Menu
CapeMay.com - Cape May NJ Travel Guide and Vacation Planner

CapeMay.com Blog

Month: October 2000

Spirited Cape May: Do You Believe?

I had met Gail twice before. It was an odd kind of meeting. After asking me if I needed a bible, we entered an abandoned house thought by many to be haunted.

Having grown up in many areas of the country, and almost always living in houses at least a hundred years-old, I’ve had a fair share of “ghostly” experiences. Many, of course, can be written off as coincidence, and some as simple quirks. But there are a few that I, a mostly practical and skeptical person, cannot deny. And I must admit, that day Gail and I toured the old Henry Sawyer farmstead, I was rather cynical about the matter.

Gail was presented to me as a local psychic which immediately raised my eyebrows. The rundown house was for sale, and the real estate agent had set up this adventure. As I was along to write it all down for the local newspaper, my first

Two "ectoplasmic impressions" are left on the frame of film shot by Jennifer Brownstone Kopp at the instant Gail Ferace exclaimed "You got her good! " There was nothing in the room at the Henry Sawyer house to reflect the camera's flash. The windows were boarded up leaving the room so dark the photographer shot the picture without looking through the lens. Ferace claims these images are the spirits of Henry Sawyer's second wife Mary Emma and her son Henry Washington Sawyer, 2nd.

Two "ectoplasmic impressions" are left on the frame of film shot by Jennifer Brownstone Kopp at the instant Gail Ferace exclaimed "You got her good! " There was nothing in the room at the Henry Sawyer house to reflect the camera's flash. The windows were boarded up leaving the room so dark the photographer shot the picture without looking through the lens. Ferace claims these images are the spirits of Henry Sawyer's second wife Mary Emma and her son Henry Washington Sawyer, 2nd.

thought naturally leaned towards free publicity. An advertising gimmick. But not wanting to see this historic property succumb to the demolition ball, I went along for the ride.

You can read about the whole adventure, but let me suffice it to say, I left the house that day much less skeptical and more a believer.

The second time I met Gail, I interviewed her at her house as a follow-up for the Sawyer house piece.

I was curious. She knew nothing about me. Would she pick up on any deep, dark, hidden aspect of my life? Would she know things my own mother didn’t? I suppose it was a bit of a test on my part.

Though many things she told me did not make sense — names I couldn’t place, events that never happened and didn’t seem likely — Gail did hit the nail on the head for a few things, including one deep, if not particularly dark, secret.

Our third meeting was another interview for this piece. I was seeking ghosts, and had been told that many a haunted Cape May tale originated with Gail.

I had been surprised with the feedback from the Sawyer article. I expected the familiar skepticism that surrounds the paranormal. I was also prepared for a few raised eyebrows, and shaking heads. I could hear whispers of, “She’s finally gone over the edge. Poor Jennifer.”

Instead, what I heard from many a reader was, “We know Gail. We use her all of the time when we have to male a decision or deal with a problem.” A friend of mine — a very practical sort indeed — confided she had consulted Gail during her first pregnancy. And my neighbor — the stalwart wife of a commercial fisherman — easily confessed Gail as her spiritual guide and confidante.

On the subject of ghosts, Gail was very straight-forward. “Cape May is full of ghosts,” she said. “It’s hard for me there sometimes because I see the spirits. Even going into a grocery store can be a problem. I can see the dead people.”

Gail readily admits she is uneducated. She lives in a modest house in the Villas section of the county.  I sat listening to Gail speak — speaking of the evil Rasputin, tales of a fire at Congress Hall and of a woman who was sent “to the light” after decades of trying to make it home from a party.

Congress Hall

Gail was having lunch at the Congress Hall Cafe one afternoon with Leigh Ann Austin, the real estate agent from the Sawyer adventure, and one of her best friends. Leigh Ann was anxious to see if Gail felt anything at the old hotel for Congress Hall has quite a history. Past presidents had set up summer white houses within her halls; John Philip Sousa wrote a song for the Grande Dame, performing the march on her lawns; for a time the building was run by the notorious Rose Halpin as a speakeasy; and more recently the nefarious Reverend Carl McIntyre held claim to the building as one of his various bible conference pulpits.

ghosts1If there was one building in Cape May that was indeed haunted, thought Leigh Ann, it would certainly be Congress Hall.

It’s interesting to me the way Gail describes what she sees. For her, seeing the spirits of those who have “passed” is a common, everyday happening. And somehow, Gail expects that you must be able to see them too. “Look what she’s wearing,” Gail will say. “Oh, isn’t he handsome?” she’ll question.

That day at Congress Hall was no different. “What a pretty woman,” Gail said casually to Leigh Ann. “And look at that parasol!”

Leigh Ann’ s eyes brightened and her ears perked up. “Do you see someone?” she asked excitedly. “What does she look like?”

Gail said the woman was wearing a long dress from the late 18th century. And she was carrying a parasol. As Gail described the woman, she noticed her beckoning.

“She wants me to follow her,” said Gail. “She’s trying to tell me something.”

Gail followed the Victorian woman through the building wondering what the message was. Leigh Ann trailed behind, sketching the woman per Gail’s description.

The spirit stopped near the lobby and pointed. According to Gail, the woman was pointing towards nothing — just thin air — and she was unable to understand the message. Frustrated perhaps, the woman vanished leaving Gail to scratch her head over the whole incident.

The next day, fire broke out at Congress Hall. It began near the lobby, close to where the woman had pointed. So very close, that Gail finally understood. It had been a warning.

I asked Gail if this type of communication is common, and perhaps the purpose of her being able to “see.” She said, “Yes, it is common. I try awful hard to understand, but I can’t always. If I had understood what the woman was trying to say that day, I would have warned the owners of Congress Hall. Fortunately, the fire did little damage.”

The long way home

Gail told me other spirits show themselves to her for help. She told me of the older woman who lived on New York Avenue near to the former Christian Admiral.

“An older woman called me one day,” Gail said. “She was a bit shy and hesitant, but asked if I would come over to her house. She was afraid it might be haunted.”

