“PEOPLE tell us we’re one of New York’s best kept secrets”.
Perched high atop Coogan’s Bluff ridge on the tip of Manhattan, nestled between the Harlem River, lies New York’s oldest — and most haunted — house.
Serving as a bona fide time capsule of American history, the Morris-Jumel Mansion has seen it all; from a battleground during the American Revolution to military headquarters for George Washington and later, the setting for some of the 19th Century Colony’s most fashionable parties.
But most salaciously, Morris-Jumel Mansion is known for murder most foul. At least, that’s the legend.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Built in 1765, Manhattan’s only remaining Colonial residence was originally built as a summer villa by British Colonel Roger Morris and his American wife, Mary Philipse.
Yet their stay was short-lived, driven out by the American Revolution in 1775.
One year later, George Washington overtook the palatial building as army headquarters following his defeat in the Battle of Long Island.
It was here that he spent his days until his retreat from New York later that year.
He would eventually return in 1790 to throw an elaborate party that would host two future Presidents; John Adams, second president of the United States and his successor, Thomas Jefferson.
But it wasn’t until 1810 when the mansion turned into the macabre.
Purchased by wealthy French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his American-mistress-turned-wife, Eliza, the mansion transformed into one of the most exclusive and priciest properties in the city.
Friends of Napoleon, the couple mixed in high society back in France, and embellished the mansion to reflect their lifestyle, with extravagant furnishings from home including paintings gifted to them by the then Emperor. Remarkable artifacts can still be seen here today.
Yet resistance rose within the ranks, and New York’s high society weren’t particularly pleased with their new neighbors.
With a working class background, Eliza was shunned by the elite, and gossip about her sordid past soon spread like wildfire, including rumors she had worked as a child prostitute in her mother’s brothel.
The rumors reached their peak in 1832 when Stephen Jumel died under more-than-mysterious circumstances. Some claimed he died from pneumonia, others claimed he died in a carriage accident. But the official story reeks of suspicion.
“The official story is he fell on a pitchfork while doing errands, is brought back here, at sometime during the evening she 'helps' him clean the wounds, but the problem is taking the bandages off means that he bleeds out,” Carol Ward, Executive Director of Morris-Jumel Mansion, told news.com.au.
Ladies’ parlors in Manhattan lapped it up — did Eliza deliberately kill her husband? Did she watch him bleed to death? One psychic at the time claimed Eliza had buried Stephen alive.
“She does inherit everything so that leads to one version of the story,” Ms Ward said.
“Was it that she didn’t have any medical knowledge and she thought she was actually helping?
“She might have, she might not have.”
The story gets darker.
Now one of New York’s richest widows, Eliza remarries 8 months later to former Vice President Aaron Burr, a shady character and famed assassin of political rival Alexander Hamilton. He’s trying to steal her money.
“That’s an interesting marriage, it’s a complete marriage of convenience,” said Ward.
“He though is ill, he’s old, and he dies in a tavern downtown, so she’s not responsible for that death at all.”
But shunned from high society and falling quickly into the throes of dementia, Eliza was left to gradually decline in the halls of the mansion.
“She became a recluse, there’s some historical fiction stories I love that she was supposedly the inspiration for the Miss Havisham character in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens,” said Ward.
“She cuts one of her grandchildren out of the will and leaves it all to her granddaughter, which was very rare back then."
Stories abound of Eliza’s life as a widowed recluse, walking the hallways of her mansion in soiled clothing and unkempt hair, haunted by her past and the haunted souls of her former lovers.
“She was alone, the granddaughter moves out, she was here by herself and has all these weird dinner parties that no one came to. It’s crazy and interesting.”
She died alone in the mansion in 1865, 100 years after it was built, aged 90.
“She was just a really interesting woman that started life off really poor and through various social ways moved up and died one of the richest women in New York.”
But that wasn’t the last of Eliza.
From 1880, sightings of ghosts in the mansion have convinced believers in the paranormal that something seriously spooky is happening within its walls.
In 1960 a group of school kids said a “tall, grey-haired, elderly woman” stepped onto the porch of the mansion and “scolded the group into silence.”
“The woman the children described resembled Mme. Jumel,” read a newspaper report at the time.
“But the children couldn’t know that, or what she looked like”.
Others have claimed to have spotted an elderly woman in a violet dress,
In addition, apparitions of at least four other ghosts are said to live within the mansion, including Stephen Jumel’s ghost, the troubled figure of Aaron Burr, a serving girl and a British soldier from the Revolutionary War.
"I have not seen anything, but I definitely believe that she is still here,” said Ward.
“She [Eliza] lived here the longest so if anyone’s going to haunt the house, it’s definitely her.”
If only these walls could talk.