“So why have I lived my whole life on Long Island, less than twenty minutes from here, and have never heard of Mount Misery, if it’s supposed to be such a paranormal hotspot?” Miss Bronwen asked, looking out over the valley below. “I’ve heard of West Hills County Park, I’ve even heard of Sweet Hollow Road, but I never heard any mention of this place until you started prattling on about it.”
We were sitting atop the southern end of Mt. Misery, having entered the nature preserve across the cemetery on Sweet Hollow Road and then heading up. This is the less frequented area of West Hills County Park, south of Northern State Parkway. The sun was setting on the afternoon before Halloween, and the autumnal leaves were taking on red and golden hues, and it was hard to believe as we looked out over what appeared to be wilderness, that we were looking out over one of the busiest highways on Long Island. The view from here is sudden and surprising, the trees hiding the numerous houses of the well to do, the park below us, the valley below seeming to be nothing but unbroken forest, rising again in the distance as Walt Whitman’s West Hills.
“In short,” I replied after giving it some thought, “blame it on the internet. According to legend, Mt. Misery and Sweet Hollow Road have been haunted as long as anyone can remember. Supposedly the native Americans who lived around here considered Mt. Misery no man’s land. They spoke of strange lights which appeared on it, livestock disappearing on its slopes, as well as mysterious creatures spotted in the woods. Which might explain why they had no hesitation about trading it to the early settlers here. The old Indian path which is now Old Country Road was one of their main thoroughfares, and the ridge of Mt. Misery begins to rise just to the north of that. When the settlers found they had to cross it, at least according to legend, they had a hard go of it, as you saw from just hiking up here. You can imagine how tough it would be with a wagon, or carrying supplies, hence the name Mount Misery.”
“So the settlers would make it back to their cabin and logon to Facebook and chat with their native American brethren then about how haunted it was? What does a bunch of pre-colonial era legends have to do with the internet?” Miss Bronwen asked with a smirk.
“Duh?” I responded. “Facebook is a new phenomenon. It would have been MySpace, or Usenet before that.”
Bronwen laughed and leaned back on her elbows to watch the last sliver of sunlight wash the slopes of Jayne’s Hill, the highest spot on Long Island, a short ways in the distance.
I continued, “It all seems to begin and end with Bill Knell.”
“Who in the hell is Bill Knell?” she asked.
“Glad you asked,” I replied. “He used to own a site called ‘The UFO Guy,’ and has written on a variety of bizarre topics which can be found online. And one of those is Mt. Misery. His claims include a couple of insane asylums built early on someplace on Mt. Misery, as well as a military hospital, built inthe 1940s on the mount as well. In addition to that he claims it’s a hotspot of UFO activity, Men in Black and even the mothman of the Mothman Prophecies fame.”
“You mean that dreadful Richard Gere flick?” she asked.
“That’s the one, though to be honest I kind of liked it. Okay, so they changed the historical details, the decade of the story and added ficticious characters, but it was still a decent little film. I mean for Richard Gere at least. But I digress.”
I continued, “The movie is of course based on the book by John Keel, and the mothman who gets short shrift in the book is supposedly a regular on Mt. Misery. I seem to recall having read some connection between Keel’s writing and Mt. Misery, but then again, I would have read it online, and much of what you read there about the place is just Knell’s stuff endlessly rehashed. Including my own I might add.”
Miss Bronwen zipped up her jacket and stood up, stretching. “So does he offer any evidence to back up his claims?”
“Not really,” I replied. “He cites sources, but those are notoriously difficult to pin down. Much of what he writes appears to be rehashing of old legends, and perhaps – how to say this delicately – slight adjustments to geography and a jumbling of various Long Island locations. For instance, he considers this line of hills which stretch from south of Old Country Road, hell, south of the expressway I believe, to Jericho Turnpike in the north, and from Walt Whitman Road or Route 110 to Manetto Hills Road to be Mt. Misery. And displaying a staggering lack of knowledge about the area’s geography, he claims that area is only a mile across in any direction, when in fact it’s more like five miles.”
“So when people talk about Mount Misery, they aren’t talking about this particular hill,” she said, gesturing at the area around us. “Instead they are talking about this whole area?”
“Not typically, no. Usually people refer to the valley down there as Sweet Hollow, which itself isn’t exactly correct, and the highlands to the west of it as Mount Misery. But Knell certainly does. And for the sake of argument, I’ll buy that. After all, an earlier settler coming out of the plains and seeing a ridge of hills wouldn’t necessarily know the geography well enough to know what he was facing. All that would have been important to him was “ugh, big damn hill to get over.” Further confusing the issue, he speaks of Mount Misery being a main route used to cross through the area, but he certainly can’t mean Mt. Misery Road, as many people think. It’s definitely not shown on DeWitt’s map of 1802, but I do believe it’s on the Traveler’s Map of 1847, which seems to show both it and Sweet Hollow Road. But it really only shows the northern most section.”
