It doesn’t matter where we go in the world, as paranormal investigators, we yearn for a haunted location! This trip to NYC was no exception, so the research began in earnest several weeks before our departure. New York City is a veritable hotbed of haunting and dark history, so it shouldn’t be too hard…should it?
As I searched for locations that would be accessible in January, I discovered a crown jewel of ghosts and historic significance, hidden away in Washington Heights. The Morris-Jumel Mansion is situated at the furthest tip of Manhattan and is the oldest and only remaining Colonial residence in the city. An architectural delight, the imposing structure has ghostly connections to Vice President Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, an English Colonel and George Washington!
Excitement led to despair, as I was dismayed to see that a scheduled paranormal night fell outside of our travel plans by mere days. Undeterred, I made contact with Christopher Davalos, a seasoned paranormal investigator and an integral part of the dedicated team who maintain Morris-Jumel Mansion. We were delighted to be invited for a unique private paranormal investigation on the birthday of mansion founder, Colonel Roger Morris on January 28th – the paranormal countdown clock was running!
In the Beginning – The Morris Years
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, a very wealthy heiress and New York socialite by the name of Mary Philipse was married to a British army colonel named Roger Morris, a Yorkshire man. He served in Scotland for a time and then overseas from Pennsylvania to Nova Scotia, where he met and married Mary before retirement in 1764.
Mary inherited one third of an enormous estate along the Hudson Highlands all the way to the Connecticut River Colony, at the age of just twenty two. Consisting of 135 acres of prime real estate, it would have covered from 155th to 165th Street at least! A pre-nuptial agreement had been drawn up granting a joint lease for life with their children inheriting after death, which was to add a vital twist to the amazing history of this location.
When Colonel Morris retired, he took the opportunity to make use of the prominent land known as Coogan’s Bluff. Morris’s father was an esteemed British architect and it was this influence and expertise that the Colonel used to create a most impressive Palladian style property.
George Washington and the American Revolution
Despite being married to an American and residing in America, Colonel Morris was a staunch British loyalist, so at the outbreak of war in 1775, he returned to England. Mary took up residence in her patriarchal family home in Yonkers.
Mount Morris as the estate was known, became a summer home for the Morris family, however the onset of the American Revolution was to change everything.
In 1776, George Washington was forced out of Brooklyn Heights by the British and instead used the Morris Estate as his New York Headquarters, due to its excellent strategic location. This and perhaps a more romanticised reasoning, as it was believed that Mary Philipse was a former love interest of the General!
Washington’s success was short-lived however, as he was forced to retreat to White Plains when the British took control of New York. It was at this point, that Colonel Morris returned and the Morris Estate was reassigned as a British-Hessian centre of operations.
Once the State of New York was back under American control, forfeiture laws kicked in. The pre-nuptial agreement between Mary and Roger became a veritable sting in the tail, as the British Colonel was joint owner and thus the entire Morris estate was confiscated and sold off to pay war debts.
Colonel Morris and his wife Mary, made the decision to leave America and take up residence in Morris’s home county of Yorkshire in England, where they lived out the rest of their days.
Roger saw his beloved summer home become a tavern, his dining room which had seen many wonderful meals with friends and wartime successes for the British, was now nothing but a taproom frequented by the sailors and merchants of the Hudson and those travelling the Albany Post Road on which it was situated. The highway was created as the main passage for mail and trade between the vital locations of New York and Albany, so for a time the tavern was very successful. In another twist, on this very road, a toll bridge had been created for income, by none other than Frederick Philipse, father of Mary!
To add further insult to injury, the former Morris Estate was once again host to George Washington and his cabinet, as they held a celebratory victory banquet here on July 10th, 1790.
Sadly the tavern business began to fail and the property was left abandoned.
The Era of Jumel
In 1810, a new era began, as Stephen and Eliza Jumel bought up the entire Morris Estate and began to put their own stamp on the Palladian home by altering it substantially, including the addition of the prominent Federal style columns you see externally today.
Stephen Jumel was from a successful European merchant family, having emigrated from France and arriving in New York via Haiti. Eliza on the other hand, was from much closer Rhode Island and she had a very tough beginning.
