Happy Halloween, dear readers! Do you like ghost stories? Yes? Well, settle in because I’m going to tell you a tale. It’s the Tale of the Matron, a spooky story that takes place at Staten Island’s historic (and perhaps haunted?) Snug Harbor.
A couple weeks ago, we visited the old sailors’ retirement community of Snug Harbor which now serves as a New York City park and cultural institution. You may recall Snug Harbor from last year’s post about the Winter Lantern Festival, but it’s not just the winter holiday season that they celebrate. This fall, Snug Harbor got into the Halloween spirit with several ghost tours that took guests into a few of the normally-closed-to-the-public buildings on their campus.
When our tour began, we traveled back in time to the 1800s when Snug Harbor first came into existence. A gentleman by the name of Robert Richard Randall was the heir to a rather sizable shipping fortune, and when he passed away, that fortune was used to create Snug Harbor. Since his money had come from the sea, he felt it was fitting to give back to the sailors who sailed the sea. And so, Snug Harbor was created as a retirement community where “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” sailors could live out their remaining days.
Snug Harbor officially opened in 1833 with just one building (now called Main Hall C) that held 37 retired sailors. The community grew rapidly, and at its peak, there were about 1,000 sailors and staff living there. Snug Harbor became a self-sustaining community with its own hospital, livestock, butcher, baker, stores, church, and more. If these retired sailors never wanted to venture off campus, they didn’t have to. Everything they needed was right there.
It was just a couple decades later that our tale begins with the matron, who lived in what’s now Building K at Snug Harbor. The matron was responsible for all the linens and dormitories at Snug Harbor, and she often worked in the laundry building, which was just across the road from her house.
The matron was very stern and strict, particularly with her five assistants who lived with her in Building K. More specifically, she had a non-fraternization policy for her assistants and forbade them from mingling with the sailors who lived at Snug Harbor.
Interestingly, though, the matron broke her own rule and had an affair herself with one of Snug Harbor’s retired sailors, Herman Ingalls. Though the matron was known to be a very large woman, Herman was actually said to be quite small, which is important for understanding the rest of the story. But we’ll get back to that later!
The matron and Herman kept their affair secret for a while, but as fate would have it, the matron ended up getting pregnant and it became clear that their affair couldn’t stay a secret any longer. Since they weren’t married and the child was illegitimate, they didn’t feel comfortable going to the campus doctor or hospital for the birth of the baby.
Instead, the matron confided in her friend, the butcher’s wife, and it was decided that the butcher would need to use his prior knowledge of medicine and anatomy to assist with the birth of the baby. And so, we moved on to Cottage Row to see where the butcher once lived.
The butcher was pretty reluctant to play his role in this secret pregnancy, but he did so anyway to keep his wife happy. And when the time came, the baby, a boy, was born breech with its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. The boy had lost a lot of oxygen and suffered several birth defects as a result, but both he and the matron survived the very difficult delivery.
Now, the butcher was very upset about what happened to the baby and felt that it was his fault that the birth didn’t go better. He began to self-medicate with alcohol and soon there was many a night he would come home so drunk that his wife wouldn’t even let him in the house.
One night that he was locked out, rather than finding somewhere warm to spend the evening, he fell asleep on the front porch and ended up freezing to death in the night. We walked up onto that very porch during our tour, though we saw no signs of the butcher…
The butcher’s house is not normally open to the public, but we were able to go inside and snoop around a bit. They occasionally use the house when there are weddings at Snug Harbor and they need extra room for the wedding party to get ready. All was quiet when we entered, and a thorough inspection of the inside of the house revealed no signs of the butcher either.
Near the butcher’s house is the former Governor’s House. This wasn’t used for the governor of the state of New York but was instead the home of whoever was the current person in charge of Snug Harbor. I’ve always admired this house on former visits to Snug Harbor, and our quick visit confirmed that it was once just as lovely inside as it is from the outside. And also very creepy!
None of the lights would turn on inside, so we stumbled around in the dark with only our flashlights to light our way. Our guide mentioned that there had been many reports of paranormal occurrences in this house, and five years ago, they even picked up voices on a recording telling everyone to get out. Spooky!
What was even spookier, though, was that once we were all back outside we could see just one light glowing inside the house….
It’s not clear who the ghosts might be that reside in the Governor’s House, but rumor has it that a couple is sometimes spotted on one of the little loveseats in the rose garden outside. Perhaps this same couple also lives in the house and just wants to be left in peace???
Well, we didn’t impose on the ghosts’ privacy for long and soon we were on our way over to what’s called the “Front Five”, which are the five oldest buildings at Snug Harbor. All five buildings were constructed in a Greek-revival style and have been landmarked by NYC. They’re all used for various purposes now, including exhibition space, and this is where we headed next. More specifically, we headed to Main Hall C, which I mentioned above was the first building at Snug Harbor.
But wait, you say. What happened to the matron and her child?
Well, the boy did live, and the matron and Herman needed to figure out what to do with him because they still needed to keep his existence a secret, so the matron decided to hide him in the basement of her house. It was double-sealed and ultimately they knew that no one would pay any attention to her making multiple trips to the basement of her own house.
This worked for many years, but as the boy got bigger, he soon became big enough to overpower Herman, who as you might recall, was not a very large man. Herman and the matron began to worry about the boy’s future and how to continue to keep him a secret, so they started to consider who they could go to for help.
