This post was written by Damla Bek, Library Page.
New York City abounds with tales of ghosts, and with each retelling, we breathe new life into these stories. Every story is descended from some grain of truth, but over time, we spin them into something far more spectacular and memorable, where New York City is just as much a character as it is a backdrop. In the grand Halloween tradition, we venture deep into the stacks at the New-York Historical Society seeking ghosts. And what we find, in this case, is a book published circa 1965 titled The Ghost of Peg-Leg Peter, and Other Stories of Old New York.
Here we begin with Peg-Leg Peter, known better in life as Peter Stuyvesant, the Director-General of New Netherland before the English took control of the colony and renamed it New York. Stuyvesant died in 1672 and was buried in a vault near his family’s farmland, which he affectionately referred to as the “Great Bouwerie.” His burial site eventually eventually became St. Mark’s Church, which still stands today and plays host to a number of non-profit organizations.
Legend has it that the ghost of old Peg-Leg Peter was often seen roaming around his estate, even more so as residents of New York bypassed his land and moved further north to expand the limits of the city. Evidently, he took great pleasure in stomping about and scaring the wits out of unsuspecting people, particularly if they were English. One night, our ghost got so fed up with people disturbing his grave that he both traumatized the church’s sexton and in the wake of the commotion, furiously rung the bell up in the church’s tower. Reportedly, the brave souls who went to go investigate the bell’s tolling found the rope torn, its shortened length far beyond human grasp. Never one to shy away from dramatics, the rest of the rope was later found on his crypt.
Further out East around the same time period, residents of Long Island told tales of a “phantom fire ship” that traveled along Pelham Bay, Manhasset, and Hempstead Harbor. “On stormy nights, when wild northwesters rage over over churning seas, the golden, burning craft, like a giant star, bobs and lurches and glides and leaps along the water while the waves rush away from the burning wood,” the author, M.A. Jagendorf, writes.
Those who are interested in New York City’s ghosts can delve even deeper into the mythos with resources here, here, here and here. In revisiting such stories each Halloween, we come to see the lore generated by New Yorkers as its own animal. Fact or fiction, we can still grapple with authenticity. We’ve all heard about the ghost of Aaron Burr stalking the halls of Morris-Jumel mansion, and the hauntings at Fraunces Tavern.
Ghostbusters was set in New York for a reason, after all . . .