The historic West Hill Manor at the Masonic Village at Burlington County was expected to host a historic haunted house tour on Friday, Oct. 20.
The nearly 225-year-old house is sought after as one of the most active locations in the county for paranormal activity; the tour was expected to explore those claims and offer medium readings and historic artifacts.
West Hill Manor was built between May of 1797 and July of 1799 for Samuel and Susanna Emlen, well-known Quakers from Philadelphia. Susanna is one of the earliest documented breast-cancer surgery survivors in the U.S., having undergone the procedure at the house in 1814.
At the time – before the discovery of anesthesia – many of the women who underwent the procedure died on the table. Susanna recorded her experiences in letters to her family and friends that exist to this day.
“There’s a lot of historical things about this house,” said Joe Rival, caretaker of the manor. “We did a lot of research in the Mount Holly records department and we were able to find the title to the house for every owner from 1799 until present time.”
Those owners included prominent figures of the time. The property was originally purchased from the Yorkshire Company by Samuel Jennings in 1681, after the business managed it on behalf of England’s Charles II. Jennings became governor of the Province of West Jersey, and after his death in 1702, the property was passed on to several generations of his descendants. Richard Smith bought the land as well as the house in 1821.
Elizabeth P. Gurney – a Quaker minister who corresponded with Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War – purchased the property in 1851. She met Lincoln in 1862 and later sent him a letter that noted the Quakers’ support for freeing the slaves, a letter found in Lincoln’s breast pocket after he was assassinated. When Gurney died in 1881, the house and land was passed to her relatives.
The property was owned by others until 1964 and the Masonic Charity Foundation purchased it in 1992. The house became the offices of the Grand Lodge of New Jersey until 2010, at which point lodge offices relocated to Trenton. West Hill Manor was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
“I happened to be chairman of the board of the Masonic Charity Foundation at the time, and I convinced the other members to allow us to come in and do some converting on it to try and get it back to the way it was, and then we could use it for various operations,” Rival recalled.
Former residents of the manor and some historic figures are said to be living there – as spirits. Paranormal groups come from all over to tour the house including medium reader Beth O’Brien, who was expected to give readings at the haunted house tour.
“I was standing at the top of the steps and I did see a soldier briefly, just kind of walking by, and also we hear lots of whispering,” she explained. “We capture conversations, we hear footsteps … I’ve actually physically heard a table move across the floor upstairs.”
West Hill Manor is one of the few surviving examples of a Federal style home, with original interior features that include 11 fireplaces. The property has also been continuously farmed since 1799.
The house is open every third Sunday of the month for tours from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, contact (856) 768-0312. To make a donation, visit www.westhillnj.org.
“I love old homes, I love to preserve them for generations to come,” O’Brien said. “This is part of our history and our children’s history and our grandchildren’s history, and the stories that are told and the history with the house is worth raising money to help keep it open and to help keep it for other people to come.”