The Ghosts of John McConnell House

Walking down Jackson Street off season, in the evening, is sometimes like walking through a graveyard at night. Many of the buildings sit silent and dark, being closed for the season. Should you happen to glance up at some of the darkened windows in the upper floors of these old seaside sentinels, you may just catch a quick glimpse of something looking back at you. Then, in an instant, it will be gone. Was it a ghost, or just your imagination? On this venerable Cape May thoroughfare, it is more likely to be the former, as many “former” residents still reside here, decades after they have died.

Jackson Street was originally a Native American Indian path to the ocean. The Kechemeche tribe came to the peninsula to fish and swim in the summer, much as we do today. Once the Europeans arrived, the Native tribes started to pack up and leave. At some point, the new arrivals to America started to realize Cape May’s cool breezes and great beaches had great potential as a resort. In the late 1700s, Jackson Street was surveyed and straightened as taverns and small boarding houses began to spring up. Eventually Jackson Street became a major street on “Cape Island” and many cottages and hotels were erected. In 1878, a great fire leveled the area and reduced the buildings and neighborhood to ashes. Over the next decade, homes and hotels rose like a flock of Phoenixes and Jackson Street was reborn again. Layers of history usually have a few ghosts tucked into those layers. The ghosts seem to have taken to the neighborhood. Jackson Street remains one of the most haunted spots in the country.

In my The Ghosts of Cape May books, I have written about many haunts on Jackson Street. Windward and Saltwood Houses, 22 Jackson, Poor Richards, the Merry Widow, the Carroll Villa and the Virginia Hotel have all had some paranormal activity in the past. It was quite by chance that I stumbled onto yet another one of Jackson Street’s haunts, the John McConnell House.

I had stopped by late one summer evening to see my friends Bob and Lisa Ransom, the owners, at that time, of The Ugly Mug. Bob and Lisa had just purchased the John McConnell House, one of the historic homes on Jackson Street—a home people knew very little about. Nestled between Poor Richards Inn and the Tides Condominiums, the McConnell House has sat quietly by the beach for 128 years.

There is something magical about Jackson Street. Friends of mine who have visited Sedona, Arizona have often commented on the special energies there. These energy spots are thought to be vortices by new age thinkers. I feel there is some kind of energy around Jackson Street. All of Cape May has a very special, positively charged energy, but Jackson Street seems to have energy all to itself.

Number fifteen Jackson Street is thought to have been built around 1883 on the site of some of the hotels that had been consumed by the great blaze of 1878. Before the fire, John McConnell and his brother Alexander owned many of the lots on the east side of Jackson Street. Alexander McConnell was the original owner of Ebbitt House, what is now the Virginia Hotel. A few years after his brother built the hotel, John McConnell built his house at number fifteen Jackson Street as a grand summer residence for his family and friends.

There is very little information on the McConnells in historical circles in Cape May. John is listed in the 1907 city directory as the proprietor and manager of the Ebbitt House. In 1910, however, a postcard in my collection shows the name of the establishment was changed to The Virginia and A.M. Ludlam is shown as the owner. I would guess Ludlam changed the name when he bought the place and expanded it. The McConnells seem to disappear from Cape May after that time. Some of their staff and friends however, decided to remain behind on a permanent basis.

McConnell House is a beautiful and vast Victorian with one of the best wrap-around porches in town! A few years back, the Ransoms sold the house to Bob and Jennie Mullen. The Mullen’s Belvidere Cottage on Gurney Street is also featured in my Book 1, so it was only fitting that they now own not one, but two haunted houses in town! I should note here that this residence is a private home, and while the owners have graciously allowed me to write about the ghosts here, the house and property are not open to the public.

When I first entered McConnell House, I could sense multiple spirits. I was able to do a thorough walk-through one night with the Ransoms. The first ghost I encountered was that of an older woman with white hair in the rear bedroom on the third floor. She was wearing white pants and a shirt and I was not sure at first if it was a man or a woman. I later felt it was the spirit of an older woman. Someone had thought she was a former servant of the house and that she lived on the third floor, but third floor hauntings do not usually indicate ghosts of former servants. Ghosts try to get away from the living. This is why many ghosts are encountered on the third floor of a home. There is a common misconception that if a ghost is haunting the third floor of a home, it must be a former servant who lived on that floor—as many servants did in the old days.

