This is a podcast transcript, originally published as part of the Crimes & Witch-Demeanors Podcast.
Hello, and welcome to Crimes & Witch-Demeanors! I’m your host, Joshua Spellman. We’re starting the year off right with something we should have covered earlier…a haunted library! Or…at least a haunting that was caused by a library.
The New York State Capitol Building, in Albany is home to three known spirits: the artist William Morris Hunt, a night watchman named Samuel Abbott, and a fruit vendor. There was a death of a construction worker at the site that may contribute to the hauntings, but it is not confirmed. Both the fruit vendor and the construction worker have remained nameless in all the internet articles I’ve read…until now. Join me in discovering their identities and learning more about the tragic fire that erased centuries of history and caused billions of dollars of damage…which of course lets us touch briefly on the importance of libraries, preservation, and the dangers that digital and physical records pose to the preservation of our history and culture.
BUT…before we get to our main ghost story we have to talk about the building itself because not only is it impressive, it is integral to the spirits that haunt it.
The New York State Capitol is an incredibly large and imposing structure that fills two whole city blocks. Five architects had worked on its design and it was heralded as one of the most beautiful buildings in America…though others criticized it for being an oversized and costly spectacle. Which…they weren’t wrong about. Construction took place between 1867 and 1899 at a cost of over 25 million dollars, or the modern equivalent of 768 million. It was built by hand using white granite from Maine and in places the walls are four to five feet thick.
Its style is unique…and that is in part because of its five architects that did not work on the project simultaneously leading to what historians refer to it as the “Battle of the Styles”. It also has led to some interesting mishaps, not all stemming from its numerous architects, but they are major oversights nonetheless. Some highlights include the building initially being built on top of quick sand! Not sure how that happened! They had to dig out all the sand and replace it with clay and concrete. Another major mistake was that the original cornerstone of the building, which contains a time capsule, has been lost because the builders forgot to mark it.
The first architect, Thomas Fuller, designed the first floor in a Classical and Romanesque style. However, from 1875-1883, Henry Hobson Richardson and Leopold Eidlitz worked on the building and continued the design in a Renaissance style. During this time, Frederick Law Olmstead, who was a frequent collaborator with Richardson, was hired for the landscape architecture. The final architect on the project was Isaac G. Perry, assigned to the project by Grover Cleveland. He became the first New York State architect and is known for many institutional buildings and asylums across the state.
While the exterior itself is impressive the interior is absolutely breathtaking. In particular, the Western Grand Staircase is a testament to the intricacies of this bold design. Initially begun by Richardson, it was completed by Perry who kept his design but added even more carved elements than originally planned. The Grand Staircase lacks a dome, and in fact the New York State Capitol is one of only 10 US Capitol buildings without one, but in its place is a magnificent 3,000 square foot skylight. Which is…bigger than any house I’ve lived in. I cannot even fathom it.
The vaulted ceilings and sandstone walls are carved with intricate acanthus leaf designs around 77 famous faces of the day. The sandstone carvers were also allowed to carve a memory into the sandstone, many choosing to carve the faces of their wives or children. However, one of these artisans had a dark side as he chose to carve the face of a demon tucked between some leaves in a dark hallway. It is so small and tiny that it is said if you can find the face on your own, you yourself are a devil.
The devil is surely in the details and the capitol building is full of them. One of the lost details are the murals of artist William Morris Hunter. Hunt was commissioned to paint two 45 foot long murals directly onto the sandstone walls of the Assembly Chamber. They were titled “The Flight of Night” and “Discover” and Hunt considered them to be his magnum opus. Sadly, the ceiling of the Assembly Chamber was deemed unstable and had to be lowered significantly, permanently obscuring the artwork. Future murals that were planned were deserted due to a lack of funding. The destruction of these works are largely attributed to the deepening of his depression and eventual suicide. His ghost still haunts the capitol today, mourning the loss of his greatest works.
The lowered ceiling was intended to be made of solid oak. However, the contractor cheated the state to line his own pockets and instead used oak paneling filled with paper mâché. While this was a contentious issue at the time it ended up saving the Assembly Chamber in 1911 when true tragedy struck.
“Good evening, what are you still doing here?” and old man asked, a lantern in one hand and a silver-handled cane in the other “Working late?”
