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The 1788 Morristown Ghost Hoax: An Interview with Author Peter Zablocki
The saga of the Morristown ghost has been told around campfires and dinner tables in Morris County for generations. Local legend claimed that British Loyalists secretly buried stolen Patriot treasure on Schooley Mountain as they fled the oncoming forces of George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Years later, in 1788, a former schoolteacher from Connecticut, Ransford Rodgers, convinced local prominent Morristown families that a ghost was protecting the true location of the treasure and that he alone could exorcise it. Little did the victims know, Rodgers was perpetuating an elaborate hoax and eventually extorted large sums of money from the embarrassed local elite. The tale has been recounted in various sensational pamphlets and publications ever since, leaving behind a mystery of what is true or myth. Author Peter Zablocki separates fact from fiction in the story of the great Morristown ghost hoax.
Peter Zablocki is a historian, educator and author of numerous books detailing New Jersey’s history. His articles often appear in various popular history publications, and his podcast, History Teachers Talking, is available on all popular streaming platforms. For more information about his books, podcast or any upcoming author events, visit www.peterzablocki.com.
Peter, thank you so much for joining us on Crime Capsule. We are delighted to have you.
[00:00:07.690] - Peter
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
[00:00:11.330] - Ben
Now, your book is real enigma and there's something I just have to get out of the way right up front. I'm going to see if I can do this. I may not get it 100%, but I'm going to try. Your book is a book about a story based on a con, which is based on a legend, based on an erroneous belief in buried treasure. Is that right?
[00:00:43.430] - Peter
Yeah, it's actually perfect. Yeah, you should have written the back of the book for me. That was perfect. That was good.
[00:00:49.440] - Ben
Thank you. It took me a minute. I was really trying to get all the way down to the tiniest of the Russian dolls here as I was reading, because the more that I kept reading, I kept finding more and more dolls and it was like, what is happening? And every chapter you brought a new layer, a new wrinkle to this insane story. What was it like even making sense out of that yourself?
[00:01:16.430] - Peter
It was funny. When I was talking to my publisher about it, I said, no, I have this story of a ghost. And he was like, all right, that sounds good. We could do ghost story. I'm like, yeah, no, but it doesn't actually have a ghost. And he was like, what do you mean? I was like, well, it's a story about a ghost and I want to call it something ghost, but it doesn't have a ghost. And he's like, what does it have? I'm like, well, it has a guy basically in a white sheet. He's like, you mean like a ghost? I'm like, yeah, but it doesn't have a ghost. So really to wrap my head around it, my big thing was how could someone, anyone believe in this con? I just couldn't really wrap my head around it. Again, this is 1788. But even then I'm like, well, 1788 people are still people. And I mean, this guy literally dressed as a ghost in the most plainest terms you would see on Scooby Doo. You put this little white sheet on and he had some mechanism that ultimately altered his voice and he scared these people to believe in that he was real.
[00:02:20.120] - Peter
And I couldn't wrap my head around it, which is what started this whole story for me. This research was like, all right, let me build the history around it. Let me discover or rediscover the context of this fable, knowing that it wasn't really a fable, it actually was a real story. I wanted to build the context around it. I needed to know how on earth could this happen where someone could be conned into believing in such a ridiculous, really and truly unbelievable way that this was a ghost. I mean, today's special effects, we could probably make someone be really afraid. But back then again, it was a discovery. I was on a discovery quest.
[00:03:12.410] - Ben
I need to tell you right now that I did in fact write the name Scooby Doo in the margins of my copy. When we got to that moment, and we will get to that moment, it is coming. We are not going to hold out on our listeners here, but we've got a little work to do before we get there. And I did want to ask you, you live in this region, you live about 5 miles away from Morristown where this all took place, but you said discovery. How did you discover this story to begin with?
