The Invented History of the Spy House

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There is an old saying that goes, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That is exactly what the late-Gertrude Neidlinger, former curator of the Spy House Museum in Port Monmouth, did during her time from the 1970’s through the 90’s; only she went one step further: she did not just print the legend, she made it up entirely.

There might not be a more alluring and mysterious house in all of New Jersey than the humble, little establishment that rests close to the beach overlooking New York City on what was once known as Shoal Harbor. It is a building, historically known as the Seabrook-Wilson House (two families that made it their residence during its history), and more affectionately by folklorists and locals, as the Spy House, that has many different myths and legends surrounding it, that have been cultivated over the last few decades. It is a house that is so incredibly rich in history that one would imagine it too good to be true. In fact, after doing some investigating and researching, I have found that might be exactly the case.

Look online and you will find some outlandish stories. Psychics and paranormal investigators claim it to be the most haunted house in the Garden State, possibly even the country. But while stories of ghosts will no-doubt abound in any “old” house, it is not these that get my attention or damage the credibility of the site as a historical location. As a paranormal investigator myself, I love a good ghost story, but part of my job as an investigator is to debunk any falsehoods that might come up along the way. My journey through the fact and fiction of the Spy House inadvertently took me a step further. While I believe the house is haunted, it is the history itself which I must call into question, because the facts simply do not add up.

The entire popular history of this location stems from one person, the previously mentioned caretaker who we will just refer to as Gertrude from now on. She became curator of the house-turned-museum sometime in the 1970’s, as far as I can tell, and then turned it into a local history museum, with a seafaring theme aimed at educating the people of Middletown, of which Port Monmouth is a part of. While the house is indeed old, and has no doubt had a wide range of owners, some of whom probably more colorful than the others, that apparently was not enough for Gertrude. After giving a lecture at the location titled, “Haunted History”, one of the visitors there stayed in contact with me after it was over, and sent several scanned documents that were in her family, pertaining to the Spy House, from the 1980’s. They were the actual pamphlets and guest literature drawn up and typed by Gertrude herself. That became my starting point in trying to identify what exactly is fact and fiction in this surprisingly very small and unassuming house.

All I needed was a tiny bit of research, to fill a few slides for my lecture presentation, but what I ended up getting was a full-blown collection of information that I originally did not know what to do with. As a folklorist, it appeals to the nostalgia in me to believe that the many yarns Gertrude spun were at least based in truth, even though they seemed so far-fetched. Of the many stories you might read about is Thomas Whitlock building the house in any number of years (the evidence conflicts, but Gertrude stated in her pamphlet to visitors that the date of construction was 1663; although other records show 1664-1668). While that date is certainly attractive to different people for different reasons—history buffs would see it as a shining relic worthy of a visit, while those disinterested in history could ponder, “Wow! That’s really old!”—Gertrude had to go a step further and claim that the builder, Whitlock, was the first permanent resident, not just in Monmouth County or Middletown, but the entire colony of New Jersey itself.

She wanted something unique and special, and who was there to question her? The house had always been there, and truly was old, so it stands to reason that it must have been built by the first New Jersey resident. That was the first lie, as both the County of Monmouth and National Register of Historic Places confirms that the house, or a small section of it (more on that later) was built in 1720, and not a Thomas Whitlock is mentioned anywhere. Still, it is a very old house, but when something so simple and relatively tame such as a date of construction is tweaked, the rest of the history must also be called into question. There is reason for the vast confusion, though, because the house has undergone several restorations over the centuries. The original structure was nothing but a small cabin (the lower section on the left side, if you are facing it from the front looking towards the water) and more sections of the house were added on in years to come by other owners. There appears to have been three major alterations (again, according to the literature): the first doubled the size from left to right, the second tripled it, and the third added a second floor that stretched over the two newest additions, leaving the original cabin area intact. Gertrude’s pamphlet dates are wrong every step of the way. The final addition was completed in 1896, her figure shows 1880.

