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The Haunting of Cherry Hill House

A lurid 19th-century crime of passion comes to life through special tours

by Ann Morrow on October 31, 2013

 

If ever there was a house museum with a claim to being haunted, it’s Historic Cherry Hill. Nearly 200 years ago, the elegant yellow mansion was the setting of a notorious murder that was equal parts a crime of passion and a cold-blooded execution for money. Hatched from a plot that crossed social barriers with impunity, the crime also shines a light on the less egalitarian side of Regency-era America. The subsequent trials were a nation-wide sensation resulting in Albany’s last public hanging—a gruesome spectacle attended by approximately 40,000 people. Last October, Cherry Hill’s Murder at the Mansion house tours were so popular that they’ve added an additional day and tour times. But take heed, this Halloween weekend (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) the mansion is doing something new and spooky: it’s summoning the specter of murderer Jesse Strang (in the corporeal form of actor James Keil) from the old gallows near Eagle Street. This true-crime ghost story is going to be told by the ghost himself.

In 1827, Jesse was working as a handyman at Cherry Hill and having a torrid affair with the lady of the house, Elsie Van Rensselaer Lansing. Determined to be rid of her upstairs husband, John Whipple, so she could run off with her downstairs lover, Elsie tried to poison him, and when that failed, she convinced Jesse to shoot him. Divorce was out of the question, since Elsie’s fortune, according to the laws of the day, now belonged to Whipple. The only way this blue-blood femme fatale could regain her inheritance was to re-inherit it from her dead husband. And so besotted—and greedy—Jesse climbed on the roof of the back shed and shot Whipple to death through a window. The bullet hole remains. Eventually, the pair was found out. They were tried separately, as befitting social unequals.

In between the plotting of the murder and the capital punishment of the murderer are many ghoulish details awaiting discovery within the 18th-century mansion. “James Keil will literally bring the murderer to life,” says executive director Becky Watrous. “Tour participants will interact with Jesse during the murder inquest, and follow in his footsteps as he shows them how he committed the crime on that fateful evening. It’s an immersive experience. Visitors will stand in the actual places inhabited by the Cherry Hill household that night. We hope visitors will not only hear about the murder, but to feel it from the differing perspectives of those who were there.”

And for those hoping to feel scared, well, you will. Keil, an Albany-based actor who works in local theater, film, and TV, says, “How often do you spend time with a murderer? It’s an encounter with someone you don’t want to meet, which is its own sort of excitement.”

Jesse’s specter certainly has reason to bemoan the scene of the crime. Elsie, as the relative of a prominent, politically connected family, got off scot-free. And continued to live at Cherry Hill.

Murder At Cherry Hill dramatic tours will be held today (Thursday, Oct. 31), tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 1), and Saturday (Nov. 2). Tickets are $15. Reservations are required, so please call 434-4791.