“Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck” – George Carlin
I’m not a firm believer in any particular celestial force, more an “any port in a karmic storm” agnostic, but it seems like good existential policy to me to foresake any overt sacrilege or intentionally poking any specific deity in the eye. I like to avoid any summary smiting. This is of course, a rather difficult proposition, as when you scan the various theologies concocted across time and culture, there do seem to be an awful lot of rules, regulations, and relatively fine parsing of sins. It’s really hard to sweat the small stuff that has a proud historical tradition behind it – drinking, gambling, coveting, and womanizing (for example), since statistically speaking, you’re probably not doing such things at a base rate higher than the average. A little ignorant sacrilege here and there might not even merit much divine attention. One really need only concern themselves with the sort of libertine behavior that offends god(s) designated muscle. For instance, don’t piss off the ghosts of Jesuit priests by converting their former mission into a tavern. That’s just rude, and frankly tempting fate when you’re talking about a religious order that has colloquially been designated as “God’s Marines”. I’m six feet tall and 150 pounds soaking wet, thus I scrupulously avoid bar fights with live marines. It seems only prudent to behave similarly with dead ones. This holds reasonably true for militant monastic orders as well. Such common sense advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Lopatcong Township, New Jersey (geographically a lovely little valley spanning the border of modern day New Jersey and Pennsylvania), home to a late 17th Century Jesuit mission house that once abandoned, was converted into a “public house” wherein thirsty travelers could spend the night and toss back a few tasty alcoholic beverages. Preternatural shenanigans ensued in the form of a rather homicidally angry Jesuit ghost.
It certainly seems somewhat obsessive-compulsive to overly concern oneself with the provenance of every piece of land where you might wish to set up shop. There are just too many people to irritate. At some point, Clovis culture natives might have wandered by, the Leni-Lenape might have placed a burial ground in the vicinity, or early European colonists could have died of starvation in the neighborhood. When examining supernatural threats, one can’t look too far back without a good reason since frankly, as observed by M. Schele de Vere, “The earth, it has been said, is one vast graveyard, and man can nowhere put down his foot without stepping on the remains of a brother”. Luckily, those undead critters that intend to make a nuisance of themselves typically give ample warning of their presence. The Jesuit spirits haunting Lopatcong were gracious enough to provide just such a caveat before they got all medieval on us.
Sometime posterior to the year 1683, a company of French Jesuits established a mission in the valley. The Brakeley family had departed thence, with the exception of Mad Jack, who dwelt alone in the old manor house. The good fathers selected an eligible site and with the aid of their Indian converts constructed of hewn logs a chapel and school. Here they remained a few years,—how long is unknown. Certainly they were gone in 1705, when George Brakeley (1687-1739) arrived in Lopatcong. A theme so romantic and rich in exciting incident as the Jesuit Mission was not neglected by the storyteller of the Olden Time, and many were the tales relating to this event narrated at the ﬁreside. Matthias Brakeley (1730-1796) was deeply interested in the particulars of their residence in Lopatcong. He listened to the received traditions and questioned the Indians, and sought to eliminate the fabulous from the real; but only meagre facts, embellished by the old legends, rewarded his labours. One of the ancient landmarks of Lopatcong which has disappeared since the time when Mr. Brakeley pursued so eagerly his antiquarian researches was a rambling, moss-grown, goblin-haunted pile standing by the Turnpike road and near where the Straw Church was afterwards erected. Authentic traditions spoke of this crumbling relic as the Mission-House of the Jesuits and told a strange story of the forgotten past. After their departure it remained a long time unoccupied,—tenanted only by ghostly visitants of whom passers-by obtained an occasional glimpse. In the ruinous Mission-House, it was popularly supposed, were secret chambers and subterranean passages, but Mr. Brakeley by the most indefatigable search could discover none. Yet, withal, something mysterious and supernatural seemed connected with the whole place. The great room was imperfectly lighted by several small windows and ﬂoored with large, ﬂat stones. It was a dismal apartment at best, and had probably served as the chapter-room or refectory. At one end was a huge ﬁreplace; and at the other, a rude stairway, hewn from a solid oaken log, led to some small chambers above. There were also several other buildings detached from the main but connected with it by a passage-way, and hard by still another —perhaps the chapel—which had disappeared and only the foundation-stones remained. Such was the crumbling domicile of the Jesuit Fathers, famous in the storied past of Lopatcong. That it was haunted by their restless spirits none doubted. Mr. Brakeley, himself, has heard in the distance the clear tones of the chapel bells, ringing forth at eventide, and listened rapt to the sweet voices of unseen choristers intoning the vesper service. But he notes as a singular fact, explained only by its supernatural character that on approaching nearer the music becomes fainter and fainter, until, on reaching the Mission-House, it has entirely died away. The passing years make sad havoc with the old Mission-House. The winter blast unhinges a door or blows in a window, and decay weakens the once stout frame-work. The place is rarely visited even by the curious. Mr. Brakeley records a strange adventure which befell his servant, Rodney, and himself there. They were overtaken one summer evening by a severe storm and perforce sought shelter in the great room. Whilst standing at the open door, listening to the rolling thunder and watching the vivid ﬂashes of lightning, both were affrighted to behold near the ﬁreplace the dark form of the Goblin Jesuit. The spectre crossed the apartment and slowly ascended the stairs; but before disappearing, he turned his pale, wan face towards the intruders and motioned as if admonishing them to depart (White, 1888, p6).
