By the Fall of 1896, enough reports of a strange, glowing figure seen by the roadside in West Orange, New Jersey, were making the rounds that the story made national news, not coincidentally, just in time for Halloween! People reported seeing a spirit in the shape of a woman just off the side of the road.
One evening a family was making their way back to Orange in their buggy; John Beach, his wife, and his daughter. As the carriage got to the area near Eagle Rock he saw a what he described as a “luminous body.” His horse at first refused to move any further, and John was hoping that his wife and daughter wouldn’t notice the apparition by the side of the road. He coaxed the horse forward slowly, and just as they got within 20 feet of the glowing shape his wife and daughter let out screams, and according to the article, promptly fainted. John’s horse was terrified and jolted past the spirit, not stopping or slowing its pace until they reached their house.
Brave souls who encountered the floating apparition reported that they tried to approach and follow the glowing form but once they got within a few feet it simply vanished before their eyes. Unlike other legends and tales of ghosts and ghouls that linger by the side of a dark road, the people in this community knew immediately who this ghost belonged to.
A 136-Year Unsolved Murder
Her name was Phoebe Paullin and 13 years earlier her lifeless body which at first was mistaken for a bundle of clothes was spotted by a father and son walking down Eagle Rock Ave on November 24, 1883.
Around 2 pm on November 23, 1883, 17-year-old Phoebe Jane Paullin left her house on Centerville Road to go into Orange on some errands for her mother. She told her mother that if it got late she might stay at her friend’s house for the night. When Phoebe didn’t come home that evening her family wasn’t concerned and figured she had just decided to stay at the Anderson’s home. However, when she hadn’t returned by late morning the following day her mother started to become worried.
The following day a local saloon owner named John Wachtar and his 14-year-old son were walking down Eagle Rock Avenue. They left the road and soon spotted what they saw was a bundle of clothing. Upon closer inspection, they discovered that what they found was actually the body of a young woman whose throat had been brutally cut.
Phoebe’s body was found approximately 200 yds from Eagle Nest Cottage, which was also known as The Eyrie, and 100 yards from the road. Mr. Wachtman and his son immediately ran to notify authorities. Police arrived on the scene, noted that it looked like her body had been dragged from the road. They put her body in a wagon and took it back to her parents house, where an autopsy would be performed.
Phoebe had three neck wounds, two which were non-fatal and one that cut her trachea and carotid artery. Police believed that the wounds had been made by a pen knife. Detectives found horse and wagon tracks coming from Orange. The wagon had been turned off the road and stopped behind some cedar trees. They were fairly certain that these tracks belonged to whoever killed Phoebe as rain the night before her murder would have erased all previous wagon tracks.
Numerous people came forward and reported to police that they saw a tall man wearing a long, thin overcoat walking near Phoebe in the same direction on the night of her murder. [mfn]The Murder of Phoebe Paullin New-York Tribune · 4 Dec 1883, Tue · Page 5[/mfn]
The Mysterious Young Man
The police immediately began working the case and talking to people in the area. A few days after her murder a bloody shirt was found not far from the scene, having been partially buried under some sand. Shortly after that a family living in Llewelyn Park reported that a stranger knocked on their door asking for a shirt and pair of pants. They said he was about 24, florid complexion, spoke well and was unbearded.[mfn]Orange Mountain Murder of Pretty Phoebe Paulin Still Unsolved Mystery – The Daily Record (Long Branch, New Jersey) · 25 Nov 1932, Fri · Page 15[/mfn]
Reports started coming in that Phoebe had been seen in the days and weeks prior to her murder talking with a young man. He was said to be well dressed but no one seemed to know who he was. Some people said that she was engaged to this mysterious man, however Phoebe’s sister denied this.
Within days two brothers who lived near Phoebe were arrested and brought in for questioning. They gave similar but slightly differing accounts of where they had been at the time of her murder. Phoebe’s family however said that they had known this family for years and did not believe they were involved in her murder. The brothers were subsequently released for lack of evidence.
Shortly after that a man who I believe to have been Phoebe’s murderer was arrested. His name was George Franck, and he was a local beer bottler. He told police that on the night Phoebe was murdered he had been at Frank Wachtar’s saloon (you might remember him as being the person who found her body). He said that he left the saloon and went to the Mitchell’s place arriving around 6pm. He told the detectives that he had walked down Eagle Rock Ave (same route as Phoebe) and that someone could vouch for him arriving at home at the time stated.
Although George was their prime suspect the police could not hold him due to a lack of evidence. However, within a couple of weeks of Phoebe’s murder he attempted suicide by cutting his own throat. In a letter left for his estranged wife he stated emphatically that he didn’t kill Phoebe. Interestingly enough, just shy of one year later, George Franck was arrested and charged with assault and attempted rape of a Mrs. Hilfinger. This is why I believe that he was the best suspect for Phoebe Paullin’s murder. He had gotten away with it once, why not try again?
Despite arresting numerous suspects for Phoebe’s murder, not a single person was ever charged due to lack of evidence. It makes me wonder how quickly this case would have been solved had the technology available today been available back then.
In the years following the story in the newspaper, reports of Phoebe’s ghost became less and less frequent. The area today appears to be much different than it was during the time of her death. The Eyrie still stands, but many of the roads have changed. It makes me wonder if anyone still sees Phoebe’s glowing ghost standing near the side of the road on dark, moonlit nights.