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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Ghost of the Murdered Traveler Who Wanders the Bartow-Pell Grounds

The black-hearted crime was dastardly and brutal.  Worse yet, it was murder.  

The details are unknown.  No reliable account of the murder has yet been located.  Likely a hapless colonial traveler returning from Pelham Neck toward New Rochelle along the ancient colonial road we know today as Shore Road was accosted by a cruel and remorseless highwayman while resting along the roadway beneath the spreading branches of a giant oak -- a very special giant oak.  

The name of the brutally-murdered traveler is unknown.  His dastardly murderer fled the scene after fiendishly robbing and killing the poor traveler beneath the spreading branches of the Pell Treaty Oak.  That giant oak once stood along today's Shore Road on the grounds of today's Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum.  

Since that black day in the mid-eighteenth century, the ghost of the murdered traveler is said to wander the region in the darkness.  He often can be seen near the place the grand oak once stood.  The specter is an angry ghost, said to be searching vengefully for the murderer who sentenced it to an eternity of wandering and searching.

The grounds of the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum are among the most ancient historic spots in all of the Manor of Pelham.  A Native American village once stood near the gated driveway entrance to the grounds.  Native American remains and artifacts have been excavated near the water's edge on the Sound side of the mansion grounds.  Oyster midden left long ago by Native Americans still can be seen at the water's edge near the mansion.  

On the grounds of the mansion is a circular iron fence that once protected the Pell Treaty Oak that stood near the mansion.  Beneath that oak, according to legend, Thomas Pell and other Englishmen met with Native Americans on June 27, 1654 to sign the deed by which Pell acquired the lands that became the Manor of Pelham.  In the early 1670s, Pell's nephew and principal legatee, John Pell, built a manor house not far from the Pell Treaty Oak and lived there until his death in or shortly after 1702.  The home is believed to have stood until it burned either during the American Revolutionary War or shortly thereafter.

The Pell Treaty Oak once stood near today's Shore Road which passes the Bartow-Pell Mansion.  Shore Road runs along an ancient Native American footpath that traversed the region parallel to, and only a few yards away from, Long Island Sound.  It likewise has an ancient pedigree as a roadway.  It is one of the few roads in the area that existed during colonial times.  By the mid-eighteenth century, the well-traveled road had widened from a simple footpath to a comparatively busy roadway used by many as they traveled along the coastline back and forth between Pelham Neck, New Rochelle and other settlements along Long Island Sound.  

No record of the dastardly crime that forms the basis for the legend of the Ghost of the Murdered Traveler has been located.  Nor does there seem to be any extant description of what the wandering ghost looks like (or sounds like).  There are, however, countless recorded accounts of highway robbers who preyed on travelers along the lonely, unlit roadway known variously as Pelham Road, the Road to New Rochelle, the Westchester Turnpike, and Shore Road.  Many such accounts describe violent confrontations and brutal robberies by highwaymen who attacked local residents and others merely passing through the region even as late as the last years of the 19th century.

When you next find yourself on the grounds of the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum (or driving past it on Shore Road) particularly as dusk settles over Pelham Bay Park, pay close attention to the wooded areas near the roadway.  Look and listen carefully.  You may see or hear the Ghost of the Murdered Traveler who wanders the region searching for, and seeking vengeance against, its murderer.  Make certain to pass quickly, though.  You would not want to be mistaken as the one for whom the ghost is searching. . . . 

"Clarina Bartow and children, Bartow Mansion,
Pelham Bay Park, circa 1870, Bartow-Pell
Mansion Museum."  Source:  New York City Department
of Parks and Recreation, Before They Were Parks
(visited Aug. 27, 2016).  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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A newspaper article published in 1906 regarding the fire that finally killed the Pell Treaty Oak makes reference to the legend of the Ghost of the Murdered Traveler.  The text of the brief article appears immediately below, followed by a citation and link to its source.

The Historic Tree Incurs a New Peril -- Once Struck by Lightning.

The old Pell oak, which stands at the intersection of the New Rochelle road and the Split Rock road in Westchester, took fire Saturday night from burning grass.  Policeman Booth of the City Island substation, who was patrolling the New Rochelle road about 8 o'clock Saturday night, saw sparks leaping from the trunk of the venerable tree.  He turned in a still alarm, which brought Engine Company 70 from City Island.  Meanwhile a dozen or more people living along the New Rochelle road hurried with buckets of water to the burning tree.  The firemen and volunteers worked for hours before they managed to make the water reach the part of the inner trunk where the fire was.

