Monday, November 21, 2011

Was that a ghost I saw? The bogus haunting of Liberty Hall.

A few weeks ago, Ivan and I visited Liberty Hall in Union, and before that, I also wrote about the town's Revolutionary War past. Not surprisingly, there's a link between the two: Hannah Caldwell and British soldiers. I heard the connection several years ago, when I first visited the house and before possession of the property had been transferred to Kean College. The tours were a little less polished and a little longer in the telling, with volunteers happy to share some of the more, shall we say, interesting parts of the history. 

The story goes like this: following the Battle of Connecticut Farms, British soldiers made their way back toward Elizabeth and Staten Island on the road that's now Morris Avenue. The battle had been tragic for the townspeople, with the torching of nearly every building in the community and the shooting death of Hannah Caldwell, wife of the Third New Jersey's chaplain, Rev. James Caldwell. When the Redcoats reached Liberty Hall, darkness had already fallen, and several stopped there to camp on the property for the night. Some especially bold soldiers decided they'd rather stay indoors since the weather was turning stormy. They knew that the house belonged to Governor William Livingston, and a reward was being offered for his capture, so certainly it was quite a coup to actually stay there, maybe even sleep in his bed. No doubt, some knew that the family had moved out for a few years, but they were unaware that Livingston's three daughters, Susanna, Sarah and Catherine, were back in the home they loved so much.

Susan was already in bed, but when she heard the soldiers noisily entering the house, she rose to investigate. Lighting a candle, she left her bedroom dressed in her flowing white nightgown. Just as she reached the landing on the staircase, the sky was illuminated with lightning, briefly flashing in the large window behind her. All the invading soldiers saw was a ghostly white figure descending, looking to some like the spectre of Hannah Caldwell. Frightened by the prospect of paying for their sins, the Redcoats quickly left the house, never to return. 

Fast forward to the 20th century, when Mary Alice Barney married into the Kean family. She quickly fell in love with Liberty Hall and its history and took substantial steps to preserve it and its contents for eventual use as a museum. That's not to say she didn't have a little fun along the way. Hearing the story of the supposed ghost of Hannah Caldwell and the frightened British soldiers, she commissioned a painting of the brave Susanna Livingston, descending a staircase, candle in hand, to investigate the noises below with the aid of a small black cat. The painting is obscured from view by a door, and apparently Mary Alice would use the arrangement to startle unsuspecting guests (I think she'd ask them to go upstairs to find something, and direct them to that door for the attic stairs.). Regardless of how she 'showed' the painting, I like to think it was one of the ways Mary Alice showed her kinship to the young woman who protected her house from damage and harm.

The last few times I've gone to Liberty Hall, the volunteers have neither shown the painting nor told the story. I have to believe it's still there, so if you do go to visit, ask about it. My recounting of the story is from memory and may be a little off from the legend, so it's well worth checking. Even if they show you the painting, it's likely they won't let you take a photo ... I'm still surprised I was given permission to take the one above.

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