Ghosts of New Jersey's Stephen Crane House Oct 6, 2014 23:30:12 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Oct 6, 2014 23:30:12 GMT -5
Ghosts of New Jersey's Stephen Crane House
ASBURY PARK, N.J. – It has been cited in volumes of local ghostly lore, “investigated” by professional hunters of the paranormal, and even featured on an episode of TV’s popular Ghost Hunters series. For more than 130 years, it has stood, perhaps longer than any other home in the city of Asbury Park ... a place of ideas, life, art, despair, squalor, madness, good times and complimentary refreshments.
While the historic Stephen Crane House (above) has never officially owned up to the whispered rumors of its “haunted” reputation, the circa 1878 dwelling has been known to get into the spirit of things every now and then – to the extent that many local youngsters, and even some adults, remain wary of entering the place. And, since the summer of 2011, this I, (along with his wife and cat) have been among the countless characters who have called its creaking nooks and crannies home. To repeat: we live in a secret apartment inside a haunted house.
Located a couple long blocks from the iconic Madame Marie’s boardwalk fortune-telling booth – just up 4th Avenue from the legendary Asbury Lanes, and catacorner to the Little Eden headquarters of the ever-popular ska-punk band The Bouncing Souls – the house, originally known as Arbutus Cottage, was, for several years at the end of the 19th century, the official residence of young Stephen Crane. Crane was an internationally-known writer of fiction, poet and journalist who would later pen the classic Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. As the youngest child of Mary Helen Peck Crane – author, lecturer and president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union – “Stevie” would compose his first stories in the house and begin his career as a professional writer by covering the busy Asbury Park summer scene for his older brother Townley’s news service.
Crane’s mother was the third owner of the cottage, a relatively modest home named for the arbutus (mayflower) ground cover that once took hold on the lawn – and a residence constructed just seven years after the founding of Asbury Park, on a lot purchased from city father James Bradley himself. Bradley, whose vision of the seaside city as a wholesome retreat for the pious was forever at odds with the town’s quick evolution into a place of hotels, honky-tonks and beachy pursuits, would stipulate upon sale of the property that the premises not feature, among other things, “a hog pen, public laundry, livery stable, slaughterhouse, butcher shop, fish market, public gas works, toboggan chute, merry-go-round, skating rink or other dangerous, noxious, unwholesome or offensive establishment.”
Taking after his mother and Aunt Agnes – both of whom tried their hand at folksy examples of short-form fiction for newspapers and magazines – young Stevie was beginning to find his voice as a writer. As a born storyteller with the instincts of a news reporter, Crane was a collector of regional folklore, an attentive listener to tales told in taverns and around campfires – and, as evidenced in pieces such as “Ghosts on the Jersey Shore” and “The Ghostly Sphinx of Metedeconk,” a preserver of eerie heritage who predated Weird NJ by almost a century.
Crane’s early collection Sullivan County Sketches used offbeat folktales of upstate New York as the basis for such selections as “The Octopush” and “A Ghoul’s Accountant,” and the adventurer, who traveled with a volume of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, invested some of his best known stories, “The Monster” and “The Upturned Face,” with a feeling of the horrific intrusion upon the fragile pageant of life, an affinity for our shared fear and revulsion of grievous injury, illness and otherness – a sense that death was forever lurking just out of frame.
Portraits of young Stephen, his parents, Agnes and other significant family members adorn the walls of the Crane House front parlor; the tight-lipped Victorian-era faces gazing sternly upon visitors to the house, allegedly registering their occasional disapproval with the drop of a fireplace poker or crash of a framed picture. One can only speculate as to their thoughts on sharing wall space with Stephen’s common-law wife Cora Crane, a former brothel owner who was with the author when he died in Germany June 5, 1900 – broke but famous, and friendly with many of the leading literary geniuses of the day.
