Haunted NYC

Laura Kusnyer

(Updated 06/22/2016)

New Yorkers aren't shy when it comes to talking about their run-ins with the afterlife in the City. Many locals claim ghosts haunt NYC's old buildings and parks—some more quietly than others. New York City has, of course, landmark cemeteries (like Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery), hidden resting places (like the little-known plot behind the Bowery Hotel) and unique burial grounds (like the boat graveyard in Staten Island). There's also no shortage of celebrity ghosts in New York: John Lennon is said to haunt the Dakota, where he was murdered, and poet Dylan Thomas and Nancy Spungen, Sid Vicious' girlfriend, are rumored to be spending the afterlife at the Chelsea Hotel, where both met their demise. While some of these accounts may be apocryphal, New Yorkers report plenty of firsthand encounters with poltergeists. The (allegedly) paranormal activity ranges from ominous incidents, like doors slamming for no apparent reason at a New York University dorm, to the downright weird: Dorothy Parker terrifying small children at the Algonquin Hotel. The City's colorful cast of apparitions even includes Aaron Burr and his daughter, adding a measure of historical cachet to the experience of getting spooked in NYC.

St. Mark's Church. Photo: Alexander Thompson

St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery
131 E. 10th St., 212-674-6377, East Village, Manhattan
Did you know that the Bowery, a street in Manhattan, was named after the 17th-century Dutch word for farm (bouwerij)? That linguistic ghost relates to the story of Peter Stuyvesant, an early pioneer to the New World. Stuyvesant served as director-general of the colony of New Netherland while residing on a farm in its capital, New Amsterdam (the former name of New York City, before the land was surrendered to England in 1664). Stuyvesant's farm was located along the thoroughfare, and Stuyvesant Street (named after him, naturally) connected it to a chapel on the present-day site of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. After his death in 1672, Stuyvesant was buried there in a vault, which was permanently sealed in 1953. Perhaps the vault wasn't sealed tightly enough, though.

According to the book Haunted Places: The National Directory, four ghosts live in the church, one of whom has a wooden leg and walks with a cane. Allegedly, this is Stuyvesant himself, whose right leg was replaced with a wooden peg after it was struck by a cannonball in 1644. According to Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, one woman said she felt "a man with a cane walking" in the center aisle of the church. He is occasionally seen and heard, too: church attendants have reported hearing the tapping of his peg leg. He also supposedly disrupted services in 1884 (by singing hymns in Dutch) and again in 1995 (by doing a vociferous inventory on bottles of rum), before disappearing into a wall. Any trip to the East Village, though, means risking bumping into the 17th-century politician, as he's generally known to wander the streets that surround the former site of his farm in centuries-old Dutch garb. Some even claim he's spending the afterlife in good company—with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving and Harry Houdini, who also haunt the East Village.

The Bridge Cafe. Photo: Marley White

Bridge Café
279 Water St., 212-227-3344, Financial District, Manhattan
[Editor's note: The Bridge Café has been closed since late 2012 due to Superstorm Sandy damage.]
In the film Gangs of New York, there are several scenes set in rowdy watering holes; at one bar in particular, the shelves hold pickling jars containing body parts. That tavern is said to be an homage to an earlier incarnation of the Bridge Café. Since opening in 1794, the establishment has served as brothel, pirate bar, packing store, Hungarian restaurant, seafood restaurant and more. The body parts? That's a reference to Ms. Gallus Mag, the 6-foot-tall Irish bouncer who would bite or cut off the ears of misbehaving patrons and pickle them for posterity on shelves above the bar.

Though Ms. Mag's reign was in the early 19th century, back when the venue was called the Hole-in-the-Wall, many claim she's still lurking around the premises. Executive chef Joe Kunst says that one night, while in the second-floor office, he and his daughter heard heavy footsteps in the supposedly empty dining room below. Another time, the Food & Wine certificate that hangs in the window somehow jumped over the flowerpots on the windowsill and landed three feet away. "It's a physical impossibility," Kunst says. And though he's not 100% certain the place is spooked—"I don't disbelieve in anything I don't know enough about," he says with trepidation—something has definitely ruffled his feathers. Consider the mantra he utters every time he has to go upstairs: "I stop at the landing and say, 'Let me do what I gotta do. I won't bother you and you won't bother me, and everything will be fine.'"