Upon arrival, Gail said she immediately felt the presence of a woman. The owner agreed. She felt it might be her aunt who was killed in a traffic accident one evening on her way home from a party.

As Gail listened to the details of the accident, a woman walked into the room. Dressed in a long red cocktail dress, the woman also wore long white evening gloves, the kind that kind of slithered up the arm past the elbow.

When Gail described the woman, she found it was indeed the aunt who had been killed. Gail watched as the woman peeled off the gloves, then lifted her arms to undo the clasp of her dress.

Gail made eye contact with the woman.

“I told her right out loud that her time was over and that she should head toward the light,” Gail said. “It seemed she didn’t really know that she had passed over. She looked a confused at first, but then she slowly faded away. The niece later told me that was the last time she felt a presence in her house.”

The Christian Admiral

It was built in 1908. A mammoth hotel. The biggest in the world at the time. And it was the dream of Pittsburgh steel magnate Peter Shields.

Shields envisioned the development of East Cape May would rival that of Newport, Rhode Island. He filled in wetlands, created what is now Cape May Harbor and built the Hotel Cape May. She was a brick mammoth boasting 333 rooms costing cost $1 million to build. And from the moment ground was broken, judgment seemed passed — the project was doomed to failure. The complete story may be found by clicking here.

ghosts2In 1996, the old hotel was torn down. It was an agonizing ordeal for the residents of the City of Cape May. Everyone had a memory of the old place, and everyone was sorry to see it go. It was a landmark, but even more, it was a member of the community.

I had the opportunity to spend three days inside, photographing and documenting what was no longer to be. It was December, cold and gray. The building was pretty much vacant, a few unwanted odds and ends scattered carelessly through the building.

The owners had removed all the claw-footed bathtubs from the plumbing fixtures and had pulled them haphazardly to the doorways for removal. When the building was finally to come down, they certainly couldn’t have the heavy iron tubs falling on either the demolition workers or the large crowds gathered to watch the demise.

As I walked through the building the first day, it looked to me that the bathtubs were all trying a desperate escape and I had caught them in the act.

The building was cold and it wasn’t just the temperature though icicles did hang like stalagmites from the ceiling of the seventh-floor ballroom. It was more an icy, bone-gripping chill in the air. And not only in the building. Even the outside property itself always felt at least ten-degrees cooler than the rest of the world.

In fact, it still does. The air is different on that block of land now called Admiral Estates. McIntyre’s grandson, Curtis Bashaw, built the first house on the now vacant lot. His builder, local contractor George Rohana, told me in an interview for the Cape May Star and Wave, that he felt the property was “much like the Amityville Horror movie. I clean up the rubble, the left-over bricks from the Admiral before I leave in the evening. and when I return in the morning there are more bricks scattered about, coming up through the ground. Is that possible? I dunno, but I’m not going to ask questions, I just clean them up again.”

A building contractor, Rohana is not one given to telling tall tales. And there are tall tales to be told about the Admiral, and in the literal sense.

ghosts3A worker plummeted from the roof to his death during construction. There are more stories of death by falling connected with the Hotel Cape May and Christian Admiral.

One story tells of a mischievous — and perhaps downright naughty — chef. His was the notorious temperament associated with the profession. Haughty and indignant. It is said he chased a waitress through the halls threatening her with a butcher knife. Some say it was in fun in flirtation, others say it malicious, either way, the young woman ran from her assailant.

She headed for the elevator. Glancing behind, she impatiently pushed the button. She could hear the chef’s heavy footsteps rounding the corner. Finally, the doors opened. The woman stepped in, triumphal. A smile touching her lips.

A smile perhaps frozen in time.

The chef watched in horror. For there was no floor, no walls, and in fact, no elevator car. It had been removed for repair. The woman plunged. Her death was ruled an accident.

Paranormal history also records the death of another young woman employed at the Christian Admiral during the 1960s. Bible conference rules were more than rigid, they were inflexible and most certainly unbending. The woman, only identified by the last name Brown, lodged at the current Angel of the Sea Bed and Breakfast Inn, then also owned by McIntyre and used for employee quarters.

It was after curfew, and “Miss Brown” had forgotten her key. Not wanting to get into trouble, she decided to climb the outside fire escape to her window, hoping to pry the frame loose.

But the screen snapped loose as she tried to break in. And she, too, fell to her death.

It is said today that Miss Brown still haunts the Angel of the Sea. Guest and employee tales of vibrating beds, swaying furniture, lights and televisions turning themselves on and off all testify to the fact something is going on there. The stories are too congruous and told by those who have never heard there was a ghost at the Angel of the Sea.

My three days spent inside the Admiral were filled with documenting what was no longer to be. I could feel the death sentence hanging heavy and cold in the air. I photographed the bedrooms, the ballroom, the stained-glass dome, the marble staircase, the kitchen, the children’s play room, the attic, the basement and every nook and cranny I could. All were shot with a 35mm Nikon camera sporting a 35-105mm lens. I used a standard flash, 400 speed color and black and white

Time exposure photo scanned from the original print

Time exposure photo scanned from the original print

film.

Concerned that this was an assignment I could not go back to re-shoot if something went wrong, I didn’t play with exposure and set my camera on automatic.

It was all pretty basic — except for one. The lobby.

The check-in desk was still in place, and the traditional key/mail cubbyholes stood behind it. I found it quite aesthetic. This desk had been a hub of activity. Surprisingly, there were still keys in some of the boxes as well as papers. The colors were muted blues and greens. I wanted a good picture.

I didn’t want the stark brightness of the flash casting sharp shadows in the photo. As it was quite dark, I decided to do a time exposure. 10 seconds where the shutter would remain open. Unfortunately, the tripod I had brought with me had lost a foot and it wouldn’t balance properly.

I set the camera on the desk and released the shutter. The camera never moved, nor was there a flash.

My editor saw the final photos before I. When she did, she nearly fell out of her chair. Literally.

The one time exposure I had done was completely different than the rest. It showed movement within the frame. It showed, what some call, a profile of a woman. It showed there was more there than met the naked eye.

