Seward's Folly: The Conspiracy Theory That Has Plagued New York City's William Seward Statue for More Than a Century

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

Wilson Macdonald waited anxiously for Randolph Rogers’s latest statue to be revealed.

The prominent artist—whose pieces included marble works like Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii and Ruth Gleaning, as well as the Columbus doors at the Capitol and a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park—had created a bronze statue of former Secretary of State William Seward on behalf of a committee, which had raised funds for the work via subscription. Others who had seen the Seward statue in Rogers’s Rome studio had called the work “splendid” and “grand.” Macdonald, a sculptor himself, would be the first to see it in America, before it was placed, with great ceremony, on Broadway and 23rd Street in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.

Finally, the seated figure was removed from its crate. In his right hand, Seward held a pen; in the left, a scroll. The legs were crossed, and beneath the chair were books and scrolls.

Macdonald considered the work for a few moments. Yes, the face was Seward’s, but the body’s proportions were all wrong. Seward had only been around 5-foot-6, but the statue had the legs, arms, and torso of a much taller man.

He was aware that Rogers was watching him. Finally, he told his friend, “That isn’t Seward. The head is all right, but the body would be better for Lincoln.”

It was then, Macdonald would later recall to a newspaper journalist, that Rogers dropped a bombshell. “The body was made for Lincoln’s, and it had Lincoln’s head on, too,” Rogers told Macdonald, smiling. “But when I got the order for this statue, off came his head and Seward’s went on in its place. … I had made a study for a statue of Lincoln, and as they were in a hurry for the Seward … I took the head off the Lincoln study and modeled one of Seward from photos, and from this study I made the figure.”

It was a sensational story that Rogers couldn't refute—he had died four years before Macdonald spoke to the newspaper. To the bemusement of Seward and Rogers’s descendants, and, later, the New York City Parks Department, it’s a historical conspiracy theory that has persisted ever since.

A Monument to William H. Seward

Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before Seward’s monument, there weren’t many statues in the city—and, according to a pamphlet released at the time of work’s dedication, titled The Seward memorial, there were few New York State residents better suited to be immortalized in that way. Seward’s career, character, and accomplishments made him one of the few “who, being dead, yet speak, and leave a place no living man can fill ... his a name that sheds unfading lustre on his native State,” the pamphlet noted.

Seward was born on May 16, 1801, in Florida, New York, to Mary and Samuel Seward. The fourth of six children, Seward was a bright and eager student; he attended Union College when he was 15 and taught in Georgia for a brief time before graduating in 1820. (His time in the South had a great impact on him. There, he was exposed to the terrible treatment of slaves, which stoked his abolitionist sentiments.) He studied law and was admitted to the bar before going into politics, serving as a state Senator before being elected governor of New York in 1838. In 1849, he became a U.S. Senator.

Seward was an avowed abolitionist whose home in Auburn, New York, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. He donated money to Frederick Douglass’s newspaper The North Star and, in 1859, sold a home to Harriet Tubman, "for which she had lenient terms of repayment," according to the National Park Service.

It was his views on slavery that cost him the Republican presidential nomination in 1860; it went to Lincoln instead. Though the two men were not initially friends (they would eventually grow close), Seward accepted his one-time opponent’s offer of the position of secretary of state.

His position placed him in the crosshairs of John Wilkes Booth’s plot to destroy Lincoln’s government, which involved killing not just the president but also Seward and Vice President Johnson. Seward, who was recuperating from a carriage accident, was nearly murdered by Lewis Powell (and likely would have been, were it not for the brave actions of his family members and the man assigned to guard and nurse Seward back to health, George Robinson). The assassination attempt left Seward permanently scarred, but he did recover; later, he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 (an event known at that time as “Seward’s Folly”). He served as secretary of state until 1869, and died three years later.

The movement to create a monument to Seward began not long after his death, when former New York State Senator and future Congressman Richard Schell proposed it to “a few prominent New-Yorkers,” according to the pamphlet. A committee was created to shepherd the statue’s development; it included Schell as well as former New York governor Edwin D. Morgan, Central Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted, and future president Chester A. Arthur, among others.

