Haunted by Houses

Bring out your dead: Merchant’s House Museum hosts a “Parlor to Grave” funeral reenactment and graveyard procession on Oct. 24. Courtesy Merchant’s House Museum.
Bring out your dead: Merchant’s House Museum hosts a “Parlor to Grave” funeral reenactment and graveyard procession on Oct. 24. Courtesy Merchant’s House Museum.

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | In the dark and stormy pages of fiction; in movies, when heirs to a fortune must brave a creepy old mansion from dusk to dawn; and on TV shows whose jumpy investigators wear infrared goggles as they navigate narrow catacombs: these are the scenarios popular culture tells us are necessary to have a paranormal encounter.

But why would a spirit need, or even want, to wait until the sun goes down in order to materialize? That witches’ brew of nighttime shadows and nervous tension says more about our own fleshly insecurities than it does about the world that awaits us when we draw our last breath and give up the ghost.

Rest assured, strange things do happen in the stark light of day — and year-round, at two of New York’s most lovingly preserved, historically significant homes, you can roam the grounds, climb the stairs, and quite possibly join the ranks of those who are confident they’ve seen, heard, or spoken with the dead.


In 1835, having made his fortune as a NYC hardware merchant, patriarch Seabury Tredwell moved his brood to a lavishly decorated, recently built row house in the swanky Bond Street neighborhood.

Over the next nearly 100 years, dozens of family members and Irish servants would live at 29 East Fourth Street. Along the way, eight family members died in the house, including spinster daughter Gertrude (1840-1933). The youngest Tredwell child shuffled off her mortal coil while occupying the very same bed she was born in — also where Seabury met his maker in 1865.

First opened in 1935, the Merchant’s House Museum remains accessible to the public five days a week. Self-guided tours afford history buffs and paranormal enthusiasts the opportunity to walk among the furniture, artwork, clothing, tools, and everyday items that have been here since the mid-19th century — along with, many believe, former residents whose lack of a pulse doesn’t stop them from making playful, protective, or sociable appearances.

“It’s safe to say that each year we average roughly a half-dozen documented reports of occurrences to staff, workers, or visitors,” says board member Anthony Bellov, whose inexplicable experiences are among the “over one hundred reported incidents [during the course of the Museum’s life], since we started seriously archiving them about fifteen years ago.”

One of the most-witnessed sightings in Merchant’s House history, which you can hear about on their upcoming Ghost Tour (and can read about in Bellov’s “Some Say They Never Left” gift shop booklet), took place in broad daylight — and makes a convincing argument for the notion that certain Tredwell family members didn’t fly the nest once they crossed over.

“It’s a very famous story involving neighborhood children playing in front of the House,” Bellov says of the 1933 summertime incident. “Gertrude came rushing out the front door to chase them away. Many neighborhood people saw it, and the long-timers on the block all recognized Gertrude. The only problem is, Gertrude had been dead for several weeks at that point.”

Another daytime incident, this one from 1995, was reported by a visitor who had a top position in the NYS Judicial Department. Unaware of the building’s haunted reputation, she gave an account of a tattered and musty gentleman who engaged her in conversation, upstairs, while they perused old family objects in a display case. “He spoke at length about what it was like to live in the house,” Bellov recalls of the eyewitness account. “She turned away from him for just a moment, and he was gone.” Minutes later, there was another sighting on the main floor — where he told her to come back for another visit. Presented with a book of photos after reporting the event to staff members, the woman identified her new acquaintance as black sheep son Samuel Tredwell (1825-1917).

Although sightings of head-to-toe apparitions are rare, even by Merchant’s House standards, plenty of other odd and possibly otherworldly incidents take place — so many, in fact, that Bellov says “almost everyone involved with the Museum has had at least one unexplainable thing happen to them. The noteworthy thing is that people have experiences separated by several decades that are identical in every way.”

Members of the Tredwell family lived here over a period of 100 years. Some say they never left. Courtesy Merchant’s House Museum.
Members of the Tredwell family lived here over a period of 100 years. Some say they never left. Courtesy Merchant’s House Museum.

Those experiences include hearing phantom notes from a piano that long ago ceased to function, and the sound of light snoring coming from a sofa (incidents taking place in the front Greek Revival parlor — replete with Tredwell family furnishings, some of which date back to before Gertrude was born). The Grecian sofa, notes Bellov, is now in the downstairs family room, where “there have been no further reports of invisible nappers.”

Are these occurrences merely sounds once made in the house, that play on a loop and can be perceived when the certain atmospheric or psychological conditions are just right? If so, that in and of itself is pretty impressive proof of…well, something beyond what we experience in day-to-day life.

And how, then, to explain how several people can be in a room, yet only some will be certain that they see, smell, or hear things? Such events took place with startling regularity during monthly visits throughout 2011 by the Sturges Paranormal team of veteran investigators, uninformed newbies, certified mediums, and this curious but sometimes less than brave reporter — who, in addition to finding similarities in the team’s accounts (during post-investigation one-on-one interviews), logged hundreds of “hits” on TriField Natural EMF (electromagnetic field) Meters.

