Ever since the beginning of time, man has pondered the existence of ghosts and of life after death. Are some of the North Shore mansions haunted? Do spectral beings show up on film and make their ethereal voices heard during the night? You bet they do, and much more. But despite what we’ve been led to believe, there are solid scientific explanations for most of the strange things that do happen.
What causes a house to become haunted in the first place and why mansions in particular? Why not split levels or a Levittown home? Hollywood movies make a spookfest out of anything with over 40 rooms, so we have been brainwashed to expect 100-year-old Gothic gabled fortresses to be harboring ghosts. The dark and gloomy architecture alone tends to conjure up phantom visions in diaphanous white to float ominously out of the shadows. Add to that a creepy attic, hidden chambers and some of the mysterious events that often took place in those old manor houses and you have the perfect setting for a hair-raising experience. Paranormal researchers claim it is the events that took place in the past that is key. In order to have a real haunting, such as seeing, hearing voices, feeling, or even smelling flowers in the dead of winter, or anything out of the ordinary, something has to trigger the phenomenon. Sometimes in old houses you might see a figure walking up and down the stairs, or hear footsteps on the floor above you, or a door opening and closing; lights may flicker, music may even play in a far off room – all very normal, unless you’re alone in the house.
Generally, in order for a house to be haunted there has to have been a sudden, unexpected, traumatic death. The energies tend to be even stronger if a murder takes place and is covered up or the truth and circumstances of what happened never come to light. Ghosts don’t like that; they get grumpy and tend to hang around until their story is told and justice is done. So how can they do that if they are dead and buried in a wall or in a garden under a statue of a gargoyle or whatever? Because we don’t really die. A part of us lives on. So pay attention, all you would be murderers out there, ’cause they’re going to get you in the end!
We are all made up of energy – etheric, electrical energy that is indestructible. It may change form, our physical bodies may die, but our personality, spirit, soul, consciousness and mind go on forever. Where there is a sudden, violent death, such as the Woodward shooting in Oyster Bay in 1955, a lot of energy is expelled into the atmosphere and the walls of the room where the event takes place. The emotional stress, cries for help or fear imprints permanently into the walls and just about everything else. That energy lingers vibrationally, which is why highly sensitive people can walk into a house and feel things that may have happened there even hundreds of years ago. Psychomatrists (special psychics) can hold a metal object, a piece of jewelry or clothing in their hand, tune into those energies and tell you things about the person who wore them even though they never met. Researchers in this field have for centuries referred to a resonance or living vibration that permeates all things, houses, people or objects and records the memory and history of everything as if it were on a video tape. Although the concept remains an enigma, and often evades logical explanation, strange things continue to happen.
In 1939, two Russian scientists discovered Kirlian photography, a curious way to photograph the human energy field that surrounds our bodies. That auric field surrounds all living things, plant life and pets as well. When we die, that bluish-white light continues to glow. It may grow dim but it’s still there. There was a recent study done in England on a 4,000-year-old dummy using Kirlian photography and it was still registering an electrical charge. It is possible that ghosts are nothing more than an etheric residue of us doing the same things we did when we were alive. Those who claim to see apparitions often describe the image, though often faint and fuzzy, as doing ordinary things such as walking down a hall or standing in a doorway. Yes, it would freak most of us out, but it happens all the time. As for blood curdling screams in the night (like the ones witnessed by several guests at Templeton [the de Seversky Mansion] a few months ago), or hearing phantom voices in the walls of old houses, there are known and proven explanations for that, too. Many of the mansions on the North Shore are built of marble or granite stone. Take Winfield in Glen Cove (see 25A March 2013). The 60-room palace built by F.W. Woolworth was made almost entirely of marble. Marble contains quartz crystal, silica and ferric slats, all substances used in making sound recording equipment. Winfield appears to have an unnerving ability to play back every sound that was ever recorded there, conversations from the turn of the last century, pipe organ music playing in the ballroom and a murder or two thrown in. Everything is imprinted in the walls forever. So what would cause the walls to suddenly talk? Electricity! An electrically charged thunderstorm can trigger a replay. It’s a complicated but fascinating subject that we don’t have the space to cover in a short article. (Of further interest, see Smithsonian Magazine July 2001, pgs. 54-55).
