Restless Spirits: Cape May’s most haunted bars
The traffic signals were winking continuously yellow on a beautiful autumn day last October, as Cape May resident Brady Schoenrock drove down Beach Avenue. “They were blinking in perfect sync,” he recalls. “No traffic at all, just these empty streets.”
What a great picture this would make, he thought, and popped his iPhone onto the dashboard. “I took 20 or so photos, figuring I might catch one or two with the yellow lights all in unison.”
When he perused his photos later that night, he did, indeed, have some cool shots of the synchronized lights. But there was something else in there: At the intersection of Beach and Decatur, right in front of Cabanas, a dark, blurry mass appeared in the middle of the street. “I thought, ‘that’s really strange,’ because it wasn’t there in previous photos, but then all of a sudden it’s there.”
He showed it to a friend who suggested the blur could be an orb, a phenomenon recognized by the paranormal community as a form of spiritual energy. “I’m not a person who’s into the whole ghost story thing,” Schoenrock maintains. “I thought something had gotten on the lens of the camera or something, but the orb moves from left to right throughout the series of pictures. That’s when I did some research and heard the story about Cabanas.”
It’s nearly impossible to refute the claim that Cape May is haunted. Psychic medium Craig McManus has published three books on the topic, with another one on the way, and his books represent only a fraction of what has been written on the subject. Ghost tours run year round, shuttling visitors from one haunted location to another. The team from SyFy’s Ghost Hunters has paid a visit, as well as a host of psychics and paranormal investigators, all of whom work to expose the unearthly undercurrent that hums just beneath the surface of this serene beach town.
So what—or who—is the haunting presence in Schoenrock’s photos? Why is it here, at Cabanas? And what spirits might be lurking at other bars?
A heartbroken ghost still waits for her love to return
Content warning: This story contains a reference to suicide.
“One night, working in the office by myself, I felt a breeze, and looked over my shoulder. I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned, there was nothing there,” says Payton Bowman, director of operations for Cabanas since 1999. While he hasn’t actually seen anything, he notes that plenty of other staff members have.
“It’s mostly when staff are getting supplies,” he explains. “They would just run back down to the first floor after seeing something.”
He describes how one of those employees was heading upstairs to the third floor when he heard rustling noises, and a door opening and shutting. “The stairs were dark at the top, but a light was coming down. The employee pulled out a cell phone and snapped a series of pictures, including a pretty clear one of a woman dressed in vintage clothes, like something from the 1800s.”
Bowman goes on to tell the story of a woman named Julia who lived on the third floor of the building along with her child, who was born out of wedlock to a seaman. Cast from society due to her then-scandalous situation, Julia would spend her days in the widow’s watch on the top floor, scanning the horizon for a glimpse of a boat that might be bringing her love back to her, allowing her to reclaim her status in the community.
One day, after Julia saw a boat coming in, her child went running across the street, only to be struck and killed by a carriage. Consumed by grief, Julia hanged herself in the widow’s watch. According to legend, her spirit still lingers in the upper third floor corner, where her room was located.
A number of different psychics confirm some sort of presence in the building. “One of the psychics pulled up a lot of things that no one would know except us,” says Bowman. “For example, he mentioned a hatch that’s under the vestibule of the building, where kegs of beer would be dropped off for the seamen back in the day. No one would know that.”
The same psychic described how Julia would come downstairs and try to flicker the lights. “At the time, there was a mermaid figure on our porch,” Bowman relates. “He told us that Julia would spin the mermaid and flicker the lights at the top of the stairs because she was worried about the safety of the drinking customers. She did those things to alert them, so they wouldn’t fall down the stairs.”
A paranormal research team paid a visit as well. “They spent three nights here and they did pick up a good amount of activity with their ghost buster equipment, although no photos or moving footage.” Bowman says he’s heard about a photograph that supposedly exists somewhere in Cape May of a mirror with the silhouette of Julia’s ghost in the reflection.
It’s not the only photo of a ghost in the town.
Note: Cape May Magazine did not attempt to verify claims made in this tale. Other versions of the haunting at 429 Beach Avenue, such as the one detailed in Charles Adams III’s Cape May Ghost Stories Book Two (1997), give the ghost’s name as Gloria. The photograph, included in that book on p. 19, depicts what could be interpreted as an infant.
