Monday, January 20, 2020

Brooklyn's Gilded Age: The Grand Hotels on the Atlantic Ocean

The Oriental Hotel, Brooklyn, opened to the public in 1880.

More than 100 years after Coney Island earned the nickname of "America's Playground," it is still a famous place.

Far less well known is the trio of large hotels that rose in Brooklyn less than a mile away from the amusement park. They were built in the Victorian age and intended to serve discriminating guests in the most elegant manner. Many of their guests never set foot in Coney Island's competing amusement parks of Steeplechase or Juno--or Dreamland, after it opened in 1904. They existed in a parallel world, sharing the beach on the Atlantic Ocean with Coney Island but little else.

The phrase "New York Gilded Age" summons up images of dazzling Vanderbilt mansions, Grand Central Station and the Plaza Hotel, all in Manhattan. But the hotels on the ocean in Brooklyn played a crucial role in this period. They were widely admired, visited by presidents, famous inventors like Thomas Edison, and European nobility.

People today can travel to Coney to ride the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel or devour hotdogs at Nathan's. The hotels, however, were finished by the 1920s and today they are physically gone. Houses, apartments, synagogues, and the Kingsborough Community College sit atop the hotels' foundations. Theirs is a lost world.

I set my historical mystery Dreamland in not only Coney Island but the Oriental Hotel, the most elegant of the three and attracting the wealthiest guests from 1880 to 1916. Families would stay the entire summer at the Oriental. In this article, I'll share my research into this fascinating time and place.

A postcard of the Oriental Hotel, from the collection of the Coney Island Museum

The first of the grand hotels to be built was the Manhattan Beach Hotel. Picking this spot went beyond catering to people's fondness for an oceanfront resort. In the 19th century, people believed that the region was good for your health, even curative.

In the 1870s, railroad tycoon Austin Corbin spent some weeks at a small oceanfront hotel owned by William Engelman because his son was in poor health. While there, he decided the property was ripe for development and he formed a syndicate of investors to snap up the land.

The biggest challenge was transportation. But once that was solved--use steamboats and build railroad lines leading right to Coney Island--a vast hotel was designed by architect J. Pickering Putnam. It was all wooden, 400 feet long. President Ulysses Grant attended the opening ceremony for the Manhattan Beach Hotel, which was within a year dubbed "the best hotel on the Atlantic Ocean." Souza wrote a song expressly for the hotel.

It had 300 guest rooms, a ballroom, a bandstand, and a restaurant that could seat thousands. In its long veranda, it resembled the larger hotels in Saratoga Springs.

A Scribners Magazine correspondent wrote about the hotel:

What a charming view of the sea. A wide esplanade between is green with turf and gay with flowers--geranium, helitrope, lobelia...In the center is a music stand shaped like a scallop shell. The beach below is full of parasols and summer costumes bright against the water. 

Businessman James Jordan leaped in to compete with Corbin, building the Brighton Beach Hotel. It's believed that Corbin was trying to outdo the man who was struggling to outdo him when he built the Oriental Hotel.

Postcard of Brighton Beach Hotel. From the collection of the Coney Island Museum.

The Oriental Hotel, some 1,000 yards east of Corbin's Manhattan Beach Hotel, was the most opulent of the three, with a "Moorish" motif.   It was six stories high, 478 feet long, with eight large circular towers surmounted by a minaret. There were about 480 sleeping rooms, and an elevator.

During the day some guests would swim in the water, using the "bathing pavilions" to change. Hot air balloon rides also beckoned, as well as bicycling and tennis. In the evening, people dressed for dinner, dining on lobster, littleneck clams, lamb and other such dishes. There were fireworks at night, concerts, and spectacles acted out on the lawn.

One year The Brooklyn Eagle said about the Oriental Hotel guests that the descendants of four American presidents were staying  there as well as "the usual quota of barons, dukes, counts and foreign attaches."

According to The New York Times, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford met for the first time in 1896 at the Oriental Hotel, while in Manhattan Beach for a conference. "It had the greatest men of the day as its guests," said the paper.

Yet all this time Coney Island was exploding nearby as a resort drawing the factory workers and office workers, the middle-class families of New York for day trips. People came intending to enjoy themselves--and they did.

