New York City has a long history and huge population. It’s natural for tragic events to occur in such a place. Even in the most idyllic places, unspeakable horror can rear its ugly head over and over again. One such idyllic place is 14 West 10th Street, a townhome between 6th and 7th avenue in Greenwich Village. It’s a nice house in a nice neighborhood, so people have occupied it since it was built in the 1850’s. Mark Twain even lived in the home for a year. However, like many places with a tragic past, spirits have settled into the home and torment the residents there. Perhaps they even inspire future tragedies. The events that created the spirits were sometimes so horrific, the home has been dubbed “The House of Death.”
In the early days of the house, everything seemed normal for the families that lived there. Several founding members of NYC’s Underground Railroad were among the first residents. Said residents were James Boorman Johnson and his wife. Though they left after only a few years, they had nothing but good things to say about the home, commenting on how modern it was and how nice it was to be near the park. They reported no supernatural instances. Slowly, reports of ghosts started to pop up as residents kept coming and going. There was even a rumor that a demon dwelled in the home. This kept many people from even entertaining the idea of living there until 1900.
Mark Twain is maybe the most famous resident, both when he was alive and as a spirit. Twain lived in the house from 1900-1901 and, even though he experienced several unexplained events, he refused to believe the place was haunted. One story passed down through the ages claims Twain shot at a piece of kindling that was moving on its own near the fireplace. The kindling fell to the floor and was surrounded by several drops of blood. No person or animal was found in the house after the incident, but Twain insisted it was a rat. This story has me asking, “Did everyone grab a gun when they thought they saw a rat back then?” but it also has me asking, “Did Mark Twain shoot a ghost? Can a ghost bleed from a gunshot wound?”
Sadly, none of my questions will ever be answered because most folks from that era are long gone by now. Even if they exist in spirit form, I doubt they’d answer my question. Mark Twain, the rodent marksman himself, probably wouldn’t respond if I asked his spirit what the deal was. And I can ask. According to decades of reports, Twain is the most active spirit of 14 west 10th, despite only living at the residence for a year and dying in Connecticut. One resident even claimed to see Twain sitting by a windowsill, looking wistfully out to the quiet Greenwich streets. When asked what he was doing there, Twain said simply said, “I got problems here I got to settle.”
In the 1930’s, the interior of the brownstone was converted into ten separate apartments. Greenwich Village was as hopping back then as it is today. Of course, more apartments mean more opportunities for haunted fun. Residents reported seeing Twain in a white suit walking up and down the main staircase. They also reported a child, a woman in white, and a grey cat, among others. In total, 22 spirits have been reported in the home. One resident made it a point to record her experiences in the home in great detail.
Actress Jan Bartell, and her husband, moved into an apartment in 14 west 10th in 1957. The couple experienced so much paranormal activity that Jan eventually wrote a memoir about their experiences. She wrote that on the first night she stayed in the home, a large shadow followed her around. This shadow would make frequent appearances in the home, often smelling of rotten, decaying flesh. Jan also detailed her encounter with a male figure in the apartment, who she actually reached out and touched. She said he felt damp and cold, like a thick mist or a cloud of ether. She described it as, “Substance without substance.”
Eventually Jan Bartell called paranormal investigators and a medium to the home. The medium claimed that many bodies were buried under the building, which mirrors rumors that the nearby Washington Square Park was used as a burial ground for early colonists. However, there’s no evidence that any of that is true. What is true is that the couple tried to do a spiritual cleanse of the house. According to the couple, the cleanse didn’t work and might have made things worse. They moved shortly after that.
According to paranormal experts, shadow people and smell of rotting flesh could indicate a demonic presence. This presence could be the reason many of these spirits have stuck around. Sadly, it could also encourage tragedy to occur. Since the Bartell’s moved out of the home, there has been several horrific incidents in the building including a murder-suicide as well as the abuse, and eventual murder, of a child in 1987. This murder was the reason the building became known as “The House of Death.” The spirits in these walls have witnessed all these events occur, and some may have even fed off them.
Then again, maybe nothing supernatural is happening at all. When horrible events occur, we tend to want to explain them away. No one could be so cruel as to murder another human being, especially not someone they’re supposed to care about. It’s easier to blame supernatural forces rather than deal with the darkness that comes with being human. Demons are created to make good men bad; ghost stories are told as a tribute to those who have been taken away, and the spirit of a famous author could be made up to drive property values up or down. In any case, 14 West 10th Street is a home that will live in infamy, both for the tragic occurrences there, and for the spirits that might walk the halls. Are you brave to rent out an apartment there?
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