We examined the entire roll comparing not only the frame itself, but also the leader and the sprocket holes. We ruled out film processing as a culprit, there would have been evidence somewhere else on the roll.

I wish I had done other time exposures throughout the building. Who knows what could have been found.

A long way from home

ghosts4Just a few blocks away at Poverty Beach, Gail told me she met a most evil spirit. She didn’t know who it was at the time, but Gail could tell it was vile, malicious and full of hatred.

“I was driving with a few friends and wanted to see the new building construction going on at Poverty Beach,” Gail said. “It was late in the afternoon, and about to get dark. We pulled over in front of one of the big new houses there. It was just being built and it was easy to walk up the ramp and peek inside.”

Gail said she was walking up the ramp with a friend close behind her when a dark image emerged from inside the house. So startled was her friend that he ran backwards to the waiting car.

Not one to be intimidated by the wayward spirit, Gail forged ahead. It was then she realized this was no ordinary ghost.

“He was dressed in a black cloak and had a black beard and horrible black eyes. He was big, and kind of floating in the air,” said Gail.

“He told me to leave, demanded I get out, but I told him my power was stronger than his,” Gail said.

Meanwhile, Gail’s friends grew worried. They blew the car’s horn. Gail yelled for them to get hot water and salt, she needed to “cleanse” the house. Off they sped.

Said Gail, “I remember they came back with a cup of Wawa hot water and a couple of those little salt packages you get at a fast food place. But it worked.”

What “worked,” according to Gail, was the combination of the hot water and salt. She said there are different types of spirits — some travel by land, some by air and others by waterways. This was a “water spirit.”

“I told him my powers were greater than his, and I was sending him back to where he came from.”

Rasputin

Rasputin

Gail threw the salted water at the spirit, shouting for him to return to whence he come. The ghost became enraged — before Gail really knew what was happening, she looked down. Her body had been lifted a foot from the ground. She bobbed in the air — levitating.

“That’s when I got scared,” Gail admits. “And then I got madder.”

Her anger broke the spell.

Shouting louder and louder, and flinging the hot water towards the evil spirit, Gail forced it out of the house. She plunged to the ground.

The next day, Gail was curious as to who the spirit might have been. “This was no ordinary spirit,” Gail said. “And because I’ve never had too much education, I wasn’t sure where to even look to find out who he might have been.”

Leigh Ann Austin suggested they go to the library. Once in the history section, they began going through book after book. Suddenly, Gail stopped.

“That’s him!” she shouted. “That’s the exact person!”

It was Rasputin.

Known as a holy man, mystic and healer to the imperial Russian Romanov first family, it was Rasputin who is blamed for the downfall and execution of Nicholas and Alexandra. Rasputin came to the tsar’s family offering healing to the family’s hemophiliac son. Interestingly, his powers worked and the family — especially Alexandra — embraced him into the family. But the Russian people were suspicious of this man who’s reputation included lewd behavior and a criminal past.

The assassination of Rasputin was planned. They tried poisoning him. What would have killed ten men had no affect on Rasputin. Bewildered, the assassins pulled their guns and shot him. Still he didn’t die. Frustrated, they drowned him. This was the end of Rasputin. But even upon autopsy, the clear cause of death was never determined. It remained a mystery.

I admit I had raised eyebrows when Gail recounted this tale to me. What the hell was Rasputin doing in Cape May? At Poverty Beach? In a house under construction?

But Gail seemed still unclear as to who Rasputin really was. When I told her he was a mystic and a healer, she looked honestly surprised. All she seemed to know was his “lurid and lusty” appetites.

And it wasn’t until writing the last few paragraphs of this article that I noticed something Gail had missed. I felt the hair on my arms stand up a bit.

She had called him a “water spirit” — my own research told me he had been drowned.

The Hotel Macomber

The Hotel Macomber

In closing

There are, of course, more stories to tell. Too many for space to permit.

I’ve had strange experiences at the Union Park Restaurant at the Hotel Macomber. I’ve also returned with odd photographs from the hotel’s infamous Room 10.

I’ve been told of a doll shop in Cape May which once had a most notorious resident and it’s adjoining gift shop haunted by a mysterious woman.

There are tales of the Washington Inn’s “Elizabeth,” the ghost at Winterwood, and stories of the Bunker, the Lighthouse and Higbee Beach.

Gail has more tales to tell as well. She says she’s met the heavenly Sister Therese and found a former mayor of Cape May still living on North Street.

These stories as told are meant to be true — as true as memory can recall, as true as those who speak them, as true as truth can ever get. And there will be more. For even those who disbelieve today, may have a tale or two in the future.


Spirited Cape May: More Than Meets the Eye

mallghostsIt’s a matter of opinion whether ghosts exist at all. Some are adamant in their denial. Others firm in their belief. And yet the majority seems unsure, unconvinced. Some are even skeptical after experiencing the unusual and the unexplainable.

Why?

Fear of the unknown, certainly. Fear of not being in control. And fear of losing one’s faith in the way of the world. The routine of how things have been, should stay and remain. And religion comes into play as well. It doesn’t somehow fit with what we’ve been told is “God’s Way” or “God’s Plan.”

But what if it does all fit? Perhaps there is rhyme and reason to an in-between world. God’s little way of putting us “on hold.” Or maybe there are many planes of existence as centuries of scholars — both religious and academic — have claimed.

It’s been said Cape May is full of ghosts. Books have been written on the subject and there are even “ghost tours” to be taken.

And, surely, one look at the town with its collection of 19th-century buildings could lead one to suspect there must be a few lingering souls lost in time, trying to make their way home.

The following stories — and I include some of my own personal experiences, for I do believe — some well-known in Cape May, and others not-so, are, of course, open for discussion. And I admit I have taken just a few liberties for literary purposes. I could bore you with “just the facts” and send you off to sleep, but I prefer to produce shivers, a few goosebumps, and perhaps another believer or two, for these accounts are all based on real-life accounts.

