“Who here believes in ghosts?”
Colleen O’Connor, a tour guide for Ghosts of New Haven, a local company that offers ghosts walks for “skeptics or believers,” asks this to our group of vigilant specter watchers — a motley crew of New Haven locals, young couples, a handful of Yale students, a few witches, a tiger, and Harley Quinn. We are accompanied by Christine, a black-lipsticked, buzzcut-sporting medium who serves as our official liaison with the dead.
We are a group of skeptics and believers, but the goal for this Halloween night, O’Conner tells us, is converting all of us into the latter. She does this by recounting histories of the spirits that haunt some of New Haven’s most notable locations. In one of them, she shares a crucial detail about George Washington’s ghost, which lurks around the Union League Cafe after the president once spent the night there.
“George Washington was a ho,” says O’Connor, who has been with the tour company since 2012. “He slept around everywhere. But he also slept here in New Haven, too.” She points to a plaque commemorating Washington’s visit to the Cafe to affirm this claim.
We listen to these histories as we follow O’Conner’s nylon New York Giants windbreaker through Downtown New Haven. Under the Center Church on the Green is a crypt, built as a burial ground for early settlers, where Christine once held a full conversation with a good-humored spirit. Over 5,000 or 10,000 New Haven residents are buried under the Green, the aftermath of a 1794 outbreak of yellow fever. O’Connor notes that, once, a particularly heavy storm revealed bits of colonial skulls that had been hidden under the green for centuries.
“That’s something that really validates my BS,” she says.
We listen to stories about the spirits of historic figures: Benedict Arnold haunts the World War Memorial at the center of the New Haven Green, forever plagued with the guilt of betraying his country. Joseph Cinque — a West African who led a slave ship revolt, only to be recaptured in the Long Island Sound — labors for eternity outside of City Hall, where he was once imprisoned.
Some of the other histories are far more anecdotal. On the steps of City Hall, we are told to listen for the soft hums of a young cleaning woman. (“Once, someone with a Swiffer came to the window and really terrified us.”) We stop at the New Haven Public Library and hear about a Yale student who frequently saw a beautiful, red-haired woman in the stacks. When he learned she had died in an accident years earlier, he was “so scared that he ran back to Iowa. … They had to mail his diploma to him.”
We also hear about the vengeful, bitter ghosts of Yale. The Cornelius Suite, in Vanderbilt Hall, was reserved by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt for his direct descendants. Vanderbilt’s ghost is regularly disturbed by the non-Vanderbilts who now occupy the room. Once, in spite, he shattered a lamp into a million pieces, just because he was tired of looking at it.
The most striking thing about the Ghost Tour, however, is not the revelation of unseen spirits, but of sights in New Haven that we tend to overlook. For the first time, I notice how the red lights of the Union and New Haven Trust Building turn the night sky a deep purple, the golden stairs spilling out of City Hall, the shadow-cast eyes of the statues guarding the Superior Court Building.
“My favorite part of the ghost walks is meeting people,” O’Conner tells me. “I love educating people about New Haven’s history.”
Near the end of the tour, I ask Joy Sherman, a fellow ghost walker who works at the MacMillan Center, whether she now believes in ghosts.
“I definitely believe in energies,” she admits. “Have you ever had a premonition dream? Those are powerful.”
I have to agree; the spirits, and history, of New Haven have never felt so omnipresent before. When the tour ends, it’s almost a lonely walk back to the world of the living.
Eileen Huang | firstname.lastname@example.org .