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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Haunted History of Cooperstown, NY and the Otesaga Hotel

thedailystar - Cooperstown....normal or paranormal?

That is the question investigators are asking about mysterious activities reported at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown.

Members of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) are staying at the resort hotel on Otsego Lake for two weeks and filming an episode for ``Ghost Hunters,'' Britt Griffith, tech manager, said Wednesday.

KJ McCormick, an investigator, agreed that being on the TAPS team is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

``I'm just passionate about the paranormal,'' he said. McCormick, a wood and steel worker who lives in Boulder, Colo., said he joined TAPS about a month ago, and this visit is his first to Cooperstown.

``We're trying to bring some validity to the reports of activity in the hotel,'' McCormick said. ``I love the Otesaga _ this is a great hotel. ... I love the creaking floors and the large rooms with tall ceilings.''

The team and crews arrived Monday, Griffith said, and some residents have noticed their van with ``TAPS'' lettered on the black exterior and inquired about their visit.

``Everybody has a ghost story in this town,'' Griffith said.

Griffith said the production process involves setting up recording equipment at ``hot spots'' where activities have been reported.

Jim Johnson, of Fly Creek, who helped organized a ghost hunters' symposium at the Otesaga in January, said he has been visiting the TAPS team this week.

``It's very exciting,'' said Johnson, a member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives. ``It's great for the community. It's great for the Otesaga _ it's going to be fun to find out what they end up finding.''


William Cooper, father of the American novelist, settled Cooperstown in the late eighteenth century. Then as now the area's main industry was agriculture, an activity residents of the area would like to preserve.

Many of James Fenimore Cooper's novels were set in and around Cooperstown and celebrate its magnificent wooded hills surrounding the aesthetic centerpiece, Lake Otsego, which Cooper dubbed the "Glimmerglass." Due to its very special attributes, the Otsego area evolved into a summer retreat by the middle of the 19th century. Various estates and houses were built and many still exist today. It was during this time that the Clark family began its ongoing philanthropic interest in the Cooperstown community. Their commitment and foresight provided much of the foundation of the current economy.

The Otesaga Hotel was built on the shore of beautiful Otsego Lake in 1911. Now recognized as a "Historic Hotel of America," the Otesaga is the gracious keystone of tourism in the area.

Cooperstown is central quarters for the New York State Historical Association, with thousands of members across the state and country. The offices of the Association, a non-governmental educational organization, are in Fenimore House Museum, a mile from the center of town. The Association operates school-based statewide educational programs, and produces publications, including two quarterlies, New York History and Heritage. It hosts the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, with alumni in museums around the country and abroad. It also administers two separate museums, The Farmers' Museum, established in 1943, and Fenimore House Museum, which opened its doors in 1945, built on the site of a James Fenimore Cooper residence, Fenimore Farm. The Museums attract over 100,000 visitors annually.

In addition, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum currently attracts 300,000 visitors each year. Arguably Cooperstown's most famous icon, The Hall of Fame, established in 1939, is located on Main Street as is the equally famous Doubleday Field.


Legend has it that sounds of ghostly children have been heard running up and down the third floor hallway of the Otesaga Resort Hotel.

This is just one story that has been told about the historic landmark. According to Cooperstown Candlelight Ghost Tour guide Bruce Markusen, the Otesaga has a long history of hauntings.

Markusen says there has been paranormal activity on the ground floor, first floor, third floor and fifth floor of the hotel. Some people believe the phenomenon is connected to the history of the hotel, says Markusen.

From 1920 until 1954, the hotel was also a private girl’s school known as the Knox School for Girls.

According to a former cocktail waitress, she would sometimes hear a low monotone voice slowly calling her name while working in the Glimmerglass Room. She said other staff would hear their names called as well. A security officer says he can hear people walking above him on the second and third floors. He says he also hears a music box between the second and third floors.

Ghostly sightings have also taken place at the Farmers’ Museum, where several tales are told during the ``Things that go Bump in the Night’’ guided, lantern- lit tours held in October.

The Christ Episcopal Church Graveyard

No account of haunted happenings in a small town would be complete without the inclusion of the local cemetery. At the corner of Church and River streets lies the Christ Episcopal Church cemetery, which houses the remains of many of the famous members of the acclaimed Cooper and Pomeroy families. The historic burial site includes tombs for the two most famed members of the Cooper family—legendary American author James Fenimore Cooper and town founder William Cooper. One of the saddest elements of the graveyard is the presence of a cluster of smaller gravestones; they indicate the burial plots of the Pomeroy children, many of whom who died at young ages. There is also a sinister element to the graveyard. The cemetery features a headstone for the infamous Ann Low Cary Cooper Clarke, who once placed a curse on nearby Hyde Hall.

