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The Emlen Physick Estate – A Ghostly Family Affair

The Emlen Physick Estate circa 1970 (courtesy of MAC)

While we, the living, may only think about ghosts and hauntings in October, the fact is that ghosts are with us all year long. Ghosts tend to haunt where they lived, not where they died. Most of the ghosts I encounter along my paranormal pursuits are still residing in their original homes. Some of those haunts are active and some are very quiet. Every ghost is different and some ghosts are more sociable and interested in the living than others.

I often tell people that because ghosts are transient, and do not stay in one place for too long, a house is only haunted if the ghosts are at home. This is why hauntings come and go with varying frequencies. Sometimes the ghosts are present and activity occurs, other times the ghosts are not home. When it comes to the Emlen Physick estate however, it seems there is always something home, and luckily for lovers of the paranormal, the property is open to the public most days of the year.

I have written and lectured about the ghosts of the Physick Estate many times. Known as “Cape May’s original haunted house”, the mansion was built in 1879 by Dr. Emlen Physick. He had just turned 21 and moved into the house with his mother, Frances Ralston and her two maiden sisters Emilie and Isabelle.

The Physick House has been the headquarters for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities (MAC) since the group saved the old mansion (and its ghosts) from the wrecking ball in the early 1970s. The house really has only been home to one family, the Physicks. No one else has been able to live there, no one except the ghosts that is.

Frances Ralston died in 1915, followed by Dr. Emlen Physick a year later on March 21, 1916 at the age of 58. Aunt Emilie was the last to go, surviving until May 20, 1935. After the family passed (they died as opposed to leaving) the house was willed to a neighbor, Frances Brooks, who had been taking care of Aunt Emilie in her later years.

From what I have put together from various sources, Dr. Harry Sidney Newcomer and his wife Dr. Marian Newcomer purchased the house around 1946 from Frances Brooks.  Dr. Marian died in 1949 and Dr. Sidney then married his assistant (or secretary) Pauline in 1955.  They lived in the house for a couple of years when, according to people who had known Dr. Sidney Newcomer, the couple moved into an apartment downtown because the new Mrs. Newcomer was afraid to live in the house because it was haunted.  The Newcomers lived in town until moving to California in 1964.  They sold the house to Cape May Inns, Inc. in 1967.

When I spoke with a woman whose parents were going to buy the house from Dr. Newcomer, she recalled the good doctor explaining to them that as a man of science, he was baffled to explain how ghosts, that should not exist and could not be proven under scientific conditions, truly did exist in his home. He heard the footsteps and noises every night and eventually gave up the notion of investigating the noises after the effort to find someone else (living) in the house became futile.

The Emlen Physick Estate today

My first visit to the old mansion was not by choice. We were vacationing in Cape May in the 90s and my friend Kathy had joined us for the week. While I was more interested in the surf and the sun, my friend Kathy was (and is still) more interested in historic venues steeped in learning and culture. We debated about what to do on one beautiful, sunny summer day and I finally capitulated and was dragged to the Physick Estate. I am so glad I listened to Kathy! My experiences with the old house, from that day onward, have been some of the best paranormal times of my career.

At the time of my first visit, MAC did not mention anything about Dr. Physick’s young Aunt Isabella, who died in the 1880s in her earl 30s. She had epilepsy and was confined to the upper floor of the house in a wheelchair. Dr. Physick was well spoken of, as was his mother Frances Ralston and his happy-go-lucky maiden aunt Emilie Parmentier. Not a word about Isabella.

I walked through the house and while my friends were taking in the sites of the historical background of the property, I was taking in the energy of the ghosts. As a Medium, I will sense fields of energy and some of these fields have personalities. Ghosts are nothing more than fields of energy with a consciousness. The body dies and the personality survives beyond the grave. I sensed two personalities, both women. One was kind and gentle and the other was absolutely miserable.

With ghosts, if you were a nice person, you make a nice ghost. Likewise, if you were a nasty person, you will become a nasty ghost, should you decide not to cross over to Heaven and stay earthbound.

Dr Emlen Physick and one of his furry friends (courtesy MAC)

With any haunting, there is a combination of history and mystery. As a paranormal investigator who loves history, I try to compare my findings as a psychic medium with the historical background from the site of the haunting. From what I was told about Aunt Emilie, she was a party girl and very sociable. On the other hand, Frances Ralston ran the house with an iron fist. Aunt Emilie cooked and fed Dr. Physick’s many dogs and would sneak a few into her room, but then Mrs. Ralston would evict the poor pups and have nothing to do with the furry friends in the house.

Entering Aunt Emilie’s old bedroom on the second floor is like visiting an old friend. Psychic or not, people have told me they like the feeling in that particular room and some even feel a little “buzz” when they leave. Entering the room of Dr. Physick’s mother is another story. My first visit there made me feel claustrophobic (and it is a big room), queasy and downright depressed. I assessed the feelings; made a few mental notes and left thinking I had my ghosts.

