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1966: The Ghost of Gay Street

In New York City, New York, USA, there is a three story brick house in the popular neighborhood of Greenwich Village that is on most tour lists of haunted places in the city. Located at 12 Gay Street, the building was likely constructed in 1827, and is one of the older houses in any neighborhood of New York. It had a lively history, with many well-known and influential people having lived in it... and, rumor has it, at least one never left.

Number 12 Gay Street
Number 12 Gay Street [Larger version here]

        As far as the known facts of the matter, the first recorded notes on the house's unusual side were published in 1966 by Hans Holzer in his book Yankee Ghosts. In case you don't know, Hans Holzer was THE ghost-hunter in the United States in the 1960's and 70's, and he was a very popular guest on TV shows. Holzer's books detailing his investigations into hauntings and psychic powers sold abnormally well largely because Holzer just plain knew how to tell a good story. So it should be no surprise then that many of Holzer's investigations continue to be reported by new authors on spooky phenomena to this day, even though it's now often forgotten Holzer was the person who first brought the matters to national attention. Such is the story of "The Ghost of Gay Street," as Holzer dubbed the haunting in his book.

        Holzer was introduced to the occupants of the house, Frank Paris and Ted Lewis, in May, 1963. Holzer brought a woman named Betty Ritter with him to the meeting, but was sure to not have her sit with him during the interview... her job was to get psychic impressions of the house and people, so Holzer wanted to keep her uninformed about everything as much as possible to avoid influencing her take on the haunting (he hadn't even told her the address of the house previous to their visit!). Paris and Lewis had also invited an older lady, Alice May Hall, and another man identified as "Richard X." to join the group; Hall had experienced some of the strange things in the house. Presumably, Richard X. was just visiting with Hall, as he isn't recorded as having said anything during the interview.

        Paris and Lewis had bought the property in 1956. Paris described a number of odd things that had occurred since. The basement of the house had been converted into a workshop and puppet theater (both men were puppeteers). One night at 3AM when both Paris and Lewis were working late, Paris suddenly became aware of a strong odor of violets. The reaction of their black spaniel showed Paris that the dog smelled the sudden odor as well... but Lewis didn't. At all.

        A repeating behavior Paris reported was the sound of people walking up and down the stairs, a noise that only happened at night and which they had investigated multiple times, all to no avail. At one point both Paris and Lewis were away for a trip, and a guest was watching the house for them. When they returned, their guest asked "Say, who are all these people going up and down the stairs?" Apparently, he had heard the people on the stairs too, but had thought the noise was somehow coming from the house next door, which he thought might be connected. It wasn't.

        Ms. Hall explained that she was visiting the house in February (just two months earlier), and had been sitting in the very same room they were now in --  a living room on the second floor -- when she looked over at the entranceway to see a man standing there. He was wearing evening clothes with an Inverness Cape, and had dark hair; she saw him "quite plainly." It was just dusk, with still some light outside. Hall turned to tell Paris about the man... and the man was gone. Paris didn't believe her at the time; but about a week later at dawn, Paris also saw the man Hall had described. The man's face was obscured by the shadows of the hallway, but he was wearing the evening clothes and cape, as well as a hat this time. Both Hall and Paris stated the man was "youngish" and had "sparkling eyes." The dog had gone up to the figure to greet him!

        At this point, Holzer had Betty Ritter walk through the house to get psychic impressions and to see what she felt on the whole matter. She soon noted that she felt a crime had been committed in the house, which seemed to be connected to a terrible argument that had happened between two people upstairs. She also described a gambling den, opium smokers, and a language she could not understand... and this was associated with a man named Ming.

        In the basement Ritter acted possessed for a few minutes and mumbled the name "Emil" twice. She stated that a woman had been decapitated in the house, and that her bones were still there somewhere. As they went back upstairs, Ritter said she saw documents with government seals on them, and felt that someone named Mary Ellen had lived in the house and before them some "well-known government official named Wilkins or Wilkinson." Ritter hadn't been told that Paris and Lewis had bought the house from a real-estate broker named Mary Ellen Strunsky, who lived there previous to them; and Holzer discovered after the visit that a former New York mayor named Jimmy Walker had owned the house... one of his "many loves" was said to have stayed there and, strangely, records related to the house at this time had gone missing at the Hall of Records.