EMF fluctuations often corresponded with requests that any “spirit” present manipulate the device, via “once for yes, twice for no” responses to questions. Many times over the course of the year-long investigation, this reporter observed positive responses to the team’s request that anyone (or anything) present but not observable travel from meter to meter, thereby eliciting the buzzing sound that indicates a fluctuation (three meters were typically placed in various locations around the room we were in). Proof of a sentient, otherworldly force interacting with us? No. But another possible explanation, that investigators themselves cause EMF meters to move by a psychic extension of wishful thinking, is every bit as provocative.

Also experienced by some — but not all — of the group (five or six at any given time), as we were within feet of each other: a strong scent of tobacco in the bedroom of Seabury Tredwell, and disembodied Christmas carolers who were heard in the front parlor, accompanying the living. Discovered on audio or video upon leaving the house were bells, voices, and footsteps (most of which were not heard at the time of the recordings). Two investigators (Bellov and a purported psychic) both described, in their exit interviews, the same blue mist snaking its way down the staircase — at the top of which a family member is believed to have tumbled, sustaining injuries that would soon cause her death.

The official Merchant’s House take on all of this, says Bellov (who was present during all of the Sturges investigations): “We’ll never say the Museum is haunted until we have actual, incontrovertible proof, whatever that may wind up being. All we can say is, ‘Strange things we can’t explain happen here very often.’ If it’s the Tredwells, we’re happy they’re still watching over their home, and we hope they approve of our own efforts to preserve it for future New Yorkers.”

Tidbit-packed guidebook in hand, you can tour the house and court your own daytime encounter with the Tredwells or their servants — or take your chances during one of the atmospheric Candlelight Ghost Tours, during which many have reported brushes and tugs while surrounded by nothing but thin air. With the house decorated in 1865 funeral parlor chic (black crepe, coffin in the parlor, mourning attire on display), living history will come back to haunt you, as the guides give a room-by-room rundown of ghostly encounters through the years.

The 50-minute tours begin every half hour, 6:30–9:30 p.m. on Oct. 23–24 and 28–30. Prices vary ($25-$35) according to tour time and a “Super-Spooky” option that includes a visit to the fourth floor servants’ quarters. For reservations (required) and more info on the Oct. 25 “Parlor to Grave” funeral reenactment/graveyard procession and a Halloween night dramatic reading of Gothic literature, visit merchantshouse.org or call 212-777-1089.

Open Thurs.–Mon., noon–5 p.m. Admission is $10 ($5 for students & seniors, free for children under 12). Merchant’s House Museum is located at 29 E. Fourth St. (btw. Lafayette & Bowery).


Constructed in the late 1830s in order to accommodate the family of Robert Bartow (a descendant of Thomas Pell), the Grecian-style stone Bartow-Pell Mansion and the 220-acre estate it sits on opened as a museum in 1946 — providing a rare glimpse into upscale 19th century country life in the Pelham Bay Park area.

The living aren’t the only ones free to walk around the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. Courtesy Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum.
The living aren’t the only ones free to walk around the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. Courtesy Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum.

Some of Bartow’s ancestors are still on site, in a graveyard filled with the remains of six Pell family members. Visitors can tour the garden and grounds, and explore the house (either on their own, or on guided tours). Either way, you might not want to go it solo — unless you have the intellectual curiosity and intestinal fortitude to find out what it’s like to be “alone” when you get the distinct feeling that you’re being watched, followed, or brushed up against (all things experienced by the public as well as staff members).

In her decade at Bartow-Pell (first as a volunteer, then as Education Director and Curator), Margaret Highland can’t claim an unexplained encounter of her own — but she’s heard the stories. The upstairs, she notes, is prime real estate for paranormal occurrences.

“When Dan [Sturges, of Sturges Paranormal] was in the bed chamber of George Bartow,” Highland recalls, “one of the psychics said he [George] had a disappointment in love.” Later, in a sound bite not heard by the group at the time, “Dan’s [tape] recorder picked up a voice saying it wasn’t the girls’ fault. The psychic said that George’s fiancée broke off their engagement.”

In addition to sightings of a child’s ghost on the third floor (described similarly by witnesses through the years), indentations are frequently discovered on the Lannuier bed. Highland, who has seen them, speculates that it’s “probably the down settling, but who knows?” When Sturges asked the person responsible for sitting on the bed to identify themselves, he “picked up a voice that sounded like ‘Nathan Walker.’ We don’t know who he was, but we do have a piece of [19th century] embroidery made by an Abigail Walker.”

Elsewhere in the Mansion, music, (absent the presence of instruments) has been heard, and “a tour guide thought he saw a person in a long skirt disappearing quickly,” Highland says, adding that others “have heard footsteps in the attic when we knew nobody was up there.” Short of claiming that the Bartow-Pell Mansion is haunted, Highland doesn’t hesitate to supply this explanation: “What I say is, ‘Anything’s possible.’ ”

A “Cemetery Walk and Tombstone Talk” will take place on Thurs., Oct. 29, at 6 p.m. — first, with a candlelit trek to the Pell Cemetery, then inside for a lecture by tombstone expert and carver Robert Neal Carpenter. Cost: $20 ($15 for seniors and students). Registration required. The garden and grounds are open daily from 8:30 a.m. to dusk (free). Mansion hours are Wed., Sat. & Sun., noon–4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors & students, free for children under six. At 895 Shore Road, Pelham Bay Park, The Bronx. Call 718-885-1461 or visit bartowpellmansionmuseum.org.