However, as annoying as it is to confuse simple dates, I cannot quibble with that as much as I can the actual history. This is where the journey really begins. The first legend, according to a 1988 issue of Coast Magazine, which ran a profile of Gertrude and the museum, noted that the house was built atop the grave of a fierce American Indian chief named Popamora. While the chief did exist, and some landmarks in the region do bear his name, there is no evidence to suggest that he lived or was buried in the area where the Spy House currently sits. Research shows that he would have been located a little further south, in the Atlantic Highlands and Navesink areas of Monmouth County. Of course, the building of this site upon his grave was the catalyst for a haunting, which was then accelerated by the spirit of an “evil” sea captain. Websites and this magazine article both mention a pirate captain who used to raid the New York Harbor area, and then stash the dead bodies of the people he killed in the basement. Since this raiding would have occurred in the 1600’s, and the house did not exist until 1720 (the two famous pirates associated with New Jersey, William Kidd and Henry Morgan, were both dead by 1701), then that legend is nixed as well. Other basement related stories include a secret passageway or tunnel system that ran from the house to the water. When excavations were made by archaeologists in the 1990’s, it was shown that this tunnel was nothing more than a plumbing and sewer system.

Of course, the most famous stories regarding the house relate to the American Revolution and the moniker of the “Spy House”. According to Gertrude, patriot spies would use the house as a meeting place to spy on British ships entering and exiting New York Harbor, and then relay that information to Washington. It makes perfect sense, considering we now know how extensive Washington’s spy rings were, and prominent in New York and New Jersey. Other variations include the house serving as a tavern where British officers would meet and the innkeeper would attempt to get them drunk so he could get information out of them. While the house did not serve as a tavern at that time, therefore that version can be debunked, the other does at least have some credence to it, or at least it would seem.

Throughout my research, I have noticed that there was spying done on British ships in New York Harbor from the Port Monmouth area, but not from that house. It would have been done on Garrett’s Hill, which may not even exist today, as the exact location of the spying appears to be lost. From atop the hill, and not from inside a small cabin, is where the spying would have occurred. This was confirmed to me when I met a member of the group who forced Gertrude out of the Spy House and helped transfer control to the county back in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s. She informed me that the part of the house that would have been standing at the time did not even have any back windows, meaning if you were inside the house, you could not see the harbor at all. It would not make much sense to stand on the beach with a lantern and a spyglass, if one wanted to remain unseen, so we can then conclude that no spying was done from that location at all. This source, who I cannot name, then went on to inform me that everything was made up, all of it coming from one place: Gertrude Neidlinger.

Without Gertrude, there is no flamboyant history. Without her, there are very few ghosts and legends. Could this woman be responsible for singularly creating a history out of thin air? “She was an actress”, my source told me, “a very good actress.” She had to be really good to completely fool generations of people for many years, but it really is not that simple, because everything she made up, did have basis in truth, it just did not have a connection to that particular house.

Popamora, the Indian chief, was a real person, and his tribal land, at one point, stretched from Keansburg to the Navesink River. Pirates really did raid New York Harbor, though much of the specific information has been lost to history. There is a Revolutionary War tie-in (though not a battle occurring on the front lawn, according to that Coast Magazine article), only it is something as simple as one of the owners just happening to have fought in the war. Lastly, there was spying done in the area, though we cannot confirm it absolutely, it just was not done from that house. Everything she said did make sense, and was locally relevant, but as I was once told, “If something sounds too good to be true, then it’s not”. All of these people and events happening to converge on this small house is but mere fantasy and folklore, and these stories will never die, no matter how concretely they are debunked. It will always contribute to the aura and mystique of the Spy House.

“She made everything up. There were no Indians, no pirates, no spies.” I was told, much to my dismay. If there was, in all likelihood, the house would have been known as the Spy House before Gertrude became the curator, but like everything else, she is the be all, end all—without her, there is nothing there but an old building. And as for the ghosts, which is how the house gains most of its notoriety, my source was friends with a woman who owned the building before Gertrude took over. She noted that in more than 40 years of residence there, she never had one paranormal experience, and she was a believer in ghosts. There is hope, though, as she added, “Don’t count it out as not being haunted. It probably is haunted, just not to the severity that everyone thinks”.

