#b#The Hessian Ghost, 32 Edgehill Street#/b#
Sitting with Margery Cuyler in the cheery parlor of her childhood home, known as the Barracks, in a quiet, elegant neighborhood steeped in Revolution-era history near Princeton Theological Seminary, it is hard to imagine the fear she felt as a child every Christmas Eve as she lay in her little bed in the room above the house’s old kitchen. While other children’s dreams were filled with visions of sugar plums, shiny new sleds and bicycles, toy soldiers, and dolls who cried real tears, Cuyler waited in the dark, tucked under the covers, her eyes wide open — waiting for the Hessian ghost.
“The British hired Hessians to fight the Americans in the Revolutionary War. When I was about five I remember I was very aware of the Hessian soldier legend. During the Battle of Princeton a Hessian soldier apparently came into the house because there were British soldiers billeted here during the battle — and not a lot of Hessians but some. This soldier had a chest wound, and he died in front of the fireplace of the old kitchen.
“Ever after, there was this legend that the ghost would appear every Christmas Eve and go up the chimney. I slept in the bedroom right over the room where the ghost was supposed to go up the chimney, so I was always scared he’d go right through my room, because I had a fireplace in my room. I always thought he and Santa Claus would bump into each other. I’d worry about it. So Christmas Eve was not so joyful.”
With the exception of Christmas Eve, however, Cuyler, a prolific children’s book writer and director of the trade division at Marshall Cavendish, had a storybook childhood herself. The rambling Georgian-style seven-bedroom fieldstone house is estimated to have been built in the late 17th century, making it the oldest standing house in Princeton Borough. It appears on a spy map of about 1777, writes Gerald William Breese in his book “Footprints on Edgehill Street: Glimpses of Princeton Life” (1991).
The house was built by the grandfather of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton, on an original 400-acre parcel of land (all of what is now Princeton University campus and the grounds of the Theological Seminary). The younger Stockton inherited the home from his father, John Stockton, and stayed there while Morven was being built. It used to be called the old Stockton House but received the name the Barracks during the French and Indian War and was used as a barracks both then and during the Revolutionary War. Both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton stayed there when the Continental Congress met in Princeton in 1783. And yes, according to Cuyler, George Washington did sleep there.
Cuyler’s father, Lewis, who commuted to New York as a senior VP of personnel for First National City Bank in the 1940s and ’50s, before it merged into CitiBank, bought the house from the previous owner, an English professor at Princeton, to accommodate his growing family — three boys and two girls. Cuyler’s father was an avid historian, a voracious collector of spy maps and old maps of Princeton, and served in a volunteer capacity as the head of the Historical Society of Princeton. Soon after the family settled in, Cuyler’s four first cousins moved in, when their mother died of cancer, and their father, T.S. Mathews, an executive editor of Time, built a wing on the house and stayed there on weekends.
“Growing up here was actually a lot of fun,” says Cuyler. “When you have a big family like that, you really use your imagination. I think the reason I write children’s books is because I was raised by children. I was the youngest and my next brother up was nine years older.” Another brother, 11 years older, was autistic and the Cuylers were instrumental in starting the Eden Institute.
The family didn’t own a television until Cuyler was eight so most of her childhood was spent playing charades, hide and seek, writing and performing plays, and going to sleep to the soothing sounds of her parents reading childhood classics like “Stuart Little,” “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Little Princess,” and the entire Dickens canon.
“Kids didn’t like to come here for the night because they were scared of the ghost, so that was hard on all of us. My parents heard strange noises in the house or sometimes the windows would suddenly open, but they weren’t bothered by the ghost because it just seemed benevolent,” says Cuyler. In the late 1950s her parents decided to have an exorcism, and they brought in a British priest named Dr. Kinsolving from Trinity Church. Cuyler, who was very young at the time, has no memory of the exorcism but says, “He went through the house and said prayers.”