A young girl’s ghost makes her presence known.
Washington Inn manager Patty Garcia pulls a tattered printout from a folder on the front desk. In the photo, smiling young girls lean into frame around a long table in the enclosed front porch. Reflecting on the glass door behind them is the image of another young girl peering out. “No one knows the identity of that girl and she was not at the tea party,” Garcia states. “The woman who took the picture swears no one was at that door when she took the photo. The ghost showed up when she developed the film.”
The ghost has a long history with the Washington Inn. Named “Elizabeth” by the staff, Garcia notes, “Our ghost tends to be active around children, and we used to have a teatime event with kids, which is when that picture was taken.”
A fixture at the Washington Inn for almost 12 years, Garcia has experienced her fair share of spooky activity. One evening shortly after she started bussing tables in high school, she was clearing the wine cellar space while her coworker Tina waited on a large party seated at the table. Garcia ran upstairs with a pan of dishes, calling over her shoulder that she’d be back to finish clearing the table. “When I got back, Tina was white as a ghost,” she remembers. “She said to me, ‘Please say you were down here calling my name a minute ago.’ Of course I wasn’t, though—I was upstairs. But Tina swore she heard someone just over her shoulder saying her name, and even felt someone brush by her.”
The original house was built in 1845, and purchased by the current owners, Toby and Rona Craig, in 1979. There have been a number of changes to the building over the years. In a story about the Washington Inn from their 1988 book Cape May Ghost Stories, David Seibold and Charles Adams suggest that, “The many alterations, additions, renovations and permanent furniture placements could all contribute to the possibility of supernatural activity in the inn. Indeed, some researchers into the paranormal believe that pieces of furniture can hold within them energy that could be released, or read, from time to time.”
Garcia agrees. “Elizabeth becomes very active during remodeling, which we’ve done recently.” Two and a half weeks ago, a member of the kitchen prep staff was working early in the morning and heard a young girl’s voice summon her by name. “Up until that point, she wasn’t aware we had some type of spirit in house,” Garcia says. “Another server has had silverware moved off the table. And Melissa, one of the cleaners, is often alone early in the morning and late in the evening. She’s seen Elizabeth sitting along the staircase.”
Elizabeth may not be the only ghost at the Washington Inn. A few years ago, a paranormal research team from Penn State came out for an investigation. “One of the researchers had a device that looked like a TV remote, that said either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ When she asked if there were someone in our presence, it clearly said ‘yes.’ But when we asked if her name was Elizabeth, it said ‘no,’” recalls Garcia. “What really stood out to me, though, was when we asked if they liked being here, and they said ‘no.’ That made me a little sad. So I do believe that there is at least one more spirit here.”
A mysterious voice calls out to staff members.
Lucky Bones is another establishment that boasts more than one supernatural inhabitant. “I think there’s more than one ghost,” muses General Manager Deanna Fiocca. “There’s definitely a different feeling upstairs than downstairs. Not malevolent in any way. I never feel scared. They’re here and they hang out. Lucky Bones is kind of like Cheers for ghosts.”
This is the tenth summer for Lucky Bones, and since the beginning, ghosts have made their presence known. “From the time we moved in, staff members have been hearing their names called.” Usually a woman’s voice, Fiocca adds that most incidents occur near the pizza oven. “You could be busy, busy, busy and you wouldn’t hear anything, but you’ll hear the woman’s voice. It happens most when we’re super busy downstairs, any time of year, when we have lots of staff on. It’s like the ghosts are here partying too!”
Upstairs is a different story, and Fiocca regularly spends time alone there. At the top of the steps and around to the left is a long hallway used for storage. The office is directly over the front walkway to the building. “I’ll be sitting at the computer and hear footsteps, thinking maybe it’s Dave [David Craig, the owner] coming to help me. Then I’ll turn around and nobody is there. It actually happens almost every single time I’m up there. Also, there is a door at the top of the steps, and it has a very distinct sound when it’s opened. I’ll hear the door open, but then no footsteps after that.”
There are more than just sounds. “Say you’re upstairs and you have to go back down. It will feel like someone is brushing against you going down the steps.”