        An attempt to get Ritter to go back downstairs to find the bones got nowhere; she was overwhelmed by her impression of tragedy, and urged them to stop.

        Other bits of information that Holzer turned up after the visit was that a sculptor appeared to have owned the house after Mayor Walker, possibly before the 1930's. This man had built a trapdoor in the ground floor, likely over a hidden liquor cabinet; this was because alcohol was illegal in the United States between 1920 and 1933... so many people had clever ways of hiding a good drink! On a last note, Holzer was unable to find any evidence of an opium den having been in the house, but given its age it wasn't impossible.

        So with that... an implied crime and strange smells, sounds, and apparitions reported... Holzer closed his accounting of the Ghost of Gay Street.

        Nine years later, however, the story got stranger.

The Shadow of The Shadow

         On July 5, 1975, a staff writer for a small press magazine about pulp fiction got incredibly lucky. The writer was Will Murray for Duende magazine; and he had scored an interview at a New York comic art convention with the prolific author Walter Gibson, better known at the time as "Maxwell Grant"... writer of over 280 pulp novels featuring the detective/superhero known as The Shadow.

The Shadow Magazine, Fall 1948
The Shadow [Larger version here]

        The word 'prolific' is actually inadequate to explain how much Gibson wrote. He was known to work on multiple stories at once on different typewriters, wandering back and forth as he had the next set of ideas for each story. He would also type until his fingers were swollen and bleeding, and produced on average from 1931 to 1949 two full Shadow novels a month... along with other writing projects related and not. Apparently, for many years he was the sole writer for the entire Shadow magazine, which always included the main Shadow novel and several short stories by differing "authors"; Gibson had a list of names he liked to use. In addition, Gibson was a professional stage magician and had an interest in weird topics that often added flavor to his stories.

        In 1975 Gibson was 79 years old, but still impressed Murray with his clarity and knowledge on many things. During the interview, Gibson had a small, but odd, sidetrack from a larger topic he was discussing.

"I remember talking with Ed Burkholder. He and I had an apartment together, down in the Village for a couple of years. That's the apartment that's supposed to be haunted now, 12 Gay St. Hans Holzer said it's haunted. People see a man in evening clothes moving in and out. But that was where I wrote the last Shadow. And what they're seeing is Lamont Cranston. They're seeing what we call an after-image psychic projection, not a ghost."

Ed Burkholder was a staff writer at Street & Smith, the publishers of The Shadow magazine... and Lamont Cranston was The Shadow's "secret identity" in the novels, a wealthy playboy well connected with high society. So, essentially, Gibson claimed the ghost of Gay Street was a figment of his own imagination that was being seen by later residents!

        When the interview was published in 1976, Murray added some notes to this extraordinary claim. Gibson, he said, did not believe in ghosts at all; but he did believe in psychic powers, a popular borderline topic in the 1970's... and this is why Gibson felt that a "psychic projection" was the cause of the apparition seen in the house. The figure's features had been described in Holzer's account as 'obscured by the shadows of the hallway' and that it had 'shining eyes' all of which struck Gibson as similar to how he had envisioned the character of Lamont Cranston in the novels. Murray also added that in Tibetan lore there is a being known as a 'tulpa' which is a living being created by the concentrated focus of an individual, and then speculated that Gibson's unique focus on his writing may have created such a being.

        This all ignored, of course, the fact that other phenomena were also reported in the haunting; did Gibson's imagination create the sound of people on the stairs or the smell of violets? In addition, the figure that Gibson thought was his creation had only been reported twice, and just two months before Holzer investigated... why wasn't it seen in the 17 years previous? So while it's possibly that Gibson had lived at 12 Gay Street -- as a renter, there would be fewer records of his being there -- there was no particular reason to believe his claim for the origin of the ghost was true... especially since Gibson had suggested it nine years after Holzer's story had been published. But Gibson's claim was picked up by a high profile publication, and the story spread... and changed.

