, this cell where those awaiting execution were held is not in the basement but on the second story. That’s because some smart warden decided that if a condemned man somehow managed to sneak a digging tool into the cell and dug through the floor, he’d just end up on the ground floor, not outside.
There is also the Stanhope House, a former Sussex County stagecoach stop, which is home to several spirits, and the old (not the current) Bernardsville Library, which had been a tavern in the 1770s, during which time an unfortunate lass discovered the body of her murdered fiance in a back room and now can occasionally be heard screaming as she “relives” the experience.
New York City haunts include the Manhattan Bistro on Spring St. in Soho, where another unfortunate brideto- be was herself murdered, by her fiance, and her body hidden in a well, which still stands in the basement; the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, which features a haunted clock; the 1832 Old Merchant’s House on E. Fourth St., described as Manhattan’s “most haunted” house; and Hart Island, off the Bronx, which is the city’s potter’s field, home to 800,000 dead, and open to the public only one day a year, Ascension Thursday, when a Mass is offered there for the souls of the departed.
But it was a New Jersey site, the Spy House in Port Monmouth, that launched Hladik’s ghost-hunting career in 1992. It is listed as the No. 1 most-haunted building on the Eastern Seaboard and No. 5 in the entire U.S., she said.
Hladik was on a guided tour of the 1648 building, walking up a staircase filled with other visitors, when she felt as if someone had punched her– hard. So hard, she thought she was going to be sick.
Her companion, who had witnessed no punching, got her out of the crowd, and later, talking to a psychic on site, she was told that what she had felt was probably the presence of a British redcoat patrolling the stairwell. “The punch I felt,” Hladik said, “was the flash of his energy” passing through her.
Hladik began to study ghost hunting and honed her skills and, in 1998, founded the New Jersey Ghost Hunting Society, which trains people how to hunt spirits. For just $25, you can become a lifetime (or beyond) member. Full information available at NJGHS.net.
Another bit of info Hladik shared about spirit encounters: Often, in a haunted place, a scent will briefly be smelled. Examples: cigar smoke, pipe smoke, perfume, lavender, etc. Even when there isn’t a cigar, pipe, perfume bottle or lavender bush within miles.
Such paranormal smells, she said, are evident only briefly, “just long enough for you to recognize what it is, and then it’s gone.”
So, I suggest you not go ghost hunting if you’ve got a stuffy nose.
I’d write more, but — sniff, sniff — I think I smell White Castle cheeseburgers.