When Lin Manuel Miranda wrote that “the streets were filled with music” in
Washington Heights, he wasn’t exaggerating. The neighborhood has a vibrant, friendly
atmosphere full of laughter and life. Kids play games on the sidewalk, folks blast music from their stoops as they wave hi to neighbors, and the older folks find shady spots to gab and connect. From the stylish brownstones to the larger apartment complexes, that are lined with family-owned businesses at their bases, the area doesn’t feel like a city, but a community. But every neighborhood has its share of weird places, and Washington Heights is no exception. Between 160th and 162nd street, there sits the oldest surviving, and notably haunted, house in Manhattan: The Morris-Jumel Mansion.
Completed in 1765, the Morris-Jumel Mansion began its life as a summer home for
British Colonel Roger Morris. Named after the man who resided there, all 135 acres of “Mount Morris” sat on one of the tallest hills in Manhattan, allowing for clear views of New Jersey, Connecticut, and all of New York Harbor. This vantage point came in handy during the American Revolution when Roger Morris fled the property, leaving it available to General George Washington to use as a headquarters.
Washington’s stay did not last long, however. In just a few weeks, his army had suffered
some bad defeats and he was forced to retreat to White Plains, New York. For the rest of the war, the house was used as a headquarters for the British army and their auxiliary German forces known as “Hessians.” After the war, the house served as a Tavern, occasionally hosting dinners for Washington and other government leaders.
In 1810, the house, and all its land, was purchased by wealthy French merchant,
Stephen Jumel, and his wife, Eliza. Eliza, being born into poverty and teaching herself to read and write in multiple languages, was determined to make a mark on New York society. Her and her husband rebuilt some of the older aspects of the house to make it more presentable. When the family was low on money, she started a real estate enterprise and became one of the wealthiest women in Manhattan.
Stephen died in 1832, and soon after Eliza married Aaron Burr (who’s now appearing in
his second Haunted NYC article for City Signal) in 1833. Some have speculated that, since Eliza remarried so quickly, she murdered Stephen to be with Burr. However, there’s no evidence to support that claim and people back then would propose to someone if they sneezed in a cute way. So, take that theory with a grain of salt. Eliza divorced Burr in 1836, coincidentally on the same day as his death, and lived in the mansion until she died in 1865.
By the 1880’s, most of the land had been sold off to build the beautiful, stylish town
homes that line the Jumel Historic District of Washington Heights. What was left of the original 135-acre property was reduced to 2 acres and purchased by the City of New York in the 1900’s. It was then made into a Historic House dedicated to George Washington and the Revolution.
The haunted history of the mansion is almost as old as the home itself. In fact, when the
Jumel’s bought the house in 1810, Eliza managed to get the listing price reduced by $2,000
citing the rumors of a ghost. Several people, who were visiting the former headquarters of
George Washington, reported seeing a drunken Hessian soldier struggling to descend the main staircase. Eliza’s adopted daughter was so afraid of the mansion, that she refused to ever be left home alone.
There’s been more paranormal sightings at the house since Eliza’s death in 1865. People
often reported seeing a woman in white wandering the halls or looking out the window. Most folks brushed it off. They assumed it was the staff or the people who lived there. However, some people swore they saw the same women stare at them from the windows of the mansion for decades. Never aging, never moving, never blinking. Though these sightings were few and far between in the early 1900’s, people became aware of just how haunted the building was when its popularity skyrocketed in the 1960’s.
The most famous instance happened in 1964. A group of students were playing on the
lawn of the mansion during a school trip when a woman in a yellow and black laced tea gown stepped onto the balcony and yelled, “My husband is very ill! You have to keep quiet!” When the children reported the incident, the curator assured them that no one was inside. However, when they passed the portrait of Eliza Jumel, the children screamed, “That’s her!” Other patrons of the mansion even report seeing the Hessian soldier, still drunkenly struggling to descend the stairs.
Between the 60’s and early 90’s, the curators of the mansion hated the ghostly rumors
and the crowds they’d attract. Audrey Braver, the former executive director, adamantly refuted the stories saying, “It’s all an elaborate hoax.” Since then, the new museum staff welcome their ghostly inhabitants. The mansion staff invited Ghost Adventures, and other paranormal societies, to do investigations of the of the house. They’ve also been featured on several news outlets like CBS. If you visit their website at https://www.morrisjumel.org/, you can even sign up to take a haunted tour of this historic home.
Washington Heights is a friendly, energetic area full of life and culture. Nestled next to
the busy streets is the Jumel Historic District, which surrounds the Morris-Jumel House. It’s a site that might seem out of place in the neighborhood that surrounds it. However, just like Washington Heights, the mansion has a long, proud history that has made its mark on this city. So, if you ever find yourself in the Heights, as a visitor or a resident, just make sure you keep your voice down near 65 Jumel Terrace. Otherwise, you might be shushed by The Madame of the Mansion.
Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528