India ink may have coursed like sap through the Crane family tree, but it was Stevie, of course, who was the relative bad apple – a savvy observer whose newspaper work in and around Asbury Park was beginning to put him in contact with people like boxing champ Gentleman Jim Corbett and the influential novelist Hamlin Garland (a mentor whom he described as being “like a nice Jesus Christ”). He had also made the acquaintance of a number of big-city editors and publishers, to whom he would show early drafts of what would become his first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets – a hard-hitting work drawn from his walk-on-the-wild-side knowledge of New York City’s Bowery and its denizens.
Meanwhile, back at the Crane cottage – newly expanded by Mary, Crane’s sister Nellie would establish the city’s first art school within the walls of 508 4th Street. In the meantime, his brother Luther would spend a harrowing interlude detoxing from a laudanum dependency in the upstairs bedroom that later would become one of the most haunted corners of the old house.
Matriarch Mary Crane died 189 and the following summer, Stephen sealed his fate as an Asbury Park beat reporter with the publication of an innocuous, but controversial, news item headlined “Parades and Entertainments” in the New York Times. A snidely opinionated account of a parade by the then-influential Junior Order of United American Mechanics, the story managed to insult both the working and upper classes, tourists and townies alike with such gems as:
“The bona fide Asbury Parker ... a man to whom a dollar, when held close to his eye, often shuts out any impression he may have that other people possess rights.”
It also caused what could be considered a media sensation – “raising hob all over the country” and was even blamed for costing the Republicans the White House that year – Tribune publisher Whitelaw Reid was the vice presidential candidate on the GOP ticket. Although he had continued to use Asbury Park as a setting for later stories such as “The Pace of Youth,” Crane would never reside in the city again, selling his share of the house, which would remain in the Crane family until 1899 – to finance the publication of Maggie.
During the following decades, the Arbutus Cottage was enlarged again with a circa 1900 “new” wing and renamed The Hotel Florence, one of many small seasonal inns in and around Asbury Park. The original Florence sign can still be seen above the front door, inside the front foyer and a small utility closet just beyond the front parlor is what remains of the hotel’s communal phone booth.
Like so many other historic private homes and public spaces in Asbury Park, the old cottage had fallen upon hard times in the 1980s and 90s and before it was abandoned and boarded up, the house was occupied by a lone member of the family who owned the Florence, a woman who claimed to have been visited by spirits and allegedly went mad in the dilapidated, crumbling old edifice. The woman covered every available inch of wall space with angry writings and phone numbers of politicians – a portion of which has been preserved in the small second-floor dining room, which made a natural setting for the daughter of Madame Marie to perform special guest palm readings during a haunted house-themed fundraiser the Crane House hosted for the American Cancer Society.
Arbutus Cottage had become the province of squatters and was slated for a date with the wrecking ball when New Jersey Natural Gas executive Tom Hayes got wind of its historical significance in the early 1990s. Purchasing the property, which included a disintegrating carriage house in the rear, for $7,500 – just $500 more than Mary Crane paid for it in 1883 – the Hayes family worked with city historian Werner Baumgartner and a corps of community volunteers to bring the house back to life and in 1996, the venerable home was officially re-Christened “The Stephen Crane House.”
Hayes and current owner Frank D’Alessandro, who eventually bought the property in 2001, maintained the house as a place of historic displays dedicated to the Cranes, the Civil War era and 19th century household life in general – furnishing the public display rooms with donated items such as a massive iron coal-burning stove, an antique harmonium (from the Beethoven Company of Paterson, N.J.), pedal-powered sewing machine, dozens of antique books (including some Crane first editions) and an ancient wooden ironing board that was discovered in the nether recesses of the structure’s cellar. The Crane House also serves as a venue for arts and literary events as well as for the regular meetings of the Asbury Park Historical Society, writers’ workshops and more.