Cuyler, who will be 62 on New Year’s Eve, graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1970 with a degree in writing. She has written 46 children’s books, in tandem with a career as a children’s book editor, for 21 years as editor-in-chief of Holiday House in New York, as well as other executive-level positions at Henry Holt, Golden Books, and Winslow Press. For her current job at Marshall Cavendish, she commutes two days a week to Tarrytown, NY. The rest of the week she spends writing in her cozy window-filled home office overlooking the ivy-covered stone wall that surrounds the garden, crumbling in many spots to reveal the original cement and wood slats, with an ancient little wooden door no higher than your eyes tucked into one corner leading to the street.
She and her husband, John Perkins, a psychoanalyst and author, moved back into the Barracks in 1989. After Cuyler’s father died, her mother moved down the street, and the house was let to tenants. “But they moved out,” says Cuyler, “because they heard so many horrible noises coming from the fireplace, and it scared them.”
She and Perkins raised two sons there, Thomas, now 24, an 11th grade English teacher at a high-needs high school in Washington, DC, and Timothy, 20, who is studying architecture at the University of Cincinnati (where Michael Graves went). Cuyler’s older sister, Juliana McIntyre, a sculptress and educator who founded Princeton Junior School and is currently writing a book for adults on her education philosophy, moved into the house next door, built by their grandfather, in the 1960s. She has two grown sons and is married to Richard Fenn, an author and retired Princeton Theological Seminary professor.
Clearly the Hessian ghost had been holding down the fort, as it were, during all those years since Cuyler had left home. “About a month after we moved in, close to Christmas, in the middle of the night, we heard the front door open and footsteps — heavy footsteps like boots, going up the stairs. And we were scared. We thought maybe it was our dog or our four-year-old. But our son was in his room, and the dog was here. We couldn’t find anybody in the house. We heard the footsteps go towards the back of the house. We never found anything.”
While Cuyler never saw the ghost, then or as a child, her sister, Juliana, did, several times. “I think she was about nine. She saw the ghost in the dining room or a third floor bedroom, and she said it looked exactly like a Hessian soldier, with a three-cornered hat.”
In 1999 Cuyler, who had always wanted to write a ghost story for third graders, wrote “The Battlefield Ghost,” inspired by the ghost in her house. Published first in hardcover by Scholastic, it was then published in softcover and hit the company’s book clubs with a bang, becoming a bestseller. To spin the legend into a longer tale, Cuyler conducted extensive research at the Thomas Clarke House at Princeton Battlefield with the assistance of curator John Mills, as well as at the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton and Firestone Library.
During the course of her research she learned that Hessian soldiers who rode on horseback wore three-cornered hats and were called Jaegers (others wore brass helmets designed to shine in the sunlight and blind the enemy). The ghost that Juliana saw had just such a hat “and a bloody wound,” says Cuyler. Then things get even more interesting. “And he had a Willkie button on his lapel. Willkie ran against FDR in 1940. And so presumably the ghost picked up that button around the house, maybe in 1940, and put that on his lapel. How would my sister have known about Willkie at age nine? And she wouldn’t have even known about FDR then.”
“The Battlefield Ghost” remains a perennial favorite with children. Cuyler has visited more than 150 schools as “author of the day,” and it’s the story the students want to hear most. She even shows a child-friendly PowerPoint presentation on the research she did for the book. Her office drawers are stuffed with fan mail and drawings from students.
“I think ghosts hang around because they have unsettled business,” says Cuyler. “The Battlefield Ghost” tells the story of a family who moves into an old fixer-upper haunted by a Hessian ghost, and a sister and brother, John and Lisa, who solve the mystery of how to get rid of him. In her research Cuyler learned that the Hessians who were killed on the battlefield were separated from their horses. “I thought, ‘Ah, there’s my solution.’ At the end of the book all the ghosts come out of their tombs on the battlefield and reenact the battle. And George Washington shows up too. So the kids actually go to the battle and find the horse and reunite the horse with the soldier ghost. Problem solved. The research led me to the solution.”
