The Whole Truth About the 'Spy House'
Decoding a Monmouth County landmark and its colorful, if not factual, past
The following story was originally published on April 11, 2011. It answers a lot of questions concerning our Spy House feature in Mysterious Middletown Sightings Tour.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” ~ Carlton Young as Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) ...
The stark, lone building sits with its back to the mystical marshes and tumbling waters of the Sandy Hook Bay. The cold, early spring rain strikes the series of green shutters along its rear wall. It seems to beckon for a visit.
Known as the Spy House for many years, its actual name is the Seabrook-Wilson Homestead, located at 119 Port Monmouth Road, home to the Bayshore Waterfront Park Activity Center.
Over the years, mysteries and legends have been attributed to the property, including details that either cannot be firmly established or have been debunked outright.
It was said that the house was built in 1648, and was used as a tavern during the Revolutionary War. When British troops had cause to visit, imbibe and subsequently say more than they ought, the innkeepers would pass what they overheard on to the Colonial troops, thus providing the moniker of the "Spy House."
There have also been stories of supernatural happenings, spirits moving items around, and ghostly visions peering out through the windows. Several Web sites have deemed it "the most haunted house in America." Unfortunately for the yarn-spinners, the mythology and the facts don’t sync up.
Monmouth County Supervising Historic Preservation Specialist Gail Hunton said that there are threads of truth in the first part of the story, but only threads. "(Owner) Thomas Seabrook was a fervent patriot in the New Jersey militia, and there were certainly skirmishes and raids involving British troops in the area, but he was not a spy, nor a privateer," she explained.
The building was actually a tavern, but much later than the legend said, from 1910 to roughly around the early-1970’s when it was a summer inn under the banners of The Bayside Manor and the Lighthouse Inn.
Its first incarnation would have been extremely modest. "Its first section on the west end was a one-and-a-half story cabin typical of a first-settlement dwelling in the early 17th century," said Hunton, "indicative of a pioneer, frontier environment."
Over the years the Seabrook family added to the original structure; and in 1892, the building assumed its present size and appearance. Hunton described how the building would have cut a striking figure across the area: “The Seabrook family owned about 300 acres of land there, so you can imagine a view from Wilson Avenue without all the new construction surrounding it, set before the Sandy Hook Bay.”
After the Seabrooks, the house was occupied by the Reverend William V. Wilson and his wife Martha. Chairwoman of the Middletown Landmarks Commission MaryLou Strong explained Wilson’s role and impact on the community. “It was in the early 19th century," she said. "(Wilson) led the New Monmouth Baptist Church, which is still there on New Monmouth Road. He was very involved with the community."
Wilson was part of the temperance movement and, at age 42, took on the duties at the church. It was one of two congregations he concurrently led, the first being the Navesink Baptist Church in the Navesink section of the township. He eventually left the Navesink Church and made the New Monmouth Church (then known as the Port Monmouth Church of Chanceville) his home-base.
To commemorate his involvement in the affairs of the town, he became the namesake of Wilson Avenue, the road that leads toward the Seabrook-Wilson house.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 29, 1974, and around that time was when the tales started being told. The artifacts from inside the building, which Hunton described as "a real mixture, a real hodgepodge of stuff" have been removed.
"There were many questions about the provenance," Hunton said. Anything that was inaccurate to the time of, or necessity to, the building had to be moved out. "We (the county, when it took over the home) could not accept artifacts of which we knew nothing," she said.
The unascertainable items now reside at Heath Farm on Cherry Tree Farm Road. Hunton offered some regret about that, believing that some items may well have been germane to the property, but without any solid proof they could not risk the inaccuracies.
Then there is the thorny subject of the name, The Spy House, a term offered with only the best of intentions, if not the conviction of veracity. "The term was made up by the former curator, Gertrude Neidlinger, around the time of the Bi-Centennial (1976)," Strong said. "To her credit, she built up the audience. After all, it was very difficult to really get people interested in old houses and in the mindset of preservation at that time.”
On Neidlinger, Strong agreed with Hunton. “She was a very lovely person, very artistic," Strong said. "But she tended to embroider things." Strong recalled a Girl Scout-Brownie trip to The Spy House with her daughter, and Neidlinger’s narrative getting away from her. "I thought to myself, 'Oh, boy! She’s just making this stuff up.'"
While some might look down upon Neidlinger’s colorful commentary today, there is a belief that without it, the Seabrook-Wilson house might not have been allowed to remain.
In retrospect, Strong understands the pressures that must have been upon Neidlinger to punch up the profile of the house. "(Neidlinger) unwittingly got very involved with (the excitement of the situation) and took it upon herself to weave these stories," she said.
The unfortunate side effect of the colorful tall tales was that the house became a focal-point for all the wrong reasons. Web sites and videos focused on fictitious legend, unsubstantiated claims of spectral sightings.
The moniker of "the most haunted house in America" became, for a time, inseparable from the property. When the building was closed off to the public, the ghost-chasers believed it was more proof of nether-worldly events and a cover-up afoot.
Strong believes the opposite — that it was the natural, not the supernatural, doing harm to the Seabrook-Wilson Homestead. "People were going there to reach out to ghosts, and supposedly to capture paranormal activity," she said.
The presence of the spirit hunters was taking away from the actual merits of the building, rooted in Middletown and Monmouth County history, Strong explained.
The inventions of Neidlinger’s well-intended hyperbole had reduced the cultural artifact to a common spook-house overrun with people arriving for all the wrong reasons. "It was very upsetting," Strong said. "They stopped allowing the public in during that time.”
A state Historic Trust Fund Capital Preservation Grant, awarded in 2002, helped fund the home's exterior restoration. Interior restoration and construction of exhibits are ongoing. As its activity center, The Seabrook-Wilson Homestead is a focal point of Bayshore Waterfront Park now.
But other renovation/preservation aspects of the building, according to its history, had to be done ad hoc in its past. Hunton explained that changes to the architecture in more recent times did not reflect with what the Seabrook family would have lived. "Some of the things done during the township’s tenure were incorrect," she said.
As efforts continue to clarify the Seabrook-Wilson Homestead’s past, equal effort is given to ensure its future. The building is open, but not yet fully staffed; and the exhibits within are still being readied.
Programs will start soon and Memorial Day will see the arrival of a docent who will guide tours through the building. A date for a complete opening will be set when the exhibits are completed.
In the end, while it may no longer be The Spy House and visitors will soon have to reconcile the falsehood of its paranormal past, the present and future Seabrook-Wilson Homestead will stand on the actual merits of what it was meant to be — a preserved time capsule of Middletown history.
Visit the Monmouth County Park System website for more details: http://monmouthcountyparks.com/page.aspx?Id=2516
Let us know how you feel about the opposing factions that swear either the house is or is not haunted in the comments section below.