New Hope, Pennsylvania, was our home for the better part of our life. I say our, but I really mean that of Elaine Jakes, for I, her son, resided there but during my childhood. Still, most of my formative years were lived there, and it is a town with a particular, even peculiar name that sanguinely points beyond itself to a better place, a vision of a better future. Though one might find a different account on the Internet, I, as a lad, heard on more than one occasion a story that the town is haunted by the ghost of the great patriot John Coryell, who in the second half of the eighteenth century had owned the ferry that provided crossing of the Delaware River.
Washington’s troops often found refuge in Coryell’s Ferry, a town that had only some ten years or so before the founding of the United States, changed its name from the previous designation, Wells Ferry. Even that name seems to be second in the sequence of names, as it had hitherto been known, it seems, as “Robert Heath’s (tract of) land,” which Heath had received from William Penn himself. Indeed, the name Coryell’s Ferry obtained for a mere twenty years—though some sources say twice that—but not just any twenty (or even forty) years. During a lustrum or so of those years, one far from minor event known as the Revolutionary War took place, during which the town, by then called Coryell’s Ferry, saw a number of American troops crossing to and from Lambertville (then also called Coryell’s Ferry) en route to New Jersey and New York. The name Coryell’s Ferry abode until the Pennsylvania-side settlement was renamed “New Hope,” a name derived from a mill built afresh on Ingham Creek by an important young investor.
That investor was none other than Benjamin Parry, who poured his life into the community, and whose descendants have remained in the area for many generations, holding as family property the “Parry Mansion” until 1966, when it was converted into the town’s historical museum that it remains today, located on the borough’s principal “cardo” (N/S street) directly across from Farley’s Bookshop. That corner of Ferry and Main is still the town’s intellectual and cultural center, as Farley’s Bookshop represents the continuance of learning, reading, wit, and culture, while the Parry Mansion
serves as the guardian of the town’s rich and unique history, which includes figures such as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (admittedly not the best of friends), along with James Monroe (during the Revolutionary War a mere lieutenant but later American president). In the course of that war, Lieutenant Monroe had, at a certain point, stayed at Thompson-Neeley Farmhouse at Washington’s Crossing, a mere stone’s throw south of Coryell’s Ferry. Add to all this that a Revolutionary War canon, placed on a street island just in front of the Perry Mansion, serves as a fitting symbol of the American resistance and, ultimately, victory.
Yet the precise reason for the change of the town’s name, I suppose, is at least slightly shrouded in mystery, mystery that likely gave birth to the undoubtedly spurious story—a ghost story, after all—I heard in my childhood about John Coryell, whose son George, was the last living pallbearer of George Washington, passing away in 1850. Roy Ziegler records that John was a “colorful” figure (Ziegler, p. 10). However colorful the historical John Coryell was, the tale of his ghost is equally colorful, at least in the account that Elaine relayed every All Hallow’s Eve: Coryell, she would say with an eerie storytelling pitch in her voice, had taken to drink (her storytelling emphasis not my own) and had become the scandal of both towns that bore the name Coryell’s Ferry, i.e. New Hope, and across the Delaware River, the town that would later be called Lambertville. Add to this unsavory detail that Coryell gambled as well and generally behaved like a bad fraternity boy, even though fraternities other than Phi Beta Kappa had not yet quite been invented.* He managed the inn (and tavern) that his noble father Emanuel, a French Huguenot, had owned and that John inherited at an early age, as Emanuel had died young, in 1748, leaving a brood of several children behind. It was said that John, after an appropriate period of mourning for his too-early-deceased father and, perhaps, as a strange expression of his grief for him, would dance on that tavern’s tables whenever he wanted to, especially when he was inebriated. In such a state, he would sometimes hook ropes, borrowed from his ferry business, over the roof beams of the tavern and swing from them as if a daring young man on a flying trapeze. And this, so Elaine’s story went, was something that happened quite often, so often in fact that business at the tavern thrived, as many a patron simply came to be entertained by this forerunner of the Blue Man Group, as much as they did to eat or drink.
