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.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

An Eyewitness Account of the Headless Apparitions of the Haunted Cedar Knoll in Pelham

She was but a youngster.  Yet, she had heard stories of the haunted cedar knoll in Pelham Manor.  

The ancient knoll stood across Shore Road from Bolton Priory and Christ Church.  Though it was the early 19th century, her grandmother had heard the frightening stories during her own girlhood in the late 18th century and, later, warned her little granddaughter against visiting the knoll.

Such warnings only piqued the brash little girl's curiosity.  She chose a windy night when a bright moon hung low in the sky to pick her way unsteadily up the boulders and rocks of the knoll to get to the top of the rocky hill at its southern end.  

Though the moon was bright, the furry branches of the hundreds of tall cedars obscured much of the light.  Yet, because the moon hung so low in the sky, some light found its way beneath the cedar branches so that the shadows of the tree trunks striped the ground under foot.

Each time the wind howled, the furry branches above shook and danced, casting confusing shadows that pranced on trunks, rocks, and ground.  During one such gust, she heard something. 

A howling shriek rose above the gust and curdled her blood.  She knew the howls of the wind.  This was something else entirely sinister.  As the shriek dissipated, she questioned her senses .  Had she actually heard anything?  Then a series of howling shrieks rose above the howling gusts.  She had never heard anything like it before.  She realized that moment that her grandmother's warnings were real.

Instinctively she crouched to lower her profile.  Slipping from tree to tree and rock to rock, the courageously-curious young girl crept toward the shrieks and cries in the distance.  As she made her way along the knoll toward its center, she could see that another light danced in the distance.  The yellowish light competed with the light of the moon to wash away the dancing shadows of the furry branches swaying above.  

As she sneaked along, she soon could see a bonfire with dark, shadowy figures moving about the flames.  Something was odd, though.  When she had made her way as close as her courage would permit, she peered from behind a rock and could see more than a score of figures screaming and dancing around the bonfire.  At first she thought all had their heads bowed, as though in prayer, as they danced.  Soon she realized that she could see no heads not because they were bowed and thus hidden from sight but because none had heads.  Yet, the figures danced as furiously as they would have with heads.  

She stared more in wonder than in fear until a sense of horror washed over her entire being, causing shivers.  From where came the ear-piercing shrieks if the dancing figures had no heads?  Only then did she realize that the figures actually had heads.  They carried them.

Each figure cradled within its arms a perfectly animated human head that howled and shriekedThe eyes of each head opened and closed, staring at the fire then looking toward the heavens as its wide open mouth howled with pleasure.  Long dark hair cascaded from each head.  The face of each was contorted and wrinkled.  Just as the little girl's grandmother had warned, the dancing figures once were Indians.  Indeed, the spirits wore Native American garb and danced in a ring around the fire unaware of the little intruder peering from behind a nearby boulder.

The hellish spirits bobbed and danced diabolically.  Though the eavesdropping little girl sensed evil, the spirits seemed to be hopping and whooping in joyous celebration.  Occasionally they lifted their legs in unison.  They shouted in cadence.  Other times they tightened the circle toward the fire, dancing in unison, then backed away in unison expanding the circle.

Once as the circle expanded, the shrieks ended abruptlyThe howling winds halted for a few moments.  All was eerily silent.  The little girl froze, even holding her breath fearing she might be discovered.

The spirits then tossed their heads towards the fire -- not in the fire but near the fire.  The heads rolled forward and stopped.  All was still and quiet until each head lying near the fire began shrieking in cadence again.  With that, the winds gusted and the headless spirits linked arms and began dancing again around the fire and the shrieking heads that encircled the flames.

After dancing this way for what seemed an eternity to the little girl, the dancers stopped and, again, the shrieks ended abruptly.  The howling winds halted.  Another  eerie silence washed over the knoll as each headless figure stood motionless and each head lay quiet on the soil by the fire.

The little girl was alarmed.  There was a tension as if something was about to happen.  She had a terribly uneasy feeling.  She wished she had never crept onto the knoll.

As regrets welled within her soul, every head lying on the ground came awake and shrieked a blood-curdling, piercing scream as though suffering monstrous pain.  The unholy sound reverberated throughout the knoll and across Pelham.  It seemed to shake the headless Indian spirits back into motion.  Each rushed forward and grabbed whatever head was nearest, whether its own or not, and cradled it, again, in loving arms.  Once all held heads again, the dancing and shrieking began anew.    

"The stories are true," the little girl thought.  She had seen enough.  It was time to retreat.  Fear, however, rose deep within her.  How would she escape without being seen?  What if she were discovered?  Should she run or creep away?

As the shrieks continued, she glanced over her shoulder to choose an avenue of escape.  As she did, the shrieks stopped abruptly.  All became dark and quiet.  She glanced back toward the headless apparitions.