Because so little is known about the McConnells, neither Bob nor Lisa Ransom knew if they had a large family, or if they had servants at all. In my mind, the ghostly woman in the white suit did not feel like a servant. She felt like she lived there and owned the house. Was she a McConnell? It was not until months later, when I was staying across the Street at the Windward House, that I broached the subject with Sandy Miller, owner of the Windward House across the street and a longtime resident of Cape May.

“That was Miss Park!” Sandy exclaimed. Miss Helen Park, as it turned out, was a retired schoolteacher who had taken up permanent residence in Cape May. The phrase “permanent residence” has a different meaning in haunted Cape May! Both Sandy and Harriett Sosson from Poor Richard’s Inn remembered Miss Park and related how she used to wear white linen suits and cut her front lawn with an old-fashioned push lawnmower. Sandy also mentioned that Helen, in later years, needed another income so she rented out most of the house to boarders only reserving the least desirable room in the back of the third floor as her own bedroom.

The pieces now fit the puzzle. It would seem that Miss Park (she never married) is still renting out her home to others, except she may not realize one small fact—she no longer owns it. Don’t tell that to a ghost. Ghosts seem to feel they have eminent domain over former properties they once owned. I think they feel most people cannot see or sense them, so they are not really bothering the living. Miss Park’s ghost doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the house. Since Helen Park died in 1981 at the age of 81, she wants nothing more than to enjoy a few more years by the sea in her beloved home. Luckily for her she has company—the dead kind.

As I traveled through the second floor bedrooms on that first visit with Bob and Lisa, I stopped to encounter another “lost” soul, a woman who only referred to herself as “Dorothy from the Baltimore”. At first, I thought she had said “from Baltimore” and thought she might have been one of the guests over the years that passed while staying in the house. It was only later that I stumbled upon an old Cape May postcard from the turn of the last century when I realized she was not talking about the city of Baltimore, she meant the Baltimore Hotel. The Baltimore (pictured below in the 1911 postcard of Jackson Street looking north from Beach Avenue) stood next door to McConnell House until 1962 (when it was razed during urban renewal) on the site of the current Tides Condominiums.

Ghosts can and do move around. They are transient beings. I could not get much out of Dorothy that night. On subsequent returns to the McConnell House, I could not sense her at all. I am sure the mammoth old Baltimore had its share of ghosts and maybe Dorothy decided to leave before the wrecking ball hit. It seems that she may have moved on from McConnell House now—or she might have simply been out visiting a few ghostly friends.

A haunted house is like a paranormal play in motion. Each time I visit an active haunt the cast may change. Sometimes I sense nothing at all and the haunt goes dormant for a period. On one of the later trips, after Bob and Jenny Mullen had moved in, I encountered another female ghost in the house. This ghost did give me the sense that she was a former servant. Where was she on my last visits, I thought? Maybe she had the night off. Psychically I sensed the name Margaret. Unlike the more demure Miss Park, Margaret was an iron handed, no-nonsense ghost .Some ghosts will move away from a medium and choose not to make contact, this one was in my face.

I first encountered Margaret in the rear of the home. The original house had a summer kitchen and possibly a guest house in back on the first floor. A long, outdoor hallway went between the two back sections. When an extension was added to the second and third floor sometime in the early 20th century, the back hallway was enclosed, leaving the outdoor clapboards as inside walls, and sealed doors that lead to nowhere. It was in this back hallway that I first sensed the old servant. I will sense names, images, and ideas on a psychic level. I can remember Margaret complaining about people tracking dirt into the hall, and talking about cooking in the back of the house. She complained a lot.

When I revisited McConnell House yet another time, I encountered Margaret in all her glory. She spent about an hour and a half telling me everything that needed to be done to the house, complaining about Bob Mullen’s “funny carpentry” on his outdoor shower (which I thought looked pretty nice) and talking about Bob tracking dirt into the house over and over again.

Bob must have had a recent run in with Margaret when he was working on the shower out back, and kept coming in and out. He admitted he might have been tracking mud and sawdust into the back of the house, which, according to the agitated ghost, was apparently the reason that the door shut and locked itself, locking Bob out of the house. Margaret had apparently had enough and dead bolted the door from the inside so that Bob would not be able to get back in with his muddy feet. The term “dead bolt” could not be more appropriate here.

