The House of Death
The House of Death – Greenwich Village
Unassuming brownstone in the heart of Greenwich hides a dark and scary past.
When a property is deemed “The House of Death,” you know there’s bound to be at least one gut-wrenching story attached to it!
The building itself is as pretty as any of the other Revivalist Greek Brownstones in one of New York’s most pretty neighborhoods. Built in 1856, on West 10th street in Greenwich Village what is now known as ‘the House of Death’ has at one time or another housed many of the cities bright and beautiful. Including the wife of the founder of the Metropolitan Underground Railroad and the Broadway Underground Railroad, Mr. James Boorman Johnston. Johnston was responsible for founding a reading room, library, and the famed Tenth Street Studio, a collective with studios, galleries and annual funding for resident artists, unique in New York City at the time. After he died, his wealthy widow1moved their daughters into The House of Death in the 1880s.
The house seems to have started earning its reputation gradually after the Boorman family stopped living there. The first recorded incident of bad luck happened in 1897. Cycling celebrity Fred H. Andrew, the new owner and occupier of 14 west 10th Street had a moment of bad luck. During his residency, as described in the New York Times of August 9, 1897, Andrew had a moment of “reckless bicycle riding” that caused him to hit a boy, or around 8 years old. The boy suffered a broken leg and Andrew was subsequently arrested.
But the house’s most famous tenant was Mark Twain. A mustachioed legend of American literature, at the tail end of his writing career but at the height of his celebrity. Twain, whose real name is Samuel Clemens, was resident at ‘The House of Death’ only 3 years after Fred H. Andrew, the cyclist started a streak of bad luck. Mark Twain only lived in the house for a little over 12 months. He was battling bankruptcy and churning out some of his rushed, but classic works. He was also fighting depression, not helped by the sad mustache he wore constantly. Twain was a noted ghost skeptic, yet wrote of a clear and plain paranormal experience he had in his new home. One evening, he witnessed a large piece of wood kindling move in the air all by itself. Thinking the wood was being moved by a rat, that had some use for the wood, a new piece of furniture perhaps, he shot it with his gun, as anyone would do. It suddenly fell to the ground, surrounded by a few drops of blood. Rats outnumbered people in New York, even them, but the house was not noted for having an infestation. Twain maintained the blood was that of a rodent and not that of a ghost.
Although Twain did not have many pleasant memories of the house, he can still be seen roaming the stairwell of The House of Death. Subsequent occupants have seen his visage trudging up and down the stairs, commonly considered the most haunted section of the home. He may also be responsible for disembodied marching sounds that have been heard everywhere in the vacated parts of the house.
One notable Twain encounter was reported in the late 1930s. By 1937, the house on West 10th Street had been converted into a co-op building made up of ten spacious condo apartments.
One of the Shortly after the building’s transformation, a newly resident mother and her daughter bumped into Twain’s ghost perched on a window seat. He nonchalantly approached the pair, saying “My name is Clemens, and I has a problem here I gotta settle.”3 He disappeared moments later into thin air. What problem he had that he needed so badly needed to settle, he did not share, likely a financial one. Its sad money can keep one from resting happily in peace. It’s also a mystery why Mark Twain, who died in Danbury Connecticut, not at the New York house, appears here so often also remains a mystery.
Jan Bryant Bartell and her daughter took up residency of a spacious apartment on the top floor, In 1957. The famous actress, psychic, and writer moved into the apartment which once housed the servants. Bartell reported almost immediately that “a monstrous moving shadow”4 would often follow her around the house. One time she writes that she had seen a ghostly figure of a man standing in a hall. Bravely she reached out and tried to touch whatever she was seeing, she felt something, but nothing like she had felt before, she described it as, “A substance without substance. Chilly, damp. Diaphanous as marsh mist or a cloud of ether. I could feel my fingers freeze at the tips. They were numb, and yet they tingled. In the split second between contact and recoil, the scent came. Fragile and languorous. And sweet; unbearably, cloyingly sweet.”5 This unusual scent was not the only odd and bitter scents the Bartell family reported smelling during their time at The House of Death. Food not purchased by them, and already rotting, as if it had been sitting around for days would suddenly appear at the table. Their many small animals would also often become aggressive for no reason as if disturbed by invisible enemies in the building.
Bartell was a true believer and took the proactive step of employing a “paranormal expert”6 to investigate what could be causing these terrifying realities for the scared residents. The investigator confirmed what the couple had believed from the start. The investigator proclaimed that there were upward of twenty-two spirits at The House of Death. Besides Mark Twain, he mentioned additionally a woman in a white dress, a young girl, and a gray cat. Bartell decided to write about her experiences in the house, in a manuscript documenting her psychic experiences with the paranormal while living at 14 West 10th Street. Titled ‘Spindrift: Spray from a Psychic Sea’, she vividly recounts what it was like to live in a possessed house. The book was well received and has received many favorable reviews, the affecting prose is flowery, and paints a picture of a woman on the edges of our world, and the border of another.