[00:03:48.670] - Peter
So, living in New Jersey, I live in northern New Jersey and like you said, right outside of Morristown, there's quite a few fables that are kind of known and told to children growing up about New Jersey folklore especially. I have a background in education and haven't taught New Jersey history for years. It's always like lumped in. There's just some stories about New Jersey history and one of them is obviously the New Jersey Devil. That one is usually very popular. And one of the other ones that's really popular is this particular one, the story of the Morristown ghost, where this one particular person arrived from New England and managed to con a group of most prominent, wealthy members of society into believing that he was a ghost. Over the years, this story has actually appeared in numerous books about New Jersey history and on New Jersey history. And that's kind of how I came across it. I was just knowing it always kind of grown up, I guess. But as I'm doing research for other books about New Jersey history, I kept on coming across this story of it's always lumped in as a tale and sometimes it actually even goes into the realm of, well, there really was a ghost and there really was a treasure and it's kind of like become its own thing in the past 200, 300 years.
[00:05:13.680] - Ben
Yeah, it's funny, when this title first crossed my desk, I initially thought rather hopefully, that we would be dealing with an actual ghost that was hoaxing, like playing pranks on and hoaxing the living. You had this mischievous poltergeist who just really enjoyed pulling the wool over our eyes, like you're in my eyes. Right. And I was really just kind of holding out. Now, what's funny, Peter, is that I was both disappointed that there was not, in fact, an actual ghost that was hosting the living, but I was more delighted as a result of what actually happened. Right. The truth is indeed better. So, I mean, it was just a total joy. Now, in order to tell this story, you did a lot of work on the context of it and the context of the post revolutionary war landscape in northern New Jersey and in New Jersey generally is utterly critical to understanding how this came to be. You can't do one without the other. Okay, so as we dive into the Ghost Hoax, would you first take us to northern New Jersey in the years? Right. Well, let's say take us right to the middle of the Revolutionary War, because that's really kind of where this begins, isn't it?
[00:06:49.340] - Peter
[00:06:50.520] - Ben
The incident was 1788, but you write that the germ of it was actually brewing during the middle of the war with the tensions between the Patriots, the American Patriots, and the British loyalists. So what was going on in this area at that time?
[00:07:07.840] - Peter
Yeah, so the interest in New Jersey, generally speaking, 1700, actually started for my master thesis when I got my Masters in History, like a decade ago, when I started doing research with regards to New Jersey leading up the Revolutionary War. And I realized that New Jersey was very much divided as a state based on religious lines. So it was who was the Anglican, who are the members of the Anglican Church, who are the members of the Protestant Church. And these divisions often led very much so to conflicts between neighbors. I'm talking early 1700s, where people would always steal each other's cattle or just do little hoaxes here and there because of the religious division between them. And what ultimately happens is when the American Revolution comes to be, new Jersey is very much stuck in the middle, specifically this area. George Washington stayed in Morristown twice. He chose to bring his armies to Morristown for winters two times. Right. Everywhere I look growing up in this area, just my neighborhood, everywhere you look, you see George Washington was here. George Washington was here. There's another plot. He wasn't here in the best capacity, because that kind of plays a part in this story, because George Washington was ultimately chased through New Jersey.
[00:08:25.610] - Peter
He was kind of losing as the British and the Hessians were chasing him out. And then he had this big comeback, this Return of the Jedi moment when he comes back in the Battle of Trent. But what starts to happen is, as the revolution starts, these families that have kind of been feuding for years, even specifically in Morris County, kind of take on the roles and new labels that are associated with the war. So you have those that always belong to the Anglican Church. They become the so called loyalists. And then you have the people that were kind of always, I would say a little bit jealous, maybe, of their so called wealth, because the loyalists were always a little bit wealthier. They kind of took on this role of the patriots. So it's simply this animosity that's been there for generations, translated itself to the war. But now there is an outlet. Now you have a scene and almost an arena where you could kind of really utilize this hatred per say, go ahead.
[00:09:28.370] - Ben
No, it's funny because we have this preconception, I think, in sort of the teaching of popular history that most folks generally were on the side of the Patriots of the rebels. That's kind of the classic American tale that we like to tell, because we love a scrappy underdog, don't we? But your claim is actually very stark. I mean, you draw on scholars who have established that it was nearly half and half, but evenly split down the middle between who are we supporting here? And that is a startling number, if you think about it, for that time. I mean, you didn't know if you could trust your neighbor. It's remarkable.