The committee reached out to Randolph Rogers to inquire about how much a monument might cost; he quoted them $25,000. “It was determined to raise this sum by procuring two hundred and fifty subscriptions of one hundred dollars each,” the pamphlet notes. The funds were raised without difficulty; subscribers included Ulysses S. Grant and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Rogers received the commission, and not just because he was a great artist: According to the pamphlet, he had been a friend of Seward’s, who had paid for Rogers to go to Italy to study sculpture.

The bronze statue arrived in New York in early September 1876. Around 20 feet tall (including the pedestal), it depicted Seward, head slightly turned to the right, seated in a chair, his right leg crossed over his left; a pen is in his right hand, and a manuscript is in his left. Beneath the chair are “two piles of heavy folios, with a roll of paper lying on them.”

Though the pamphlet largely sung the praises of its subject, its author also levied some criticism at Randolph and the statue: “The faults of the statue are such as might easily have been avoided. … Future generations, judging only from this monument, may suppose that Mr. Seward was a tall, imposing-looking gentleman; the legs and arms are certainly too long for the body ... [T]he two piles of heavy folios and the parchment scroll under the seat — what do they mean?”

The statue was unveiled in Madison Square Park at 3 p.m. on September 27. The weather, according to the pamphlet, was “lowering and unpleasant during the whole afternoon,” but it had no effect on the turnout. Remarks, broken up by musical interludes, were given by prominent New Yorkers.

And then the fanfare was over. For the next 20 years, Seward’s statue quietly looked out over 23rd Street and Broadway without controversy—until Wilson Macdonald's tale was published in the New York Herald on March 8, 1896.

A Rumor That Won’t Die

It didn’t take long for Rogers’s family to fire back. His son Edgerton—who said he was “in a position to know what went on in his studio, in Rome”—wrote to the Herald three weeks later that “Perhaps my father did tell Mr. Macdonald of the decapitation, and if he did Mr. Macdonald can rest assured he was the subject of a joke.” (There seemed to be no hard feelings, though: “I am … forever indebted to Mr. Wilson MacDonald for furnishing me with this new story to add to the already large collection of my father’s jokes and stories, and am only sorry that he waited twenty years before publishing it.”)

In the same issue, Macdonald acknowledged Edgerton’s letter and that the story may have been told for a laugh, “but it was so funny that I could not help remembering it. Rogers was a capital story teller, full of humor ... and I am sure I never knew a man for whom I had more friendship than Randolph Rogers.”

But by then, the damage had been done, and no letters to the editor would undo it. Within the month, Macdonald’s story was reprinted everywhere from the New Haven Evening Register in Connecticut to the The Hawarden (Iowa) Independent.

It persisted into the new century: In 1905, The Strand repeated the rumor, alleging that after the funds for the statue had been raised, the committee had asked Rogers to take a pay cut so that it could get a “secret commission for their trouble.” The sculptor allegedly replied that he would not do that, but that he would take a statue of Lincoln, “left on my hands by a defaulting Western city,” lop off its head, add Seward's, “and fix it that way.” A year later, the rumor appeared in a letter to the editor in The New York Times, whose angry author stated “that the city authorities should have the monstrosity removed and a proper fitting statue of our honored Secretary of State erected in its place.” That piece prompted a frustrated rebuttal from historian Hopper Striker Mott, which appeared a couple of days later and laid out the facts of the statue’s creation. Still, Mott concluded, “It is ... doubtful if even these facts will put a quietus on the story.”

He was correct. In 1907, Putnam’s Monthly wrote about the controversy surrounding the supposedly patchwork statue: “Years ago a young sculptor assured me that he recognized the body as that of a statue of Lincoln in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.” The Philadelphia statue of Lincoln, unveiled in 1871, features the president rendered in bronze; he’s seated—legs not crossed—with a quill in his right hand and the Emancipation Proclamation in the other.

To get to the bottom of it, the author turned to Seward’s son, Frederick, who said that Rogers had some up to Auburn to get data about Seward's height and weight, as well as his "customary attitudes." He took measurements of clothes, his chair, and his cane, and “Doubtless ... computed the proportions mathematically when he modeled the statue in his studio in Rome, and had it cast at Munich.” He protested that the statues were “entirely different”: “Both figures are seated, but one—the Lincoln—leans a little forward, with feet firmly planted and separated; while the other sits with legs carelessly crossed. No replica could do that.”

