Horror in the Somerset Hills

Ghost Tales from the Somerset Hills

Ghosts, Murder, Nuns gone insane, the Devil and other horror stories from the Somerset Hills

When the leaves start turning and the nights get cooler, ghost tales and horror stories take over the autumn camp fires. Volunteering with some friends, a list was gathered and presented during a few walking tours that were put together in Basking Ridge and for a haunted fright night at the local Ross Farm. ,There are great ghost stories all around the towns that make up the Somerset Hills. Are they true? Well, history has a way of validating some, and other times they just become great campfire stories. Enjoy.

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The Devil Tree (Liberty Corner)

Rumor has it, one of the most haunted places here in New Jersey is the Devil’s Tree in Bernards Township, NJ. It all started with a farmer taking his own life by hanging himself off one of the trees branches, after killing his entire family. Following this disturbing event there were numerous reported suicides and murders that took place around the tree. The tree still stands today, despite many attempts to cut or burn it down. Those who have tried to kill the evil tree are said to be cursed. The tree once had a branch that grew parallel to the ground; it has since been cut off. This was where the hangings took place. There are now large numbers of comments and stories people have shared about their experiences visiting or touching the tree, most ending in unfortunate events. We wrote a piece about the Devil Tree years ago (Open Devil Tree story in New Window).

Trailer – actor and former Liberty Corner resident Matt Ryan tells his story about the Devil’s tree.
Weird-NJ-Devils-Tree-Cover published on August 9, 2012.

The KKK in the Somerset Hills area runs the gambit on here say and innuendo. The most prevalent topics seem to be about Klan hangings.  There have been numerous statements that at ritual gatherings, individuals were hanged at various sites. One rumor is about hangings at the infamous Devil Tree in Liberty Corner. No records, photos, or news stories ever identified a hanging in the 1900’s in the area. There have been statements published about military hangings on the Bernardsville/Basking Ridge boarder during the Revolutionary War.

Jacobs Ladder (Peapack)

Long before the 1990 cult classic film Jacob’s ladder was released, there was the Jacob’s Ladder tale in Peapack. The term “Jacob’s Ladder” has popped up in a few interesting places. Is it just coincidence that Jacob’s Ladder is written in the Book of Genesis 28:12 and also in Weird NJ issue #12…I don’t think it’s coincidental! Photos/Story – Click Here

The Horrors of the Blairsden Nuns

There’s definitely alarm triggers out there around the waterfall on the Ravine Lake “rear entrance up the hillside. So why all the excitement with this place? The one time I tried to do it with my daughter, it took a whopping 2 minutes for the local police to be right behind me threatening to arrest me if I didn’t get off the land. (Geeze, I thought I was safe with my four year old with me- no dice).

I do love the stories that come with the history and of the Blairsden estate. Anything from Sisters that devil worshiped and killed the orphans that were living in the house, to gardeners that went wild and killed the nuns, then the kids (poor kids always get the bad end of the stick).

Mr. Local History - Weird New Jersey Blairsden
The Weird New Jersey Blairsden article that changed the discussion. Source: Weird NJ

Another story that locals tell is the story of a Mother Superior driven mad by an undefined ancient evil force residing somewhere in the area.  After she murdered everyone at the commune, those that fled escaped to the harsh winter New Jersey environment around the lake. She disappeared into the woods never to be seen again.  Others say she eventually found her way back to the mansion, although she was somehow different, changed by the force she had contacted and forever now living in the deeply furrowed veil between the real and the unreal. They blame the Devil’s Tomb.

Phyllis Parker’s Suicide and the Parker Tavern Ghost (Bernardsville)

Bernardsville Library used to be located on  2 Morristown Road in Bernardsville, NJ. The house was built in 1710 and started out as a tavern, then became a farmhouse. Eventually it became the library for this little hamlet and was known and loved as such for many years.

Old Bernardsville Library c.1907 used to be the Parker Tavern home to daughter Phyllis the ghost. #mrlocalhistory
Old Bernardsville Library c.1907 used to be the Parker Tavern home to daughter Phyllis the ghost.

A tavern patron and military officer, Dr. Byram, fell in love with Phyllis Parker, the owner’s daughter, and the two were engaged. In January 1777, General Anthony Wayne and his staff stopped at the inn for a night of relaxation. While there, the General’s courier pouch containing vital secret documents was stolen. Byram had gone missing. The doctor seemed to have been a spy, was later captured and was hanged for treason. His body was put in a box, brought back to the tavern, and stashed in the downstairs room we were now looking into, supposedly so Mr. Parker could gently break news of the death to Phyllis. But Phyllis found the box before he could do so, and she got an unpleasant surprise that understandably led to a nervous breakdown. She never recovered and became a recluse, eventually dying at that location.

