Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ghost Hunting in the East Village

A large urban area, particularly its oldest sections, ought to have no shortage of ghosts, at least if you believe in them. We’ll put our cards on the table and reveal that none of the crew here have ever seen one: at least that’s the consensus, even after a Halloween eve trip to the Merchant’s House Museum at 29 E 4th St., reputedly Manhattan’s most haunted house. Ostensibly, one way to encourage the appearance of spectral images is to place two mirrors facing each other (the basic principle of Dr. Raymond Moody’s famous psychomantium). In the upstairs bedroom of the three-story 1832 brick Federal house where nonagenarian Gertrude Tredwell died in 1933 (and supposedly continues to reside), there are in fact two mirrors facing each other across the room. One was in desperate need of a dusting – or was it? Are the staff here more savvy about their ghostbusting than they let on? An attempt by one of our crew to squat down out of range and watch the surface of the clean mirror revealed a nebulous, shapeless blob of whitish grey that could have been…well, you figure it out. Ectoplasm, dust, or just bad eyesight? Maybe that’s why this guy’s experiences of the paranormal have been audio and tactile but never visual.

And if you don’t believe in ghosts, the museum is still marvelous. A current exhibit focuses on postmortem photography common in the late 1800s, including a rather sad collection of wallet-size deathbed and casket shots, most of them children. In the days before the invention of the Kodak box camera, this was a popular phenomenon in upper class America: funeral photos were keepsakes, and frequently the only portraits ever made of many of those unfortunate kids.

The rest of the house is stunning in its lowlit authenticity, complete with its owners’ 19th century furnishings. In the downstairs kitchen, where the Tredwell family’s four Irish servants cooked on the big iron stove, there’s the pie safe (a big breadbox on stilts, typically set in pails of water to keep the bugs from getting into the pastries inside). Outside in the garden, you’ll find evidence of the 4000 gallon cistern – a source of water for washing and cleaning but not for drinking, considering that the rainwater flowed down from the eaves overhead. The first-floor parlor with its chandeliers, high ceilings, pristine 1820 pink silk sofa and vintage 1840 piano, reminds that grubbing for status has been with us since the dawn of humankind (from the looks of it, the Tredwells do not appear to have been the deepest people in the neighborhood). The upstairs bedrooms, also complete with ornate, highly sought-after period furnishings, include both the room where patriarch Seabury Tredwell (1780-1865) died, as well as the actual bed where his daughter Gertrude left this world. Her mirror (the one covered with dust) hangs past it along the north wall. Sadly, the part of the house that probably tells the most tales – the servants’ quarters – is not open to the public. But the rest is a treat, as vivid a look at 19th century daily life in Manhattan as you’ll ever see. The museum is open Thursday-Monday, noon to 5 PM. Admission is a very reasonable $10.

October 31, 2010 - Posted by | Culture, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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