Unfortunately for Frederick, his letter did little good, and the rumor continued to pop up.

In 1955, New York Times writer Meyer Berger said that army veteran and author A.C.M. Azoy of Ardsley-on-Hudson had researched the rumor and declared it true; he chalked up the substitution not to corruption on the part of the committee but rather to difficulty in raising funds (a claim seemingly refuted by the pamphlet released for the statue’s dedication). “The books under Seward’s (Lincoln’s) chair represent the Constitution,” Azoy wrote, “and the paper in Seward’s (the president’s) hand is the Emancipation Proclamation.” The rumor has also been reported in the pages of The New Yorker, Gourmet magazine, a number of New York City guidebooks, and all over the internet.

And, as I discovered, it leapt off the pages of books and magazines and into the real world, too.

The Making of a Bronze Statue

A worker pouring molten metal at a foundry.Tatomm/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Jonathan Kuhn and I are standing in front of the Seward statue in Madison Square Park on a gray, humid day in June when a tour guide and a group of tourists approach. “Who does this statue remind you of?” the guide asks.

A moment passes before a member of the group calls out, hesitantly, “Lincoln?”

“Lincoln! Yes!” she shouts. “If you thought Abe Lincoln, you’re kind of wrong and you’re kind of right—this is a hot mess for a statue! It’s supposed to be a statue for Governor William H. Seward.

“Typically, when we build a monument, the city puts in a chunk of money and then the family puts in the rest,” she continues. “The family doesn’t like it—they’re not putting in any money—and the city said, ‘Uhh, we’re not adding to the fund!’ So they end up going to a guy in Philadelphia who’s just completed a statue of Lincoln, and he had enough materials to build multiple statues. He has a couple Lincoln statues just hanging around.

“He says, ‘Here’s what to do, New York. Pay me to sculpt Seward’s head and then we’ll lop off Lincoln’s, plop it on his body, BADA BING BADA BOOM! You got yourself a statue!’” she yells. “This is Seward’s head on Lincoln’s body and we can prove this in multiple ways.”

Kuhn looks incredulous. “Oh really?” he mutters under his breath.

“Lincoln was a tall man, 6 foot 4, Seward, 5 foot 6. Haha, a little of a difference there! This,” she says, gesturing toward the paper in the statue’s hand, “is also the Emancipation Proclamation, which is 100 percent Lincoln, not Seward ... Alright, now keep moving forward …” Her voice fades away as the group proceeds into the park.

“And that,” Kuhn says, “is how this information—or slight misinformation—gets conveyed.”

This isn’t the first time Kuhn—who is wearing a purple tie adorned with line drawings of pigeons, “the enemy of outdoor sculpture,” when we meet—has heard a tour guide tell the tale of the hybrid statue. As director of art and antiquities of the New York City Parks Department, he’s heard the rumor many, many times in his 32 years with the department. “It’s just the kind of thing that people say—you know, urban myth or art history myth—and it comes up all the time,” he says. “It gets picked up about every 10 years by somebody—now it’s you, I guess.” Our conversation isn’t even the first time he’s tried to debunk it; he gave an interview to The New York Times on this very subject years ago, and if I hadn’t been with him, he says he probably would have corrected the tour guide.

According to Kuhn, Seward’s son, Frederick, had a point when he said the statues aren’t that alike. It doesn't even take a close look to see that. “While clearly they’re quite similar in the general composition—a seated government official in a chair—there are many differences,” he says. Beyond the positioning of the legs and the arms, the numbers of buttons on the figures' vests differ: Seward has four, while Lincoln has five. “The artist clearly cribs from his own oeuvre, his own work, but it’s not a direct copy. There’s certainly no evidence in the records of Randolph’s papers that would indicate that he did this.”

