ALBANY -- If you felt a cold draft rush over your skin while walking the storied halls of New York State’s Capitol building, chances are it was not from cracks in the walls or an opened window.
From the frightening faces carved in mouldings to grotesque statues lining the building’s facade, the Capitol is wrought with haunting images. And maybe even ghosts?
Politicos and building staff recount flickering lights and jingling keys believed to be caused by the ghost of Samuel Abbott, the only person to have died in the 1911 fire that claimed much of the Capitol. Visitors to the building have their own chance to experience Abbott’s ghost -- and other haunted occurrences -- during the Office of General Services’ Capitol haunting tours, which began October 2. The hour-long tours run Monday through Friday at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday tours begin at noon.
“We’ve expanded the tour offerings this year to include every Saturday in October,” says Joe Brill, assistant director of public information for the state’s Office of General Services. The haunted tours began in 2003, with Abbott as a focal point. “We don’t go through the entire building, just the ‘haunted’ parts,” says Brill. This includes the fourth floor location where Abbott, a Union soldier in the Civil War with a 50 year tenure as a civil servant for New York State, died while guarding the 500,000 books and 300,000 manuscripts in the library during the 1911 blaze. In July, Governor Andrew Cuomo approved the placement of a commemorative plaque that honors the building’s protector-ghost within the Capitol.
The official cause of the inferno is faulty electrical wiring, but others believe the “secret demon” that is found in the carvings on the Million Dollar Staircase is the true culprit. The staircase -- a feat of American stonework that took 14 years to complete -- features carved busts of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Susan B. Anthony alongside the likenesses of family and acquaintances of the stone workers. In a hidden corner, however, the face of a devil is found, purportedly placed there by disgruntled workers to hex the building.
Brill says tour attendees will hear the stories of the secret demon, Abbott, and two U.S. presidents who visited the Capitol after they died. The “lost” murals of the Assembly Chambers will also be revealed with background on the “tormented artist who created them,” he says. “Our tour guides have a great deal of knowledge about the Capitol, which allows them to weave the legends, folklore and ghost stories with many interesting facts about the building’s actual history.”
The haunted folklore extends past the Capitol’s interior, filling the streets of Albany with ghoulish wonder. The Original Albany Ghost Tour, led by Maeve McEneny Johnson and Paul Nooney, regales the haunted legacies left behind by colonial settlers in the Halloweentime tours. The group’s Historic Haunted Pub Crawl starts at Ten Broek Mansion and makes stops at watering holes with rich history, like Olde English Pub on Broadway, located in the Quackenbush house which dates to 1736 and abuts both the stockade line that demarcated Albany’s limits and the first distillery in Albany. McEneny Johnson says that, “it’s our age,” that makes Albany rife with hauntings, (Henry Hudson first came into Albany in 1609) and adds, “you have to imagine we are standing on the ruins of the old city. We are literally walking on history. No one likes a ghost story from 1999.” Historic Haunted Pub Crawls run on October 17, 19, and 25 and are currently waiting-list only. Sign-up at www.historic-albany.org.
As many at 45 people can register for the weekday tours, while Saturday tours are capped at 25. (To wit, Friday evening and Saturday tours are sold-out.) Pre-registration is required at www.ogs.ny.gov or by calling (518) 474-2418, and all tours are free of charge. There are no tours on Monday, October 9. Weekday tours begin at the information desk on the State Street lobby of the Capitol; Saturday tours commence at the Empire State Plaza Visitor Center in the north concourse.
Deanna Fox is a freelance journalist. @DeannaNFox