While I have run across plenty of stories of haunted morgues, police stations, and dissection rooms, this particular tale, from New York’s Criminal Courts Building, is laid in quite an unusual venue: a “suicide museum,” or “suicide poison closet,” where samples of poisons from suicide cases were kept. It is an intriguing puzzle. Who is the mysterious apparition? Is she a ghost or a flesh-and-blood madwoman?
SPOOK WANTS A CORONER.
MYSTERIOUS APPARITION IN THE CRIMINAL COURTS BUILDING
It Dallies About the Room Where the Poisons Used by Suicides Are Kept.
Once It Took the Form of a Crazy Young Woman
Temperate Officials Who Say They Have Seen It.
People having business with the Coroners and visiting the Coroners’ office at night are positive in their declarations that there is a ghost loose on the third floor of the Criminal Courts Building. They say that if the ghost is not captured very soon it may be necessary to close the office at night, for the reason that it will be a difficult matter to get a night clerk to remain there after darkness sets in. According to the stories told by persons who say they have seen the ghost, this apparition appears at midnight assuming the form of a woman and to all appearances coming from the room in which the suicide poison closet is situated. For many years it has been the custom of the officials attached to the Coroners’ office to preserve samples of poisons that have figured in suicide cases. These samples are kept in vessels of all sorts, in china cups, bottles, jars, tin cups, goblets, and in fact, any old thing that the poison happens to be in at the time it is found at the side of a suicide. There are now more than a thousand of these samples. As soon as a man or woman commits suicide the poison left behind or the dregs of the glass from which the drink was taken, is brought to the Coroners’ office and placed in this closet.
Since the suicide museum grew in size, bottles of chloroform and carbolic add and cups partly filled with Paris green are stored on the shelves about the room, on top of the closet and on top of the big safe. For a long time the poison closet has been overcrowded. Each sample is labelled and contains a reference to the particular case of suicide it represents. About half the total number are samples of poison that figured in cases of suicide by women. Owing to this fact the people who have seen the ghost believe the apparition is the spirit of one of the many women that partook of the poison kept in the room.
George Cook, one of the night clerks, says that he has often come face to face with the mysterious being that haunts the office. The most recent story told by an employee is to the effect that the ghost is not a ghost but an insane woman who got Into the Criminal Courts Building in some mysterious manner
“I knew it was not a ghost that I saw,” said James O’Brien, one of the clerks in the office. “It was a real live woman, but I did not know she was in the office until she suddenly appeared as if she had dropped from the ceiling. It was a few nights ago that she made her appearance to me. I was making out a death certificate at the time, and bearing a woman’s voice whispering something I glanced around, but saw no one. Suddenly a woman appeared right in front of me. She had a sad, sweet face. She was very pale. I should judge her to be about 24 years old. She was slim and delicate looking and her large black eyes had a vacant stare that for a minute frightened me. Stepping softly toward me on her tip toes she said in a whisper, ‘I want the Coroner.’
“I asked her why she wanted the Coroner, and she said she was dying and desired to make a statement before she passed away. She said she wanted to be buried in a cemetery where there were plenty of trees at the top of a hill. She desired to make arrangements to have her grave decorated with flowers, and then she proceeded to talk of birds and flowers, all the time speaking in a whisper. She glanced at the ceiling and said softly ‘Heaven is my home.’ I asked her why she thought she was about to die, and she said she knew she was in poor health and only had a few weeks to live She talked rationally then about making arrangements for her funeral. Finally she said softly ‘I love the birds and the flowers and green trees and the old homestead.’
Then she grabbed me by the arm suddenly and shouted wildly: “‘Look! Look’ There, they are killing her! Don’t let them murder her!”
“A minute or so later she appeared to be perfectly calm, but she had thrown a scare into me, for I thought she saw somebody being murdered in an adjoining room from where I was standing
It was a room where the suicides poisons are kept I glanced into the darkness, and for a minute my blood ran cold. Quickly I recovered presence of mind and concluded that the poor girl who stood before me was insane. 1 drew away from her and stood at a distance, fearing that she might be armed with a revolver or something of that sort. While standing about ten feet from her I continued
to talk, asking her where she resided. She then appeared to be in her right mind, and said she lived uptown and that her name was Vogt. She again said she wanted to make arrangements for her funeral, and added that she would like to make a statement to the Coroner for the purpose of causing the arrest of a man in an insane asylum who had thrown her on the floor and fractured her skull. She mentioned an asylum which, she said, she had been sent to by a relative, and said that while ill at this asylum one of the keepers had fractured her skull. She said she knew that the fracture would result in her death, and for this reason she desired to make an ante-mortem statement .