According to a ghostly story associated with the graveyard, one of the men in the Cooper clan found an eerie way to interact with a 20th century resident of Cooperstown. The incident occurred in the late 1980s, when a young girl and her friends paid a social visit to the Christ Church cemetery. One of the girl’s friends, showing a lack of respect for the sacred nature of the burial ground, decided to lean up against one of the gravestones. Sure enough, the aging, loosened gravestone toppled over, falling directly on top of one of the girl’s legs.

Given the weight of the gravestone, her friends were unable to lift it from her leg and quickly ran to seek help. With extra manpower successfully found, the group finally succeeded in extricating the stone and enabling the girl to sit up. Relieved that the weight had been lifted, the girl took notice of the epitaph etched into the stone. The name featured on the stone was that of a Cooper family member, the oddly named Marmaduke Cooper. The girl then took note of the birth date engraved on the stone. The date startled the girl. It was not only Marmaduke Cooper’s birth date, but hers as well! Was this a case of ghostly intervention or merely an eerie coincidence? Either way, the episode left the girl more than a little chilled.

The strange incident took place in a section of the graveyard that is regarded as the focal point of the Christ Church cemetery. In fact, a metal banister sets the Cooper-Pomeroy tract of the graveyard apart from the rest of the cemetery; all of the graves and above-ground tombs in this parcel belong to members of the two families, with one notable and strange exception.

The deviation in graveyard rules came about, at least indirectly, because of the virtuous life lived by Hannah Cooper. One of the daughters of Judge William Cooper, Hannah was a beloved member of the Cooperstown community. The young Hannah earned a reputation as so innocent and wholesome that she became favored by all generations of Cooperstown’s social hierarchy. Tragically, Hannah did not survive past her early twenties. In 1800, she suffered a severe fall while riding on horseback; the injuries resulted in her death at the age of 23.

Hannah’s many admirers included Richard Cary, a colonel in the United States Army who once served as an aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Despite the difference in their ages, the older Cary became a close friend to Hannah. Several years after her death, Cary himself became seriously ill. On his deathbed, Cary made a special request of the Cooper family. He asked that his burial plot be included in the partitioned segment of the Christ Church graveyard, right next to the tomb that housed Hannah’s remains. A religious man with feelings of guilt, Cary had a very specific reason for the request. By being buried next to someone as pure and exemplary as Hannah, Colonel Cary believed that he could literally ride her spirit’s skirt tails into heaven. "She was the best woman I ever knew," said Cary, according to James Fenimore Cooper’s grandson in his book, Legends and Traditions of a Northern County, "and my only chance of getting into heaven is on her skirts." So impressed by the sincerity of the request and his respect for Hannah, the Cooper family decided to make an exception for a non-family member. They allowed Cary to be buried directly to the right of Hannah, presumably (or at least hopefully) facilitating his entrance into heaven.

Other members of the Cooperstown community were not afforded the same privilege as Colonel Cary. The vast majority of Cooperstown citizens, even those respected as doctors or community leaders, were not permitted inclusion in the specially enclosed section of the cemetery, unless they were born or married into the Cooper and Pomeroy clans. In addition, no black members of local society, whether free or slave, could be included in the preferred burial location. African Americans who had lived in Cooperstown were relegated to the less desirable parcel of ground located in the southeast corner of the graveyard, along with the other "commoners" who once resided in the village.

The exclusion of African Americans from the Cooper-Pomeroy burial lot may account for the ghostly tradition of the Christ Church graveyard. According to the legend, those who find themselves in the graveyard at the midnight hour will encounter the ghosts of one or more of the Cooper family slaves. It may just be that the spirits of the slaves, rejected in death as they were during their human lives by the color of their skin and their lack of social stature, continue to look for a rightful place to call their home in the afterlife.

The Old Stone Wall on River Street

Both local residents and visitors to the village of Cooperstown will notice a stone wall on the west side of River Street. The retaining wall, located near the home known as Greencrest, runs adjacent to the edge of Cooper Park. The wall, thick enough to sit on, occasionally provides tired visitors with a place to rest. It also provides local residents with a most unusual story.

