Around the Island

Tracking the ghosts of Sylvester Manor

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO | A figure glimpsed in the late afternoon near Gardiner’s Creek from the Manor House.

She had just started working at Sylvester Manor as a housekeeper, now almost 40 years ago, when Rose Wissemann came in touch with something one afternoon that still haunts her.

Known as “Miss Rose,” or, according to Maura Doyle, historic preservation coordinator for Sylvester Manor, “the soul of this house,” Rose is still at the Manor.

She recently recalled that unforgettable afternoon, when she had been doing some work in one of the smaller houses on the Manor grounds. As suddenly as a shadow shifts across a floor, an unsettling feeling stole over her. It was a sense that even though she was alone in the place, something — someone? — was with her. She stood still in the room. More than one presence, in some kind of terrible distress, was very near.

Being practical and levelheaded, Rose went about her work and kept the eerie experience to herself.

But a few days later she was passing the time of day with Eben Case, the master carpenter, who was repairing the staircase in the main house. Rose was saying what a happy house the Manor was and then began to tell Eben about her few disconcerting moments in the other building.

As she spoke, she was struck by Eben’s lack of surprise. He just nodded his head and waited until she was finished before speaking. Rose was not the first to encounter something otherworldly in that particular building. Eben, whose roots on Shelter Island go back to the 18th century, put down his tools and told Rose a tale of terror, flight and the finding of a safe harbor from torment.

It had long been known, he said, that Quakers who had been driven out of New England by Puritan elders after being beaten, tortured and dispossessed of everything for their beliefs, were given shelter by the Sylvester family in the other house.

Eben asked Rose how anyone would be surprised if their tormented souls lingered in a place where they had found sanctuary.

The ancient Celts believed during harvest revelries in late October there came one night where only the thinnest of veils separated the world of the living and the dead. Whether one believes this or not, there’s no doubt that everyone loves ghost stories. The story of Miss Rose and the Quaker souls is just one that has been collected by the staff at Sylvester Manor, Ms. Doyle said, and was among the tales told during a tour of the Manor last Saturday.

“Sylvester Manor doesn’t validate paranormal activity at the Manor,” Ms. Doyle said. “These stories are to be enjoyed and shared with visitors who may decide for themselves.”

Visitors can look into a mahogany and gilt mirror from the 1750s and if the light is right — try it on a late fall or winter afternoon as darkness finds the corners of the room — a woman in a long white dress will appear in the reflected background. Is this Mary Burroughs Sylvester, another exile, who suffered from mental illness and spent years in treatment, far from the Manor?

Or on certain moonlit nights a man rows a boat, slipping silently across Gardiner’s Creek, and more than one person has sworn the man at the oars is headless, a ship’s captain and murderer, doomed forever to row for his sin.

Our celebrations today and tonight on Shelter Island take many forms beside spooky storytelling.

Happy Halloween!