Visitors to the Great Swamp Wildlife area are often on the lookout for unusual species of turtles and birds but rarely expect to catch a glimpse of a headless horseman or other wandering restless spirits.
But on this chilly Saturday night, a small group of people riding in a hearse, was peering out through its windows hoping for just such an eerie sighting. In the back of the hearse, seating was a little constrained given that it was designed for occupants lying in caskets but group members seemed oblivious to this inconvenience as they scanned the road ahead for cavalrymen with missing vital appendages.
Leading the group were Stephen and L’Aura (a name modification that she stuck with after a friend first started it in e-mail exchanges) Goldner, a Hackettstown couple that started their venture called Morbid Mobile Tours earlier this year after acquiring a hearse, a white Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, in an eBay auction from a seller in Florida.
Their tours combine atmosphere with local ghost lore to create an enticingly scary experience. Sitting in the hearse that is cheerily dubbed “Mortitia”, tour participants are driven through areas that can claim the distinction of being “haunted”.
The Goldners currently run three different tours, one each in Warren, Union, and Morris Counties. Their routes and stops along the way have appropriately bone-chilling names: Shades of Death Road, Ghost Lake, Blood Lane, Gallows Hill.
On this night, the group that had gathered at the Chatham train station for the start of the Morris tour, clambered into Mortitia through the end loader at the back of the car, studiously avoiding the “suicide door” on the side. As the last person crawled in, Steve Goldner issued the friendly reminder that while they could get in, “you can’t get out unless we let you out”.
Seated in between the couple in the front was their obliging if slightly emaciated looking assistant, Urnie, a skeleton that they had acquired at a bargain price along with the hearse.
As the car wound its way through the dark, unlit roads leading past the Great Swamp, L’Aura Goldner recounted the rollicking history of the hearse as it evolved from the horse-drawn carriage of the early days to the large sedan of modern times.
Engine-powered vehicles were not viewed favorably when they first made their appearance in the 1900’s, Goldner said, because some people found their “high” speeds of approximately ten miles an hour offensive. In their view, she said, it felt too much like rushing the deceased to their graves.
A drive around the Green in Morristown prompted the recounting of the blood-curdling story behind Jimmy’s Haunt, a popular restaurant in town. It used to be Sayre Farms in the 1800’s, L’Aura Goldner said, when a disgruntled employee from the West Indies murdered the farmer, his wife, and a female servant before fleeing with some stolen silver and money.
He was apprehended soon after and hanged in the Morristown Green. According to Goldner, his body was then sent to a tannery where three wallets were made from his skin. Her great-grandmother owned one of these wallets, Goldner said, but her daughter, uneasy about this inheritance, later donated it to the Morris Museum.
As the vehicle wound its way around Morristown and went back through Madison on the return trip, the group was treated to more stories of former ghostly inhabitants of the area such as the phantom woman on the campus of Drew University who had the unsettling habit of disappearing upon being approached.
Understandably, the Goldners book more tours than normal during the Halloween season but they also organize tours, upon request, for other special occasions. “What could be better than a ride in a hearse for an over-the-hill party?” Goldner said with a laugh.
Among her other credits in the supernatural realm is Goldner’s role as founder and director of the New Jersey Ghost Hunters Society. With a membership of about 250 people, the group strives to bring together individuals with a mystical bent of mind whose idea of a good time is to go on ghost tours or “cemetery hunts”.
Goldner said that the group also conducts “paranormal investigations” when they are summoned by a family or a business to try and get to the bottom of inexplicable occurrences.
“That’s when people call us and say ‘am I going out of my mind?’” she explained. In such cases, she said, she puts together a team to do the necessary historical or background research and to try and uncover some clues to the mysterious incidents.
Most people are fascinated by stories featuring ghosts and by the places that these specters reportedly haunt, Goldner said. ‘It’s sort of like a roller coaster ride; you know it’s going end but it’s still fun”. The Morbid Tours, she said, allow people the luxury of being armchair ghost hunters by giving them a safe place from where to learn more about them.
Karen and Tom Kelly, a Lake Hopatcong couple who were part of the group, appeared pleased with their otherwordly experiences on this night. “I’ve always liked this kind of thing”, said Karen and while her husband made it clear that he preferred things that were more grounded in reality, even he looked relieved that their encounter with area ghouls had gone without mishap.