When we hear the phrase “Ellis Island” we think of the historic gateway to America, the grand entrance for so many immigrants who wanted a life in the new world. What we aren’t familiar with is the colorful history of this iconic location in New York Harbor.
It was “Oyster Island” because the waters held countless oysters, a favorite of the Dutch settlers. In the early Eighteenth Century, Oyster Island was essential a penal island. Many pirates met their fate, hanging from the branches of the trees there.
Just after the War of 1812, Captain Morgan turned his interests to pirating. He met his fate on Oyster Island, along with four members of his crew. Captain Gibbs was hung on the same tree forty years later. Most of the activity on the island focused on the pirates who had either been imprisoned or executed there. Their ghosts were often witnessed hanging from the trees.
By the 1830s, lore surrounding the island had started to branch out. It was believed one of the pirates left vast stores of gold and treasure somewhere on the island. A lady in white named “Hannah Scrachum” guarded the trove, and if anyone got too close, she screamed to warn them away. Her screams were often heard in the distance by passers-by in boats.
Before the Fire
Before the historic fire, it was difficult for the management to keep night watchmen. Shadowy figures prowled the island. It wasn’t merely pirates, many of the male apparitions donned long capes and tri-cornered hats. The pirate tree still stood behind the ancient governor’s house in the 1890s.
There was also an ancient well near the old house. The governor tried to locate a well for the home when it was first built. He’d hoped for an artesian well, but ended up digging 1,000 feet below the surface. He was unable to find drinkable water. The hole remained, by that point it was around 80 feet deep and 4 feet wide. Quicksand developed in the bottom of the well, so even if someone survived the fall, they became lodged in the murk at the bottom. It was estimated that four men died just in the well. None of the bodies was ever found.
The haunting wasn’t limited to the outside. Most buildings standing on the island in the 1890s had strange events. Doors and windows moved by themselves. Lights went off and on with no one in the room. Some people who worked on the island watched entire scenes from the past play out. Many hangings occurred hundreds of times over when the island was dark. Spectral forms walked to the tree and their bodies dropped, again and again.
One story surrounded a night watchman named Sprague in the years before the fire. Sprague was punctual and checked in regularly while working, but he didn’t check in one night. His co-workers grew afraid. Everyone assumed he’d fallen into the well. The boards weren’t in good condition and there wasn’t enough funds to create a better one.
A group searched the island for him. They found him, alive, but unconscious. They found his body beside a garden spade he’d been using. He confessed he’d sat the spade down to move a rock, and something unseen had hit him in the head with it.
The End of an Era
A great fire swept the island in 1897. The majority of the buildings were burned to the ground. There was no loss of life, but the hauntings reported decreased after the blaze.
Today, Ellis Island is still reported to be haunted, but by ghosts of an entirely different type. Witnesses describe voices, the smells of burning candles, and many other phenomena in the dark and vacant buildings. While Ellis Island was a point of hope for many, during the early decades of the Twentieth Century, it was not often a good place. Spouses and families were separated during processing, many were detained or quarantined away from loved ones, and thousands of people committed suicide while there.