As a lifelong writer and performer, I have never experienced such a powerful moment on stage or on the page as I did recently. I’d love to tell you about it – and the room where it happened.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765, is one of those irreplaceable New York treasures that I hope everyone has heard of. New York City’s oldest house has the kind of history one might expect: an important Revolutionary War site that, through history, housed famous (and infamous) founding fathers and dignitaries, as well as being a focal point of numerous hauntings.
Lin-Manuel Miranda helped put the mansion into the spotlight recently, having written a significant portion of the Broadway sensation Hamilton under its eaves, in Aaron Burr’s old bedroom. The recent PBS Hamilton documentary featured the mansion as an important influence.
But it is the lady of the house who has always fascinated me. Years ago, I spent the night upstairs in the mansion during a paranormal investigation. I felt her presence firsthand, and she managed to make herself very known to our group by communicating via the disconnected end of a flashlight.
From that point on, I sought a stronger connection to that house, and I’ve been involved in several capacities. Not the least of these has been the launching my latest historical paranormal novels with Tor Books, including the reissue of my Strangely Beautiful saga, and Eterna and Omega, there on the premises. Considering that I tell historical ghost stories for a living, it couldn’t be a more fitting venue.
Eliza Jumel (1775-1865) was a strong, forward woman ahead of her time. A former actress who kept the house in her name after her first husband, Stephen Jumel died, she worked in real estate to victorious profits, and filed for divorce from Aaron Burr. To learn more about her and the many stories of the house, you simply must visit the place.
The importance of the site, its sheer power as a story and a structure, has always been very clear to Camilla Saly-Monzingo. In addition to having her wedding ceremony at the mansion, she has edited The Morris-Jumel Mansion Anthology of Fantasy and Paranormal Fiction, based around the house and its inhabitants. I’m proud to have written the introductory story. Camilla and I share an ardent appreciation of Eliza Jumel; her presence in history and her presence as a remaining force there to this day.
During Madame’s Masquerade – this year’s Mansion gala fundraiser – I was humbled and delighted to be the guest of honor. I was asked to read my short story, “Tea with the Lady,” to the assembled crowd, just after they had held a séance in the Octagon Room.
I stood on the first landing of the grand staircase. The lighting was eerie and wondrous, the shadows loomed large, and my audience below hushed as I began my tale.
As a classically trained actress, I know how to project, to hone my energy and presence into a hook. However, when I opened my mouth and the first words of my painfully honest story about being a soul trapped out of time lifted unto the Romanesque arches of the hall, the acoustics were pure magic, and time stopped.
Reading aloud how that historic mansion makes me feel – at home and connected to history in a visceral, palpable way, a testimonial to the mansion and to Eliza Jumel, there in the rooms where it happened indeed – there was nothing else quite like it.
I opened up my soul to tell the audience about the awkward, modern pain of feeling like a living anachronism, and the salve of an old place. And then I felt the energy of the house, and the lady of it, history itself, respond. The house as a character and entity, as well as Eliza’s spirit, rushed in to magnify my words, voice and spirit.
In a few ceremonious pages I blessed the house and it blessed me in turn, as we all stood in our best Victorian mourning regalia as had been requested for the evening, a look that happens to be my de rigueur clothing, and collectively shivered. I could feel the audience rallying with the house and with Eliza as I did, the whole environs coming alive in thrilling response.
The silence the crowd kept (especially after nearly three hours of an open bar) was impressive. When I finished, the reaction was intense. For those who are attuned to such matters as the spirit world, this reading seemed to quite truly activate some of the time-transporting powers that I had claimed in my piece of ‘fiction.’
After spending years on the professional stage, and many types of stages at that (parks and classrooms and living rooms and bars), I sort of thought I had seen it all in terms of what a site-specific performance can be. However, having written the words I then performed on the stair of the home in question, not quite having realized until the very moment that I seemed to be invoking a magical spell, it was doubly powerful. The experience was entirely otherworldly.
Never doubt the power of story, on stage or page, and I hope everyone reading might take time to go out and appreciate a historic site near you very soon. Pay it some attention, honor and love. Bid it tell its story, and listen to what it has to say.
And when you make your way to the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, Manhattan, please tell the dear Madame Jumel that I sent you. She’ll hear it through time.
Author: Leanna Renee Hieber
Author Bio: Leanna Renee Hieber is the award-winning author of ten Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels, including the Strangely Beautiful saga, the Eterna Files series, both for Tor Books, and the Magic Most Foul trilogy for young adults. A proud member of AEA and SAG-AFTRA, she has been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire and is a ghost tour guide with Boroughs of the Dead. More about her, her neo-Victorian and Steampunk jewelry, free reads, writers’ resources and social media links can be found at http://leannareneehieber.com. Her story “Tea with the Lady” can be found in The Morris-Jumel Anthology of Fantasy and Paranormal Fiction published by Riverdale Avenue Books, a portion of all proceeds go to the mansion, http://tinyurl.com/ze9lr5t. Visit them at www.RiverdaleAveBooks.com. The Morris-Jumel Mansion is located at 65 Jumel Terrace, between 160th and 162nd streets in Manhattan, one block east of St. Nicholas Avenue. For more information, visit http://www.morrisjumel.org.
Link to social media or website: http://riverdaleavebooks.com