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Photo courtesy of Raphael Gonzalez. Instagram: @zurbaran1
Photo courtesy of Raphael Gonzalez. Instagram: @zurbaran1

You know Astoria for its modern townhouses and building complexes, its vast cultural diversity, the bike lanes and, of course, the sprawling waterside Astoria Park, but you may not know its past, with large plantations, complex relationships and deathly waters.

There are rumors and ghost stories in every city, and Astoria is no exception. Bob Singleton, executive director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, said most of the time, “the truth is more fascinating than fiction.”

In the spirit of Halloween, we dug up some haunted stories, rumors and spooky spots that are rooted in fact.

The Hallett family

Photo via Shutterstock

Photo via Shutterstock

Mitch Waxman, of the Newtown Pentacle, said when he first moved to the East Astoria neighborhood at 44th Street between 35th Avenue and Broadway, he asked his favorite conversation starter, “Have you ever seen a ghost?” Several of his neighbors said yes, and he realized they were all describing the same ghost, a pregnant, Colonial-era woman in a white dress.

One of Waxman’s neighbors, a lifelong resident, said that his mother remembers feeling the ghost’s protective presence in the room when he and his brother were sick in bed as young children.

Another neighbor, a doctor, had a spookier experience. He reported seeing the ghost in the middle of the night in his bedroom. She came toward the foot of the bed, and then he felt his feet tingle and shake uncontrollably. She disappeared through his mirror.

The ghost traces back to the true, documented story of the Hallett family. William Hallett moved to Astoria in mid-17th century for safety with his new wife, Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, the niece and daughter-in-law of prominent John Winthrop, Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor.

She had divorced her second husband on the grounds of insanity. However, it turned out that insanity was not a legal excuse for separation, according to Marie Carter, an Astoria resident and a tour guide with Boroughs of the Dead who leads the tour Haunting Histories and Legends of Astoria.

Elizabeth Hallett was technically guilty of polygamy, which was punishable by hanging where the couple lived in Connecticut, Carter said. The pair fled to Astoria, where they bought land from Peter Stuyvesant and developed a large estate.

Two generations later, William Hallett III upset his slaves by forbidding them to go to church on Sundays. In 1708, two of their slaves viciously butchered Hallett III’s entire family one night with an axe, including his pregnant wife and five children. The attackers, who committed Queens’ first capital murder, were executed just as brutally. The female slave was hung at the stake, and the male slave was hung in gibbets, where he was reported to have hallucinations of riding a horse as he bled, according to Carter.

People believe Hallett’s wife is the “White Lady” still haunting the area.

 

Hell Gate

Photo via Instagram/@and_it_was_so

Photo via Instagram/@and_it_was_so

To sailors who experienced the body of water to the west of Astoria Park prior to the 19th century, the Hell Gate waters were true to their name.

“Hell Gate was the most dangerous part of New York’s Harbor,” Singleton said. An average of a thousand ships were damaged or sunk in Hell Gate each year during the 1850s, according to Carter. This was due to whirlpools in the water which made the waters treacherous. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted the underwater rocks to alleviate the problem in 1885.

Photo via Instagram/@thenightshooter

Photo via Instagram/@thenightshooter

The worst accident in Hell Gate was General Slocum’s disaster in 1904, the deadliest tragedy in New York City’s history up until 9/11. A steamboat carrying residents from Little Germany on the Lower East Side to a picnic in Long Island caught fire soon after disembarking on the East River, killing more than 1,000 people, mostly women and children.

In the chaotic, fiery scene, people jumped off into the dangerous waters to try to save themselves. The life preservers, made with cork, had turned to dust over time, and were ineffective in saving lives. Passengers burned on the moving boat and rescue ships caught fire. Bodies landed on the Astoria shoreline until the boat made it to North Brother Island, a small island between the Bronx and Rikers Island that housed a quarantine hospital, where it burned.

Singleton said he spoke with a relative of a postman who was working that day. The postman threw his mail bag down, running to the Astoria Park shoreline to save people. He said he couldn’t walk along the beach to the water without stepping on a body.