“Good evening, Mr. Abbott! Oh, well you know…a librarian’s work is never done!” the man replied, “Plus the Tammany caucus didn’t wrap up until,” he glanced at his pocket watch “nearly one o’clock this morning. So I’m just closing up the State Library now. I believe they’re still in the Assembly Library up to God knows what! I just worry, I hate that the Assembly uses their library as a social venue…always drinking and smoking…even with their wives around!”
Old man Abbott chuckled, “Well I’ll make sure they don’t get into too much trouble, that’s my job after all!” he said, patting the small firearm on his side.
“I will sleep a little better knowing you’re on the lookout” the librarian sighed, “I suppose I’m just a little on edge about it all. With the Triangle Shirtwaist fire last week, I can’t stop thinking about what would happen if something like that were to occur here with all the cigarettes flying about”
“Well,” Abbott said, thoughtfully, “they say this building is fireproof and I’m sure we’d be able to put out a blaze before it got too serious. Remember the fire a few years ago in the cellar from the electrical? That wasn’t a problem. We just shut the doors at it burned itself out.”
“You’re right, you’re right” the librarian replied, “I’m just being overly anxious. Well, goodnight Samuel” the librarian said, waving his hand as he exited the library.
“Goodnight!” Abbott shouted back as he resumed his patrol of the stacks.
Samuel smiled, looking toward the intricate ceilings, drinking in the newfound silence of the library. What a job he had. What a life he had. The relative stillness of the State Capitol at night was a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the capitol during the day, not dissimilar to the cacophony of the Civil War that oftentimes still rang through his ears
But at night. The night was different. A peaceful, cool stillness that only being surrounded by marble and stone could impart. There was nothing like wandering the corridors alone at night, absorbing the artistry all around him; every night finding some new detail tucked away into the sandstone by some coy artisan.
Despite being an old man of 78, Samuel was happy to be working. He loved being in awe every day. There was always something new, something exciting. The State Library itself, with its hundreds of thousands of books, or even more exciting…the artifact collection. Unique items and treasures from all over the world, and he was able to spend time alone with them. And it was his job to protect them and the employees of the capitol. There was never a night that he didn’t find something to excite him, and this night was no different.
“FIRE! FIRE!” a panicked voice shouted from somewhere in the hall. Samuel rushed out of the library as quickly as he could, and he found the man in the hall, looking around, frantic.
“What’s going on?” Samuel asked, concerned.
“There’s a fire. A fire in the assembly library. It was just a small fire on the desk it could have been put out with just a bucket of water but we couldn’t find any…” the man breathed heavily “we thought we’d shut the door and let it burn out while we got something to extinguish it but…but…now it’s engulfed the whole library. We have to get everyone out!”
Samuel didn’t say a word. He just nodded in understanding and rushed back into the library. Samuel had to do something, “Is anyone in here?!” he shouted through the library, his voice echoing. He just performed his rounds and didn’t see anyone, but he had to make sure “There’s a fire and we have to evacuate!” He listened. The only thing he could hear was the distant commotion in the Assembly room.
Glancing around at the thousands of books and records around him, Samuel was overcome by the importance of these volumes. Family genealogies, state records, even materials from the founding fathers were in this library. Without a second thought, Samuel made his way around the library, flinging open windows in hopes that it could save the material.
“What are you doing?” someone gasped from the doorway of the library “We have to go!” they shouted before running off.
“I’ll be out in a moment!” Samuel grumbled back, continuing his crusade to save the library.
First, smoke began to pour in from one of the other entrances. Then flames leapt out, licking the nearest shelf of books, setting them ablaze. Quickly, the fire spread down the stacks. The smoke was so thick that Samuel could hardly see.
Wheezing, he hobbled on his cane out into the hall. He could hear voices in the distance, but he seemed to be the only one around, everyone else had made it safely out the area of immediate danger. Samuel made his way as quickly as possible to the Grand Staircase but what he saw was a scene out of the ninth circle of hell.
The fire was burning so hot that the staircase was…melting. The staircase was turning into a molten slurry and Samuel could hear cracks forming in the massive skylight above. He pivoted and made his way down a narrow corridor. He knew this building like the back of his hand, this was the closest way out, just through this claustrophobic hallway.