Perhaps they are true. Perhaps not. You be the judge …

Jackson Street

jacksonstreetOne of the most chilling accounts I’ve found in Cape May takes place on Jackson Street. The oldest street in Cape May, it served originally as a steamboat pathway from the sea into town.

It was early morning on November 9 in the year of 1878 when the city experienced a most horrific fire. Thirty-five acres were lost, Jackson Street lying in the middle of the fire’s all-consuming path. Despite its antiquated fire department — residents clamored annually for an upgrade — it is to the city’s credit that not a human life was lost in the blaze. That cannot be said, however, for many a dear and cherished possession. Much perished in the fire — and then came the looting.

Because tourism was even then one of Cape May’s largest industries, the town quickly rebuilt, resulting in one of the nation’s finest collections of late 19th-century buildings. Today, Jackson Street is well-known for its bed and breakfast inns, hotels and restaurants. It is the heart of Cape May’s primary historic district.

Many of Cape May ghost tales emanate from this street. Some are known fabrication — for the supposed housing of a ghost can be very good for business in a town like Cape May.

Yet there are further tales, less commercialized, which stand out among the others. And there is one in particular that bears even more credence. For the teller will not let herself be identified. She is afraid of what her neighbors will think, and for her family. And though she still wonders about the scenario — she is insistent of what she saw.

For ease in reading, I will call her Nancy. But that, of course, is not her real name.

It was September and most of the tourist crowd had made the arduous trek home. Most area businesses were still open and Nancy worked the red-eye shift at a beachfront restaurant. She was due in before 6 a.m. A little after 5, Nancy left her house at a leisurely pace. The air was chilly and the streets quiet, a relief after the hot and busy summer.

As Nancy passed by the Washington Street Mall, it suddenly occurred to her that it was all just a little too quiet. There were no birds chirping, nor could she see a breeze stirring the treetops. Because Cape May between the ocean and the bay, there is almost always some sort of breeze. It can make for some very bad hair days.

Nancy stopped to take a look around. Again, she noticed every leaf on every tree stood perfectly still. She continued on, feeling a little uneasy.

When she reached Jackson Street, the hair on her arms literally stood on end.

Now it must be said here that Nancy is not prone to stretches of the imagination. Especially with ghosts involved. She firmly says she’s never believed in the supernatural, and still doesn’t. She is a skeptic. And plans to remain that way.

Still, that doesn’t change her narrative about what she saw that September day.

Nancy says she saw a woman walking on the northern side of the street, which in itself, of course, isn’t that remarkable — they are many early-risers in Cape May hoping for a glimpse of a spectacular sunrise. The first thing she noticed, however, was the woman’s dress. Though the woman was some distance away, Nancy could see she wore no sweater or wrap — and certainly the day called for one.

Distracted for a moment, when Nancy turned back the woman was gone. Figuring she had “popped” into one of the buildings, Nancy continued on still wondering about the eerie silence. There were no birds chirping their usual good morning songs, and the air was deathly still despite her approach toward the beach front.

Thinking it felt like “time standing still,” Nancy suddenly heard a voice.

“Audrey,” it called. “Aa-uu-drey!”

It was a woman’s voice. A young woman’s. Because of the unnatural stillness in the air, the voice seemed to echo in an unearthly tone.

Audrey … it persisted.

Nancy looked around, where was the voice coming from? She saw no one. Then, suddenly the woman appeared again. This time in the middle of the street.

Audrey, the voice called again.

As Nancy watched, the figure turned as if looking for something. Not just her head, sweeping from side to side. To Nancy’s amazement, the entire figure seemed to whirl around and around. That’s when Nancy realized the woman’s features were indistinguishable. Her clothes were unclear as well. To Nancy, she seemed just a form and as she watched, the figure seemed to float and inch or two above the pavement. Toward her.

By this time, Nancy was getting scared. What was happening? As she contemplated her next move, Nancy says she felt an icy chill sweep through her. She remembers scrunching her shoulders against the cold. As she looked around, the woman had vanished again.

Just as suddenly the chilling blast was gone. That’s when, as Nancy recalls, the birds began chirping again, and she could hear the ocean and a car a couple of blocks away. And it was warmer, the sunlight lighter than before. Nancy says it felt like everything had come back to life.

What did Nancy experience? Was it indeed time standing still — missing a beat — offering a glance into another time? And who was the woman? Had she quickly fled a burning building with no time to find a wrap? And Audrey? The young woman’s daughter, perhaps — lost or misplaced during the havoc of the Great Fire of ’78? We may never know.

A hasty exit

BrassBedI got a call one day not too long ago from a friend of mine who owned a bed and breakfast inn on Columbia Avenue. He had no idea I was researching local ghosts, but thought I might be interested in his story. Seemed a ghost sighting led one of his guests to leave town rather quickly.

“A woman who was staying at our inn checked out in a bit of a hurry,” former Brass Bed Inn owner Bill DiLouie said. “She said she had seen a ghost.”

According to Bill, when the woman walked into her room she saw a Confederate Civil War soldier standing by the bed.

“She said he was wounded in a couple of places and was asking who had won the war,” DiLouie said.

“The woman was scared and told him the south had won, and he seemed to be content with that, DiLouie continued. “He promptly vanished.”

DiLouie said the woman even made a sketch of the soldier before checking out.

I found it interesting the solider was Confederate. Cape May’s Civil War history is one of mixed emotion. Cape May lies below the Mason-Dixon line, and in years before the war of “civil disobedience” catered to wealthy southern vacationing families as well as northern bluebloods. At the onset of the war, Cape May County was hesitant to choose sides and, according to local historian Clark Donlin, only did when one of Cape May’s own was captured and held in Richmond’s famous Libby Prison.

Donlin has told me during the early years of the war, it wasn’t unusual for local families to offer solace to soldiers from both sides. Donlin said northern and southern soldiers actually passed in the night, each carrying goods supplied by the same family.

Was the Brass Bed a haven for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War? Did this poor chap return hoping to find comfort and compassion? Maybe.

I admit I worried at first that the woman had lied to the wounded solider about the south winning the war. But perhaps it was a good thing in the long run — perhaps his soul can finally rest easy.

