Boroughs of the Dead–Discovering NYC’s Dark Side

Last weekend I went on my first ghost tour of New York City! Reading about ghosts and ghouls is all well and good, but sometimes you just have to get out there and experience their haunts and historical sites for yourself. Ghost tours are a great way to not only get some fresh air with your scares, but also to learn about some local history. And no one does this better than Boroughs of the Dead. Boroughs of the Dead is a local, independent, woman-owned boutique walking tour business that specializes in the darker side of New York history. They offer tours across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, and are looking to expand into the other two boroughs as well. Many of their tour guides are writers and are skilled in both research and storytelling. In fact, I first heard of the company because Gaslamp fantasy author Leanna Renee Hieber is one of their tour guides.

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Last Saturday, a couple of friends and I signed up for “Forgotten Dark Histories of Lower Manhattan.” This tour was quite different from anything I’ve experienced before. They focused quite a bit more on true historical events than on ghost stories (though there were a few good ghosts thrown in), since as Boroughs of the Dead says on their website, “history is often far more frightening than anything supernatural.” This is especially true of early American history which saw its fair share of bloody conflict, atrocities against Native Americans, and corrupt government officials.

The tour began in front of the Museum of the American Indian—an elegant neoclassical building that stands on roughly the same location as the original Fort Amsterdam where Dutch explorers first settled in what is now Bowling Green. This proved the perfect launching point for our history of Manhattan, as we learned about the early Dutch colony, the English colony that succeeded it, and ultimately the area’s significance in the fight for independence. From there, we continued on to Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the sites of historic taverns, manner houses, and museums.

One of the coolest things about the tour was learning more about everybody’s current favorite founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton is buried right inside Trinity’s churchyard, and as we stood outside it, our guide told us the creepy tale of America’s first murder trial. If you’re familiar with the Hamilton musical, you may remember that the song “Non-Stop” mentions Hamilton and Burr teaming up to defend a man named Levi Weeks. Weeks was accused of murdering his fiancée, Elma Sands. As the story goes, Sands told her sister she was off to elope with Weeks, but never returned. Much later, her blue muff was found near a well, leading investigators to discover her body. Public opinion generally considered Weeks to be guilty of the murder, but Hamilton and Burr’s strong defense won a quick “not guilty” verdict from the jury. One of Elma’s relatives is said to have cursed Hamilton to die “an unnatural death.”

A depiction of Aaron Burr using dramatic tactics during the Levi Weeks trial. (Library of Congress)
A depiction of Aaron Burr using dramatic tactics during the Levi Weeks trial. (Library of Congress)

My favorite ghost story from the tour involved British actor George Frederick Cooke, who is buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral—well, most of him anyway. Despite being quite a popular performer, Cooke was known for having a very serious drinking problem which ultimately interfered with his success in England and drove him to try to build up a new reputation in the United States. Though he found some success with American audiences, Cooke’s alcoholism finally caught up to him and he died of liver problems in 1812 while still on American soil. As a foreigner, Cooke was initially buried in the “stranger’s vault” at St. Paul’s, but later a Cooke devotee—famed actor Edmund Kean—had him exhumed and reburied with an appropriate monument. Our tour guide revealed that after exhuming his idol, Kean took one of the dead man’s toes which he placed lovingly on his mantelpiece at home and treated as a relic until his wife finally threw it out a window. Somebody else apparently helped himself to Cooke’s skull, which was later used in a production of Hamlet. They say that a headless (and presumably toe-less) ghost can occasionally be seen around St. Paul’s.

If decapitated actors and controversial murder trials aren’t enough for you, our lovely tour guide also threw in a pirate for good measure. Captain Kidd started out as a respectable privateer for the English Crown—essentially a legal pirate commissioned to capture enemy vessels. He amassed a decent amount of wealth from his privateering exploits, but really hit it big when he married a wealthy widow in New York. William Kidd and Sarah Oort settled down in a magnificent waterfront home down on Pearl Street, where it is said that Kidd could look out across the water to one of the islands where he may have buried some of his treasure. Eventually, though, Kidd’s luck ran out. After seizing a ship under dubious circumstances, Kidd’s former allies turned on him and he was officially branded a pirate. Kidd was imprisoned and eventually sent to trial in London where he was found guilty and hanged. His body remained on display in a gibbet for years to deter future pirates. Rumors persist to this day about the possible locations of his buried treasure.

A painting of Captain Kidd welcoming a woman aboard his ship in New York harbor. (Library of Congress)
A painting of Captain Kidd welcoming a woman aboard his ship in New York harbor. (Library of Congress)

If you liked these stories and you’re in the New York City area, definitely check out Boroughs of the Dead! If you live elsewhere, see what ghost tours or spooky walking tours are in your area. I particularly recommend the ghost tours in Colonial Williamsburg where you can learn about some infamous ghosts from my alma mater, the College of William & Mary. What ghost tours have you been on? What are some of your favorite stories you’ve heard? Let me know in the comments!

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