Furry Phantoms of Cape May

Photo Credit: MAC

February is here and so is another ghost column. What to do, what to do. Of course, I could have done “ghost lovers,” but that’s been done to death, excuse the pun. So sitting down to write this month’s column on Groundhog Day, I was thinking about good old Punxsutawney Phil. He did not see his shadow, so we may actually live to see spring. Old Punx got me thinking about ghosts of animals. I wondered if he is actually seeing another ghostly groundhog each year, sending him scurrying back into his hole. I guess anything is possible. I have had more than one run in with a furry ghost, and quite a few of those encounters were right here in Cape May. I remember one episode in particular that would have sent old Phil burrowing deep in the ground.

I had gone to bed late that night and struggled to fall asleep. It always takes me a little extra time to fall into a good night’s sleep when I am staying somewhere new. I think it’s more the change of energy than the change of mattress, but whatever reason it was that night, I was dead tired when I finally fell asleep and I was out. I don’t even remember what I was dreaming about, I was that sound asleep. My good night’s sleep did not last more than a few hours, however, before something tried to get my attention. At first, I dismissed it as the edge of the blanket touching my face. Then I realized the feeling was more familiar. It was my cat on the bed. It was still dark out and it was nothing new to have my cat jump up on the bed to sleep. This time the nocturnal rumblings had been relentless enough to pull me out of a deep sleep—and I was annoyed.

It was exactly three in the morning. I know because that’s when I screamed for help. I thought I was home in bed, and my cat had jumped up next to me and was trying to snuggle up close. Then I looked around for my clock on my night table and neither was there. That’s when I realized I was actually at a guesthouse in Cape May, and there weren’t any cats in the house, at least not any with a pulse. Once I woke enough to comprehend that the purring, pacing feline on my bed, in that dark room on the second floor of the old Victorian house was actually a ghost, I yelled out in a panic for help. In fact, I pathetically yelled, “Ghost kitty!” A medium is not at his or her best at three in the morning.

The call for help was embarrassing, but I was truly startled and had been awakened in the middle of the night from a deep sleep by a feline phantom. By the time I composed myself and got out from under the covers, the ghost cat had disappeared and I was left to explain myself to my friends, who ran into the room to see the brave psychic medium rattled by a furry little ball of ethers.  I think “embarrassing” would have been the right word. The next morning I was much more up about the experience. A cup of coffee helped. It was not my first experience with ghosts of animals, but it was certainly one of my most memorable.

I was staying at Columbia House that night, one of the best guest houses in Cape May. It was supposed to be haunted by a benevolent old man named William Essen, the former baker and confectioner in town. He was wheelchair bound at the end of his life from complications from diabetes. Of course he was nowhere to be found that evening. I was not even aware of Essen having a cat, but anything was possible.

Quizzing the enchanting Laura Zeitler, who along with her husband Jim run Columbia House, I mentioned my run in with the paranormal…cat. Laura told me there was a cat that lived in the house before they bought the property. The cat’s name was Alex and he lasted through two previous owners. I guess he finally finished life number nine.

Reports of animal ghosts are nothing new. Cat ghosts are, in fact, quite common. Cats are place-centered in life, and in death. Ghosts of dogs are far less common. While dogs are usually attached to people, and will follow them to Heaven, cats could care less if we were alive or a ghost. As long as there is a warm place to sleep, and lots of food to eat, the cat is happy. For a ghost cat, food is no longer an issue, but territory becomes tantamount to survival. Cats may cling to their former homes after their bodies have died. Some seem to have unfinished business, while others just seem too lazy to move onto Heaven. Whatever the reason, cats do haunt.

Theoretically, anything could become a ghost, I suppose. Human beings should not have exclusivity on lingering around after they die. Ghosts certainly are winning the popularity contest on network television today, but you rarely hear about ghosts of anything but people. I suppose the thought of ghosts of things like, mosquitoes, would not appeal to too many. The notion that our beloved pets start to come back as ghosts does, however,  seem to attract more than a little attention. One of the things I am often asked as a psychic-medium is “do I ever channel pets from Heaven?” The answer is, I do. Not as often as I channel people, but some former pets do come through  in a channeling session. These spirits of furry and feathered friends tend to arrive with groups of human loved ones from the Other Side during a channeling session. It is fairly common with my channelings to see the spirit of a dog or cat show up. These would be pets that have gone to Heaven and are returning to say hello as spirits. Not as common is encountering one of these furry friends as a ghost.

