Haunted houses. They are usually thought of as huge, brooding Victorian edifices sitting isolated amid an expansive tract of gated, weed-infested land, or on a remote hillside far from the nearest town. They aren’t old, nondescript brownstone buildings standing in the heart of a teeming city.
Not unless the haunted house is located at 14 W. 10th St. across from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, the site of New York City’s most vigorous paranormal activity. The House of Death.
A LONG AND CREEPY HISTORY
Built in the late 1850s, the four-story single-family structure was home at various times to the families of wannabe socialites and well-heeled businessmen. A widow who briefly lived there was said to have aborted her baby over the grief of losing her husband in the Civil War. The spirit of this baby, plus another child, are among the many ghosts said to roam the halls and rooms of the place.
Just how many ghosts? More than twenty, all of them—save one, its most famous resident—having died there. More about that resident shortly.
Among the earliest tenants, the family of rich guy James Boorman Johnston apparently experienced a great deal of paranormal activity. Given their station they would not discuss any of it in public, but they did confide in friends and other family members. Their stay at 14 W. 10th St. was a short one, as was that of all its other tenants. Similar stories of spirit sightings prevailed through the decades.
THE SPIRIT OF SAMUEL CLEMENS
We all know Samuel Clemens by his pen name, Mark Twain. Clemens briefly lived in the building from 1900-1901, and he did not die there. He passed away in 1910 at his home in Connecticut. So why did his spirit join the twenty-odd others who had died there? What had he experienced to make his soul linger in that place?
The most famous sighting occurred in the 1930s, when a woman and her daughter, the current residents, spotted the ghost of Mark Twain on the first floor. Dressed in a white suit, he looked at the pair and said, “My name is Clemens, and I have a problem here I gotta settle.” Then, he vanished. Although his ghost has been seen a number of times, he hasn’t spoken to anyone else. His “problem” remains unknown.
During the Depression the owners of 14 W. 10th St. refashioned the building into ten apartments. Was this a smart investment move, given the times, or an attempt to dispel the paranormal rumors associated with the old brownstone? Or maybe a bit of both?
In any case, the hauntings at the House of Death did not stop, though it did not prevent more well-heeled people from moving in. In 1957 an author and actress named Jan Bryant Bartell and her husband took a place on the top floor. Almost immediately, as she reported, “a monstrous moving shadow loomed up behind me.” Scared the crap out of her, it did. Nor was it the first time this happened. She also experienced the odor of rotten meat emanating from the walls, and an invisible hand brushing against her neck quite a few times. A paranormal investigator that she hired was able to sense the presence of multiple spirits, all of them troubled. Bartell arranged for an exorcism, which proved unsuccessful. She and her husband moved out in short order.
Jan Bryant Bartell ultimately wrote a book about her experiences, titled Spindrift: Spray from a Psychic Sea. There are used—and fairly expensive—copies listed on Amazon.
In 1987 a prominent attorney, Joel Steinberg, moved into 14 W. 10th St. with his girlfriend, Hedda Nussbaum, and her two children, young Lisa and infant Mitchell. Shortly thereafter Steinberg, high on cocaine—and, believed by some, possessed by a malevolent spirit—beat both Hedda and Lisa, the child, whom he had adopted, eventually succumbing to her injuries. Steinberg went to prison for a long time. To this day a light with no apparent source flickers on and off on the floor where they spent so little time. Is this Lisa’s spirit calling for help?
These days 14 W. 10th St. is now a designated historical landmark, and the tormented spirits seem to have quieted down. Or have they? Only the current residents in the House of Death know for sure.