York Town Square

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In York, Pa.’s, Elmwood Mansion: ‘… A shadowy figure of a hoop-skirted woman…’

Richard Kraus said he misses the sounds and smells of his old home, especially the creosote odor from the fireplace. He was surprised to learn it’s still there.

First comes a longtime resident of the Elmwood Mansion telling credible stories about ghosts in that wonderful York landmark.
As discussed in previous posts, Ann Niess wrote an intriguing book about growing up in the mansion. (Excerpt: My whole family, and later on Edward Strickler and his family, all witnessed a shadowy figure of a hoop-skirted woman … . I am very aware that you as the reader will have your own interpretation of what I relate. However, I experienced it and can only describe what I thought I saw and how I felt.”)
Now, York Daily Record writer Frank Bodani explores the Elmwood Mansion with a more recent resident, Richard Kraus. And he also told stories of apparitions.
All this attention has caused Ann Niess’s book to sell out at its two local vendors: the Memorial Hospital Gift Shop and the York County Heritage Trust Museum shop.
But extra copies are being printed.
Ghosts aside – and they should be far aside – Niess believes the house gives meaningful lessons about America, as she wrote in a recent letter to the editor:

The very endurance of the house exhibited by all of the past interfacing events it had been subjected to, it can be compared to the “American dream” theory that substantiates our very American culture. Despite the ravages of time, wind and weather, the very bricks and mortar it was made from, it still “stands tall”, and on its own. This trait is displayed by its long perseverance over adversity and circumstance, and to have evolved to its present status by becoming a useful structure for public service. We as Americans inherited this same legacy. We stand tall with our belief that in our very solid goodness of will and determination, we will overcome what ever will threaten our Americanism. We will persevere over adversity, and retain our identity. The very existence of the Elmwood Mansion exemplifies this Americanism theme.

Meanwhile, enjoy Frank’s article on the mansion: …

The Elmwood House, as it was then called, is pictured circa 1895, courtesy of Ann Small Niess’ book by that name.

