Ghosts of the Southern Mansion

Posted on August 18, 2011

One of the most beautiful places to stay in Cape May is the Southern Mansion, located on a spacious corner on Washington Street near the center of town. The house, built in 1863, has been the site of extravagant entertaining since the days of the Civil War. A house with so much rich history is bound to have a few ghosts kicking around. At the Southern Mansion, those ghosts have made themselves right at home—they should be, they used to live there, and now they don’t want to leave. A classic case of both emotional and material attachments, with a little drama thrown in as well. Welcome to Cape May, America’s oldest and most haunted seaside resort.

The Ghosts of the Southern Mansion do not walk alone. I have found they are not an isolated group. As with many haunts in Cape May the ghosts in this old house seem to enjoy the company of other ghosts in the neighborhood. When I last visited, I detected ghosts in the yard that were not related to the house. They seemed to come and go as if they were using the place as a park. Maybe they were. The property was once part of the large plantation owned by William Corgie, a mover and shaker in town. His old farmhouse across the street (now the Washington Inn Restaurant) is also haunted.

The Southern Mansion has a rather colorful history. The mansion was first built by an Irishman named George Allen as his summer residence, during the Civil War. Allen lived in Philadelphia and had done quite well as a merchant of shoes, hats, and uniforms supplied to both the northern and southern armies.  His home was designed by famed architect Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia as a summer residence.  For many years it was the site of lavish entertaining. Allen eventually left Cape May, disgruntled by the town fathers outlawing gambling and drinking, and went back to Philadelphia.

The property remained in the Allen family for years. George Allen’s wife Esther died first, and when Allen himself finally passed on, having no children of his own, he left the house in Cape May to his sister’s daughters Esther and Agnes McCarey. The house eventually passed to Agnes’ daughter and Allen’s grand niece, Esther C. Dougherty. Esther Dougherty was married twice, the second time to Ulysses Mercur, Jr. , son of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ulysses Mercur. This was a very well-to-do family, and the great parties at the house would continue during the Mercur years.

Stories that have been passed down that tell about Esther’s love of alcohol. Her parties seem to have been the wildest the estate had seen, with some guests stripping down near (and passing out on) the hedge row in front of the house! When Esther died in 1946 at the age of 68, her husband, enraged by her alcoholic lifestyle, smashed every bottle of wine from George Allen’s prized collection in the cellar. Esther was apparently a party girl and many think her spirit lives on at the Southern Mansion. I am not so sure about this. My encounter was quite different.

In most hauntings, the ghosts will rarely be seen, so it is difficult to say exactly who is doing the haunting. Certain characteristics of a ghost may help point to an identity, but with ghost investigating, naming a ghost can be as difficult as actually finding one. As a medium, I am able to cast out a “psychic line” and try to “hook” a consciousness that we call a ghost. Ghosts are thought to be the souls of living beings, disembodied, yet retaining all of their earthly personalities. I have the ability to use my mind to link up with a ghost’s “mind.” I see and feel with my psychic mind, and communicate using thoughts. Science has not yet caught up with how this all works, but I think this ability goes back to the beginning of mankind, before spoken language evolved. I have learned to trust this ability as a very reliable tool for ghost investigations.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

You can read the entire story of the haunting of the Southern Mansion in The Ghosts of Cape May Book 1.  My association with the old house started out as a routine ghost investigation back in the spring of 2004. I was working vigorously to finish up the 21 investigations for my first book, and decided to spend a quiet weekend at the Southern Mansion to try to contact the ghost of Esther Mercur. I had heard stories about wine and champagne glasses mysteriously shattering on the trays during wedding receptions and parties held at the house. I mused that this could be Esther or Ulysses, one loving the idea of a drink, the other loathing it. I had heard about wafts of floral perfume, again thought to be Esther, and even some strange goings on in the kitchen area.

After my partner Willy and I  arrived and checked into our spacious, adjoining rooms on the third floor, I decided to make a “psychic sweep” of the mansion. I quietly moved from floor to floor, occasionally stopping to sit and meditate, in an attempt to contact Esther. I did this for several hours until I came to a conclusion: Esther wasn’t home. As a matter of fact, I don’t think Esther has been home for a long time. I asked for Esther by name, in a very strong psychic voice. “Are you here?” I said aloud and psychically. No response. I did sense ghosts, three of them. Esther was not among them.

Years ago, high up in the cupola, the owners found an urn containing the ashes of a former seaman. Why his ashes were kept in the house was not know. He may have been a friend, or a border who died. The ashes were eventually scattered at sea. Was some old sea captain haunting the house?

