Are You Afraid of the Park? Ghosts, Conspiracies and Other Weird Happenings in Central Park

Andrew Bertuleit/iStock via Getty Images
Andrew Bertuleit/iStock via Getty Images

For a while, Central Park, the 770-acre green oasis in the middle of Manhattan, wasn’t considered a place you really wanted to go. In the early 1980s, there were 1,000+ crimes of various types committed in the park every year, but muggers and vandals aren’t the only creeps that have run rampant there. From its opening in 1857 through today, the park has played host to all sorts of scary things going bump in the night.

A Secret and a Mysterious Death
The weirdness starts at the very beginning with Calvert Vaux, co-designer of the park.

If a letter apparently written by Vaux in 1895 is to be believed, he possessed knowledge of a secret of historical importance hidden in the park, as well as a set of papers that could aid in discovering that secret when deciphered. Vaux said in the letter that there were those who wished for the secret to remain hidden and that he feared for his life. He was found drowned in Brooklyn’s Gravesend Bay two months later. Vaux wanted other people to be aware of the secret in the park and the distribution of the “Central Park Papers” is currently administered by David Wise, who sells copies of them through his website.

Are the letter and the secret real, or this is an elaborate game? No one knows, as those who have purchased the papers and discovered the secret are bound by a contract that requires them to fulfill Vaux’s wish to keep their discovery confidential. If you’re in New York, you’ll just have to figure out the truth for yourself.

The Monsters take Manhattan
Over an entrance to Belvedere Castle is a cockatrice, a legendary creature resembling an oversized rooster with a reptilian tail, designed by sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould. While these legendary beasts haven’t been found in the castle, New York City or anywhere else in the world, the park does have it’s share of monsters.

Nick Redfern, author of several books on the paranormal, tells a story about a strange, bipedal humanoid creature spotted at the edge of the park. The thing was covered with rust-colored hair and stood no more than three feet tall. One eyewitness claims the creature charged at him, stopped, stared right into his eyes for several seconds and then disappeared under a bridge.

Not all the park’s monsters are mythical, though. There have been several alligator sightings in and around the park dating back to at least the 1930s, when the New York Times reported that police were searching for a “swarm” of gators seen by two children. In 2007, as part of a restoration project, the park’s lake was dredged and a three-foot-long koi carp and a few 50lb snapping turtles were discovered.

If there's something strange in your neighborhood...
The Dakota building, located at Central Park West at 72nd St., was named such because when it was first built in the 1880s, the Upper West Side was still “rural” and referred to as “The Dakota Territory.” The Dakota is where Rosemary gave birth to the Antichrist and has been called home by horror master Boris Karloff and at least three ghosts. The first is that of a little boy, first seen by construction workers during a renovation in the early 60s. A few years later, the second ghost, girl dressed in early 20th clothing, was reportedly seen by painters a few years later. Both of these apparitions have made several appearances since then, but no clues as to their identities or reasons for haunting the building are available. The final ghost spotted around the Dakota is that of John Lennon, who lived there for a time and was murdered outside building in 1980. Several people have claimed to see his figure near one of the gated entrances to the park.

Cold Case: Revisiting Houston's Infamous Ice Box Murders

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lisa_I/iStock via Getty Images

The first thing Houston police captain Charles Bullock noticed as he entered 1815 Driscoll Street on the evening of June 23, 1965, was that someone didn’t want him using the back door. Flower pots had been stacked against the entrance, forcing Bullock and his partner, L.M. Barta, to push their way inside. While Barta moved through the rest of the home, Bullock headed for the kitchen.

The two were there to perform a welfare check on the house's occupants, an elderly couple named Fred and Edwina Rogers. Their nephew, Marvin Martin, had grown concerned when he failed to reach them by telephone, and became further alarmed after knocking on their door with no answer. So he had called the police.

As he walked into the kitchen, something nagged at Bullock. He would later recall that the scene “just didn’t feel right.” There are contradictory accounts of what happened next. Some say he saw food stacked on top of—rather than inside—the refrigerator, prompting his curiosity. Others say he was thirsty for a beer on a hot summer evening and wanted to see if there was anything to drink. Bullock himself would say he peered inside the fridge for no particular reason. “I don’t know why I looked in the refrigerator,” he said. “For some reason I just opened it.”

He took a quick inventory of its contents, which appeared to be nothing but shelf after shelf of hog meat. He concluded the Rogers family must have been to the butcher recently. But with the house empty, it looked like it would spoil.

This is a shame, Bullock thought. Someone is letting a whole bunch of good meat go to waste.

He started to close the door when something caught his attention. Inside the vegetable drawer was what appeared to be a woman’s head, her eyes fixed in Bullock’s direction. Bullock froze, then slammed the door shut. When he opened it, the head was still there.

The hog meat would turn out to be flesh of a different sort—the dismembered remains of Fred and Edwina Rogers, drained of blood and missing their entrails. Fred’s head was in the other crisper. His eyes had been gouged out.

The gruesomeness of the crime scene would have been disturbing no matter what. Making it slightly worse was the fact that the autopsies showed the murders had been committed on Father’s Day, and the person most likely to know something about the horrific act was the elderly couple's son, Charles.

Charles, unfortunately, was nowhere to be found.

 

Fred Rogers, 81, was a retired real estate salesman. His wife, Edwina, 79, was a sales representative. Their Houston home and their activities appeared unremarkable to neighbors. But there was an element to their lives that came as something of a surprise to local residents who would later be questioned by police. The surprise was that Charles lived with them. In fact, he owned the house.

A vintage refrigerator is pictured
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Charles was 43 and a veteran of World War II. After getting a bachelor’s degree in nuclear physics from the University of Houston, he had enlisted in the Navy and learned to fly planes. He became a seismologist and later spent nine years working for the Shell Oil Company. At the time of his parents’ death, it was not clear whether he was employed.

What was clear was that Charles was a peculiar individual. He would rise before dawn, leaving the house to tend to unknown business before his parents woke up, and then come back after dark, after they went to bed. His travels were so subtle that the next door neighbor was not even aware he lived there.

When he was home, he went out of his way to avoid his parents, purportedly slipping notes under doors when he needed to communicate with them. The family maid would later state that it was possible Edwina had not even seen Charles face-to-face for roughly five years prior to her death.

No one was sure what led to this unusually frigid living arrangement. It’s possible Charles wanted to provide for his elderly parents in spite of either not getting along with them or wishing not to be disturbed by the outside world. Either way, it was now imperative that he answer questions about their gruesome fates.

When Bullock discovered the corpses, he and his partner Barta practically sprinted out of the house, calling investigators to the scene. They found the house had mostly been scrubbed clean, save for some blood in the bathroom—where they believed the bodies had been cut up—and Charles’s attic bedroom, where there were trace amounts of blood as well as a hand saw they believed had been used to perform the dismemberment. The heads, torsos, and limbs were in the refrigerator; the entrails were found in the sewer system, apparently having been flushed down the toilet. Other body parts were missing and never found.

Owing to the labor involved in draining the bodies, carving up the corpses, and cleaning the home, police believed the killer had taken his or her time and had a working knowledge of human anatomy. Autopsies revealed that Edwina had died as a result of a single gunshot to the head, though that weapon was never found. Fred had gotten the worst of it. He had been beaten to death with a claw hammer, his eyes plucked out and his genitals severed from his torso in what was seemingly a vindictive mutilation. The claw hammer was found on the premises, though police would not confirm whether any fingerprints were retrieved.

If there was evidence, authorities wanted to discuss it with Charles. They issued an all-points bulletin and launched a nationwide search. As the only presumably-living member of the household, his insight—if not his confession—would prove invaluable. Because he knew how to fly, authorities checked nearby airfields to see if anyone matching his description had left the area by plane. Nothing turned up. In being so reclusive, Charles left virtually no trail for them to follow.

A man in silhouette is pictured
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“The habits and manners of the missing son are major mysteries,” Captain L.D. Morrison, head of the local homicide bureau, told reporters a few days after the bodies had been found.

It was an understatement. Police never located Charles—not in the weeks, months, or years that followed. In 1975, in an effort to probate the Rogers estate, he was declared legally dead.

 

One of Houston’s goriest murders would become one of its most notorious unsolved cases. But that hasn’t stopped others from stepping forward and offering their theories about what may have transpired.

Some are outlandish, using the blank canvas of the crime scene to try and attach deeper meaning to Charles’s life. The 1992 book The Man on the Grassy Knoll, by authors John R. Craig and Philip A. Rogers, offered that Charles was actually a CIA operative involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. When his parents discovered incriminating diary entries, Charles killed them.

The Ice Box Murders, a 2003 book written by forensic accountants and amateur sleuths Hugh and Martha Gardenier, made an attempt to present a more plausible theory. They agreed Charles was indeed the killer, but his motive was not the result of any CIA involvement. Instead, the Gardeniers argued that Fred and Edwina were abusive and manipulative parents, doing everything from taking loans out against their son’s home to forging his signature on deeds to other property he owned. After years of being browbeaten and financially ripped off, Charles lashed out in an orgy of violence, smashing his father’s head in. (That his mother got a comparatively compassionate execution-style killing may point to most of the abuse coming from Fred.)

The Gardeniers asserted that a few days after the murders, someone matching Charles’s physical description was overheard asking about a job overseas, using an alias. They claimed that Charles utilized his contacts in the oil and mining industries to land in Mexico. The book also asserts that Charles met a violent end of his own, when a wage dispute involving some miners in Honduras ended with a pickaxe lodged in his head.