To support his alleged gambling habit, he increased the number of his acrobatic shows from Friday and Saturday nights only to four days a week and, when not hung over, he would often rise early to practice. This went on for many years, in fact, beginning as early as 1750, shortly after his father’s death. During that time, John raised a family, drank a bit too much, and kept on gambling (though, Elaine averred, only “lightly”), but nevertheless vigorously and firmly supported General Washington during and after the Revolutionary War, helping the American cause in whatever way he could—from feeding and (as a prototype of the USO) acrobatically entertaining the troops, gratis of course, to smuggling weapons and spies via his ferry barges. During the war, in fact, Coryell’s Ferry played a vital role in assisting the Americans but denying the British passage over the Delaware.
The end of this noble, patriotically speaking, but, in terms of vices, perhaps somewhat indecorous life came when John Coryell’s swinging practice simply got the better of him in 1799. When privately rehearsing for a Houdini-like trick (an anachronism merely for effect) involving extricating his left hand and foot from being bound together when swinging on the rope with his right arm only, John Coryell managed to get so entangled that he hung himself. The suggestion of suicide swiftly ensued; but such an act his son George (named after the first president) and all John’s friends, particularly those fervent for the American cause, firmly denied.
So much did the mere rumor, however, vex John Coryell’s mostly noble (though beset-with-a-few-vices) soul that, unlike his son, who rests in peace in a grave alongside that of Sam Holcombe, one of Washington’s spies, he knows no rest, and to this day haunts the landing of Ferry Street,
and sometimes, too, can be heard moaning even across the river in the environs of what is now the Lambertville Station Restaurant and Inn, which was, when Elaine told the story, an old-fashioned railway station. All this in spite of the fact that everyone, especially General Washington, no doubt rightly insisted on death by acrobatic error. Washington’s avowal notwithstanding, it is said that one can, at the ferry docks, still ascertain his ghost howling in the most disquieting fashion, “Where is my rope, my rope? I want to swing, to swing again!”
So the story was told, and to it was added the rumor of a curse, a most improbable one, that his untimely (if probably accidental) death brought upon the city a greater ignominy and shame than mere gambling and drink had brought upon Coryell himself during his lifetime. And, that if the redundant (and thus confusing) names of both towns were not changed from Coryell’s Ferry, the curse would obtain, one of blight, drought, gnats, mosquitoes, and general lack of prosperity. And that’s the real reason that Benjamin Parry called the city New Hope—not simply because of the rebuilding of “New Hope Mills” on Ingham Creek. Unfortunately the requisite change of the name did not ward off gnats or mosquitoes.
Such a ghost story was the one I heard as a boy. Yet what has all this to do with the lofty opening of this particular installation of the blog? That bit, the bit about “hope” being something that looks beyond itself, I shall have to come back to next week. Suffice it to say, that in the coming weeks—specifically on Memorial Day from 1 to 4 p.m. at Farley’s Bookshop, right across the street from the Parry Mansion and just around the corner from the very ferry launch that Coryell’s shade is still said by some to frequent, there will be a launch not of a barque but rather of a book: The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, whose historical details are at least as true as the story of the change of the name of Coryell’s Ferry to New Hope, Pennsylvania. I hope to see you there where I will be signing copies of the book, and in the meantime, beware of ghosts in need of rope, even noble and patriotic ghosts!
*Please note that I have no evidence that John Coryell was anything less than a patriot; this is a mere ghost story, and I certainly have no desire to misrepresent this man’s undoubtedly noble character.
Hannah Coryell Anderson, “General Washington at Coryell’s Ferry,” (Lambertville, NJ: Hunterdon Historical Society Reprint, 1969 [originally published 1928]). http://catalog.lambertvillelibrary.org/texts/American/coryell/coryell.pdf
Roy Ziegler, The Parrys of Philadelphia and New Hope: A Quaker Family’s Lasting Impact on Two Historic Towns (2011).
Ingham Coryell, Emanuel Coryell of Lambertville, New Jersey and His Descendants. Philadelphia, 1943.