With seating for around 40 people, the downstairs Lecture Room is the heart of the modern-day Crane House and serves as a popular location for plays, poetry readings, house-party concerts, rehearsals and literary-themed film screenings (e.g., an annual tribute to Edgar Allan Poe). It is here that playwright Midge Guerrera premiered her original piece “The Crane Chronicles,” wherein spoken word artist Rock Wilk debuted an early version of his off-Broadway solo show Broke Wide Open, in which audiences were entertained by a one-woman Jane Eyre and Fringe Theater specialist Marj Conn’s sensational tribute to Lizzie Borden. Bruce Springsteen donated funds for some necessary structural repairs and warm-body guests have included authors Wallace Stroby and Mark Vogerm who paid homage to Boris Karloff as part of the Crane House Movie Club series, and triple Emmy winner Bryan Cranston.
But when the stage is empty and the room is cold and dark, more than one reputable person has attested to hearing an odd disembodied voice saying “Hello,” and in her book Asbury Park’s Ghosts and Legends, Kathy Kelly describes some fascinating phenomena experienced during a nocturnal ghost hunt.
The first floor boasts a Movie Library featuring thousands of classic film titles on disc and tape, and the second-floor Crane House Library is a repository for a collection of works by and about Crane and his contemporaries, including volumes from as far back as 1818. The library on the second floor is also allegedly one of the most haunted rooms in the building and it is in this little room with walls of blood-red, that Luther Crane endured the symptoms of his long and maddening withdrawal. At least one former tenant of the house claimed to have been spooked out of the house by the nocturnal visitations of a man in Victorian-era dress. While this space has been pleasingly renovated in recent months, some have labeled it a focal point of negative energy and a casual aim of the camera before the area was redecorated revealed a rather disconcerting face-on-the-wall effect.
The third story of the house, currently unfinished and uninsulated attic storage space was once occupied during the time the building served as a hotel, and rumors have long circulated of deaths having taken place in this space. One of the most often-told stories of the Crane House is of a ghostly woman who has been seen gazing from the third-floor window of the tower. Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes of SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters recorded what they claimed was a bit of disembodied singing in this location during their 2010 investigation.
As the Crane’s current “writer in residence” and renter of the house’s “secret” apartment, I am guilty of enhancing the Halloween vibe via the strategic placing of spooky masks and mannequins in these lonely upper windows. Nevertheless, there is the matter of that mysterious old locked door in the attic, an ancient-looking access to a forgotten storage space about which no one seems to have any details, and which any self-respecting horror fan would simply leave be for fear of unleashing a particularly high-maintenance Lovecraftian horror.
Mr. D’Alessandro has also completely renovated the former carriage house into a fully updated residential cottage, albeit one with its own history of peculiar presences. Stories abound of workmen threatened by mysterious falling objects and a psychically-sensitive visitor to the once-dilapidated structure reported the presence of a disagreeable entity that brandished a phantom gun.
My wife and I had both attended numerous public events at the Crane House before the prospect ever arose of our moving in but, although we weren’t exactly strangers to the premises, there was a brief “getting acquainted” period during which certain doors of the admittedly drafty and “settling” old place would spontaneously swing open or shut, or lock and unlock themselves. Plaques and pictures have gone bump in the night, chairs have been heard scraping across floors of unoccupied rooms, and our cat has been intrigued by an antique closet door that sometimes creaks open when she stops and stares at it.
We like to think, however, that any permanent residents of the Crane House recognize our good intentions as champions and caretakers of its legacy. In the short time we’ve resided here, the house has survived superstorm Sandy, Tropical Storm Irene, an earthquake and an infinitely more destructive squirrel invasion, and an effort is now underway to have The Stephen Crane House officially listed as a national historic site.
The Asbury Park Historical Society plans to purchase the Crane House from D’Alessandro for $1 and renovate it and a group is raising funds to preserve the historic structure. Contributions can be made via check or money order made payable to the Asbury Park Historical Society (with “Stephen Crane House” on the memo line), Post Office Box 543, Asbury Park, NJ 07712.
Donations also can be made through PayPal at the historical society’s website: www.APHistoricalSociety.org.
Source: Tom Chesek, Asbury Park Press, October 4, 2014.