SOMERVILLE, N.J. — Someone, or some thing, is tickling people, rearranging shoes and otherwise wreaking havoc at the historic Hotel Somerset, a Main Street boarding house and home of the popular McCormick's Pub.
It might sound funny, but residents and the hotel owner said suspected ghosts that have been reported over the past five years is no laughing matter.
Three residents have complained of their feet being tickled while sleeping, most recently during the past three weeks by Curtis Jones, a resident of the hotel for seven years. Jones said his neck also gets tickled in the middle of the night, and something messes up the order of his shoes underneath his bed.
"I just want it to go away!" said Jones, a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
So does third-generation operator Tom McCormick. That's why he called East Brunswick-based Paranormal Diagnostics Group to investigate.
McCormick said he believes the ghost story because two other residents complained of tickled feet four and five years ago in a different room from Jones, but the same one where a tenant had died many years before.
On two separate evenings during the past week, McCormick said, his new night-vision surveillance system picked up what he said appeared to be three orbs darting in and out of a storage room. He also said that he, his wife, Shannon, and their 5-year-old son have experienced several run-ins with ghosts.
"I was getting soda down in the basement, when I heard a woman or a girl whisper to me, 'Help me,'" Shannon said about an incident that occurred last year.
Two hours later, their son said he saw the ghost of a girl in the basement.
"We get to the bottom of the basement stairs, and he takes four steps and plants," McCormick said. "I said, 'Is she here?' He pointed to the same exact same spot as my wife. I just grabbed his hand, and we ran up the stairs."
McCormick said he called Paranormal Diagnostics Group because they have a medical background and use scientific equipment and evidence to confirm and more often debunk ghostly activity.
Respiratory therapists in a Somerset County sleep center by day, ghost hunters Robert McCaffrey, 48, of East Brunswick, and Dave Orloff, 42, of Howell, have investigated Hotel Somerset three times in as many weeks. They said they have collected more evidence of paranormal activity than typically presented in one episode of "Ghost Hunters," the Syfy Channel cable show that inspired their growing hobby.
"We have several sound recordings and video of flashes and shadows," McCaffrey said. "We're going to continue to investigate."
The ghost hunters said they have had an interest in paranormal activity since their teens. They said their first investigation was five years ago, when Orloff's neighbor invited them to Pennhurst Asylum, an infamous property near Valley Forge, Pa., that his family now owns and markets as a haunted attraction.
Originally, the "asylum" was the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, then the Pennhurst State School and Hospital. According to the 1968 news report "Suffer the Little Children," many patients were abused and tortured, which continued until a 1977 lawsuit led to its closure 10 years later. According to a medium who conducted a séance with McCaffrey, Orloff and others at Pennhurst, the spirits of several of the abused, as well as their torturers, haunt the asylum.
"We've learned a lot since then," McCaffrey said, "and have a lot better equipment."
The ghost hunters use UV meters to measure fields of energy, laser lights and smoke machines to distinguish shadows, orbs and other images, and thermal imaging and night vision video cameras to capture them. After five years, McCaffrey said, they have yet to see a full-bodied apparition but have seen and recorded several other anomalies.
Paranormal Diagnostics also has investigated the Burrowes Mansion, a Revolutionary War site in Matawan, and a Middlesex County home said to be possessed by a demon, whom they apparently recorded asking them less-than-politely to leave. The team also is interested in investigating the Bound Brook Hotel, another Revolutionary War site said to be haunted.
"Central Jersey is loaded with Revolutionary War sites," McCaffrey said. "We would like to investigate each one of them, and see what kind of stories we can find."
The team's interest in the Revolutionary War led them to Hotel Somerset, McCaffrey said.
Established in 1748, the Somerset is the oldest continuous hotel in the country, McCormick said. During the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington ate there and his men slept there while Washington stayed at the nearby Dutch Wallace House, McCaffrey added.
The hotel also played a part in the 1926 Halls-Mills murder trial in which a widow and her brothers were acquitted of the murder of her pastor husband and his mistress. During the trial at the historic Somerset County Courthouse, the jury was sequestered across Grove Street at the hotel.
McCaffrey and Orloff said they haven't been able to determine whether the hotel's suspected ghosts are related to the American Revolution, the trial or any other aspect of a rich history. But a medium told them that she could sense the presence of three deceased children, confirming the suspicion of McCormick's son. Without ever having seen it, the medium drew a diagram of Jones' room and said his closet is a vortex of paranormal activity.
"Something definitely is going on at the foot of his bed," McCaffrey said in reaction to extensive energy readings usually indicative of electrical wiring or appliances.
"We were able to debunk the readings at Curtis' (Jones) front door because there is electrical wiring there, but there's nothing electrical at the foot of his bed," he continued. "So where are those readings coming from?"
McCormick said he recently found out from his parents that throughout their 40-year ownership, five tenants died in the hotel. Another killed himself by jumping out of a window in the same room in which McCormick and his young family had stayed. During the first paranormal investigation of the hotel three weeks ago, McCormick and McCaffrey said they saw and took photos of blue orbs in that room.
In the attic, the team also recorded audio of what seemed to be the name Evelyn. McCormick said he asked his father, Ken, about a connection to that name.
On Friday, McCormick told the team that an Evelyn Epright lived behind the hotel in a home that was torn down in the mid-1960s. As they sat at a booth around a laptop computer, Orloff played back the recording, and McCormick's jaw dropped when he heard the voice say, "Evelyn Epright." He burst out of his seat and yelled, "You've got to be kidding me!"
The team then played the recording several more times at various speeds. The voice clearly said "Evelyn," then pronounced the same syllables and rhythm as Epright. Yet, other than once living next to the hotel, Evelyn Epright had no connection to it, the McCormicks said. But a Dorothy Epright was a waitress there in 1954, according to a city directory.
Paranormal Diagnostics also recorded video in the hotel's attic, from where footsteps often have been heard despite a lack of floor boards on which to walk. As a machine pumped smoke through a maze of laser lights, the team called out to an Evelyn Epright, as well as to the suspected children, asking them if they wanted to play and if they liked ice cream.
In the basement Saturday night, Shannon reluctantly agreed to participate in the third and latest investigation because "the spirits seem drawn to her," her husband said. She said she saw someone suddenly poke their head out from behind McCaffrey, as he and her husband stood next to each other videotaping, the ghost hunter with a thermal imaging camera.
"Honey, did you just poke your head out behind Rob?" she asked.
"Uh, no," her husband replied.
Shannon then bolted up the basement stairs in fright.
"I think it's safe to say this place definitely is haunted, but by who or what, we don't know," McCaffrey said. "We're going to compile all our evidence over the next couple of weeks and see what we can find out."