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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 the . 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 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 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.

Jen April 11, 2011 at 04:52 PM
That said- I took my cousin with me one night when renovations started and we took some pics. When we went home to look at the pics, there were round circles with face looking features all over the pictures. These are supposedly called "orbs" which are The only "paranormal" activity, I ever experienced there. I've took pictures there before but the difference was it was during a time of the renovations. Orbs are mysterious, intriguing but quite harmless. They don't even stay in the pictures for long ;-(
Linda DeNicola April 11, 2011 at 11:37 PM
I wrote an article on the Spy House for halloween many years ago and interviewed Neidlinger. She told me about an apparition of a little girl holding a corncob doll that appeared from time to time next to a tree on the property. It seems that the girl was run over by a horse drawn carriage and stayed on to haunt the place. She also said that an old sea captain was seen sitting on a chair in the house. You can tell when he is there, she said, because there would be a cold spot. I didn't believe any of it, but it was a fun article to write.
Justin M May 20, 2011 at 03:28 PM
I want to be upfront and say that I personally am somewhat skeptical about ghosts and apparitions. I have never personally experienced any kind of supernatural presence. I do have a story though, from someone close to me (my father) who was also VERY skeptical (if not outright in denial) of the presence of ghosts, which led me to believe that maybe they do exhist. My father built the fishing peir directly behind the Spy House sometime around 1990-1992 (I was only around 10-12 at that time so exact date is a little blurry.) Whats odd about this story is that the poster above mentions a little girl. This story involves a little girl perhaps the same apparition) My father owns his own dockbuilding company and was hired by the Township to build a fishing pier back in the early '90's.He would usually be the first person on the job in the morning and the last person to leave at dusk. The first week or so, he met Gertrude Neidlinger (who I also met on several occasions as a kid and who I thought was a very sweet person)She would tell him stories of ghosts and call them by name. She said she even brought some ghosts home with her every night, kind of like companions. I remember my dad telling me how he thought it was funny that she actually believed in ghosts and went as far as to name them. The first few months of the job, he experienced nothing out of the ordinary.He enjoyed talking with Gertrude about the Spy House history ect but never told us he bought into it.That all changed
Justin M May 20, 2011 at 03:29 PM
One night, my father came home from work, and went right upstairs without talking to anyone. We would usually sit at the dinner table and wait for him to arrive home, then all eat. He skipped dinner and went straight to bed. When my Mom asked him what was wron, he said "he had a bad day and didn't want to talk about it." My mother came back down and said he wasn't feeling well. The next night, he came home once again flustered and my mother again asked him what was wrong. It was at this time that he told her (not us, I assume he thought we were too young at the time to know) that he had encountered ghosts at the Spy House when he was parking his excavator (digging machcine.) He said as he was pulling into the parking lot with the machine, he heard a womans voice scream NO! STOP! PLEASE! STOP!top of her lungs. He immidiately stopped the machine and jumped out assuming the worst (he had run over someone.) Now, if anyone has ever been in or around heavy machinery, you know how loud they are. He said it sounded like the woman was in the machine with him, that how clear he heard her voice.
Justin M May 20, 2011 at 03:29 PM
After getting out of the machine, he looked in, around and under the tracks of the machine and found nothing. He was clearly freaked out by the whole experience, thinking he had at first killed someone, only to find out there wasnt a soul in sight. That was the first night he came home and went straight to bed. The next day, he mentioned to Gertrude that he heard a womans voice. She asked him to show her exactly where this had happened. He pointed to the spot where the beginning of the pier meets the gravel parking lot. She knew exactly what it was. She explained to him that back in the 17th-18th century (again dates aren't accurate, just painting a picture) before the erosion of the shoreline, almost where the current shoreline is today, was an old main road that ran through the property. She said it was here that it was reported a little girl was run over by horse and carriage. That the woman he heard last night screaming at him was the mother of the little girl who was run over. Gertrude explained that the apparition probably believed he was the driver of the carriage, and was almost "reliving" the experience with my father
Justin M May 20, 2011 at 03:30 PM
He was again kind of skeptical. He knew he had heard a womans voice clear as day and he knew what he had heard. He still wasn't convinced though. The next night, around the same time, he again had an encounter with this woman. This time he was SURE what was happening. Same as the night before, he parked the machine they were using to excavate the shoreline where the future dock was going to be built. As he was parking the machine, the womans voice was now "extremely loud" according to my father. This time, however, she simply said: I AM SORRY. ITS OK, I AM SORRY. He has no idea what it meant. Perhaps the apparition realized he was infact not the person who killed her daughter some 300 years ago. Either way, its a bit freaky, even for someone who is still on the fence about ghosts. And I am no where near as skeptical as my old man was. Regardless, the place is filled with a ton of history and I am proud to have it just a few miles from where I live. The story is 10x better hearing it from him, as you can see him kind of get scared talking about it (he rarely tells anyone about it though, unless I ask him to, as he is aware of the doubts peiople will have about the story.)
Barbara Ann Bailey November 06, 2012 at 06:57 PM
I played around here as a child, my mother and father went to the New Years Eve partys that held there. My brother and I used to stay upstairs where my aunt and uncle lived while it was a bar. We never saw any ghostly being were we where there. My aunt and uncle were Leonardo and Edna Hilmouth. Written by Barbara Bailey
Arlene Allen November 26, 2012 at 12:32 AM
And how does anyone think it survived Sandy without a lttle extra help?
Jill K January 07, 2013 at 08:50 PM
I grew up in Port Monmouth in a house that was most definitely haunted. I visited the Spy House often, always got a creepy feeling, but never saw anything. However, weird things that happened in the house I lived in that was close to the Spy House made me a believer for life.
J February 24, 2013 at 12:47 PM
I saw a shadow walk along the back wall of the house one night and dissappear into a corner. No one else who was there with me could have caused it. Seeing is believing.
christine February 24, 2013 at 03:05 PM
People can "debunk" and say whatever they want about the Spy House BUT everyone of us that grew up around it know the truth! That place is as haunted as they come and is most definatley a NJ treasure :-)
Margot Goldberg April 02, 2013 at 04:27 AM
Recently read an article dated 2006 that said that Spy House Beach at Bayshore Waterfront park was deemed by the EPA a Dangerous solid Waste Dump Site....Is there any truth to this....we are thinking of moving to that area and trying to get the facts. Thanks for any information!
Diana Moa May 20, 2013 at 05:14 PM
Thomas Whitlock is my 8th Great Grandfather and I want to visit next week. How would I get in touch with someone at the museum? Our history is long and amazing and I have stories to share. Loving Whitlock family in Oklahoma
John Glazewski January 21, 2014 at 08:37 PM
The title should be "The politically correct truth". I grew up fishing the area and parked there many times. One night there was an apparition in the window. I was alone and never got out of somewhere so fast. Everyone from the area knows the truth. People have experienced things in and around there for years. Nothing has been debunked.

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