“Mt. Misery Road stretches from the end of Chichester Road to the north, down to Old Country Road to the south, but it’s cut in half like a snake by Northern State Parkway. If we were to hike down the trail to the west, we’d come out at the top end of the southern section, which is a water facility for Suffolk County and a day camp for children. When it starts up on the other side of the parkway, it’s a dirt road for hikers and horses only for about a third of a mile, before it’s once again paved. But I believe it was only a continuous road from the 19th century till the Parkway came in, and I’m guessing the section that is a dirt track never was paved. Right where the dirt track turns to pavement, at the infamous 666 log, there’s a trail which goes to the east. That trail, winds through the woods a bit and picks up another dirt track, which is the culmination of Gwynne Road, which of course is paved from Sweet Hollow Road over to 110. And that I believe is the original road, the dirt trail from the Gwynne Road/Sweet Hollow intersection, and from that trail north on today’s Mt. Misery Road, up to Chichester. At least that’s what appears to be shown on the Traveler’s Map of 1847.”
“I’m guessing this isn’t going to be the most exciting story you’ve ever told me?” Miss Bronwen asked, arching an eyebrow.
“You’re guessing right,” I replied. “Oddly, I started hiking here because of the wild stories, but it’s the history of the place which has proven to be the most interesting mystery. Knell specifically states that Mount Misery is the highest point on Long Island, and says Jayne’s Hill is the highest spot. But this area certainly isn’t one big hill. Jayne’s Hill, which used to be called Oakley’s Hill by the earliest settlers, not Mount Misery I might add, and is officially known as High Hill, is part of West Hills. Just across Sweet Hollow Road from there is another high point, nearly as high as Jayne’s Hill. And as that goes on over to Mt. Misery Road, it’s my guess that might by Mount Misery itself. Sweet Hollow, West Hills and Jayne’s Hill are labelled on the map, but not Mount Misery though. So that kind of pokes a hole in Knell’s theory that this whole area was Mount Misery. It seems obvious that from the beginning, these were all considered separate places. It also shows, that where we are now, and where the trail comes out on Mt. Misery Road is part of Manetto Hills. In fact, the water plant up there, which is on Mt. Misery Road proper, is distinctly labelled Manetto Hills, at least legally. It’s also worth mentioning, for all those EVP fans out there, that the water tower up there has a cell phone tower on it, which renders EVPs pretty much useless.”
“What are EVPs?” Miss Bronwen asked. “It sounds very official.”
“Electronic voice phenomenon. Or at least a phenomenon if you believe is such things, and it’s important to remember in this case, at the center of the word believe is lie. Supposedly they pick up the voice of the dead, extra terrestrials and the odd random spirit. And who knows? Maybe they do. Unfortunately, we know they also pick up signals from cell towers, C.B. radios and even baby monitors. In other words, in an electronic rich area like Long Island, it’s not unusual to pick up hard to explain voices and signals on a recording device. Perhaps what is most unusual is not to pick up such things.”
“The map,” Miss Bronwen said, guiding me back on track, “you digressed again.”
“Oh yes. What’s equally curious about that map is that it shows Sweet Hollow being to the east of West Hills, whereas it’s currently, and as far as I know always been, to the west of West Hills. But I believe they just have the natural features wrong, as both Sweet Hollow and Mount Misery Roads seem to be in the right place otherwise. The Coyler house on the road there was built about 1819 by Walt Whitman’s father, so we know the road was in existence by then, even if it was just a farm road. But we don’t know how well travelled or developed those roads were. In fact, when Whitman visited the house in 1850, they reached it by hiking ‘across lots,’ rather than taking the roads from Jericho Turnpike. Most of the existing residences from that time, especially those built by the Whitman family, are further east of Mount Misery proper, in what would be the West Hills area. And of course that’s where Route 110 eventually became the dominant north/south highway in the area. As far as Mt. Misery being a major crossroads, I just don’t see it. And then there’s the military hospital …”
“Ha! I did a Google search on Mt. Misery before we came here and who should come up but you,” Miss Bronwen called out triumphantly. “Are you saying now that your claim to fame is based on bogus information?”
“I believe so,” I replied. “According to Knell’s story, the hospital was built to care for the wounded from World War II, but there wasn’t enough of a demand. It was closed down, but then reopened mysteriously in the fifties. He supposedly spoke to a fellow who was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, took sick and was sent to the hospital on Mount Misery. Most of his time was spent in a fog, then he suddenly recovered, and as he left the facilities he saw a sign which said “area 5.” Back in North Carolina he was told area 5 was for psychological warfare testing, and not to ask any more questions. Of course the fellow is never named, and that’s the only story he offers as evidence. He goes on to say after the hospital was closed, voices were heard coming from it, as well as lights being spotted inside. Supposedly in the seventies some teenagers broke in and fell down an elevator shaft, and were seriously injured. And after that it was torn down.”