Carter said the local legend is that when the train stops at midnight in the middle of the Hell Gate Bridge, which was completed in 1917, it is letting off the ghosts of the souls who died there.

For more about the dark history of Hell Gate, the Greater Astoria Historical Society is hosting a tour along the Astoria waterfront on Oct. 28 at noon. Singleton said participants are encouraged to dress in costume. Learn more here.

 

Museum of the Moving Image

Photo: Peter Aaron/Esto. Courtesy of Museum of Moving Image.

Photo: Peter Aaron/Esto. Courtesy of Museum of Moving Image.

According to local legend, the Museum of the Moving Image is haunted by loud voices, murmurs in air vents and an African-American woman in a white dress who likes to stand by the security desk in the lobby after hours, Carter said.

 

The Astor Room

Photo via Instagram/@makarmusic

Photo via Instagram/@makarmusic

Next door at the Astor Room, the ghost of Rudy Valentino, a beloved movie star who died at 31 in 1926, is rumored to make appearances, according to Carter. She said that Valentino has been seen sipping martinis at the bar, but she has never sighted him herself.

Marie Carter at The Astor Room, where famous actor Rudolph Valentino’s ghost has been spotted. (Photo courtesy of Boroughs of the Dead)

Marie Carter at The Astor Room, where famous actor Rudolph Valentino’s ghost has been spotted. (Photo courtesy of Boroughs of the Dead)

It is true that Valentino’s life and death attract the paranormal. Carter said that Valentino had his palm read and the fortune teller warned him he would have a short life. She added that his second wife, Natacha Rambova, was very spiritual and claimed to communicate with Valentino after his death.

Valentino, who filmed movies at what is now known as the Kaufman Astoria Studios, is rumored to haunt Astoria and places he lived and worked in Los Angeles.

(Amy Rivard, a regular performer at The Astor Room, wrote “The Three Divas,” the song in the above video. She was inspired by the ghosts of Gloria Swanson, Betty Bronson and Sylvia Sydney at the bar, which was originally the commissary where the silent film stars would dine.)

Dutch Kills apartment

Photo via Instagram/@nast.i

Photo via Instagram/@nast.i

According to “The Big Book of New York Ghost Stories” by Cheri Revai, Long Island City used to be home to a notoriously haunted Dutch Kills apartment.

In 1874, the affluent Daley family moved into a tenement on Jackson Avenue. The landlord warned them that the tenement contained spirits, but the family insisted they weren’t afraid.

One night, the couple heard moaning sounds from outside. When Mr. Daley went to the hall to find them, the sounds moved to the kitchen, then the parlor, and he searched the entire house to find their origin. Realizing that he couldn’t find it, he went back to bed. As soon as he did, he heard a loud noise, and saw that their kitchenware had fallen out of the cupboards, lying broken on the floor.

One of their young sons suffered convulsions from his fear that night and never recovered. The next night, the family heard cries of “Murder! Murder,” through the house. They eventually left the apartment, claiming the sounds kept them from sleeping. Their son died soon after they moved out. Carter said the haunted apartment no longer exists.

Roxy Studios

Photo via Facebook/Roxy Studios

Photo via Facebook/Roxy Studios

Also in Long Island City, there are rumors that Roxy Studios, which closed a few years ago on 28-39 Review Ave., was haunted. According to a 2008 New York Post story, when former owner Keith Angeleno died of a brain tumor in 1980, he had his ashes spread on the roof. After, employees reported hearing music playing in empty rooms, clocks falling and footsteps in the crawl space.

A former employee said there were supposedly two ghosts at the studio: an old owner and a man who overdosed in the studio in the ‘70s. He said a coworker and a bandmate both had stories of seeing someone they knew come into the studio, then disappear, when they were not actually there.

