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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.