“But?” Miss Bronwen asked, leaving the question hanging in the air.
“But I can’t find any evidence that there was ever a hospital here,” I continued. “It’s certainly not apparent on overhead photos of the area from the fifties through the eighties. It wasn’t supposed to be all that large, but there aren’t many places here that it could have existed. I’ve only spoken to a couple of locals who have heard of it, and they heard of it of course, off the internet. The only other independent mention of it that I know of was supposed to be from a project on West Hills County Park, carried out by a boy scout. Supposedly he found some oblique references to ‘the hospital’ in the papers of the family that donated the land for the park. But I never saw that report.”
“And the other locals you’ve asked?” Miss Bronwen asked.
“Never heard of it,” I replied. “Including several people who lived in the area all their lives. Knell and others attribute this to the fact that it’s supposed to be a secret, and that the locals don’t want people snooping around. The Scooby Doo theory if you will. ‘We would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those darned kids!’ And it makes the whole thing seem quite eerie. The more people you ask, the higher the wall of silence becomes. Until you start to realize, it’s not a conspiracy. It’s just that the story probably isn’t true.”
Miss Bronwen nodded, “And so the whole military hospital story is a fabrication?”
“I believe so,” I replied. “The 1947 Huntington Town Planners Map shows no hospital. And since that was just after the end of the war, I would expect it to be on there, if it in fact existed. However, John Leita from Long Island Oddities told me his theory on it, which makes a lot of sense to me. He believes the hospital was actually Edgewood which was located in Deer Park. It was built in the forties, used as a military hospital in World War II, for the treatment of traumatized soldiers afterwards, and closed up in the seventies. I mean after all, how would a soldier from North Carolina, unfamiliar with the area, be able to identify Mount Misery as the location he was transferred to? Unless it was called Mount Misery Hospital or some such nonsense – and there are certainly no indications there was ever a hospital or asylum with that in its name – and unless he saw the street sign, which is unlikely as he never left his room, how would he be able to identify it as such?”
“So maybe the story has an element of truth, just the wrong location?” she asked.
“Exactly. Now why Bill Knell wouldn’t know this I can’t say. Supposedly he knows where on Mt. Misery the hospital stood, and even stated the steps leading to the hospital are still there. I mean I spent god knows how many days looking for those steps out here, as well as other people. And no one that I’ve heard of has ever found anything.”
“And the location you found which is listed on Google as being a possible site of the Mt. Misery Military Hospital?” she asked with a smirk.
I groaned. “Okay, so it’s not the hospital. I’m more than willing to say that now. As you can see, the woods in this area is very thick. There are very few areas cleared out and large enough to have housed a facility like that. At least which doesn’t already have some other structure standing on it now. When I first started looking for it, I looked at Google Earth and the satellite shots. And that location is one of the few places that I could see where it might have been. And if you look closely, you can make out a foundation there. Of course, if you actually go there, you find the vegetation is so thick you can’t make it to where the foundation is. And I’m familiar with what happens in a rural area when a house or building is torn down – I’m from the midwest after all, farm country. And I’d be willing to put money, that at some point there was a rather large structure where that clearing is now. And it’s located on the trail which I believe would have been the mail route where Gwynne Road meets Mt. Misery Road. If you look at aerial photos of the place all the way back to the fifties, it’s been vacant all that time. Though oddly enough, even in the photos from the fifties, you can still make out that there had been a foundation there.”
“Maybe that was the older asylum that people talk about?” she asked.
“That’s pretty unlikely,” I answered. “According to the legends, the first asylum was built in the 1700s, which is almost certainly poppycock. A second asylum was supposedly built sometime later, but I find it hard to believe that foundations would be visible from either the eighteenth or nineteenth century. And if it was here in the twentieth century, or even the late nineteenth century, there would be records of it.”
“Why do you say the asylum story is poppycock, other than you like using that word?” she asked.
“Okay, so the legend is that back in the 1700s there was a lunatic asylum built on Mount Misery. As the care for the insane was so poor, actually brutal, the story goes that it was built here, far from towns and villages so the screams of the patients wouldn’t bother the locals. It was burned down by one of the inmates, the infamous Mary, with all the patients and workers inside. Some time later it was rebuilt, and once again burned down, and once more quite often blamed on the hapless Mary, though we presume a different Mary this time.”
“Mary certainly was resilient,” Miss Bronwen said with a grin.