Belasco Theatre. Photo: Malcolm Brown

Belasco Theatre
111 W. 44th St., 212-239-6200, Midtown West, Manhattan
The next time you're standing outside the Belasco Theatre, look for the windows with the big metal covers on them, on the right side of the building. They mark the one-time apartment of oddball impresario David Belasco, the self-proclaimed Bishop of Broadway, who lived here until his death in 1931. True to his appellation, "Belasco would even wear a clerical collar," says Reagan Fletcher, former archivist for the Shubert Organization, which now owns the theater. "The apartment reflects that personality. It's all dark woods and nooks and crannies—sort of gothic looking. His phone booth looked like a church confessional." Actors, stagehands and doormen alike have reported spotting Belasco, who was a notorious ladies' man, in the balcony during shows; he appears there with a woman in blue at his side. "Supposedly, this showgirl fell down the elevator shaft," Fletcher continues. "You get all different versions," he says of the various ghost stories, but Fletcher remains unconvinced that the theater is haunted. "To me, it just creaks like an old building." The Belasco had a major renovation in 2010, and the apartment is still vacant. "We would all kill for that apartment," Fletcher says with a sinister chuckle.

Washington Square Park. Photo: Alex Lopez

Washington Square Park
Greenwich Village, Manhattan
Tell a New Yorker that Washington Square Park is plagued by, ahem, mysterious sightings and unusual behavior and most likely she'll just laugh at your naïveté. But to jewelry designer and park vendor Nancy Valentine, one particular incident was no laughing matter. "About 30 years ago, my friends and I were standing by the arch, and all of a sudden my one friend felt something like a hand grazing over her back, then her knees went out, and she fell to the ground," Valentine relates earnestly. "I'll never go under there again. When I do the outdoor fairs, I make them put my tent on the other end of the park." She's not the only one who's experienced supernatural forces there; it's rumored that if you walk by the park late at night, you'll see ghosts hanging from trees—which isn't terribly far-fetched, if you're familiar with the park's history. Al Rosario, doorman at 29 Washington Square West, explains, "The policy was to hang criminals, then bury them. Later, when they did the construction and opened up the park, guess what they found? Bones. Then the construction of the park went on." The public hangings described by Rosario (who, for the record, has never had an unearthly experience while on the job) took place at a particular tree known as Hangman's Elm, at the northwest corner of the park, a stone's throw from Rosario's building. Between the criminals dispatched at the tree and the victims from the yellow fever epidemics of the early 19th century, who were also buried in the park, there are an estimated 20,000 bodies under Washington Square. Chew on that the next time you go for a picnic.

Brittany Hall at NYU
55 E. 10th St., 212-995-3090, Greenwich Village, Manhattan
Just a few blocks north of Washington Square Park, this New York University frosh dorm is also no stranger to ghost lore. In fact, eerie stories abound, like the one told by one-time resident Andy Eckl. "My friend and I were watching a movie, and we got up because the door opened. Then the door just slammed." Was there a draft? "No," Eckl says, "plus, the doors are really heavy." Another former Brittany resident, Phillip Ward, has a name to go with the otherworldly visitor's…presence. "The ghost's name is Molly, and she died in the early 20th century. You can hear her in the middle of the night. She spends a lot of time in the elevators. I think she fell and died, and for some reason she just hangs around the building," he recounts casually. In fact, no one at the dorm seems frightened by Molly; rather, it seems to be something—urban legend or not—to which students become attuned from day one. As Eckl puts it, "There's just a Brittany ghost. I feel like everyone just knows." She seems to be a friendly ghost, at least, and must not have been irritated by the years when the hall lacked air-conditioning (something that certainly made students grumpy). [Editor's note: Recent renovations have added air-conditioning, fireproofed the doors and replaced some of the period-style windows with modern, energy-efficient ones; no word whether Molly approves.]