A photo from Roxy Studios in 2012. (Photo via Instagram/@derrockdj)

A photo from Roxy Studios in 2012. (Photo via Instagram/@derrockdj)

Today, the studio is Otter House Studios, a rehearsal and recording space that opened in March 2016. The place had been gutted, so it doesn’t look like it did when it was Roxy Studio, but the haunting still persists, according to owner Andrew Kambanis.

“You’ll hear the chains from [the first owner’s] pants when he walks around. Late at night, you’ll hear random chains,” Kambanis said. “It’s not consistent; it’s at random moments when you least expect it.

“When you’re practicing alone, you hear a drum beat in the background,” he continued. “I’ve heard the same thing from people who have stayed over at the studios with me.”

A photo from Roxy Studios in 2013. (Photo via Instagram/@izzyfontaine)

A photo from Roxy Studios in 2013. (Photo via Instagram/@izzyfontaine)

The haunting seems to occur late at night.

“It does get weird at night, I’m not going to lie, when I stay over,” Kambanis said.

His engineer has heard the ghost as well, Kambanis said.

“If I’m away for the weekend and he’s there, he’ll hear a presence in the room when he’s mixing. When he’s working on a band’s tracks, he’ll feel something standing over him. It’s a strong feeling at night.”

The Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead

Photos by Mary Bloom

Photos by Mary Bloom

Marion Duckworth Smith lives in the oldest private dwelling in New York City. Duckworth Smith made it her life’s work to restore what was once East Elmhurst’s abandoned “haunted” house into a well-preserved trove of history on 19th Road.

The Dutch Colonial home, built in about 1654, is in the only surviving farmhouse from the 12-house Riker estate, which once also encompassed Rikers Island and the land where LaGuardia airport now stands. Smith said the cemetery in the backyard, where 132 Riker descendents are buried, probably saved the house from being torn down after all these years.

Duckworth Smith said that everyone asks her if the house is haunted. While she doesn’t believe that there are any ghosts in her home, she joked that perhaps she is being haunted by the history of her property.

“I’m the one who should be haunted,” she said. “I live with [the graves of] 132 of the Riker descendants [in my backyard]!”

The house, which Duckworth Smith’s late husband Michael bought in 1973 from the Riker-Riker Homestead Estate, isn’t haunted per se, but she continues to be haunted by the past. She has gotten to know the Riker family through their neat ledger books she found in the attic, and by meeting descendants from across the country and Canada on tours, at their historical society and through letters. One day, the missing “K” from the word “Riker” on the cemetery gate came in the mail in a brown envelope, dirt and all, from a Riker who had visited the cemetery when it was abandoned.

The graveyard in the back of the house, facing the entrance to Riker’s Island, has rows of stone and clay tombs. Some of the oldest are hand-etched, and others have faded inscriptions. The oldest tomb marks a Riker descendent who died in the Revolutionary War at Valley Forge.

Smith can recite her favorite inscription on the grave of Deborah Riker, who died in 1818: “Weep not my friends all dear, I am not dead but sleeping here; The debt is paid, the grave you see, Prepare for death and follow me.”

One spooky spot in the house is the library, which Duckworth Smith said is colder than all the other rooms. She suspects something “unpleasant” happened there.

The tavern has a charred door and ceiling from when a tenant in the ‘50s, Mrs. Forcey, set the house on fire so no one else could have it.

Duckworth Smith said the home, as all Dutch Colonial homes, had secret tunnels to hide from Native American attacks. One day a man who grew up in the area came back, claiming that Mrs. Forcey showed him a tunnel in the basement, but by then it had been cemented over by a previous owner and he couldn’t find it.

Duckworth Smith has also put her own touch on the house, which is now filled with antiques and collectibles from Coney Island, Broadway theaters, World War I, the nearby Steinway Mansion and more.

She even brought her own family into the cemetery. There, she showed me a neat circle of stones with the plots of her late brother, mother and husband. There is an empty spot for her.

“I’ll be right there so I can haunt anyone who tries to destroy my work,” Duckworth Smith said. “I never intend to leave. Dead or alive, I’m here to stay.”

Duckworth Smith offers group and private tours of the home. For more, visit rikerhome.com.

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