The Mothman Mix-Up

        As I mentioned, Hans Holzer was famous for his ghost stories; in the 1970's, John Keel was becoming similarly well-known for his association with UFO reports and other strange tales. Keel had become one of the more prominent people in the field of UFO investigation, for the same reason Holzer had become well-known in his... Keel could tell a good tale. In 1975, Keel published what is arguably his best known book, and one that became a cornerstone to UFOlogy for years to come, called The Mothman Prophecies.

        The Mothman Prophecies is a auto-biographical coverage of a strange series of events that Keel investigated in Point Pleasant, Virginia, and covers a lot of ground... a monster called the 'mothman,' cattle mutilations, men in black, alien contactees... all events looking strangely disconnected, yet ultimately directly connected. Now I'll be dealing with many stories and aspects of this book at a later date; but what's important for right now is just two paragraphs from the first few pages of Keel's book.

"There is an old house on a tree-lined street in New York's Greenwich Village that harbors a strange ghost. Hans Holzer and other ghost-chasers have included the house in their catalogs of haunted places. The phantom has been seen by several people in the recent years. It is dressed in a long black cape and wears a wide-brimmed slouch hat pulled down over its eyes as it slinks from room to room."

"There were never any reports of hauntings there until about twenty years ago, after the house was vacated by a writer named Walter Gibson. He was, and is, an extraordinarily prolific author. For many years he churned out a full-length novel each month, and many of those novels were written in the house in Greenwich Village. All of them were centered around the spectacularly successful character Gibson created in the 1930's, that nemesis of evil known as The Shadow. If you have read any of The Shadow novels you know that he was fond of lurking in dark alleys dressed in a cape and broad-brimmed slouch hat."

Now, I have no idea how Keel heard about Gibson's claim... since The Mothman Prophecies was published in 1975, it pre-dates the publication of the interview with Gibson in the Duende magazine. Perhaps he was at the convention; perhaps someone wrote to him about it; perhaps he talked to Gibson himself. In any case it's clear that Keel got the wrong idea of the matter, thus believing that Gibson claimed it was a vision of The Shadow being seen by people, and not the relatively more normal looking secret identity of Lamont Cranston.

        Keel then also explains the idea behind "tulpas," with a strong implication that phenomena was exactly what had appeared at the 'haunting.' Since no further details of the original investigation are mentioned, it's possible that Keel never read Holzer's original report... but due to the popularity of The Mothman Prophecies, a legend about The Shadow being seen for real started to be repeated by other authors. To this day, the tale of The Shadow's 'tulpa' is used by authors on strange topics as proof that tulpas do happen... even though there is no proof it happened.

Haunted?

          Like many of his short accounts of events or investigations, Holzer went on to include his story of "The Ghost of Gay Street" in multiple different collections over time; I know of at least three, with the most recent dating to 2002. For this reason, some people now claim Holzer investigated the house at 12 Gay Street multiple times; but he didn't and, as far as I can determine, no one else ever did either. So Holzer's account of the 1963 investigation remains the only actual claim for the property being haunted... but, perhaps because Holzer kept re-printing the story, the tale of the haunting still pops up on websites talking about ghosts or hidden history in New York City as if it was recently investigated.

        When the house went up for sale in 2009, a number of sites felt the need to once again report on the haunting of the house as a warning to potential buyers... forgetting to mention that the 'ghosts' being reported had been mentioned only once, and 46 years earlier.

        I, however, suspect that if there were still ghosts resident in the property previous to 2009, there is a good chance they were gone after 2009; for the house was being sold as a gutted shell, awaiting the construction of a new interior. Generally speaking, when walls change around from the original layout in a house, many ghosts stop being seen. That, however, doesn't stop the original story from being told; and nor will it prevent ghost hunters and pulp fiction enthusiasts from taking pictures of the house when they wander through New York.