“‘I know I am going to die.” she said, ‘but I want to see my assailant arrested before I pass away ‘
“Again she talked of birds and flowers and funerals and graveyards, and as quickly as possible I got rid of her by leading her to the elevator car and advising her to go to one of the police courts and tell her story to a magistrate. No one saw her come into the building, although there is a watchman stationed at the only door open after six o’clock. The elevator runs all night, but the elevator man did not see her come up to this floor. Poor girl, I felt sorry for her, for the reason that I think her mind was unbalanced by witnessing a murder. I have often thought the matter over since the discovery of the mutilated remains of a woman found up there on the west side. I will certainly say, however, that I did not see her as a ghost, but that she was a real, live woman, or I should say a pale, sad faced girl whose mind was unbalanced. So far as the noises in the Coroners’ office are concerned, they certainly are mysterious, and we cannot account for them at night ”
Assistant District Attorney Valentine Carleton, who has charge of the preparation of cases that go before the grand jury, is compelled to work late at night three or four times during a week; going from his office in the Criminal Courts Building to the elevator car he is compelled to pass the Coroners’ office. Mr Carleton declares that he has frequently seen the mysterious visitor, and has talked the matter over with other persons employed in the building.
“I certainly saw it,” said Mr Carleton, “and I cannot account for it. It appeared to me like the figure of a woman in vapor or smoke in the room where the suicides’ poison is kept. The door of this room being open, any one can see the mysterious apparition or whatever you might call it almost any night. I have gone in there with Clerk Cook, and lit the gas in the room and have seen smoke or vapor just disappear in a way that the clouds break up alter a storm. Clerk Cook and I have searched all the closets and corners of the room on various occasions, believing that someone was playing a trick for the purpose of throwing a scare into the night clerk. We learned, however that such was not the case, and although I am not a believer in ghosts I cannot account for the strange things I saw on various occasions in that suicide room. If a man addicted to the use of liquor were to see this apparition, he certainly would never drink another drop. At least fifty persons, to my knowledge—temperance people, too—have seen this cloud appear in the form of a woman. I saw the insane girl the night she came into the building, but she was flesh and blood. I saw her going down in the elevator car, and in my opinion she was a young woman who had escaped from some sanitarium. She was thin and pale faced, and I should judge, did not weigh over ninety pounds. She looked like a person in the last stages of consumption. The ghost, however, is altogether different. If you want to call it a ghost, you can call it one, but I don’t believe in ghosts as I said before. It just appeared like a halo of light or a cloud and you could walk right up to it and then it would break away into small pieces that disappeared in the air. That is a strange thing for a sane man to say, but it is true, nevertheless ”
Alfred Herring, one of the young stenographers employed in the District Attorney’s office says he has seen the apparition in the Coroners’ office and describes it as did Assistant District Attorney Carleton.
Night Clerk Malone who is on duty in the Coroners’ office every alternate night, refused to discuss the matter further than to say there were certainly mysterious noises in the Coroners’ office at night, but he thought these were due to rats running across the floor. Once in a while bottles containing poison drop from the shelves in the closet, but these were probably knocked down by mice running along the shelving.
The Sun [New York NY] 22 October 1899: p. 3
“She talked of birds and flowers and funerals and graveyards.” One can practically hear the whispered, minor-key babbling of green fields… But a sensible entity, whatever she was, to want to give the Coroner an accurate report of her cause of death.
How differently the various employees interpreted the visitations: as ghost, as flesh-and-blood consumptive, as the intriguing disappearing pieces of light, or, more prosaically, as mice. Could there really be a ghost and a wraith-like human haunting the place?
The name Vogt is a slim, but so far, useless clue; I’ve found nothing in the grave records that seems to match. Can you find some trace of the unhappy creature? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Just for completeness, the “mutilated remains of a woman found up there on the west side” refers to the case of Miss Mary Schaefer, aged 22, a dry-goods clerk and Sunday school teacher engaged to a respectable young man, who left home on 15 August 1899 in the company of a married man, who sent $200 to his wife, saying he was going back to Italy and was never seen again. I cannot find any information beyond the fact that Miss Schaefer disappeared, and fragments of a body resembling her were found—chillingly—”at intervals,” and brought to the morgue.
Chris Woodyard is the author of A is for Arsenic: An ABC of Victorian Death, The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.