Eliza came from an indentured background, which apparently made her both sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved and indentured, but also made her understand the value of money down to the last nickel.
Due to the hardships of her family, the young girl found herself living with her mother and others like them in a brothel for a time as well as a poorhouse. With a strong will and determination, Eliza Bowen as she became known, moved to New York to start her life over.
The feisty Eliza, now into womanhood found she had a shrewd sense of business and was able to make her way in the tough city. She met Stephen Jumel and after a time they married at the start of the 19th century, before moving onto their development project at the Morris Estate.
Marrying Stephen gave Eliza some social standing, but she always seemed to be on the outside looking in. She threw herself into her business life and discovered she had a knack for real estate. This included selling off some of the prime arable and developmental land on the former Morris Estate. It may have reduced her acreage but vastly increased her fortunes and led to much of the Washington Heights development you see today.
It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, High Society is an unforgiving, spiteful mistress and the gossip directed towards Eliza was unpleasant and damaging. For a time both Eliza and Stephen resided in Paris, Eliza socialising with the French aristocracy, until she did a sudden U-turn and voyaged back to her Mansion in Manhattan. Whether her alleged Napoleonic sympathies got her into trouble or she simply tired of life with Stephen in France, we do not know. Again she was the subject of rumour upon her return.
Stephen Jumel followed his wife back to New York where they lived until he suffered a horrific stomach wound. It was said that he fell on a pitchfork and the deep wound became infected, causing his untimely death in 1832. Fingers were pointed immediately by the socialites of Manhattan, accusing Eliza to all intents and purposes of murder.
Vice President Aaron Burr and Hamilton
Undeterred, the wealthy widow continued on her quest for business success and recognition among New York’s elite. Part of this plan seemed to be a marriage of convenience between Eliza and former Vice President Aaron Burr.
Burr came with his own baggage however, the biggest blot on the Founding Father’s copy book being his execution of fellow Founding Father and Statesman Alexander Hamilton. Apparently Hamilton had insulted the defeated Burr and following a series of terse letters between the two, a duel was set.
On July 11th 1804, the two men attended a site in New Jersey, selected due to the lesser penalties for the outlawed practice of duelling. Facts for the day are scarce, with there being debate on whether the pistols were weighted or rigged in the trigger and of course the biggest question, who shot first. Regardless, Aaron Burr would go down in history as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton.
Aaron Burr was substantially older than Eliza and had the stain of the death of Hamilton on his reputation. He also had to endure a trial for treason for which he was acquitted, and had little in the way of personal wealth. Despite this, his previous standing as Vice President, his political connections and place in Manhattan society made Burr a viable match, bringing Eliza a step closer to the acceptance she seemed to crave.
Unfortunately this union was short-lived, as the new Mrs. Burr discovered her husband was frittering away her fortune on frivolous and unsuccessful property speculation as well as engaging in an apparent affair.
Outraged, Eliza threw Aaron Burr out of the house and he was forced to take up residence in a low class boarding house in Staten Island where he suffered a stroke. Burr fought tooth and nail for access to the mansion he believed should be his and he felt he had the right to die in the very bed Stephen Jumel had taken his own final breath in.
In a public demonstration of Eliza’s business acumen and evidence of her tough persona and clever wit, she hired none other than Alexander Hamilton Jnr. as her divorce attorney, son of the man Aaron Burr had shot to death.
In a further twist in favour of Eliza, her estranged husband died on the very day the divorce was to be granted, so Eliza retained the right to call herself widow of Vice President Aaron Burr and kept every cent and acre of the fortune she had built for herself.
The Jumel Mansion has other valuable historic connections, including none other than Anne Northup, wife of Solomon Northup, the subject matter of the successful book and film, Twelve Years A Slave.
Anne was a free woman and successful chef. A chance meeting with a Eliza had Anne and her children brought to the Mansion to reside and work as a cook for the Jumel- Burr household. Solomon was also a free man, however as a working musician he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, ending up in Louisiana for twelve years. Anne continued to work for Eliza until her husband Solomon was finally released.
At this point an ageing Eliza was residing in Saratoga Springs, a place she really felt was home and an area known for its Underground Railroad, a network of tunnels used as escape routes for the enslaved. Her once sharp business mind was beginning to fail, her recounted tales of her chequered life becoming more erratic and outrageous as time progressed.
