‘There seem to be certain well-defined roots existing in all countries, from which spring the current legends of the supernatural; and therefore for the germs of the stories in this book the author claims no originality.”
So wrote Ralph Adams Cram in his 1895 book “Black Spirits & White: A Book of Ghost Stories.”
More famous as an architect of the Princeton University Chapel and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Cram was fascinated with spiritual matters and believed his stories had universal appeal, differing “only in local color and individual treatment.”
The same is true in the following collection of ghostly stories from around the Princeton region and befitting a season that celebrates the change from light and life to darkness and mystery.
And while the stories are found in traditional ways — books and newspaper articles — they also appear on various websites where people often tell their tales and hope others can explain what was happening or tell their own experience with the same ghost.
So let’s take a tour of ghost stories around the region.
We’ll start in Princeton. Although there are several recurring stories of haunting here — Princeton Cemetery and ghosts reported at both McCarter and Murray Dodge theaters — a recent account posted by “Martin” on the website Haunted America recounts a strange sighting at a very common Princeton location and demonstrates how local ghost stories are being circulated in the digital age:
In late August of this year (2013) two of my friends and I were walking back from Hoagie Haven. It was around 10:30 at night, and it was fairly quiet. We were walking down Chestnut Street and were just about at the speed limit sign around 85 feet from the intersection of Hamilton Avenue. Then one of my friends (I will call him J and the other B) and myself both said “whoa!’’ at the same time. I had seen a tall, thin, and admittedly handsome young woman (17-23) with very short hair, running with impressive speed across the intersection.
She was wearing a sundress slightly flared under the waist. It was a light color. Though I cannot say exactly what color it was as the orange light of the streetlights was tinting everything. When she ran there was no audible sound from her footfalls which was especially strange as it looked like she was wearing flip-flops. She ran with considerable grace. She seemed to be running for the sake of running. She seemed positively serene. Her sundress seemed to be floating around her legs.
J and I exchanged our observations which more or less matched. B was quiet for a moment. We asked him what was wrong, and I noticed he was white as a sheet. He said that he had been watching the intersection the whole time and had only seen a blur of motion near the ground, which looked oddly like a running leg. We have not had any other experiences with her, but I hope we run into her again. She was rather an inspiring sight. Of course, when we got to the intersection there was no sign of her.
Moving from Princeton to Pennington, we’ll also move in time to circa 1900 when the Trenton Sunday Advertiser featured a front page story “Ghosts Around Town.” Here poet and essayist Anton Niedermaier shares “some interesting stories of strange occurrences that have come to his knowledge.”
For the Pennington tale, Niedermaier writes:
An elderly lady friend of mine who was well known as a truly good and strictly honest and upright woman, courageous and not given to superstition, related to me the following some years before she passed from this vale of tears:
In the earlier part of her married life she lived near Pennington, in a house standing all alone near the main road.
The lady had heard rumors about the house being haunted, but she was brave and believed not in the existence of ghosts or haunted houses. Yet though she said she was never afraid, she soon learned that the term “haunted” was in this instance well deserved.
In the day time she would often hear noises, as though someone were going up or down stairs, while she would be unable to see anybody or anything that might have caused the sound. Sometimes she would hear a crash as though someone had seized a table and struck it top downward upon the floor, yet nothing would be disturbed, and the source of the noise was never seen or found.
At night the covers would frequently be pulled off her three children so that they would accuse one another of pulling them off. At the request of her children the lady would replace the cover or covers so pulled off, yet often they were again and again disturbed. This lasted with some intermissions and slight variation as long as the family occupied the house — one or two years. The supposition was that a peddler had been killed there some time before.
Another story by Niedermaier is set between Pennington and Princeton where “a Mr. Polhamous did and perhaps does yet live on a farm about one and half miles from Mount Rose.”
There was also with Mr. Polhamous at one time a young lad about 13 or 14 years old. After the young man had been there about five or six months, harvesting being over, Mr. P started to remodel and improve his dwelling, for which reasons he tore down a part of it, in consequence of which the young man was assigned another room for his bed room.
The young man thinking of nothing and fearing nothing went to bed as usual but he awoke at about 12 o’clock and felt that somebody or something was pulling at his bed cover. Yet he could not see anybody or anything as the pulling was at the lower end. The boy seized hold of the upper end of the cover with both hands and thus pulled it up to his chin, but he had to use considerable force to keep it there for the power at the other end seemed to pull with strength equal to his. But soon the mysterious somebody or force ceased to pull and the window rattled as though shook by force, although the night was calm and almost as light as day.
Soon all was quiet again and instantly the pulling at the bed cover was renewed. Thus it went for some time, possibly an hour — a quiet tug at the bed cover, then all of a sudden a rattling of the window and vice-versa.
