The haunting of Melrose Hall (a ghost story of the American Revolution)

Melrose Hall, a 4th July haunting
Adapted from an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 October 1895

Are you superstitious?
Do you believe in ghosts?
Whether you do or not, there are hundreds, yes, thousands, of persons living in the Flatbush district of Brooklyn who do, and who will tell you there is no doubt at all about the existence of The Ghost of Melrose Hall.

Melrose Hall is a residence at Bedford Avenue and Winthorp Street, Flatbush. The particular spirit which it is said to harbour is that of an Indian girl who died there 118 years ago.

At every change in the ownership of the historic home, and on every occasion when there is dancing in the Hall, the ghost stalks forth. She was last seen two years ago, while a ball was in progress. She opened a secret panel which formerly led to a blind staircase in what is now the dining-room, and was the library in former times, and glided out among the dancers.

Some of the guests saw her. Others were sceptical. The alleged apparition caused gossip at the time. Since the last change in ownership, the ghost has not been seen. But one unusual circumstance has been noted:—

On the inside of the heavy front door a copper key hangs in the immense old-fashioned lock. This key is about eight inches long, of well-burnished metal and weighs something like a quarter of a pound. The door is of heavy timber, studded with nails. It is made in two sections, dividing in the middle. Suddenly, in the middle of the forenoon, the key turned in the lock, and both the top and bottom sections of the door swung back creaking. The floor cracked as if someone had stepped over the threshold. No one was to be seen. No one within the house touched the key, and as it hung within the door it could not have been reached from the outside.

Melrose Hall’s ghost dates to the days of the American Revolution, when the house was owned by Colonel William Axtell. Although a reputation for haunting has clung to the neighbourhood ever since, the romantic incident which gave rise to it has been forgotten. Here and there an antiquary knows it.

Colonel Axtell was a member of the King’s Council and a famous Tory. The ancestor from whom he had his name was a soldier in Cromwell’s army and was beheaded afterward by order of Charles II.

Colonel Axtell was a rich man and owned many slaves. He lived the life of most New York Tories, toasted King George at wine suppers, discharged the duties of a Councillor with pomp, and drove hounds for recreation. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary war, Melrose Hall became a rendezvous for Royalists. The Americans made every effort to capture Colonel Axtell. In a close pursuit on one occasion he was rescued by an Indian girl. She was a princess, as Iroquois titles go, comely and good to look upon. The Colonel named her Isabella and fell in love with her. He was a handsome, dashing Englishman and Isabella promptly fell in love with him. Affairs were complicated by the fact that there was a Mrs. Axtell. She was a cold, haughty woman, with some scorn for her neighbours, and no liking for colonial life. Colonel Axtell brought the beautiful Isabella home secretly and put her in charge of an elderly slave. This devoted slave set her wits to work to conceal the girl.

Melrose Hall was then, as now, a great rambling old place, abounding in secret panels and hidden chambers and staircases. The south wing of the house consisted of an immense ballroom, with apartments above. Directly over the ballroom was a window. From the outside this looked right enough. On the inside, however, the apartment showed a blank wall. The window opened into a secret chamber. To this there was no means of ingress except by the outside window.

In this secret chamber the old slave hid the Indian girl Isabella. She carried food to her every day and ministered to her wants. Under cover of darkness Colonel Axtell used to mount a ladder to visit his Indian princess. Sometimes Isabella was led into the library in the evening, when the house was quiet, and she and the Colonel sat peacefully before the fire. At any alarm they opened a secret panel in the wainscot which led to a hidden staircase which opened upon an outside window, and the girl could easily escape. You can see the panel and the staircase to this day.

This romance came to an abrupt end when Colonel Axtell received a commission in the British army from Sir William Howe in 1778. He went away to war for almost a year and Isabella was left in charge of the slave. When he came back, although on the losing side, he was the hero of the hour among New York Tories. A ball was arranged to celebrate his homecoming. Melrose Hall was lighted brilliantly and the assembly was very gay. At the first opportunity Colonel Axtell escaped from his guests and ran toward the slave quarters.

“Where is Mammy Rachel ?’ he shouted, calling for the old woman who tended Isabella.

“Dead; dead six weeks ago,” said the slaves.

And then they told the Colonel how in the delirium of her illness the old woman had been possessed of a strange hallucination. She babbled of an Indian girl whom she believed to be starving to death in the “big house.”

Colonel Axtell came reeling from the servants’ quarters. He raved like a madman. As he approached the hall, the lights all over the house went out. The ballroom was left in darkness.

As he entered a sight met his fixing gaze which froze the terrified man to the spot. In the midst of the gayety and dancing the light had been replaced by a sickly, glow worm light shone on every object in the room. Low and unearthly noises were heard throughout the house, then died away mingling with the sighing of the wind through the tall pines. Suddenly the secret passage opened and the spectral form of Isabella entered. The face was ashen pale, each vein strongly defined on the emaciated features, her long black hair hung drooping over her shoulders to the floor, and she seemed clad in airy gossamer. The apparition bore the look of unutterable sorrow, and the hands were clenched in an attitude of woe.

Noiselessly she glided through the hall — her sightless eyeballs bent on the petrified form of the colonel, while the lips moved in a ghastly smile as the bony hand pointed to the trembling wife. Nearing the entrance to the secret stairs she turned and with her finger wrote the word “Betrayer,” then vanished. The dismal light gradually faded and glimmered out, leaving everything shrouded in darkness. For a moment all was still. Then an agonizing shriek through the hall, accompanied by the heavy thud, as if a body had fallen.

The fearful sound was echoed by the frantic slaves and the howl of the dogs, as the wind blew the windows open and swept through the room. Again the strange glow appeared, lingering just long enough to illuminate the prostrate figure of the Colonel lying before the secret entrance and the spectral woman bending over him with the same heartless smile upon her lips, pointing to a bleeding wound near his heart, which the maddened man had inflicted with his own sword. As the bell tolled the midnight hour, the light died out and the spectre once more vanished.

When lights were brought, every attempt was made to save the Colonel’s life, but he only lived a few hours, and his last entreaties were to have the house sold and his family return to England.

EPILOGUE

Melrose Hall was built in 1749 by John Lane, a dissipated Englishman of wealth. In those days it was the finest country home in the States. There were gilded cornices, cedar and oaken wainscoted walls. The two wings were removed by Dr. Homer L. Bartlett, the resident owner, in 1879.

Later, after considerable excavation, Isabella’s skeleton was found in the chamber over the ballroom. Many persons have claimed a sight of the ghost in the years since then.

At that time, some old walled-up cellars under the house were unearthed. In these were several human skeletons. There were iron posts and chains also, by which it was believed slaves were once secured and punished. The bones might have been, those of Tory officers who were secreted about the Hall in Colonel Axtell’s Day.

Although the house was pulled down in 1903, it remains one of the most haunted houses in American history.

Melrose Hall

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