For the last ten years the old oak has been little more than a noble trunk ten feet high and four feet in diameter.  It was struck by lightning during a heavy storm and all but about ten feet of the trunk broke off.  New branches appeared at the top of the stump and formed an umbrella shaped growth, which increased and throve.  The fire Saturday night destroyed most of the new growth and charred the hollow trunk, but the old residents who take much pride in the historic tree, believe that it can be saved if proper care is given it.  It is believed to be nearly 350 years old.  

There are many stories told in Westchester about the Pell oak.  It is said that Sir John Pell, second lord of the manor, who came over in 1670 and was the first Judge of the Court of Common Pleas from 1683 until 1702, signed a treaty with the Indians under the oak [sic; it was his uncle, Thomas Pell], which was then in its prime.  There is another legend of Westchester that the son of Sir John, Thomas Pell, who married a daughter of an Indian chief, wooed her under the oak.  There is a ghost story, too, about the old tree.  Somewhere near the middle of the eighteenth century a traveller [sic] was murdered and robbed under its branches.  The body was found, but the murderer was never caught.  The private cemetery of the Westchester Pells, where Sir John and his son are buried, is about 400 feet from the tree.  The old Bartow mansion is within a short distance of it.

Yesterday afternoon people from all the region visited the old oak, and the older residents commented somewhat mournfully on its reduced state."

Source:  FIRE IN THE PELL OAK -- The Historic Tree Incurs a New Peril -- Once Struck by Lightning, The Sun [NY, NY], Ar. 9, 1906, p. 4, col. 2.  

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I have collected ghost stories and legends relating to the Town of Pelham for more than fifteen years.  To read more examples that now total in the several dozens, see

Bell, Blake A., Pelham's Ghosts, Goblins and Legends, The Pelham Weekly, Oct. 25, 2002, p. 1, col. 1. 

Bell, Blake A., More Ghosts, Goblins of Pelham, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 43, Oct. 29, 2004, p. 12, col. 1. 

Bell, Blake A., Archive of HistoricPelham.com Web Site:  Pelham's Ghosts, Goblins and Legends (Oct. 2002). 

Bell, Blake A., Bibliography of Pelham's Ghost Stories and Legends (Oct. 2002).

Wed., Oct. 26, 2016:  The Ghost of the Murdered Traveler Who Wanders the Bartow-Pell Grounds.

Tue., Oct. 25, 2016:  The Suicidal Specter of Manger Circle.

Mon., Oct. 24, 2016:  The Fiery-Eyed Phantom of Pelham Heights.

Mon., Sep. 19, 2016:  The Dark Spirit of the Devil and His Stepping Stones: A Pelham Legend.

Fri., Oct. 30, 2015:  The Shrieking Ghosts of Execution Rocks: Yet Another Pelham Ghost Story.

Thu., Oct. 29, 2015:  The Apparition of Wolfs Lane:  Another Pelham Ghost Story.

Wed., Oct. 28, 2015:  The Shadowy Specter of James Street:  A Pelham Manor Ghost Story.

Tue., Oct. 27, 2015:  The Ghostly Gardener of Bolton Priory:  A Pelham Apparition.

Mon., Oct. 26, 2015:  The Ghostly Matron of the Manor Club:  Even a Ghost Whisperer's Nightmare!

Fri., Oct. 31, 2014:  Ghosts in Pelham! Yet Another of Many Accounts of the Haunted Cedar Knoll.

Mon., Sep. 08, 2014:  In 1888, The "Ghost of City Island" Upset the Town of Pelham.

Fri., Jan. 17, 2014: The Phantom Bell Ringer of Christ Church in Pelham Manor.

Fri., Jan. 30, 2009:  Article Published in 1901 Detailed Ghost Stories and Legends of Pelham.

Mon., Feb. 19, 2007:  Another Manor of Pelham Ghost Story: The Whispering Bell.

Fri., Aug. 18, 2006:  The Ghost Gunship of Pelham: A Revolutionary War Ghost Story.

Wed., May 03, 2006:  Another Pelham, New York Ghost Story.

Thu., Oct. 13, 2005:  Two More Pelham Ghost Stories.  

Wed., Oct. 14, 2009:  1879 News Account Provides Additional Basis for Some Facts Underlying Ghost Story of Old Stone House in Pelhamville.

Archive of the Historic Pelham Web Site.

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