Women at Coney Island, 1899

There was little if any mingling. The hotels employed Pinkertons and other guards to keep the Coney crowd out. Worse, Corbin was an anti-Semite who said publically that Jews were unwelcome. Blacks were discriminated against as well.

After Corbin died in 1896, some of the bigotry eased. But stylish tastes were changing. The richest families in New York preferred Newport or other out-of-town resorts. Still, many men with means continued coming out for the season to follow the horseraces--there were three large racetracks in the region, making Brooklyn the horse-racing capital of America. The Vanderbilts and "Diamond Jim Brady" favored the Coney Island Jockey Club.

As the large hotels began to fade in popularity, the amusement parks of Coney Island reached their peak in the fantastic and the imaginative. People came from all over the world to see them. It was hard to think that hotel guests would be completely satisfied with sea bathing and concerts with these larger-than-life amusements so close at hand.

Luna Park, Coney Island Museum
Dreamland, Coney Island Museum.

When gambling was banned in the state in 1910, it dealt a fatal blow to the grand hotels. The Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1912; in 1916 the Oriental Hotel fell to the wrecking ball.

The era of the grand hotel in Brooklyn was no more. 


Nancy Bilyeau's fifth historical novel, Dreamland, is set in 1911. Rebellious young heiress Peggy Batternberg reluctantly accompanies her family for a holiday at the luxurious Oriental Hotel, on the Atlantic Ocean. But less than a mile away, Coney Island, “America’s Playground,” beckons with forbidden delight — and danger for Peggy and those she loves most. A story of corruption, class, and dangerous obsession.
The novel received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.

To order, go here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

My Historical Mystery 'Dreamland' Now on Sale

I'm terribly excited!

My fifth historical novel, Dreamland, is available in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, in paperback and ebook formats. (Audio book to follow soon.)

New York City, 1911: Rebellious young heiress Peggy Batternberg reluctantly accompanies her family for a holiday at the luxurious Oriental Hotel, on the Atlantic Ocean. But less than a mile away, Coney Island, “America’s Playground,” beckons with forbidden delight — and danger for Peggy and those she loves most.

To write this story of corruption, class, and dangerous obsession, I did research at the Coney Island Museum and New York Public Library; I read books on the Gilded Age, the "Robber Barons," and the turn-of-the-century grand hotels; and I immersed myself in fiction written around this time by Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster, Thomas Mann, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To order Dreamland in the U.S, go here. The ebook is $4.99 and is in Kindle Unlimited.

For amazon ebook, click here.
For amazon paperback, click here.
For Barnes & Noble paperback, click here
For IndieBound paperback, click here

Go here for ordering the novel in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Read the reviews:

“I could practically taste the salt-water taffy and smell the ocean air as I read Bilyeau’s latest, set in 1911 Coney Island. Beautifully written and impeccably researched, DREAMLAND is a rollicking ride.” — Fiona Davis, bestselling author of 'Chelsea Girls'

“DREAMLAND is like the best chocolate: rich, dark and satisfying.” — Libbie Hawker, author of The Ragged Edge of Night

"A Must-Read Book for Winter 2020" — Town & Country magazine

"A marvelous book!" 
— Ellen Marie Wiseman, author of What She Left Behind

“This fast-paced, engrossing novel from Bilyeau gives readers an up-close and personal view of New York’s Gilded Age” — Library Journal (starred review)

'Bilyeau is at the height of her talents in the immersive and gripping DREAMLAND' 
 Heather Webb, USA Today bestselling author

'Bilyeau’s thrilling novel plunges deep into Dreamland’s maze of pleasure and menace' — Marlowe Benn, bestselling author of Relative Fortunes

'An outstanding thriller...This fascinating portrait of the end of the Gilded Age deserves a wide audience.' 
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Thank you!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

'The Crown' is a Chirp Deal

In the UK, the ebook is discounted to £2.99

I'm pleased to share the news that 'The Crown' has received a Chirp deal, meaning that for the next month it costs only $2.99 for an audiobook--and not the usual price of $24.95!

For more info on Chirp, click here.

'The Crown' was my first novel. It went on sale in the US in January 2012, and was purchased by more than a dozen foreign markets, from Germany to Brazil.

