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Jack the Ripper in Brooklyn Heights? And other Halloween speculations

Eerie tales ripped from the pages of Brooklyn’s history

October 29, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Dr. Francis Twombley, a suspect in the gruesome Jack the Ripper murders, spent some time in Brooklyn Heights. Photo from 1871 biography, collection of the New York Historical Society
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On Jan. 18, 1889, a man calling himself “Smith” signed into a boarding house in Brooklyn Heights, located on Washington Street where the U.S. Post Office now stands.

While his landlady, Mrs. Lamb, was happy that Smith paid in advance and was exceptionally tidy, in reality his name was not Smith — and he had just jumped bail and fled from London after being named as a possible suspect in the gruesome Jack the Ripper murders.

Smith – who was tall, presentable and sported an impressive mustache — was actually Dr. Francis Twombley, and he had “a mania” for young men and a great dislike for women, according to Brian Hartig, founder of The Brownstone Detectives

A week after his arrival, a young male visitor let slip Dr. Twombley’s real name.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

“Twombley hurriedly called on his landlady, paid his bill from a big roll of bills, packed his trunks, had them put on a truck, which the young man had summoned. The two then drove off into the rain, disappearing as silently and as mysteriously as Twombley had appeared,” Hartig wrote.

The Brownstone Detectives carry out in-depth investigations of houses and their former owners for individuals and realtors, Hartig told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday.

Hartig blogs about some of the interesting stories he has dug up using historical sources such as the early Eagle, which covered the doings of Dr. Twombley in stories published in the 1800s.

Around Halloween, Hartig highlights some of the mysterious and creepy tales he has uncovered.

“Brooklyn has so many ghosts we have a hard time keeping track of them in October,” he told the Eagle.

“As a matter of fact, when Halloween creeps up each year, I love quoting “Arsenic and Old Lace”: ‘This is a Hallowe’en tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen – – and it usually does!'” he said.


Buried alive in Brooklyn

Nothing is as horrifying as the thought of being buried alive. Yet it seemingly has happened numerous time in Brooklyn, especially before the practice of embalming was popular.

In the most famous case, as described by Hartig in his blog, the mother of Virginia McDonald, a young woman buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, had “had a presentiment, shortly after her burial, that she was still alive.”

Family members attempted to assuage her, and joked with her when she could not be consoled. Finally, to settle her doubts, they had the casket opened.

To their horror, “The body was lying on the side, the hands were bitten, and there was every evidence of premature burial,” Hartig relayed.


The haunted house in Bedford-Stuyvesant

In 1901 the Griffin family, who lived in an apartment house at No. 281 Stuyvesant Ave., part of what was then called Stuyvesant Heights, were terrorized by their electric bell ringing at 2 o’clock every single afternoon.

As related by Hartig, they also heard “hollow groans,” “creepy sidesteps on the staircase” and “unexpected trips from room to room of pieces of furniture.”

It all got to be too much for the Griffins to handle — and so they fled to Williamsburg.

At that time the Eagle reported, “Up to date there have been no reports to indicate that the spook has followed them to Williamsburg. This is further cause for satisfaction among the Heights folks because it proves conclusively that the spook is a loyal resident of the Stuyvesant section.”  


And another annoying ghost in Bensonhurst

Brooklyn has long been known to be haunted, a fact reflected in the pages of the Eagle over the years. Readers have even come to the Eagle for help with their ghost problems.

On Jan. 25, 1952, the paper’s headline read, “Wall-Thumping Ghost Wracks Nerves of Sleepless Family with Nightly Capers.” 

The article tells the tale of a Bensonhurst family living at 8200 Bay Parkway who suffered for two months from “a fusillade of unexplained noises and invisible blows.” The happenings had driven Frederick Garrison to “nerve-wracked desperation” and put his wife Ruth under the care of a physician.

Whenever his 13-year-old daughter, Virginia, entered the apartment, he said, “Heavy fists seemed to pound the doors, unseen hands slapped the plaster walls and swept across the slats of the venetian blinds.” When Ruth laid down to sleep, “heavy thumps” resounded from the headboard of the bed.

Garrison sought help from the Eagle when his appeals to the Board of Health got him only “sideways looks.”


Haunted Brooklyn Public Library

For years, rumors have swirled that a ghost haunts the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza.

A little girl named Agatha Cunningham became lost on a school trip to the library many years ago and was never found, the library asserted (with nary a wink in sight).

“For years, employees have denied that there is a ghost in the building, but two brave … interns, Roger and Peter, have done some investigating and discovered the truth about Agatha,” BPL says.

The library posted the interns’ amazing short film on their website

In the film, even BPL President Linda Johnson plays along.

While she hasn’t seen Agatha herself, “I’m convinced that I’ve heard her,” she said.

“Agatha is here. She’s all over this place, she’s everywhere,” one library employee swears, tongue firmly in cheek.  “She is a tangible, metaphysical force.”

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