BY BOB SINGLETON
Greater Astoria Historical Society
Starting with Halloween, the cold nights and chilly breezes of fall is the perfect time for recounting hauntings and scary stories. Long Island City has more than its share. Meet the Blissville Banshee.
The story started innocently enough in 1884 as Mr. James Flaherty, a wealthy florist of Blissville, was minding his business, wending his way home from Laurel Hill along a lane that headed towards Queens Boulevard. Passing some empty buildings at Calvary Cemetery, he was startled by a loud voice, high-pitched as a woman’s, moaning, “oh ho!”
Thinking it was someone in distress; he rushed in and searched the house from ‘cellar to garret.’ He found nothing. While in the attic, he heard the wail again, but this time, from outside the house. He looked out and saw nothing. At this point, more than just a “little frightened” he ran home.
On hearing the tale, his son John, described as a “strapping young man” immediately seized his shot gun, and forming a posse of 10 friends, went on a wild pursuit of the “strange creature.” Sure enough, they heard its cry, but now it seemed to be in the cemetery. They climbed the fence and searched among the tombstones. Around midnight the voice faded and finally disappeared. Nothing was found.
The next morning word quickly spread throughout the suburban hamlets of Blissville, Laurel Hill and Long Island City Heights (which we now call ‘Sunnyside’). People came forward with confessions that they, too, had heard the sounds. Soon the word was out: all the locals would be “ready on Friday night” to “run down the banshee.” At 9 o’clock that evening, a bloodthirsty mob of 100 vigilantes gathered in the bar room at Bradley’s Hotel. Each one was armed with a six shooter or shotgun.
With grim determination, they marched down the lane, approached and surrounded the very house where Mr. Flaherty had his frightening experience and stood whispering. The place had a reputation of being haunted. Several suicides had taken place in the immediate vicinity. Once again, the plaintive wail “oh ho” was heard.
After much considerable discussion, ten brave souls stormed into the house. Suddenly a wail was distinctly heard from the cemetery. They rushed over the fence. Again, nothing was discovered.
They returned home discouraged and disheartened but in agreement: the voice was not of any living creature.
Several aldermen, a local church sexton, and even the assistant superintendent of Calvary Cemetery claimed to have heard the cry at night. Although most swore it was a ghost, or at least was not human, a local police officer who lived close to the cemetery claimed it was young men playing tricks on the community. A nearby judge thought it might be an owl.
An Irishman observed an old curse: “In the Old Country when the banshee come around, the handsomest girl in the neighborhood was sure to die. I don’t mean to say that – God forbid it – but it doesn’t look right to me.”
Fearing bad luck, locals began to clam up to reporters and the story soon dropped from the public eye. Left undisturbed, a dark cloud descended along Newtown Creek as neighbors whispered about every tidbit of news, real or imagined. Hysteria became entrenched. Women refused to walk the streets without their husbands.
People did not venture after dark. The local saloons and hotels, starved of business, closed. People began to move away. Soon only a handful remained amid the grim detritus of 19th century industry. The community self-destructed.
The banshee, grimly satisfied, remains at large. It waits, no doubt, for new intruders into its liar.