As the Chirp page says:

“Compulsively readable” (Booklist): Set in England during Cromwell’s reign of terror, nun Joanna Stafford must find a powerful ancient relic — or risk the safety of herself, her family, and even her society. A historical page-turner that Woman’s Day called “part The Da Vinci Code, part The Other Boleyn Girl.”


In this debut historical thriller, an aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father’s life and preserve all she holds dear.
When novitiate Joanna Stafford learns her rebel cousin is condemned by King Henry VIII to be burned at the stake, she makes the decision to break the sacred rule of enclosure and flee her Dominican order in Dartford to stand at her cousin’s side.
Arrested for interfering with king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, Sir Richard Stafford, is sent to the Tower of London. Joanna’s father is brutally tortured by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, who leads the Catholic faction bent on saving England’s monasteries from destruction. In order to save her father, Joanna must submit to Gardiner’s will and become a pawn in the struggle between religious extremes. Gardiner forces Joanna to return to Dartford Priory with a mission: find the long-hidden crown worn by Saxon King Athelstan in AD 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain. Gardiner believes the crown itself to possess a mystical power that will halt the Reformation.
Uncovering only dark betrayals and murder at Dartford, Joanna flees with Brother Edmund, a troubled young friar, and with time running out, their hunt for the crown leads them through royal castles, to Stonehenge, and finally to the tomb of the mysterious King Athelstan under Malmesbury Abbey. There Joanna learns the true secret of the crown—a secret tracing all the way back to Golgotha and the relics of the Passion—and must finally determine who to trust and how far she is willing to go to protect a way of life that she passionately loves.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Goodreads Challenge 2019, Anyone?

If anyone is coming up a book or two short on their Goodreads Challenge, my novella, The Ghost of Madison Avenue, is 108 pages long :)

The novel, set in 1912 New York, has a 4.9 rating on Amazon.

Latest review:

December 29, 2019
Beautifully written story of love, grief and family. I love historical fiction and Nancy Bilyeau brings all her hard  work of research to life in beautifully written story of The Gilded Age with a touch of The O'Neill on Tullyhouge! I love how the stories blend together and how the Ghost of Madison Avenue helps Helen find her way.
It's available on Kindle Unlimited. Click

To quote Breaking Bad, "I'm just sayin'..."


Saturday, December 28, 2019

Discovering the Kings of Ireland

By Nancy Bilyeau


If you wish to see Tullyhogue Fort, be ready for a bit of a climb. From the parking lot, you follow a snaking path, marked by briskly modern printed signs, to the base of a round hill, ringed by graceful, swaying trees. It makes your heart pound to clamber up the side of that hill; schoolchildren scramble up it, led there by teachers keen to give a lesson about a chapter from the island’s distant past. Those are the most frequent visitors to Tullyhogue, the children.

For an outsider, an American, learning about it and finding out details requires persistence. Helen Allen, who capably manages media inquiries for the Department of Communities branch of the Northern Ireland government, provided help and a bit of advice: “There are multiple spellings of the site name, so you may need to use the versions ‘Tullaghoge,’ ‘Tullaghogue,’ ‘Tullyhoge,’ ‘Tullyhogue,’ and ‘Tullac óg,’ and there may be further variations too.” No matter the variations, I’ve learned the word is Middle Gaelic, a language spoken from roughly 900 A.D. to 1200 A.D., and it means something along the lines of “the Hill of the Young Warriors.”

The hill is in County Tyrone, near the picturesque city of Cookstown and forty-five miles west of Belfast. Once you’ve reached the top of Tullyhogue, there is no “fort.” There probably never was a wooden fort, at least not a wooden-planked one bristling against the frontier, Davy Crockett-style, that my American imagination conjures. Tullyhogue is best described as a raised platform of grass, about 100 feet in diameter, with trees encircling it.

On Tullyhogue many feel light and buoyed, taking in the view of eastern County Tyrone. This hill stands above the valley of the Balinderry River, with farms stretching toward low-lying craggy mountains. Villages rise in the landscape, and church towers too. There are bogs to be spotted, naturally, sprinkled in the springtime with white flowers nicknamed Bog Cotton.

