Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Haunted House of Hart Island


Hart Island, adjacent to City Island in Long Island Sound, once was part of the Town of Pelham just like City Island.  During the Civil War, Hart Island was used as a mustering-in site and a training facility for Union troops, 50,000 of whom passed through the island on their way to fight the Confederacy.  In addition, there was a Confederate prisoner of war camp on Hart Island during the Civil War that was open for only about four months at the end of the war but lost 7% of its Rebel prisoners to death due to harsh conditions, lack of shelter, and extreme over-crowding.  One might expect that Hart Island might be the focal point of the tortured spirits of many who died there in horrific circumstances even before the island became a burial field for New York City's paupers.

Indeed, shortly after the cessation of the Civil War, Hart Island remained crowded with military men and their families, housed in a variety of buildings constructed on the island during the war.  One such family was a young military couple:  an officer of the Fourteenth Regiment Regular Infantry and his wife.

In late September, 1865, the young officer was startled late at night by a gruesome noise.  It was distinct and utterly unmistakable.  It was a person struggling for breath.  To the seasoned military man, the breathing "appeared like that of one who had been wounded in the lungs."  It sounded as though the labored gasps were painful.  They were accompanied by a most horrid sound of "suppressed groans." 

The young officer searched the building for the source of the relentless, awful noises.  He could find nothing.  He and his wife heard the gasps and groans, but could not see their source.  Exhausted, the pair "passed the night in sleepless anxiety." 

The next day, the young officer and his wife told others of their sleepless and horrific night.  Another officer of the post volunteered to stay overnight in the house.  Once again, as darkness settled, the awful sound of gasps and groans rattled the very foundations of the home.  Try though he did, the officer was similarly unable to identify the source of the horrific sounds.

Each night, the horrid gasps and groans seemed to emanate from one side of the small building.  Finally, the Quartermaster of the post, Lieutenant Dana, "determined to make a thorough investigation" of the ghostly matter.  The Quartermaster had troops remove the entire side of the building from which the sounds seemed to emanate.  A careful search revealed . . . . . nothing. 

The Quartermaster had the side of the building restored.  That very same evening, the terrifying gasps and groans returned, but were even "louder and more painful" in nature. 

The haunted house of Hart Island became an object of curiosity.  Indeed, the New York Evening Express published an entire article on the ghostly gasps and groans in its September 25, 1865 issue.  That article noted:  "the haunted house is an object of considerable curiosity among the officers -- whose families carefully avoid it -- and by the soldiers who cluster around it, anxious to learn the cause of so singular a condition of affairs."

Some tried, with a straight face, to suggest that the painful gasps and dying groans heard each night in the house were the "nocturnal serenades" of some unidentified and unseen bugs within some of the decayed timbers of the home.  Those who had spent sleepless nights in the home knew better, however.  The sounds were not the hum or buzz of munching bugs.  They were the sounds of a person gasping and struggling for breath as though wounded in the lungs.  They were the sounds of pain and suppressed groans.  Indeed, they were the very sounds that made the Haunted House of Hart Island one that the military families began carefully to avoid. . . . .




"HART ISLAND, NEAR NEW YORK, A STATION FOR THE
DISBANDMENT OF THE FEDERAL ARMY."  1865 Engraving
Depicting the Military Facilities on Hart Island Only a Month
Before The Haunted House of Hart Island Gained Notoriety.

Source:  The Illustrated London News, Aug. 12, 1865, Vol.
47, No. 1328, p. 128.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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Below is the text of the newspaper article on which today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog is based.  The text is followed by a citation and link to the source.

"'SPOOKS ON HART ISLAND. -- There is a ghost excitement on Hart Island, which serves to relieve the monotony of the post; but officers of an inquiring turn of mind have as yet failed to ascertain the cause of the supernatural noises.  A few evenings ago an officer of the Fourteenth Regiment Regular Infantry, who was occupying one of the buildings upon the Island with his wife, was startled at a late hour by hearing a noise of a person struggling for breath.  The breathing appeared like that of one who had been wounded in the lungs, and was very painful, accompanied by suppressed groans.  He made a superficial examination of the structure without ascertaining the cause, and himself and wife passed the night in sleepless anxiety.  The next day the circumstance was related to his brother officers, and at night one of them volunteered to occupy the house and endeavor to learn the cause of the noise.  In this he also failed.

The next night the investigation was continued by another officer, but with similar results.  Finally, the Quartermaster of the post, Lieut. Dana, determined to make a thorough examination, and caused the side of the building from which the sounds appeared to proceed, to be removed, but a careful search failed to disclose anything.  The boards were then replaced, and the house again occupied; but that night the sounds were heard as before, and at times were louder and more painful.  The mystery is not yet solved, and the haunted house is an object of considerable curiosity among the officers -- whose families carefully avoid it -- and by the soldiers who cluster around it, anxious to learn the cause of so singular a condition of affairs.  It is very probable that another and more thorough investigation may disclose the facts that the noise results from natural causes entirely, and that 'spooks' have nothing to do with it.  Bugs may have found a lodgment in some of the decayed timbers, and the supernatural noises may be caused by their nocturnal serenades.--[Commercial."

Source: "SPOOKS ON HART ISLAND", New York Evening Express, Sep. 25, 1865, p. 4, col. 6



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