The smoke seared his lungs. He couldn’t see. He reached for the keys on his belt, he knew the door would be locked. It was only a hundred feet or so. CRACK! The sound was deafening. The skylight above the Grand Staircase, had shattered. And though it was far behind him, it sounded as though it was just above him. The walls of the corridor were crumbling, the ceiling was falling down. Just 40 more feet. A large chunk of stone fell next to Samuel, just missing him. 30 more feet. He coughed. His eyes were feeling heavy. 20 feet. He grabbed the keys from his belt. 15 feet. The glass of the door he was headed to shattered in front of him, which was fortunate in case he couldn’t get the lock. 10 feet. His feet felt heavy, he was losing consciousness. But he was almost there. 5 feet.
Poor Samuel Abbott perished just 5 feet from safety. His body being buried by debris, it would not be found for days. Samuel Abbott was the sole human casualty of the 1911 Capitol Fire. Despite his brave actions, much of the Library’s collections and State records were lost. 500,000 books, over 300,000 colonial manuscripts, state census records, revolutionary war records, were destroyed alongside another 10,000 archaeological and ethnographic artifacts. It’s said that miraculously, the only items left unscathed by the inferno were the Native American artifacts. Were they protected by ancestor spirits?
The blaze was eventually put out, completely destroying about a quarter of the capitol. Unfortunately, none of the material, not the building were insured. Which was especially detrimental since the fire caused anywhere from 8 million to 12 million dollars in damage. The modern equivalent of 209 to 314 million today.
In a strange twist of fate, the paper mâché paneling in the assembly room that covered up William Morris Hunt’s artwork may have helped save the day. If the ceiling in the Assembly was made of solid oak as planned, it would have been destroyed in minutes. However, the filling of the paneling absorbed the water from the firefighter’s hoses and slowed the progress of the fire. Saving the Assembly room from total wreckage, and preventing the spread of the fire to the rest of the Capitol.
The jangle of keys can be heard late at night. Locked doorknobs turn and are tugged at. It appears that Samuel’s ghost is still wandering the halls. Not in pain, but happily carrying out his nightly duties, ensuring that everyone in the building is safe. Helping to avoid any future tragedy that may befall the Capitol.
For a story about a library fire the accuracy of the articles out there are astoundingly poor. In more than one article William Morris Hunt is called William Morris Hunter. Luckily he’s a larger figure in the art world and this is easily remedied but it had been Samuel Abbott that was misnamed it would make research on him much more difficult.
I feel so bad for Samuel Abbott, especially because he was so close to escaping. His body was lost in the ruins and wasn’t discovered until March 31st. Here is an excerpt from the Brooklyn Times Union titled “Body is Found in Albany Ruins”:
“About 7:30 o’clock this morning, as the men tackled the debris near the entrance, they discovered a charred leg protruding upwards. Shortly after the body was uncovered and taken from the ruins. The head and trunk were not burned, but the four limbs were charred.
Had Abbott been able to continue on his way he would have found safety within five feet. The door, although locked, is partly glass and would have broken easily. It is supposed the smoke drove him out of the library proper, and he was overcome on his way to safety.”
This is also the main excerpt I based the narration on, since (naturally) not much is available on what happened to him specifically that night. Though accounts of other staff members are plentiful.
However, I weaved facts in the rest of the narration. Parts of the sandstone did melt under the heat of the flames and the giant skylight completely shattered from the heat. The amount of damage to the building and the records inside it is astounding. While the cause of the fire is still debated, today it’s usually attributed to a cigar or cigarette that was discarded improperly during the caucus. However, all the newspapers I read said it was due to faulty wiring, which was the cause of the previous fire in the cellar. There were reports of electrical issues in the Assembly room and the Assembly Library prior to the fire so it is a possibility.
Reports on this differ and it’s impossible to know now what truly started the blaze. The damage was incredible, and the descriptions of how the building essentially acted as a chimney for flames to shoot through and carry to other parts of the building is horrifying. You can see pictures of the damage on the podcast Instagram. It’s worth a look.
This fire still impacts research in the modern day as so many historical records, even those dating to colonial times were destroyed. However, this leads me to address a major part of this story that has become legend: that none of the indigenous artifacts were damaged in the fire.