It isn’t the view, though, that led to my obsession with Tullyhogue. It is its history--what took place atop this windswept hill. Knowing that history makes any sense of serenity experienced here incongruous, an insult to the dead.

What interests me most about Tullyhogue is an object, even though it hasn’t been here for centuries. Its name is Leac na Ri, a Gaelic phrase that translates to “the flagstone of the kings.” The origins of the Stone of Tullyhogue are misty, but the best estimate is that, beginning in the early 13th century, this was the place where a man, in a sacred Gaelic ceremony, “assumed the sovereignty over the men of Eire.” From the 14th century until the beginning of the 17th, the family that assumed such sovereignty was that of O’Neill. In fact, the ceremony was intended to not only crown a king but to “make an O’Neill.” The family name was synonymous with ruler.

The O’Neills’ sphere of influence covered the north of Ireland; in other words, Ulster. Today Ulster is a vast province of more than 2 million people, made up of nine counties, six of them in Northern Ireland and three of them over the border in the Republic of Ireland. 

Even in the 16th century, far less populated, it was a kingdom well worth fighting for. “My ancestors were kings of Ulster,” cried Shane O’Neill in 1572, outraged over English incursions. “And Ulster is mine and shall be mine.” Beginning in the 1570s, English military commanders had been battling with both the Anglo-Irish lords and the Gaelic chieftains in the province of Munster, spreading across the south of Ireland. But the English veered away from the north of the island. It was the most Gaelic, its terrain the most forbidding.

The great Hugh O’Neill, Shane’s cousin, was the last member of the family to assume sovereignty of Ulster at Tullyhogue, in a coronation conducted in 1595. The ceremony itself is fascinating if frustrating in its essential mysteries. O’Neill would have undergone a bathing ritual beforehand. He’d be handed a white rod, or wand, to signify the purity of his ascension. At the ceremony’s conclusion, whoever is chosen as the O’Neill, sitting on a stone chair—presumably the Leac na Ri—would be honored by having a shoe cast over his head, onto the hill. “The use of [the shoe] symbolized the hope that the new O’Neill would continue to walk in the footsteps of his predecessors,” wrote one historian. 

Hugh O'Neill
The trail to Tullyhogue

I try to imagine what it would be like to stand on the top of this windy hill and bear witness to Hugh O’Neill. In the best-known portrait of him, one painted after his death, he wears armor and a graying beard, his face lined and his expression weary. Contemporaries said he had bright red hair. A crude picture exists of the Tullyhogue ceremony, helping to fill in the details of how O’Neill, then 45, would have appeared: Barefoot and bare-headed, he wore the fringed Irish mantle, a long loose cape of frieze cloth that extends below a man’s knees.

Archaeological digs in the last five years performed at Tullyhogue have yielded thrilling discoveries. According to the dating of objects found, it was a place of importance in the early medieval age. And so what happened that day was not only Gaelic but tantalizingly pagan and mystical in meaning, and yet 1595 was firmly planted in the early modern age. In that same year, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was performed; the astronomer Johannes Kepler developed his theory of the geometrical basis of the universe; Sir Walter Ralegh reached eastern Venezuela, and a few months later Sir Francis Drake died off the coast of Puerto Rico. 

Elizabeth I

O’Neill himself had been educated, in part, by Sir Henry Sidney, the English Lord Deputy of Ireland. When he wanted to refurbish his castle, O'Neill chose the best tapestries, plate, lace, and paintings to be found in London.

 He was a man of profound contradictions. He married four times and was a devoted father, yet Hugh was vicious—he had murdered two of Shane’s sons—and deceptive. The Elizabeth chronicler William Camden wrote, “He was a strong man, able to endure labours, watching, and hard fare; he was industrious, active, valiant, affable, and apt to manager great affairs; of a high, dissembling, subtle and profound wit. Many deemed him born either for the great good or ill of his country.”

Whether he pursued the good or the ill for Ireland is entirely a matter of perspective.

Hugh O’Neill was not just the ruler of Ulster but the Earl of Tyrone. It was a title created by Henry VIII, the first English monarch to deem himself King of Ireland, and granted to first Shane and then to Hugh by Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I. While all of the English papers refer to him as “Tyrone,” the title meant little to him in comparison to the O’Neill. 