[00:10:09.840] - Peter
Absolutely. Yeah. And what ends up happening, which really kind of plays a role here, and why there's even a story of the mortar stone ghost, is the fact that every time the Patriot, like when Washington is being chased through New Jersey, where he stops around Morristown by the British, you see the loyalists kind of come out during this time. And what they do is they start pillaging the farms of the Patriots. They start stealing their stuff. They start setting their barns on fire and their fields on fire. People are actually generally just when you start looking through New Jersey files, there are people that are killed during this time. Loyalists no one can pinpoint specifically like, this person killed this guy. But there is deaths that are occurring during the time as Washington's armies are going through New Jersey. And the deaths are not by the soldiers we're talking to. Civilians are fighting against other civilians. The British are here. So the loyalists come out, and it's almost like, all right, now I'm going to the thing you did to you stole my cow five years ago. Well, now I'm going to burn your barn, kind of thing.
[00:11:12.120] - Peter
So you have that animosity going on. But then when Washington returns, you ultimately see the flip side of this. And now the Patriots are like, well, how could you do this? You're loyalists. So now they go in and they pillage their land and they steal their stuff and they set their people on fire. There's tar and feathering going on left and right. I called it very much a civil war that is happening within the state of New Jersey. And because of the fact that you have these Patriots and loyalists going back and forth, you have a British unit that is created specifically from the loyalists that kind of goes out, works as a rogue unit, and it goes in and hunts down Patriots for the reason of trying to solicit some form of a punishment, I guess, on the Patriots for betraying the crown. And this happens quite often back and forth. And this is what brings up this idea of, well, there's supposedly a treasure. This is what starts to happen. And the Patriots started talking about this idea that once they start pillaging the homes of these loyalists, they realize that there's not as much money and not as much gold and treasure in a sense of perhaps jewelry and so on and so forth, as they thought would be there.
[00:12:35.000] - Peter
So a legend is born within, or amongst rather the patriots, stating that, you know what? These loyalists had to have somehow got together in this county, these rich people that we know always had so much wealth and carriages and all this stuff, they had to have hidden their money. It's impossible that there's so little to pillage. So this kind of birth of this, well, why would they bury it? And amongst the locals, the idea was, well, the one secluded spot that is near here, because there's no cars, obviously, it's 1700 that these locals, these loyalists can get to is in Schooly Mountain, which is nearby on the outskirts of Morristown. And it's almost this thought of, well, we're not getting enough from these loyalists. So they buried their treasure. They had to have come together and somehow buried it. And it was kind of my discovery, in a sense, looking through this was, well, okay, so that's the belief why the treasure existed.
[00:13:37.010] - Ben
So let me ask you this. We'll come to Schooly Mountain in just a minute, but I wanted to ask you, this behavior during wartime, your account of it is actually quite chilling, Peter. I mean, you have arson, you have robbing, you have pillaging, you have unaccounted for murders. It's not really the kind of behavior that we think of when we imagine our sort of brave American patriots or the free folk, the citizenry who are supporting them as they drive out the evil colonials. Right. Well, of course, much of history, once you get into the details, does not conform to our expectations. But you do write this kind of interesting side note, which is that Washington himself did condemn this kind of behavior from the patriot side, but that there wasn't a whole lot that he could necessarily do about it. Firsthand, he was actually waging a campaign in other parts of the state and trying to drive Cornwallis out. So on the one hand, you had this kind of official rhetoric of, we're not going to behave the way that those terrible foreign mercenaries are behaving right. And yet it was still happening absolutely on the ground, wasn't it?
[00:14:51.720] - Peter
Absolutely. And interesting, too, that you brought that up, because his official decree was, we're all American, we need to act a specific way. However, himself, his armies were actually responsible a lot for stealing stuff from people. Grain was huge. Today we're proud of the fact that Washington stayed in this town. He stayed in his house. That means that Washington's armies pillaged that farm.
[00:15:16.850] - Ben
That's ultimately what happened. Rated the barn and made off of everything they could.
