Saturday, September 28, 2013

An Island Without Heart

There is a tiny uninhabited island that sits on the western edge of Long Island Sound-- it holds untold sorrow. This oppressive 131 acres, across from the Bronx is known as Hart Island, but at one time it was named “Heart” Island. 

It is somehow fitting that along the way it lost the “e” for this island has no heart. 

Today no one is allowed on this island except for convicts and the guards who supervise them. But hundreds of others are brought to the island every month-- they are all dead.

In 1865, during the American Civil War, Hart Island for a brief time was a POW camp where over 3,500 Confederate Prisoners were kept. Two hundred and thirty-five of these prisoners died and were buried on the island. 

With an outbreak of Yellow Fever in New York in the 1870s, the island became a place where many people were quarantined. 

By 1885 a women’s insane asylum was built, the building that housed these women still stands. The island then was used as a reformatory school, with a workhouse for delinquent boys.

During World War ll, the Navy took over the island. Over 2,800 servicemen from the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines were brought to Hart to be held in custody and disciplined. 

Hart also housed tuberculosis patients, and at another time, it was used as a rehabilitation center for alcoholics. Today, the New York City Department of Corrections manages the island.

Trench waiting for more
pine  caskets
This history alone could be the reason that Hart is considered haunted today. But there is one other misery that makes the island’s history even darker. 

Since the 1800s, Hart Island has served as a burial ground for those who are forgotten. This tiny island hosts the largest publically funded potter’s field * in the world.

Over 850,000 people who died alone, without relatives or friends to claim them, are placed in bulldozed trenches without prayer or remembrance. One hundred and fifty coffins are stacked in each adult mass grave. Inmates from Rikers Island do this labor. 

The mass graves on Hart are filled with the souls of the homeless, mentally ill, children--most of them orphans and the indigent--those that are too poor to pay for a proper burial. 

One prisoner that was recently released recalls with sadness the small boxes of babies that would regularly arrive for burial. From 1980 until 2011, there were 27,769 infants and 32,765 adults placed in mass graves. **

Prisoners placing infant
caskets in a mass grave.
It is felt that many restless spirits make their presence known. 

Witnesses have reported feeling someone watching them. Others in years past have seen shadow figures in the buildings that are essentially gutted today. 

In fact, several of these structures have been torn down to make room for more graves. In one of these abandoned structures, whispers are heard, they sound like children’s voices. Investigations of this noise always come up empty.

The only witnesses to these hauntings today are the inmates, and staff that work there. No others are allowed on the island. 

Even people that have relatives buried on the island have a hard time gaining authorization to visit their deceased relatives. ** 

No Trespassing rule is strictly enforced. If broken this offense is punishable by a fine of over 600 dollars, and up to two years in prison.

* “Potter’s Field” is a biblical term meaning place of burial for unknown or indigent people.

** In the past, the burial trenches were re-used after 25 to 50 years, allowing for sufficient decomposition of the remains. Until recently, one-half of the infants that were buried were stillborn. This changed with the onset of children’s health insurance. It now covers all pregnant women in New York State.

*** The Hart Island Project’s mission statement is to make “the United State’s largest cemetery visible and accessible,” so everyone knows its history. 

On their home page, they have a video that shows pictures of the island. In 2012 two Bills were passed that require the Department of Corrections to post its database of burials and its visitation policy online.

Friday, September 27, 2013

15 Brand-New Shiny Pennies

I have heard several stories about people finding pennies after a loved one passes on. This story was told to me a long time ago. I still think of it every time I find a penny. At the time it happened, children could buy gum and candy for just a few pennies.

My friend’s aunt always gave her nephews and nieces a card on their birthdays, along with their present. From when they were small, she promised them that whatever their ages she would always put that number of brand- new shiny pennies in their cards. 

As the children grew it became a family joke as to whether all their pennies would fit in one card.

Her youngest nephew, Jimmie, was diagnosed with cancer just days after he turned five. The following year was a special birthday for him because he was in remission, and he would not have to go through treatment for a while. 

He found six shiny pennies in his card with one extra, which made seven. He looked up at his aunt with a question. She smiled and explained that the extra was a bonus since he had been so brave.

Jimmie for the next six and half years was cancer-free. He loved to go fishing, play the piano with his aunt, and his favorite sport was baseball, where he played second base.  

Close to his 13th birthday, he became ill once more. He went back into treatment, and he read his birthday card from his aunt while in his hospital bed. Thirteen shiny pennies fell out upon his sheet and blanket. Out of town she sent her love and assured him that she would be with him on his 14th birthday the next year.

Sadly, Jimmie didn’t live till his fourteenth birthday. His family spread his ashes by his favorite lake on his birthday. His aunt threw fourteen brand-new shiny pennies into the water. 