“To these people, the title of O’Neill means more than Cesear,” Camden wrote, a touch incredulous. It’s one of the many ironies of his life, for Hugh O’Neill was a rebel, described by his contemporaries, men who hated him, as an “arch-traitor” and “the Queen’s Worst Enemy.” For years O'Neill sent out mixed signals from the North, and the English hoped he would not turn against them. But when he sat on the stone throne of Tullyhogue, embracing his ancestral title, they interpreted it—correctly—as a sign that he would rise. He was a Catholic determined to drive the Protestant English from Ulster if not all of Ireland.

It was O’Neill who led the Irish army that crushed the English in the Battle of Yellow Ford on August 14, 1598. It was the worst defeat suffered by an English army during not only the reign of Elizabeth I but any Tudor monarch. The English victory over the Spanish Armada is the lesson everyone learns; Yellow Ford, the triumph of the Irish, is barely acknowledged in most history texts. It is a cliché but one that cries out to be repeated: “History is written by the winners.”

After Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, took command of Queen Elizabeth’s army in 1601, the fortunes of war turned against the Irish. Hugh O’Neill, the last of the O’Neills to rule Ulster, knelt before Lord Mountjoy in April 1603 and surrendered, even vowing to renounce “the name and title of O’Neill.” He was, observers said, a man greatly aged by war. He was broken. 

(An in-depth look at the war O'Neill waged against Elizabeth I's commanders can be found in The Nine Years War, 1593-1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution, by James O'Neill.)

O’Neill, spared his life but rendered powerless, left Ireland for Rome in 1607 in what is known as the Flight of the Earls. With O’Neill and his allies gone, Ulster land was forfeit, confiscated for what is chillingly called “The Plantation of Ulster.” Half a million acres were colonized, the land taken from Irish families that lived there for centuries, and bestowed on English Protestants and also Scottish Presbyterians.

The sacred hill of Tullyhogue with its shattered stone was co-opted. The Anglican Church of Ireland took possession of the hill and its surroundings; no one paid much attention to it until the 1960s. An Anglican archbishop oversaw the occupation of the area by Protestant settlers after 1607. Of course, these religious divisions had consequences no one could have foreseen. In the early 20th century, when the Republic of Ireland broke away, Northern Ireland had to be created as a separate entity, because the descendants of those 17th-century plantation owners insisted, on the threat of violence, that they remain subjects of the English Crown. Ulster will fight, they chanted in the hundreds of thousands.

O’Neill's departure passed into myth, with some tracing the beginning of the Irish diaspora to that despairing flight. Before the Nine Years War, the Irish were not a people who emigrated. That changed. Some 10 million people are estimated to have left Ireland since 1700. New York City, where I live, has the largest number of Irish Americans of any city in the United States.

There’s debate over who wrote the song “Flight of Earls,” but folksinger Paddy Reilly made it famous in the 1970s:

I can hear the bells of Dublin/ in this lonely waiting room/ And the paperboys are singin’in the rain/Not too long before they take us/to the airport and the noise/To get on board a transatlantic plane/We’ve got nothin’ left to stay for/We had no more left to say/And there isn’t any work for us to do/So farewell ye boys and girls/Another bloody Flight of Earls

What may have done much to break the spirit of this bloody earl, Hugh O’Neill, took place one year before his formal surrender. In the late summer of 1602, an action was taken that few biographies of Elizabeth mention, and receives a sentence or two, at most, in histories of the Tudors. Lord Mountjoy traveled with a party of Englishmen to Tullyhogue and he destroyed its stone of coronation, smashing it into small pieces. The English made sure there would never be another mystical ceremony honoring an Irish leader on the hill. Mountjoy’s men “brake downe the chaire wherein the Oneals were wont to be created, being of stone, planted in the open field.” The pieces were buried or made to otherwise disappear.