This obviously is an ominous and spooky fact that has spread over the last century… but it’s only partially true. The night of the fire many brave librarians, archivists, and archaeologists did what any of us would do – attempt to save our cultural heritage.
Arthur Parker, the first New York State archaeologist ran the length of the fourth floor hallway brandishing a tomahawk that was passed down through generations of Seneca natives. He used the tomahawk as a fire ax and rescued as many artifacts as he was able. He managed to only save 50 of the 500 Iroquois artifacts on display, but it was better than having them all perish in the flames. So…yes. Some of the indigenous materials were saved, but it was due to human intervention, not the spectral.
Other librarians managed to save rare volumes and artifacts including the original manuscript of George Washington’s farewell address and the copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln had written by hand.
One of the more heartwarming things I read in the newspapers were the other librarians from across the world lending assistance and condolences. In an article in the Syracuse Post Standard, Mary J. Sibley, the librarian at Syracuse University, offered the use of the library to the Capitol Building’s State Library School. The head librarian from the Imperial University in Tokyo also send kind words and support via telegram.
We’ll get back to paranormal ghosts in a moment but the true ghosts of the fire is the hundreds of thousands of lost records that were vital to learning our country’s history. However, this fire and the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that happened only days prior, led to major fire safety reforms. Library fires have destroyed many important records: most famously the 1921 fire that destroyed almost the entirety of the 1890 census, or more recently the 2018 museum fire in Brazil that destroyed over 200 years of records and artifacts.
One of the most annoying things I hear surrounding these fires is “Why didn’t they have all of it scanned and digital?” And there is so much to unpack here, it would probably take another hour of explaining the intricacies of not only digitization but digital preservation. But here’s the cliff notes: most of the world’s knowledge is on paper. Well over 90% of it, in fact. Why is it not digital? There’s a number of factors—the largest being that digitization is expensive. It takes a lot of manual labor that libraries, museums, and archives do not have the funding or manpower for in addition to storage and maintenance costs.
Digital records are also a lot more volatile than paper ones. How many times have you opened a file and it was corrupt? Or you accidentally deleted something from your hard drive? Things like this can wipe out thousands of records in an instant. Also, digital records need constant upkeep as file formats become obsolete and as they suffer from bitrot…yes, digital files do rot…there’s a lot. The long and short of it is that paper records are typically easier to preserve. Ideally you would have the paper copies and numerous copies of digital surrogates stored in different geographic locations with different natural disaster threats. But I digress.
The moral of the story is digital media is more prone to destruction and requires constant upkeep while paper records can be managed with benign neglect.
Okay, sorry for the lecture. Let’s talk about the ghosts we haven’t met yet—the unnamed fruit vendor and the construction worker.
The spirit of the vendor was said to be discovered when a female tour guide was locking up for the night when she saw a large, black mass fall from one of the upper floors to ground below. To her surprise, there was nothing there. After telling her fellow tour guides they were confused because there had never been ghost sightings in that portion of the building. It was later discovered that in 1890 a depressed fruit vendor flung himself from the fourth floor Senate Chamber staircase and died. There are numerous reports of people seeing something fall from the staircase and when they look they have seen a man bleeding out on the stones. However, once they go to get help there is nothing there upon their return.
Surprisingly, no articles name this fruit vendor which had me doubting his existence. I came across the story on a fluke and I would never have found this information if it wasn’t for some faulty OCR..which if you don’t know is optical character recognition. Essentially computer readings of scanned images. I was searching for fruit vendors in 1890 using modern spelling “v-e-n-d-o-r” but luckily the OCR on a newspaper was incorrect and I still go the hit. It turns out in 1890 it was spelled “v-e-n-d-e-r” and for some really odd reason, the story of the fruit vendor’s suicide was exclusive to this Brooklyn newspaper. Brooklyn is nowhere near Albany but again, I digress.
