Historically Haunted
October 31, 2013

Many visitors ask our educators if the Tenement Museum is haunted. While we can’t attest to any supernatural stories on record at 97 Orchard, the history of lower Manhattan is notoriously filled with tales of mysterious apparitions and disgruntled, woebegone spirits. In honor of Halloween, we peered into the neighborhood’s paranormal past and came across a ghostly presence not too far from the steps of 97 Orchard…

 The Merchant’s House, a historic row house turned museum, stands at 29 East 4th Street and today is considered one of the best preserved federal buildings in New York City. But long before tourists walked through its Greek Revival style halls, the house was occupied by the Tredwells, a wealthy Manhattan family. The five-story brick structure was purchased by Seabury Tredwell for $18,000 in 1835. During the late 1830’s, Mr. Tredwell moved his wife and children into the Merchant House and prepared for the birth of their eighth child, the only one to be born at their new home – and the only one to never leave.

Gertrude Tredwell, 1840-1933. Did her spirit depart in the 30's, or is it still in the house?

As the legend goes, the youngest Tredwell, Gertrude, grew up surrounded by all the modern luxuries, ornate décor and beautiful, lavish furnishings money could buy, many still on display at the Museum. In her twenties, Gertrude fell madly in love with a Catholic doctor named Lewis Walton. However, the Tredwells were strict, God-fearing Protestants and Seabury immediately quashed the affair, separating the couple forever and breaking poor Gertrude’s heart. While her parents died shortly thereafter, Gertrude promised to never disobey her father’s wishes, and remained unwed to any mortal soul.

In 1909, at sixty-nine years old, Gertrude was the last remaining Tredwell and the House’s only occupant. She was largely considered a recluse and a spinster, wholly and faithfully committed to keeping her home in the same exact manner as it was kept during her childhood. She proceeded through life alone, barren of friends, family or romance, the house her only partner. When she finally died in 1933, Gertrude left the Merchant House in pristine period condition, making the project a quick transition from living quarters to public museum.

According to The Big Book of New York Ghost Stories, Gertrude’s spirit has been glimpsed many times lingering about the old mansion. There are countless reports of a Gertrude’s ghastly figure gliding up the stairs and through the halls, refusing to abandon her perfect home even years after her demise. Clear notes coming from the House’s broken piano have allegedly been heard streaming from the parlor window and onto the street for passersby to enjoy, even when the museum was locked and empty. Teacups have been known to uproot themselves from the shelves and scatter about the kitchen and dining room. And a cool breeze emanates throughout the upstairs room where Gertrude last laid her head.

The Merchant House Museum's restored kitchen. Teacups have been known to mysteriously fall from shelves in this room.

On a recent candlelit tour of the Merchant House, the guide focused on supernatural occurrences, including apparitions, cold bursts of air, and even visitor encounters with full-bodied spirits. The tour included family lore, staff sightings, and interviews with paranormal investigators who have visited the house many times. The investigators presented photographs and enhanced audio recordings from the spirits, called EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomenons), to prove that the spirits of the Tredwells and some servants still linger in the home. While (sadly) no ghostly appearances were made that day, one costumed interpreter who looked a lot like a mannequin made visitors jump! The tour was fascinating, and more than a little eerie.

Whatever your belief in the supernatural, Gertrude’s presence can easily be felt within the Merchant House, from her turn-of-the-century dresses to the empty sitting room adorned with extravagant furniture. Pay a visit to the Merchant House Museum and see for yourself… and be sure to say hello to Gertrude!

– Posted by Meredith Heil and Lib Tietjen