[00:15:21.320] - Peter
Yeah, 100%. And they gave them these slips of IOUs, basically like, well, if we win the war, you'll get this back from the government. But this is at a time where we're rebels. I mean, there is absolutely no guarantee that this war will be won. So Washington, as much as there was a lot of Patriots, was really turning a lot of people against him himself. This idea of like, well, we need to feed the army, it is what it is. And he often complained that New Jersey was always a little skimpy when it came to sharing its stuff. There's his own writings when he's just, these New Jersey and why are they upset that I'm taking their grain? I mean, I have to win this war.
[00:16:01.430] - Ben
Does that reputation hold true today? Are you all a bunch of spin thrifts up there? Any truth to that notion?
[00:16:09.270] - Peter
That is so funny. But let's hope now, right? But it is interesting that there's always the official rhetoric, there's always the official decree, and then there is the pragmatic approach that different leaders have to trying to win a war.
[00:16:28.720] - Ben
In this case, of course, now you have this kind of interesting moment in this part of the narrative which sets the stage for the Ghost Hoax. Washington does, in fact, lead his army to substantial victories in New Jersey, and he is instrumental in driving Cornwallis's army a good distance away. And that creates a kind of new landscape between this evenly divided split. You have a lot of the loyalists fleeing to New York, right? You have loyalists fleeing state lines because they are seeking their safety. You have an exodus, and you begin to see the formation of New Jersey as a sort of distinctly American held territory, okay? That sets the stage for increased persecution, as you write, of those few remaining Loyalists that were still there. There's an imbalance now that used to be sort of evenly divided, and now it's an imbalance. What was the strategy that he used in order to win those engagements? How was he able to take New Jersey for the Patriots in that moment?
[00:17:49.310] - Peter
Interesting enough, and I don't want to degrade Washington by any means, but up to this point, up to really Trenton and then shortly thereafter Princeton, washington was not doing so well in the battlefield. There's no denying that he was kind of losing. And I think what actually helped him secure these victories is the fact that General Hao and Cornwallis basically stopped taking him seriously. They left New Jersey in the hands of a mercenary army, the Hessians, right? The German Hessians and themselves, they retreated back to New York thinking that it's winter. A gentleman doesn't find it winter. It's too cold. So we're going to hang out and give our proper British redcoats soldiers a little R and R in New York City, and the hedgehogs are going to hold on to New Jersey because Washington is all but beaten. So the way he really secured these victories and turned the tide of the war in New Jersey was because he kind of did the ungentleman thing. He chose to, one, surprise his enemy. Two, he chose to do so on Christmas knowing that the Hessians were German and Catholic. So it was kind of like not a gentleman thing to do.
[00:19:02.380] - Peter
And also being winter, it was almost like an unwritten rule. While armies don't fight in winter, we take a break. So he basically, in a very scrappy way, utilize all his advantages that he could have had at that particular given time. Had he waited until spring, he would not have had those victories because potentially highly likely the British might have come back to New Jersey. So here he is being essentially by the British, viewed as done over with and the British kind of, you know, they let the guard down, they leave New Jersey thinking that he's not going to cross the Delaware River and that's exactly what he does. And what he does afterwards is he goes to Trenton, secures a victory, which kind of turns the tide around like, yes, this guy can win, we can win. He then follows that very quickly with Princeton. Again, newspapers, local newspapers are saying, this is happening, we could do this. And it actually allows for a lot of his army to not quit because up to that point he was having a mass exodus every single year. And after those two victories people are like, all right, maybe I'll stick around.
[00:20:10.710] - Peter
And after that he goes, alright, well, let's settle down in Morristown and let's regroup, kind of thing.
[00:20:17.870] - Ben
It's funny is that at this point in the story, washington actually recedes into the background. So the fog of war is covering this area in multiple different ways. Washington is using deception in order to sort of achieve his victories on the battlefield. Deception and surprise. And the fog of war is descending upon the community in Morristown and this evolving dynamic between the Rebel, the patriots and the loyalists. Okay, now you're right, that part of the reason for information of all kinds, which is going to take us straight to this hoax. One of the reasons that information gets corrupted in transit during this time is because literacy rates are quite low. They're lower than we think they were, and that there were fairly strong beliefs in sort of superstition and the prevalence of witchcraft and so forth that were also circulating even as news of the war is spreading. So mysterious occurrences are chalked up to supernatural forces more readily then they might be. Now is that fair to say?