The Indian spirits were gone.  The bonfire was gone.  The area was bare.  The wind had stopped.  Tree branches no longer swayed.  Moonlight once again cascaded through the treetops above, striping the ground below with the shadows of the cedar trees' trunks and branches.   

Despite the moonlight and the beautiful serenity of the the moment, the little girl turned and ran to the edge of the haunted cedar knoll and nearly tumbled down the rocky decline as she ran and stumbled off the knoll and onto Shore RoadShe began running.

As she ran, her mind raced.  "The stories are true!" she gasped to herself.  She thought of her grandmother and the stories that rival Native American tribes known as Siwanoys and Laaphawachkins once lived in the region harmoniously until one of the Siwanoys murdered a member of the rival tribe.  A blood feud followed and led to a deadly battle between the rival tribes on the knoll.  The Siwanoys vanquished more than a score of their foe, decapitating each warrior, and leaving their bodies on the top of the knoll.

The little girl ran to her home and leaped safely inside.  Though brash, she never dared return to the haunted cedar knoll.  Indeed, she was so frightened by what she saw that she never spoke of that frightening evening until she was an old woman.

In 1901, however, a New-York Daily Tribune reporter convinced her to tell her story.  That story appeared in the December 15, 1901 issue of the newspaper.  It is the only known eyewitness account of the headless apparitions of the haunted cedar knoll.  That account appears in full at the end of this article.

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I have written before of the headless apparitions of the haunted cedar knoll.  See, e.g.  Fri., Oct. 31, 2014:  Ghosts in Pelham! Yet Another of Many Accounts of the Haunted Cedar Knoll.  

View of the Haunted Cedar Knoll from Today's Shore Road.

 Detail of Map Prepared in 1853 Showing the Large, Rocky Knoll Along
Shore Road at the End of Pelhamdale Avenue Across from "Hog Island" (Today's
Travers Island).  Source: Dripps, Matthew & Conner, R.F.O., Southern Part of West-Chester
County N. Y. (1853) (Museum of the City of New York, No. 29.100.2628).
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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'If you want to see the most awful ghosts you can possibly imagine,' advised an old woman, who has lived all her life in Pelham, 'you must wait until the moon is full and then hide yourself near Haunted Cedar Knoll."  

She was not the kind of woman who would give a stranger wrong directions for the fun of it, and her manner was as serious as it had been a few moments before, when she told of the death of her only son.

'And where is this haunted place?' she was asked.

'You knew the Boston post Road -- the one that runs from Pelham to New-Rochelle, and how much further I don't know, but I guess clean through to old Boston?  Well, the Pelham Priory is on that road; you can't miss it, for it's the finest old house hereabouts.  And just across from the priory is a knoll covered with rocks and cedar trees.  That's the place.'

'Have you seen ghosts there?' asked the stranger, 'or did some one tell you about them?'

'Sure, certain, I seen them,' she said, shaking her head wisely.  'Do you think I'd believe what people told me?  You do as I told you, and you can see them for yourself.  I don't ask any one to believe me.'

'But the moon won't be full for days yet; and I cannot wait that long.  Suppose you tell me about them.'

'But the moon won't be full for days yet; and I cannot wait that long.  Suppose you tell me about them.'

'I was a young girl when I saw them,' she began, 'and that was a long time ago.'  She smiled.

'It was so frightful that I never dared go back again.  They were Indian ghosts, you see, and their cries and yells just made your blood stop running.'  

'The wind was blowing, I suppose?' interrupted the listener.  

'Well, there was some wind, but I knew what sort of noises the wind can make.  Nothing like those I heard.  There were more than a score of them, and they had no heads, unless you count the heads which they were carrying in their hands, which couldn't have been of much use to them.  They formed in a big ring, and began to dance.  First each headless ghost danced by himself.  Then, they threw the heads in the centre of the ring and danced around them.  After they got tired they picked up the heads again (I've always wondered if by chance some of them might have picked up the wrong heads), and in a minute they were gone.  All that I saw myself.

'My grandmother told me how the Indians came to haunt the cedars, but I can't swear as it's the true story.  Once there were two tribes that were very good friends -- the Siwanoys and the Laaphawachkins -- least that is what the names sounded like.  One of the 'Si's' killed one of the 'Laapshaws' in a quarrel, and the 'Laapshaws' robbed some of the 'Si's' graves in revenge.  So there was a blood feud.  They fought a deadly battle on the knoll, and the 'Laapshaws' were all dead.  The others cut off their heads and left them there for their squaws to bury, and that is the whole story.' . . ."  

Source:  LEGENDS OF PELHAM, New-York Daily Tribune, Dec. 15, 1901, p. 2, cols. 1-4.

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