A figure caught my eye as I passed through one of the supposedly haunted rooms of the supposedly very haunted Merchant’s House Museum in NoHo last week. I gasped, a reflex that was embarrassing even though I was ostensibly alone. “Ah!,” I thought—“Was that a ghost?”
No. It was a very scary mannequin.
The mannequin, placed in a bed with his arms folded into a rudely human-like pose that, once I realized he was not a ghost, made me worried he was a real man who might pop up and yell at me, was meant to approximate Seabury Tredwell, eponymous merchant and patriarch of the family that lived in this house for nearly 100 years.
Seabury, a hardware merchant, purchased the house in 1835 and it remained in his family until his youngest daughter, Gertrude, died there in 1933. In 1936 it was turned into a museum, founded by a cousin of the family, and it remains a museum today. The Tredwells’ furniture, household items, soothing old-house-smell, and spirits???, are well-preserved inside.
The house, I learned through a binder provided to those taking a self-guided tour of the museum, is a National Historic Landmark. It is also the oldest in-tact site of Irish habitation (the family’s servants were young Irish immigrants) in New York. And, if you believe the New York Times, it is “Manhattan’s most haunted house,”—a very silly, hard to quantify, and spooooky assertion that I, on this muggy Manhattan afternoon, hoped to prove.
To help detect any paranormal activity, I brought with me an EMF ghost meter that Hamilton Nolan received on a trip to Branson, Missouri and later gave to Taylor Berman, who loaned it to me with great hesitance. (“I need it back,” he told me more than once, about the ghost detector.) I also downloaded two ghost hunting iPhone applications: “Ghost Hunter M2” and “iEMF.”
Does the iPhone really come equipped with the sort of technology that allows it to find, track, and communicate with the dead? you might be wondering. Uh, yeah—why would they sell me two $.99 apps if it didn’t.
The “iEMF” app is just another EMF tool that I purchased in case the Branson, Missouri EMF ghost meter—now mine to keep—proved to be more of a novelty item than an accurate ghost detector.
Ghost Hunter M2, though, is “quite an amazing piece of technology,” according to Ghost Hunter M2. It is a device whose power “greatly exceeds that of many traditional ghost-hunting tools” and contains “an array of sensors controlled by powerful firmware and operating system [sic].” It comprises many different-yet-similar-and-uniformly-confusing ghost hunting tools: EMF, EVP, FFT-V, Geoscope Instrument, P-EVP, Sensor Sweep Instrument, Spatial Instrument, Twilight Instrument, and an audio recorder.
As far as I can tell, most of them are meant to tell you—with various charts and in bright, flashing neon green—whether or not there’s a spooky ghost around. “Twilight” takes pictures with different filters, one of which is bright neon green, another of which is just bright. Every once in a while EVP tells you a word that, I guess, a ghost is trying to tell you. Guitar. Notebook. Philip.
EVP is, by far, my favorite part of Ghost Hunter M2.
Juliann. Lake. Furious.
According to Emily Wright, Communications and Programs Manager of the Merchant’s House, whom I spoke with after my visit, the house typically has between six and 12 new reports of ghostly activity every year, including weird feelings, unaccounted for noises, sightings, etc. The most recent came earlier this year, when a visitor ran downstairs from the upper floors, telling the docent at the admissions desk that a woman in a long, black dress had followed her down a flight of stairs. Later that day, Wright tells me, another visitor had the exact same experience—chased down a flight of stairs by a woman in a long, black dress.
Damn. Sounds like a rude, fancy woman.
—Or a ghost.
If it was a ghost, it was likely the ghost of Gertrude—Seabury’s youngest daughter, and the only Tredwell to have died in the house. “Gertrude is probably the family member who is most frequently seen in the house,” Wright said, “but we’ve had sightings of other family members as well, including her father, a sister, a brother, and at least one servant.” The first recorded ghostly experience came shortly after Gertrude’s death in 1933.
Juggling my self-guided-tour binder, ghost meter, cell phone, and notebook, I set out to find Gertrude, or her father, her sister, her brother, or at least one of her servants. At the advice of the woman at the admission’s desk, I began my tour in the garden, where I sat on a bench and read the introductory section of the binder. What sort of interesting facts did I read in the introductory section of the binder? Huh, very rude of you to ask. You may visit the museum yourself if you want to know what sort of interesting facts I read in the introductory section of the binder. It costs $10.
I pulled out the ghost meter while sitting with a few other museum guests in the garden and turned it on. “BEEP-BEEP-BEEPBEBEEPBEPBEEPBEBEEP” it yelled at me, so loud. It made this noise not because it detected a ghost—don’t get excited—but because that is the insane noise it makes every time you turn it on. Fine—make your noise, if you must. It registered a 0 milliGauss reading and I put it in my purse, leaving it on so it will make that noise again ONLY to alert me about the presence of a ghost.
I ran through a few other tests while I hung out in the garden. I received no blips or beeps. The results mean, I believe: there are no ghosts in this garden.
Next I toured the front and rear parlors, which was incorrect. I was supposed to begin with the dining room and kitchen in the basement, and tour the rooms from there, as instructed by the binder, but instead I fucked it up. Truly, I never said I was perfect and it is your fault if you assumed as much.
The thing that struck me immediately as I toured the front and rear parlors was: They’re just going to let me walk around this house. By myself! Because the home is so well-maintained—the couches, the lighting fixtures, the doorway enframements, the mirrors, the souls of the dead, etc., they’re all right there—walking around feels almost invasive. Just strolling through this New York City time-warp, no one telling you what to do; smelling the old smells; learning from your binder; checking your ghost apps periodically. It’s good. You should go, alone.
—Or will you be alone?