The story is honestly super graphic and surprising for a Victorian-era article, but the article from the Brooklyn Citizen reads as follows:
An Unusual Suicide: A Fruit Vender Kills Himself in the State Capitol (special to the citizen)
Albany, April 17th: At about 8:45 this morning Jacob Thorne, a sidewalk fruit vender, jumped or fell down the Senate staircase, a distance of eighty-five feet, to the second floor and was instantly killed, his head being crushed to jelly. He was about 65 years of age, and had been in ill health for some time, and was supposed by many to be slightly deranged. The suicide theory is accepted, as the body lay almost in the centre of the court”
So, now we know that his name was Jacob Thorne. Why he’s never mentioned by name anywhere is beyond me. I tried to do more research into him, and I thought I came across him…a farmer named Jacob Thorne in the Albany area. At first it appeared that he was still alive after 1890 but when I saw he was listed on a census for no reason, his wife was listed as widowed, I thought it may be him. But alas, it was not. I searched for a good amount of time through numerous resources and only came across the Jacob Thorne that was not him. This leads me to believe either the records were destroyed or perhaps he was black. But I’m just glad that his name is out there now, because the dead should be remembered.
This includes the construction worker who’s spirit may or may not haunt the grounds. In all the stories it is said that a man who was plastering the ceilings in the Senate Assembly room in 1878 fell on a Saturday night and he wasn’t discovered until Monday morning, still alive. Doctor’s attempted to save his life but he died two days later. Is this story the truth?
According to the Buffalo Courier and the Poughkeepsie Eagle, on Monday, October 29, 1878, two men had fallen while working on the capital building on the same day, at different times, and were both seriously injured. So there’s one discrepancy, there were two men: Patrick Stanton and John Hunt. Stanton fell from the scaffolding while Hunt fell through a ventilation hole in the ceiling when removing its co ver. Yet another inaccuracy is that this incident occurred on a Monday and not over the weekend as the story goes. They were both immediately taken to the hospital for medical attention.
Neither of them appears to have died. Though there was a John Hunter that died the same day who was a mason. However, he’s buried in Brooklyn. It’s possible it was him, but the name isn’t an exact match. The articles title…which I must read since it is…something else does say that there was a death from injuries. The title is “Important River News: Items from our Exchanges ; Two Accidents At The Capital – Died From His Injuries – The Body of Eagan Found In The River – Fires – A Pet Dog Roasted In An Oven – Strange Disappearance Of An Aged Lady – Sad Accident in Troy”
This…is a sidebar we need to touch on. I come across so many bizarre stories when reading newspapers. The dog story…I just need to share. I shouldn’t laugh but it’s so weird!
“A lady living on Front Street, west of Swan, had a favorite little pet dog about the house up to Thursday last. On that day he mysteriously disappeared, and Sunday, when the lady had occasion to open for the first time since Thursday, the oven door of the kitchen stove, the roast remains of the per were found” WHAT. I need to know more. But that’s not why were’ here.
Curiously, the article also mentions that there was a fatality of someone by the name Riley in the Assembly room due to ventilation holes which had been covered at this point. Is this the ghost of the worker who fell? Or is this an additional death not mentioned previously. Either way, this is a mystery that I unfortunately spent over an hour trying to figure out and one that for now, will remain unsolved. If either of these men were to die it seems it would have been John Hunt as he was suffering from “intense internal pain” that they couldn’t find the cause of.
The ghost of William Morris Hunt is said to be felt in the Assembly Chamber where his prized works were covered up and then later destroyed. No one has ever seen his ghost, but instead he has been“felt” and the lights will occasionally flicker. Which could be his ghost…but it makes me think of the faulty wiring that may have ignited the blaze. The doorknobs in the room also rattle and doors slam shut and open on their own.
However, I like to think this is the ghost of Samuel Abbott, making sure doors are locked and shut as he makes his nightly rounds. The idea that Mr. Abbott is still trying to keep people safe, that this building has a guardian spirit makes me smile. And on this smile-worthy note we shall close.
There is so much history that was lost and so much history to uncover at the New York State Capitol, an hour could be dedicated to all the information I couldn’t fit in. I’m recording this episode on Tuesday night because I spent way too much time investigating some of these ghosts!
If you have any places you want me to investigate, please let me know! Tell a friend about this podcast if you think they’d like it. So please, stay away from scaffolding, say thank-you to your local librarian, and as always stay curious and stay spooky. Bye~
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Important River News: Items from our Exchanges ; Two Accidents At The Capital—Died From His Injuries—The Body of Eagan Found In The River—Fires—A Pet Dog Roasted In An Oven—Strange Disappearance Of An Aged Lady—Sad Accident in Troy. (1878, October 30). Poughkeepsie Eagle News, page 1.
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