Psychic information will come to me like one experiences a memory—in the form of a thought, name, or image of a certain place. Unlike a memory, I have never had the initial experience to create these images. The information is in my head for the first time, but itcan be vivid and strong. Ghosts communicate this way—mind to mind.

“Curly,” I said to owner Barbara Bray, “I am getting a name Curly…but I can’t seem to find any reference to that name in your history.” I told her.

“Curly is our plumber…but he’s still alive,” she replied. After a few seconds she put out another idea. “Could it be Crilly?” Barbara told me a family by that name had owned the house for many years. They had purchased the property from a woman named Mary Crilly.

“Maybe, ” I said. Then I decided to go back to my room and sleep on the idea. A good nap in a haunted house is always one of the best ways to start a conversation with the dead. In our dreams, ghosts find it very easy to communicate with the living. Try it sometime. Just remember to wake up.

Cold spots, a feeling of not being alone, floral smells, EVPs, even banging in the middle of the night. I got the full spectrum of haunted “calling cards” that day. All with a psychic impression of an older woman who was trying to communicate with me.  There were definitely ghosts in the Southern Mansion, and one of them had my psychic number. As I slept that night, pondering who this Crilly woman was, a very faint and high-pitched voice, which could almost be confused with an insect’s humming, whispered in my ear, “It’s me.”

I spent the next day sitting in the grandiose parlor of the house trying to find out who “me” was. I did everything but whip out a Ouija board—not that I use one—but if it would have gotten the mystery ghost to communicate further I may have been tempted!

The next morning, I probed the front desk about the Crilly family only to learn that they had bought the house in 1946, and had run it as a boarding house until 1994. During the Crilly’s tenure, the house had fallen into disrepair. The hose was saved from its crumbling state when Barbara Bray’s father found the estate up for sale and told his daughter. Barbara Bray and her then husband Rick Wilde bought the property and spent several years restoring it to the showplace it is today. A happily-ever-after story with a ghost that was desperately trying to tell me something. But what?

At the time I was writing the story, a friend had invited Willy and me over for a home-cooked meal in Cape May. On hearing I was puzzled about the house, our friend rushed into her bedroom and returned with a copy of a long article that appeared in the Gazette Leader in 1994. The title of the article was “The Battle of the Crilly Estate: Where Rape And Restoration Go Hand-in-Hand in Victorian Cape May.” The article was quite an eye-opener. As it turned out, my friends had considered purchasing the property when it first came on the market, but had ended up purchasing a place on Columbia Avenue instead. In the process of researching the property, they had found this article. I was stunned at what I read.

In 1946, Ulysses Mercur was clearing up his wife’s estate and decided to sell the property. Daniel Crilly, had been visiting friends in Cape May with his wife Mary at the same time. He found the house up for sale, and surprised Mary with a belated wedding present— (they were married in September of 1928) a mansion by the sea. Even though the Crillys did not have the means to buy the house, Mercur liked them and made the sale happen. They paid $8,025 for the property in 1946, a lot less than it had cost George Allen to built his mansion in 1863-64! It was like a fairytale come true for Mary. She loved her house with all of her heart. When someone loves something this much, an emotional attachment forms. This attachment is hard to break in life, or in death.

Dan and Mary Crilly raised their two children Daniel Jr. and Maryann in that house (pictured right circa 1977.) They originally wanted to turn it into a medical rehab facility for soldiers returning from the war, as Mary had been trained as a nurse, but the city did not want that. They opted instead for a boarding house that they called “Victorian House.” Over the years the upkeep of the house became more and more difficult. Daniel Crilly died in February of 1965, followed by the death of his daughter Maryanne from cancer in March of 1967. Mary was left to run the boarding house with her son Dan Jr. until he became ill and  died in 1991. The property was in arrears for back taxes totaling almost $100,000. In addition to that, the house was literally falling apart. Mary knew it was necessary to sell the property and she enlisted several people who were friends of her late son to help, but the sale would have stipulations. Mary wanted to spend her final years living in the house, the furnishings would stay with the home, and the trees would not be cut down, including two planted in memory of her late husband and daughter. All things were put in order and the house was listed for sale. That’s where the fairytale ended.

According to the article in the Gazette-Leader the people Mary entrusted with her home and belongings eventually packed her up and moved her to the Victorian Manor nursing home in North Cape May. Neighbors tried to heed her cries for help, but the men in charge had power of attorney to do whatever they thought right for her. She was to be removed from the property, and the premises would be sold.  She begged to be able to return to her home and spend her last days there, but she never came home. Mary died in the nursing home in January of 1996, never to see her beloved Victorian House again. She refused to blame anyone for what happened, but she was heartbroken to have to spend her final days in a nursing home.

