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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ghost at Stake

From the Tomb Dept.: A shorter version of this story ran in Metroland in 1988. I’ve been back to Jackson’s Garden on summer nights since, but the spectre described below continues to elude me.

                                                                    

A FULL MOON only accentuates the blackness of midnight, as if the orb were sucking into itself any radiance around you. With the first full moon of summer comes the nighttime sparkle of new-grown leaves, the pleasant warmth anticipated during long June days, and the sounds of maniacs racing cars through the back streets of the city.

I was sitting on a small rise in a wooded area behind Union College shortly after midnight last June 29, keeping watch over a small brook. A few feet away my wife also waiting, also watching, also silent. Aside from the distant traffic there was hardly a sound, so every creak and rustle in the undergrowth seemed more startling. But the figure we sought would be silent, we knew.

This is a ghost story without much of a plot; we’re not even sure if the main character will appear. But I want to tell you about Schenectady’s most famous spectre, a restless young woman doomed for the 316 years since her death to recreate her final walk in life. Her name is Alice, surname given variously as Van Derveer and Van Verveer, and she was victimized in the name of love, the most classic reason to slip into ghostdom.

Can we imagine a portrait of young Alice? She wears the Dutch costume of her day, lovely brown hair tucked into the traditional stern cap, eyes modestly lowered as she passes the men of the settlement. But she has a rebellious spirit, born of enduring her father’s harshness. For reasons that would gladden only the staunchest Calvinist, this would be her undoing.

Jan Van Verveer built a cabin on the bank of the Mohawk River at what’s now Rotterdam Junction in 1671. He was a sourpuss who made no friends and thus was whispered to be a murderer who’d fled from Holland. When he brought his daughter to live with him, the whispering changed. Now Alice was the cynosure, an object of desire to all the young men who lived nearby. Their attempts at courtship were thwarted by the old man, who is said to have kept them away by displaying his rifle.

How much simpler it is to be rebellious today! Susan and I discussed the problems of thwarting parental whimsy as we walked along Union Street in the Stockade area earlier that night, until we came upon a modern manifestation of rebelliousness: a line of cars parked at the bottom of Washington Avenue, onetime bridge route to Scotia, now a dead-end overlooking the river.

In the cars were teenagers, two or three per vehicle. We saw the furtive movement of bottle and can, heard a voice or two raised in pleading or protest. Then all noise stopped as we were sighted, as if we’d just walked as strangers into a tough saloon.

One young man got out of his car and faced me. I avoided a confrontation with an excellent question: “Anybody seen a ghost?”

Ghost?”

I told him why we were there. “They say she walks along the bank of the Mohawk on her way to the Union College area. We thought you might have seen her.”

Others climbed out of cars. I repeated the story.

“When’s she supposed to come? Have you seen her before? What’s she look like?” The questions were flying now, and the party circled around us as a young woman talked about a ghost she’d seen in a house in Latham. Then another spoke up with still another story.

Have you noticed that ghost stories are always told in a hush? It got very quiet on the street as the listeners formed an even tighter group, creepy shivers crawling up backbones as the tales grew ever more lurid.

How long this person sat out of sight by the old bridge structure I have no idea, but she showed her face when the party was thoroughly spooked, prompting screams from most of us. But she wasn’t Alice.

*

COURTSHIP IN THE 17th century was a more courtly practice, but the urgings of love haven’t changed over the centuries. One well-liked fellow, a grocer from Schenectady, persisted in his attention to the point that Alice defied her dad and met the new boyfriend on the sly. Were there shopping trips into the stockaded town, perhaps? Did they pass furtive notes to one another in church?

Jan became suspicious and watched his daughter that fateful night, the night of the first full moon of summer in 1672. The following is taken from a talk given by Duane Featherstonaugh at the Schenectady County Historical Society in 1943:
. . . . he followed her along the bank of the river. Near the present site of Lock Eight she met her lover.

A rage swept the cunning Van Verveer. He fingered the rifle he carried as he carefully stalked the young couple. Unaware that they were being followed, the boy and girl walked down the south bank of the Mohawk until they came to the present site of the American Locomotive Company. There they sat down to rest and to pledge their love. Van Verveer crept up behind them. He leveled his rifle. A single shot shattered the soft stillness of summer and the boy slumped forward, dead.
Imagine the scene in that little settlement, the people new to a foreign land and guarding themselves against all manner of malevolent intruder. A shot is heard and a favorite son is dead, at the hands of a suspected murderer and his untouchable daughter. The villagers saw blood and blood only, carelessly implicating Alice in what they saw as a conspiracy against the murdered youth.

Van Verveer dragged Alice away, hoping to hide in the stockaded area. She broke loose as a mob caught up with the man at what is now the corner of Church and Union Streets. You’ll find one of Schenectady’s oldest buildings at that address, once home of former governor Joseph C. Yates, but it was yet to be built when Jan was seized and tied to a stake. And burned alive.

Alice’s ghostly journey takes her along Union Street where she pauses in front of the Yates house. To watch the area in 1988 is to see an active street, mercury-vapor lamps dispelling all shadows but for those cast under the lovely row of trees that borders the sidewalk running by the old Dutch church and the tiny houses. Our vigil kept us there for a couple of ghostless hours before we walked on to Jackson’s Garden, the Union College area where Alice met her end.

Can you feel the terror she must have been shaking with as she fled out of the settlement and into the wilds by the Hans Groote Kill? Father and lover both violently dead, a stubborn posse of villagers on her heels to wreak mistaken vengeance.

Did she pause by the stand of oaks in the garden, catching her breath, when they caught up with her? Had she fallen, perhaps? We can be sure her face already was ghastly white as those who once tried to court her now grabbed her wrists and pinned her against one of the oaks, wrapping a thick cord around her tiny waist and fastening it to the tree. Did the frustrated wooers now jeer at her, venting their frustration into this horrible act?

It must be a terrifying journey indeed to burn it into an otherworldly dimension, a dimension that offers it back, as if reproachfully, on each anniversary of the event. We are told to look for Alice at about 9 PM as she leaves Rotterdam Junction to wander the riverbank as if strolling with her lover. There is the pause by the old ALCo plant, and the journey on to Union Street and into the college’s garden.

And there, the stories tell us, she vanishes. Often with the faintest smell of burning wood, olfactory reminder of the terrible flames that took Alice’s life.

I know people who claim to have seen the ghost. Trying see her is an annual sport for those in the know. Just as we tell ghost stories in whispers, so too do some of us conceal ourselves while ghost-hunting in the wild. At least, that was case with the many others in Jackson’s Garden that night. Susan and I thought we were alone.

In celebration of summer, she had outfitted herself with a long white skirt and matching blouse. And the breeze felt so nice in the garden that night that, shortly after we tiptoed in, she removed her jacket in order to feel the warmth on her arms. So attired, she crossed a little bridge that put in her in full view of the trees and scrub flanking the garden’s brook.

Bushes rustled; strangulated murmurings came to our ears. Just as we ourselves were girding to flee, a scattering of people came out of hiding, convinced for a moment that Susan was their Alice.

Spooking the hell out of the gang crouching in the woods, who emerged, slowly, wide-eyed, speechless. Were they happy to learn the truth? Not by a long shot. They shook their heads and grumbled and all but accused Susan of playing a deliberate practical joke. I got an awful little preview of how mob vigilantism is born. I missed the Washington Avenue teens.

But we’ll be back in the garden when the first full moon of summer arrives again, correctly attired to witness that agonizing journey’s fateful end. If you’d care to join us, please wear something dark.

Metroland Magazine, October 27, 1988

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