Herman decided that he would tell the chaplain of Snug Harbor, Rev. Quinn. The matron thought this was a bad idea, but Herman did it anyway. He decided to make up a story and told Rev. Quinn that he had in fact raped the matron and that the child was a result of this incident. He told the reverend that he wanted to confess and to keep the matron from experiencing the shame of having had an illegitimate child.
Rev. Quinn, however, was quite skeptical considering both the size of Herman and the matron. He didn’t think there was any way that Herman could have overpowered the matron and when Herman told him this story, the reverend hesitated long enough for Herman to realize he had made a mistake in trusting the reverend.
So, Herman ran off, but he couldn’t help but feel that their secret was no longer safe and that the reverend was sure to give them away. And so on Jan 31st, 1863, Herman confronted the reverend right in front of Main Hall C. According to accounts printed in the papers, Herman said, “You’ll expose me, I know you will, if you live!”
And then he shot the reverend, turned the gun around, and proceeded to shoot himself.
Our guide circulated the death certificates from this incident, as well as some photos and the New York Times article about the murder-suicide while we stood on the very spot where this grisly incident took place.
At this point, our guide took a break from the tale and some of the staff who regularly work in Main Hall C came outside to share some stories of paranormal activity they have experienced inside this historic building. Most of them have heard footsteps, keys jingling, and doors opening and closing. They’ve also seen reflections and shadows where there shouldn’t be any and have seen figures on the balcony when no one was actually there.
Which all makes sense, right? Snug Harbor is where retired sailors lived out the remainder of their days. If Main Hall C was the first building on the campus where many of these sailors once lived, chances are there are probably some spirits who have formed a strong connection to the place (that is, of course, assuming you believe in such things).
And it’s not just Main Hall C that is supposedly haunted. As we worked our way back over to the matron’s house to learn what happened to the matron and the boy, we stopped at a couple other buildings where staff has reported experiencing paranormal activity.
The first was the music hall where multiple rangers have reported seeing figures or having water bottles thrown at them. One of the prior directors of Snug Harbor also took a photo of a concert in which there was an absence of pixels in the shape of a very large woman. Staff wondered if it might have actually been the matron herself…
We continued walking and stopped at another building where more than one staff member has reported seeing a little girl wandering by herself. When they go to help her and try to find out where her parents are, the little girl runs away and disappears as soon as she turns a corner.
While it’s not likely that she would have lived at Snug Harbor, it’s possible she was a former member of the neighboring community. Many families came from off-campus to attend church at Snug Harbor, and it’s thought that perhaps she has some connection to the place because of that.
Finally, we made our way back to the matron’s house, and it was now fully dark outside which made her house look much spookier than it had at the beginning of our tour! But you’re probably wondering what happened after Herman shot the reverend and took his own life, right?
Well, Snug Harbor was in chaos and the press was on their way over to investigate the shocking murder-suicide. The matron heard what Herman had done but she wasn’t sure who all knew what about the boy, so she ran to her house and down into the basement to ensure that he was still there and okay.
She finds the boy in the basement and immediately starts crying in relief but also in despair. The matron doesn’t know what she’s going to do next, but she’s so happy that the boy is okay. When she finally stops crying, though, she looks around the room and realizes that the boy is no longer there. She panics but then realizes that she locked the outer door to the basement so there was no way he could have escaped.
The matron goes to the door and discovers the boy is hiding between the outer and inner doors of the basement. At this point, he’s seen what’s outside the window of that outer door and when the matron tries to get him to go back into the basement, he resists. He had seen that there was a whole world out there, and he clearly had no intention of being locked in that basement one second longer.
The matron tried and tried to get him back inside and eventually he just couldn’t take the struggle any longer and completely lost control. He picked up a pair of rusty scissors and immediately started stabbing the matron over and over and over again. Naturally, she started screaming and she made so much noise that soon others came to her aid and tried to stop the boy.
He eventually came to his senses and realized that he’d done something wrong and so he tried to escape. However, so many people had seen him running away from the matron, all covered in her blood, and it wasn’t long before he was captured. His captors, deciding not to wait for justice (and not knowing he was the matron’s son), strung him up to a tree outside the matron’s house and hung him right there on the spot.
Tragically, Herman, the matron, and the boy all died at Snug Harbor on the very same day.
At this point, Snug Harbor’s leaders were in panic mode because they knew the press was already on the way due to the murder-suicide. They didn’t want the deaths of the matron and the boy to get into the news as well, as they worried what news of such events would do to the reputation of Snug Harbor.
Instead, they decided to cover up the deaths of the matron and the boy by whisking them off to the nearby cemetery in Monkey Hill and burying them in unmarked graves. To this day, no one knows if they’re really there at all or where in the cemetery they might actually be buried.
So, is the tale of the matron a true story? Well, we know that Herman definitely killed the reverend, though it’s not clear that anyone ever discovered the real reason why. The boy had always been kept a secret, and if he and the matron were buried in unmarked graves…it could be possible that the story is indeed true. There are definitely some facts to the tale, though our guide did concede that perhaps some parts of the story might have been filled in just to connect the dots…
What is true, though, is that we didn’t personally see any ghosts on our tour, but I can tell you one thing. I would NOT want to have to walk around Snug Harbor at night by myself. With all those old buildings, and with all the staff’s stories of weird things that have gone bump in the night, I would be absolutely scared to death to have to walk around there at night on my own.
So, if you’re a chicken like me and if you do want to visit Snug Harbor, stick to the daytime or visit with a crowd like we did. Safety in numbers, folks!
And when you do visit, just remember, you never know who you might see lurking on a porch or looking over a balcony.
Or…who just might be looking at YOU……