Gertrude was eventually done away with in the late 1990’s, after reports came out of strange goings-on. She would hold candlelit séances with psychics and visitors, and even let children from the neighborhood spend the night in the house as a sort of ghostly challenge, all without any supervision of any kind, and candles allowed to burn brightly. Upon her removal, in an unprecedented lawsuit which rocked the museum community, Gertrude sued for the artifacts and items inside the house, and won. She has since passed away, though I cannot get an exact date on her death or where she is interred. Still, even with this invented history, Gertrude did manage to accomplish one thing: she saved the building. While her alterations to history have made a frenzy for historians, perhaps without her stories, the old house would be gone, replaced by high-rise apartments.

Today, the building operates strictly as an environmental center, where talks about ghosts, pirates, and spies are few and far-between. This past February of 2014, I became the first person since Gertrude to be allowed to talk about ghosts within the walls, as part of a lecture series I have developed called “The Haunted History of New Jersey” (and later, conduct an actual investigation, where we did not find anything outstanding). There, towards the end, I had just a few slides about the Spy House, with most of the bullet points ending in question marks, pointing out the fine line between fact and fiction. Since that lecture, which sold out and was a huge success and a very enjoyable experience, and subsequent presentations on the college level, I have actually learned more than I have informed, because people from all over have been kind enough to share documents and information with me that would have made this research project impossible to complete.

Sometimes paranormal investigating spins you in different directions, and we have to examine or call into question something that is of this earth, rather than something supernatural. In all honesty, finding out that nearly everything about the Spy House that has become its “Pop Culture” is false is very disappointing, but as an aspiring history teacher and historian, it is a necessary part of the job. An exposé like this will certainly do little to quell the rampant legends that have sprung up thanks to the internet, because there is a little something inside all of us that wants to believe in the mysterious, or does not want to fathom that something we have been told all of our lives has been made up. But that should not deter us from the ultimate goal, which is the truth.

The truth of the matter is that the Spy House really is a fascinating place, owned by different families, and serving a number of uses over nearly 300 years. Its proximity to the shore, and its potential use as an environmental and cultural center should be celebrated, but that does not take away from the damage done by a very good actress and pseudo-historian named Gertrude. There is a reason why my presentations are subtitled, “Fact or Fiction?”, and this is one of them.

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3 thoughts on “The Invented History of the Spy House

  1. Brian Boyce

    I had the great pleasure to to meet Gertrude. I have also had a tour of the spy house,and it is indeed haunted..She was ousted from her position as curator by jealousy and idiots.She was a friend of all commercial; fisherman in Belford and brought bussess of children down to tsee the fishing port.
    Why certain people would want to discredit her is beyond me.The place is indeed haunted I don’t no by who,but all of port Monmouth went under water in Sandy why not the spy house…

  2. Tammy C.

    I have had the pleasure to meet Gertrude back in the late 1980’s. Whether the story she gave of the Spyhouse is true or not. She definitely brought the house to life and made the place fun. I loved going there and have on many occasions. I loved the décor and the imagination it brought with it. It felt like home, but with a twist and I enjoyed her stories.
    I moved away and did not know what became of Gertrude or the house. I went back after “Sandy” to see if the house survived and I was so happy it did. I knew that it was changed but I did not realize to what degree.
    I walked into a house that looks the same but doesn’t. There is no life there. It may be restored, but it is dead. I listened to the current curator consistently bad mouth Gertrude and with no need. She brought her up without being prompted. The people there were not from the area and did not know Gertrude. I was angry and did not like the content of her tour.
    I just want to say that regardless of truth to her stories, she kept that place going and entertained a generation of people and I will not let anyone tarnish the memories I have of that woman or place that she created.
    I will not go there again.

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