Booo-zy Tales of Spirited New York
All photos by Keith Allison.
New York City is home to some eight million souls -- many more if you count those not currently associated with a body. The city has more than its fair share of ghosts and haunted houses -- from former showgirl Olive Thomas at the New Amsterdam Theater to Mark Twain and the “House of Death” on 10th Street in the West Village. But my heart has always been with the ghosts who eschewed theater catwalks and quaint townhouses and chose to spend eternity drifting around their favorite bar, tavern, or saloon. From flirty sailors to cranky US vice presidents, these haunted New York bars can serve you a solid pint and possibly a spooky encounter.
We begin our tour of guzzling ghosts at the southern tip of Manhattan, and at a site that is unfortunately closed since Hurricane Sandy. Located under the Brooklyn Bridge and on the waterfront at 279 Water St, the Bridge Cafe is one of at least three (probably more) bars that lay claim to oldest bar in the city (the other two being the Ear Inn on Spring Street and Pete’s Tavern on 18th Street). The building was erected in 1794 but the first record of it as a (legal) tavern is from 1847. Since its first
days, the Bridge Inn was frequented by smugglers and river pirates, many of whom are said to still pop in for a pint. Perhaps even more notorious than the many spirits that lurk about the historic old bar is the establishment’s former bouncer. Standing over six feet tall, Gallus Mag was a burly Irishwoman who was famous for biting off the fingers and ears of unruly drinkers. She would then proudly display the severed appendages in jars decorating the tavern. So while we may not be able to drink at the Bridge Cafe, we can hope that it will reopen eventually, and that until then, Gallus Mag is keeping her unruly collection of ghost pirates and troublemaking poltergeists in line.
Speaking of ears, drunken ghost pirates, and historic buildings, the Ear Inn used to sit at the western edge of Manhattan island. Decades of civil engineering have expanded the island, but the building at 326 Spring Street still stands. Originally the house of a black veteran of the Revolutionary War named James Brown (legend has it that he is the black man pictured in Emanuel Leutze’s painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River), the building has been a bar since at least 1835. During Prohibition, it served multi-duty as a speakeasy, a brothel, a smugglers’ den, and a boarding house catering to mariners who worked the nearby docks. At least one of those sailors has decided he liked the bar so much he decided to stay. In 1977, a group of artists who had moved into the then-derelict neighborhood some years before re-opened the bar, naming it the Ear Inn after a music magazine they published. Almost immediately, they began to notice strange occurrences. These hauntings were soon attributed to the ghost of a randy sailor dubbed "Mickey." Aside from the usual stomping and banging about, Mickey has been known to goose women and drain the beers of unwary patrons. Heck, it’s gambrel roof alone is enough to terrify legendary horror writer (and former Red Hook resident) HP Lovecraft.
If you need a break from raising your glass with grab-assy ghost sailors, you can head up to the West Village to one of the city’s nicest restaurants with one of it’s meanest ghosts. One If By Land, Two If By Sea is considered one of the city’s most romantic restaurants. The building at 17 Barrow Street was once a coach house belonging to the disgraced former vice president Aaron Burr, whose personal motto could have been “an asshole in death, as he was in life.” His troubled ghost is said to haunt his former stable, throwing around plates and generally causing a ruckus. The ghost of his daughter is also said to haunt the building, though unlike her tempestuous father, she sticks primarily to being seen walking up and down the stairs.
Just a few blocks away, at 567 Hudson Street, one can escape the temper tantrums of America’s most cantankerous historical figure and hang out instead with a self-destructive poet. Dylan Thomas allegedly drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern, and his ghost, refusing to go gentle into that good night, is said to still come back for his favorite table. While you can still sit at Thomas’ table (provided he isn’t there himself), we
do not recommend trying to match the 18 whiskies that finally did him in. Thomas was able to stagger home to the Chelsea Hotel, a place that has plenty of other residents whose ghosts checked in when the resident checked out. The hotel’s own Star Lounge has reported a number of supernatural shenanigans, though as of yet none of them have been attributed to Nancy Spungen. Perhaps it’s just poor Dylan Thomas, trying to get one last drink. (Editor's note: the Chelsea is also now currently closed, having recently changed ownership, but expected to open again in 2014 as both a hotel and bar.)
Perhaps you prefer the company of a posher sort of spirit. Across the Village at 16 Bank Street is Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn, where haunts the dandiest of New York bar ghosts. Clad in top hat and Gilded Age finery, this sartorially splendid specter is said to have favored the establishment’s smoking room during the 1800s -- the one room, incidentally, that went undamaged when a fire gutted the rest of the place in 1977. The creepy cad has also been said to mess about with the fireplace, flirt with waitresses and swap out meatloaf for fried chicken. A truly spirited prankster if ever there was one.
Our final haunted watering hole takes us up to the theme-appropriate Hell’s Kitchen. The Landmark Tavern, on the corner of 11th Avenue and 46th Street, opened in 1868 and has a couple of patrons who have been coming in
for a beer since around that same time. Like the Ear Inn, the tavern used to be much closer to Manhattan’s waterfront, and as such it catered to yet more rowdy dock workers and and a largely Irish immigrant population (something that continued clear into the 1980s, when the bar was used as the headquarters for the infamous Irish mob, The Westies). A young Irish girl who died of typhoid fever (or cholera, depending on who is telling the story) in the 19th century is said to still walk the halls of the building’s third floor. Downstairs, one can find slightly more cheerful ghosts. The ghost of a former Confederate soldier killed in a barroom brawl still comes in for a drink and knocks books off the shelves in the second floor bar. The tavern has even retained the bathtub in which he died. Finally (or not so finally, as the case may be), former Hollywood tough guy and Hell’s Kitchen native, George Raft, who frequented the bar in life is said to do the same even now that he has been long dead.