The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden in New York City, is hosting a family-friendly, murder mystery by candlelight just in time for Halloween. Performances are scheduled for Friday and Saturday evenings, Oct. 25 and 26.
This is loosely based on something that was discovered during a renovation of the building in the early 1900s. Workmen had removed some of the floorboards on the second level when they came face to face with a human skeleton. No one knew who it was or how long it had been there. There were no further details regarding suspected victims or motives but the story is revived periodically, especially around Halloween.
This former carriage house was built over 200 years old and has had a long and varied history. William Stephens Smith, a colonel during the Revolutionary War and who had also served on George Washington’s staff, bought 23 acres on the island of Manhattan in 1795. This land was approximately four miles north of the City of New York, among the rolling hills of what is now the Upper East Side. He named the area “Mount Vernon” in honor of Washington. Smith was married to the daughter of John and Abigail Adams, whose name was also Abigail, and he planned to build a large country estate that would be their home.
Col. Smith had ideas for business ventures, but they often failed. Construction on the main house had begun but the colonel could not pay his debts. He couldn’t finish the house and had to sell the property in 1796. It became known as “Smith’s Folly” due to the combination of extravagance and debts incurred.
William T. Robinson, a wealthy New York merchant, purchased the acreage in 1798. He finished the main house then built the carriage house in 1799. He described the estate in an 1806 advertisement printed in The New York Evening Post as having an orchard and two wharves along the East River. He added that the carriage house was “ornamental” and “well arranged for convenience and use.” The main house started being used as the “Mount Vernon Hotel” in 1808, and Robinson sold the property the following year.
Over the next few years, this house-turned-hotel had various owners and proprietors. All of that changed in 1826 when the main house burned. The carriage house was not damaged and the property was purchased by a lawyer, Joseph Coleman Hart, who changed this “barn” into an elegant, day hotel, (similar to today’s spas or country clubs).
Day hotels were a common sight in New York’s countryside. Merchants and members of the upper class would work in the dirty, noisy, crowded city in Lower Manhattan during the week, then take their families to a day hotel to enjoy fresh air, picnics, horseback riding, sailing and swimming during the summer months. The Mount Vernon Hotel was one of these popular spots. Most visitors did not spend the night but while they were there, they could relax and enjoy a meal. The men would often retire to either the gentlemen’s parlor or the tavern. Women and children would visit in the ladies’ parlor and either read, sew, or listen to music. A larger room was available for parties and dances. For those who had traveled a greater distance, a few rooms were available for overnight guests.
One visitor was the Scottish writer, James Stuart, who described the hotel and surrounding landscape in his travel diary, Three Years in North America, published in 1833. This book is still sold today and provides a lot of insight about traveling throughout America between 1828 and 1831. The Mount Vernon Hotel is referred to by name as “a comfortable lodging-house” and “about four miles from New York, on the East River.”
The hotel closed in 1833, largely due to the 1832 cholera epidemic in New York. It then was used, until 1905, as a private home for three generations. From 1905 to 1924, it was a soup kitchen, residence for immigrants, and antiques showroom before the Colonial Dames of America purchased it in 1924. They continue to own and operate this National Register of Historic Places listing, focusing on the years when the building served as a country hotel.
Information on the times and ticket prices of the Halloween murder mystery is available by clicking the link below that says event schedule.
Written by: Cynthia Collins
Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden
Mount Vernon Hotel Museum Event Schedule
The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, Guidelines for Historical Interpretation, 2006.