Early Ghost Sightings at the George Allen House

During the years when Mary ran the property as a boarding house, one of Mary’s boarders had come to her with a startling revelation. She had seen ghosts roaming the hallways while she rented a room from Mary. The woman described the spectral pair—one a ghost of an older man, and the other the ghost of a younger woman. After hearing the description, Mary produced a picture for the woman and asked if they were the same people she had seen. The woman said yes, and Mary confirmed it was her late husband Dan and her late daughter Maryann in the picture. Mary asked the renter not to tell the other guests as she did not want to frighten them. Mary knew her late husband and daughter were in the house, and felt they were just waiting for her to join them someday. They were her Guardian Angels.

Behind every haunting is a ghost, and behind every ghost is a story. My theory on this house is this: Mary Crilly’s final wish was to die at home. Since she was not allowed to do that, she did the next best thing: she died, and made a beeline back home to be with the Spirits of her late family. Like the ghosts of the Emlen Physick Estate, this is another example of a close-knit family in life, and in death. The energy here is positive, completely benign. These ghosts are enjoying their former home and are happy to share it with the living. As for Esther Mercur, maybe she was out at the local bar when I visited. I have yet to encounter a ghost named Esther. I think the perfume smells are all Mary.

If you stay at the Southern Mansion, you may want to request Room 9, a beautiful room that I heard had some reports of paranormal activity. I did sense someone in the room during the night. I only was able to do this because it was very windy out and the window pane started banging and woke me up. I doubt any of the family every used these third floor rooms as bedrooms. They were more likely used as servant or guest rooms. The Allens and Mercurs had quite a few servants, so ghosts of former servants cannot be ruled out either.

In Mary’s final days in the house she was bedridden in a makeshift bedroom on the first floor. Whoever the ghost was that visited me that night, I don’t think they were sleeping in the room, they were just paying me a call. As I mentioned above, ghosts can and do visit us in our dreams to communicate. Maybe it was trying to do just that, and the window banging interrupted our session.

Another curious fact in this haunting is that over the years people have said the ghost was Esther, but she appeared much older as a ghost. Ghosts may appear as their younger selves, but I have rarely heard of a person aging after death. When you die, you rot, you don’t age. Esther would have been in her late sixties when she died, Mary was in her early 90s. I believe the old woman people see is Mary. The energy I have experienced has always been gentle and centered, not bawdy or loud. Witnesses did think they saw the ghosts of Mary’s husband and daughter. Maybe Maryann is wearing the floral perfume. I cannot say for sure. What I can say is they are all happy here. This is not a negative haunt by any means. Active, yes—negative, no. We tend to fear things we cannot see or control, and many people like to make every haunted house seem like an amusement park ride. They are not.

One of the more interesting events that took place here was retold to me by the chef in the kitchen. He had been preparing a large batch of cake batter for a wedding cake when suddenly green dye started to bubble up from the batter and turned the entire batch emerald green! He told me they do not even keep green dye in the kitchen and the bowl had just been washed. After hearing the stories of how Mary loved the Irish (Daniel Crilly’s father was born in Ireland and Mary was raised by nuns after being orphaned as a baby) I immediately pictured Mary in my head—sneaking some green dye into the wedding cake batter. Maybe she thought the couple was Irish. Maybe she was just reminiscing about her own fairytale wedding present from her Irish groom. A gift that keeps on giving. Then again, George Allen’s family was Irish as well. His sister married an Irishman named McCarey and they had a daughter Agnes, who married a man named Charles H. Dougherty. It was the Dougherty’s daughter Esther, named after George Allen’s late wife, who would marry and become Esther C. Mecur. Seems like the old house has been playing host to the Irish since the very beginning!

I encountered some solid paranormal evidence at this mansion. At least, as solid as paranormal evidence can be. The best way to experience the ghosts here is to book a weekend stay, and kick back, and experience a little paranormal room service yourself. Should you encounter a ghost, it will most likely have the last name of Crilly, and will probably be more than happy to tell you the rest of the story. If you’re lucky, it might even be a show and tell.

You can read more about this great haunt in The Ghosts of Cape May Book 1 and 400 Years of the Ghosts of Cape May, that just happen to have been written by another person of Irish descent. Hmmm—maybe that’s why I like these ghosts so much. Goodnight Mary.

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