The Hauntings Of Cape May, America’s First Seaside Resort
Cape May has been a favorite vacation spot on the New Jersey shore since the 18th century. Of course, as the City of Cape May points out, people have been living on the peninsula off the coast for centuries, starting with the Lenni-Lenape people. European colonists began putting down roots there in the mid-17th century, but Cape May really got going by the late 1700s, when tourists started visiting for the fresh air, picturesque ocean views, and bountiful seafood dinners. Some maintain that this early popularity makes Cape May the first real resort town in American history.
As the years progressed, hotel after hotel sprang up to host the growing crowds of tourists. A massive 1878 conflagration that obliterated 35 acres of town pushed residents to rebuild and present the city as family-friendly competition to racier resorts like Atlantic City or more budget-busting ones like the Hamptons.
Even if the folksy attractions of Cape May aren’t quite your style, they’ve certainly suited many beachgoers. In fact, if the tales told on popular nighttime trolley tours are to be believed, some people never left. After a while, it may seem as if every building and landmark has a ghostly story attached to it. If you ask local psychic Craig McManus, who’s made something of a one-man cottage industry out of collecting and sharing ghostly tales, Cape May is especially haunted (via Craig McManus). After a visit to this seaside town, you might also be convinced that Cape May is haunted.
The Emlen Physick Estate may host phantom residents
Though it’s now a museum and headquarters for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC), the Emlen Physick Estate was originally a family home. Architect Frank Furness designed a grand, 18-room mansion for Dr. Emlen Physick and his family. According to the Cape May Times, it was finished in 1879. Dr. Physick was a lifelong bachelor who lived with his widowed mother, Frances Ralston, and his unmarried aunt Emilie. CapeMay.com reports that another aunt, Isabelle, was part of the group. Though he had a medical degree, Dr. Physick never did any doctoring, instead living a life of well-funded leisure.
According to CapeMay.com, Dr. Physick died in 1916, while aunt Emilie stayed on until 1935. It then passed through a series of private owners, some of whom had already begun to report spooky goings-on like disembodied footsteps. After visiting the home, local psychic medium Craig McManus claims to have encountered two female spirits, one happy and the other decidedly not so. He also claimed to sense the spirits of multiple dogs, which is in line with the reported Physick family affection for canine companions. Perhaps you can take a tour of the historic estate and, while admiring the fine details of this well-maintained home, you might encounter the good doctor — or at least one of his dogs — yourself.
The Cherry House could be playing tricks on its owners
While many purportedly haunted buildings in Cape May are open to the public, the Cherry House is a private residence. That hasn’t done much to keep the ghost stories down. Much of the rumors of spirit activity are linked to the house’s previous inhabitants, who took up residence there after the home was built in 1849, as per Cape May Magazine (via CapeMay.com). One of the most well-known was James McCrey, who bought the house in 1854 and went through the deaths of three successive wives while living there.
Current owners Beth and Frank Acker admit that both they and contractors working on the place have had eerie trouble with the doors, which open of their own accord even after being deadbolted. Others have experienced more blatant paranormal phenomena. An electrician reportedly entered a bedroom, experienced a sudden drop in temperature, and saw the form of an elderly woman emerge from a wall. Unsurprisingly, the man was frightened by the sudden appearance of an apparition right in front of him. Beth Acker says that he screamed, ran from the home, and refused to return. She suspects that the old woman was none other than Lois Kulp, who bought the Cherry House in 1969 and fell in love with the historic structure. It could be that, with all of the work going on in her previous home, Mrs. Kulp wanted to keep a watchful eye on things from the other side.
A demolished hotel still has a haunting reputation
When it was first constructed, the Hotel Cape May was a grand affair. Cape May Magazine reports that it came amidst great plans for the town, with early 20th-century developers paving over wetlands and dreaming of rich guests. The hotel at the center of it all would be key. The Hotel Cape May ended up over budget and behind schedule, but it finally opened in 1908 … then closed mere months later for repairs. Yet the place hung in there for decades. It was even renamed the Christian Admiral after a teetotaling reverend took over in 1963. Still, time and finances were not kind to the old girl and it was demolished in 1996, as per Cape May Magazine (via CapeMay.com).
The Hotel Cape May managed to build a ghostly reputation in its time. Jennifer Brownstone Kopp, writing for CapeMay.com, recalled her visit to the old hotel just before it was pulled down, with the interior so cold that icicles formed inside. Taking timed exposures, Kopp captured images that included strange white blurs and, just maybe, the profile of a woman who shouldn’t have been there. The chill also brought to mind stories of a woman who died during the conservative Christian Admiral days. Locked out of her room, she attempted to get in via the fire escape. She reportedly fell and now is said to haunt the bed and breakfast built on the site, messing with technology and shaking beds.
