American Murder House: The Morris-Jumel Mansion – New York City, NY

Morris-Jumel MansionWas he pushed?  Was it murder? Was it coincidence that after his death his wife became one of the richest women in New York City?  The mysterious death of Stephen Jumel has caused whispers and rumors through three centuries, but no one living really knows the truth.  What is said about Stephen and his wife Eliza is sordid enough for a modern day soap opera…imagine what post-revolution society may have thought and said about them if even half the claims were true!

The Morris-Jumel Mansion was built between the Hudson and the Harlem Rivers in 1765 by a British officer, Colonel Roger Morris.  Located on a prominence in what was then the countryside outside of New York City, it had a superlative and strategic view of the land.  When the roar of revolution came upon the country, Colonel Morris, his American wife and their children hightailed it to England. Their home was subsequently used on and off throughout the war by both the American and the English.  George Washington used it as his military headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights, and then returned seven years after the war’s end to attend a dinner with his cabinet.  In attendance along with President Washington were two future presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox, the Secretary of War.

In 1810 the mansion was purchased by Stephen Jumel, a French citizen, and his American wife, Eliza.  Stephen was a wealthy merchant, while Eliza had been born into a poor Rhode Island family.  Stephen spared no expense to make his wife happy and together they added extravagant touches to the house, such as stained glass, French Empire furniture and even a bed rumored to have belonged to Napoleon.

But the whispers about Eliza were vicious.  Some claimed that her mother was a prostitute and Eliza herself had turned to the trade and that’s where she met Stephen.  There are reports that she was his mistress before she became his wife.  Some say she was wooed by Aaron Burr before she married Jumel, who was much wealthier.

Over time, the Jumel marriage grew precarious.  Time was spent between New York and Paris, and the couple spent much time apart. In 1832, Stephen was injured in a carriage accident and succumbed to his wounds. Just a year later, Eliza Jumel, now one of the wealthiest women in New York, married former Vice President Aaron Burr. Burr, who was twenty years older than the widow, apparently didn’t waste any time in availing himself of her fortune.  Indeed, he whittled away quite a portion of it before Eliza called that nonsense to an end three years later by filing for divorce.

The rumors of Stephen’s murder are wide and varied.  According to the official cause of death for Stephen Jumel, he died from injuries received during a carriage accident, as previously stated.  Some tales say that Eliza watched coldly as Stephen was thrown from the carriage, and she declined to bandage his wounds to stem his bleeding, and thus hurried his meeting with the reaper. A psychic brought to the mansion by Hans Holtzer, the famous ghost hunter, claimed to channel the spirit of Stephen Jumel, who alleged that not only did Eliza murder him, but he hadn’t even been dead before he was buried! Another version of Stephen’s death that appears in many different articles is that he was not killed in a carriage accident at all, but died when he “fell on a pitchfork”.  Whether that fall was helped along is unknown.

There is conjecture that if any of these violent ends to Mr. Jumel’s life are true, then perhaps Eliza has a reason to be haunting the mansion, as it is so rumored. In the 60’s, a group of school children reported that they were loudly scolded by a woman in a purple dress, who appeared on the second floor balcony as they waited to enter the mansion during a school field trip. Most of the ghostly reports revolve around a woman people believe to be Eliza, sometimes she is said to be in a confused mental state. It’s been documented that Eliza Jumel passed away in the house at age ninety, all alone and suffering from dementia. Mysterious raps have been heard throughout the house, usually at night.  Cold spots, apparitions and phantom odors have been reported in this old historic home.

But more important than the spirits that may dwell there at the Morris-Jumel Mansion is the history that most certainly still lives there.  The mansion lets us peek through the window of time and picture, once again, Presidents Washington, Adams and Jefferson sitting down to dinner with the Secretaries of the Treasury and War. That’s more interesting than any ghost said to walk there…and coming from me, that’s quite a statement!

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