XXXI

The Twenty-Seventh Street ghost⁠—​Spirits on ohe rampage.

In classing the ghost excitement that agitated our good people to such an extent some two years ago among the “humbugs” of the age, I must, at the outset, remind my readers that there was no little accumulation of what is termed “respectable” testimony, as to the reality of his ghostship in Twenty-seventh Street.

One fine Sunday morning, in the early part of 1863, my friends of the Sunday Mercury astonished their many thousands of patrons with an account that had been brought to them of a fearful spectre that had made its appearance in one of the best houses in Twenty-seventh Street. The narrative was detailed with circumstantial accuracy, and yet with an apparent discreet reserve, that gave the finishing touch of delightful mystery to the story.

The circumstances, as set forth in the opening letter (for many others followed) were briefly these:⁠—A highly respectable family residing on Twenty-seventh Street, one of our handsome uptown thoroughfares, became aware, toward the close of the year 1862, that something extraordinary was taking place in their house, then one of the best in the neighborhood. Sundry mutterings and whisperings began to be heard among the servants employed about the domicile, and, after a little while it became almost impossible to induce them to remain there for love or money. The visitors of the family soon began to notice that their calls, which formerly were so welcome, particularly among the young people of the establishment, seemed to give embarrassment, and that the smiles that greeted them, as early as seven in the evening gradually gave place to uneasy gestures, and, finally to positive hints at the lateness of the hour, or the fatigue of their host by nine o’clock.

The head of the family was a plain, matter-of-fact old gentleman, by no means likely to give way to any superstitious terrors⁠—one of your hardheaded business men who pooh-poohed demons, hobgoblins, and all other kinds of spirits, except the purest Santa Cruz and genuine old Otard; and he fell into a great rage, when upon his repeated gruff demands for an explanation, he was delicately informed that his parlor was “haunted.” He vowed that somebody wanted to drive him from the house; that there was a conspiracy afoot among the women to get him still higher up town, and into a bigger brownstone front, and refused to believe one word of the ghost-story. At length, one day, while sitting in his “growlery,” as the ladies called it, in the lower story, his attention was aroused by a clatter on the stairs, and looking out into the entry he saw a party of carpenters and painters who had been employed upon the parlor-floor, beating a precipitate retreat toward the front door.

“Stop!⁠—stop! you infernal fools! What’s all this hullabaloo about?” shouted the old gentleman.

No reply⁠—no halt upon the part of the mechanics, but away they went down the steps and along the street, as though Satan himself, or Moseby the guerrilla, was at their heels. They were pursued and ordered back, but absolutely refused to come, swearing that they had seen the Evil One, in propria persona; and threats, persuasions, and bribes alike proved vain to induce them to return. This made the matter look serious, and a family-council was held forthwith. It wouldn’t do to let matters go on in this way, and something must be thought of as a remedy. It was in this half-solemn and half-tragic conclave that the paterfamilias was at last put in possession of the mysterious occurrences that had been disturbing the peace of his domestic hearth.

A ghost had been repeatedly seen in his best drawing-room!⁠—a genuine, undeniable, unmitigated ghost!

The spectre was described by the female members of the family as making his appearance at all hours, chiefly, however in the evening, of course. Now the good old orthodox idea of a ghost is, of a very long, cadaverous, ghastly personage, of either sex, appearing in white draperies, with uplifted finger, and attended or preceded by sepulchral sounds⁠—whist! hush! and sometimes the rattling of casements and the jingling of chains. A bluish glare and a strong smell of brimstone seldom failed to enhance the horror of the scene. This ghost, however, came it seems, in more ordinary guise, but none the less terrible for his natural style of approach and costume. He was usually seen in the front parlor, which was on the second story and faced the street. There he would be found seated in a chair near the fire place, his attire the garb of a carman or “carter” and hence the name “Carter’s Ghost” afterward frequently applied to him. There he would sit entirely unmoved by the approach of living denizens of the house, who, at first, would suppose that he was some drunken or insane intruder, and only discover their mistake as they drew near, and saw the firelight shining through him, and notice the glare of his frightful eyes, which threatened all comers in a most unearthly way. Such was the purport of the first sketch that appeared in the Sunday Mercury, stated so distinctly and impressively that the effect could not fail to be tremendous among our sensational public. To help the matter, another brief notice, to the same effect, appeared in the Sunday issue of a leading journal on the same morning. The news dealers and street-carriers caught up the novelty instanter, and before noon not a copy of the Sunday Mercury could be bought in any direction. The country issue of the Sunday Mercury had still a larger sale.

