Widow of Washington HeightsWidow of Washington Heights

from Romantic Ghost Stories
by Julie Burtinshaw

On a cool September afternoon, in a suburb north of New York City, a group of impatient schoolchildren wait outside the Morris-Jumel Museum for the doors to open. Suddenly, an ethereal figure, clad only in a filmy lavender nightdress, appears on the second-floor balcony and angrily tells the noisy students to “shush.” She fixes her large blue eyes on their surprised faces until they are quiet, then, with a barely perceptible nod, she turns and glides through the thick panel of the heavy wooden door that leads into her Napoleonic bedchamber.

It takes a long time to calm the children and their teacher down. The museum custodian reassures them over and over again that the ghost is harmless and that they have nothing to fear at all. finally she is able to convince them to enter the mansion to begin their historical tour.

The ghostly beauty is Eliza Jumel. She has been dead for 100 years but she is still the mistress of the stately Georgian mansion she so loved in life. According to the museum curator, the Morris-Jumel Mansion is home to a host of lost souls, including a talking Parisian grandfather clock that orders visitors out of the house, and two revenge-seeking husbands. Eliza’s spirit, however, offers the most intrigue and is the most active.

Death seemed to shadow Eliza since infancy. She was born July 16, 1769. Her young mother did not survive her birth. Lacking both education and money, the teenaged “Betsy Brown” employed her considerable charm and beauty to exploit the men around her. She managed to claw her way up through the social ranks from poor orphan to prostitute and, eventually, the wealthiest woman in America. She became a favorite of the court of Napoleon I—and a woman who respectable men fought duels over. She was thrice widowed, and according to the angry ghost of her second husband, she was a murderess.

The staff of the Morris-Jumel Museum are enthusiastic about the history of the stately Washington Heights landmark and the ghosts that inhabit it. Roger Morris, a colonel in the British army, built the 8500-square-foot “summer villa” in 1758 for his new wife, the heiress Mary Philipse. Perched at the uppermost point of Harlem Heights, it offered breathtaking and unobstructed views of New York City and the mighty Hudson and East Rivers beyond.

But the Morrises were not destined to enjoy their summer retreat for long. In 1776, war broke out between the British and the Americans. The strategic location of the Morris mansion did not go unnoticed by General George Washington, and the Morrises offered their home to him. It became headquarters for the American Army Com­mand, which quickly lost it to the British. A great deal of violence took place behind its stately walls.

The oldest ghosts, according to eyewitnesses, are revolutionary soldiers, who, like Eliza, seem reluctant to leave the opulent luxury of the hilltop mansion. It is not uncommon for curators and visitors to suddenly find themselves among a group of uniformed men cavorting in the elegant dining room, or to interrupt Eliza entertaining various soldiers in her lavish bedroom. One terrified woman recalls standing in front of a large gilded portrait of a fully decorated revolutionary soldier, when, to her horror, the figure stepped out of the painting and rushed toward her. She suffered only a mild fainting fit, but a less fortunate woman suffered a fatal heart attack after being confronted by a hostile revolutionary ghost.

Following the Revolutionary War, ownership of the mansion reverted back to the Americans, who turned it into a posh inn—Calumet Hall. Once again, the mansion’s strategic location, en route from Albany to New York City, shaped its fate. Word spread quickly and the combination of great food and excellent service attracted best of society to the establishment. It became a favorite destination for President George Washington, his family and his cabinet. Men whose names reverberate through history dined in the graceful octagonal dining room—Vice President John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Secre­tary of War Henry Knox, Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton, whose love for Eliza Jumel would ultimately lead to his early death.

The death of Eliza’s first husband had left her a very rich woman, but moneyed New York rejected her because of her scandalous background. She fled the wagging tongues to Paris. In 1801 she married the wealthy Parisian wine merchant Stephen Jumel. He knew nothing of her past, only that she’d been widowed and that he loved her. With his introductions, she was accepted into the upper crust of European society. Soon, Madame Jumel became a favorite in the court of Napoleon I, dividing her time between Paris and the new home Stephen had recently purchased in New York—the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

But the Jumel marriage was not a happy union. Eliza, in spite of her vast wealth, continued to be shunned by New York society, perhaps because of her numerous extramarital affairs, which she barely tried to conceal. In a tragic love triangle, she drew Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton into a duel at the Bladensburg dueling grounds, which left Hamilton dead and Burr’s political career in a shambles.

Monsieur Jumel could no longer ignore the rumors circulating around his wife. Reluctantly he decided to end the marriage. Eliza was devastated, but when Stephen Jumel fell from a carriage to his death, she was she spared the ultimate disgrace of divorce. Widowed and heiress to a huge fortune that suddenly left her the richest woman in America, she did not spend a long time in mourning. Within a year she married 78-year-old Aaron Burr, and a year after that Eliza filed for divorce. Ironically the decree was granted on the day of his death.

Those most familiar with the ghostly presences that haunt the Morris-Jumel Mansion swear that the cheated and jilted Aaron Burr shuffles through the palatial rooms, an old and restless soul intent on revenge.

Eliza Jumel passed away in the mansion at the age of 93. Her caretakers say she’d lost her mind, and that in spite of all her riches, she died a miserable and lonely old woman. Perhaps that is why her ghost still walks the earth, unable to detach itself from the guilt of a dark and shadowy past.

Stephen Jumel’s ghost has been more fortunate. His unhappy presence and pitiful moans so disturbed the museum’s curator that she finally called in two well-known psychics to try to contact him. After two intense séances, Hans Holzer and Ethel Myers were able to release Stephen’s spirit from its earthly confines, but not until he’d made sure that Eliza would not get away with murder.

During the second séance, conducted in the middle of the night, Stephen Jumel told the psychics he died as the result of a pitchfork accident, not a fall from a carriage. The mediums were horrified to hear that Eliza, furious at her husband’s request for an immediate divorce, tore off his bandages and watched calmly as he bled to death before her eyes. After this session, Stephen Jumel’s ghost, finally avenged, was never seen or heard from again.

Today, the Morris-Jumel Mansion still presides over New York City and its great rivers. The curator in charge of the museum claims that the hauntings continue. Visitors are still confronted by ghostly apparitions, the old grandfather clock still shouts out orders and shakes violently and Eliza Jumel remains the tragic, otherworldly mistress of the haunted house at the top of the hill.

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