This article was supposed to be about a hidden-gem museum in New York City. Instead, it’s turned into admissions of a confessed scaredy-cat who discovered she’d been inside New York City’s most haunted house. Furthermore, it’s likely the visit was with a few of the city’s infamous ghosts in close proximity.
My fears have nothing to do with traveling solo or speeding through Swedish Lapland on a quad. Those are thrilling, adventurous accomplishments that build confidence and a thirst for more. What I don’t do is seek out hair-raising, terrifying experiences for entertainment. I don’t watch horror movies. I skip haunted houses. I’ll happily wait elsewhere while travel companions take night walking tours through graveyards.
During a visit to Warwick Castle in the UK, I turned white and wide-eyed when a guide answered my seemingly innocent castle question with tales of spirits and unexplained occurrences. While working summer theater during college, one particular town had numerous supposed haunted locations including the theater itself. I made sure to always have flesh and blood company around and to never be the last one there.
All of this brings me to the subject of this post, the Merchant’s House Museum in Lower Manhattan. As a teacher, I’m always looking for authentic places perfect for firsthand historical research. While the traveler in me likes exploring my backyard, magnificent New York City with all of its 100s of things to do and see. So, on an ordinary fall day, I rustled my husband up off the couch and down to an unassuming house on E. 4th Street.
The Merchant’s House was built in 1832 with a Federalist style exterior and Greek Revival interior. It’s one of the oldest buildings in New York City and is a registered National Historic Landmark. Seabury and Eliza Tredwell bought the house in 1835. It remained the family’s residence until 1933 when the youngest of the Tredwell’s 8 children, Gertrude, died in the house at 93 years old.
Gertrude spent her life preserving the house where she was born and its 19th-century contents. As a result, the house was and still is a living piece of 19th-century New York City history. Luckily, a distant cousin recognized the historical treasure of the more than 3,000 original period pieces, from furniture to clothing, household items to family portraits. He bought, repaired, and just 3 years after Gertrude’s death, opened the house as a museum.
For the history lovers out there, doesn’t the Merchant’s House Museum sound incredibly fascinating?
Well, you’d be right! The museum is captivating and one of the best-kept homes from this period in the country. At the Merchant’s House, visitors can explore on their own or with a free guide. I went with the guide who explained about the time period, the house, the family, and the changing city all around.
The tour began on the lower level and showed the kitchen and talked about servant’s life. 19th-century folk liked their food completely overcooked perhaps to compensate for their poor dental hygiene. We’re talking pasta boiling for over an hour!
Downton Abbey style bells hang in the kitchen and throughout the house. The bells were not labeled. The servants memorized the sound of each jingle. They had to know who was calling and from where.
A casual living room sits just next to the kitchen on the lower level. With no central heating, the Tredwell family would have used this room often. The low ceilings and the kitchen heat would have kept this room warmer than the rest of the house.
The tour guide continued upstairs and through the formal parts of the house before ending on the top floor outside the servants’ bedroom. She gave us an intimate look at the Tredwells and their home which made it easier to imagine what upper-class life in New York City was like in the 19th-century.
(After touring the Merchant’s House, visit the Tenement Museum, too. You’ll be able to see the huge everyday differences between the rich and the poor living in New York City during this time.)
Unbeknownst to me at the time, going with the guide may have been the right choice for more than just educational purposes!
You see, after my visit and in preparation for this post, I researched more about the Merchant’s House to check and add to the facts I’d learned. Goosebumps ran down my spine as I sat in the darkness of my living room with only the glow of my iPad lighting up the shadows. I shifted uneasily on the couch. “Merchant’s House Manhattan’s Most Haunted House,” says the New York Times. “#1 Most Haunted Places in NYC,” writes TimeOut New York.
Apparently, the Tredwell’s never left.
Shortly after Gertrude’s death, while repairs were underway for the museum, people began reporting strange happenings. Over the years, staff and visitors have heard footsteps on the stairs and music coming from a piano that no longer works. Staff computers freeze repeatedly upon typing the word “Tredwell.” People in the house claim to have felt unexplained cold spots and something brushing alongside them.
What’s more, visitors and staff claim to have seen swirling clouds of mist and sightings of beings believed to be Gertrude, her father Seabury, and her brother Samuel. On one occasion after her death, neighbors reported seeing a woman who looked like Gertrude come running out of the front door waving her arms to scold noisy children playing on the street.
Over the years, there have been spooky stories and sightings of a woman wearing a brown dress of the time period in the house. Museum visitors were told by a woman in period clothing at the front door the museum was closed when it was not. Three guys touring the house on their own say they were blocked from continuing by an older man who wanted them to leave. The men identified the man from a portrait as Seabury Tredwell.
While on another instance, a former museum volunteer claims to have seen and spoken with a man identified as Samuel Tredwell while looking at family photos in an upstairs bedroom. Once she was joined in the room by her boyfriend, the man was no longer there and could not be found in the house.
Manhattans most haunted house, a.k.a. the Merchant’s House Museum has also been featured on TV.
Around Halloween, the museum takes advantage of its spine-tingling title. It hosts nighttime candlelight ghost tours and other “spirited” events, which are clearly only for the sturdiest of souls. The museum also runs paranormal raffles. The winner gets to be present during a research visit conducted by a paranormal expert.
I, on the other hand, break into a cold sweat just typing “candlelight ghost tours” and will not be entering any paranormal raffles. In fact, I’m glad to have learned about these ghost stories after my visit.
So, do I recommend the Merchant’s House Museum to New York City visitors?
Absolutely! The house is a genuine historic treasure and should not be missed. (I know, easy for me to say now sitting here behind my computer!) Your visit will last about an hour and will be nothing short of fascinating.
How does a confessed scaredy-cat like me recommend you (hopefully) avoid the ghosts at New York City’s most haunted house?
Take a self-guided tour of the museum with your travel companions. If traveling solo, make an NYC friend before entering and bring this new said friend with you. Either way, you may or may not want to cover your face with your hands leaving just peek holes through your fingers as you walk through the house.
Join a free guided tour available at 2:00 & 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays and 2:00 p.m. Fridays-Mondays. The museum is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (Incidentally, this happens to be another way to avoid the ghosts. Although, you’d miss out on a gem of a landmark house and museum.) Then, be sure to stick with your guide and group! Don’t linger behind or wander ahead!
Hopefully, you’ll be lucky and Gertrude and her relatives will just silently and invisibly welcome you to their home. (My fingers are crossed for you, dear reader!)
Would you like to visit the Merchant’s House Museum? What’s the spookiest place you’ve visited?
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