[00:21:35.110] - Peter
Absolutely. Back then, if you called the doctor in because your stomach hurt or you had some form of ailment, when you call a doctor and ultimately you were calling in a which doctor, someone would come in and say, all right, you got to lay on your side and then you're going to breathe in a couple of times and drink this tea and you should be better. There was not really a lot of knowledge. As you mentioned, schooling was not necessarily key or important. However, this was also a time when this is changing. It is definitely changing. You have Princeton, which is located in New Jersey, which is ultimately designed as a higher level institution for priests. I mean, it's for clergy, but everyone aspired to ultimately become educated. But it was also a class issue. And as I mentioned before, a lot of the loyalists were more educated than some of the patriots that you had in these areas. And it was becoming somewhat of an embarrassment to believe in a lot of the superstitions. However, it was still very prevalent, extremely prevalent. You had stories that were appearing in newspapers. There was a tree.
[00:22:44.370] - Peter
There's a witch tree where a lot of people have died under the tree, and the tree whispers odd things, and you can't walk by it because it's bad luck. And you had stories that actually the story this one is interesting too, was written by none other but Ben Franklin, the story that there was a which trial in New Jersey, and historians, new Jersey historians to this day can't confirm nor deny whether Franklin was basically making fun of New Jersey right. Or in 1780s, you still believe in the superstitions or whether it actually happened. But he did report on it nonetheless. He wrote about this idea of, well, there's witches and someone accuses somebody else and they're trying to see if they're going to drown or not, right? These are things that you would normally read in 16 hundreds New England. But yeah, this is 1780s, and you're reading about this potentially supposedly happening in New Jersey. And even if it did not happen again, we don't know at least the sheer fact that here is someone like Benjamin Franken writing about this suggests that there is still a belief that New Jersey and still believe in this superstition.
[00:23:57.170] - Ben
The other note I made in the margins of my copy alongside Scooby Doo was at the moment when you described the Mount Holly witch trials, the alleged Mount Holly witch trials. And I was looking at it and I was thinking, this is Monty Python all over again. Does she float? She's not a witch burner anyway, that sort of thing. And it would be funny if it were not, of course, so terrifying and so many lives were needlessly lost as a result of these beliefs. Now, amid this insanity, if I can be so bold yeah, enter our villain, right, interstage left, this amazing person who just beggars belief, Ransford Rogers, who basically comes down to this area and says, I am going to take advantage of everything that I see in front of me. I am going to pull the wool over everyone's eyes just as far as I possibly can. And he nearly gets away with it, doesn't he?
[00:25:11.850] - Peter
Yes, absolutely. The crazy thing is aspect of this area. But he looks at the superstitious aspect. He looks at the fact that there's a lot of simple people here. That education. I mean, he's a schoolteacher, ultimately. That's what he is. So he always has firsthand experience of that. He looks at the lack of proper education. He looks at the what's, what I'm looking for, not hate, but I guess hate and greed towards the loyalists that are now gone. They left. But he sees that there's still that greed to get back at them, that they have to have animosity absolutely animosity towards them. We need to get back at them, and we're going to take that money that they hid so they could never come back and get it again. And he's actually recruited, interesting enough, I mean, he finds out about this. He's chilling up in New England, and there's some locals from New Jersey, Morristown, that are traveling. And they kind of come across him and they tell him that there's this treasure that's hidden by these loyalists. But there's a lot of talk that there is ghosts that are essentially guarding this treasure that these loyalists actually buried buried a couple of dead bodies that were killed by these patriots along with this treasure and these ghosts.
[00:26:28.670] - Peter
And these bodies and spirits are going to protect this treasure. And Ransford is like, oh, really? Where is this treasure?
[00:26:36.550] - Ben
I can get on board with that. Sure.