Like the Washington Inn ghosts, change seems to be a trigger for increased activity at Lucky Bones as well. “Whenever we do things to the building—lay new carpet upstairs, or put a new cabinet in downstairs, if we rearrange something–then we get a lot more activity,” Fiocca reflects. “The computer system will crash for no reason. It won’t cripple you, but you’ll get a feeling that someone is letting you know they don’t approve.”
Spirit activity abounds in this renovated summer retreat.
I’ve grown hyper aware of an almost palpable spooky energy that exudes from the downtown by the time my research lands me at Elaine’s Dinner Theater. With its white clapboard structure and wraparound porch, it’s easy to imagine ghosts here, flitting through the dimly lit bar, or rustling the silk skirt of the bodiless Victorian wedding gown perched just inside the building’s entrance.
In addition to writing murder mysteries and acting in the shows, Paul Ennis has been a breakfast waiter at Elaine’s for the past four years. “I’m the one who hears everything the next day,” he smiles. He relates a story about an early morning encounter. “Our waitress Meredith had a blond ponytail. Dan, our chef, was parking his motorcycle one morning, and he looked up and saw a blond-haired girl looking out, and then later pass by the window. He didn’t think anything of it, because Meredith has that kind of hair. When Meredith walked in through the door hours later, she asked him if he was going to say hello. He said ‘I already did.’ Here, he had been in the kitchen with this ghost the whole morning, until Meredith finally showed up. I never saw a man turn as white as a ghost like that.”
A central character in the hauntings at Elaine’s is Emily Reed, the consumption-plagued young daughter of the original owners. So that the whole family could spend summers down the shore together, the Reeds built a number of special features into the house, including an enclosed sun porch on the second floor so Emily could enjoy the view without having to breathe the dust that blew in from the dirt road, and the first Otis elevator installed in a residence in New Jersey.
“Downstairs where we dress is a spooky place,” Ennis shares. Once while he was down there by himself, he heard a girl’s voice greet him, but when he turned around, no one was there. “I let it go. Then I heard ‘hi’ again. When I turned, again no one was around, but then I saw a door with the Otis elevator logo on it. It was like whoever was there wanted to show off her elevator, the door of which had been removed years ago. Emily wanted me to see her elevator.”
Although Emily manifests her presence quite often, she doesn’t show up…well, in person. “She only appears as an orb,” Ennis says. A large painting hangs on the wall inside the bar, a popular place for customers to snap a photo. “There will be two people posing in front of the painting, and then this orb turns up in the picture.”
Manager Patrick Wall points out that while mischievous, there have never any negative incidents. “Last year, one of the guests called me over,” he recounts. “His suitcase caddy had fallen over while he was down at breakfast, launching forward a few feet, so everything was on the floor. He was staying in room four, which was the location of Emily’s room.”
Like the Washington Inn and Lucky Bones, Wall echoes the theme that renovation seems to spur latent spirits to action. “When we first polyurethaned the floors, there were cat prints all across them.” He pauses. “We don’t have a cat.” According to psychic Laurie Hull, though, a cat named Streak was a beloved companion of Emily’s.
Hull provides her services during the “Ghost Hunter Weekends” at Elaine’s, where guests enjoy a show in the theater, a walking ghost tour, and a Saturday evening ghost hunting session with Hull. Not surprisingly, strange occurrences abound. Ennis relates one of many stories about “Johnny, the Man in Black,” who generally haunts the bar. “They have him cursing in the EVP*,” he says. “We had a group of 12 here in the bar. Our servers were dressed all in black, and that night, 12 people saw three different servers. Which is strange, given that there were only two servers here. That third one was Johnny.”
Julia, the heartbroken spirit at Cabanas. Elizabeth, the ethereal young presence at the Washington Inn. Voices from nowhere at Lucky Bones. Mischievous Emily Reed at Elaine’s Dinner Theater, making sure you don’t forget about her. Regardless of your stance on the supernatural, everyone interviewed for this article agrees that any otherworldly entities that grace the grounds of these establishments are benevolent. And late-night cocktails need not be a frightening prospect. Those flickering lights? That’s just Julia watching out for you.
Note from 2023: Cabanas is now Taco Caballito