Spooky Places in Downtown York

It’s late October, and spookiness is in the air – jack-o-lanterns, costumes, and ghost stories abound.

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Downtown York has its share of spooky locations – from stories of paranormal activities to locations that witnessed some type of “dark” episode.

So if you are ready to get your spook on, here’s a few creepy sites to whet your Halloween spirit!

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The Yorktowne Hotel stands as testament to the Roaring Twenties – the era in which it was constructed. When it opened in October 1925, the dazzling Italian Renaissance hotel had 198 guest rooms. There’s a story of an elderly gentleman who checked into the hotel in the 1940s. He was quite tall, and become a semi-permanent resident on the eighth floor, living there until he became very ill and ended up in the hospital. On his deathbed, he mentioned that he would miss all his friends at The Yorktowne.

Legend has it that after death, he returned. Over the years, guests have reported seeing a tall, human-like shadow or apparition on the eight floor, sometimes disappearing into a wall – where the door to the deceased gentleman’s room once stood.

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Better known locally as the home to the Lafayette Club for much of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, this building has its share of ghost stories. The attractive Greek Revival home was built in 1839 for businessman Philip A. Small and his family. Prior to World War II, a young man by the name of Stuart found employ at the Lafayette Club; however, his time there was limited. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Stuart enlisted in the Navy. Fortunately, he survived the war and returned to the Lafayette Club, eventually becoming manager of the club and caretaker of the building, where he lived for many years. But Stuart eventually fell ill, resigned, and passed on.

Former employees of the Lafayette Club, however, believed that Stuart returned. There many stories of propped doors inexplicably closing, of moving shadows on walls, even of a full apparition descending the stairs. There’s also been reports of noises in the kitchen – like food being prepared – when no one is even in the kitchen and the lights are off. The apparition was also spotted many times in the basement, moving from room-to-room.

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William Goodridge is one of the most important figures in York County history. Born a slave, he was eventually sent to York to apprentice as a tanner, and given his freedom. He left York for a few years, later returning and opening a barbershop. A very successful businessman, he owned as many as 20 buildings at one time. But his real legacy is that as a conductor and stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. His house on East Philadelphia Street still stands, and has been authenticated by the National Park Service as a true Underground Railroad location.

Soon to be opened as a museum, the house has experienced its share of spine-tingling moments. An employee of the city was taking measurements of the rooms and worked his way down to the basement. That’s when he heard footsteps above him. He rushed upstairs, thinking he had left the door unlocked and someone entered off the street, only to discover an empty house and locked doors. Not long after he returned to the basement, the footsteps began again. So he proceeded upstairs once more, only to find that he was alone.

The current owner of the building is Crispus Attucks, an organization working diligently to create the William C. Goodridge Freedom House and Underground Railroad Museum. A few years ago their maintenance staff fled the building in terror after hearing dragging chains and moaning coming from the basement. Other staff members have reported footsteps, and there’s a window on the second floor that likes to open all by itself!

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No, there’s no reported ghostly visions or chilling otherworldly tales from this building. However, it sits upon a plot of land once occupied by the Pennsylvania House, a hotel that stood in the late 1800s. It was here that a rather peculiar, perhaps downright terrifying, event occurred in 1872. In May of that year, P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie, Hippodrome came to town and set up in Penn Park. In addition to the Bearded Child, and the Brainless Being, Barnum promised to exhibit cannibals that he had captured in Fiji. Alas, one of the alleged cannibals was extremely ill when the circus and freak show arrived by train, and passed away while staying at the Pennsylvania House.

We’ll let the York Daily explain what happened next, directly from a headline on the front page of their May 15, 1872 edition: “Death of the Cannibal Dwarf – A Horrid Scene – Cannibalism in Our Midst.” The paper went on to describe what happened after the “savage” died – their manager locked the body in one room and the other cannibals in a separate room, then went to report the incident. But while he was gone, two male cannibals gained accessed to their former friend and, well, consumed him! And while the headlines sold a lot of papers and probably even more tickets for P.T. Barnum, the other paper in town – the True Democrat – claimed that the story was fabricated to sell tickets! For its part, the York Daily stood by its reporting and a local craftsman verified that he had built a special coffin specifically for the “cannibal dwarf.”

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Near the end of the American Revolution, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne and the Pennsylvania Line came to York, with close to 1000 soldiers encamped in Penn Park and Mad Anthony working from a building on West Market Street. There had been an attempted revolt against Anthony earlier in the year (it seems as though they preferred to receive paychecks and food), and he wanted to make sure his men understood who was really in charge.

Musician Samuel Deweese was a witness to the event that happened on Penn Commons (today known as Penn Park), and wrote about it in gruesome detail in his diary. Six soldiers were sitting in the York Jail – two for attempted desertion, one for attempted mutiny (defined as asking soldiers to help him while he was being lashed for committing a trivial offense), one for being drunk and swearing, and two for playing a game of “long bullets” – that is, hurling a six pound led ball competitively, but apparently the ball landed too close to officers.

Twenty soldiers were pulled from the Pennsylvania Line, prisoners were marched to Penn Common, and everyone got to witness four executions, each one apparently more grisly than the next. Ten soldiers were ordered to fire at each of the prisoners, standing at a distance so close that their muskets apparently ignited the blindfold that one of the victims were wearing. Deweese noted that that in one instance, the execution happened “with an awfulness that would have made even devils to have shrunk back and stood appalled.” Mad Anthony then made his men march by the corpses twice to ensure that they got the message. Interestingly the two deserters were spared, leaving those who asked for help, swore, and played an early form of bowling to take the brunt of Anthony’s fury. “Mad” certainly lived up to his nickname in York!

Penn Common would later serve as home to a major U.S. Army Hospital during the Civil War.

This stories in this week’s blog come from Historic York board member Scott Butcher’s popular book, Spooky York, Pennsylvania. Check out the book trailer here.

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