Round Table Restaurant. Courtesy, Algonquin Hotel

Algonquin Hotel
59 W. 44th St., 212-840-6800, Midtown West, Manhattan
The roaring '20s were in full swing when Dorothy Parker and her literary contemporaries, known as the Algonquin Round Table, held court during daily lunches at the hotel's Rose Room (since renamed the Round Table Restaurant). Parker, who was revered for her pithy word turns and wicked wit, literally took her macabre sense of humor to the grave: her desired epitaph, "Excuse my dust," can be found on the plaque marking the spot where her ashes are buried, in the garden of the NAACP's headquarters in Baltimore. Some claim that since her death in 1967, Parker still has plenty to say—just not to adults. "Dorothy Parker didn't like children," says former Algonquin concierge Daniel Jutt. "Children have been known to cry when inside the Round Table Restaurant—sometimes they even run out." Perhaps these reactions have nothing to do with Parker. Still, would it come as a huge shock to learn that the woman who wrote the lines "Guns aren't lawful / Nooses give / Gas smells awful / You might as well live" gets her kicks in the afterlife by scaring little kids?

One if by Land, Two if by Sea. Photo: Malcolm Brown

One if by Land, Two if by Sea
17 Barrow St., 212-255-8649, West Village, Manhattan
You'd be hard-pressed to find an abandoned street in the Village on any given night, but this tiny stretch of Barrow Street between Seventh Avenue South and West 4th Street might be the closest you get. Formerly the site of Aaron Burr's carriage house, the unmarked eatery One if by Land, Two if by Sea resides here along with, so they say, the ghost of Burr's daughter, Theodosia. In December 1812, she was returning to New York from South Carolina on the schooner Patriot. It disappeared at sea. "Supposedly her spirit made it here, because she wanted to be with her father. We've had some freaky things go on," says former dining room manager Tom Kirk. Champagne glasses tumbling from tables and paintings inexplicably falling off walls are among the spectral events. "People who work here have seen spirits coming down the stairs late at night," he continues. "I didn't let my staff drink," Kirk notes, leading him to believe there must be some substance to the apparitions. It's understandable why an early 19th-century ghost might want to stick around at One if by Land: the hitching post remains out front, the fireplace and carpeting keep the environs cozy and warm and a live piano player and 200-year-old paintings add an air of old-world elegance (not to mention its cool factor—the private upstairs dining area was once actor Steve McQueen's apartment). Kirk admits to believing in ghosts, although he himself never encountered one at the restaurant. He has the proof, though: "We actually had a paranormal expert come in a few years ago to scope us out." The conclusion? "He said it was haunted."


Morris-Jumel Mansion. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Morris-Jumel Mansion
65 Jumel Terrace, 212-923-8008, Washington Heights, Manhattan
Oh, Aaron Burr. We don't know whether to feel sorry for him or to blame him for the City's ghost infestation. Burr and Alexander Hamilton represented a man accused of murdering his fiancée in SoHo and got him off the hook at the trial; according to the tale, after the verdict came down, the victim's cousin put a curse on the two of them. This might explain Burr's lingering presence in the City, where he occasionally joins daughter Theodosia at her One if by Land, Two if by Sea stomping grounds. Or maybe the former vice president won't depart because he's just bitter. Some believe he died a disgraced man for killing Hamilton in the famous duel that took place only a few years after the trial.

Another of Burr's scandals is centered around what is purportedly Manhattan's oldest building, the Morris-Jumel Mansion—which served as George Washington's headquarters during the Revolutionary War. It was later home to the wealthy married couple Eliza and Stephen Jumel. Burr and Eliza had an affair, and soon after, Stephen was found dead. He had fallen out of a window and onto a pitchfork. If this sounds fishy, the subsequent denouement only adds to the intrigue: Eliza and her lover married right away. Burr, then 77, was rumored to be after her money. They divorced three years later—and Burr died the day it was finalized.

Following the divorce, Eliza's mental health deteriorated drastically. Her behavior became erratic, to the point that she demanded an armed garrison to follow her on her daily rides about the grounds. Following her death in 1865, she was often spotted roaming the mansion in a white dress. The most famous sighting of all occurred in 1965—100 years after her death—when she allegedly shushed a group of schoolchildren. The group concurred that she was wearing a purple dress that day. Some still claim to see Burr at the house. Aaron Burr. Even the name gives us shivers.