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Haunted Cape May

Sharon Hill

Volume 12.3, September 2002

At the terminus of the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey is the charming Victorian-themed resort town of Cape May. Once known as Cape Island City, the town of 5,000 year-round residents bustles in the summer months. Cape Island City was the premier resort for Philadelphians escaping the dreadfully hot, pestilent summers.

After the town lost its appeal in the mid-1900s, guesthouses and hotels were spectacularly restored, making Cape May a unique destination for a romantic weekend or a family vacation.

In a town with unique architecture, history, and ever-increasing tourism, themed walking tours are popular with visitors. One of the most popular is the Haunted Cape May Tour. Billed as “the only authentic walking ghost tour of Cape May,” the brochure advertises “no folklore, no fairy tales, no fantasies.” This is the eighth year of the tour, founded by paranormal investigator Al Rauber.

Rauber only guides the tours himself on occasion. In the busy summer months, you will have a pleasant guide for the half dozen stops on the ninety-minute tour. According to the bio given on the Haunted New Jersey Web site, Rauber is far too busy conducting investigations, serving as the expert consultant for the Sightings TV program (SciFi Network), and appearing as a talking head in paranormal documentaries.

Rauber also is a self-proclaimed expert on electronic voice phenomena (EVP), which he uses to conduct his research. EVP is claimed to be voices from beyond the grave captured by using a fresh, blank audio tape recorded during an investigation. The voices are not heard until the tape is analyzed, sometimes by adjusting the tape speed, enhancing the hiss, or even locating sounds on the opposite side of the tape.

Each stop on the tour is said to have been investigated by Rauber and his team. The “investigation” constitutes interviews with witnesses, EVP taping, photographs, and a hand-held meter to measure electromagnetic fluxes. However, during the tour, you are not given much information about the results of the investigations for each location, just the entertaining story of the alleged haunting.

You may be guided by one of the group members that participated in the investigation. Otherwise, the tour guide uses a scripted talk-she makes it clear that she doesn't know the details of the investigation and, unfortunately, may not be able to answer particular questions. She also begins the tour by stating these stories are entertaining, but never does she state they are absolutely accurate. In fact, during a tour, the guide prefaced the stories with “from what we are told... ” or “witnesses say...”

On a lovely night in July, our 7 p.m. tour consisted of a group of about twenty people. (The 9 p.m. tour is more popular due to the extra ambience created by darkness.) After the introduction, the first stop was the Hotel Macomber (also the location of the tour’s ticket office and gift shop). The weathered, wood-shingled Hotel Macomber was restored in the early 1900s. Restoration apparently triggered specters to reveal their presence-a ghostly waitress in the kitchen and a long-time patron who haunts room number 10.

Remodeling of old buildings serves as the catalyst for many of the hauntings described along this tour, we are told. The guide posed the hypothesis that psychic energy released by an individual from an emotional event can be recorded in the location (on rusty nails or other construction materials, for example) and these are later released upon disturbance to be replayed. Of course, no evidence whatsoever exists for this explanation.

Later, the group stops in a side alley of the crowded downtown street mall. The guide describes the charming purple-painted store as being haunted by the ghosts of two unconventional sisters and a dentist in a white coat apparently still tending to patients long after death. The store is now split into two shops. The owners of one half do not like talk of ghosts associated with their business, but the owners and employees of the Winterwood Christmas store served as witnesses for Rauber and sell the three volumes of local ghost tales (one of which includes their own story) in the store.

Since the tour guide does not take you into the buildings, I visited the Winterwood store later. As I expected, there were no apparitions. Yet, the wood flooring, walls and low ceiling together with holiday decorations on every inch of wall space gave me a hint of claustrophobia. Of course, there is also the sense of anticipation if you've already heard the story. Plus the sound effects from the Halloween decoration exhibit set the mood.

The group next stopped along Jackson Street, arguably the most beautiful street in town. Pedestrians would briefly slow their pace to listen in on the stories about several houses along the block. Not all the owners have agreed to promote their guesthouses via haunting tales, however. Therefore, some ghostly locales were generalized-permission had not been granted to Rauber’s endeavor. In addition, not all the passers-by were interested in what the guide had to tell-it’s not uncommon to get giggles or snide comments aimed at the group or guide.

At the last stop, the tavern/restaurant at the corner of Beach and Decatur currently known as Cabanas bar, the melancholy tale of a child’s accidental death and her mother’s despair and ultimate suicide. This was capped off by a sample of the EVP taken during the investigation. In the brief excerpt you could hear a man and then a woman’s voice give a comment. The woman possibly says “She’s pretty” which was taken to perhaps be a reference to the female investigator with Rauber at the time. If you were not told what the voices supposedly said, it would take many listenings to decipher the low, garbled, ambiguous tones.