Standing on Tullyhogue, you definitely won’t see a throne for a Gaelic chieftain. There are stones scattered here and there. Says the helpful Helen Allen: “A number of stones may mark the site of the inauguration place of the O’Neill. The historical depiction of this as a chair may be a little misleading. The actual inauguration place may have been the boulder itself, and the stones that were set around it to form a chair could well have been later additions to formalize the feature, perhaps even to make it more ‘throne-like’. In any case,  it seems it the stones set around the boulder were the elements that were destroyed, and while I suspect we can probably identify the original boulder it is very difficult to prove that it is, in fact, the inauguration stone.”

After much research, I found the most in-depth description of what happened in 1602 in Tullyhogue in a seven-page article published in 1970 in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, “The Making of an O’Neill: A View of the Ceremony at Tullyhogue, Co. Tyrone.” Its author, Gerald Anthony Hayes McCoy, a leading Irish historian of his generation, gathered every bit of documentation. Through his writing, I was able to get an inkling of what happened.

Hopefully there will be more research, and more archeological digs authorized, to deepen our knowledge of what it took to "make an O'Neill."


In my novella 'The Ghost of Madison Avenue,' set in New York of 1912, the main character, Helen, is part of a tightly knit Irish American family living in the Bronx. Helen had married Sean O'Neill, who immigrated from Belfast in his teens. In creating these characters I drew on some observations of my own family (my mother's name is Mary Elizabeth O'Neill) and performed research into O'Neill family history in County Ulster. This article grew out of one part of that research, the medieval and Tudor-era Kngs of Ireland.

Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor and historical novelist. Her novella "The Ghost of Madison Avenue" is available as an ebook and a paperback. Click here

Coming Face to Face With New York's Gilded Age

The Enid A Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. The Victorian-style glasshouse was built at the turn of the century, completed in 1902.  In miniature here, at the Holiday Train Show.

My son and I both love to explore New York City, always eager to discover new places, and though shopping and Christmas dinner prepping beckoned (actually screamed my name), we nonetheless made a Christmas Eve plan to travel from our apartment in Forest Hills to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx for an afternoon outing. 

Now we did spend time there together once before, with a group of kids when Alex was nine years old, but memories are hazy. The famous Holiday Train Show was on display then and now, and while we were both enthusiastic about it, I wanted to see some of the other garden sights more. A train show promised to inflict long lines, and I wanted to soak in some serenity instead.

Serenity is very much what you experience there. The Botanical Gardens sprawls across an enormous parcel of land in the Bronx: 250 acres. It was established in 1891. That should have been a clue right there--that I'd find the day especially meaningful since that year arrived smack in the middle of the Gilded Age. :)

We entered at the Metro-North Stop on the commuter railroad. 

Once inside the gate, we jumped on the tram that rumbles across the acreage and enjoyed the sights. We got off once to check out the waterfalls. And we weren't disappointed!

Waterfall on the Bronx River flowing through the New York Botanical Gardens.

But it was at the Holiday Train Show, which Alex wanted to see as long as we were there, that I found myself not just excited but also enthralled.

For my historical novels set in the 1910s, Dreamland and The Ghost of Madison Avenue, I've been diving deep into research of life in New York City just after the turn of the century. The Gilded Age was on the wane, but its extravagant, exquisite buildings continued to dominate. Some of them still rise across the city, while others have been demolished or radically transformed. 

But here, at the Holiday Train Show, they exist in miniature, with trains zipping everywhere! There were 19th-century and turn-of-the-century iconic buildings rising among the tracks. I was in heaven.

For this post, I have selected four to show them first as miniatures at the train show, and then in photographs of their time. Each of these buildings has a fascinating story to tell...

1.) William K Vanderbilt House. Built at 660 Fifth Avenue, construction completed 1882. Sold to a real estate developer in 1926 who demolished it. The building was dubbed "the Petite Chateau." Vanderbilt married Alva Belmont, who was determined to make her mark on society and this house was her vision. She arranged their daughter Consuelo's marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

William K Vanderbilt House at the Holiday Train Show
William K Vanderbilt House while occupied in the 1890s.

2.) Pennsylvania Station. Opened to the public in 1910, it was designed by architects McKim, Mead & White, who followed the fashionable Beaux-Arts style but were also inspired by the Baths of Caracella in Rome. Demolished in 1963, it was replaced by another train station considered an architectural horror.