According to the ghost meter and ghost apps, I was, in fact, alone as I toured the front and rear parlors. Multiple EMF detectors read 0 mG. Ghosts didn’t have any words to say. I took this photo in neon green just to make sure:
Hmm. Looks like: no ghosts in the parlors.
Next, I travelled upstairs to the bedrooms. In the second-floor hallway I received one of the highest EMF readings of my visit: 7.22 mG. This reading—7.22 mG—is, I’ll be honest with you, still just barely near the “medium” section of the mG ghost meter scale, and this reading only came in on the Ghost Hunter M2 app. Did a ghost breathe its death breath into this particular app out of pity, neglecting the other ghost hunting devices I was juggling, sometimes dropping?
Yes, I bet.
I was hot on the trail of a ghost.
The first bedroom had another scary mannequin in it, like Seabury’s bedroom, which I visited next, but she was placed in a way that, at least, seemed less like a mean trick. Was I startled? Of course. Did I gasp, like I did later, again? None of your business. In any case, my ghost detectors remained at a steady zero. No ghosts. At this point I began to wonder why all of my ghost detectors were refusing out of spite or laziness to alert me to the one, two, three, four, or even five spirits that almost certainly surrounded me as I took my self-guided tour.
In Seabury’s bedroom, I sat down in a chair to record audio and video, and to take an EVP reading. The first word that popped up on the EVP—which, you will recall, is meant to tell you a word a ghost is trying to tell you—was “phone.” Yes, I was on my phone. “Do you want me to not be on my phone?” I attempted to think at the ghost of Seabury Tredwell, whom I cannot imagine would be able to recognize my iPhone as a phone, no offense. I opened my mind to receive his thoughts: —-. Hmm, nothing.
The next word popped up: “guitar.” Yes, I play guitar. What about it? Seabury? HELLO? The next: “Hoyt.” Not sure what that has to do with guitar or phone, but sure—a word I encounter almost daily. The next: “red.” Huh. The next: “Doreen.” OK, enough.
The audio recorded only fan noise, and here is the video:
[There was a video here]
Let me know if you see any ghosts.
Up, up, up the stairs to the servants quarters. The binder describes the Tredwell’s servants as uneducated, young, Irish Catholic girls, which is not entirely dissimilar to the way one might describe me. It is possible, I thought, that we might bond over our similarities.
On the final staircase before the servants’ bedroom, I got another “strong” EMF reading—somewhere around 5 mG. I sat down on the stairs to investigate further and the reading immediately dipped back to nothing. Damn, ghost. Come back! On the folding chairs set up outside of the bedroom, I set up my devices to do some scanning and recording—hoping that the ghost would come back—before another young woman walked upstairs to whom I must have looked like an idiot. That is, unless she was also there to hunt ghosts. In that case I looked only like a hinderance. I waited for her to leave—looking at my watch, sighing loudly, tapping the face of my watch, waving goodbye eagerly to see if she would get the hint—before continuing my investigation.
I recorded five minutes of audio that turned up nothing, and let the EVP go for a bit. The EVP was very active, actually, turning up these words with my notes in brackets beside them:
- Observing [What I am doing.]
- Run [Ghosts want me to run?]
- Read [What I am doing.]
- Leave [Ghosts want me to leave?]
- There [Where?]
- Adeline [Age of Adeline.]
It was in the servants’ quarters that I felt, most acutely, like I was trivializing what is, genuinely, a fantastic little piece of history and a neat museum that I loved. Walking around with my damn cell phone, writing down “Adeline, Age of Adeline?” A true moron. Guilty, I later asked Emily Wright how the museum feels about, in so many words, ghost hunters and their stupid bullshit.
“For many years in the ’60s and ’70s, and into the ’80s, there was a real effort on the part of the museum to distance itself from this haunted reputation,” she says. “Curators were worried that it wasn’t serious enough.” But in the early ’90s, the museum started to embrace it. “We’ve found that by not ignoring that part of the museum, we’re able to introduce it to new audiences that may not be as interested in a history house museum without the paranormal angle.” Ah—like a Goosebumps book about the signing of The Declaration of Independence, or if The Shining were based on real events.
“We’ve also found that it’s a great way to educate the public about 19th century death and mourning practices,” Wright explains. Every October, the house reenacts a 19th century funeral during an annual exhibition about death and mourning. “We’ve found that using ghosts is a way to explore another aspect of the house, and to bring in people who wouldn’t be a traditional museum audience.”
So come, ghost dummies and moody teens whose parents are trying the best they can to make this vacation fun for the whole family. You might actually learn something while you’re stumbling around, looking for ghostly cold spots—what a treat. Your EMF detectors and your ghost-searching Instagrams tagged “Merchant’s House Museum” help maintain the museum as much as that of, say, a serious woman with glasses and a little cardigan who is wandering around thinking, “Hmm, ah.”
—If you dare.
Finally, I made my way towards the basement’s dining room and kitchen, which is where I should have started. All was quiet until I got to an informational family tree display:
When I reached the little card about Gertrude—not lying—I would never lie—the ghost meter, the noise aspect of which I’d nearly forgotten about, started screaming:
Ah! There were French tourists nearby, which was embarrassing. It would not stop beeping, intensely resolute in its detection of a ghost, or maybe it was broken. I checked my other EMF detectors, and they each had only minor readings. Gertrude! I fumbled for the neon green camera aspect of my ghost app and took a picture of the corner where maybe there was a ghost:
Let me know if you see a ghost.
Merchant’s House Museum by the Numbers:
- Ghosts Perceived: 0
- Ghosts Allegedly in Residence: 5
- Recorded Deaths in Location: 2
- Rooms Investigated: 8
- Binders Read: 1
- Ghost Meters Obtained for Free: 1
- Ghost Meters Obtained at Cost: 2
- Museums Enjoyed: 1