19th-century Manhattan home provides real-life Halloween frights with a faithful look back

The young man bent over his dying father in a dimly lit room, trying to hear the slightest breath. It was too late. Seabury Tredwell was gone forever, lying motionless in his bed.

For the next few days, the perfume of lilies drifted through the Manhattan town house as the wealthy merchant's body lay in a coffin in the front parlor. There was no embalming in 19th-century New York and the odor of decay had to be masked.

The scene was first played out in 1865, but was recently re-enacted at a museum that has been called New York's "most haunted house." The Merchant's House Museum preserves the 19th-century home as it was when Tredwell lived there with his wife and eight children, plus Irish immigrant girls who worked for them.

The family lived and died in the three-story house just off the Bowery in Manhattan, and some say the family remains in spirit: visitors have reported seeing the ghost of a petite woman walking through the kitchen and her bedroom believed to be daughter Gertrude, who died in 1933.

"There's a reality here that you don't get in other Halloween experiences," said Pi Gardiner, director of the Merchant's House Museum. "We're real to begin with."

The museum is just one offering in a city that stimulates the senses to the extreme but especially on Halloween.

A Brooklyn waterfront warehouse features a striking bit of experimental theater called "Hell House," based on the haunted tours given by some Evangelical churches around the country to scare people away from sin.

While an earlier Los Angeles show called "Hollywood Hell House" satirized the moralizing of the Evangelical haunted houses, the New York version avoids irony in the hopes that audiences will draw their own conclusions. The story involves a cheerleader who undergoes a painful, bloody abortion, two gay men wedding just before one dies of AIDS, and a "nerdy" girl being raped at a rave, then shooting herself in the head.

The half-hour walk by candlelight through Merchant's House offers its own take on current events at least, the current events of more than a century ago.

The events are staged in an elegant, red brick and white marble row house built in 1832 and purchased by Tredwell, a prosperous hardware merchant. Preserved virtually intact, its moldings, mahogany furniture and the clothing worn by the Tredwell daughters were once part of a fashionable neighborhood in a city that was on its way to matching the worldliness of London and Paris.

In a basement kitchen, "funeral biscuits" are prepared for a recreation of a 19th-century rite that is part of an exhibit on death and mourning. The home also includes instruments for "bloodletting" a practice meant to remove poisons from a sick human body, hopefully to ward off death.

One bedroom re-enacts a scene from Gertrude's childhood, when the girl was close to death from scarlet fever. Her mother, Eliza Tredwell, kept watch for three days and nights as she wrote to a friend, reports AP.

"In our world of instant gratification, this is history masked as entertainment," said Christine Scott, an actor who plays Eliza. "These are ghost stories with a past."

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