“The Battlefield Ghost” went out of print in 2005. Now Cuyler, who owns the rights to the text but not the original illustrations, is reissuing the book with new illustrations by her sister, Juliana. It will be issued by createspace.com, which will design the book from Cuyler’s text and McIntyre’s illustrations, and will be sold as a hardcover and an E-book through Amazon and Cuyler’s website, www.margerycuyler.com. Cuyler is now writing her second ghost story, also for third graders, set during the Civil War. The new book takes place around the canals around Antietam. Meanwhile, the house on Edgehill Street remains number one on the charts for Princeton trick-or-treaters on Halloween.
#b#The Blue Ghost, 2805 Main Street, Lawrenceville#/b#
‘I was just about to go down the stairs, you know, great with child, and I thought, oh, and I sort of stopped, and what I saw was just a tall, big shape that I have to say was definitely a woman. It had a womanly shape, and a bluish aura, and she turned her head to look back at me. I had nothing but complete calmness about me, nothing spooky about it at all. And I thought, this is a very benign ghost. It was definitely a woman, and a very compassionate one, I thought. There was a connection, and then a slight turn of the head, and then she seemed to go round the bend, just where the crook in the stairs is, then she just seemed to disappear.”
The year was 1986 and Carolyn Slaughter, pregnant with her second son, had just moved to America from London, where she met and married her former husband, Kemp Battle, an American, while working at Doubleday (Battle now works in India and South Africa on community/leadership projects).
The 1860 Second Empire house, cream yellow with black shutters, sits at the corner of Cold Soil Road and Route 206. “The wide pumpkin pine boards creak all year round, and the radiators clank and steam all winter, making excellent racks to warm a nightgown or a line of socks,” wrote Slaughter in the guidebook to the 2009 Lawrenceville Main Street House Tour. She calls the house, which has three squarely stacked floors, “a wedding cake” and “my sanctuary.”
But when she first moved in, it didn’t feel like a sanctuary at all. Former owners had broken up the rooms into lots of little rooms (which they eventually restored to the original floor plan) and the place was a mess. Slaughter had a two-year-old at the time, and she was very pregnant. Sitting in an armchair by the inviting fireplace in the kitchen, Slaughter, dressed in a black sweater, black slacks, and very smart Sergio Rossi crimson suede pumps, recalls in a British accent that seems to naturally carry all the right punctuation, “I was feeling adrift and not very happy, rather melancholy, and not knowing how I was going to settle in America.”
When she saw the ghost, that first time on the stairs, next to a photographic portrait of Virginia Woolf from the National Gallery in London, Slaughter says, “I actually felt quite comforted. I believe that ghosts are just part of the spirit, just energy. I felt that there was a kindness about her. So I decided to give her a life, and decided that she was probably a nurse here when this was the infirmary for the Lawrenceville School. Sick little boys would have been brought here and quarantined here, which may account for the extra staircases. I thought maybe she looked after the boys. Very benign, not in any way scary at all.
“Then I realized that this house always had a lot of boys in it, a lot of kids in it. I raised my (four) kids here. The house was always stuffed with kids, and my son Joe had a lot of friends who spent days in this house. I think (the ghost) is just an over-responsible person, and she has to keep looking after people, especially boys. She just comes around when she thinks something’s up.”
While none of her children ever saw the ghost, one of Joe’s friends did. “He was the most beautiful lacrosse player, but he had quite a temper; he had quite some anger issues,” says Slaughter, a novelist and a psychotherapist with a private practice in her house.
“There was a time when he was in the midst of one of those (periods of anger), and during that time he saw the ghost. He was by himself, and he said he wasn’t freaked out by it, he just said it was scary to him to see her. She seems to come when people are in trouble emotionally. I feel she was a very kind, loving woman and that she was drawn here at times when either somebody was sad like me or some child was enraged — or when a plumber was angry underneath.”
The plumber she is referring to came 10 years ago to redo the pipes in a third floor bathroom that was being remodeled. “This plumber was a big guy, and I had spent some time talking to him so I knew something of his history — I’m a shrink so I always ask questions — and it was kind of a sad story. There was a lot of anger in him and it had reached a kind of point where he had almost become sort of criminal. Both his parents had been killed in a car crash — and I think that was the affecting thing. Later, he came downstairs and he said, ‘I saw something up there, and I’m leaving, and I’m really not coming back.’ He had a lot of anger, so I think the ghost was very spooky to him. He left his tools. He never came back. So that was a very dramatic kind of story.”