A haunted house is very much like tuning into a radio frequency or a loop on a video playing itself back over and over. It only records things that have already happened and it would appear that an extremely intense drama, such as a brutal murder or an emotion-laden suicide, would come through with a stronger intensity. So are any of the Gold Coast mansions haunted, you may ask? Are you kidding! It’s an all-out ghost convention. The following are some of my favorites along with some original photographs of them at their most spooky.
There are some houses that were born to be haunted even before the last tile was added to the roof. Beekman House had the look and feel of everything you would expect from a haunted abode. Built in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging in the South and the Gold Coast had yet to begin, the Gothic Revival manor stood tall and ominous atop a cliff, overlooking Oyster Bay Harbor. A pair of 12-foot gates kept intruders away as its builder, James W. Beekman, the former mayor of New York, liked his privacy. The 36-room house with its jigsaw-work gables and scalloped slate roof bears a slight resemblance to Norman Bates’ home in Hitchcock’s movie Psycho.
In 1971, I was just starting to scout locations for movies and arranged for the house to be used for a horror film called Silent Night, Bloody Night. It was a horrible mistake and a horrible movie. Three people actually died during the filming, including the young actor Jim Patterson, who was starring in the feature. In one scene, an ancient graveyard engulfed in fog was set up in the overgrown garden. A ghostly figure suddenly appears from a tomb, walks into the house and slaughters all the guests during a formal dinner party. Some of the crew and myself stayed overnight in the house during the three weeks of filming. Despite its eerie beauty, almost everyone felt its vague aura of sorrow or heard sounds on the third floor that could not be explained. Half the crew left after one night and checked into the nearby motel in Bayville. We will cover this amazing mansion in more detail at some future date.
Ferguson’s Castle/The Monastery (Rt. 110, Halesite)
A colorful Spanish-style castle once perched high on a cliff overlooking Huntington Harbor. Up until the time it was bulldozed in 1970, it was considered one of the most haunted places on Long Island. Rumors of its disturbing activities had traveled far and wide and at one point Duke University sent a paranormal science team out to the house to see what they could record. Using whatever equipment was available at the time, the three-man crew spent the night in the great hall. I just happened to stumble upon them while trespassing there one day. Intrigued, I was dying to know what they might have discovered. But they wouldn’t talk to me and told me to go away (I mean really).
What I can tell you from its bizarre history, Ferguson’s Castle was built by Juliana Armour Ferguson in 1908. Built like a medieval fortress with walls three feet thick and an entrance guarded by a pair of rare, black granite 14th century lions. There are a number of reasons that the house may have been haunted. Mrs. Ferguson’s favorite pastime was collecting tombstones from children’s graves. Apparently she spent years being driven around the countryside all over Europe by her chauffer. She would see a stone that she liked and would ask the driver to stop, retrieve the headstone, plop it in the car and take off. Karmically, this is always a bad idea. Energy-wise you bring more than just a stone back home with you. By the time she was through, Juliana had enough stones to pave the floors in the main rooms in her gloomy castle. When her son Danforth was killed in the First World War, she was devastated and had a wax dummy made in his image and had it placed in a wheelchair. Each night her butler wheeled him out into the dining room where Mrs. Ferguson would dine and have telepathic conversations with her son’s ghost. This may have proved too much for the staff. At some point a servant girl climbed up to the bell tower and hanged herself.
Malmaison (Off Rt. 107)
Tucked away amid an overgrown forest in Brookville stands one of Long Island’s best-kept secrets. A magnificent pink-hued French chateau is hidden from view at the end of an alley of mountain laurel. It is a replica of the original Malmaison, located outside of Paris, which Napoleon gave to his Empress Josephine in 1799. The front façade bears the stamp of Napoleon with its long Corps de Logis that draws the eye to a balcony with arched French doors where a giant chandelier can be seen shimmering like a fountain of diamonds. The house was built in 1923 by Walter Maynard. But it has a tragic past. It was rumored that shortly after the house was completed, Maynard’s 16-year-old son fell down the long marble staircase and was crippled severely by the fall. He remained in a wheelchair but with no hope of recovery, he decided to end his young life. It was believed his nurse assisted him.