Then I ran into the dogs, not living ones, but ghostly dogs. Ghosts of cats are common, but ghosts of dogs are not. Dogs are people centered and if they haunt, they are usually haunting with their former master. Cats are place-centered and usually could care less if their owner is dead! They will stay wherever they are comfortable and haunt the same way. The Physick Estate was home to many dogs in its day. Dr. Physick had a dog run behind the carriage house and kept many dogs as companions, but why was I sensing dogs in the main house?

For many years, Dr. Emlen Physick was the head of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I am sure he would have no problem opening the doors to his paranormal pets, but I was not sensing him haunting the house. A strong ghost like Frances Ralston, who did not allow dogs in the house in her living days, would most likely uphold the same house rules in the afterlife. The mystery had returned and the history did not match.

As I mentioned, MAC did not mention Isabelle Parmentier in the history of the Physick Estate when we first visited. On my second visit, I had sensed the name “Belle.” I soon found out that another aunt lived in the house named Isabella Parmentier. She was Frances and Emilie’s younger sister and she died in 1883. I also found out she was confined to a wheelchair and in those days, having a sick family member was an embarrassment and poor Aunt “Belle” was kept upstairs out of sight of friends and guests of the house.

I started to rethink the ghostly equation here. Was the despondent feeling coming from Isabella, instead of Frances? Was it Isabella and Emile haunting the house? Now the mystery needed to be solved and with any haunting, theories abound. The field of parapsychology is aptly termed. Ghost investigation truly involves the use of psychology to determine why someone still haunts. All ghosts have reasons for staying behind, what was the reason causing the Parmentier sisters to linger between Heaven and Earth?

Aunt Emilie Parmentier and a young Emlen Physick (courtesy of MAC)

Here is my theory. From visiting the house over and over again for many years, I think this is what happened. Isabella was ill and unhappy and kept away from the public in the upper reaches of the house. She died first and instead of crossing over, decided to stay with her living family and continue as a spirit in the house. Frances died next and most likely crossed over, her business finished with her life on Earth. Dr. Physick died next and he may or may not have left. We are not sure if his ghost still roams the hallways of the old mansion or not. Aunt Emilie was the last survivor. Having no children or family left, she befriended her longtime neighbor Frances Brooks and left her the estate and belongings to him in her will when she died in 1935.

I think that Emilie, as she began to move toward the light, turned and saw Isabella still in the house and tried to get her to come. The two decided to stay a while to watch what would happen with the house. After the newcomers left, the house fell into terrible disrepair. No one would live in it and the locals all thought it was haunted. It even looked haunted! This must have upset Emilie quite a bit. Watching their home turn to historical ruins. Were the ghostly sisters protecting the home from vandals and nightly prowlers?

After MAC formed in 1970 to rescue the estate, the house and grounds were slowly rehabilitated. Today the Physick Estate stands proudly reflecting its former grandeur. Everything is back to normal again. So why is it still haunted?

Ghosts will eventually move on. Shear boredom and human nature make a soul want to explore new horizons. If a ghost haunts a former dwelling, at some point new (living) tenants will arrive and possibly push the old (dead) tenants out into the street, or perhaps to Heaven. In the case of the Physick Estate, the ghosts have no competition. They have the house all to themselves, what could be better? Well, the house does have a few visitors now and them.

When our ghost tours began coming into the Physick mansion a few years ago, it was the first time the house was open past 4:30 PM. Only the cleaning crews would remain past dusk and many of them left after strange “disturbances” frazzled their last nerves. Now that had all changed. I have developed several ghost tours with MAC over the years. On the “Ghosts of Cape May” trolley tour, the trolley would bring people around the mansion, and then drive them through other parts of town. A few years ago, we started a new tour called “Historic Haunts.” Now people would be able to get off the trolley at the Physick Estate, and go inside. People would be able to see how the Physicks lived and learn about the Victorians passion for ghosts—while being surrounded by the real thing!

Craig listening to ghosts walking above at the Physick Estate

The house has a history of strange disturbances. Many a time I have listened to phantom footsteps and ghostly voices coming from the upper floors of the structure, when we were alone, on the first floor on the old mansion. Within the first weeks of the tours running in the house at night, several participants mentioned being touched by invisible hands, seeing a woman in vintage clothing in a mirror standing next to them, only to be gone when they would turn to look. The dead and the living were intermixing for the first time in many years in the old, dark house on Washington Street. They still are, and even today, reports of strange happenings continue. When I am at the Physick Mansion I always keep my psychic senses open, and I always listen. The house is usually talking.

Cold spots, strange noises, phantom footsteps, doors opening by themselves, ghostly voices coming from all over, yet nowhere—these are just a few of the paranormal highlight at the old Emlen Physick Estate. I suggest you go and take a look for yourself.

Cape May’s original haunted house continues to live up to its name. To read more about the Emlen Physick Estate and its ghosts, check out The Ghosts of Cape May Book 1, The Ghosts of Cape May Book 3 and 400 Years of the Ghosts of Cape May, available through my website here.

Until next time, leave the light lit—you never know what might be reading over your shoulder.