Phyllis is the only ghost legend to make it to the Mr. Local History Coloring Book.

There is no record of her life after this point, or of her death, but it is believed that the ghost of Phyllis Parker returns to the site of this tragic occurrence on cold winter nights to replay the drama for new and unsuspecting audiences.”

Almost 100 years later the noises started again with the sounds of wooden panels being ripped, pounded, and torn apart. The baby, in an upstairs bedroom, screamed in fright. The mother bolted from the sewing room and ran upstairs. She grabbed her child and latched the bedroom door as the terrible cry of a woman’s incomprehensible grief erupted from the kitchen, echoing into the night. The scream gave way to a series of mournful sobs that slowly faded away into silence. A later search revealed that the house was locked, empty, and undisturbed.”

She’s been rumored to haunt the building ever since, and has been seen and heard crying by different people over time. The library even issued her a library card.

The Devil’s Tomb (Peapack)

Mr. Local History Archives - Jacobs Ladder
Known as the gateway to hell, it is said that the nuns from Blairsden covered the devil himself and the gateway to hell, hence the naming “the devil’s tomb’>

I  laugh when I bring my kids by “The Devil’s Tomb” and they all point like they know something that no one else does and they giggle. They snicker right up until the point when I pull the car over and say “wanna get out and go touch it?” Then their faces change immediately and they all say with a quiet whimper “No Thanks”. That’s the best part!!! But they are learning their history, and I do believe that stories like this do deserve a place in history. While it’s great for blogs, hence the reason for writing, it’s not too good for the local historical societies, who tend to frown upon such stories. Read the story – Click Here

The Wandering Mother (Basking Ridge)

Listen as local resident Hank Barre tells a memorable tale of the wandering mother in Basking Ridge.

The Cemetery Comes Alive (Basking Ridge)

Take a nerve-shattering stroll through the historic graveyard! We videoed a small guided group with the lantern-carrying witch (Paula Axt) from Basking Ridge back in 2018. 

The Headless Hessian and the Swamp Monster of the Great Swamp’s Devil’s Den (Basking Ridge)

One favorite tale is of a headless Hessian who hangs out in the Devil’s Den area of the Great Swamp national refuge. According to local lore, Washington Irving may have based his headless horseman in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on the ghost.

As Thoreau said a swamp is sort of a wormhole into a sacred world. In the Great Swamp, you feel that while you are in the middle of nowhere, you are also in the middle of somewhere.

The Great Swamp Devil and the Devil’s Den

Take a walk into the Great Swamp and you’ll see the 700 year old Great Swamp Oak standing tall next to its 200 year old daughter oak. While Basking Ridge lost it’s great white oak in 2018, there’s lore to what is know as the Devil’s Den. Just off White Bridge Road and the decrepit Episcopal-Lutheran Church and is said to be the opening to the Devil’s Den of the great swamp.

The Devil has been seen in the Great Swamp with his piercing red eyes. #mrlocalhistory
The Devil has been seen in the Great Swamp with his piercing red eyes. #mrlocalhistory

It’s been told over the years that all over the swamp roams a tall hairy man that turns to a winged “devil like beast. Seen having glowing liquid red eyes, it’s been reported as stalking visitors in the Great Swamp for a 100 years. It was reported in folklore that when Europeans colonized the swamp, the devil would stalk people and feel an evil presence in the area. No one dares to live there now.

Books of Ghosts & Horror in the Somerset Hills

Other Ghosts, Ghouls and goblins stories tied to local history in the Somerset Hills.

Ghosts of Central Jersey: Historic Haunts of the Somerset Hills (Haunted America) Paperback – August 13, 2000.

A fun read from a great former area resident and friend of all history in the Somerset Hills. Get a copy.
Writer Gordon Ward in front of the historic Basking Ridge Oak Tree.

Gordon Ward currently divides his professional time between writing, and lecturing, He has worked as a history teacher in the classroom and as a group transformation facilitator in the experiential education field. Mr. Ward is a member of Haunted New Jersey, a group of paranormal investigators who have accrued over seventy-five combined years of investigation experience.

Legends & Lore of Somerset County:: Knitting Betty, the Great Swamp Devil and More Tales from Central New Jersey (American Legends) Paperback – August 5, 2014

Additional Tales

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