He moved up the staircase, decades of memories passing with each step, and talked about the house he loves and the ghosts who haunt it.
Richard Kraus came back to see the Elmwood Mansion. He was the last to live in the 19-room, Southern plantation-style home in Spring Garden Township that has long been full of Civil War-era history – and somewhat unnerving spirits, if you believe the stories.
Memorial Hospital bought the home from Kraus more than 20 years ago, renovating it inside and out. The hospital saved the grand old place, in a sense.
So it still can serve as a sentry to the entrance of Interstate 83 and to the neighborhood around it. It’s not only the showpiece of prized, leafy Elmwood – the neighborhood named after the home – but it also holds a significant place in York County’s history.
To many, it always has been the largest haunted house around. Those who lived there nearly 90 years ago reported hearing mysterious sounds and seeing unexplained happenings – like the time, one former resident recalled, that two glass candlesticks somehow “struck together, breaking the sockets off as clean as if they were cut.”
The experiences and stories continued through the decades.
And the ghosts are just another reason why Kraus, 59, adores the house so much, he said. He worked on it tirelessly for the five years he lived there. And it was the place where he did a lot of his growing up, when his uncle owned it.
It reminds him of his fondest moments and his biggest heartbreaks.
His soul, he said wistfully, will always be a part of the place.
That’s why he loved coming back to give a tour on a recent evening. To walk up the old staircase and talk about the unexplained noises and the stunning apparitions.
To explain why this place is so special after all of these years …
* * *
Walk up the staircase to the second floor. Turn left. The enormous room used to be two rooms: Kraus’ bedroom and the family TV room.
Maybe the most haunted place in the house.
It’s still a most special place.
Even after Kraus was forced to sell in 1986, after the home became too much for him. Even after Memorial Hospital renovated the place by adding modern bathrooms, huge boardroom tables and hospitality suites, even a third-floor apartment for overnight business guests.
The deep, burgundy carpeting has been replaced by a lighter, floral print. The wide-planked pine wood floors are a newer wood. Walls were moved. The third-floor trap door to the attic, where slaves were hidden, is gone. So are the wooden stakes in the walls where the servants hung their clothes.
But the grand, oversized feel of the mansion remains. There is still enough familiar to those who used to live there years ago.
Two ornate brass chandeliers – converted from gas to electricity – still hang in the entrance hall and the dining room. A 6-foot-tall gold-leaf mirror has been moved from the second floor to the first. The inside of the old brick chimney hearth in the kitchen still smells like wood burning on a crisp November night.
The face of a young woman in a stained-glass window still greets those on the stairway landing between the first and second floor.
Walk past her on the way to Kraus’ old bedroom. This is where he saw his only vision in the house, he said, the flash-by appearance of a woman.
The adjacent TV room is where he once heard the unmistakable creaks of the staircase one Saturday morning as he put on his sneakers. He looked into the hall to see his red cat, Zippy, lifting his head slowly, as if he was looking at something approaching. Kraus figured it was one of his young sons sneaking up on him.
The cat’s head eventually cocked almost straight up in the air.
So Kraus leaped out into hall.
The TV room also is where he and his sons and ex-wife watched a closet door pushed shut slowly open itself at least a few inches every night promptly at 10:10. It stopped after a couple of weeks. Later, the door began opening every night at 9:50 p.m. It stopped. Weeks later, it opened at 10 p.m. each night.
Kraus smiled and laughed a bit as he pointed to the closet during his recent tour.
It doesn’t have a door anymore.
* * *
Kraus first got to know the mansion as a kid in 1955, when his uncle Edward Strickler bought it and moved in.
But the house had a long history before that.
It was built in 1835 by successful businessman, Jacob Brillinger, who later joined the Union army during the Civil War. The home became a stop on the Underground Railroad, with slaves hiding there on their way to Wrightsville and then north to Canada.
It also was a place that reminded Confederate troops of their homes far away when they marched through town on their way to Gettysburg.
The home was even moved a couple of blocks north on Belmont Street in 1905 – by mule and greased logs in front of gawking crowds – to its present location.
It wasn’t too many years later, in the early 1920s, when the “hauntings” of Elmwood began to be recorded.
The shrieks and moans. Knockings on a fireplace mantle. Doorknobs turning. Men’s voices heard in the empty parlor. A sound, one former resident noted, “like a team of horses galloping across the tin roof.”
A female apparition in a hoop skirt.
A male apparition in a gray Confederate uniform.
Those were the experiences of Edgar Small and his family when they lived there from the 1920s through the ’50s. The Stricklers, who lived there after that, experienced some of the same.
And so did Kraus, who lived there with his family for five years in the 1980s.
Even as a child, he remembers how people often crossed the street and purposely walked on the other side when approaching the mansion. He talked of a maid who hurriedly left each day before sunset.
The stories never bothered him, not when he moved in and certainly not when he experienced many of them himself.
“There was never a feeling of hostility, never a feeling of evil,” Kraus said. “It was one of companionship. It was a good kind of feeling. You knew who it was, and you were happy to hear from them. It was never, never anything negative.”
And, mostly, it seems the ghosts only make themselves known to those with close relationships with the home, usually to those who live there.
Over the years, other Elmwood residents talked of seeing a vision of the stately soldier gliding down the staircase and walking out the front door – and leaving it open.
Richard Kraus said he never saw that. But his son saw the vision as a child.
A 7- or 8-year-old Adrian was walking past his father’s bedroom one day when he looked in and saw the gray man standing, hand on hip, gazing out a window. He appeared nearly translucent.
“The detail really got to me,” Adrian Kraus said. “I could clearly see the scrambled eggs (golden embroidery signifying an officer’s rank) on his jacket sleeve. His hand was on his sword, hanging off his right hip.”
The gray man slowly turned his head, his face featuring a thick beard. He was wearing an officer’s hat.
“Our eyes met and I took off running down the hall screaming,” Adrian said, laughing.
Adrian talked about hearing footsteps outside his door at nights but how no one was ever there. He would hear tapping on his window in the middle of the night but there were no tree branches around.
“Everything was good,” said Adrian, now 31. “It was scary because I was a kid, but nothing mean ever happened. Nothing tried to scare you.”
“We lived here,” Richard Kraus said of his family. “And they existed here,” he said of the ghosts. “And sometimes our paths crossed.
“You didn’t really interact with them, you just crossed paths with them.”
And, apparently, they may still be there.
When Adrian Kraus came back to tour the home in the early 1990s, he went upstairs to the third floor – where the vision of the hoop-skirted woman is most often seen – and walked through the rooms.
Suddenly, one of the doors began to shut hard on its own. Adrian, a heavyweight high school wrestler at the time, grabbed it and pushed back hard. Just as suddenly, the pressure eased.
“I knew what it was,” he said. “One of the ghosts was like, ‘Hey, we’re still here. Don’t forget us, we’re still here.'”
* * *
Others also have seen and heard.
Jane Alleman is the food service and conference center manager for Memorial Hospital. She has spent countless hours at the mansion during the past 20 years setting up and tearing down for meetings and events.
She’s seen coffee pots turn themselves on. Sodas roll out of previously closed cupboard doors. A ticking clock sound in a room without a clock – a room that used to have a clock years before. Mysterious footprints and embossed impressions on freshly vacuumed rugs.
She swears that every time someone new begins working with her, she begins hearing noises when she’s in the kitchen.
She hasn’t seen the apparitions others have seen, but she has come to call the hoop-skirted woman “Virginia.”
“I believe,” she said. “I honestly do.”
Edward Strickler told Kraus about seeing the latch of his bedroom door lifting and falling, then the handle moving at night. There was no one there when he opened it.
Certainly, there are lots of folks who scoff at such things, saying an old, broken latch could have allowed the front door to open. Or the settling of the house could have caused the noises from the chimney and fireplace and walls.
But Richard Kraus and others say they know what they’ve seen and heard.
They offer ghost explanations.
The gray man, for example, may have been a Confederate soldier who saw the mansion on his way to Gettysburg and it struck him hard, reminding him of his home that he hadn’t seen in years. Maybe he was killed soon after in battle, his spirit staying at the last place that meant so much.
Maybe the hoop-skirted woman lost a lover in the war.
“Some of my closest friends look straight at me and say, ‘I don’t believe in ghosts.’ That’s OK. … It’s a state of mind,” Kraus said. “Are you going to be afraid? Are you going to turn your back or be stimulated? It’s an experience. We may not have explanations for everything, but you can’t ignore that.
“When I die I’m going to be one of the ghosts who haunt the house,” he said with a laugh. “Not necessarily haunts, but takes up residence there.”
Kraus just might be the last person ever to live in the mansion. He said he if had the chance he would undertake all of the work to live there again.
“Almost every day I think about it,” he said, passing it on I-83 his way to and from work in Baltimore. “I love coming here. It’s like coming home.”