Helpful hands

spirit3Two blocks away sits the John F. Craig House. I recently interviewed Frank and Connie Felicetti for a CapeMay.com feature on innkeeping. While at their lovely bed and breakfast inn, I casually asked if they had any ghostly goings-ons.

In fact, they did. Or at least had a few years ago.

Built in 1866, the John F. Craig House was first used as a private home. As was the way of the day, the Craig family employed a number of servants.

Lucy Johnson served in the Craig employ for many years and lived in room 5. And it is here that most of the activity takes place.

The Felicetti’s bought the inn in 1993. And it was early-on that they found the building might have been purchased complete with permanent guest.

One morning, an older woman staying at the inn came downstairs for breakfast and thanked Connie profusely for sewing a button on her trousers. Now, Connie is known for her hospitality. She likes to think of herself more as a concierge than an innkeeper. But there are limits to her graciousness. Connie will gladly make dinner reservations, offer advice on things to do and see and even willingly take an iron to a dress or shirt needed for a night on the town. But she also understands guests need their privacy, as well. Especially in their rooms. Never would Connie take it upon herself to enter someone’s room uninvited and take it upon herself to sew a button.

Connie told the woman so, and received a puzzled response.

“The woman said she had left a needle and thread and button in her room intending to sew the button on that evening,” Connie told me. “But the next morning she realized she had forgotten. When she picked up the pants, there was the button, sewn neatly in place.”

Connie then told the woman that the room had belonged to long-time servant Lucy Johnson. “Oh,” exclaimed the woman. “That explains it.” Connie agreed — and then and there it was decided Lucy was still in the house. And helping out, at that.

Even across the hall in room 4, Lucy looks out for guests. There is the case of the woman forgetting to put a medicine bottle near an air-conditioner to keep it cool. She awoke in the middle of the night to a crashing sound. A dish of potpourri had fallen off of a table near the air-conditioner. The woman was convinced the dish had been in the middle of the table and could not have fallen by itself. She felt there was someone in the room, looking out for her.

If Lucy has remained at the John F. Craig House for these many years, she is indeed a caring spirit. Content, perhaps. And certainly helpful.

Witches of Cape May

ghost-6“The Witches’ Voice” is a proactive educational network dedicated to correcting misinformation about witches and witchcraft. It can be found on the Internet at www.witchvox.com.

According to the site, witchcraft is a legally recognized religion in the United States, and since 1985, and it has been their mission to protect that right through education and awareness. It is their belief that witches are givers and healers.

“By keeping abreast of the latest news and updated information as well as having ready access to critical resource tools,” reads the site, “we, as Witches and Pagans, can not only empower ourselves, but develop programs to educate our local towns and cities on who we are and what we do.”

The site includes the witches’ own version of the history of Halloween, scheduled events, how to survive persecution — and a link to the Witches’ League of Cape May.

Cape May, New Jersey, that is.

“Welcome to the Covenant of Rhiannon Community Website. We are an ecstatic Welsh Faerie based Coven located at the southern tip of New Jersey. We combine elements of the New Forest tradition with Welsh Faerie metaphysics.”

When researching this article, I promised anonymity to the group and its Reverend. The photos, though not staged, are not of actual witches, or the coven. They are included here to create a bit of ambience for the reader. The group claims it has to be secretive about its doings to avoid persecution. Still, they didn’t tell me too much. But I did learn there are many practicing witches in Cape May. More than I ever imagined.

Few fit the stereotype of the old hag with a wart on the end of her nose riding the proverbial broomstick. Modern-day witches call that nothing but a caricature from fairy-tales which have exploited them for centuries.

ghost-3In a written statement the Witches’ League of Cape May told me, “Faerie Tradition is the wild power of the woodlands and of the Lord of the Hunt. We tap into power that other traditions would just as soon leave alone, or not recognize at all. And this can be frightening to the student of our path. Indeed, our version of Faerie, practices possession by the Gods during ritual, similar to the Gods of Santeria or Condomble, and we have our darker aspects, just as the Gods do. We are not ALL light and love. Yes, we love … and deeply … but there is a darker side to our nature also, as is in all of creation, and we recognize that darker side.”

“We feel that there is a danger in not recognizing the darker aspects within yourself. To be touched by Faerie is to be touched by the wilderness … all that is wild and free … and it is not a path to tread on lightly … but it IS a path where you can lightly tread.”

Accordingly, the Covenant of Rhiannon teaches Welsh Faerie based witchcraft, combined with elements of the New Forest Tradition. And membership is open in the Witches League of Cape May.


At Mother Nature’s Mercy

by Brad Murphy and Jennifer Brownstone Kopp. Black and White Photographs Courtesy of Tom Hand

1917 Photo Courtesy of the Borough of Cape May Point

1917 Photo Courtesy of the Borough of Cape May Point

There have been hundreds of hurricane watches and warnings throughout the centuries yet Cape Island has never felt the truth wrath of a full-fledged hurricane. Northeastern Atlantic coastal storms, however, locally known as ‘nor’easters’ have wreaked havoc on her coast for centuries. Above is South Cape May photographed around 1917. Pictured below is South Cape May today. An entire town claimed by the sea. If a category four hurricane, or even category one, were to hit, beware, be warned and be careful.

“A dazed woman is walking across a rubble-strewn marsh. She picks up a Chinese lacquer box, a high-heeled slipper, a copy of Lorna Doone, and a bag of cole slaw still sealed and fresh. ‘These were in my house before the storm,’ she says numbly. All that is left of her place now is a few jagged posts on a clean-swept beach. A New Jersey state trooper puts his arm gently around her shoulders and leads her back to his car.”

So reported the Philadelphia Bulletin in March of 1962.

It wasn’t a hurricane that struck the Jersey shore, but two storms joining as one — the first from the west, the other from the south. The two pressure systems met off the coast of Georgia before moving slowly north becoming a northeastern storm. When the storms reached New Jersey they stalled, held in place by a Canadian cold front.

The former borough of South Cape May

The area where the borough of South Cape May once stood

The storm raged for three full days.