There was no more sleep for the young man that night.
Next morning he related the experience of the night to Mr. P and family, but Mr. P was not the least inclined to believe the tale of the young man, but burst into a roar of laughter and told him that he must have been dreaming or must have had a nightmare.
Mr. P firmly believed that such things could not be real, and he laughed at and ridiculed the young man that day that day wherever and whenever he saw him.
On the other hand, the young man had resolved not to sleep alone again in that room, for his experience of the night had been too real for him to think lightly of it, and when it was about time to retire for the night he told Mr. P of his determination not to sleep again in the same room, but said he would go there if Mr. P would go and sleep with him, offering at the same time to stake his month’s wages against $5 of Mr. P’s if he (Mr. P) would not have the same experience as he himself had the previous night.
Mr. P was perfectly willing to accept the proposed challenge, for he hoped to prove to the young man the folly of his assertions.
So both went to bed, but not to sleep. They had fully assured themselves that nobody besides themselves was in the room, which has but one door and one window, an open fireplace, and a chair or two as furniture.
Having locked the door they retired, the young man taking the precaution to get on the side of the bed nearest the wall, which brought Mr. P. near the window.
At about 12 o’clock the manifestations of the previous night were repeated, and though Mr. P had been so certain that such things could not be, now shook like an aspen leaf and willingly paid his $5 to the young man next morning.
Those desiring to verify the statements here made or to learn more about the matter may see Mr. P — who I think still lives at the old place.
Another ghost tale from the region’s past comes from the 1954 “History of Hamilton Township.” Here author Helen Amy West records a story shared by word of mouth for nearly 200 years:
At the intersection of the Kuser Road with the White Horse Road leading from Mercerville, the north side was for many years heavily wooded. The Kuser Road has been known by the names of “Brickyard and Pond Run Road” and “Lloyd Road.” Benjamin Lloyd was an old-time owner of the Kuser Farm. The other name was from the brickyards on the Pearson Farm, farther east.
At this corner, during the War of the Revolution, a British officer was killed. According to tradition, he was supposed to have had a considerable amount of money with him, and was on his way from Philadelphia to the eastward. Being pursued he entered the woods on the northeast corner and, on emerging, was shot and killed. As no money was found on his body, it was claimed that he dug a hole with his word and buried the money in the woods. It is also believed that his slayers were highwaymen, not patriots.
After the Revolution, and during the first half of the 19th century, weird stories were rife concerning this piece of wood, and it was long claimed that the place was haunted — a figure that dissolved when approached and a headless man were seen by some persons. The woods were dug up many times in search of the money supposedly buried by the British officer. At this point the old Pearson and Abbot tracts joined and it was said there was land there that neither deed covered. Betsy Hunt, who was one of the last survivors of those who were old enough to remember the Revolutionary War, often spoke of this tragedy at the old corner and the “haunted woods.”
In the 1840s, Solomon Hunt, who then lived on a farm on Kuser Road, had a remarkable dream. He dreamed that someone had stolen a book from the Union Sunday School library and placed it this haunted woods. The dream was so vivid that Mr. Hunt went to the woods and was astounded to find the book at the place indicated in his dreams. He consulted the person who had charge of the books of that Sunday school and was informed that no book seemed to be missing, and the affair remained a mystery. The book which Mr. Hunt found in the woods was kept by the Hunt family for many years.
Ewing is the locale for ghost tales connected with a gruesome event at Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey.
As a student writing in 2011 in the college’s newspaper, the Signal, explains: “When I was still a prospective student, a junior at (TCNJ) told me Kendall Hall was haunted. Yes, there was a murder in Kendall Hall, but most of us have only been told a warped version of it. Allow me to set the record straight.
“Sigrid Stevenson was 25 years old when her body was found at approximately 11:30 p.m. on the main stage of Kendall Hall on Sunday, Sept. 4, 1977.”
The details told the story of a horrific action: the stage was “covered with blood spatters with an increasingly bloody trail leading to the piano. It was here that he discovered Stevenson’s nude body, wrists bound and on the stage floor, covered by the piano’s white canvas dust cover.”
The writer then focuses in on the lack of details that could solve the mystery of the murder. “In 1977 there was no DNA analysis, and the murder itself did not appear to have been the result of any common motive. The Mercer County medical examiner determined she had not been sexually assaulted, and her possessions had not been stolen. Using what they had, investigators questioned over 100 people and issued several dozen polygraph tests to students, staff, and even some members of campus police. Two weeks after the murder, state police divers combed Lake Ceva (on the college campus) for the murder weapon but found nothing. A Dec. 20, 1977 issue of The Signal revealed that stumped investigators had even sought the advice of University of Pennsylvania psychologists and ‘noted psychic’ Sidney Porcelian of nearby Princeton. Nevertheless, the murderer was never found and to this day remains unidentified.”