[00:26:41.750] - Peter
So he's just like so they tell him, well, it's in his schooly mountain. We don't really know where in a schooly mountain, but it's there. We know it for a fact. And he's like, well, I have some experience communicating with parents. The fact is that he is someone that is educated at a time where a lot of people are not. So these two travelers actually do look up to him to a certain extent. I mean, this is an educated dude, and he sounds smart, and he's telling them, I do know how to communicate with spirits. And he also, we learned later on, has kind of a knack for chemistry. I mean, this guy was able to take gunpowder and make explosions and create smoke and thinks that an average farmer in northern New Jersey would not know how to do. Like, to him, an explosion out of the ground and smoke would be like, oh, what's happening? Meanwhile, he planted something that simply took a while to explode soon.
[00:27:41.070] - Ben
I definitely want to ask you about his stagecraft because it really is remarkable. But take us to the first con, because there were several cons, but the first one was arguably the most effective. What did Ransford cook up here?
[00:28:01.770] - Peter
So Ransford comes down, moves to Morristown, initially picks up a job in a one room schoolhouse in the country. He's a teacher, and he kind of scopes out to see who and keep in mind, people that are sending these kids to the schoolhouse are the wealthier members of this society. So he kind of scopes that out and he's like, all right, who owns are the wealthy people here? And he starts to slowly discuss with people this idea of like, oh, I heard there's this treasure that's hidden. And people are like, well, yeah, there is. Of course there is. And he starts to spread this idea that potentially he could somehow communicate with these spirits. But the issue is that he does this very secretly, and he has these people meet at his cottage, which is again in the middle of the woods, far away from the center of town. And he doesn't really tell any of them the first time who's meeting there. So they all kind of come secretly. And once he gets them all there, it's all of a sudden they see each other, and it's like, well, now you're in this because I could say that you were global enough to show up, and you were gold enough to show up, right?
[00:29:12.620] - Peter
So he kind of gets them. It's a small group of people, and he ultimately just kind of first time just discusses them. While this is secretive, and obviously we don't want anyone else to get this treasure. But I have gone to schooly, mountain, actually, and I have spoken to the spirit, and I brought you here, guys, because I feel like you are also worthy to go on this journey with me. So when he gets them together, he already tells them that this is a done deal. He's like, I found this treasure you've been seeking for years, and I am the one that's going to be the chosen person to communicate, because the spirit has chosen to communicate with me. And at first, he doesn't really ask for any money. At first. It's just he wants them to believe it. That's what it comes down to.
[00:29:59.490] - Ben
It's interesting when you have someone who says, only I have access to the secret forbidden knowledge. Right? I mean, surely there must have been a little skepticism in that room at first, but they seem to have gotten over their skepticism very quickly, didn't they?
[00:30:19.010] - Peter
Well, yeah. So we never find out that Ransford actually winds up bringing a friend. He definitely has a friend that's involved in this situation. And as these guys are in a room and he's talking to them, they start hearing things outside. It's at a cottage, again, 1780s, and they hear tapping, and they start hearing noises, and then they start hearing a voice. It's almost like, wait, what's happening here? And we come to find out that apparently and this is according to newspapers from 17 hundreds, they call it an apparatus, a voice apparatus that was created. He created some magic box that if you spoke through it kind of like Kevin McAllister from Home Alone here, it changes device. These people are in there and again, not suspect. They're already freaked out. It's dark. There's candles going on. This guy's talking about spirits. But also they start hearing noises. They start. Hearing spirits. And they're like, what is happening? Again, not knowing that there's a dude running around the outside of the house and continuously making noises from different corners. So they think there's more than one thing. And he scares them enough to say to them, you guys need to come back, and we're going to have to do this the proper way to communicate with us.
[00:31:30.610] - Peter
And they're like, oh, okay, I guess we'll come back. Yeah. Of course, at first it's just deployed to get them to believe that there is a spirit. And these people, it's interesting because for me, as a historian, I was like, why would they believe this? And that sort of come back to this idea? Well, because at this time, people still believed very strongly that there is some supernatural powers. I mean, it was very much tied to education level. And these people, as wealthy as they were, a lot of them, because they got land passed on to them, not because today wealth and education are often go hand in hand, but that was really the case back then. He got them. I mean, ultimately.
