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5 Spooky Tenement Museum Secrets

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The Tenement Museum is a lot of things. It’s educational, it’s entertaining – but did you know it’s a little bit spooky 

Like many older buildings in New York City with a history as long as ours, it’s only natural for there to be a few secrets hiding beneath our 150-year-old staircase. From mysterious objects to spiritual residents – check out some of our spookiest facts this Halloween! 


Contacting Spirits in 97 Orchard Street  

There have been some truly remarkable discoveries made in our historic tenement buildings. But by far the creepiest object we’ve found is this Ouija board from 1919. It was found beneath the floorboards in a second-floor apartment in the early 1990s. Other than that, we know nothing of its origins or its original owner. 

Ouija boards, or “talking boards” as they were advertised, were first commercially sold in in the 1890s as a means to talk with ghosts and spirits. Although they’re now seen as a sleepover game or a plot device for a horror movie, Ouija boards were born from the Spiritualism movement of the 19th century. Spiritualism, or the idea that the living can communicate with the dead, was already practiced in other parts of the world, became very popular among Americans in the mid-1800s. in 1848, the Fox sisters in upstate New York became overnight celebrities as news spread that they could receive messages from the deceased. In the decades that followed, people found great comfort in the idea of communicating with the dead: women commonly died in childbirth and children died from disease. Men left to fight in the Civil War and never came home again. 

Spiritualism and all that it entails – seances, mediums, and Ouija boards – was popularized in American culture around the same time many immigrants were coming to this country, bringing with them their families, food, and religious beliefs and superstitions. It’s no wonder we found this Ouija board in 97 Orchard. We can only wonder now what spirits – if any – were ever contacted with it.  

 


Have a Seat on a Ghost Chair

Speaking of spirits – officially, there’s no record of our tenement buildings being haunted. But while we don’t have any ghosts, we do have something just as unusual: the “Ghost Chairs”. 

97 Orchard Street was officially closed as a residence in 1935. The interior remained untouched by anyone other than a custodian and the shop owners on the first floor until it was rediscovered in 1988 by our museum founders. We have evidence that the shop owners occasionally used the first two floors as storage for their goods, but all the floors above were left alone, growing more and more unstable and unsafe as the years went on. We have no idea what was happening on floors three through five for over fifty years. Yet when we started renovations, we found dozens of chairs left behind in the building by former residents, likely some of the last ones to live here. These archival photos of the ghost chairs are a spooky glimpse at the decades this tenement stood empty, like the building was just waiting for new residents to come back home and take a seat. 


Crime Scene Photos as Inspiration

One of the more morbid facts about the Museum is how we were referenced historic crime scene photos to recreate some spaces in our building  

In 1992, Luc Sante published a book entitled Evidence: NYPD Crime Scene Photographs 1914-1918, after a discovery he made at the New York Municipal Archives. Almost 1,400 plates of forensic photography from those years had been left forgotten under a staircase, without any caption or detail. Many of the photos are incredibly gruesome, showing violent crimes and death in the streets and homes of New York City.   

In the early 1900s, photography was not accessible to everyday people. Most of the photos from this time were purposeful interior portraits which showed how “the other half” lived – both the rich and famous or those living in extreme poverty. But no one was taking the time to photograph the homes of the people in between – working class New Yorkers and tenement families. Unless, of course, a crime happened in one of those homes.  

The Museum saw the implicit value in these crime scene photos. They serve as unedited and authentic windows into the past. Though none of the Museum tours walk visitors through an actual crime scene, the everyday details inside each photograph provide a priceless glimpse into the lives of people in the early 20th century.

The time period of these photos aligns with when the Rogarshevsky family lived at 97 Orchard Street, and were used by our curators and exhibit designers when recreating the family’s apartment. “What’s useful about these photos,” said Tenement Museum Senior Director of Curatorial Affairs, Dave Favaloro, “is that, unlike similar images captured by reformers like Jacob Riis, the crime scene photographers did not have an agenda in trying to depict a certain set of conditions; the worst of the worst, to galvanize public support for house reform and that the crime scene photos are, in a morbid way, much more spontaneous than similar photos taken by reformers.”  The décor, the furniture, the knick-knacks – all details left untouched by the police — are a much more realistic depiction of tenement interiors in this time, and helped us bring authenticity to the recreated Rogarshevsky apartment.  


Our Doll (Parts) Collection 

Many Museums have collections within their collections. Among our unique objects, we have collections of sewing materials, photos, tiny bottles of perfume, and animal bones. We also have more than a few dolls – or rather, what’s left of them. 

97 Orchard Street was a residence for about 70 years. The building saw a lot of children running through its halls, and dolls were a beloved and low-cost toy for any child, able to spark the imagination and teach about caregiving. However, children do grow up, and sometimes these dolls get lost or left behind.  

Once, they were (probably) sweet-looking dolls. But the dolls and doll parts we found in 1993, under the floors in a second-floor apartment of 97 Orchard, are anything but. The dolls are likely from the turn of the 20th century, and while we don’t know their original owners, we can guess that if these parts looked like they do now back then, it’s no wonder why they got left behind.  


The Home of Palmistry and Clairvoyants 

In the early 1900s, the Lower East Side was considered the largest Jewish neighborhood in the world, densely populated with immigrants and their children. It was extremely common for people to run a business from their home, and we feature home businesses like saloons, dressmakers, garment shops, and butchers on our tours of 97 Orchard Street. But while families like the Levines were running a garment shop from their apartment, one of their neighbors was working from her home as a clairvoyant.

During early restoration of our tenement, we found dozens of handbills for Professor Dora Meltzer, “an unexcelled Palmist” and psychic who had recently arrived from Europe. For 15 cents she could tell you “the past, present and future” and guess “the name and age of every person.” Dora was hardly singular in her profession. In the early 20th century, hundreds of Lower East Side women made a living through their skills as palmists and clairvoyants, making up half of the providers of such services in the city, making up half of the city’s population of clairvoyants.  

If you’d like to learn more about Jewish psychics like Dora in the early 20th century, and the mostly immigrant women who sought their services, watch our Virtual Tenement Talk, Clairvoyant Housewives of the Lower East Side! 


Written by Gemma Solomons, Tenement Museum Marketing Manager