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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.