Bartell writes of experiencing visions and of hearing many unexplainable sounds around the house. Here’s a piece from the jacket of Spindrift:
“Like a game of Ten Little Indians, deaths began to occur in the house. The first to die was a dog, Jan’s own beloved Penelope. But within twenty-four hours, she was to learn of the death of the first human tenant. Whether by heart attacks, suicide or murder, the deaths came in rapid succession… In terror, with nine little Indians gone, the Bartells moved far away from Greenwich Village. But the haunting followed them. After the completion of Spindrift, Jan Bartell became the tenth.”7
Bartell died shortly after completing the manuscript, in what one might consider mysterious circumstances. She was a sufferer of depressive episodes and there were rumors of suicide attempts. Her death let credence to the legend of The House of Death and its cursed. There were still however many skeptics – deaths go unsolved in New York constantly.
One event however put the status of the house in the position of few doubters. On November 2, 1987, New York City witnessed a genuine tragedy at The House of Death. The murder of Lisa Nussbaum has twisted plot worthy of a Hollywood’s horror flicks.
“Around 6:40 AM, 9-11 operators got a pressing phone call from children’s author and editor, Hedda Nussbaum. She said that her six-year old8 daughter, Lisa, wasn’t breathing, so an ambulance was sent to her Greenwich residence right away. When the paramedics arrived, they were greeted by a very disturbing scene. They found Lisa lying naked and unresponsive on the kitchen floor, and her brother, Mitchell, tied to a playpen and soaked in his own urine. Nussbaum herself was covered with bruises and had several broken bones. Investigators also discovered9 marijuana, cocaine, hashish, over twenty crack pipes, and $25,000 in cash at the apartment.”
Paramedics were regrettably unable to revive Lisa Nussbaum on their way to the hospital. Later her autopsy revealed the cause of her death was repeated blunt-force trauma to the skull. Hedda Nussbaum and lawyer Joel Steinberg, Lisa’s father, were both arrested and subsequently charged with first-degree murder. It was charged that after a cocaine binge, Joel Steinberg violently abused both Lisa and his wife. Hedda Nussbaum avoided a charge in exchange for testimony against Joel Steinberg. A jury found him guilty of manslaughter in the second degree and sentenced him a term in jail. Upon his release in 200410, Joel Steinberg left the law behind and took construction jobs. Like the mansion in the Amityville Horror films, The House of Death also became the residence of a real-life monster!
The happenings of the House of Death were spreading to neighboring houses on the street as well. In the apartment complex next door, residents started to notice flickering lights, several residents reported a ghostly female figure in a long gown wandering a corridor. A resident photographer had apparently been seeing her float through doors for more than twenty years.
The house itself is still elegant, well proportioned, and gives no clues as to the accumulated terror within. The classic brownstone, near the beautiful Washington Square in Greenwich Village, echoes with sad, frightening stories revolving around the many people who have left a part of their souls in the fabric of the building. If we are to take any lessons from these stories, it reinforces the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Currently in private ownership, the building is resided in today and continues to add stories of hauntings to the legends of paranormal activity in The House of Death. The stairwell continues to be the nexus of the ghostly activity in the building, the dark and wide antique stairs are where many of the ghosts still make their appearances.
1. “Mark Twain, Tragedy and Ghosts – No. 14 West 10th Street.” Daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com. 15 April 2011. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 4.
2. “Mark Twain, Tragedy and Ghosts – No. 14 West 10th Street.” Daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com.15 April 2011. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 6.
3. Donnelly, Tim. “Terror on 10th street.” New York Post. 28 October 2012. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 7.
4. Donnelly, Tim. “Terror on 10th street.” New York Post. 28 October 2012. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 1.
5. Donnelly, Tim. “Terror on 10th street.” New York Post. 28 October 2012. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 20.
6. Donnelly, Tim. “Terror on 10th street.” New York Post. 28 October 2012. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 21.
7. Janes, Andrea. “The weirdest *$%#-ing book EVER.” Spinster Aunt, “I Medicate With Fiction.” Bourbonandtea.blogspot.com. 16 November 2009. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 2.
8. Mehren, Elizabeth. “A 6-Year-Old’s Tragic Death.” Los Angeles Times. 25 November 1987. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 2.
9. Mehren, Elizabeth. “A 6-Year-Old’s Tragic Death.” Los Angeles Times. 25 November 1987. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 6.
10. “NEW YORK’S HOUSE OF DEATH.” Sjhstrangetales.wordpress.com. 28 May 2015. Web. 31 October 2015. Para. 6.