On Sunday morning, every sheet in town made some allusion to the Ghost, and many even went so far as to give the very (supposed) number of the house favored with his visitations. The result of this enterprising guess was ludicrous enough, bordering a little, too, upon the serious. Indignant householders rushed down to the Sunday Mercury office with the most amusing wrath, threatening and denouncing the astonished publishers with all sorts of legal action for their presumed trespass, when in reality, their paper had designated no place or person at all. But the grandest demonstration of popular excitement was revealed in Twenty-seventh Street itself. Before noon a considerable portion of the thoroughfare below Sixth Avenue was blocked up with a dense mass of people of all ages, sizes, sexes, and nationalities, who had come “to see the Ghost.” A liquor store or two, near by, drove a splendid “spiritual” business; and by evening “the fun” grew so “fast and furious” that a whole squad of police had to be employed to keep the sidewalks and even the carriageway clear. The “Ghost” was shouted for to make a speech, like any other new celebrity, and old ladies and gentlemen peering out of upper-story windows were saluted with playful tokens of regard, such as turnips, eggs of ancient date, and other things too numerous to mention, from the crowd. Nor was the throng composed entirely of Gothamites. The surrounding country sent in its contingent. They came on foot, on horseback, in wagons, and arrayed in all the costumes known about these parts, since the days of Rip Van Winkle. Cruikshanks would have made a fortune from his easy sketches of only a few figures in the scene. And thus the concourse continued for days together, arriving at early morn and staying there in the street until “dewy eve.”

As a matter of course, there were various explanations of the story propounded by various people⁠—all wondrously wise in their own conceit. Some would have it that “the Ghost” was got up by some of the neighbors, who wished, in this manner, to drive away disreputable occupants; others insisted that it was the revenge of an ousted tenant, etc., etc. Everybody offered his own theory, and, as is usual, in such cases, nobody was exactly right.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Mercury continued its publications of the further progress of the “mystery,” from week to week, for a space of nearly two months, until the whole country seemed to have gone ghost-mad. Apparitions and goblins dire were seen in Washington, Rochester, Albany, Montreal, and other cities.

The spiritualists took it up and began to discuss “the Carter Ghost” with the utmost zeal. One startling individual⁠—a physician and a philosopher⁠—emerged from his professional shell into full-fledged glory, as the greatest canard of all, and published revelations of his own intermediate intercourse with the terrific “Carter.” In every nook and corner of the land, tremendous posters, in white and yellow, broke out upon the walls and windows of news-depots, with capitals a foot long, and exclamation-points like drumsticks, announcing fresh installments of the “Ghost” story, and it was a regular fight between go-ahead vendors who should get the next batch of horrors in advance of his rivals.

Nor was the effect abroad the least feature of this stupendous “sell.” The English, French, and German press translated some of the articles in epitome, and wrote grave commentaries thereon. The stage soon caught the blaze; and Professor Pepper, at the Royal Polytechnic Institute, in London, invented a most ingenious device for producing ghosts which should walk about upon the stage in such a perfectly-astounding manner as to throw poor Hamlet’s father and the evil genius of Brutus quite into the “shade.” “Pepper’s Ghost” soon crossed the Atlantic, and all our theatres were speedily alive with nocturnal apparitions. The only real ghosts, however⁠—four in number⁠—came out at the Museum, in an appropriate drama, which had an immense run⁠—“all for twenty-five cents,” or only six and a quarter cents per ghost!

But I must not forget to say that, really, the details given in the Sunday Mercury were well calculated to lead captive a large class of minds prone to luxuriate in the marvelous when well mixed with plausible reasoning. The most circumstantial accounts were given of sundry “gifted young ladies,” “grave and learned professors,” “reliable gentlemen”⁠—where are those not found?⁠—“lonely watchers,” and others, who had sought interviews with the “ghost,” to their own great enlightenment, indeed, but, likewise, complete discomfiture. Pistols were fired at him, pianos played and songs sung for him, and, finally, his daguerreotype taken on prepared metallic plates set upright in the haunted room. One shrewd artist brought out an “exact photographic likeness” of the distinguished stranger on cartes de visite, and made immense sales. The apparitions, too, multiplied. An old man, a woman, and a child made their appearance in the house of wonders, and, at last, a gory head with distended eyeballs, swimming in a sea of blood, upon a platter⁠—like that of Holofernes⁠—capped the climax.

Certain wiseacres here began to see political allusions in the Ghost, and many actually took the whole affair to be a cunningly devised political satire upon this or that party, according as their sympathies swayed them.

It would have been a remarkable portion of “this strange, eventful history,” of course, if “Barnum” could have escaped the accusation of being its progenitor.

I was continually beset, and frequently, when more than usually busy, thoroughly annoyed by the innuendoes of my visitors, that I was the father of “the Ghost.”

“Come, now, Mr. Barnum⁠—this is going a little too far!” some good old dame or grandfather would say to me. “You oughtn’t to scare people in this way. These ghosts are ugly customers!”

“My dear Sir,” or “Madam,” I would say, as the case might be, “I do assure you I know nothing whatever about the Ghost”⁠—and as for ‘spirits,’ you know I never touch them, and have been preaching against them nearly all my life.”

“Well! well! you will have the last turn,” they’d retort, as they edged away; “but you needn’t tell us. We guess we’ve found the ghost.”

Now, all I can add about this strange hallucination is, that those who came to me to see the original “Carter,” really saw the “Elephant.”

The wonderful apparition disappeared, at length, as suddenly as he had come. The “Bull’s-Eye Brigade,” as the squad of police put on duty to watch the neighborhood, for various reasons, was termed, hung to their work, and flashed the light of their lanterns into the faces of lonely couples, for some time afterward; but quiet, at length, settled down over all: and it has been it seems, reserved for my pen to record briefly the history of “The Twenty-seventh Street Ghost.”