To understand why it would be so hard to pull off something like this, it’s helpful to understand how a bronze statue is made. Though the Parks Department doesn’t have any records indicating the exact method used for this statue, Karen Lemmey, curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—which has a number of Rogers’s marble statues, including Nydia—believes that the statue would have been made using a method called sand casting.

First, Rogers would have made a clay model of the statue—and after this initial step, he would have handed that model off to experts to handle the rest. The model would be used to create a plaster cast. Next came the sand casting, which would have been handled by workers at the foundry in Munich where the statue was made. Simplified, the process involves pushing the plaster cast into sand until the sand is packed so tightly that it retains its shape, even when the plaster model is removed. “That is a one-to-one register of whatever the plaster was, and it gets filled with molten bronze,” Lemmey says. “Most bronzes are only a quarter of an inch thick, so there are all sorts of tricks to hold a space in the center of that cavity so you don’t pour a solid bronze.”

Big statues aren’t poured as one giant piece, but as many smaller parts that are then assembled "usually through brazing or mechanical joints.” Again, this would have been done by experts—not by Rogers himself. Once the statue was assembled, artisans would do things like apply chemicals to patina the bronze and add details to the metal by hand with tools like mallets or small hammers.

(As an aside, Rogers was mostly known for his marble sculptures like Nydia and those, too, would have had surprisingly little input from Rogers. He would have created a clay or wax sculpture, followed by a plaster cast; using that cast, artisans who had spent their whole lives working with marble would have taken measurements and used them to sculpt the marble statue. There may have been different artists working on every part of the statue from the hair to the hands to the fabric. According to Lemmey, replication of those marble sculptures was part of the business plan; Rogers himself said he made 167 Nydias. “Today, we’re like, ‘Wow, what a large edition, and that sort of diminishes the ‘wow’ factor of the artwork. Is it still an original?’" Lemmey says, but the replicas wouldn’t have "troubled the 19th century crowd.")

In theory, Rogers could have reused the plaster cast for the Lincoln statue and replaced it with Seward’s head, but again, just looking at the two statues is enough to show you that that did not happen. “I think they’re similar enough that we are seeing the same hand of the artist,” Lemmey says. “The work that he saved wasn’t necessarily in recasting the torso, and ‘Oh now I don’t have to sculpt that’—it was perhaps in the thinking that he took the shortcut. He used the convention of the chair, he already knew how he was going to compose [the statue].”

While she acknowledges that “he could’ve returned to that section of the Lincoln and reworked the plaster,” she doesn’t think it’s likely. “It’s almost like if you think of it as plagiarizing yourself. Isn’t it easier sometimes to start with a blank page and write what needs to be written, rather than trying to edit and edit and edit? It may not have been the most efficient way for him to make a monument anyway—it wouldn’t have saved time.”

According to Jeffrey Taylor, Ph.D.—Grosland Director of the Master in Gallery Management & Exhibits Specialization at Western Colorado University and a partner in New York Art Forensics, which identifies faked and forged art, among other things—if a head swap had happened, it would be relatively easy to find the evidence. “That idea of welding a head on is not at all strange, even when there’s no rumor like this,” he says, noting that it would be possible to tell if the head was added on “if you could climb up there, and truly examine the neckline.” Among the many tools Taylor uses to find forgeries is a Hitachi XRF gun, which can identify the elements used in materials. If the head was once separate from the body, “The metal that’s actually forming the bond between the two parts of the base metal, the larger sculpture, often would be composed of different metals” than the other welds on the statue.

The Parks Department hasn’t gone as far as whipping out an XRF to analyze welds, but they have looked at archives and Rogers’s records, and they do often get up close and personal with Seward during annual cleanings (during which the statue is covered with wax to protect it from the elements)—and, according to Kuhn, they haven’t found or noticed out of the ordinary. Plus, as Lemmey says, “there should be more evidence for a shared match, which we’re not seeing. So even though it could be technically possible, there’s so much work that would have had to been done, to cross the legs or to change the positioning of the arms, the gesture of the hands—it just doesn’t make any logical sense.”