Eliza lived out her remaining few years in her mansion overlooking Manhattan and died in 1865. Her estate was contested for almost two decades, before ownership was granted to General Ferdinand and Lille Earle, purported distance relatives of founder Roger Morris. As you will discover however, she was not going to leave the place in death that meant so much to her when she lived!
Twentieth Century Turning Point
At the start of the 20th century, the city of New York purchased the property with a view to preserving it as a museum in honour of George Washington.
New houses and apartments began to spring up in the trendy neighbourhood, with artist and musician residents including Paul Roebson and Duke Ellington. The jazz maestro lived in an apartment block within the colonial shadow of the mansion and described it as “the jewel in the crown of Sugar Hill”, referring to the area as it had become known in the 1920s.
The tag line on the Morris-Jumel mansion website is “There is always something new at Manhattan’s Oldest House” and it is so true! Parties, community events, musical recitals and filming over the years have breathed fresh air into the stonework. The hugely successful musical, Hamilton was partially created here by Lin-Manuel Miranda, himself a native of Washington Heights and seemingly inspired by living in its shadow.
So that’s the history, what about the haunting you ask? Well that is exactly what we were here to find out! Before we do, let’s have a look at how the Morris-Jumel mansion became known for paranormal activity.
Ghostly Gateway to the Past
In 1964 a group of school children arrived to view the historic landmark. While waiting for the caretaker to arrive for opening, they ran about on the lawn as any children would. Startled, they stopped their antics as a woman dressed in old fashioned clothing yelled down at them from the balcony to keep the noise down.
The caretaker told the children they were imagining things when they protested and proceeded to unlock the house. As they were taken up the staircase, the children pointed to a portrait and shouted that was the woman who had scolded them. The painting was of Eliza Jumel.
A precedent had been set and paranormal investigators from around the globe began to take interest in the history and stories of this particular spooky location. From visitor sightings to televised ghost hunting, including a recreation of the notable Hans Holzer case file, the quest for a paranormal experience at this New York landmark continues to draw interest from across the globe.
One of the most famous Morris-Jumel photos is actually in the gift shop off of the main hall. It was taken by a photographer during a party, who was intent on getting some good shots of the outside of the building. On developing, he was confused to see a gentleman in period clothes seemingly walking into the shot, as there was no such person present at the party!
Irish Paranormal Investigators in Manhattan
On a mild January night in Manhattan, we got on the subway at 59th St. – Columbus Circle and made our way Uptown to 163rd St. Station. I don’t know quite what I was expecting when we ascended from the heat and noise of the Subway, but we stepped out into a vibrant and busy urban area of local shops and residences, that actually reminded me a lot of a place I had lived in South London.
What we couldn’t see, was an imposing colonial mansion! With Google Maps misbehaving, I was drawn to a dark patch on the landscape, not too far away and gut instinct told me that was the direction to go. So we walked along W. 162nd St and turned onto Jumel Terrace.
Shivers ran down my spine at the stunning piece of architecture before us, glowing in the dim but atmospheric street lights guiding our way to the entrance.
We took a moment to survey our surroundings and the neon lit vista over Manhattan and Yankee Stadium below us. Stepping into the shadows, we rang the entrance bell, beginning our paranormal adventure when Chris opened the door!
It was hard to concentrate on introductions, as my eyes and attention were rapidly being redirected to the cornucopia of history and antiquity before me.
A large entrance hall, bright and welcoming, leading to an ostentatious entertaining room directly beyond, which I later discovered was the Octagon room. My interest in this would have to wait however, as I became entranced by a portrait of Eliza Jumel and her adoptive grandchildren, just inside the front door.
We began to unpack our investigative equipment, keeping it fairly simply for this night and in keeping with our team preferences. We had K2 meters, which measure fluctuations in electro-magnetic fields. All electronic devices give off some level of EMF, however they tend to be low level readings for the most part and consistent. It is believed that when spirits try to manifest, they draw on the electro-magnetic force in the atmosphere and this causes fluctuations and high readings which can deviate at an alarming rate, The measurement on a K2 is taken by a series of lights, ranging from green, through to amber and red at the highest end.
