Remember, My Dear Readers, when I told you a couple of months ago that I was doing a series on cemeteries? Well, I’m mostly going there for the history. I can see who died in the Influenza Outbreak of 1917, or who was a Civil War hero, where the slaves were regulated to, etc…I can see what battles stirred up among family members, political figures, and nations when I wander around certain graveyards. They all speak to me. Not literally, but historically. Still, there’s this haunting notion in the back of mind whenever I climb through their neglected rows of tipping tombstones, or when I stroll their manicured lawns and mausoleums–what about ghosts?
Recently, I posted a question on Facebook, asking my friends and family if they believe in ghosts. Most said they did. Some said they believed in spirits–like the spirits of loved ones coming back to bless them during a time of trial–or they believed in demons oppressing and terrorizing people. More than a couple of Catholic friends suggested that ghosts are just the “poor lost souls of purgatory”.
Whatever everyone’s belief, while I dug up information (no pun intended) on the history of the East Coast’s aged cemeteries, I have also simultaneously begun to dig up ghost stories. Some are from friends. Others are from strangers. They’re so interesting that I’ve decided to do a series of these stories as well. Because from these supernatural tales comes a lot of history, the kind that most people don’t want to talk about. The kind that is supposed to remain buried. Perhaps, this is the true value of a good ghost story–that we can talk about how a seemingly normal person flipped and killed his family or that someone was left heartbroken by a son’s death to Yellow Fever. We learn what plagued our great grandparents and the people who settled the places where we now live. We often learn how the common folk lived through ghost stories, because they allow us a sense of fantasy, a stepping away from the actual tragedy at hand. We can look at the story as a story and not a grisly newsreel.
This first story is a local one, one that I found coincided with the history of a neighborhood that was bulldozed to make way for progress. I hope you enjoy it. I hope, more importantly, that it inspires you to seek out the history of your own local cemeteries and to give voice to the people and places that can no longer speak. Cemeteries, ghost stories…they’re the places and realms where lives ended and like Hemingway said, “You learn everything you need to know about a man by the way he died.”
(Photo: Siobhan Dolezal)
The Dancing Man
by Tiffani Burnett-Velez
It was an unsually warm spring night in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and David was walking home from his long shift at a local restaurant. It was near midnight, when he began the three mile walk. Allentown is a grand city in the daytime, bustling with the energy of the newly built hockey arena, the many cafe’s and restaurants, the boutique shops, the bodegas, the Jamaican and Dominican stores. But at night, the place, like most cities, is a little more sinister and one should be careful walking home alone in the darkness of a city street in America.
The familiar crack dealer was standing on the corner, begging for David to buy. He politely declined. The drug dealer went away dejected. I can’t sell anything in this economy, he lamented. A drunk was arguing with a slab of concrete at the corner. The police were patrolling up and down the street, looking out for people other than the drug dealer. A group of Hispanic young men were sitting on the front porch of their three story brick row home, smoking weed and telling stories. They invited David to join them, and when he again refused, they wished him a beautiful night, because it was a beautiful night. The stars were out, poking through the clear black sky. There was a breeze, a gentle cool one, that wafted over David as he made his way beyond the old Civil War monument on Hamilton Street, past the pizza places and the court house, past the old closed-down Social Security office. Finally, he made his way to the Eighth Street Bridge, also known as the Albertus L. Meyers Bridge, where more than 80 people have jumped to their deaths in the past 100 years.It’s loaded with local lore, but few Lehigh Valley residents actually know just how deadly this bridge, once the highest bridge of its kind in the world, has been.The bridge was under heavy construction during David’s walk, but it was still passable to foot traffic.
“I saw this figure in the distance. It was a man dancing.
“I got to the front of the bridge,” David said, “I saw this figure in the distance. It was a man dancing. Doing something like the Lindy Hop, and this was strange because that dance was popular during the 1930’s or 40’s. Now, I don’t know if I was doing it this particular night, but most nights that I walked home, I sang 1930’s and 40’s jazz songs to myself, the kind you would have danced to with the Lindy Hop.”
David goes on to describe how he tested the figure, to see if his eyes were playing tricks on him. He moved right and left, up and down, seeing if it was his own shadow playing against the street light, but it never moved with him. It never moved in response to him.
“The other weird thing,” he said, “was that when I got closer to it, it didn’t shrink in size. It stayed exactly the same. Shadows don’t do that. Eventually, as I approached it, it disappeared into the cemetery behind the bridge. I never saw it again after that.”
I was curious about David’s report and did some research. It seems that the neighborhood surrounding the Eighth Street Bridge used to be a vibrant African-American community, which emerged out of the sewing and textile mills of the Industrial Revolution. By the early part of the last century, it was a thriving community, one that was lit up with dance halls on Friday and Saturday nights, where the locals would dance to the latest Big Bands hits.
“I used to sing old jazz and blues songs from the 1930’s and 40’s,” he’d said. Count Basie stuff.”
In the 1970’s, the neighborhood was mostly bulldozed to make way for, ironically, Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Much of the area disappeared and the residents moved to other parts of the city, the Lehigh Valley, or left the area all together. It was part of the late 20th century efforts to “clean up the inner city” and, as a consequence of this “clean-up”, this vibrant African-American neighborhood disappeared into history.
After David told me this story, I did some investigation on the cemetery next to the bridge. It’s called the Fairview Cemetery and it was designed by one of the two designers of Central Park in New York City. Though mostly derelict and neglected now, with sinkholes, broken tombstones, and litter sprinkled about, it’s easy to see how Fairview–the city’s cemetery–was once a stunning park like complex. Victorian era locals would flock to the place to have picnics near their loved one’s graves. I can’t imagine anyone doing that now. They’d fall 30 feet down onto 150 year old bones.
Was the Dancing Man a ghost? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that a person was out on the bridge that night. Was he possibly the spirit of one of the residents who danced in the halls to Count Basie or Cole Porter at night? That’s a question that can probably never be definitively answered, but other locals have claimed to have seen people jumping from the bridge at night, and when terrified onlookers ran to find them below, no one was there. It was as though the fall never happened. Search the Eight Street Bridge and you’ll find countless stories like this. Are they true? There’s probably a good explanation for all of them. It’s just that no one has figured out what that is yet. One thing we do know is that the neighborhood around the bridge was wiped clean of its houses and dance halls, of its restaurants and cafe’s, almost overnight. We don’t know if this ghost was telling us this, but we do know that just the story of the Dancing Man led us to this whole section of Lehigh Valley history that hasn’t yet made it into the history books. There’s value in that.
Next time you’re on the Eighth Street Bridge, locals, and if you ever happen upon there, non-locals, nod in respect for a moment for all the jumpers, the dancers, and the neighbors who once were.
Eighth Street Bridge in Allentown, PA
(Photo: Discovery Lehigh Valley/Pinterest)