Statue Myth, Busted

The legend of the Seward statue is likely to endure, no matter how much debunking we do, just like the tale that the life events of the people in equestrian statues can be decoded by the number of hooves the horse has on the ground (this is also not true, by the way). Lemmey does see a silver lining to it, though: “I think it’s great that it gets us to look more closely at the monument, and gets us to ask how is a monument made,” she says. “But I don’t think that there is too much physical evidence in the relationship between the two sculptures.”

As to why the rumor has endured, Kuhn has some thoughts.

“It’s funny, it’s comic, and it’s an easy sound bite,” he says. “Obviously there is a disproportion between the head and the body. Somebody just looking at the statue might wonder, and so this gives an explanation—a wrong explanation, but an explanation—to that question that might arise in the viewers’ mind. You know, it’s like the alligators in the sewers rumor.” And then, jokingly: “Although there’s debate on that to this day.”

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

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Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

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Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

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8 Frightening Facts about Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

John La Farge's title illustration for The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly, 1898.
John La Farge's title illustration for The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly, 1898.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1898, Henry James published The Turn of the Screw, a bone-chilling novella about a governess, two seemingly saintly children, and a couple of wicked ghosts who may or may not actually be there. James wanted his terrifying tale to “scare the whole world,” and more than a century later, it’s still doing just that. The story has inspired countless adaptations in every format, the most recent being Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor—a follow-up to 2018's The Haunting of Hill House (which was based on Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel). Prepare to be unnerved all over again with these facts about the classic novella.

1. The Archbishop of Canterbury planted the seed that inspired The Turn of the Screw.

The godly archbishop who inspired quite a devilish story.E.F. Benson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One afternoon in January 1895, Henry James and his cohorts were gathered around the fire at the country house of Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. While discussing how ghost stories had diminished in both quality and quantity, the esteemed church leader recounted a worthy one that a woman had told him years before. The story, James later wrote in his journal, involved “wicked and depraved” servants who “corrupt and deprave the children” in their charge and come back to haunt them after dying under mysterious circumstances. James also jotted down that the story should be told “by an outside spectator.” Not only does the story itself follow the basic plot of The Turn of the Screw, but James’s own fireside experience mirrors the opening frame of his novella, in which a man tells a ghost story that he first heard from a woman.

Benson died a couple of years before James got around to writing the story, and Benson's sons couldn’t recall their father ever having shared an anecdote that echoed it. But it seems probable that James spun his own story based on just a sentence or two; in his preface to the novella, he wrote that their host only remembered a “shadow of a shadow” of the story, likening it to a “precious pinch … extracted from an old silver snuff-box and held between finger and thumb.”

2. Henry James's main reason for writing The Turn of the Screw was because he needed money.

The royalties for James’s early novels were beginning to dry up by the 1890s, which prompted him to briefly pivot to playwriting. While most of his plays remained on paper only, Guy Domville did open in London in 1895. It was a disaster. “I’m the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!” the titular character exclaimed at the end, to which one disgruntled theatergoer allegedly very audibly responded, “It’s a bloody good thing y’are!”

James, humiliated and short on cash, quit theater and soon moved to New York. There, he resigned himself to work he despised: Writing serials for magazines. One of these was The Turn of the Screw, published in Collier’s Weekly between January and April 1898. "I have succumbed, in that matter, purely to the pecuniary argument … It means £40 a month, which I simply couldn’t afford not to accept,” James told fellow novelist William Dean Howells in a letter, confessing that he “will do it again & again, too, even for the same scant fee: it’s only a question of a chance!”

3. Henry James didn’t originally think much of The Turn of the Screw.

Henry James, failed playwright, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1913.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

James seemed to have a tough time separating his serialized work from the begrudging financial motivation behind it. He referred to it sardonically as “Literature drivel,” and considered The Turn of the Screw in particular “the most abject, down-on-all-fours pot-boiler, pure & simple, that a proud man brought low ever perpetrated.” Potboiler, a derogatory term for art or literature created for money, appears throughout his correspondence. In a letter to the poet F.W.H. Myers from December 1898, James called The Turn of the Screw "a very mechanical matter … an inferior, a merely pictorial, subject and rather a shameless pot-boiler.”

“I could easily say worse of [The Turn of the Screw] ... than the worst any one else could manage,” James wrote to H.G. Wells earlier that month. “The thing is essentially a pot-boiler and a jeu d’esprit.”

