A Haunting In Astoria

The festival of Samhain is upon us! What began centuries ago as a Celtic festival and is Old Irish for “summer’s end,” the holiday we know as Halloween is celebrated with the telling of ghostly tales, and folks, young and old, going door to door dressed in costumes for the traditional Trick o’ Treating. In 1780, the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote of Halloween, “What fearful pranks ensue! When witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands.” In celebration of one of the most popular (and scariest) holidays of the year, let’s look at some haunted tales which have been scaring the living daylights out of Astorians for decades.

An engraving from 1780 by Edward Scriven shows a Halloween party as guests sit around a coal fire telling scary stories.

Near 44th Street between Broadway and 34th Avenue is the site where many residents have reported a woman wearing a high-collared dress with her white hair in a bun, known to locals as the White Lady of Astoria. According to those who have spotted her, she appears holding the hand of a crying child. As her specter passes, the air is suddenly filled with the smell of lavender. The White Lady is believed to be the spirit of Elizabeth Hallet. Her husband, William Hallet, purchased land in Astoria after he and Elizabeth fled from Connecticut because she had divorced her second husband due to him being insane. Her husband and two children were killed by their two slaves during a revolt in the mid 1700s. Elizabeth fled only to end up drowning in the East River during her escape.

Appropriately called the Hell Gate River, this body of water remains today one of the most treacherous river passages. Hundreds of shipwrecks occurred here from the 1600s up through the early 20th century due to a gigantic whirlpool known by locals as “The Pot.” The worst wreckage was the General Slocum disaster in 1904. The steamboat carrying German residents on their way to a picnic caught fire, killing more than 1,000 people, mostly women and children, in the city’s greatest recorded loss of life until September 11, 2001. Many of the dead bodies washed up on Shore Road at Astoria Park. Several years later, the Hell Gate Bridge, which supports only freight and passenger trains, was built. Soon after its opening, residents near Astoria Park witnessed a train that would just stop in the middle of the span and then disappear. Legend states the train is picking up the spirits of the people who died in the water over the centuries.

A scary view of Astoria as seen from the small graveyard at 21st Street and 26th Avenue. Known by locals as the Irish Famine Cemetery it is overseen by Astoria’s Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel Church (photo by Jason D. Antos)

Lastly, in nearby Flushing, according to an April 20, 1884, New York Times article, a resident witnessed a ghost dressed in white with a sword hanging at its side just after midnight near the Friends Meeting House of worship. He reported it to the local police chief, saying, “The devil just came out of the Quaker meeting house!” The chief, and about a dozen of his men, decided to investigate. One of the officers looked through the key hole and bolted off in horror. When the chief and his other men caught up to him, the frightened officer said, according to the Times, “Well, I saw three big men dressed in white, and with swords hanging to their sides. When I looked first they were close together, and one of them seemed to be explaining something to the other two. Then they commenced to dance, and I ran away. Let us go home and never go out after dark again!” Police were stationed in front of the meeting house for a few nights to see if the spirits would make a ghostly encore appearance!

Happy Halloween to all. Have fun, and be safe!