One would think that three dead women were enough to haunt one house, but the strongest presence at McConnell House is not one of the aforementioned, it is the ghost of a young child. This ghostly boy told me his tragic story on two different occasions. When ghosts communicate with me, I do not hear them with my ears. I hear them with my mind. It is through imagery and words that they send their messages. I first encountered the ghost of the young boy named “Sherman” while sitting in the living room with Bob and Lisa Ransom. I sensed that there was a ghost under the house, where there is now a crawlspace. I tried to focus my energy on the young boy and get him to come forward. So many ghosts on Jackson Street, so little time!

To a ghost, a medium is like a flame to a moth. A ghost will realize that I can sense their presence, and offer a bridge to the living. Some ghosts will jump at this opportunity, others will move away. The boy wanted to talk. Having a conversation with a ghost is not like having a conversation with a living person. Ghosts fire off rapid bits and pieces of information that my psychic mind must catch and interpret. Sometimes the information does not make sense while other times pieces of the story seem to be missing. This is because the link between my mind and the ghost’s mind is not perfect. It can be compared to a bad cell phone connection. I hear some of the information, but miss part of the message in the process. I then need to fill in the blanks by trying to understand what the ghost is trying to say.

Sherman showed me that he came into Cape May by train—on a boxcar. He came with others who had come from an orphanage, or had somehow become homeless. He came to Cape May because it was the last stop on the train and he hoped to go out on a boat and sail the high seas. Many young kids might fantasize about this type of adventure—especially orphans. Reality set in when Sherman and his friends started to be caught by the authorities and sent back to wherever they came from. His story was choppy and seemed incomplete. I could not tell if he was leading me on or telling me his true story. Ghosts can BS as well as the living, and I am sure a few of them delight in giving psychics false information.

I think the basis of this story was true. Maybe Sherman had grown to an age where he was released from an orphanage and went to Cape May looking for work. He told me he lived under the house, in the crawlspace beneath the front porch. Could he have been squatting under the house for shelter? Maybe there was nowhere else to stay when he arrived or he had no money for lodging.  He seemed to indicate he moved around a lot.

Sherman mentioned a woman across the street giving him food and shelter, but talk of sending him back to an orphanage sent him running again. He existed on handouts from the hotel kitchens like a stray animal. On another recent visit, he showed me a picture of a small white mouse, one that he kept as a pet. The mouse apparently made the journey south with him and was his only true sense of family while living on the streets and under McConnell House. He showed me that the mouse died eventually, and he buried her in a small grave under the porch near where he slept. His little friend, who had kept him company day and night was now gone. He was now truly alone. His fate would soon be the same as his beloved white mouse.

I think he perished that winter from being in the extremities. That information came as more of a psychic feeling, rather than a ghostly dialogue. Ghosts generally prefer not to talk about how they met there end, and this boy’s journey was far from over.

For some reason, some people just will not take the cue from Heaven to come home. They have some kind of attachment that keeps them earthbound. Children are even more susceptible to this because their parents are still living, or they are afraid of the people coming forward to help them cross over to Heaven. Sherman felt safe where he was, even if the elements finally did him in. He does not feel the cold any longer, but he seems very lonely.

Of all the experiences the people have had at McConnell House, one of the strongest and most recurring is seeing a young boy sitting on the bed in a third floor bedroom, looking down at the floor. One day, Jenny had just finished making up the beds returning to the third floor only to find an indentation on the beds like someone had been sitting on them. A friend of the Mullens also stayed a few nights and witnessed the hall light coming on and then off at about three in the morning. A ghostly visit to the outhouse?

McConnell House is a place I shall keep my paranormal eye on in years to come. I hope the older ghosts can get Sherman to cross over, even if they don’t want to. He really deserves the chance to move on and even come back again and enjoy life as a living breathing young man.

Next time you pass by 15 Jackson Street, don’t forget to keep an eye out for a little white mouse running up the front walk…you may just spot a few ghosts running after it. Let’s just hope Sherman gets it before Margaret and her broom do!

Until next time, keep the light lit—mice are nocturnal creatures—as are ghosts.

To read more about what I do, grab a copy of one of my four Ghosts of Cape May books, available autographed through my website.

Thanks for reading my column! – Craig McManus