To this day, the great “nor’easter of ’62” holds a place in history as one of the most powerful and damaging storms of the century.

The state of New Jersey sits prone — approximately equidistant between the North Pole and the equator — its southern counties bordered by the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. And the City of Cape May and boroughs of West Cape May and Cape May Point lie at the very southern-most tip of the state.

Though southern New Jersey has never suffered a hurricane’s “direct hit,” the storms of the past two centuries speak for themselves. Local history books record scores of tropical storms, nor’easters and hurricane winds pounding this tiny tip of New Jersey.

In 1821 — “Elijah Miller lived in the southern end of Dias Creek (just north of Cape May City). The elements were so threatening that he walked to the school house and asked for his children. The teacher replied, ‘Can’t you stay a little while for we all will be going soon?’ But Mr. M. replied, ‘No, I wish my children immediately and advise you to dismiss all the pupils at once and not wait until the regular closing hour.’ This advice was heeded. One of Mr. M.’s children started to take a short cut through the woods but as the limbs and tree tops were breaking off, fearing they might be killed thereby, he hustled them homeward by the main road as fast as their feet would carry them. Looking back as they went up the hill they saw great waves capped with foam where they had walked but a few minutes before.”

Interestingly, this 180 year-old Cape May County Gazette report is relevant today. Like the school teacher, many underestimate the danger of coastal storms and are hesitant to leave. And there is always the reluctance to leave precious possessions behind.

stormcgToday, many seaside towns invoke mandatory evacuation when winds reach Category 2 — 96 to 110 miles per hour — especially for those with homes built directly on the beach front. In 1821, of course, they had no such regulations. And it wasn’t until 1870 that a federal weather service was established.

Major storms in 1893 and 94, 1903 and 04, 1933 and 34, as well as 1938, struck the Jersey coast. But none were quite as ferocious as the hurricane of 1944.

It became known as the “Great Atlantic Hurricane,” a tropical storm noticed first near Puerto Rico. The storm was upgraded to a full-fledged hurricane as it churned toward Miami. The entire state of Florida was put on full hurricane alert but the storm skirted the coast aiming directly for Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

stormboatWbOn September 14, covering a 500-mile radius, the storm barely nicked the coast and passed by Cape Hatteras around 9 a.m. turning ever so slightly toward the northeast. Then it picked up speed. Barometric pressure dropped and winds increased to 100 miles per hour. By 3 p.m., the hurricane’s center loomed near Norfolk, Virginia.

At 5 p.m., the hurricane’s center was only fifty to seventy-five miles from the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

Weather alerts were posted from Delaware northward to New England. New Jersey was already feeling the effects from the storm. So quickly had the storm sped northward that Newark motorists and pedestrians were stranded as flood waters swelled over roads and sidewalks. Jersey City was flooded, too, and on the tiny island of precariously situated Cape May, force 10 winds whipped from ocean to bay. And the barometric pressure dropped to 28.83 inches — ominously low.

Long-time Cape May City resident and noted historian Sue Leaming recounted her memories of the Great Atlantic Storm of ’44 in the book, Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, written by Larry Savadove and Margaret Thomas Buchholz in 1993.

stormbeachThinking it “just another nor’easter,” Leaming happily helped her mother ready a local hotel as a shelter after a telephone call from the United States Coast Guard requested aid for anticipated evacuees. The Columbia Hotel was located just three blocks from the ocean.

It was only when the wind intensified and the barometric pressure dropped even further — to 28.5 inches — that Sue Leaming became alarmed — particularly after a friend’s father told her should the mercury fall to 28.3, the entire town of Cape May would be “blown apart.”

“I was upstairs and called down to tell mother that I could see lumber floating up Benton Avenue; the wind and rain were furious by then,” Leaming wrote in a letter to her aunt that very night. “I went to the basement and as I opened the door, I heard an awful gushing.”

“In fifteen minutes, the water was up to my knees and I heard my husband, Pic, on the front porch trying to get out the rowboat. The tide had come up so fast none of us could believe it.”

“Mr. Steger, who owns Lovell Beach Concession, was at the beach trying to save his tents. He had put them over on the porches of the beachfront houses, and then all of a sudden this terrific tide swept in and there weren’t any porches left on the homes. His tents were all over town. At one point, I heard a thunderous crash which seemed to come from Mecray’s corner; we thought it must be the boardwalk crashing into the houses.”

stormbikesWhat Leaming heard was a 40-foot tidal wave crashing onto the boardwalk, and into Convention Hall and two amusement and fishing piers, hurling pilings and debris into beachfront homes and hotels. The entire two-mile boardwalk was destroyed in minutes. Beach Avenue was completely washed out and buried under thousands of tons of sand. Wreckage from the boardwalk was buried more than four-feet deep.

Leaming’s account continued the next morning, “(We) went down to the foot of Jefferson Street. What a sight! I had no idea there had been such damage. There was no boardwalk at all east of Convention Pier. At Stockton, the boardwalk is clear over to Cliff’s store. The Convention Hall is demolished. The stage and half the dance floor are gone, and there’s no fishing pier at all.”

“Aunt Elnora found an icebox on her front lawn … the sand is halfway up Stockton Avenue. That lovely house with the stone wall on the corner is ruined. There’s a big piece of boardwalk with an upright lamppost floating in Ken Miller’s around the corner and the beanpoles are leaning in our Victory Garden, which is no more.”

“The ducks the Shuberts got last Easter are swimming around their yard and out in our backyard I watched a turtle swim in and around the seesaws, swings and slides. He finally climbed up on the slide to sun himself.”

“Now there’s a terrible smell of sewer gas and fuel oil; Pic had to open the door under the porch to let in some fresh air. The fire whistle just blew. Pic started out in his hip boots, but it didn’t amount to anything, and the fire engines got stuck in the sand, and we’re all dead tired.”

Often a storm’s aftermath can be almost as dangerous as the storm itself. Downed power lines can cause electrocution and fires. Contaminated water makes for health hazards, even non-working telephone lines can pose potential threat in the event of an emergency.