We also selected an EVP recorder (to record potential voices and noises out of our human audible range) as well as photographs. Chris also introduced us to a ball that acted as a meter for vibrations by lighting up in contact, activated by close movement in the vicinity of the ball itself, but unaffected by footsteps and movement further away.
Chris and Dominic both have solid backgrounds as a professional contractor and electrical expert respectively, so their first task was to check base readings so we weren’t fooled by rogue light fittings or wiring during the course of our investigation.
The Paranormal Portrait
I began to take photographs as Dominic and Chris were discussing equipment and sharing anecdotes. It was strange – no matter where I stood in front of the portrait that had caught my attention, the facial recognition software would only pick up Eliza and her granddaughter, however her grandson would still show in the photograph as a part of the portrait.
I mentioned this to Chris, who startled me by stating that Eliza had a big falling out with her grandson. He had taken up with a lady of somewhat ill-repute and was wasting money keeping her in style. The matriarch gave the young man the choice of keeping his inheritance, or staying with the gold digger and being cut from the Jumel will. He chose the latter. Eliza was so angry, when visitors called, she would drape a piece of material over the corner of the portrait and cover her grandson’s face! Continuing this promising paranormal start, Dominic held our K2 meter up to the portrait and it lit up on all points immediately and continuously!
Dining with the Dead
Excited, we moved into the dining room to begin our first proper session of our paranormal night! The room gives off a very masculine energy and the furniture within includes a dark wooden dining table and a desk belonging to Aaron Burr that I was drawn to.
During the Tavern times, the room would have been a Tap room of sorts, but other than that, always a dining room. Servants would have been present of course and ladies during meal time, however it would have primarily been a masculine space.
We positioned K2s across the centred dining table and another on the desk. The EVP recorder was also placed on the table and the session began with a ‘Happy Birthday’ to founder Colonel Roger Morris. Although the 27 January for us, it was already 28 January in England, where the Yorkshireman was born and died. Immediately we began to get responses from the K2 meters, which until that point had lay dormant.
Call outs began to the servants of the house by Chris, including Cuba, Elba, Sarah and Martha, inviting them to partake in the session. It was only when Chris referred to an Irish servant of the house, that the meters began to light up, and listening back to the recording, when Dominic spoke in Irish, a female voice can be heard moaning at the same time as the K2 reading grew stronger.
Although winter, the night was mild and the heating was on, so a sudden drop in temperature was notable. Dominic’s entire arm froze and I felt an intense blast of cold on my face like an icy breath.
As I moved my position in the room, a heavy dominance took over as we turned our attention to the Burr desk. Readings continued to intensify as questions were directed at Aaron Burr. An inexplicable ball of light hovered by my elbow as a further drop in temperature was evident.
Excited and inspired, we moved onto the main entertaining room of the house, the Octagon room. It has recently been fully restored and the many windows offer sweeping views across New York. It was in this very room that Aaron Burr wed Eliza Jumel and would most likely have been the command room for Washington. Many family celebrations, dances and high society Soirées took place within this delightful space over the centuries, so we were hopeful of some activity.
Dancing with the Supernatural
Sitting above an exquisite period sofa belonging to the mistress of the mansion, is a portrait of Eliza, keeping watch over her domain. The K2 placed upon her couch was immediately active. Instinctively I realised it was because I had my back to the matriarch and the activity ceased as soon as I took up a more respectful position. It was at this point we heard distinct footsteps in the open and very empty hall! I had the distinct sensation that Eliza was there to observe and make sure we behaved. I mentioned this to Chris who stated that Eliza was thought to have had a concave mirror placed deliberately in the hall so she could keep a close eye on guests and staff and ensure her silverware remained, after all it was far from silver Eliza was reared and she was not going to let it go easily!
Without realising , we drifted away from direct questions addressed to those who may be present and became conversational and reminiscent over music. Whether it was the light energy of the room, the imprint of years of socialising in the walls or those still lingering from the past, I do not know, but it changed the whole direction of the session. It was at this point Dominic realised the K2 meters circling the room were going off in timed sequence, exactly as if folks were dancing around the room to an old time waltz!