“She’s the legend who will not die here,” I replied. “In the early 1700s, this area was part of the British colonies of course. Psychiatric care was in its infancy, and asylums were rare. Had there been one here, it would have been quite unique, and would no doubt have been documented. Typically, people cared for the mentally ill at home. It’s entirely possible that there was an early farmer in the area who had one or more members of his family who suffered from mental illnesses. And perhaps, as according to the legend, the house burned down, killing all who lived there. Most myths and legends spring from some grain of truth after all. But you have to remember, during this time there was very few people living in the area. I believe in about 1800, there were only 45 residents in the area. Huntington was still small as well. New York City was a few days ride away, and of course the difficulty of getting people up Mt. Misery has already been spoken of. There simply wasn’t the population here to warrant an asylum, and it was too far away from the population centers, with too poor of roads to make it feasible to send patients here.”
“So there was no sanitarium on Mount Misery?” she asked, sounding a bit disappointed.
“There I believe you might be hitting on another truth. The word sanitarium. People tend to associate the word sanitarium with asylums for the insane, but in the past, this wasn’t the case at all. A sanitarium was simply a place which housed people with chronic, or often, contagious diseases. And the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were rife with epidemics of one sort or another. Cholera was a big one, scarlet fever, typhoid, influenza, all were great killers, and all spread quickly. Here’s a story. Back home there was this big old abandoned house out in the country. And according to the stories, it used to be an asylum. But eventually someone asked the right person, and found it it was in fact once used as a sanitarium for cholera patients. The family who lived there were stricken by the disease, and were quarantined. As it was a large house with lots of rooms, when other people in the area took ill with the disease, they were sent to that house as well for quarantine. Eventually, all the inmates either die or recover and were released. And as the buildings were viewed as being diseased, they were often burned.”
“And I suppose it wouldn’t be unheard of for the buildings to be burned with the patients still inside, if someone in the area was afraid of the disease spreading,” she said with a shudder.
“Christ, I never thought of that,” I replied. “Aren’t you the macabre one? But you’re certainly right. And it would fit in with the legends. Of course I don’t know of any evidence of that happening here. That’s the problem with the story of the asylums on Mt. Misery, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence one way or another. There’s a comprehensive list of sanitariums in operation as of 1914 and there are none listed in the area. So if there was a sanitarium here, it wasn’t very large, under 20 patients, and certainly not state or public funded. A quarantine house perhaps, but nothing more.”
“What about cemeteries and death records?” she asked.
“Good point. If you look at the records of Melville Cemetery on Sweet Hollow Road you do find clusters of deaths during certain periods. And one giveaway for epidemics is to look for multiple deaths among babies, infants and the very old. You find several babies and children dying in and around 1881 for instance, or 1935-36, but probably not enough to warrant a sanitarium strictly for epidemic purposes. Still, what you have to remember, is we’re dealing with legends and myths. And it only takes a grain of truth to give birth to these. One large family, quarantined in their house with some deadly disease, one of the family members forgets to blow out a lamp, the house burns down, and a hundred years later the story is transformed into an insane asylum, with one of the inmates burning the place down with all the inmates and workers burned to death.”
“And no historic records of asylums in the area? What about poor houses?” Miss Bronwen asked.
“Between 1650 and 1799 there are only three public asylums, or almshouses on record in the state of New York that I’ve found. Two in New York City and one in Albany. Between 1800 and the end of that century, the only public almshouses and asylums nearby that I can find nearby is one in Amityville, and the Jones Institute, which I believe was around Hicksville. According to its census of the time, the Jones Institute was for accomodation of the poor that came from Oyster Bay and North Hempstead. They had ‘four idiots’ – one male, three female, and three who were blind. And incidently, when it was in full swing, it only had four employees. So a large asylum with lots of workers is certainly a myth. I did find mention that some of the communities of the area moved the poor or those who were considered ‘idiots’ into farms in rural communities, and it’s possible that some of them might have found their way to farms in the Mount Misery area. But that’s certainly not an asylum, and as I said, I can find no record of this happening. Just to the south and west, between Old Country Road and Round Swamp Road, which is only a few miles from here, was the Nassau County Sanitarium, which was a tuberculosis ward. And that would be in Knell’s definition of Mount Misery. But that dates from the 1930s, and it certainly never burned down. Still, perhaps that somehow became the nucleus for the asylum on Mount Misery? Also in Half Hollow, which is just south of here, near Long Swamp was the almshouse of the area, but that’s too far away to be considered Mount Misery. As I said, who knows?”
Miss Brownwen stood up and stretched, her arms reaching up towards the darkening sky.
“It’s getting dark,” she said. “And even if there were no asylums, no loonies burned alive, no mothmen and no UFOs, I don’t really want to go down that hill in the pitch black.”
I stood up as well and picked up our knapsack.
“I suppose you’re right, but can you really think of any place more romantic to be on Halloween, than the haunted South Woods of Mount Misery?”
Miss Bronwen grinned and started back for the trail.
“Well, they say misery loves company,” she said.