From Cape May all the way up the coast, seaside towns were devastated. Residents boiled and drank water from unbroken water mains. Even six weeks after the hurricane, mains hadn’t yet been repaired and the local Board of Health found some families drinking unsafe water. Officials urged all residents to get typhoid shots.

stormwavesThe Salvation Army set up temporary kitchens in fire halls and community centers. According to the Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, one man was so hungry that when told by a Red Cross official the station was only for the homeless he replied, “Look, lady, you give me that piece of pie, and I’ll give you what’s left of my home.”

It was noted in newspapers of the day that the curious from areas like Camden and Philadelphia flocked to the Jersey shore for a “look-see.” The Navy’s Shore Patrol as well as New Jersey State Police turned back visitors, admitting into stricken towns only homeowners who could produce a deed.

Again, a fifty year-old newspaper article reflects today. Many out-of-towners flock to the Jersey shore upon hearing of an impending hurricane. Understandably, mankind is drawn by nature’s spectacles. Mother Nature at her worst — or finest, depending upon perspective. Unfortunately in many of the shore, barrier and island towns of New Jersey, road access is limited. Often there’s only one way in and one way out. Evacuation of local residents can be arduous — coupled with having to vacate vacationers, hasty evacuation could prove virtually impossible.

And those who visit simply to view the aftermath of a storm cause complication as well as heartache to residents afflicted with damage. Desperate to repair and survive, there is, too, the need to restore some semblance of normalcy. Those who come to gawk impair both goals. To be the spectacle of tragedy — a mere sideshow, so to speak — lends more even tragedy to the situation.

The dazed woman who walked across the rubble-strewn marsh in 1962 retrieving the four remaining pieces of her life is not unlike tens of thousands who have survived Jersey shore storms.

The March ’62 nor’easter was bad, even worse than the ‘44 hurricane. Cape May City evacuated at least 2,000 people — half of the city’s permanent population. Electricity, heat, water and sewage facilities were lost. Army trucks rescued the stranded. The small town of South Cape May, located directly on the beach between Cape May City and Cape May Point, and already suffering from the ocean’s ravage, washed completely to sea — never to exist again. The 1962 nor’easter did more damage than any other storm in history. President John F. Kennedy declared the affected communities “disaster areas” on March 9, 1962.

Tropical storms, nor’easters and even the fringes of full-fledged hurricanes continue to affect New Jersey. In 1985, Hurricane Gloria veered dangerously close to the coastline. As the hurricane sped steadily north, hurricane experts called for a direct hit on either northern Delaware or Cape May City. Mandatory evacuation was enforced. Most left. But some did not.
Fortunately, the storm turned toward the west. But Gloria’s winds and rains still wreaked much havoc. Downed power lines, flooding, wind damage, and every sort of debris imaginable met those returning to the island.

Last year, Hurricane Floyd threatened the coast of New Jersey. Tides and winds swelled, waves crashed violently against the ocean jetties and flooded parts of the beachfront. Yet Cape May fared well compared to many other communities including parts of North Carolina and, ironically, Philadelphia, where rivers and streams crested high above their banks.
Each year, hurricane “season” arrives, the month of September the most crucial. Many say Cape May has been lucky all these years. But the same folks, and many others, say Cape May is past her due — a “hundred-year storm” is more than due.

And despite the many advances in forecasting weather patterns, formalizing evacuation procedures and restrictive building codes, fast-moving, unpredictable violent storms can prove to be a losing battle.

For we remain always at Mother Nature’s mercy…

What’s a Category 5 Storm?

SAFFIR-SIMPSON SCALE

When the winds in a tropical depression reach 39 mph it’s considered a tropical storm and is given a name.

At 74 mph it becomes a hurricane and is rated on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale based upon maximum sustained winds.

A Category One storm, 74-95 mph with a 4-5-foot storm surge, mostly effects “unanchored mobile homes, shrubbery, and trees and causes some coastal flooding and minor pier damage,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

At Category Two, 96-119 mph with a 6-8-foot surge, there is increased damage to vegetation including downed trees and considerable mobile home damage. Coastal and low-lying escape routes flood 2-4 hours ahead of the storm and unprotected small craft break moorings

At Category Three, 111-130 mph with a 9-12-foot surge, it becomes a major hurricane that can destroy mobile homes, close escape routes as much as five hours before its arrival and flood coastal homes and structures. Areas generally lower than 5 feet above mean sea level (ASL) could flood as far as eight miles inland.

With a Category Four storm, 131-155 mph and a 13-18-foot surge, roofs will blow off, homes near the shore will suffer serious damage and people living below 10 feet ASL would have to evacuate.

It becomes Category Five if the winds climb above 155 mph and the land area would suffer catastrophic damage with a storm surge above 18 feet. People living within 10 miles of the shoreline might have to be evacuated and structural damage would be extensive.

Hurricane Andrew, the most costly hurricane in American history, was a Category Four. It struck the community of Homestead in south Florida during mid August 1992. Andrew destroyed more than 80,000 homes, made more than 200,000 people homeless, and caused an estimated $25 billion in damage.


VICTORIAN WEEK evolves into a ‘Big Deal’

VictorianDining Fashiongr

Bruce Minnix

Bruce Minnix

In the summer of 1973 Bruce Minnix, founding member of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC), Cape May’s leader in heritage and cultural tourism, was speaking to a group of reporters about the organization’s plans for the future. At the time, MAC was in the early stages of development and consisted only of volunteer members. This small group had been working for several years to restore the Emlen Physick Estate and extend MAC’s offerings to the public and the community

Michael Zucherman

Michael Zucherman

In 1983, Michael Zuckerman signed on as the director of MAC. By the time he arrived, Victorian Weekend had grown to a 4-day event running Friday through Monday, and seemed only slightly more organized than the way it had begun. “Every aspect of Victorian Week had different committees, about a dozen organized by volunteers,” says Zuckerman. “There was a weekend house tours committee, finance committee, and a fashion show run by a costume collection committee.” They even had a separate committee that organized the cash bar at the fashion show.

