Friday, December 23, 2016
The Irregular Guide to New York City Entry #3: A Headless Ghost
(Above: The ghost's stomping ground)
The oldest church in Manhattan is St. Paul’s Chapel. There are many reasons one might choose to visit this historic place of worship. However, I recommend a tour of its graveyard. Lots of well-known dead people are buried there—but only one of them is missing his head.
George Frederick Cooke (1756–1812) was a gifted actor with an unfortunate addiction to alcohol. He died penniless and was buried in a pauper’s grave in St. Paul’s churchyard. Somewhere between his deathbed and the cemetery, Mr. Cooke became separated from his head. Some say he sold his skull to science before he died in order to help pay his medical bills. Others claim Cooke’s doctor took the head as a souvenir. (He wasn’t the only physician to keep a piece of a favorite patient. The practice wasn’t uncommon in those days.)
(Above: Poor Yorick and Peter O'Toole)
The actor may have been in the grave, but that didn’t prevent his head from returning to the stage. Over the next century or so, Cooke’s skull often appeared in productions of Hamlet. Alas, Poor Yorick! Today, the skull is in the Scott Library at Thomas Jefferson University. Perhaps someone should tell poor Mr. Cooke. They say his headless ghost can still be seen wandering the St. Paul’s cemetery, searching in vain for its missing noggin.