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The Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights in Manhattan.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights in Manhattan. (Credit: Anthony Lanzilote)

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Morris-Jumel Mansion: Secrets of Manhattan's oldest home, in Washington Heights

65 Jumel Terrace, New York, NY 10032

Think you have to travel to Disney World to visit a haunted mansion? Think again. There’s one in Washington Heights, just a few blocks from the C train.

Morris-Jumel Mansion is Manhattan’s oldest house. Built by a British colonel in 1765, it was once a 130-acre farm that stretched from the Hudson to the Harlem River. Today, the museum and National Historic Landmark is a relatively modest dwelling. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in history -- much of it macabre.

It briefly served as George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution; hosted the first-ever presidential cabinet meeting; and was also the home of the notorious Aaron Burr.

But the mansion’s most fascinating resident was Madame Eliza Jumel, whose life was the stuff of legend. Among the wealthiest women in New York, she lived in the residence from 1810 to 1865. According to some, she never really left. Her ghost is said to haunt the place, occasionally appearing on the balcony. And there are rumors of another spirit that clomps around in heavy boots.

We’ll get to the ghosts later -- let’s climb out of the subway first.

Just a block from the 163rd Street station

Credit: Linda Rosier

Sylvan Terrace

Just a block from the 163rd Street station is a set of stone steps. Climb them, and you'll instantly be transported back to the 19th century.

The steps lead to a one-block cobblestone street called Sylvan Terrace, which is part of the Jumel Terrace Historic District. Its yellow clapboard row houses, trimmed in green, brown and maroon, were built in 1882. They seem like they haven't changed at all since then -- in fact, it's easy to imagine middle-class Victorian merchants walking down their wooden stoops, heading off to work.

You wouldn't be far from the truth. Sylvan Terrace's original inhabitants included a feed dealer and a grocer, according to a 1989 New York Times article. But appearances can be deceiving. The houses have actually been renovated several times over the past century. Before they were restored to their original condition in the 1970s, their exteriors were "false brick of all colors.''

The white, wooden mansion stands at the other

Credit: Brian Levinson

Enter the octagon

The white, wooden mansion stands at the other end of Sylvan Terrace, in the center of the 1 1/2-acre Roger Morris Park. Walk underneath its triangular portico, supported by classical columns and ring the bell. You'll be welcomed into an era before the United States was even a twinkle in the Founding Fathers' eyes.

Col. Roger Morris built the mansion as a wedding present for his young wife, Mary Philipse. Morris was lucky to land her. Her family was among the richest and most powerful in colonial New York. Its 52,000-acre estate sprawled across much of present-day Westchester County, as well as Putnam County and the Bronx.

Morris's father was an architect, and Morris-Jumel historian Carol Ward believes that the colonel served as a kind of "armchair architect" when the house was built. Its most notable feature is an octagonal parlor -- one of the first of its kind in the country.

The mansion was built as a summer home,

Credit: Newsday / Todd Duncan

A romantic rivalry

The mansion was built as a summer home, far away from the madding crowds of lower Manhattan. In fact, the Morris' nearest neighbor lived five miles away. It was also a working farm, which employed both slaves and indentured servants to tend the crops.

The colonel named his house Mount Morris, since it's situated atop a hill. It has no relation to the Mount Morris area in Harlem, which was named after founding father Gouverneur Morris.

The colonel, it seems, may not have been Mary's first choice. In 1756, she'd drawn the attention of a young officer from Virginia named George Washington. But, according to Ward, Washington just wasn't rich enough to marry someone of Mary's background.

The fact that she married Col. Morris must've been a huge letdown for poor Washington -- the two men were friends, and served together in the French and Indian War.

Washington may not have gotten Col. Morris's girl,

Credit: Brian Levinson

George Washington slept here

Washington may not have gotten Col. Morris's girl, but, for a brief time, he did get the colonel's house. When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, the Morrises, still loyal to the King, left town.

In 1776, Washington's troops retreated to Manhattan after losing the Battle of Brooklyn. Washington chose the Morris house for his temporary headquarters, since the spectacular view from Mount Morris allowed him to monitor the movements of British forces.

Go up to the second floor, and you can visit Washington's War Room and see the view for yourself. You can also check out the secret passageway that connects the War Room to the rest of the home.

In 1790, George Washington -- now the president

Credit: Newsday / Todd Duncan

The return of George Washington

In 1790, George Washington -- now the president -- held his first cabinet meeting at the Morris-Jumel mansion. All the political luminaries of the time attended, including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander and Theodosia Hamilton, James Madison and others, were present.

The meeting was preceded by a sumptuous dinner. The founding mothers and fathers feasted outdoors, as there was no room in the mansion large enough to seat all of them. Afterward, the men went inside to argue about the future of the country.

This "cabinet battle" is recounted in the second act of "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway hit. In fact, Miranda sought inspiration by writing some of his lyrics in one of the mansion's second-floor bedrooms. It's doubtful that Hamilton spit rhymes or threatened to put his shoe in Madison's posterior during the meeting, but hey, you never know.

Eliza Bowen Jumel was one of the most

Credit: Brian Levinson

Madame Jumel arrives

Eliza Bowen Jumel was one of the most remarkable women of the early 19th century. The illegitimate daughter of a Rhode Island prostitute, she traveled to France, where her beauty and joie de vivre made her the toast of French society. She returned to New York in 1804 as the mistress of wealthy French wine merchant Stephen Jumel.