4. Henry James eventually came to appreciate The Turn of the Screw.

Despite its author’s private slights, The Turn of the Screw proved popular among readers and reviewers alike. The New York Tribune dubbed it “one of the most thrilling stories we have ever read,” and The American Monthly Review of Reviews described it as “a beautiful pearl: something perfect, rounded, calm, unforgettable.” Even critics with much less glowing remarks at least acknowledged its shock value. The Independent, for example, called it “the most hopelessly evil story that we could have read in any literature.”

In 1908, James published the novella in the 12th volume of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition—a 24-volume collection of his selected works—and his preface suggested a change of heart toward the potboiler. He called it “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught” and pontificates about the mechanics of writing it.

“Indeed if the artistic value of such an experiment be measured by the intellectual echoes it may again, long after, set in motion, the case would make in favor of this little firm fantasy—which I seem to see draw behind it a train of associations,” he writes. “I ought doubtless to blush for thus confessing them so numerous that I can but pick among them for reference.”

5. Henry James made around 500 edits to The Turn of the Screw after its initial publication.

The governess sees a specter (or does she?) in Eric Pape's illustration for Collier's Weekly.Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While the success of The Turn of the Screw may have contributed to James’s newfound fondness, it’s also likely that he was much happier with the 1908 version of the tale. It wasn’t published piecemeal, and it didn’t have the illustrations that Collier’s had printed with the serialized edition. James also made more than 500 edits to the text itself. These alterations don’t really impact the story, but it’s clear that James carefully tinkered with each sentence to find what he considered the perfect word or phrase. In a few places, for example, he changes stellar references to lunar ones—"bare to the constellations" became "uncovered to the moonlight," and "a great glitter of starlight" became "a great still moon"—and Flora’s "furious wail" goes from being "produced" to being "launched."

6. Critics can’t agree on whether or not the governess imagined the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw.

Even though the edits seem stylistic on the surface, critics have still used them to try to prove certain theories about the story. Perhaps the most highly contested one involves the reliability of the governess. Some scholars believe that she’s suffering from psychosis or another mental illness that’s causing her to hallucinate the ghosts, since we only ever hear her personal account of them (and the idea that the children can also see them is also solely based on her perception). Others, meanwhile, think The Turn of the Screw is a good, old-fashioned ghost story with good, old-fashioned ghosts. Proponents of the former theory cite James’s shift in verbiage as an indication that he wants us to distrust the governess—on many occasions in the 1908 edition, he changed phrasing to make her experiences seem more subjective. “I became sure” was changed to “I felt sure”; “I perceived” became “I felt”; “I found myself” became “I knew”; and so on. Skeptics argue that this shift isn’t consistent and there are still plenty of strong, objective verbs to make the point moot.

7. The Turn of the Screw scared almost everyone—including its author.

Eager listeners gather for a ghost story in another illustration by Eric Pape.Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Rife with sinister uncertainty and culminating in a horrific cliffhanger, The Turn of the Screw is widely regarded as one of the best scary stories in American literature. So scary, in fact, that even James was spooked by it. “I had to correct the proofs of my ghost story last night,” he told poet Edmund Gosse, “and when I had finished them I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed!”

One person, however, remained completely unperturbed: James’s stenographer, William MacAlpine. James was ill while writing the story, so he decided to dictate it to MacAlpine. He also hoped seeing MacAlpine’s reaction to the tale might help him predict how other readers would receive it.

“Judge of my dismay when from first to last page this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling!” James said. “I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry, and whenever I paused to see him collapse, he would enquire in a dry voice, ‘What next?’”

8. Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on The Turn of the Screw.

More than 120 years after its initial publication, The Turn of the Screw continues to inspire adaptations of every kind (and caliber). Floria Sigismondi's poorly received film The Turning, which was released in January, is a contemporary spin on the story, and horror fans have high hopes for another modern take: Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, which premieres on October 9. It’s the second season of an anthology series called The Haunting of Hill House, whose first season is based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel of the same name. Jackson's novel, incidentally, is often compared to The Turn of the Screw.