CRANFORD, NJ — Downtown Cranford was hopping during a recent crisp autumn evening. Some things were typical of a Saturday night in Cranford, such as dining out and shopping. Others, not so typical, included the creepy Haunted Cranford History Tour.
Back for its second year, the Haunted Cranford History Tour took groups of people of all ages throughout Downtown Cranford to hear costumed actors tell the stories of the town’s famous and infamous who made special appearances from the world beyond.
Jane McLaughlin, of Branchburg, is the mastermind behind the tours. Her company, Haunted History Productions, put it all together. “Everybody loves Halloween and looks for something different to do,” she said.
McLaughlin has been doing the tours for the past 15 years in towns throughout New Jersey, including Woodbridge, Sommerville, Bernardsville and East Brunswick. “It’s a labor of love and a lot of work,” she said.
The process of writing a script takes about a year. McLaughlin speaks with town historians and tries to pick eight people from the town who made a contribution. “Is there anything special about their life that makes them an interesting character?” While historical facts are real, McLaughlin gets to embellish their personalities. “If nobody knows [their personality], I give them one,” she said. “When I’m writing a story, if they still have living ancestors, I try my best to honor that person. I try to get it just right.”
The enjoyable tour took a little more than 60 minutes and featured several interesting and spooky characters. Caren Demyen, director of Downtown Management Corp., said, “We had a lot of great feedback.”
The tours began at 5:30 p.m., with the last tour at 8 p.m. Every 15 minutes, a new tour began. Groups were large, with about 30 people in each group, led by guides. Everyone walked at a brisk pace, trekking throughout the downtown area until they reached a different character at each spot.
The first “ghost” on the tour was the ghost of Fannie Bates, who was known as The Mother of Cranford. She lived in Cranford during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and became a widow shortly after moving into town. She was a strong woman who did a lot for the community, including creating Cranford’s library and getting rid of the town’s gambling hall and beer bottling plant. The “ghost” encouraged the young women in the group: “Don’t give up. This is 2023. The sky’s the limit.”
The group also “met” the ghost of Maggie, the wife of Ernest E. Tyree, manager of the Cranford Stars, which later became The Cranford Dixie Giants, an all-black baseball team.
Then there was Detective William Wagner, who solved a murder mystery. The victim, Mildred Mowry, was burned so badly, she was beyond recognition. Her remains were found on Feb. 23, 1929. Her killer was Henry Colin Campbell-Close, who she met through a Lonely Hearts matchmaking agency. Campbell-Close was notorious for preying on women who were widows with money. Campbell-Close confessed to the killing and was sent to the electric chair, which was known as “Old Smokey.”
Carrie Brown was a New York prostitute who enjoyed quoting Shakespeare and was allegedly one of Jack the Ripper’s victims to have been killed outside of London, in the “New World,” although another man was eventually convicted of her murder. Jack the Ripper — or his copycat killer — could have been from the Hopelawn section of Woodbridge.
Cyrus Drake, the owner of a former Lenape Indian trading post, is said to now haunt the Riverside Inn in Cranford, where he once had his trading post. He shared his story from his teepee which was set up in back of the Riverside Inn.
The tour ended with Laughlin herself, assuming the captivating persona of “Miss Cookie.” She jokingly referred to herself as a “ghost writer,” adding, “We make learning about history fun.”
To learn more about Haunted History Productions, visit: www.hauntedhistoryproductions.com/.
Photos by Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta