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.

15 Curious Facts About Sherlock Holmes

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes is a sprightly, riveting exploration of Sherlock Holmes—and the character’s thriving, eccentric subculture. Zach Dundas, the book’s author, reveals that the frenzy surrounding Sherlock isn’t strictly a Benedict Cumberbatch-related phenomenon. The master of Baker Street, who was born on January 6, 1854, has always inspired fanatical devotion and feverish anticipation. Here are 15 details about literature's greatest detective, as revealed in The Great Detective.

1. There is a Sherlock Holmes equivalent of Trekkies.

Holmes Lashed Furiously', 1892. Illustration from 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' by Arthur Conan Doyle. From The Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly - Vol. III. January to June, edited by George Newnes
The Print Collector/Getty Images

There are as many as 300 societies dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. Devotees of the detective call themselves Sherlockians or Holmesians. There is some division in their ranks as to how the terms should be applied, though generally speaking, American fans are Sherlockians and British fans are Holmesians.

2. Sherlock Holmes societies are a kind of literary United Nations.

Perhaps the most prestigious Sherlock Holmes society is the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only organization that was originally named for Holmes’s intelligence network of homeless children. Other clubs include the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, the Bootmakers of Toronto, the Great Herd Bisons of the Fertile Plains, and the Seventeen Steppes of Kyrgyzstan. There are also trade-specific Sherlock societies for such groups as poets, psychologists, and mathematicians (“the last named for Moriarty, of course,” Zach Dundas writes).

3. Sherlock Holmes’s influence was vast among elite writers.

T.S. Eliot said, “Every writer owes something to Holmes.” John Le Carre described the short stories as “a kind of narrative perfection.” Dorothy Sayers even wrote a treatise on Watson’s name, attempting to work out how it changed from John H. Watson to James in a later story. She eventually speculated that the middle initial H is short for Hamish, the Scottish form of James. (This is the convention used in the television series Sherlock.)

4. It all started with Edgar Allan Poe.

Detective fiction was still in its infancy when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his stories. Edgar Allan Poe introduced to the genre the concept of a single detective whose cases span several stories. Later, Wilkie Collins elevated the genre with his serials. Conan Doyle brought together the forms of the genre, elevated it with his prose and pacing, and modernized it by having his protagonist use science as part of his investigation. The first character in fiction to use a magnifying glass to help solve a case? You guessed it.

5. The proto-Sherlock Holmes was a doctor ...

When Conan Doyle began sketching out the character, he thought back to his medical school days and recalled a professor with an astonishing eye for detail. Dr. Joseph Bell was known to make accurate diagnoses of his patients from such details as patterns of wear on trousers, bearing, and general disposition. “All careful teachers have first to show the student how to recognize accurately the case,” Bell explained. How stunning was the Bell-Holmes resemblance? Upon reading a Sherlock Holmes story, Robert Louis Stevenson, a fellow student of University of Edinburgh, wrote Conan Doyle a letter complimenting the character and his adventures, and asking in closing, “Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?"

6. ... Or maybe Sherlock Holmes wasn't a doctor.

The “St. Luke Mystery,” a sensational, real-life case in 1881 in which a London baker disappeared, might have in some way inspired Conan Doyle. A German named Walter Scherer was brought on to help investigate the incident. He described himself as a professional “consulting detective”—hardly a commonplace professional description, and the same one that would eventually describe the man working from 221B Baker Street. Some, most notably author Michael Harrison, argue that Scherer, not Bell, was the model for Sherlock Holmes.

7. Arthur Conan Doyle popularized a new storytelling format.

Sherlock Holmes and Watson looking through mementos
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When Conan Doyle wrote his short stories, he recognized that serial narratives were falling out of favor with readers—it was too easy to miss one issue and thus lose one’s place in a continuing story. For his Sherlock Holmes stories, he developed a format in which the characters and general circumstances would remain the same, but each story would be standalone and able to be read in any order.

8. Sherlock Holmes was the original success kid.

Long before we took to Twitter to write, “I believe in Sherlock Holmes,” the detective was a viral sensation. One year after publication of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first Holmes short story, some magazines were already parodying the character, some were publishing thinly-disguised rip-offs, and theatrical companies were performing the character in unauthorized stage productions.

9. The hunt for 221B Baker Street is ongoing.

Part of the allure and longevity of the Sherlock Holmes short stories are their settings. Holmes’s London is real and thriving, and the places in which he has his adventures are real places. His apartment, 221B Baker Street, however, is fogged in mystery. When the stories were written, Baker Street addresses did not go as high as 221, and Conan Doyle refused to divulge the building’s inspiration. For nearly a century, scholars have worked hard to uncover it, going so far as to subject the numbers mentioned in the Holmes texts to Voynich-Manuscript-level scrutiny, and even mapping the backyards of Baker Street, comparing them to details mentioned in the text.

10. Sherlock Holmes's cases are not true crime stories.

Conan Doyle’s historical novels were meticulously researched. As The Great Detective notes, to get the details correct, the author might read “hundreds of volumes on, say, English archery, or Napoleon.” The Sherlock Holmes stories, however, were dashed out as quickly as four in two weeks. In “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” for example, Holmes determines that the murderer controls a snake with a whistle and a bowl of milk. As Zach Dundas writes, “snakes can’t hear and don’t drink milk. Does anyone care?”

11. Arthur Conan Doyle was on a nature hike when he decided how Sherlock Holmes would die.

The death of Sherlock Holmes, 1893. Scene from The Adventure of the Final Problem, illustrated by Sidney E Paget, the first artist to draw Sherlock Holmes
The Print Collector/Getty Images

The fabulous success of Sherlock Holmes might eventually have become a bit too much for Conan Doyle, and to get on with his life he eventually resolved to kill off the detective. Just about everyone begged him not to, from his mother to his publisher, but his mind was set on it. He only needed a death suitable for his icon. While vacationing in Switzerland, he and a group of friends went hiking. When they came upon Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle decided that it was a fitting grave for Sherlock Holmes.

12. But the great detective wasn’t done yet.

At the time of Holmes’s untimely death, Conan Doyle was a wealthy man and a fixture of society. Years later, his spending began outpacing the growth of his income, and returning to Sherlock Holmes became an appealing option. Rather than raise the detective from the dead, he authorized a stage production based on Holmes. In 1901, Strand magazine began serializing The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes novel written by Conan Doyle. (To get around the thorny problem of Holmes having plummeted down Reichenbach Falls, the novel was set in a time previous to that story.) In 1903, Collier’s Weekly made Conan Doyle an offer: $1.3 million (in 2015 money) for a new series of Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle’s response, by postcard: “Very well.”

13. Arthur Conan Doyle: father to Sherlock Holmes—and peer?

During his lifetime, Arthur Conan Doyle did a little bit of everything, from transforming literature to running for Parliament to playing competitive sports. But Conan Doyle has had a post-death nearly as active as his life. Sherlock Holmes lives on, of course, but Conan Doyle has also become a compelling character in fiction. On the page, stage, and screen, the author can be found solving crimes that no one else can.

14. Arthur Conan Doyle's sanity was questioned.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Toward the end of his life, Conan Doyle embraced spiritualism and invested considerable capital, both personal and financial, in spreading the message. He frequented psychics and mediums, held séances, and argued the existence of fairies, defending even the worst photographic forgeries of the winged sprites. One headline at the time summed up the situation, asking if the author was “hopelessly crazy.”

15. Sherlock Holmes was first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Though Conan Doyle couldn’t conceive of Sherlock Holmes in a world post-World-War-I, the great detective saw quite a bit of action during World War II. As noted in The Great Detective, Holmes appeared in British propaganda videos; one of his stories was required reading for soldiers in the Soviet army; Britain’s wartime spy agency set up shop on Baker Street and called themselves the “Baker Street Irregulars”; and one of the two films found in Hitler’s bunker was The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Headless Torso Found in Idaho Cave 40 Years Ago Confirmed to Be Missing Murderer

senata, iStock via Getty Images
senata, iStock via Getty Images

A new wrinkle has been added to a 40-year-old murder mystery. As The Guardian reports, a headless torso found in an Idaho cave in 1979 has been identified as the remains of Joseph Henry Loveless. Loveless was an escaped convict who murdered his wife in 1916, but the identity of his killer remains unknown.

The body was discovered by a family looking for arrowheads in Buffalo Cave in Clark County, Idaho, on August 26, 1979. The dismembered torso was wrapped in a burlap sack and dressed in dark pants, a pinstriped shirt, and a maroon sweater. It had been buried in a shallow grave 18 inches deep.

The case stayed cold until 1991, when a girl found a mummified hand in the same cave system. Authorities later uncovered an arm and two legs—all wrapped in burlap—in the area. Crime and anthropology experts from Idaho State University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the FBI were called to aid in the investigation, but with no head to match the body, their work sputtered.

At the end of 2019, the case saw its first major breakthrough. Earlier that year, Idaho State University and the Clark County police had reached out to the DNA Doe Project—a nonprofit that uses forensic genealogy to identify remains—for its expertise. By building a genealogical tree and digging up historical records, they were able to connect the body to Joseph Henry Loveless, a descendent of Mormon pioneers and a felon who was last seen escaping from jail in 1916.

Loveless used an ax to murder his second wife, Agnes Octavia Caldwell Loveless, on May 5, 1916. By that time, he had already been arrested twice for bootlegging and had escaped imprisonment by sawing through his jail bars. The DNA Doe Project reports [PDF] that one of Loveless's children was quoted as saying at his mother Agnes's funeral: "Papa never stayed in jail very long and he'll soon be out."

Loveless slipped out of his jail cell on May 18, 1916, and was never seen alive by authorities again. His wanted poster described him as wearing a red sweater and black trousers—the same clothing found on his body decades later. This leads investigators to believe that he died shortly after escaping jail in 1916.

Clark County authorities contacted the 87-year-old grandson of Joseph Henry Loveless, who now lives in California, and asked for a DNA sample. Their analysis confirmed that the grandson is the direct descendent of the man found in Buffalo Cave. Beyond that, Loveless's living relatives weren't able to provide any leads, as they hadn't been aware of their ancestor's colorful history. For now, the case of the escaped murderer's own grisly death remains open.

[h/t The Guardian]

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