Throughout much of the 20th century, those who walked the path of River Street noticed a strange tendency of the wall. Under normal conditions, the wall appeared to be straight, built flush against the grassy edges of Cooper Park. At other times, the stones of the wall tended to bulge out toward the street, giving the wall an uneven, buckling appearance. On occasion, the stones bulged out so much that they gave passersby the impression that the wall was about to collapse.

In the early 1960s, some Cooperstown residents found their curiosity so roused by the buckling wall that they decided to conduct their own investigation. They broke through the wall, in an attempt to find a structural reason for the flawed tendency of the wall. Expecting to find a logical reason for the problem, the locals instead made a ghastly discovery. Behind the wall, they uncovered a buried skeleton of a Native American—a great Mohawk chief—along with an array of pipes, weapons, and other artifacts.

The residents should have known better about the wall; if they had read some of the local history written by Ralph Birdsall and James Fenimore Cooper—the grandson of the legendary author—they would have heard the stories about how previous, thinner walls on River Street had supposedly been kicked down by the skeleton. After one of the older, flimsier walls had toppled over, residents saw the skeleton sitting behind the remains. The problems with the weaker walls eventually led to the construction of a sturdier one (the one that was investigated in the sixties), which didn’t fall over completely but instead showed the tendency to buckle over time.

The initial discovery of the skeleton, which was made by William Cooper in the late 18th century, led to the determination that the remains were that of a great Mohawk chief. Based upon the writings of more than one historian, local tradition offered the following ghostly theory: the spirit of the buried chief, resentful of the white man’s intrusion on Native American soil, was expressing his anger by furiously kicking at the wall.

Beyond the possibility of paranormal activity, the presence of the Native American skeleton proved unusual for several other reasons. Locals wondered why a Mohawk Indian chief would have been buried behind a wall, instead of a more traditional ground plot? And why he would have been buried on the west side of River Street, instead of toward the east side, closer to the Susquehanna River, where most of the Indian graves were known to exist? In addition, the locals took note of the strange positioning of the skeleton. It was not lying down, or even standing up, as one might expect to find in unearthing the remains of a typical grave. Instead, the locals found the skeleton in a hunched position, with its chin pressed up against its knees and its hands touching his shinbones. It was the most uncomfortable of positions, one that would be difficult to maintain for a live human being. Even for an unfeeling corpse, it seemed like a cruel fate to be buried in such a painful pose for over a century.

Having noticed the unusual squatting position of the skeleton, some local residents adopted another theory that would become part of the Cooperstown legend. According to the legend, the locals speculated that the skeleton was actually pushing the stones of the wall outward in order to achieve a more comfortable place of rest. They believed that the deceased Mohawk chief, unhappy with the way he had been buried, was somehow using his bony thighs and calves to move the stones of the wall, thereby creating a more passable amount of leg room behind the wall.

Another legend also developed. According to this alternate story, the unfortunate manner of burial had motivated the Indian chief to tears. The flow of tears, especially over long periods of time, interacted badly with the mortar located between the stones. The unexpected moisture created by the ghostly tears did not allow the mortar to set properly, thus causing the wall to bulge awkwardly.

Given the emphasis that Cooperstown places on history, it might have seemed logical for the skeleton and the artifacts to make their way to one of the local museums. Yet, that did not happen. In fact, opinions vary as to what actually did happen to the skeleton and the artifacts. Some contend that the local residents either sold or gave the artifacts to another museum, one outside of Cooperstown. Others contend differently. They say that the local residents, feeling fearful over their discovery of a ghostly presence behind the wall and their unintended desecration of sacred ground, decided to return the skeleton and the artifacts to their place of burial and then seal up the disrupted segment of the wall. Given the two contrasting stories, no one seems to know for sure whether the skeleton is still buried behind the wall.

After the 1960s discovery, an unexpected development took place. The wall seemed to return to a state of normalcy. It no longer bulged or buckled as it had in past years, at least not to the point of being visible to the naked eye. This observation has let to still another theory. Some contend that the local residents returned the skeleton to its burial place, but actually changed its positioning so as to make it more comfortable. Perhaps they laid the skeleton on its back, giving it a much more restful posture. If that’s the case, the Mohawk Indian chief would have no reason to push its bones outward.

Whatever the case, this much appears to be true. The walk down the west side of River Street remains a bit uneasy for some folks in Cooperstown—at least those who believe in the power of ghosts and the legends of skeletons that move on their own.


Haunted History of Cooperstown, NY and the Otesaga Hotel