Time passed, and the family tried to regain some normalcy, but it was hard without their youngest son. Everything reminded them in some way of Jimmie. 

After Jimmie’s death, his aunt, who did not keep change around her house started to find pennies in odd places. They were easy to spot for they were always shiny and new. 

The first one she found was in one of her favorite dress shoes, the second one she found was on her driveway. The third one she found was on her kitchen floor. But when she saw the fourth one she began to wonder, for she found this one balanced on one of her black piano keys.

She told Jimmies' parents about the pennies she found, but they didn’t see it as unusual. Later that day they all went to watch one of Jimmie’s older brother’s play baseball. 

After the game, as his aunt walked around the field, she spotted something shiny on second base. Her heart skipped a beat as she walked closer. Tears sprang to her eyes as she saw one shiny penny on the otherwise dusty base.

She again tried to express her suspicions to Jimmie’s parents, but they brushed her thoughts off as coincidence. Months passed, and she didn’t find any more pennies. She now started to wonder if Jimmie’s mom and dad were right. Had it been just her imagination?

On the morning of what would have been Jimmie’s fifteenth birthday, his aunt was late and rushing. When she opened her car door, she was surprised to see several shiny new pennies on the driver’s seat. She counted them, there were nine altogether. These plus the five she had found before made 14. 

She broke down in tears once more understanding this must be a sign from Jimmie.

She managed to collect her emotions and drove to work. As she approached her workstation, she spotted a sealed envelope upon her desk. As she opened it, one brand-new shiny penny dropped out. This made 15. She picked it up and saw that it was dated the year Jimmie was born.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ben Franklin’s Jig

*…in this world nothing can be said, to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the home of one of America’s most colorful historical figures-- Benjamin Franklin 1706-1780.  Franklin is known as the 18th  centuries' First Citizen and for good reason. He was an accomplished writer, inventor and politician. In his early years he was a good student but he was taken out of school and apprenticed to his older brother as a printer. The books he printed opened a whole new world of ideas for the young Franklin.

In his long career he published the highly successful Poor Richards’ Almanac, which included illustrations, proverbs and parables of his own creation. His “sayings” are still famous today. His inventions literary changed the world. Just to name a few-- the Franklin stove, bifocals, the odometer, and the lightning rod.

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

He discovered electricity *-- he learned how it works, how to store it and how to use it. His other scientific pursuits included investigations into mathematics and map making. He was a successful businessman but he gave back to the community he lived within. He established the first lending library, the first volunteer fire station and the first post office. 

He helped draft the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He was a skilled diplomat and was American’s first ambassador to France. In his later years he founded the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia--he spent many happy hours poring over the books kept by this society. Franklin also was the first president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

“Eat to live, and not to eat.”

Franklin had a many faceted personality. Today he would most likely be considered eccentric. He was “free thinker” who believed that he must strip nude everyday to expose his skin to an “air bath”. He was an avid ladies’ man who chased anything in skirts despite the fact he was married. Unlike most of his contemporaries he acknowledged a son born out of wedlock--this could have ruined his career but it didn't.

“ To err is human, to repent is divine, to persist is devilish.”

Franklin once involved in a project became obsessive. He would not allow anything to distract or dissuade him from his goals. This personality trait and his connection to the Philadelphia Philosophy Society led to one very strange encounter a cleaning lady had with his ghost in the 1880s. The society keeps a written account of her experiences in its archives.

This cleaning lady often reported seeing Ben Franklin’s ghost at night wandering the halls and hurrying along through the bookshelves. One night as she was working near the stacks she was knocked violently out of the way by Franklin. It appears she was in his path and he had no patience or interest in detouring around her. The archive record indicates this cleaning lady was shaken up by his “ungentlemanly behavior.”

Franklin’s ghost is also seen outside this Philadelphia building. Witnesses have seen him moving hurriedly along the street. Several witnesses have seen an even more unusual sight--they have seen a figure that looks just like Franklin dancing down the street. Their accounts describe him doing a jig as if he is very pleased about something. No reasons are put forth as to why he is so pleased. I imagine a life filled with this many accomplishments is as good a reason as any.

* It can be said many have discovered electricity--some before Franklin. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Classic Halloween Tale to Tell: The Cursed Tape

This story has been circulated for many years. It was told before the films, The Ring and its Japanese predecessor, Ringu were released. It is often told on college campuses.

Have you heard about the videotape * that will kill you within 48 hours of watching it? Last year several college girls spent Friday night partying together. One was sent to the local rental store to pick up a scary movie. She asked the store clerk for a recommendation. While this woman was in the back the girl noticed a tape sitting on the front counter that had a strange title. Just as she was picking it up the clerk returned and requested she not touch it.

When she asks about the title the clerk shrugged and told her it is just a “home movie.” She then rented one of the films the woman brought from the back. But as the clerk retrieves her change she slips the other tape into her bag. Once back at the party her peers chastise her for swiping the tape but then they request she play it for them.