We ascended the stairs and spent some time examining other rooms including Eliza’s bedroom. Unfortunately it was empty as it was in the midst of a sympathetic restoration and experience has taught us activity would be unlikely without her personal belongings within – we were right!
A Death Bed and Shadows of a Vice President
Undeterred, we entered the Master bedroom. Centred, were the bed and an armchair belonging to Aaron Burr, with the mahogany furniture and dark colours setting the masculine scene within. A bust of Aaron Burr stares condescendingly at those who enter his personal space, situated at the most southerly point of the house.
We placed our K2s and EVP recorder around the room and another K2 and the ball measuring vibrations in the middle of the bed. I began addressing Stephen Jumel, in the very room he died, a virtual curtain of darkness descending. Dying painfully from sepsis incurred through an infected stomach wound, it was little wonder the ball lit up in startled fashion, as I insensitively and loudly used the word stomach to highlight an identified sound within the room!
We began to address Aaron Burr and the K2s within the room all went to solid red. Deliberate tapping sounds were heard and footsteps sounded on the landing just outside the bedroom door.
As I stood with my back to the chest of drawers and mirror, I had the distinct sensation of being watched. I turned and saw a solid shadow figure walk across the room behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and the K2 on the bust of Aaron Burr glowed an ominous crimson.
I began a lone vigil sat in the two hundred year old chair belonging to the former Vice President of the United States. Instinctively I knew I wasn’t welcome, a female in a man’s domain and a fiery and dominant woman at that! I wonder still did he sense any similarities between my own traits and those of the woman who was ultimately responsible for his downfall and total humiliation within Manhattan society.
My feelings became tangible, as I began to shiver and get goosebumps as the temperature around me dropped rapidly. A smell of stale tobacco hovered in the air. Not one to back away when challenged, it became a paranormal duel of wits, as the apparent ethereal Aaron Burr tried to suppress me, so the more defiant in my questioning I became. Ultimately, the atmosphere lifted as the former Vice President was once again unable to control and bully a female into ‘knowing her place.’
The Still Beating Heart of the Home
Our final session of the night was in the kitchen. The heart of every home, as with every stately mansion, the large and echoing chamber was below stairs, light barely able to penetrate the epicentre of servant life.
This was the one part of the house servants could be themselves. They were free to speak as they chose, laugh, be angry or sad. It was also the busiest room of the mansion and would have been a continuous hive of activity during the summer months.
Chris once again called out the names of those who worked in this slice of American high social standing, however they were clearly too busy in their work to respond! Personally I believe a kitchen is the area most likely to be the subject of residual haunting, spirits repeatedly going about their daily business, oblivious to us and time itself.
A startled shout from Dominic led to laughter, as the normally stalwart and steady investigator found his paranormal feathers ruffled by a curious feline peeping through the darkness in through the kitchen window!
Taking this as a sign to call it a night, we wrapped out our session and gave a respectful thank you and goodbye to the hard working staff.
Farewell to Morris-Jumel
After a final look around, I felt sad to be leaving this beautiful hillside domain of perhaps one of the most formidable and impressive female figures I have encountered, Eliza Jumel-Burr.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion is a rich tapestry of history and haunting, carefully embroidered over time, the needle of tragedy leaving pinpricks of blood on the centuries old fabric. Individual panels have been created by each family, each life changing event and historic moment, deftly stitched together as one seamless artefact. It is however, not a museum piece to hide behind glass and velvet rope.
This Manhattan landmark is to be touched, experienced and enjoyed. The intricacies and enigmas of those who lived and died within are to be discovered, sensed and embraced. From the moment Colonel Roger Morris made the first stitch, to the major design of Eliza, it is a tapestry to not have end, a continuous thread. The caretakers of historic importance since it became a part of New York heritage, such as our host, Chris Davalos, add their own stitches, custodians of a place outside of time and space, a resplendent eye in the storm of one of the busiest cities on this Earthly realm.
Dominic and myself left our own Celtic stitches on the masterpiece, carefully woven in, almost undetectable, but nevertheless there. Our experiences, the friendship made, as imprinted permanently within the walls of the Morris-Jumel Mansion as they are in our hearts and memories.
Our thanks to the wonderful Christopher Davalos, the Historic House Trust of New York City and associated supporters and team of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.