The Old Pennsylvania Station, a gorgeous building.
Inside the Old Penn Station

3.) Senator William Andrews Clark House, 962 Fifth Avenue. Built 1911, demolished 1927. Dubbed "Clark's Folly." A wealthy entrepreneur and politician from Montana, Clark spent $7 million on it, the equivalent of $188 million today.

Clark House at the Botanical Garden

Photograph of Clark House in its heyday.

4.) Josephine Schmid House, 807 Fifth Avenue, built 1897. The widow of a millionaire beer brewer, Josephine built the house to make her mark on society. It didn't quite work. In 1912, the Knickerbocker Club bought it, and knocked it down.

Josephine Schmid House at the train show.

Josephine's house, in its heyday.

Not all of New York's iconic buildings from that era have bit the dust, thankfully. I'll now share some miniatures from the New York Train Show that are very much with us!

New York Public Library on 5th Avenue

Empire State Building

St, Patrick's Cathedral
I'll think you agree with me, it was quite a day. And the lines at the train show weren't even that long. :)


Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor and author of historical novels who lives with her family in New York City.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Why This is the Best Time for a Ghost Story

Marley appears to Scrooge, original illustration from A Christmas Carol.

The winter solstice, falling on December 22nd this year, is making itself known. For centuries the belief has been that on the shortest day of the year, the veil between the living and the departed is most easily lifted. 

That is why the ghosts appear to Ebeneezer Scrooge just before Christmas. Charles Dickens' writing of A Christmas Carol followed a long tradition of ghosts showing themselves at this time of year. I write about Dickens' motivation in writing the novella here.

The tradition has continued right up to modern times. In the 1963 song "The Right Time of the Year," Andy Williams sings:

There'll be parties for hosting/ Marshmallows for toasting/And caroling out in the snow/There'll be scary ghost stories/And tales of the glories/Of Christmases long, long ago.
When did this begin, the custom of scary tales told just around the time when families traditionally gather to open gifts, admire the Christmas tree, and dive into a big dinner?

It is the solstice rather than the celebration of the birth of Jesus that seems to have launched it. The days were at their shortest, food supplies could be running low--and spring seemed a long way away. Gathering to frighten one another with stories of the supernatural was a way to ward off more prosaic fears. (Not that different than people going to the cinema to watch a horror film today.)

However, there was nothing Andy Williams-ish about the earliest known Christmas ghost stories. They were gruesome medieval stories. Within some stiff competition, the Icelandic tales were particularly terrifying.

In The Saga of the People of Floi, dated to the 11th century, a group gathers for feasting on Christmas Day, finally falling asleep, exhausted. That night, a knock is heard on the door. One of the revelers rouses himself to answer it, steps outside and disappears. One by one, some half a dozen men are picked off, for it turns out that specters wait outside to drive them insane and to their deaths.

"Once Christmas is over, the dead return in force: not only are the rowdy Jostein’s crew brought back as Revenants, but so are a number of dead locals," writes Jon Kaneko-James in the article Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England"Finally Thorgils, captain of the crew who slept early, takes all of the dead and burns them in a pyre, ensuring that none of the Revenants, one of whom was his wife, would rise to trouble the living again." 

More Icelandic stories unfurl horrors told around the fire in late December, such as certain parts of the sprawling 11th century Eyrbyggja Saga, in which a strange moon foretells the dead seeking to join the living for Christmas--and it's very difficult to get them to leave. The Thorgunna section revolves around a wealthy woman dying and giving specific requests about what should be done with her bedsheets. These requests are not honored. (Are you surprised?)

This story is absurdly chilling! According to Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind:

Now the same night the corpse-bearers came home after Thorgunna had been buried in Skalaholt, as men sat by the meal-fires of Frodriver, all who were in the house saw how a half-moon was shining on the paneling of the house wall--and it went backwards and widdershins round the house, and it did not vanish away while folk sat by the fires. So Thorodd asked Thorir Woodenleg what that might bode. Thorir said it was "the moon of the weird," and "the death of men will follow thereafter."

Note: The excellent podcast Saga Thing tackles Eyrbyggja Saga with insight and humor.

Things go bump in the night in the Thorgunna section of the Icelandic saga

Today Iceland has the tradition of the lovable Yule Lads who show up on December 12th, leaving gifts in the shoes that children left on windowsills.