In 2016 the Asbury Park Press ran a story by Weird New Jersey editors and writers Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman. They reported that ever since the killing “strange occurrences have been reported surrounding Kendall Hall. One former student worker reported having seen a paper towel float from one side of a bathroom into a garbage can on the other side of the room. No windows were open and no air vents were in the vicinity. Other students have reported occasionally having felt someone behind them. Footsteps and doors closing for no reason have also been fodder for the paranormal experience.”
They also report a “local psychic, who preferred to remain unnamed, visited Sigrid’s former stomping grounds recently and came up with interesting results.”
That includes the impression that the victim knew the killer, a man in a uniform with “something on his pants, something like keys.”
Then they report the psychic saying “Sigrid is still hanging around because she has yet to forgive her killer, who may still be alive. ‘He didn’t appear to be old. Probably his late 20s or 30s. So he’d be in his 50s or 60s today. I think he has health problems and may have moved far away. She has not forgiven this person; she isn’t happy about how this case has gone at all. This man is not remorseful and thinks she got what she deserved.’”
In response to the article one poster noted the following personal account: “In the summer of 1999, I attended the NJ Governor’s School of the Arts, held at The College of NJ, formerly Trenton State College. The theater scholars apparently tried to hold a seance to resurrect the spirit of the murdered girl. Now, not having actually been with them, I don’t know if the following is true, but supposedly, when they turned on a radio they brought with them, they couldn’t get any reception and someone whispered over the static: ‘Get out!’
“To this day, some students are a little freaked out by the creepy history. I’ve heard some stories from students of strange things happening; heavy doors slamming shut when no one is near them, feelings of being followed, strange shadows and silhouettes, and feelings of cold spots and ‘pressured’ air in parts of the building and on the stage. I personally was freaked out by the spiral staircase on the back of the stage, and the women’s room in the newer part of the building on the first floor. The only strange thing I ever witnessed was a wadded up paper towel shooting out a full foot from the top of the trash can and then dropping to the floor after I had explained the story to a friend.”
And finally there is Trenton. Despite its long history and a richness of human stories and sagas, the capital city is not generally associated with ghost stories; although it has what some consider the state’s hottest hot spot for ghosts: the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. The reason? Dr. Henry Cotton.
As a reported in a New York Times article about the 2005 book on Cotton, “Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine,” the doctor, “who presided over Trenton Psychiatric Hospital from 1907 to 1930, was obsessed with what seems today an utterly bizarre theory of insanity — so obsessed that in applying it, he managed to kill hundreds of his patients and permanently maim thousands more.”
Furthermore, says the Times, “Many poor souls, it later emerged, had to be ‘dragged, resisting and screaming,’ into the operating theater. Informed consent did not, apparently, come into play.”
Although there is a growing number of newspaper articles and books about Cotton and TPH, there are also a good number of online postings about TPH haunting.
One is the website Ghostly Activities (www.ghostlyactivities.com). According the site’s Chicago-based co-founder and ghost investigator Jacob Rice, it is difficult to run a ghost hunt at the TPH. That’s because it is an active care center with security guards patrolling the grounds during the day and night.
However, he reports, “Most paranormal researchers have captured or glimpsed the following ghostly activities: Doctor Cotton’s apparition (by sight, not photographed); ghosts of patients with missing limbs (by sight, not photographed); disembodied voices, but no clear EVP; and orbs.”
Rice reports that only disembodied voices and orbs happen often, but investigators “need to be skeptical. The buildings are old and decaying. That creates a lot of dust and bugs fly by all the time. Ghost orbs should have a solid white, gray, light blue, green or pink color. If they are semi-transparent and seem to have texture, then they are pollen, dust, or a bug.”
Since it is an active center that contains houses some of New Jersey’s most criminally and violently insane, Rice says EVP evidence can be elusive and may pick up ambient sounds.
“Most ghost hunters have had subjective experiences on site,” writes Rice about TPH. “This includes cold spots, paranoia, uneasy feelings, and phantom touches.”
Where to look? Rice says, “It’s better to focus on the abandoned buildings on the site. If we had to pick, focus on the Forst Building, the lab, and buildings in the Women’s Ward. The lab is a no-brainer. This is where Cotton committed his evil malpractice and that trauma would imprint on the space. The Women’s Ward may also be a good spot because of the disproportionate number of women operated upon.”
With its legacy of evil practices, physical and spiritual pain, and reports of ghostly phenomena, it is no wonder the site gained New Jersey’s top spot in Cosmopolitan Magazine’s 2017 list of the each state’s most haunted spaces. “Victims can still be heard screaming in the halls,” the editor wrote about the site.
And they weren’t screaming about ghosts — just something factual, frightening, and truly haunting.