During the summer, Cape May is a place of sun and relaxation, but many vacationers don’t realize they’re actually sleeping with ghosts — hundreds of ghosts. Cape May is not only the most haunted town in the state, it may be the most haunted place in the country; with real spooky hotels that would make even ghost hunters shudder in fear.
“There’s an energy there,” said author and medium Craig McManus, who has written several books on Cape May spirits, including The Ghost of Cape May. “People talk about different types of energy in some places, places like Stonehenge. Certain spots have a higher charge of a certain type of energy, and Cape May is one of those areas.”
It’s not just the spirits that are drawn to this area. Cape May has attracted visitors (living and dead) for more than 400 years. “It was the original seaside resort in America,” said McManus. “Even the early Native Americans went there during the summer to fish. If you have all those years of history in one place, you have the possibility of ghosts tucked into that history.”
It’s impossible to count the number of spirits dwelling in the town. McManus has written four books on the subject, spent years investigating and researching, and has covered about 100 hauntings in the town. While other towns are lucky to have one ghost, Cape May has street after street of ghostly visitors.
“On Jackson Street alone, there are probably eight or nine different haunts,” said McManus of the famous road in Cape May. “And it’s not just the same person reporting ghosts. I’ll hear reports from three or four different people, people who don’t know each other.”
With so many ghosts to find, McManus has helped us highlight the three best haunting sites.
The Emlen Physicks Estate
It’s now a museum run by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, but back when it was built in 1879, the Emlen Physick Estate was the largest home in Cape May. Of course, it’s also one of the most haunted.
“It’s a house that has not been lived in since the last of the Physick family died in the mid-1930s,” said McManus. “People have tried to rent it and left. Several families looked into buying it but decided not to. The house had the spirits of the original occupants and people would experience things and move out. And so the house went into disrepair.”
The Mid-Atlantic Center (MAC) came to the rescue in the 1970s by buying the property, restoring it and turning it into a living museum. And the spirits seemed happy with the result. “If you want to hold on to your original ghostly tenants, all you have to do is restore their home, bring back the original furniture and keep it as a museum. And don’t let people move in.”
Ghostly experiences vary from story to story, but according to McManus, who holds seances in the parlor of the museum, strange things do occur. “During one of my first tours of the building, we all heard an old Victrola playing in the upstairs. But when we got up there, the music stopped, and there was no record player or radio.”
The Inn of Cape May
This classic inn is one of Cape May’s most popular, thanks in part to its wonderful ghost stories. “Guests have heard children playing in the hallway, calling each other by name, bouncing balls in the middle of the night,” said McManus. “But when the guests went to the front desk to ask about it, the front desk said there were no children at the hotel.”
McManus was also able to spy on few chatty spirits. “One time I was up on the fifth floor, which was originally for the servants. It’s accessed by one steep staircase. I was running my equipment when suddenly I saw a light under one door and thought, ‘Oh my god, these people are going to think I’m eavesdropping on them with my microphones.’ So I packed up everything and went downstairs and told the woman at the front desk. She said there was no one up there. I went back up and the room was empty. But I’ve picked up voices on the tape of several people talking.”
Unexplained voices sound pretty scary — until you hear about ghostly limbs reaching out while you sleep. “My photographer spent the night there. He turned on his side, trying to fall asleep and he saw an arm reach across his side over to the other side of the bed, like it was trying to grab something,” McManus said. “He jumped out the bed and spent the rest of the night sleeping in the lobby. And he’s not a timid person.”
The Hotel Macomber
“Behind every haunting is a ghost, and behind every ghost is a story,” said McManus, and such is the case with one of several spirits currently occupying The Hotel Macomber.
Here, the story goes that the former owner, Sarah Davis, killed herself in the hotel. While employees of the hotel have heard the story, there was no documentation of the suicide.
“I finally tracked down Sarah’s nieces,” said McManus. “The nieces were in their eighties and nineties by then, but they told me they thought Sarah killed herself. I researched the dates they gave me in the old newspapers and sure enough the headline in the newspaper was ‘Hotel Owner Shoots Herself.’ She loved the hotel and told the town, ‘I just want to let you know the hotel is open for business,’ and she had a swim in the ocean, came back, put a gun to her head and shot herself.”
But the ghost of Sarah Davis isn’t alone at the Cape May hotel. “There’s a man’s presence in the basement. It sounded like a dog. They call him The Growler.”
The Friendly (and Not-So-Friendly) Ghosts
Luckily for Cape May visitors, the ghosts haunting the hotels tend to be nice. “It’s a misconception that ghosts are waiting to charge [at] us with rattling chains and steak knives,” said McManus. “We’re programmed by Hollywood to expect these strange encounters, when in fact ghosts are typically trying to coexist. And lot of times, they’ll move away if you try to contact them. They don’t want to be contacted.”
But not everyone plays nice. “There are personalities that are less pleasant. I’ve been in some private houses where there’s a feeling that something doesn’t want you there. We were taping in one house, and my photographer saw scratches on his arm. Five minutes later, I looked down and saw that my leg was scratched. And we weren’t near anything that would scratch us. I’ve never had that happen except in this one house. It was actually cutting skin.”
McManus is quick to point out that hotels are usually very safe. It’s the houses you have to worry about. “In most of the bed and breakfasts and hotels, there’s nothing I would deem angry or unpleasant. That may happen in some of the private residence investigations.”
Halloween Is Spooky. Winter Is Terrifying.
Though the end of October is known as the scary season, McManus says mid-winter — when most businesses are closed — is the time to hunt ghosts. “If you want to experience a haunting in Cape May, the best time is winter, probably January and February, before people come in. Cape May in the winter is a ghost town. That’s when I do most of my research. You can’t do it when there are thousands of people around, or if others are staying at the hotel.”
Even if conditions are perfect, you may not experience anything. “Sometimes a haunting is dormant for years and then it will act up, like at the Ugly Mug in Cape May. It’s a bar that’ll be quiet for a while — and then I start getting emails from people saying they’ve had an experience at The Mug. You can’t predict when it will happen.”
While you can’t plan on a ghostly encounter, with hundreds of ghosts scattered around Cape May, you can’t entirely avoid one either. Just don’t be surprised if, during your next visit, you feel an unexplained chill. Or hear voices. Or see a disembodied hand reach out.
That’s just Cape May’s oldest residents making themselves known.
Want more tales of spooky, eerie happenings around New Jersey? Then check out the rest of our Haunted NJ series:
The Jersey Devil
The Seabrook-Wilson House (aka, The Spy House)
The Overbrook Asylum
Hero (Top) Feature Image: © Val Roy Gerischer / BestofNJ.com