Things That Go Bump in the Night Here in Our City and Beyond

History and Landscape
Published November 6, 1997

Things That Go Bump in the Night Here in Our City and Beyond

| Published November 6, 1997

Graves of Newark firefighters in a section of Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, 1990. The Newark Public Library

The recent passing of Halloween filled our heads with tales of the supernatural—horrifying, curious, and often unexplained tales—to the point where some of us may be suffering what amounts to a ghostly hangover.

Even now, otherwise amusing ghost stories are given a second nod, and we may still be making certain the basement door is locked before going up to bed. Not only are there accounts of unexplained happenings in Newark but New Jersey has its fair share, too. One of the oldest of these legends is associated with Lake Hopatcong. According to a local myth, a sea monster lived below the waters of that peaceful summer community long before the coming of the Europeans and even predates the famous Loch Ness Monster. The diary of Rev. Dr. B.C. Magie tells of the 'occasional appearance of a huge animal whose head somewhat resembled the had of a horse and the body of an elephant. This animal would make his appearance in the middle of the lake, with head high above the surface, and then sink beneath the water and after a while (it would) reappear on the shore.'

But the tale that overshadows all ghost stories relates to the Jersey Devil. So infamous was the character that it ranks with other American folk legends such as Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. The Jersey Devil, sometimes called the Leeds Devil, first appears in the state’s literature around 1735 and has been sighted as late as 1957 in the cranberry bogs of South Jersey. His, hers, or its lifespan has extended more than 220 years, and sightings have been reported by hundreds of people scattered throughout nine New Jersey counties and across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania as well. Its appearance has been reported in cycles, and often it is known to terrorize whole communities—a phenomenon that was never adequately investigated by contemporaries. The Devil supposedly was born in 1735 to a woman who reported that she would rather have a devil than a baby. And while her child probably was born badly malformed, stories soon spread that she had in fact given birth to a devil, which escaped into a nearby swamp to haunt New Jerseyans. Soon local legend reported that the Jersey was encased in the body of a kangaroo, with the head of a collie dog, the face of a horse, wings of a bat, cloven hoofs, and a long pointed tail. During the next two hundred and twenty years, he has been reported also in northern New Jersey appearing along the park ridge in the Oranges, at Bristol, Pa., and throughout the lonely cranberry bogs and piney woods of western New Jersey. Its power was immense – in fact, it was credited with souring milk, withering corn on the stalk, killing fish in swamps with its foul breath; moreover, it was reported to have frequently peered through windows of lonely farm houses and danced on their roofs.

Banner year for Devil

In 1909 it had a banner year, with Jersey Devil appearances reported in Burlington, Trenton, Philadelphia, and West Collingswood. In January it was seen by E.W. Minister dancing along the Delaware River and by Bristol policeman John Mcowen, at his bedroom window. Later that week it was recorded as appearing in Burlington and suburban Philadelphia, too. A Philadelphia professor at the School of Science thought the Jersey Devil was actually a Peleosaurus Cattelleva, a kind of prehistoric lizard of the Jurassic Period, cast into a cave and released by recent subterranean activity. Now while the Jersey Devil struck fear into its viewers, there were no accounts of it visiting death or destruction upon any of its viewers other than a heart attack or simple death by fright. As far as can be determined, no set of vicious teeth ever ripped a jugular open and drank blood as in the case of a vampire or other monsters, real or imagined. In fact, old Judge French of Trenton even showed a fondness verging on kindness to the demon. 'Every morning, it was said, the judge and the devil engaged in lively discussion of Republican politics while breakfasting together on South Jersey ham and eggs.' Well, some story, huh? By 1939 the legend about the Jersey Devil had become so popular that the WPA publication 'New Jersey, A Guide to Its Present and Past,' bestowed upon the little rascal the title of 'official state demon.' In 1957 a fire at the Clayberger and Goodrich cranberry bogs at Hampton Furnace unearthed the remains of a strange creature, half bird and half beast, thought somehow to be the remains of the Devil. The State Department of Conservation investigated and reported that it 'May have been the work of an amateur taxidermist bent on a hoax, or a desperate wife determined to have one less trophy on her husband's den at home at house cleaning time.' 'Whether legendary or true, the Jersey Devil certainly served a purpose as a conversation piece or for naming of a sports team. If it never appeared in reality, the stories caused a spurt in church attendance and a decline in alcoholic beverages that lasted for months. . .'

West Orange ghost

Closer to home in West Orange, there was a report of a spirit accompanied by occasional groans and rustlings from the old town hall. 'It wails and cries, and runs around on pattering feet' was the only account of the West Orange ghost. In 1937 when the old building was to be demolished for a modern gas station, the town policemen were worried that their friendly ghost would have no place to haunt.

