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Ghosts, Haunted Places and Legends of New York State

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The Catskills, or Catskill Mountains, a hilly wilderness in southeastern New York State, are filled with myths and legends, some of them ancient. Among the earliest concern the metal-working Catskill gnomes. They were originally a Mohican (Mahican) legend but their version has probably been embellished. The Catskill gnomes have been described as pygmies with piggy eyes, long beards and huge, bulbous heads. (I am sure that they are the same as the melon heads or melonheads that are part of the folklore of Connecticut, Michigan and Ohio.) According to the legend told by the descendents of European settlers, the gnomes play nine-pins every twenty years. In spite of their diminutive size, the crashes of the gnomes' bowls against the pins cause thunder and brilliant flashes of light. September 3rd 2029 is when their next tournament is due to take place. The mountain behind the New Grand Hotel (unfortunately demolished) was rumoured to be the place where the games were played. Take care if you plan to investigate, however. Remember that members of Henry Hudson's crew were turned into gnomes after drinking their potent liquor (temporarily, fortunately, except possibly for one John Coleman - see below) and that Rip van Winkle's encounter with the Catskill gnomes had famously undesirable consequences (except for Washington Irving, of course). The Catskills contain the 700,000 acre Catskill Park and are the home of much wildlife, including black bears.

In spite of James Fenimore Cooper's great novel The Last of the Mohicans, the Mohicans (more usually called the Mahicans nowadays) did not entirely die out, although in the 1830s, most were forcibly moved to Wisconsin. After a constitutional land claim case, in 2010 they were given the right to build a casino in Sullivan County in the Catskills. In 2018, the Resorts World Catskills Casino opened in Sullivan County.

Native American folklore held that the Catskill Witch commanded the weather from Top Mountain and Round Top. Her realm was once called Ontiora, the "Mountains of the Sky". The witch was notorious for playing tricks on those who were brave enough to violate her terrotory.

According to legend, the dwerg (dwarf) of John Coleman haunts the area around Donderberg (Thunder Mountain) on the Hudson River. Coleman was a member of Henry Hudson's crew. Presumably, unlike his companions, Coleman did not recover after enjoying the hospitality of the Catskill gnomes and so is forever one of their number. Perhaps the thunder associated with the mountain is also caused by John Coleman and his gnome companions playing ninepins.

Besides the story of Rip van Winkle and the Catskill gnomes, Washington Irving is especially famous for his story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in which the unfortunate schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is frightened by the apparition of a headless horseman. Washington Irving is actually buried in the village of Sleepy Hollow. It is a a real place in the Hudson River valley and was popularly called Sleepy Hollow even before it officially adopted the name in 1996. In Irving's day, it was called North Tarrytown but it did inspire him to write the story. Sleepy Hollow really is haunted. The spookiest area is around Raven Rock. Ghosts include the witch Mother Hulda and a wailing lady in white. There really is a phantom horseman, too. The ghostly rider is not headless , however, and is heard more often than seen. Sleepy Hollow featured in the British television series Most Haunted.

The Devil's Dance Chamber, called Teufel’s Danskammer by Henry Hudson, is west of the Hudson River at Newburgh. Here, native Americans danced ritually around fires. Typically, neither Hudson nor the crew of The Half Moon approved of such pagan practices, hence the name. The purpose of the rituals was divinatory and continued until the Manitou, the Great Spirit, manifested himself as a wild animal. It is now called Danskammer Point.

The ghost ship Adventure Galley is commanded by the notorious buccaneer Captain Kidd. It is sometimes seen near Bear Mountain Bridge. Another phantom ship, The Flying Dutchman, is usually associated with the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. However, some people have claimed to have seen it at Tappan Zee on the Hudson River. I suspect that what they saw was really the Adventure Galley, Captain Kidd's vessel. Tappan Zee is also haunted by a phantom rower, the skeletal Rambout Van Dam.

The long, thin Finger Lakes, in the region to the west of Syracuse and north of Ithaca are, according to Iroquois legend, the finger marks of the Great Spirit, or Manitou. Also according to Native American legend, witches dwell in the glacial Green Lakes, in the eponymous state park to the east of Syracuse.

In the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown (named after the family of the author James Fenimore Cooper, who is buried there), the rather (ahem!) manly Cardiff Giant, an allegedly petrified man, is displayed. It was certainly a hoax, however, and resulted in a court case involving P T Barnum. The famous quotation "There's a sucker born every minute" originated in this case but contrary to popular belief, it was not said by P T Barnum but by the man who was suing him for calling the Cardiff Giant a fake, David Hannum. Hannum lost the case when the canny judge told him that if he wanted to win, he would have to get the giant to testify himself.

Near Gainesville in western New York State, Silver Lake is inhabited by a giant serpent. More famous is Champ, the monster of Lake Champlain in northeastern New York state, shared with Canada.

[Note added April 2019: According to legend, Henry Hudson (aka Hendrick Hudson) and the crew of the Half Moon encountered the Catskill gnomes in September 1609. Robert Juet's journal of the voyage does not mention the encounter but I would have probably kept it to myself as well, if the journal was going to be read by VIPs. As to the dwerg of John Coleman, the journal does mention that one John Colman was killed on September 6th, by an arrow in his throat, and he was buried on the 7th at a place called Colman's Point.]


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