Room 10 in the Hotel Macomber is reportedly active
For a while there, it may have seemed like the Hotel Macomber was going to be the last of its kind. As Craig McManus, writing for CapeMay.com, reports, it was built in 1916 and remained the newest hotel in town for more than five decades. Over all that time, one room, in particular, has gained a haunted reputation: room 10. In the past, it’s been hounded by loud, persistent knocking. Yet, when guests open the door to see what the fuss is all about, no one’s there. McManus surmises that the upset may be the work of Irene Wright, a widow who is said to have often stayed in that very room while visiting Cape May. She’s known as the "trunk lady" for having traveled to the hotel with a distinctive steamer trunk.
McManus himself has stayed in room 10 on multiple occasions and claims that it’s typically a quiet, even boring experience. Yet, one evening proved to be more in line with other guests’ stories. He was awoken by cacophonous banging on the room’s door, though no one was outside when he checked. McManus also claims to have been disturbed by the sounds of other doors opening and closing, though staff later told him that he was the only guest in the hotel that evening. His theory that it was a busy late-night housekeeper was also squashed, as he learned all cleaning staff had left well before the unexplained noises.
Ghosts reportedly wander a nearby beach
If you’re a little overwhelmed by all of the reportedly haunted buildings packed into the town of Cape May, then you might head over to the local beaches for a bit of a breather. Hopefully you’re not too spooked, however, as even the sands of Cape May might play host to a haunting or two.
Higbee Beach might just be one of the most haunted outdoor areas in the town, if local stories are to be believed. According to CapeMay.com, the beach included a tavern in the early 19th century, soon to be followed by yet another hotel that was christened The Hermitage. Thomas Higbee, brother of original Hermitage proprietor Joseph, died in 1879 and was entombed in a beach-adjacent grave nearby. His remains were disinterred and reburied in a more traditional cemetery plot in 1937.
Writing for CapeMay.com, local psychic medium Craig McManus suggests that this disturbed burial may have something to do with the hauntings of Higbee Beach. After all, some of the stories involve a ghostly man seen walking along the beach at sunset. Of course, he always disappears before anyone can get a good look at him, frightening beachgoers just as the light is fading. McManus also claims to have sensed the spirit of a young blonde girl who lived during the earliest days of Cape May, as well as the shades of two unidentified American Indian people who were less than happy to encounter McManus and his friend.
A dilapidated homestead got some psychics talking
Not every building in Cape May is a lovingly restored architectural wonder that now houses a hotel or teahouse. Sometimes, the passage of time is far too harsh. No matter how much people may be dedicated to the history of a place, sagging timbers and flaking paint cannot be ignored.
That doesn’t mean that such a history must be forgotten. Cape May Magazine memorialized the life of resident Henry Sawyer, a Civil War veteran who was captured by Confederate forces and narrowly escaped execution (a letter from his wife to President Abraham Lincoln helped foster the prisoner swap that saved Sawyer’s life). He returned to Cape May and, in 1875, built the namesake Sawyer’s Boarding House. It’s still standing, though the building has undergone a few renovations, and the sign out front now identifies it as the Chalfonte Hotel. While the Chalfonte still commands attention, Sawyer’s family residence to the south of town didn’t fare quite as well. It was in such poor shape that it was demolished in 2000.
Before that, however, the old Sawyer house was rumored to be the site of some ghostly visitations, including a sighting of the long-dead Henry Sawyer himself. Medium Gail Farace visited the property and may have sensed the spirit of Mary Emma, Sawyer’s second wife. Indeed, Farace claimed that the home was full of ghosts, though her visit to the property with a reporter from Cape May Magazine didn’t turn up many verifiable names.
The Queen’s Hotel may be reliving a lurid past
While many establishments in Cape May have rather anodyne pasts as family homes and seaside hotels, some places have a more colorful tale to tell. Take the Queen’s Hotel, which, if "Haunted Places" is to be believed, once housed both a gambling establishment and a brothel. The working women reportedly lived on the third floor of the building, which is now the site of some of the hotel’s most haunted spaces. Guests have reported furniture that moves by itself, while some have even detected an unseen presence that strikes the beds in some rooms.
According to CapeMay.com, other guests of the Queen’s Hotel claimed to smell perfume in the especially haunted Plum Room. Once, hotel goers were even locked out of their room, though owner Dane Wells retained some skepticism about the incident. She also denied the persistent rumor that one guest was forced to sleep on the nearby landing when the room’s door wouldn’t budge. Others are more apt to elaborate on the story of a haunting in the Queen’s Hotel, like renovators who named the spirit "Martha" and assumed she was one of the women who worked in the hotel’s more raucous and colorful past.