All through the ’80s and ’90s, I leased the house for dozens of film shoots where we would often work well into the night. On one occasion, a locked door suddenly flew open. Another time several of us were standing in the ballroom when a crystal vase filled with flowers shattered on the mantle for no reason. Often the marble stall shower in the master bedroom would turn on by itself. And I once witnessed a trail of wet footprints suddenly appear on the rug when there was no one else in the house. During a Steven Meisel shoot for Vogue, an apparition once showed up on a test Polaroid. One has to wonder why anyone would name their house Malmaison, which means bad house in French.
Rosemary Farm (Off West Neck Rd., near Seminary-Immaculate Conception)
Roland Conklin made and lost several fortunes before he built Rosemary Farm in Lloyd Harbor just before the turn of the last century. It was a great English-style manor house with unusual double gables, overhanging bays and rare imported features throughout the house. When I last photographed it in the early ’90s, it had been abandoned since 1924. Inside the derelict building, vines were creeping through broken windows and reaching into every corner of the house. Blackbirds had built nests in the upper Gothic beams and rafters. There was an overpowering smell of arsenic, perhaps used as rat poison, filling the underground tunnel that ran from the woods to the basement. But it wasn’t the house that appeared to be plagued by disgruntled spirits; it was the curious, ancient structure in the garden. Overlooking the water on a steep bluff are what were known as the Druid Ruins. Conklin spent years collecting the large stone boulders from ancient ruins on his world travels. Some that were thousands of years old were transported from Incan, Mayan and sacred Celtic ruins all over Europe. These were incorporated into a series of dramatic arches with a round fountain in the center.
It is these ruins that are said to be haunted. Considering their mysterious origins, the stones may very well hold the energies and history of whatever rituals they may have provided the background for. Visitors to the site have claimed to see a strange, eerie glowing light in and around the center court. Glowing spheres or orbs are said to float out of nowhere, only to disappear. Some have been caught on film. In any case, you wouldn’t want to spend the night there on a full moon.
Today only a pile of rubble and weeds lie forgotten where the house once stood. Vandals torched the place in the early ’90s. The wrought iron gates, now engulfed in vines, have been shut for over 50 years.
The Woodward Playhouse (Pond Place, Oyster Bay Cove)
You would think the infamous playhouse in Oyster Bay would be one of the most haunted places on Long Island and yet after living there for almost six years back in the ’60s, I never experienced it to be so. But then I was oblivious to such things at the time and wouldn’t have recognized a ghost if it came up and bit me.
The house had all the morbid requirements of a haunting for sure, what with William Woodward having had his head blown off while stepping out of the shower. The murder was covered up. Sometime in the ’70s, the Catholic Church bought the property and a short time later I got a call from Father Kelly who oversaw the place. He claimed they were hearing strange sounds coming out of the walls during thunderstorms. I thought that odd since they are believed to the experts on exorcisms and such. I have no idea what they did to resolve the situation.
In 1982, on the 27th anniversary of the shooting, I did return to the house with my good friend Dominick Dunne. He was writing a book on the Woodwards and wanted to get the vibe of the place. We brought noted psychic Margaret Bettger with us. We agreed never to talk about what happened that night, as no one would believe us. Apparently, the playhouse is haunted after all.
Winfield Hall (Crescent Beach Rd. and Valley Rd.)
Winfield was built by five-and-dime store magnate F.W. Woolworth in 1917 after the first mansion burned to the ground. It is perhaps one of the most haunted houses in America. With its massive built-in pipe organ, marble floors and walls, known to retain sound and vibration, the house has, in some eerily indefinable way, recorded its mysterious history (See 25A March 2013). Woolworth spared no expense in creating his vision, from 14-karat gold ceilings to the $2 million staircase ($35,404,768 adjusted for inflation 2012). His obsession with Napoleon was visible throughout in the gilt furnishings, original Empire artifacts and a secret underground room to do God knows what. But in the end he left a fascinating legacy that survives to this day.
For more information on this house, read Winfield, Living in the Shadow of the Woolworths. You can find it at your local library or at Amazon.com
(Authors note: I have on very rare occasions gotten what I believe to be apparitions or ghosts on film, but so far, never on Long Island. The accompanying image was actually taken in Dobbs Ferry in upstate New York in 1982 using an antique Rolleiflex camera.)
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