Newark apparitions

Although Newark's apparitions are not as well-known as the accounts of the Jersey Devil, there have been reports of ghostly figures throughout the city's history from Revolutionary War times to the present day, and they were certainly terrifying to those who witnessed them. The earliest event occurred in the 1770s when an alleged British spy was apprehended in the vicinity of the present Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, found guilty, and executed. 'His ghost was for long time a sad handicap to the neighborhood and, singular as it may seem, he is said to have played his wildest pranks with those who placed the greatest faith in him.' As Mt. Pleasant Cemetery grew, reference to him gradually diminished, for it was thought that the company of so many respectable spirits nearby resulted in the spy's decline. In the 1840s, Moll DeGrow lived on property now included in Mt. Pleasant, and generally was thought to be a witch. She lived on Gully Road, today Herbert Place, and great powers were attributed to her to the point that parents warned children that if they weren't mindful or respectful, Old Moll DeGrow would 'get them.' Her so-called ability to control evil resulted in cries to have her burned at the stake and only her sudden death averted the tragedy. This account was passed down to us by Mrs. Henry Davis of Woodside whose mother recounted it to her as a child.

The unusual activities of William Herbert (Frank Forester), Newark's famous 19th century hunting and fishing author contributed to the increasing mystery of Woodside. It was here that 'The Cedars,' Forester's home was located and here too, where all those strange stories of Newark ghosts were supposed to have originated. Forester's second wife was unhappy with her unconventional husband, the uncompleted home to which he brought her, and the constant accounts of ghosts, witches, and even the devil who supposedly visited the location. She left him, and with her apparently went all of the author's chance for happiness. Herbert seems to have turned to constant bickering with associates, and duels. After a 13-year residency in Newark, and after the loss of most of his New York friends, he called the few companions he had left to a party at a New York City hotel where he planned to end his own life. His associates, fearing the increasingly dire turn of the evening, kicked over the table bearing several weapons, and beat a hasty retreat. His death and later the burning of the Cedars all added to the growing legend of ghostly folklore. At 51, Herbert returned to Newark for a final time, to a grave in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery where a simple tomb stone bears the inscription 'Infelicissium' — Latin for 'most unhappy.'

Ghost of Annie Crest

The ghost of Annie Crest first appeared in 1857 after her suicide in the old Morris Canal. Born aboard a canal barge, she grew up a faithful daughter of Tom Crest, taking care of him until she was 18. Then she met Abner Lovelace, a handsome youth swimming naked in the Canal near Bloomfield, and after a brief courtship, he asked for her hand in marriage. Annie's father, fearful of the loss of his daughter, companion and homemaker, hired a youthful gang to 'rough Abner up' but an accident resulted in the young man's death. The trauma of Abner's death was followed by Annie's suicide when she jumped into the canal and died without a word. The canal is gone now. A boulevard stands there (Raymond Boulevard) but they say that Annie still comes back to die anew, each year. 'And when the moon is full around and high in the bright heavens and a man has the clear eye of innocence he can still see the spectral maiden and her phantom barge move over the dark waters and see her die her painless death.'

On Gully Road

Certainly the most famous apparition to visit Newark was the Devil himself, according to an account of John Thompson, a shipmate of Captain David Nicholas, a man who believed that he had in fact met Satan on a dark and stormy night along the Passaic River in 1868. Thompson was a river man and sailed under Captain Nicholas, a profane, ill-mannered, foul-mouthed seaman whose schooner was laid up for repairs at Newark. Since both men lived upriver in Belleville, the only way to get home was to walk that evening. As they traveled along the river near Gully Road, the captain in the lead, Thompson suddenly realized that another person, dressed as a country parson, was walking between them. With the first flash of lightning, the ship's mate noted too that the pouring rain was not falling on the stranger, and after a second flicker of lightning, he saw to his added horror that the stranger's eyes were flashing red and that smoke was curling forth from every orifice of the stranger's face. At this point Captain Nicholas turned to see what was going on, and he was struck with amazement as both men saw the stranger's hands and feet began turning into hoofs. Needless to say both rivermen 'broke and ran for Belleville as fast as two pairs of scared legs could carry them, while the Devil laughed long and loud at their dismay.' Sounds silly doesn't it? But scores of Newarkers refused to walk the Gully Road for many decades especially on a dark and lonely night when the lightning was flashing and the wind roaring.

Ghostly appearances and stories of the dead continue even into the present century. Still, the tall tales of Gully Road did little to keep it from becoming a modern-day lovers lane. Soon a modern false ghost was preying on lovers until Newark policeman Tom Adubato, uncle of Steve Adubato of the North Ward, was discovered and his pranks ended. Also in this century is the legend of the White Lady Ghost, when a young girl on the way to her wedding was killed in a carriage accident. For years the story of a regular haunting of the White Lady Tree in Branch Brook Park was told and retold. Al Clark of Cablevision tells of a near miss he experienced in the 80s when his cousin Tommy Boutsikaris of Ridge Street bragged that he could take the curve near the famous toll in his sports car at 40 miles an hour and live to tell the story. Well, they lived all right, and this enabled Tommy to explain the story to an officer who then ticketed him. Since those days the park road has been relocated and the White Lady Tree has lost the white graffiti drawing that appeared on its stripped bark but the legend remains and who knows what really happens to all of these nearly forgotten sites once the moon rises over a darkened city!