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A House in Harlem: The Morris-Jumel Mansion

One of the toughest parts about being a paranormal investigator, is finding locations to investigate. When Michelle Schusterman (author of the KAT SINCLAIR FILES) contacted us about taking her editors from Penguin Books on a ghost hunt, the pressure was on to find the perfect place.

We put Google to the test, researching local stories and legends. I even happened upon a Tweet by a more…ahem…shall we say, “well-know” ghost hunter who asked if any of his followers had suggestions for places to investigate in the vicinity of NYC. Within minutes, there were lots of suggestions to poach. Yes, I admit it. Sometimes, thorough research even involves stalking the Twitter feeds of television personalities. Sigh. I love my job.

We felt lucky to find leads for a few different places. (None of these, by the way, were gleaned from the aforementioned Twitter feed.) But the one that stood out above the rest was easy: the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The stories and history of the property made us want to spend the night there. Seriously, George Washington himself slept there! The ghost of the richest American woman of her day, scorned by local society yet rumored to be friends with Napoleon, was said to have appeared on the balcony to scold a group of noisy school children. We booked our flights.

It doesn’t take much for me to be fascinated by research (I’m a self-proclaimed history geek), but I was REALLY fascinated by what I uncovered about the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

The early history is simple enough, and very factual. I will try not to make it boring. The house was built in 1765 by Colonel Roger Morris (from England) and his wife, Mary, who was born in New York. The estate encompassed 130 acres from the Hudson to the Harlem rivers. As Tories, loyal to Britain, they fled during the American Revolution.

During the fall of 1776, George Washington and his troops moved into the house. They were there for the successful battle of Harlem Heights, but were eventually forced out by the Brits.

The house then served as headquarters for the Brits and their allies, the Hessians (Germans.) It was during this time that it is said a Hessian soldier tripped while walking down the stairs and killed himself by falling on his own bayonet. (That’s kind of exciting, right?) At the end of the war, the new American government confiscated the property.

That’s where the facts become more muddled and the stories get interesting. The house was purchased by the Stephen and Eliza Jumel in 1810, and it was in need of repair. Supposedly, they were able to get the house for $2000 less, because even back then it was rumored to be haunted. (A Hessian soldier was said to appear on the winding staircase.)

There were several conflicting reports about Eliza. Some sources claimed she was born in a brothel and that she went on to be an actress, and tricked Stephen, a frenchman, into marrying her. Eliza is credited for restoring the house to the point where it was a venue for society parties. However, reports claim that to her dismay, she was never accepted into local circles, even though she entertained plenty of european aristocrats. Stephen eventually died from wounds received after falling onto a pitchfork. Some stories claim she hurried his demise along by letting him bleed out. Others said she pushed him. She went on to remarry Aaron Burr, the former Vice-President of the United States. And her house is still standing there…in Harlem!

Incidentally, some of our best paranormal evidence of the evening came from Eliza’s bedroom and related to the rumors surrounding Eliza’s involvement with Stephen’s death. Our investigative team left with the sense that she loved her husband very much, and would never have pushed him or hurried his death along in any way.

Everything I read about Eliza got me thinking. First and foremost, it’s a perfect example of how you can’t believe everything you read — especially if it’s on the internet and even if it’s reported in a newspaper. It can’t all be true. Second, it must have been a really difficult time in America to be a woman. There weren’t a lot of options, and there were significantly less if you didn’t come from money. The fact that Mrs. Eliza Jumel, of humble beginnings, became the richest American woman of her day was not an easy feat, and probably made her a lot of enemies. Enemies that probably made up a lot of stories about her. But one thing is for sure, after reading about her and spending the night in her house, I adore Eliza Jumel.

The museum staff reported that one of their historians is working on a book about Eliza Jumel. If anyone can uncover the truth about the many rumors that surrounded her life, it would be those most passionate about her beautiful home, the staff at the Morris-Jumel Mansion and museum. We were grateful to spend the night in such an historic house. And the stories and secrets that fill it, only make me want to go back again some day.

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