Slaughter says she believes ghosts exist and that “they’re just the spirits of people who’ve died. I don’t think they’re necessarily hanging around; I think they come and go. I don’t think they’re marooned on earth. They’re just energy; they’re light force.” That energy may explain why one night, at two o’clock in the morning, Slaughter woke up to the strains of Chopin playing on the stereo.
“I came downstairs, and I remember thinking, nobody switched that on. I thought it was electricity, and I thought, it feels as if she’s been here, and she put on the music for some reason. To me it made sense; it’s electricity, it’s energy, so that was strange. I had a feeling that she was lurking around but I didn’t see her. The CD was probably in (the stereo) and she — her energy — just started it. That’s what energy and electricity do, they just kind of get things moving. There are lots of stories about people who see ghosts after somebody’s just died that involve the switching on or off of lights. It’s electricity and energy, and so it has a kind of logic to it.”
Slaughter was born in India to British parents; her father was a member of the Indian Imperial Police. It was the eve of the Partition in 1947, says Slaughter, “the rupture created by the British as a solution to Hindu/Muslim conflict and a way of bringing independence to India after over 100 years of British occupation.”
The Brits all left, and her family came back to England, then turned around and went to Africa. They lived in the region that is now Botswana, where her father was a district commissioner. “He had a lot of power in all the little British communities that were dotted around the Kalahari Desert. It was a British protectorate until 1961, and that was when we left.”
When the family returned to England, Slaughter, then in her teens, says she found it a very difficult transition. She started working as a copywriter in an ad agency and started writing novels. She has written a memoir and 12 novels, many of them set in the Colonial and post-Colonial era. “The themes of Colonialism and its legacy are very much a part of my writing about India and Africa,” she says. One of her novels, “Dresden, Tennessee” (Faber and Faber, 2007), deals with the bombing of Dresden during the war. “I’m quite interested in how trauma affects people, and that feeds very much into my work as a therapist. So in this house I do both those things.”
She earned her bachelors degree in psychology while raising her children, online through Thomas Edison College in the late ’90s, followed by an MSW from Rutgers in 2000 and a post-graduate degree from the New York School of Psychoanalysis.
Prior to seeing the Blue Ghost, as she affectionately calls the spirit, Slaughter says she had “never had a direct encounter with a ghost before, but I was always very fascinated by ghosts and aware of the presence of the dead — very Irish! — as if they are just the other side of the glass.”
She is happy to share the house with this visitor from beyond. “Ghosts elicit two different emotions: extreme fear and a kind of fascination. It’s just beyond our realm, and so we’re interested in it. She is just energy, a field and a force of energy, but in no way bad.”
#b#The Colonel, 974 Mercer Road#/b#
‘I think I have a house that likes to tell stories,” says Marcia Willsie of her pre-Revolution era home, built between 1690 and 1710, nestled next to Stony Brook on Mercer Road. One of the former owners of the house, a Colonel David McDaniel, apparently bought the property in 1872 from what was then Princeton College (now Princeton University). He arrived in Princeton with a lot of money — he owned numerous thoroughbred racehorses, including one that won the Belmont Stakes — and quickly acquired a reputation as a serious gambler and reckless womanizer. With plenty of lawsuits against him, he eventually left Princeton in financial ruin for Charleston, South Carolina.
But it seems his spirit decided to stick around. The Willsies came here from Seattle three years ago; Willsie’s husband, Bruce, a Princeton graduate, owns a political data processing company called Labels and Lists, based in Seattle. While making arrangements to move they first rented the house to a family who was building a house next door. “They were both awakened by a noise and saw a blue light going down the hall,” says Willsie. “Bruce and I have seen a shadow do that a few times, and some of our guests have seen a blue light.”