VictTrumpeteer“We also had major evening entertainment,” says Zuckerman, “a dinner dance with more committees in charge of pulling that together. It was held at the Inn of Cape May, then called the Colonial Hotel. It was the social event of the fall season.”

The following month, at the MAC annual meeting, Victorian Week was determined to have become such a success that it would be extended to a 10-day event. “I was devastated because I was worn out working with these volunteer committees to make this happen,” remembers Zuckerman. Victorian Week, which is now managed by a staffed “events department,” is MAC’s single biggest yearly event.

VictDancersVictFashionRedIts roster of activities, geared toward the celebration of Cape May’s Victorian heritage, include “Murder Mystery” dinners, brass band concerts, a Victorian feast, a 19th-century dance weekend, lectures of all sorts, an extensive list of walking tours and much, much more. “Mostly,” says Zuckerman, “it’s been adding and adding and adding…”

Looking back 27 years, the growth and popularity of this event still delights and surprises Bruce Minnix. “None of us had any idea it would be that big of a deal!”


America’s Best (and only) Lima Bean Festival

Queen Daniele in 1998. “This is the most thrilling day of my life!” she said.

Queen Daniele in 1998. “This is the most thrilling day of my life!” she said.

Photography by Jennifer Brownstone Kopp and Bernard Haas

Daniele

“This has been my dream since I was a little girl,” she said as the queen’s crown was placed on her head. Tears in her eyes, she waved to the masses gathered to watch the crowning. “My grandmother bought me a hat at the very first festival,” the young woman went on, “and since that day I’ve always wanted to be the queen.”

A childhood dream realized, a day to remember — one to tell children and grandchildren about. That day in October of 1998 when Daniele became queen.

***

In 1999, at age 3, Izabela was the festival’s youngest Queen of the Bean.

In 1999, at age 3, Izabela was the festival’s youngest Queen of the Bean.

Izabela

The three-year old didn’t quite know what to make of it all as her grandmother placed her on the stage. The crowd roared its approval. The mayor shook her hand. A crown was placed on her head.

Suddenly she understood. The little girl smiled. She was the new queen.

***

Queens they are. Queens of the Lima Bean.

Huh?

Believe it or not, it’s a prestigious title here in West Cape May. Little girls, teenagers — in fact, women of all ages — vie for the coveted title.

Since the first Lima Bean festival in 1985, a queen has been crowned. From age three to upwards of 70, women in various shapes and sizes compete for this ultimate honor.

2000 Lima Bean Queen June Tortorelli of Freehold, New Jersey, being crowned by outgoing queen Izabela Lotozo.

2000 Lima Bean Queen June Tortorelli of Freehold, New Jersey, being crowned by outgoing queen Izabela Lotozo.

limabean4“Eat your limas,” mothers have said for generations, “they’re good for you.” Young eyes open wide as they stare down at the greenish mass intruding on an otherwise savvy plate. This lumpy stuff is good for me? You’ve got to be kidding. Eyes roll skyward, and limas are shoved unmercifully around the plate — or sneaked surreptitiously to the dog. So the lima bean reigns notorious as queen of spurned vegetables, perhaps sharing its throne only with the oft-scorned Brussels sprout.

But folks in West Cape May take the lowly lima very seriously. A backbone crop of the rural farms dotting an otherwise ocean resort landscape, for decades West Cape May touted itself as the “Lima Bean Capital of the World.” Though other towns, especially those in California, may take issue with this self-imposed title, for years West Cape May had a substantial growing contract with Pennsylvania’s Hanover Foods, Inc. Production brought relative fortune to this small borough. With respect to this livelihood — and bearing an initial tongue-in cheek-attitude — the first Lima Bean Festival was organized, the only festival in the nation honoring the lima bean.

Lima bean toss

Lima bean toss

The festival met immediate success with locals and visitors alike. Those who didn’t even particularly care for lima beans enjoyed the festival, and some grew to really like them. Lima beans take on a whole new personality when served fresh. West Cape May fresh, that is.

And fresh limas were everywhere — one local church barbecued them, a women’s club sunk theirs in soup, and others planted limas in salads, stews and salsas. A Cape May restaurant invented perhaps the quirkiest dish of all — lima bean ice cream.

Got limas?

Got limas?

The bean lavished in the spotlight during pitching contests for children, and its rather mundane image became radiant on hand-made pottery and dangling earrings. There was even a Lima Bean “quip” contest. Winners had their sayings blazed on festival T-shirts. Earlier shirts are now considered collector’s items.

Festival participants gladly donned shirts bearing lines like “Have you ever bean so happy?” and “Bean there, done that and Lima better person for it.” And, of course, there was the crowning of the Lima Bean Queen.

limabeanMerch9But in the early 1990s, Hanover Foods yanked the contract. West Cape May’s primary lima bean grower had to cut back it’s production and find alternative, more fashionable, vegetables to grow at a new stand opened to boost the farm’s livelihood. West Cape May was no longer the Lima Bean Capital of the World. For just a brief moment there was talk of canceling the festival. But folks were hesitant to give it up. It was far too unique — and way too much fun — to let go by the wayside.

Perhaps nothing sums up the dilemma better than the Lima Bean Blues — a song written by the country-western band “Delta Blues” which performs yearly at the festival. Their sound islimabean9 one echoed at many a festival and in taverns across the nation — down-home country complete with the whine and wail of heartbreak, and not too much of a repertoire. But the sound befits the festival. And it’s the Lima Bean Blues they play most frequently — over and over, in fact — but always by request.

“Hanover had a contract for the limas we grow here.
But they did not renew the contract, so no lima beans this year.
We’re having a celebration at the park in West Cape May.
We don’t need no limas, we’ll have the festival anyway.”

And so they did. This year marked the 16th annual Lima Bean Festival. Little Izabela Lotozo was there to crown June Tortorelli, Lima Bean Queen 2000. When asked about relinquishing her prestigious title, the now four year-old said quite seriously, “I know I have to give it up, but I can pretend to be queen forever.”

Daniele would agree.