But the Yule Lads have gone through an astonishing transformation. In What's On, Ragnar Tomas writes:
 "The first mention of the Icelandic Yule Lads is the 17th-century Poem of Grýla, which asserts that they are the sons of Grýla – a flesh-eating hag who cooks children in a cauldron – and Leppalúði, a lazy troglodyte. Needless to say, such people should not reproduce. Ailurophiles ('cat-lovers') might think better of them knowing that they kept a cat. But not so fast. Theirs was not some amiable Maine Coon, who lazed around their apartment and snuggled up to house callers. No, their cat was the 'Christmas Cat,' who prowled the snowy countryside and devoured children who had not been given new clothes to wear before Christmas (admittedly, an oddly specific culinary preference)."
Medieval England offers up its goodly portion of Yuletime chills too. One example: A tailor named Snawball who encounters the spirit of a dead man in the form of a crow wreathed in fire.

One of my favorites is from the Tudor period, taking place on the Orkneys. A woman named Katharine Fordyce dies in childbirth but appears in a dream to tell a woman who was her neighbor that she must name her next daughter after Katharine. As long as that girl lives in the home, the family will be safe.

When the girl grows up and marries, preparing to leave home, Katharine Fordyce has her vengeance. On the wedding night a "fearful storm" arrives that "the like had no' been minded in the time o' anybody alive," according to Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands

The sheep belonging to the bride's father were swept off the land and into the sea.
Some folk did say that old men with long white beards were seen stretching their pale hands out of the surf and taking hold of the creatures.

More and more such stories found themselves into print. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one. Of sprites and goblins." It hardly needs to be pointed out that the Bard loved a ghost!
Still, it's the Victorian age, with its whiff of the occult, when telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve or another night close to Christmas firmly established itself. Groups gathered, usually around the fireplace, to share tales of ghouls and specters, trying to outdo one another.

Of course no discussion of ghost stories is complete without M. R. James, who lived from 1862 to 1936. A medieval scholar and provost of King's College, Cambridge, he published collections of ghost stories that have exerted enormous influence. As The New Yorker wrote in a story on James, "At Eton and at Cambridge, he liked telling his scary stories to boys and undergraduates around the fire in a dimly lit room, and presenting a new story to friends at Christmas."

It's hard to choose among H. R. James' gems, but the one that seems to linger with me the longest is "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." A professor finds a whistle in a ruin bearing two Latin inscriptions. One he can translate; the other he can't. Not knowing it's a warning, he blows the whistle...

"Whistle and I'll Come to You"

From 1971 to 1978, the BBC ran A Ghost Story for Christmas, adapting for television five stories from M. R. James, among other works. They were "The Stalls of Barchester," "A Warning to the Curious," "Lost Hearts," "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," and "The Ash Tree."

Americans are no slouches in the telling of ghost stories, nor in connecting them to the tradition of Christmas time. Henry James begins his 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw like this:

The tale had held us, round the fireplace, sufficiently breathless, however except the obvious remark that it changed into gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an antique residence, a weird tale need to basically be, I remember no commentary uttered until someone to mention that it become the satisfactory case he had met wherein the sort of visitation had fallen on an infant.

The other American ghost story closest to my heart is Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Oh what happens to the nervous, withdrawn Eleanor when she accepts an invitation to look for ghosts at a house in which no one could bear living. 

The novel begins:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.   
Ghost stories are very subjective--of course--and forgive me if I've left out anyone's favorites!

I paid tribute to the wonderful tradition of the ghost story in my novella, The Ghost of Madison Avenue. The veil between living and dead is drawn aside in the weeks leading up to Christmas in my story, taking place in New York in 1912 and revolving around the private library of J. P. Morgan. 

Click here to learn more about my book and read the reviews.

Finally, here's a photo I took of the book "out in the wild." I think this has a certain "Haunting of Hill House" vibe, don't you?

Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor and novelist. She published a trilogy set in the 16th century--The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry--with Simon & Schuster. Her standalone novel The Blue is an art espionage story set in the rivalrous porcelain factories of 18th century Europe. In December 2019 she published The Ghost of Madison Avenue, a mystery set in the private library of J.P. Morgan.