Willsie, a trained chef, opened a cooking operation out of her home called Ezekiel’s Table last year. Small parties or groups of people receive hands-on instruction from Willsie while cooking a menu tailored to their culinary interests, and then they get to eat their meal in the perfectly appointed Colonial-style dining room. (Ezekiel’s Table closed temporarily and will reopen in early 2011.)
During one party, with a group of students from the Princeton Friends School, one of the girls, aged 15, said to Willsie, “There is a man here, he’s a . . . a . . . soldier! Like a colonel!” Willsie jumped and asked, “Is he a nice guy or a mean one?” And the girl replied, “He’s stern.”
There are two rooms on the third floor, which used to be connected by a nursery, now a bathroom. The shadow, says Willsie, goes from the nursery into one of the bedrooms. “I’ve seen it maybe three times.” She and her husband have both seen it together. And once, while sitting together watching TV in one of the bedrooms, a plate that was just sitting on a coffee table, jumped. “We both saw it,” says Willsie, who for the most part, is unperturbed by the ghost. “It becomes kind of ordinary, as if you have a mouse living in your house.”
She may be used to it now, but it took a few years to get to that point. “Our first night staying here — sleeping on an air mattress on the floor — I was awakened by loud boot steps near my head, then Bruce’s computer turned itself on, as though someone had touched the sleeper switch.”
Colonel McDaniel isn’t the only one hanging around. “A guest came to dinner once and told me that two little girls were running around the house. She described them in detail, including their ringlets and dresses. I felt sad to think of two dead little girls, but told our next door neighbor of this (the aforementioned tenants, who had two little girls). They said that sounded a lot like their two daughter, dresses and all. A few months later I had a party that included all the parties involved. And the woman who saw the ghosts came up to my neighbors with their girls and said, “I’ve seen you before!”
And whether it’s Colonel McDaniel or the two little girls, things do go thump in the night. “One night, about two years ago,” says Willsie, “maybe one in the morning, I was sleeping, heard thumping, and turned on the lights. It was like a thump on one wall, then one on the ceiling, all over the room. I was desperate to sleep but you just couldn’t sleep. I looked around. It was really in my room. Bruce was out of town so I called the neighbors, our former tenants, and said, ‘The house is thumping. Could I sleep at your house?’ And she padded next door, and admits to sheepishly returning home in the morning to a perfectly quiet house.
#b#Lord Ralston, 3301 Lawrenceville Road#/b#
If you don’t have a ghost in your house but want to try to see one you might run away from home for a night and stay at the Inn at Glencairn. The stone house, built in two parts, one in 1697, one in 1760, was a Hessian hospital during the Revolutionary War. According to inn owner Janet Pressel, a Hessian soldier named Lord Ralston stayed there and to borrow a Revolution-era term, “wenched a woman. He violated one of the local women and the townspeople came out and bayoneted him, right on the second floor. Some people say you can see the blood stain on the wood, despite the fact we’ve had the floors refinished. Legend has it that he’s buried back by the barn.” Innkeeper Bob Riggs learned from a historian that apparently Ralston’s ghost only shows himself to women.
As in Willsie’s house, there may be more than one spirit lurking around the inn. “We had one guest,” Pressel says, “who said she was sleeping and felt a definite presence, enough for her to wake up, and in the corner of the room she saw an image — a female, not threatening — but didn’t tell us this until a week after she was here via E-mail.”
Pressel says her housekeeper recently claimed he has seen a female nurse, dressed in Revolutionary nursing garb, in the great room, twice during broad daylight.”
When you’ve got a reputation for having a ghost, whether a cad or a nurse, word spreads fast. Earlier this year Washington Post writer Andrea Sachs spent the night at the inn. “I waited up for Lord Ralston,” she wrote in a January 31, 2010, story, “a resident of the Inn at Glencairn, but the British patriot with the Casanova streak was a no-show. Ghosts are so unreliable.” Pressel, who has never seen the ghost, says he — or she — is welcome at the inn. “It’s great for business. After the Post story came out, we were flooded with calls.”