Rowan prof's book focuses on Jersey Shore ghost stories


To really understand a place, Charles Stansfield says, you have to know its history. And its ghost stories.

"Ghost stories are part of the story, the heritage, the charm of an area," says Stansfiel

To really understand a place, Charles Stansfield says, you have to know its history. And its ghost stories.

"Ghost stories are part of the story, the heritage, the charm of an area," says Stansfield, a cultural, economic and historical geographer now in his 40th year as a Rowan University professor.

"As a geographer, I've come to realize that ghost stories have a geography. They relate to specific places and reflect a region's physical, economic and cultural geography."

No where is that more evident than at the Jersey Shore, says Stansfield, author of the new book, Haunted Jersey Shore: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Garden State Coast (2006, Stackpole Books).

From Sandy Hook on the North Shore to Cape May on the South Shore, Haunted Jersey Shore outlines some of the area's most famous?and even infamous?ghosts...and ghost stories. Because of the rich history of the area, which has had its fair share of shipwrecks, murders and tragedies, the Shore is rife with rich and engaging stories, says Stansfield, a Pitman resident.

"In so many instances, ghosts seem to be almost magnetically drawn to the shores and banks of water features," says Stansfield, whose book intersperses carefully researched historical facts with folklore and touches of humor.

"It's not at all surprising that ghost stories from the 127-mile-long string of beaches at the Jersey Shore often involve shipwrecks, pirates, lighthouses and sailors."

Ever the geographer, Stansfield has categorized the ghost stories into geographic areas including the North Shore, Central Shore, Central Shore, The Pinelands, Northern Tidewater and the Delaware Bay and River.

His favorite Shore ghost is Captain Huddy, a Revolutionary War captain and native of Monmouth County, who was hanged from the cliffs over Sandy Hook Bay by the British.

"The ghost story is he's still on duty," says Stansfield, who is also the author of Haunted New Jersey. "He's still on patrol, looking for the British to come back. He appears at dusk and comes up to people. But if he hears American accents, he disappears.

"Up to a point, these stories are historical facts."

One of the Shore's most famous ghosts is the Woman in White, who is known to wander the beach at Long Beach Island in her white wedding dress. In some stories, she's looking for her sailor lover, whose body she found when she was looting corpses that washed up on the beach after a shipwreck. In other stories, she's digging his grave on the beach.

"The Woman in White may be the single most often repeated ghost saga set along New Jersey's seashore," Stansfield says, noting that ghost stories that are most often repeated have universal themes and moral truths that are passed on through generations. "In this story, the moral is that the evil that you do can come back to you like a boomerang."

While the Woman in White is famous in ghostly circles, some of the Shore's ghost stories actually involve people who were famous when they were alive.

In Toms River, William Still, the father of the Underground Railroad, has been "seen" moving quietly along back roads toward ships that transported escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, while Molly Pitcher, who brought water to troops during the Revolutionary War, has been known to appear on Monmouth Battlefield State Park, offering water to visitors near the well, Stansfield says.

Additionally, the ghost of President James A. Garfield, who died in Long Branch of an infection after he was wounded by an assassin's bullet, is said to stroll along Ocean Avenue, where he found peace and solitude during his presidency, Stansfield says.

Shore ghost stories include many that can be traced to the military and seem to appear more during wartime, including: Captain Huddy at Sandy Hook; John Honeyman, a spy for George Washington, on the Navesink Highlands; and Philip Frenau, the poet of the Revolutionary War, who is said to patrol the coast observing shipping on Raritan Bay in Matawan with his dog, Sancho, according to Stansfield.

Sancho isn't the only canine apparition, Stansfield says. On Barnegat Light, the ghost of Sinbad, a hard-drinking Coast Guard dog, is said to bark when ships are in trouble somewhere along the Jersey coast. And, in Wildwood, an apparition of a cat's head without a body is seen on moonlit nights, screaming in terror, according to Stansfield, who says there is a story that a cat was decapitated by a sadistic boy with a lawnmower in the area.

Through his research, Stansfield has come to know many folks who have had ghost experiences, most of whom he categorizes as level-headed and believable people.

"I've never seen a ghost and I'm definitely not a ghost hunter. I would describe myself as an open-minded skeptic," Stansfield says. "In my research, I've found that a lot of people have had some kind of encounter. They don't go public because they don't want to be mocked."

A Jersey Shore devotee for decades who has also studied the development of the area and its tourism, Stansfield thinks his book will only add to the special aura and mystique of being "down-a-shore."

"My family is connected to the Shore," says Stansfield, who became interested in the Shore's ghost stories while researching his book, Vacationing on the Jersey Shore: Guide to the Beach Resorts Past and Present, published in 2004.

"I was taken to the shore a lot as a little kid, to Cape May and to Wildwood. My wife's family had a summer home there. I've always regarded the Shore as a very special fun place."

The author of a dozen textbooks on cultural and regional geography, including Building Geographic Literacy, now in its fifth edition, Stansfield is having plenty of fun researching ghost stories at this point in his academic career. Stackpole Books has launched a series of 'Haunted' state books and Stansfield recently submitted a manuscript titled Haunted Maine. Next up: Haunted Vermont.

"If you look at popular culture, we've been fascinated with ghost stories and the nature of life and death for years and years. We want to know what happens when people die.

"The books are a lot of fun," continues Stansfield, who was recently recognized by the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance for his efforts to teach Rowan students and others about New Jersey history. "You get to meet very interesting people. It's a much more creative process and you're free from constraints to try to please a specific audience. It's very different from textbooks."