Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ghosts of Central Jersey: Historic Haunts of the Somerset Hills

What better way to spend a wintry day than listening to ghost stories in an old house. I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Gordon Thomas Ward this past January that was held in the Van Wickle House, a 18th century Dutch farmhouse. He is an excellent speaker, holding us spellbound with accounts of his investigations into hauntings in central New Jersey. Afterwards, he held a book signing. Being a collector of autographed books as well as wanting to know more about his investigations, I purchased his book.

I finally took the time to sit down and read his book this past week. It covers the same material as his lecture but goes into more detail about the historical background of each location he investigated. Too much more detail for my taste. Chapter 6 about the Prallsville Mills was a classic case of overkill. Reading it is like reading the begats in the Bible as he meticulously traces every owner of the property through three centuries. Twelve pages into the chapter, the last paragraph on the page starts out “This second period of operation at the Prallsville Mills property came to an abrupt end with the destruction of the stone gristmill by fire on the afternoon of August 21,1874.” Twelve pages, and we’re only up to 1874? How much longer until we get to the ghosts?

Perhaps he is writing for skeptics, trying to establish himself as a serious scholar in a legitimate field of study. He doesn’t have to convince me. I’m a believer. I used to live in a haunted house. The first few months after we moved in, we were awakened every night by the sounds of someone stomping down the stairs from the attic to the second floor, across the hall and then down the stairs to the first floor. That phenomenon subsided and the rest of our ten year residence was more playful. The ghost loved to hide things. Which was merely an annoyance unless I needed something urgently, like my car keys. After a few minutes of looking, I would ask the ghost to return them, wait a few more minutes and then look around the house again. They would always turn up in an odd place such as the top of the microwave or on a shelf in the bookcase, places I would never leave my car keys (metal and microwaves, yikes!).

Mr. Ward doesn’t just look for evidence supporting evidence of paranormal activity, he also actively debunks local legends such as the story of the phantom carriage. There is a vintage photo of the very same scene. So he questions if the legend was inspired by the photo.

Another debunking was not so much a debunking as an historical correction. Having been raised in upstate New York on Washington Irving’s Leatherstocking Tales, I was disappointed to learn that the legend of the Headless Horseman originated in the Great Swamp in New Jersey and not in the Hudson Valley.

If you enjoy a good ghost story and are curious how they are investigated, I recommend you attend one of Mr. Ward’s talks. If you prefer more in depth coverage of the historical background involved in paranormal phenomena, then definitely buy his book.

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