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Visit the Morris-Jumel Mansion

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The oldest house in Manhattan is now a museum that remembers the home's sordid history of scandal, ghosts, and vice-presidents.

It was originally built in 1765 as the home of British officer Roger Morris. When Morris fled the Revolutionary War for his home in England the house was confiscated along with other loyalist properties by the Commissioners of Forfeiture. Following his defeat at the battle of Brooklyn in 1776, George Washington took refuge at this, the highest point in Manhattan, setting up his headquarters here.

The house itself is a glorious example of preserved Palladian architecture. The immaculate white framework is at once prominently on display atop Coogan’s Bluff, but at the same time, it is hardly visited, resting fairly anonymously in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.

After serving time as popular tavern on the old Albany Post Road, it was purchased by wealthy French merchant Stephen Jumel in 1810. It’s at this point in the venerable house’s history that tales of the macabre begin. Jumel brought with him his mistress, then wife, Eliza Bowen Jumel. He remodeled the house in the popular Federal style of the time, adding a columned porch, and redecorating the interiors. At one point they were amongst the wealthiest families in Manhattan. They planted vineyards of Bordeaux grapes which still today run wild in neighboring Highridge Park. When they traveled to Paris, they were acquaintances of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte.

But in New York, they were shunned by high society. Eliza came from a working class Catholic family in Rhode Island, and cruel rumors claimed that she had worked as a child prostitute in her mother’s brothel. When Stephen Jumel died in 1832, the exact causes were unknown. Some reports had him dying from pneumonia, or from injuries sustained in a carriage accident. Others had him passing away from falling on a pitchfork. The gossip of the ladies’ parlors in Manhattan claimed that Eliza had opened his dressings from the pitchfork incident, and watched him bleed to death. A local medium claimed that Mme Eliza had buried her husband alive.

However the unfortunate Stephen passed away, what is certain is that months later she took a new suitor; the highly controversial, one-time vice president of the United States and assassin of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr. Despite Burr’s age (he was 77), they soon married in the front parlor of the mansion. The marriage however was short lived, and Burr died three years later on the exact day the divorce was granted. Mme Jumel took to calling herself the “widow of the ex-vice president of the United States.” Now a fabulously wealthy widow, Eliza lived on in the giant house as a recluse, gradually falling into dementia. She was said to have walked the hallways and chambers of her mansion, her hair unkempt and her clothes soiled, haunted by the tortured souls of her past lovers. She died alone in the house in 1865 at the age of 90.

The city of New York eventually purchased the mansion in 1904, and it was added to the Register of Historic Places. Today it is run as a free open house museum for the public, an unusual old stately home secluded away in the hills of Washington Heights. Believers in the paranormal claim to have seen at least five ghosts inside, a serving girl, a British soldier from the Revolutionary War, the doomed Stephen Jumel, the troubled figure of Aaron Burr, but most prominently, the figure of an elderly woman in a violet dress, the troubled old mistress of the house, Eliza Bowen Jumel.