Deep in the night of March, 1911 a fire started on the third floor of the Assembly Library in Albany, before long it had reached the fourth and fifth floor. The only person who stood between the destruction of the entire library was 77-year-old Samuel Abbott, a civil war hero who was the night watchman.
He was the only one to die in a fire, that was rumored to have been started by the curse a disgruntled mason left behind when he carved a small, demonic looking face into the wall near the Great Western Staircase
Legend says that the ghost of Samuel J. Abbott, the only state employee to die in the overnight fire on March 29, 1911, has been wandering the fourth floor of the building, jingling keys and leaving behind the smell of smoke since his death outside what’s now state Sen. Catharine Young’s office.
Legislative staff and even cops claim they’ve seen him continuing his watch.
“State troopers have even said they’ve seen it,” Young’s communications director, Jacqueline Fiore said. “Staff people have sincerely claimed that they have heard keys jingling and have seen lights flickering while working late at night and on the weekends. But this man’s valiant actions and bravery closing doors and keeping the fire from spreading shouldn’t be reduced to a simple ghost story,” she said.
Abbott was a Civil War hero working as a guard who made sure no one was stuck in the building when its libraries on the west side of the building caught fire in the middle of the night.
The fire itself has been said by many to have been sparked by a curse left by a disgruntled mason who carved a tiny face of a demon into the walls near the Million Dollar Staircase, outside of the space that today houses a Dunkin’ Donuts.
The raging inferno began on the third floor Assembly Library before spreading to the State Library and climbing up to the fourth and fifth floors.
It smoldered for several days, destroying thousands of books and manuscripts and artifacts in the New York State Museum and State Library.
Abbott, the only person to die in the blaze, was found in a narrow passageway on the fourth floor with a silver-handled cane at his side. His pocket held a key to a locked door a few steps away, through which he could have escaped.
A plaque there will mark his services and sacrifice with a picture.
Gov. Cuomo said the memorial “will be a fitting honor of his life and the tragic events that claimed it.”
Samuel Abbott paid his dues fighting for the Union in the Civil War, starting as a volunteer ensign and rising to first lieutenant. But at age 78, with his wife recently dead of typhoid fever and their son to care for, he still needed to work.
The night-watchman shift — specifically, guarding the door to the library at New York’s lush Capitol building — was seemingly the perfect job for the old, but still spry, veteran.
He had spent 50 years as a state civil servant and was considered as trustworthy as a piece of steel.
On March 28, 1911, Abbott, still in his first year on the job, showed up for his 9 p.m. shift and entered the fourth-floor library, locking himself in to better guard the 500,000 books and 300,000 manuscripts under his guard.
About five hours later, a blaze believed to have been sparked by faulty electrical wiring engulfed the building.
The inferno began on the third-floor Assembly Library before spreading to the State Library and climbing to the fourth and fifth floors.
The fire melted the stairway, consumed 10,000 of the State Museum’s most prized archaeological and ethnographic objects stored in tall glass cases — and reduced most of the documents and books to a pile of cinder.
Reports say that as the fire raged, Abbott didn’t think about escaping. Witnesses say he was seen trying to open windows to save records the Education Department section of the building, but Abbott was no match for the blaze that filled the Albany sky with smoke and would take two days to extinguish.
The bespectacled old man was the single human casualty of what became known as The Great Fire of 1911. His charred remains were found locked inside the library. His son, George W., identified the body by recognizing his father’s pocket watch.
In the hubbub of rebuilding the Capitol and replacing destroyed documents, the story of Abbott’s sacrifice somehow got lost. There was never a dedication or official tribute.
But now, 106 years after his death, Gov. Cuomo says he wants to set things right, but he acknowledged there was something else at play: the legend of Abbott’s ghost — and how to appease it.
Samuel Abbott was born in upstate Syracuse on Sept. 18, 1833.
During the Civil War, he served in Company E of the 12th New York State Volunteer Infantry.
There are no details about his education, but he is listed as joining the army as ensign, or junior officer, a beginning rank usually reserved for those who are well schooled.
In records, he is listed as serving as a second lieutenant between May 13, 1861, and Aug. 3, 1861. He was promoted Aug. 2 to first lieutenant and served in the army until Sept. 19, 1861.
It is unclear why he left the battlefields almost four years before the end of the war in 1865.
The Albany Evening Journal wrote Abbott had an “enviable war record.”
He was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, joining his wife, Jane, who had died on Jan. 1 of that year at age 69 from typhoid fever.
Lawmakers were said to have passed the hat for George W., who was believed to be Abbott’s only son, hoping he would continue with his education. It is unclear how old George was at the time of his father’s death. They also gave him $280.16 for funeral and burial expenses, documents show.
Mourners poured out in droves for Abbott’s funeral at St. Peter’s Church, and many had to be turned away because there wasn’t enough room.
The Capitol was quickly rebuilt, and government business continued. But something wasn’t right. Lawmakers and staff working in the new building swore the night watchman was still around.
There were multiple reports of people hearing keys jangle and doorknobs rattle, as if he were still making his rounds, walking the wide halls, making sure every door was lock
In the 1960s, a cleaning woman, demanded to be taken off the night shift after she was frightened out of her wits. Others reported that mops floated across the halls and that the telephone switchboard lights flashed and beeped even when calls weren’t coming in.
A young legislative aide who worked in the building in the 1970s said it was outright spooky. “I’ve had a few run-ins with [Abbott]. Doors shutting, leaving the office and coming back to find the door locked,” the aide told the Albany Times Union. “And no one else was there.”
In 1981, a TV crew trying to get to the bottom of the ghost stories held a late-night seance with a psychic. The crew recorded weird sounds as a blast of cold air shot through the Assembly Chamber. The psychic said the spirit identified itself as Abbott.
Guided tours of the building began to include the spooky stories and point to where he died, now the office used by a state senator.
Stuart Lehman, one of the state’s education coordinators said, “There have been apparitions seen, and every once in a while, maintenance people report their equipment is moved when no one was around to move it".
The night watchman who died in a fire in the state Capitol 106 years ago — and who has been reported wandering its halls ever since as a ghost has a plaque to commemorate his valiant sacrifice, and the hope is that he can finally rest in peace, but will he?
Portions of this article appeared in the New York Post
Marlene at Miami Ghost Chronicles is a freelance paranormal investigator and writer.
Over the years I have had several ghost stories sent anonymously to me, and it's these quaint and subtle stories of hauntings that I find so fascinating, because you realize that ghosts make their prescence known in the most mundane of settings, and sometimes it's only in hindsight that we realize exactly what we were experiencing. I have excluded surnames and exact addresses in order to protect the privacy of families.