But when she puts the tape in the machine and pushes play the lights flicker and the power goes out but the television stays on. The video is of a woman being burned because she practices witchcraft and hoodoo. As the girls watch this she eerily looks out at them and utters a curse. She states that whomever witnesses her death will die within two days.

Unnerved, the girls watch as the videotape starts to make skipping sounds and then it just cuts off. The girls at first laugh at it but as one by one they start to die panic overtakes the remaining girls. As promised they all die by Monday. The graphic descriptions of the accidents that cause their deaths vary with each telling.

* This story was told before DVDs.

Classic Halloween Tale to Tell: The Town Drunk

Late one dark and snowy night just outside Doncaster in Yorkshire, England Tom the town drunk was told for the third time by the bar keep that it was closing time. He awoke briefly and then laid his head back down on the sticky table. 

Impatient, the keeper hauled him up bodily and threw him out the pub’s door. The cold moist air hit his bones, shivering he rubbed his arms and stamped his feet. His brain still hazy he set out for home. But instead of turning right he turned left.

Completely turned around now he found himself meandering amongst the tombstones in the church graveyard. The wind whipped around him as he grabbed his thin coat closer to his body. 

Tom hearing what he thought was his name being called turned around but no one was there. He shook his head trying to clear his thoughts. Again he heard a voice calling his name. He stepped forward and tripped over a freshly dug pile of dirt.

His struggled to regain his balance but as he feet sunk into the loose soil he lost his balance and fell backwards into a deep gaping hole. 

Now lying prone in pitch darkness he heard his name spoken once more. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark he realized he must have fallen into a grave. He spotted a figure close by in the darkness with him. 

Thinking it must be Satan come for him he panicked as he heard his name called out yet again. He scrambled to his feet backing away from the figure. He grabbed at the dirt trying to climb up and out.

The dark figure stated, “ You can’t get out.”

Then he heard a moan. Tom shouted out in pure terror and leapt straight up in the air. He found himself gripping the edge of the grave with his hands. Desperate and afraid for his life he hauled himself up and ran home as fast as his shaking legs would take him.

Inside the dark hole, his neighbor Billy sighed in resignation. He, too, had fallen into the grave that night. He was relieved to see his old friend. But he wondered why Tom had not responded to his calls. 

When Tom landed at his feet he thought that with two they could manage to climb out. Now he had to wait until morning for the gravedigger to bring him a ladder.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Do Ghosts Warn of Impending Danger?

There are many stories that reflect the fact that some ghosts take on the role of Guardian Angels. They return with a specific purpose, which is to protect someone they love. 

The following personal account is one of my favorite ghost stories where this is the case. It happened during the Second World War on an American Navel ship.

A young sailor by the name of Victor was serving on a freighter that was traveling with a convoy headed toward Italy when it broke down. Under time restraints, the rest of the ships continued on their way leaving the smaller freighter to make the necessary repairs and then catch up. 

In 1942 if you were “dead in the water” it meant you were in additional danger.

The Atlantic Ocean was crawling with Nazi submarines that lay unseen in wait in hopes of attacking enemy ships. On the third day, the ship still not repaired, the crew became even more nervous. Their ships only defense was a few guns on deck. They knew this was not a defense against under water torpedoes.

In the late afternoon on this day, Victor tense like the rest of the crew and finding he had time between shifts went below to his bunk to get some rest. 

Later, he was awakened by the sensation of something warm touching his shoulder. It almost felt like a hand. Something about it was familiar but Victor annoyed and wanting to sleep ignored it. But when he felt this touch again it was more persistent. When he opened his eyes he saw his mother standing near his bunk.

She touched his shoulder firmly. Now wide-awake and astonished Victor saw her smile and heard her say in her normal gentle tone, “Vic, honey you had better get up now. Its time to get up.” Before he could respond his mother’s form just vanished.

Frozen to his bunk he thought he must have been dreaming. For during his childhood this is the way his mother always nudged him when she wanted him to get up and get ready for school. 

His mind clearing he remembered where he was and that his mother had passed away eight years before. A feeling of unease overwhelmed him. He quickly dressed and left his quarters.

Realizing he had an hour before his next watch he headed to the engine room seeking company. He knew one of his friends was working on the repairs. 

Just as he entered this room a deafening explosion shook the entire freighter knocking him off his feet. His friend lay on his back nearby. The ship, an easy target had been hit by a Nazi torpedo.

Within minutes the entire crew crowded into lifeboats. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Vic looked back at the freighter as he helped row the boat he was in. 

He now understood that he would have been dead if his mother had not appeared. For there was a massive hole in the ship’s starboard side and directly above this amidst the tangled wreckage is where he had been sleeping. His mother had managed to wake him up just in time.