Well, This Helps A Little; Or, Here’s One More Theater Ghost Report from the 1800s

Let’s Build a Theater on a Graveyard!

Last week, I discussed how haunted theaters abound these days, so much so that at least one ghost is practically required in any theater older than half a century. And yet I really struggled to find any reports of such buildings in newspapers, magazines, or books from the 1800s. I wondered if the widespread implementation of electricity and, specifically, the custom of keeping on a “ghost light” in theaters inspired specters to buy season tickets — or if perhaps the phantom crew might have resulted from horrific theater fires in the early 1900s.

I’m no closer to a solution this week, but my “spirit guide” — by which I mean one of my proofreaders — directed me to a really interesting case of freaky theatrical phenomena from the 1870s. The story goes that the Brooklyn Theater was built on the corner of Johnson and Washington Streets in that borough of New York City. St. John’s church had previously stood there, and it had been one of those churchyards that also served as a graveyard. In other words, quaint and, in my Midwestern American eyes, a bit creepy, too. (We tend to bury our dead on the outskirts of town, thank you very much.) What’s far creepier is the prospect that not all of the corpses had been reinterred elsewhere before the theater was constructed.

The Brooklyn Theater, from Palmer’s Views of New York, Past and Present (R.M. Palmer, 1909)

I’ve found confirmation that St. John’s did stand at the corner of Johnson and Washington previously. It’s not unreasonable that some of the buried bodies remained, too. If nothing else, it certainly sets the stage for a drama involving restless ghosts!

A Ghost Enters

According to an article in the Helena Weekly Herald, Mr. and Mrs. F.B. Conway oversaw the theater, and the wife was worried — not about the disrespected dead specifically — but that “the contemplated enterprise was a desecration of holy ground, and that nothing would succeed there.” Almost inevitably, word spread “that the [play]house was haunted,” and this was supported by untraceable cold drafts that moved scenery and caused creaks. Shortly after the theater opened, Mr. Conway died. Not too long after that, Mrs. Conway died. The article says that, upon this second death,

moans and shrieks were heard in the theater, . . . which so terrified the stage carpenter, stage shifters, and property men, that they all tumbled over each other down stairs and rushed into the street with blanched faces and teeth chattering with fear.

There are no more details of the haunting than that. The article ends by shifting away from ghosts altogether to explain that the Conways died in debt, leading to efforts to raise enough money for their daughters to continue running the theater. Dirty dealings, though, prevented this from happening.

The 1876 Fire

From the front page of the December 6, 1876, issue of the New-York Tribune

Oddly, the Helena Weekly Herald article never mentions a terrible fire that had occurred at the Brooklyn Theater a month before! Clearly, that newspaper was only re-printing the information from another one. The same story was also retold elsewhere with the original source cited as the New York Herald. (Frustratingly, I am unable to find the original article, even though issues of the New York Herald are available at the Chronicling America archive. Your help would be greatly appreciated!)

The fire killed about 300 people. In an excellent post on the both the theater’s fire and its ghosts, Chris Woodyard comments on the curious fact that “the ghosts seem to have come before the fire,” relying on yet another reprint of the article mentioned above. He then provides a transcript of a slightly later article, but the interviewees there say they never saw a ghost, and one refuses to say anything at all about it. In fact, the article ends with another shift: away from ghosts and to speculation that some of the human remains unearthed after the fire might have been from the earlier graveyard.

Woodyard then jumps to 1890 with an article about how a rebuilt theater on the site was then being replaced with an office building. By this time, ghosts of the fire victims were said to haunt the place, and those spirits — or, more likely, rumors of them — had driven away patrons. At first, stories were told of spectral actors reenacting scenes from the play being performed when the fire occurred. Next came tales about how

every gallery seat was nightly occupied by the ghost of the person whose life had been lost there in the fire. These disembodied spirits according to this conceit, were usually impalpable alike to sight and touch, and did not hinder the living purchaser of the seat from sitting in it….

It’s pretty goofy stuff, and Woodyard suggests it’s more a product of journalism that’s sensational than of anything that’s supernatural.

In my post of last week, I admit that my search for 1800s reports of haunted theaters left me disappointed. The few reports of ghosts at the Brooklyn Theater have done little to improve my mood. I’m still left wondering why and when today’s proliferation of theater ghosts — pardon the pun — materialized.

— Tim

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