Now, this initial shot across the bow, while no doubt creepy, was not fatal, and all the ghostly ringing of bells, disembodied chanting, and disturbing apparitions should have alerted folks to the possibility that Jesuit ghosts were extant, unhappy, and preferred to be left alone. Not long after Brakeley’s encounter, an intrepid entrepreneur opted to build a bar on the site.
After many years, the startling rumour spread amongst the good folk of Lopatcong that the abode of the Jesuits was to be occupied and opened up as a publick house. “Hast thou heard the gossip, neighbour Brakeley,” said one, “that the Jesuits are to be banished from our midst to give room for present entertainment?” “I nebber will drink thar,” declared Rodney emphatically, and it is extremely doubtful if he ever did as dearly as he loved the cup that inebriates. Mr. Brakeley viewed with much displeasure the proposed desecration, as he termed it. He was loathe, he confessed, to give up the associations connected with the old Mission. The place was known thenceforth as the Straw Tavern. The new proprietor was naturally regarded with considerable suspicion in the neighbourhood and folk eyed him askance as he appeared in their midst at church. The evil reputation of his house, as haunted by the goblin Jesuits, kept many away and his custom at ﬁrst was extremely small. But during the war of the Revolution, it was a popular and well-patronized hostelry; and at the sign of the Sheaf of Wheat, loyalist and patriot have found good cheer, for mine host made no distinction provided the reckoning was promptly paid (White, 1888, p7-8).
By the time of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Straw Tavern was well established. Somewhere around 1755, a contingent of British Redcoats, looking for shelter from a blizzard, stumbled onto the Straw Tavern. This must have seemed a stroke of good luck, as they lit a fire, kicked back, and proceeded to get wickedly drunk. Presumably, this was quite literally “the final straw” for the incorporeal Jesuits who haunted the place.
Lopatcong—the name was given by the Leni-Lenape to a pretty valley in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania—contains a mission-house that village rumor declares to be haunted by the Goblin Jesuit. Some residents will tell you that they have heard the chimes ringing the angelus, and that the sound grows higher and fainter as you approach the ruin. It is long since the old place had an inhabitant, and for a century and a half the superstitious have looked at it without liking, for during the Indian war of 1755-56 half a dozen British troopers and an officer met here with misadventure. Being benighted in a winter storm, they had taken refuge in the house, built a roaring fire, and were bowsing it stoutly from leather bottles. The empty chambers were echoing to the profane songs and boisterous toasts of the soldiers when the officer, looking about the hall, exclaimed, “Why, I recognize this place. It’s the old mission, and—they say it has a ghost. “Let him stay below this night. I warrant it’s warmer where he is,” sang out a maudlin fellow. “Tush! Be quiet. Let us know the story,” said another. The lieutenant tossed down a heating draught and answered: ” So far as I remember the ghost is a Jesuit—a monk—a Frenchman, and sure to be no friend of ours. I wonder his bones don’t stir in their coffin at the idea of his house being in the hands of his enemies. Eh? What was that? Sounded like something moving, in a box. Well, they say that on the anniversary of his death, just when the chimes had gone midnight—there are no chimes here any longer, you know—Hark! By Jove! Did you rascals hear that? It was like a bell. I’m sure there’s no village near. A high wind plays pranks with a man’s imagination on a night like this. Where was I? Ah, yes. As the bell sounds the last stroke of twelve there is a knock at the great door, and the monk “Rat—tat—tat! The knocker on the door had fallen. The men turned, lowering their bottles from their mouths, and stared. Their ears hummed with their own blood. They could hear the surge of it above the snapping of the logs and the roaring of the wind. “Pah! No spirit could rap so soundly. It’s some poor, belated devil, seeking shelter, like ourselves. Come in!” Though the lieutenant shouted the last words bravely, he fell back in his chair, clenched the arms of it, and turned white in spots through the flush of the brandy. For the door had swung open, and a cloaked and grizzled man, with fixed eyes and snow white face, was entering the hall. He scowled darkly on the company; then advancing to the table where the liquor was, he picked up a bottle with a bony hand. “Aha!” cried one. “He takes his tipple. He’s honest flesh and blood. Sit by the fire, neighbor, and rouse it to old King George.” “Ay! Drink!” shouted the others. The monk stood still and stared into the faces of the soldiers. Not a word was spoken, then. Again the silence fell. The watching faces turned white and sharp. The stranger walked noiselessly to the fireplace and poured the liquor on the hearth. In a moment it began to rise in steam, thicker and thicker, more and more stifling. One could no longer see across the room. With a shriek the officer broke the spell that he felt to be closing about him and rushed into the storm. It was daylight before he dared go back. When he reached the mission he still lingered on the step, fearing to go in. At last he turned the knob and entered. Six bodies lay on the stone floor (Skinner, 1903, p248-251).
Perhaps we have it backwards when it comes to realm of the supernatural. It seems it doesn’t really matter what we personally believe, rather whether the supernatural believes in us.
Skinner, Charles M. 1852-1907. American Myths & Legends. Philadelphia & London: J. B. Lippincott company, 1903.
White, George Brakeley. In the Time of Matthias Brakeley, (1730-1796) of Lopatcong. [Philadelphia]: Printed for private distribution, 1888.