Searching for ghosts in Van Cortlandt Park


As an orange sky disappeared beneath a canopy of trees, eight determined travelers descended the cross country trail towards Vault Hill in Van Cortlandt Park. They were not sightseeing or out for mischief. They just wanted to ask the Van Cortland family some questions.

Now, it’s no secret that Van Cortlandt Park is thought to be haunted. For many years, locals have heard stories about strange whispers, seeing spirits walking through the Vault Hill walls and other unexplainable phenomena in the Bronx’s oldest building — the Van Cortlandt House — including dolls walking, doors closing on their own and people feeling touched. For Halloween, we decided to find out if the stories were true.

We first turned to the guy who knows practically everything about the Bronx’s history, Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan.

“I’ve never heard anything about spooks or ghosts or werewolves or vampires or anything like that in Van Cortlandt Park,” he said.

Hmm. He sounded positive, a little too positive. Perhaps he knew more than he was letting on.

Then he came out with it. It wasn’t ghosts, but there was a ghastly event that took place in what is now Van Cortlandt Park in 1778: the Stockbridge Indian Massacre. During the American Revolution, British soldiers and German mercenary troops hired by King George III ambushed the natives. Forty of them, including Chief Ninham, were hunted down and killed in what is now the Parade Grounds of Van Cortlandt Park. The British authorities that controlled the area at the time refused to allow the bodies to be buried, but local farmers pleaded with the British to bury them, which they finally did, in Indian Field in the northwest corner of Van Cortlandt Park.

Undeterred by Mr. Ultan’s disbelief in Vannie ghosts and very suspicious of the obvious wandering spirits of the massacred Stockbridge Indians, we decided to have the park checked out. We called in the Metaphysical Investigations: Search & Test society, or MI:ST, a group of paranormal investigators based in Inwood and led by John Galvin and Tom Vullo.

MI:ST investigates paranormal activity using an array of equipment including electromagnetic frequency meters, laser levels, radio scanners, digital cameras, audio recorders and video cameras. The team was founded on the idea that TV paranormal shows are doing it all wrong and they could do it better. Though they don’t have doctorates in paranormal psychology and all have regular daytime jobs, they are otherwise immensely dedicated to explaining the unexplained. When asked for their services, they investigate cases for free. They are not like the Ghostbusters and do not like being compared to them.

On Saturday night, they started their investigation at Van Cortlandt House. In advance, we asked permission to enter the house, but were told, “We have struggled with this for many years and as a historical institution we rather not participate in anything to do with the paranormal.”

Instead, we decided to see if any spirits happened to be wandering around the House’s grounds.

The team set up their EMF detectors and started asking questions, hoping responses from spirits would be captured by their devices, since ghosts don’t have vocal chords and can presumably only communicate telepathically.

“What do you feel about the fact that people are in your house?” asked Mr. Galvin, among a series of questions hoping to elicit a response from the world of the dead.

No readings came up on the detectors, so we headed into the woods toward Vault Hill, the final resting place of many members of the Van Cortlandt family. The cemetery was built to bury Frederick Van Cortlandt.

“Did you own slaves?” Mr. Galvin asked the buried bones of Frederick Van Cortlandt.

“Do you regret owning slaves?” he said.

“Whoa! I just got a huge blast of energy. It really popped,” said Mr. Vullo, who was listening to electromagnetic frequencies through earphones.

Mr. Galvin continued asking provocative questions in his bombastic voice. A member of our group called him the New York Post headline writer of ghost hunting.

“Did you treat your slaves poorly?”

“Did you beat them?”

“What do you think about the fact that your farmland is now a public park?” he asked.

More than once, Mr. Galvin said he felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. While standing still, he told Alexis Nixon, a member of the team, to take a picture of him, to look at later for possible spirits.

Before leaving, Mr. Galvin asked if the spirits wanted our group to leave.

Mr. Galvin said he heard more than once, the word, “Go”, through a radio scanner the group named a ghost box.

Mr. Vullo said he distinctly heard the word “Yes” through his headphones.

So we left.

Our last stop was the Parade Grounds to seek out spirits of the massacred Stockbridge Indians or soldiers stationed in the park during the revolution. One common ghost story is that soldiers discussing battle plans can be heard from this spot. While standing in the field in the dark, we definitely heard voices.

In the cold night air, voices were traveling far across the field from Broadway and the investigators quickly inferred that the ghost story was probably just that, a story.

The investigators of MI:ST have yet to determine whether there are ghosts in Van Cortlandt Park. They still have to go back through the evidence they collected — the audio recordings and photos — to decide if anything truly unexplained happened.

For now, Van Cortlandt seems to be ghost-free, but you never know.

If you have ghosts or unexplained phenomena you need to have checked out, go to