My experience with Alex the cat was not a bad one. It just startled me. I am sure Alex was just looking for a warm bed (or body) to curl up with for the night. I had experienced a ghost cat a few years earlier at my friend Kathy’s house. She had told me about her “ghost kitty” many times over the years. One day while I was cat sitting her (living) cats, I was spending some time with her cat Eric in the master bedroom. Eric was sequestered in the bedroom, and I felt he needed some company so he would not get lonely. Eric was sitting in the window looking out at the street as I laid back on the bed and closed my eyes. In a few minutes, I felt him jump up on the bed and heard him purring. I reached over to pet him, but reached into empty space. I opened my eyes to see where he was, but he was still sitting in the window, unfazed. Whatever was purring next to me was not Eric, and not alive for that matter. I actually thought at the time how cool it was that I had experienced my first phantom feline. After telling Kathy all about it, we agreed it must be a cat from one of the earlier owners of the house. The house was built in 1908, so there had been several owners.

As with human ghosts, and hauntings in general, cat ghosts seem to come and go. I have never experienced the cat ghost at Columbia House again, and Kathy’s ghost kitty comes and goes as well. Recently my partner and I have been seeing a ghost cat in our home in North Jersey. We see it just out of the corner of our eyes.  First, I thought it was our living cat Harry, but this cat is dark charcoal in color, not light bluish gray like Harry.  Also, when we have seen our ghost cat, Harry has been asleep in another part of the house. I am not sure where this new ghost has come from, but it has never been in the house before, and we have lived here since 1995. I guess I attract all kinds.

Another favorite phantom feline is at the John F. Craig House on Columbia Avenue. I have done many great events at the Craig House in Cape May, and one of the energies in the house is the ghost of a cat. I have seen him a few times, darting into the hallway or around the corner. Owner Barbara Masemore feels it might be a cat that once belonged to former owners of the house, as she is not a cat person, and has never owned one. Again, the cat just seems to be hanging on for some reason.

One of the interesting paranormal occurrences at the Craig House happens upstairs in one of the third floor rooms. Some people have claimed to feel a slight brush against their face in the middle of the night. I had long attributed this sensation to a ghostly child. One that has turned up at a few of our Craig House séances. However, I now think this ghostly phenomenon is more likely the work of a spectral cat, that is just being friendly to those it knows are animal lovers. For people who love animals, being nudged in the middle of the night by a cat is not a frightening sensation, and at that hour, when one is half asleep, there is not much difference between a living cat and a ghost cat!

There are many more B&Bs, inns and hotels where I have experienced ghost cats in Cape May. Aside from the nocturnal knockings, not one of these felines would make a scary ghost story. They are just going about their catty business, not trying to frighten anyone at all. They are just trying to say, “I am here, I’m comfortable, and I am not about to leave”.

Dogs seem to make very faithful ghosts. While their tenure as an earthbound spirits is usually only temporary, they have a warmer and more solid feeling on a psychic level than ghosts of cats. After we lost our dog Higgins, a faithful English springer spaniel who died at almost 16 years old, we sensed his presence for several months. Phantom scratches at the back door echoed his old lifetime routine of telling us he wanted in or out of the house. A doggy toy squeaking in the hallway, when no one was near it,  proved his spirit was still full of the Old Nick. Even distant sounds of his barking echoed down the hallway on a few occasions. I was happy to know he was still faithfully staying by my side, but saddened to think he would not be able to cross over to Heaven should he stay attached to his old master. One day, without any prodding, the haunting stopped. “Higgy” had gone to Heaven. It was certainly his time, but we were sad all over again for losing our old boy.

Ghostly dogs make much better ghost stories than ghost cats. If you have ever walked the long expanse of Higbee Beach in Cape May you may have not even noticed the most famous ghost of the strand, a large black dog. No one is quite sure where the pup originated, but many people over the last 50, possibly more, years have reported seeing a big black dog running along the beach and then vanishing from site. Now, of course, big black dogs DO run along Higbee Beach as it is a dog friendly zone in Cape May, but those dogs are alive. It may seem like some of them are ghosts as certain owners fail to keep a watchful eye on their furry friends but, these dogs are alive and kicking and their owners are usually within a quarter mile or so.