The Houston Press labeled the Gardeniers’ book a work of “fact-based fiction and supposition,” leaving its conclusions up in the air. No concrete evidence appears to point to Charles winding up in Central America, though he did at one point own his own plane. Fleeing Houston via aircraft seems plausible, and with the Shell Oil job taking him to Canada and Alaska, it’s also possible he had contacts in another country that could have made setting up a new life easier.

Decades later, it's unlikely the case will ever find resolution. If Charles Rogers did not commit the crime, his disappearance is inexplicable. No one else appeared to have motive to kill his parents. If he was killed by an unknown third party, the perpetrator did an excellent job removing all trace of him. Whether he ended up in Central America or somewhere else, the most likely explanation is that he spent the rest of his days doing what he'd so often practiced at 1815 Driscoll—disappearing into the shadows, unnoticed by the rest of the world.

The Bauman Incident: When Theodore Roosevelt Might Have Written About Bigfoot

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

“The finest hunting ground in America was, and indeed is, the mountainous region of western Montana and northwestern Wyoming,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in The Wilderness Hunter, an 1893 memoir of his adventures at the frontier. There, Roosevelt encountered thick forests, towering peaks, and vast plains veined with streams and rivulets. He pursued the continent’s megafauna, from white-tailed deer and beaver to bison, moose, and “grisly bear,” while reveling in the fresh air and lively stories of his fellow outdoorsmen.

The forest also held secrets. On one of his hunting expeditions in this primeval landscape, Roosevelt heard an anecdote that stood out from the usual tales on the trail. Roosevelt had studied the flora and fauna of the West, but had never heard of a creature as strange as the one at the center of this yarn. “It was told by a grisled, weather-beaten old mountain hunter, named Bauman, who was born and had passed all his life on the frontier,” Roosevelt relayed in his memoir. “He must have believed what he said, for he could hardly repress a shudder at certain points of the tale.”

When Bauman was still a young man, Roosevelt recalled, he and a friend set out to trap beaver in a rugged river valley in what was then the Montana Territory. They went up a mountain pass where, the year before, a lone trapper had been killed by an unidentified beast, “the half-eaten remains being afterwards found by some mining prospectors who had passed his camp only the night before.”

They left their horses at the foot of the pass and climbed up to a small glade, where they pitched camp. With some hours of daylight remaining, they went to set their beaver traps in the stream, and returned to camp just as the sun dipped behind the screen of pines. With a shock, they found their lean-to flattened and the contents of their packs scattered among bear-like footprints in the earth.

Bauman’s companion made a torch from the campfire and peered at the tracks. “Bauman,” he said, “that bear has been walking on two legs.”

Bauman laughed off this idea, and the two trappers soon went to sleep in their repaired camp. But Bauman was awakened in the night by a fetid stench and the fleeting shadow of “a great body” in the entrance of their shelter. He shot his rifle, and the beast retreated to the forest.

The following day, after long hours at the streams checking their traps, the two hunters returned to camp—and found their lean-to destroyed once more. The same large footprints trailed away from the camp, toward a brook, where they appeared “as plain as if on snow.” Bauman had to admit that, whatever the creature was, it had escaped on two legs.

They hardly slept that night, for the sounds of twigs snapping in the gloom alerted the men to the animal’s presence. As their fire blazed, the trappers sensed it waiting, and heard its woeful cry echoing through the woods.

Bauman and his friend decided that the next morning would be their last in this creepy vale. Together, they gathered their empty traps from the stream dividing the pine thickets, plagued by a sense of being followed. Yet sun shone brightly in the clearing as they packed their bags, and the fears of the previous night began to seem silly. Bauman volunteered to retrieve the last three traps from a nearby river, which ended up taking a few hours.

He returned to a scene of horror. The still-warm body of his friend was leaning against a tree with four awful fang marks piercing his broken neck. Telltale footprints surrounded the unfortunate victim. The beast had not devoured the flesh, but merely “romped and gamboled round it in uncouth, ferocious glee.” The hunter had become the hunted.

Neither Bauman nor Roosevelt ever identified the culprit as a sasquatch, or Bigfoot, but its bipedal stance, hideous smell, and prolonged screaming in the northern woods dovetails with descriptions in Indigenous stories (though sasquatches aren't bloodthirsty murderers in the legends). Likewise, Bauman’s identity is a mystery. He may have been Carl L. Bauman, who according to the Montana Historical Society was born in Germany in 1831, moved west in the 1860s, and died March 20, 1909 near Melrose, Montana. Beyond that brief clue in the Montana Historical Society journal, Bauman remains as enigmatic as the tale he shared with Theodore Roosevelt.

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