Curiously, the night before, I visited the second floor bar at Cabana’s, unaware that it was on the tour route. The two young bartenders were answering a patron who asked if the story given on the tour was true. Had they had paranormal experiences in the house? The pair squabbled a bit about what the true story was. One said she had heard the story of the little girl who ran into the street and, tragically, was struck by a carriage-nearly exactly the story as the guide described. But, she noted, the mother had hung herself in the uppermost room, not near the stairwell as Rauber’s tour guide indicated. The other told of going into the upper storage rooms and getting a "weird feeling” but having no unexplainable episodes. She also told of a supposedly haunted mirror somewhere in the place in which a ghostly person appears in the background if you look into it. She also said she stopped to listen in on the guide one night and commented on how much the occurrences in the building were embellished. Neither could confirm any other spooky incidents at Cabanas but they had heard about them from others.

Along the tour, there had been hints that Rauber and his investigators had experienced strange incidents themselves at haunted sites. I assumed that his findings had been documented somewhere. In the tour gift shop, copies of Haunting Notes, a quarterly newsletter for the tour, were available for free. These one-page flyers have a feature article, the tour schedule, advertisements for the tour and comments from participants. No author is credited for the main article but Rauber is featured in each-quoted about past investigations and various paranormal phenomena.

I searched listings of new and used books authored by Rauber only to come up empty. Rauber has evidently not published his work. The Haunted New Jersey Web site cites only two articles-in New Jersey Living and The InPSIder Magazine (currently ceased publication) but lists numerous publications that contained articles about Rauber or his popular attraction.

The Cape May Public Library had two books of local ghost stories, volume 1 and 2 of Seibold and Adams’ Cape May Ghost Stories (published in 1988 and 1997, respectively). Reading of these small paperbacks, found in various local stores, are amusing pastimes for your beach vacation. But they contain no references for the historical claims within consisting of eyewitness accounts or homeowners hearsay about strange doings in the Victorian mansions, or at local beaches and ponds. The third volume of this series was recently published, attesting to their popularity.

Throughout my survey of Cape May’s spirited legends, a number of common threads ran through the yarns. First, the witnesses and the investigators tended to assume pieces of history to fit their observations. The apparition of the waitress at the Hotel Macomber was described in odd clothing so she must have worked here in the early Victorian heyday of the hotel. The sound of a crying woman at Cabanas must mean she was guilt-ridden, weeping for her lost child. The presence of a chair returning to the same spot at the top of the stairs was her futile attempt even after death to prevent the child from leaving the house to meet her demise. In no case was there documentation presented that these events actually happened. Wouldn't local newspapers likely have reported such a horrific incident as a child’s death on a busy street?

The resident ghosts were not described as violent or threatening. Instead, they were frequently named by the homeowners and referred to in a lighthearted manner. “Oh, have you met Esmerelda, the ghost of a nanny who once lived here?” Qualities bestowed on Esmerelda were passed on in the stories to visitors and guests.

Not every homeowner was keen to discuss their experiences with the team of paranormal investigators. There exists a curious contradiction between the popularity of ghost tours and those people who consider the whole idea ridiculous or something to be left unspoken.

As Charles Adams notes at the beginning and end of his second volume of Cape May Ghost Stories, Cape May looks haunted. The stories of the paranormal blend with the colorful history of the town and give certain locations even more character. Mostly, the effect is positive.

It certainly is positive for Al Rauber, who takes in $10 each from 75 to 100 or more patrons on a summer night. Locals are encouraged to relate new encounters to him and have their establishment added as a tour feature. Rauber also advertises his audio tapes at $10 each- you can own genuine ghostly voices captured by EVP and listen to his commentary. Or, how about just buying a shirt at the gift shop?

There are other fright-themed attractions at Cape May. The rival walking ghost tour does not carry the clout of association with a self-proclaimed "world-renowned paranormal investigator,” therefore it’s not as popular. And then there is the Haunted Mansion tour which makes no bones about being a production rather than a scientific investigation.

While the history presented on this Haunted Cape May tour is interesting, ninety minutes of pure storytelling may not be worth the price of a ticket to everyone. I’d have to disagree with the claims for “no folklore” because most of it obviously is just that. The theme of the tour is summed up with a rehearsed final comment by the guide: “To those of you who believe, no further proof is needed. Those of you who don’t believe, no amount of proof will be enough.”

I undoubtedly did not expect to be a believer but I left with “not enough.” I had hoped there might be more to chew on than campfire tales. Hence, I was highly amused when my digital photos taken at a turn-of-the-century guesthouse on Beach Avenue revealed perfect orbs (hypothesized manifestations of ghostly energy; more likely flash reflection from a normal airborne substance). With this suitable “evidence,” perhaps Mr. Rauber would like to add a new location to the tour.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.