The question, fraught with suspicion, giddiness, doubt and fears, has been whispered by clustered schoolchildren, as well a not a few grownups, every fall since ... always. It is the one time of year when it’s acceptable to suspend reason to believe in the unbelievable.
Halloween, Samhain, All Saint’s Day — all celebrated at the end of summer, the Celtic New Year and the time when daylight and darkness begin their dreaded inversion. Many traditions believe this as the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest — hence the partying, parodying and parading of morbidity. Like many of the early settlers, the Hudson Valley’s Dutch ancestors were extremely superstitious, so the season yields a bumper crop of spooky stories and frightening folklore.
“Haunted Esopus Images, Lore and Superstitions,” the exhibit currently featured at the Klyne Esopus Museum through November, is filled with artifacts, photos and information about just such hauntings. The former 19th century Reformed Dutch church, 25 years older than the current Old Dutch Church in Kingston, has been buzzing with myths and stories dating back to when Henry Hudson sailed the seas.
Once such story is featured in the exhibit is the tale of how Port Ewen residents would often claim to see Hudson’s ship sailing on a windless day. Sightings of ghost ships were not uncommon for the era, but museum educator Carol Beam may have best surmised what was behind them when she opined, “Personally, I think that the people had been spending so much time waiting inside Jug’s Tavern, and waited a long time in a pub for the ship … ”
“The word, one day, was given … that a ship was coming up the bay… the arrival of a ship in those early times of the settlement was an event of no small importance …On [the ship] bore, steadily up the bay, and although repeatedly hailed, made no reply … sailing against wind and tide passed up the Hudson … months elapsed but she never returned … it might be Hendrick Hudson and his crew of the Half-Moon,” it is written in the 1868 tome Legends and Poetry of the Hudson.
Also on exhibit are several photos that by today’s standards are not for the faint-hearted, but were surprisingly considered kosher in the staid mid-19th century — “Post Mortem” photos. Due to the high rate of infant and early childhood mortality back then, photos of the dearly departed were popular in the late 1800s, especially those of babies and children.
Ouija boards, vintage books filled with accounts of otherworld spirits, tarot cards, children’s stories gypsy cards and campy depictions of wart-nosed witches hunched over boiling cauldrons with black cats were all part of the seasonal culture that can be seen on exhibit as well.
The museum put a call out to the public asking for ghost stories, and managed to collect a few on video which can be viewed at the museum. One woman recounted how at the age of 3, she often replied to her mother that she was “talking with a ghost” for several days in a row when asked why she was talking to herself. “I told my mother that I was talking to the little girl [who] fell off the bridge.” Then one day, the woman said her mother recalled, that she was crying and “saying goodbye because [the little girl] was going with her mom.”
Another West Park resident testified about living in a Victorian-era house where one day she and her father were on opposing ends of the staircase when a “big mass” of white mist walked across the steps, walked away into the room and then the wall. “My mom always had a creepy and weird feeling about that house.” After later moving to a different house built in the 1930s, she said that things would “hit the bed” and shake the bed “for no reason.”
Spirit footwear; the hobgoblin
If you have ever renovated an old home, you may have found a shoe or two in the walls or rafters. Wonder why? Beam explained, “The shoes were meant to ward off any spirits.” The museum has a modest collection of shoes and other items found in the walls designated for ghost-busting.
The Ulster County Photography Club displayed photos, some enhanced (and others, who knows?) depicting images of ghosts, skulls, kitschy witchy icons, local cemeteries and creepy, unsettling images. There’s also pen and ink art, and homage to the regional eerie pale-white “ghost flower” — a regional beauty also known as an Indian pipe which blooms in June and July in Esopus.
Kingston historian Ed Ford explained that Kingston’s Old Dutch Church has its own demons to battle. “A sloop was coming up from New York City to Kingston, and on board was the minister of Dutch church [Dominie Bloom] and several other people,” said Ford. “Then they got into the narrows by West Point there was a big thunderstorm. People looked up, and saw a hobgoblin in the top of the mast of the boat. The pastor said, ‘Let’s kneel down, and pray for safety.’ The hobgoblin was so incensed at that, he flew down and grabbed the minister’s hat off his head, and flew into darkness. The next morning when they got to Kingston there was the minister’s hat on the very top part of the steeple of the Old Dutch Church. The story goes that the hobgoblin flew too close to the steeple and touched it, and therefore became imprisoned inside it.” Ford believes that Washington Irving wrote the story himself.
One small problem, explains the church’s Reverend Ken Walsh. There was no steeple at the time the story is reported to have taken place. Walsh does, however, concur that the Old Dutch Church is definitely haunted. “When I first came here, I had some experiences of seeing figures and I figured they were just testing me, but recently I haven’t had any experiences lately,” said Walsh, whose tenure as minister in the church is more than six years. “I actually saw a man standing in my office dressed in black with a top hat on. That was very early on.”
Walsh attributes the possible presence of spirits to the fact that the church was built on top of a cemetery of more than 100 graves in 1852. “There are graves still in the basement of the crawl space.
“There’s too many experiences to deny it,” said Walsh. “I always get this sense that the old congregation is watching over the church.” Walsh said that there are even some church-goers who refuse to be in the building after 10 p.m. “They are very fearful. I have been here after midnight and been very happy, but I understand.”
Walsh said that other people have shared stories about hearing the organ playing when no one is there. “Having things pass by their eyes, flying by, like a wisp … ” Walsh said that this is not the first historic church in which he has served where he has not been alone, and is certainly not afraid now. “I really enjoy history a lot; there’s so much here.”