But Eliza wanted more -- so she tricked Stephen into believing she was dying. Her deathbed wish? For Stephen to make her "an honest woman." They were married on the spot, and soon, Eliza miraculously recovered.

Stephen forgave the ruse, and bought Eliza the mansion in 1810. The two were staunch supporters of Napoleon, and Eliza's second-floor bedroom reflects it. The room is still decorated in French Imperial furniture. Eliza even told visitors that the bed belonged to Napoleon and his wife Josephine. (Although, as Ward points out, that most certainly wasn't true.)

The swans above the canopy symbolized the permanence of Napoleon and Josephine's relationship, since swans mate for life. And the palm trees that decorate it nodded to Napoleon's military campaign in Egypt.

In 1832, Stephen Jumel fell out of a

Credit: Linda Rosier

Stephen Jumel departs

In 1832, Stephen Jumel fell out of a carriage onto a pitchfork on the grounds of his estate. The wounds were serious, but not fatal. Doctors bandaged him up and brought him back into the mansion.

That night, Eliza told the doctors to go home, and that she'd take care of Stephen by herself. When they returned the next morning, Stephen was dead ... and all of his bandages were gone.

Did Eliza kill Stephen by removing his bandages so he'd bleed to death? No one knows. But as Ward says, "You can judge her, but we have to live with her."

By the time of Stephen's death, Eliza was

Credit: Brian Levinson

Aaron Burr won’t leave

By the time of Stephen's death, Eliza was among the wealthiest women in New York. Over the past few decades, she'd used his power of attorney to buy tracts of valuable New York real estate.

Enter Aaron Burr. At this point, the elderly founding father was tainted by scandal. Not only had he killed Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel, and been tried for treason, but he was deeply in debt.

As a former member of wealthy New York society, Burr had known Eliza for years. He realized that she could be his ticket to financial security. So, according to Ward, Burr began showing up at Eliza's doorstep and asking her to marry him.

She rebuffed him numerous times, but finally relented. No one knows why. Ward says there's a legend that Burr arrived at Eliza's door with a minister and refused to leave -- or let her leave -- before they'd exchanged vows. Whether or not this is true, the pair was married in the mansion's front parlor in 1833, and Burr moved into a second-floor bedroom.

It wasn't a happy union. Burr used Eliza's money to pay his debts and speculate on land. The pair separated after four months, and Eliza divorced Burr in 1836 -- coincidentally, on the day of his death, which occurred on Staten Island, not in the mansion. Her divorce attorney? None other than Alexander Hamilton's son.

Eliza Jumel died in 1865, at age 90.

Credit: Brian Levinson

Eliza's ghost

Eliza Jumel died in 1865, at age 90. In 1903, the Daughters of the American Revolution bought the mansion and turned it into a museum. The DAR viewed Eliza's life as so scandalous that they tried to remove all traces of her, Ward said. They presented the house as "Washington's Headquarters" -- even though Washington stayed there for just 33 days, and Eliza lived there for 55 years.

But Eliza refused to go away.

In 1964, a group of talkative schoolchildren were waiting to enter the mansion when an old woman appeared on the second floor balcony and rudely told them to shut up.

The children told the museum's curator about the woman. He told them that the house was empty, and the door to the balcony was locked. But as they toured the second floor of the house, they were stunned by Alcide Ercole's life-size portrait of Eliza and her grandchildren (pictured) -- the woman in the painting was the same woman from the balcony!

Since then, many "paranormal investigators" have visited the house and attempted to contact Eliza's ghost. The most famous was Hans Holzer, who held two séances there in 1965. Although he heard nothing from Eliza, he claimed that he did hear Stephen Jumel complaining about how Eliza had removed his bandages.

Eliza vacationed in Saratoga Springs every summer. During

Credit: Brian Levinson

A friend in need

Eliza vacationed in Saratoga Springs every summer. During her stay in 1842, she met a talented cook named Anne Northup, hired her, and brought her and her children back to the mansion. Anne's two daughters helped their mother in the kitchen, and her son worked as an apprentice coachman.

If the name "Northup" seems familiar, you probably heard it at the movies. Ann Northup's husband, Solomon, was a musician who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. His story was retold in the Oscar-winning drama "12 Years a Slave."

Go downstairs, and you'll see the enormous hearth where Anne Northup cooked meals for Eliza. Needless to say, it's much larger than the average Washington Heights kitchen.

Washington and his men won the Battle of

Credit: Emilio Guerra

A Hessian ghost?

Washington and his men won the Battle of Harlem Heights during their stay at the mansion, but their success was short lived. The British regrouped, and forced the American army out of Manhattan after just one month.

Afterward, the Morris-Jumel Mansion served as headquarters for British troops and the German mercenaries -- known as Hessians -- who fought alongside them.

During this time, a Hessian soldier got drunk and took a fatal fall down the mansion's stairs. Rumor has it that the soldier's ghost still haunts the place. According to a 1981 New York Times article, as far back as the early 1800s some visitors insisted that they'd seen a Hessian on the staircase. And years later, Eliza Jumel's adopted daughter refused to sleep there alone.

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