Dogs also haunt various dwellings in town. Probably the most famous paranormal puppies are those of the Emlen Physick Estate. Dr. Emlen Physick, along with his maiden Aunt Emilie, loved animals. They kept a large dog run behind the carriage house, where the outdoor dining tent is today. Aunt Emilie would cook the meals for the pups every day. They were all well loved and cared for by the Physicks.

On one of my first visits to the old mansion on Washington Street, I sensed the presence of several ghostly dogs, both large and small. In those days, the guides at MAC did not speak of such thing as ghosts at the Physick Estate. I did find a few guides with whom I could confide and we happily exchanged our stories of ghostly encounters at the estate. I was told by one guide that Dr. Physick’s mother, Frances Ralston, was NOT a dog lover, and the canines were forbidden to come into the mansion. So why was I sensing ghosts of dogs in the house? Ghosts will follow old patterns and it would be unlikely the ghostly dogs would cross former barriers after being banned from the house in their lifetimes. This presented one of those wonderful mysteries that comes with ghost investigations. Ghosts are full of history and mystery, which is why I love them so much. Behind every haunting is a ghost, and behind every ghost is a story. Even ghosts of animals have a story to tell, should they stop long enough to tell it. I needed to figure out this mystery.

After returning to the house many more times I was finally able to piece together the haunting of the Physick Estate. Mrs. Ralston was dead and gone. Dr. Physick was only an infrequent ghostly visitor, or clever enough to avoid my psychic radar. In time, I discovered another dead maiden aunt, Isabella (Belle) haunting the upstairs. Aunt Belle had epilepsy and died around 1883 in her 30s. She was confined to the upper floors of the mansion and was kept out of site of visitors because having an illness like epilepsy back then was frowned upon by society. Isabella was basically kept shut up when company came to call.  Luckily, she did not have to endure that isolation for too many years. The Physicks built the house in 1879 and Aunt Belle only lived there a few years before she died. Her health issues eventually got the best of her and she became the first of many ghosts at the Physick Estate.

Photo Credit: MAC

Dr. Emlen Physick (pictured left) loved his dogs. When he died in 1915, Aunt Emilie took over as dog caregiver. Emilie was the last to go, living until the 1930s. The dogs were long gone at that point, but I think their faithful spirits stayed with, and guarded, the Physick family’s lone sentinel until she died. When Aunt Emilie crossed, my theory is she found Belle was still residing in the house as a ghost. I would wager Emilie knew this while she was alive. She seemed like a sharp lady with lots of positive energy. Ghosts and séances were the rage in the 1920s and I imagine Emilie would have been into such things. I can picture the Physicks gathered around the parlor table doing a séance back then, trying to conjure up Aunt Belle!

For some reason, maybe the fact that the house has never really been lived in except by the Physicks, Emilie and Belle still roam the halls of the old mansion. Aunt Emilie must have really loved the dogs because they also haunt the house and grounds. My theory has always been that after Mrs. Ralston died and crossed over, Emilie let the house literally go to the dogs. She let them inside the house.  They continue to enjoy that privilege as ghosts.

Oddly, I have sensed the dogs only a few times over the years I have been visiting the Physick Estate. Even at our annual October  “Midnight at the Physick Estate” sèance and ghost hunt, I have rarely sensed any dogs in the house. Others have sensed the ghostly canines on various tours MAC gives of the house, but my experiences with the pups has been very limited. These are benign animals, simply waiting to head off with their mistresses to Heaven. Knowing Aunt Emilie and her penchant for entertaining and love of life, that trip may be some time off! This mix of ghostly dames and dogs seems to like haunting their old home very much. Luckily for all of us ghost enthusiasts it is open year-round as a public museum.

In Cape May, you will encounter many wondrous things. I would imagine Punxsutawney Phil would see quite a few shadows in town. When it comes to the paranormal, you never know what might turn up here. You may see a ghostly man or woman roaming the streets, or even find one sitting on your bed (if you are lucky). You may even encounter the ghost of someone’s former beloved pet. You can rest assured all the furry phantoms I have encountered have been friendly, especially the dogs. If you are the intuitive type, you may even be able to communicate with one of these spirited pups. If you are truly psychic, and they like you, they may even roll over―and play dead.

Until next time, keep the computer monitor lit, you never know what might be purring in the chair behind you.

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