Cape May comes complete with a haunted lighthouse
Lighthouses are pretty much always haunted, at least if you go by the stories that are whispered through every seaside town that has just such a structure. Perhaps it’s something about the lonely fate of many a lighthouse keeper or the associated tragedy of nearby shipwrecks that keep the ghost stories coming. At any rate, the Cape May lighthouse is no exception to the eerie rule.
What exactly is up with the local lighthouse? Perhaps, as CapeMay.com reports, the spirit activity has something to do with the three lighthouses that occupied the same spot, with the first recorded one going up in 1823, followed by another in 1847, and the current structure in 1859. Visitors to this coastal outlook have reported seeing a ghostly woman and child standing on the first landing on the 199 metal steps inside the building. She’s dressed in suitably gothic attire, sporting a long white dress from a bygone era. The Southern Mansion hotel further embellishes the tale, writing that the unidentified spectral woman holds a lantern, like any good lighthouse ghost who is spotted floating through the darkness. Another haunting is said to be courtesy of the spirit of a man who reportedly fell from the top of the structure in 1995.
Even the Cape May restaurant scene is spooky
Perhaps you’re on vacation in Cape May and you’ve grown sick and tired of all the ghost talk. So, you head down to the local seafood restaurant for a nice plate of surf ‘n’ turf. Only … what was that odd shadow?
Turns out you can’t grab a bowl of clam chowder in this town without coming across a ghost story. Take the Peter Shields Inn and Restaurant, located on the east side of Cape May. Its fare has received glowing reviews, but the fancy meal may be accompanied by a ghostly visitation if medium Craig McManus is to be believed. Writing for CapeMay.com, McManus notes that the namesake of the inn Peter Shields was president of the Cape May Real Estate Company in 1905. He oversaw the building of the Hotel Cape May, which was so beleaguered by setbacks that Shields is said to have become a broken man. In the present day, McManus says that he encountered the spirit of a downtrodden Peter Shields on the staircase of the inn.
On another occasion, McManus and a small group of friends dined at the inn. But a trip to the bathroom produced a sense of despair and the conviction that someone had died down there. Research revealed that Peter Shields’ teenage son, Earle, had died nearby in a 1907 hunting accident. It could be that Earle is the source of some of the inn’s ghostly activity.
Historic Congress Hall is said to be full of spirits
Built way back in 1816, the Congress Hall hotel has certainly had plenty of time to collect a ghost or two, even if the fire of 1878 consumed the original edifice. According to Cape May Magazine, the hotel was quickly rebuilt in 1879. It’s since undergone a series of structural and architectural facelifts, though renovators have worked to keep the original character of the 1879 building intact. Perhaps, as in other restored buildings throughout Cape May, it’s construction work that riles up the ghosts. At any rate, the current Congress Hall is said to be pretty crowded, spiritually speaking.
Medium Gail Farace says that she’s encountered a number of spirits at the historic hotel. As she told a reporter for CapeMay.com, while out for lunch at Congress Hall, she remarked on a well-dressed woman carrying a parasol. Only, her dining companion, Leigh Ann Austin, didn’t see any such lady dressed in Victorian-era attire. Nevertheless, Farace followed the spirit, with Austin close behind. The incorporeal woman stopped her walk in the lobby and pointed at seemingly nothing. The specter vanished before Farace could fully understand what was happening. The next day, a fire occurred at the hotel — near the spot where the ghost was pointing, Farace contends.
Even bars in Cape May could be haunted
Even the drinking holes in this resort town aren’t left to lag behind hotels and homes when it comes to resident ghosts. CapeMay.com reports that the Washington Inn is said to be host to a spirit of a young girl, who has gained notoriety for calling out the names of staff members. Naturally enough, she’s said to only do so when someone is working alone in the establishment. Apparently not put off by an eerie name-calling session, staff have named her Elizabeth.
According to Washington Inn, the building that hosts the restaurant and bar was built in 1846, with a facade meant to mimic George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon (hence the name). For nearly a century, it remained in private hands, opening only in 1940 as a public establishment. With such a long history and so many people living and visiting the space, tracking down the identity of a shadowy spirit like Elizabeth may be all but impossible.
Disembodied voices are one thing, but Elizabeth is also said to be game for an appearance, though not necessarily right in front of someone. As per CapeMay.com, she’s believed to have shown up in at least one photo, alarming a mother who wanted to take a picture of her daughter at a kid-friendly teatime. Where other ghosts might be called to action by changes to their associated building, the removal of a staircase at Washington Inn may have tamped down Elizabeth’s activity.