Weird NJ reader J.C. McAllister tipped us off a little-known local legend that emanates from the southernmost reaches of New Jersey, Cape May. J.C. writes:
About 40 years or so ago, before the Cape May/Lewes, Delaware, ferry started operating at the Cape May canal, we used to spend summers in a small “tent village” at Higbee Beach (what a life!). There was a popular urban legend being told about “Higbee’s Grave.” The few locals I befriended insisted the story was true, but it was not a good idea to visit it. Not exactly sure why, but it wasn’t good.
Well, I finally wore these guys down and they agreed to take my sister and me to this place (it’s good to have a good-looking teenage sister at times like these). Of course, we had to walk from the canal area to the gravesite. It was a lengthy hike by foot.
Basically, if you take the road to Higbee Beach (New England Road) to the end of the blacktop, you bore right to get to the beach and canal area (the rock pile). Instead, we took the path to the left that separated a farm field and the very thick woods. Along this trail, there were little paths heading through the woods toward the bay. I think we took the seventh path in or so.
We walked in only a short distance and there it was, just like a prop in an old black and white, “B” horror movie. It was more like a tomb: an above-ground grave made of stone and mortar. There was even an old, rusty, beaten-up, fancy iron fence surrounding it. The grave was overgrown with vines and ivy and believe it or not, there were even a couple of snakes crawling around the site. Yes, the legend of Higbee’s Grave was a true story, and although I’m not exactly sure who is buried there, someone is. And remember, I haven’t been there in 40 years or so, so I don’t know what the area looks like nowadays. –J.C. McAllister
When Joseph Higbee died, he left the hotel to Thomas Higbee, who in turn left it to an 18-year-old woman after he died. Thomas’ will made it clear that he was to be buried on the property. When the woman died, she wanted Thomas to be dug up and placed next to her in the Cold Springs Presbyterian cemetery, so his body was dug up and the grave filled with cement. Markers would be placed on the gravesite but frequently disappeared from it over the years and today, you’d be hard-pressed to find its location. The hotel was demolished in 1940.
Though the grave itself is not mentioned in the book “Cape May Ghost Stories” (Exeter House Books, 1988), there are a few ghost stories that might be the reason behind the legend that locals didn’t want to share with J.C. The stories range from the ghost being that of Joseph or Thomas Higbee, or a slave who kept vigil over his master’s grave.
The book’s authors interviewed a woman who had an odd experience early one morning when she decided to go for a walk at Higbee Beach, which had become a wildlife management area. She had walked halfway to where the dunes crested when she heard a scratching noise ahead that scared her enough to make her stop and hide in the underbrush for a moment. When she looked up at the dunes, she saw an “old looking” man. Though claiming not to have paranormal leanings to the authors, she said she knew right away that the man was not to be feared, and was in fact a ghost. She said he looked right toward her, but more so through her, as if unaware of her presence. As the sun rose, she could see that his color was odd: “a pale gray, almost glowing.” She moved closer and noticed details of his dress: pants that “were too short, almost tattered at the cuffs,” “a sash instead of a belt” and a “very dirty and tattered T-shirt.”
The woman heard a whispering or giggling sound come from the same area in which the man was standing, which she thought the man heard too, because he turned and started to, as she put it, “coast” or glide up over the hill.
She went up to where he had stood and found no footprints, and then she looked down the beach, where she could see him again. He was coasting toward the water, and then into the water, under which he disappeared. All of this was accompanied by the same quiet whispering sound, which ended as soon as the man disappeared. The woman left and didn’t share her story with anyone, including her husband, until she spoke with the book’s authors.
The area is now the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area and its owned by the state. Its seclusion makes it popular with migrating birds and the birders who watch them, and for a while it was a popular beach with people who enjoy nude sunbathing. Lower Township, in which Higbee Beach is located, was never crazy about this latter activity and had an ordinance banning it, and in 1999, then-Gov. Christie Todd Whitman signed legislation that allowed them to enforce their ordinance on state land. So now, the only glowing body you might see on the Higbee Beach is that of a Higbee himself.
The preceding article is an excerpt from Weird NJ magazine, “Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” which is available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com. All contents ©Weird NJ and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.
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