[00:32:18.150] - Ben
What'S hilarious is in the first con, we got a couple of cons to work through. But in the first con, he brings them in. He says, okay, now you guys are all complicit. He hooks them. Soon this takes place over a series of sort of weeks and months. He begins to take them out into the field, into Schooly Mountain. There's a sort of rituals that they.
[00:32:41.470] - Peter
Conduct out there, walking circles, oldest, youngest, tallest, shortest. He figures out as he goes along with this thing.
[00:32:50.730] - Ben
It's amazing. And then I think my favorite moment, and he does this again in the second con, he basically says, this is a pay to play scheme, right? So it's like, if you want to get this treasure, you got to pay the spirits first. And he starts building everybody out of gold and silver. You write, of course, with the currency standards at the time, the only thing that's worth anything with gold and silver, not the sort of local money. But surely, again, you're thinking as you're reading this book, it's like, did no one's eyebrows start to raise a little bit when you have to pay the spirit in worldly money? Not like, I'm going to make a terrible joke here, but like in ethereum, right? What is going on?
[00:33:47.470] - Peter
No, it's surreal because his idea was, all right, we're going to meet. And first of all, he continues to con. So while they're meeting in the field, this is where this whole chemistry comes into play. And he sets up these, basically around the perimeter. He would dig up these holes and he would put gunpowder in them. And then he would have his accomplice running around and, like, lighting these things on fire. So as he's talking to them, things are like kind of blown up some places and there's noises and they're like, what is happening? He's like, well, the ghosts are angry because you're not listening to me. The spirit is angry. He continues this idea of, well, you need to pay to showcase that you really, truly are in it. You need to be vested in this and through giving something before the ghost could surrender this gift to you, you have to showcase that you're willing to give yourself as well. My suspicion is that at this point some of these guys they had to have again, I want to believe that some of these men, these are wealthy individuals, must have thought that I'm screwed.
[00:34:52.990] - Peter
I better pay this guy because I'm going to be so embarrassed in light of this whole town, everyone is going to make fun of me for the fact that I got duped. So it's almost like I'm into deep aspect, right? Think of it this way. Once the con ends, these guys don't talk about it. Quite frankly. They're not even trying to rest him. They're just like, I wasn't part of this. I want nothing to do with it. I mean, let's bury this in history and never talk about it again. It's like they had this epiphany afterwards like, oh, man, maybe we went a little too far. But then again, if I'm in the middle of a field in the middle of the woods and there's things that are completely freaking me out and there's some guy that's standing there in a weird voice apparatus saying like, I am the spirit of and you're like, what is happening? Perhaps maybe you're afraid enough. Or you're like, yeah, take a dollar, all right, take $5.
[00:35:49.150] - Ben
Just get me out of here. So how much money does Ransford make in this first stent?
[00:35:57.730] - Peter
Looking at it, looking through different sources in Morristown history and Morris County history, it doesn't specify. There's a few places that give a different number and I actually don't remember at the top of my head did I put it in the book? Do you know? I don't think I did.
[00:36:11.210] - Ben
Well, because he did this several times, it was a little tricky to keep track of how much he was making in which instance because the numbers were a little fluid. But I mean, it sounds to me like he made enough to he was on for a while. Yes. And then he spent his way through that and it was time for con number two. Like you got to scratch the old itch, right? And so what I was interested in is you write there was a key difference between con number one and con number two. Of course, they never found the treasure, right?
[00:36:46.340] - Peter
Of course. The conclusion of it is awesome because the people are eventually getting a little upset. They're like, all right, where's the money? Right? Like, we've paid you enough. Where's the money? And he's like, this is happening. That was like his grand finale. This is when he really pulls out all the stops. There's potentially one or two people that are helping him. There is someone that at one point someone actually is dressed in this sheet, literally comes out from the trees, but they have to stay in a circle. They can move out of the circle. So they could just enough see this ghost in a sheet, and there's smoke around him. And Ransford walks up to this ghost, and this ghost, which is obviously accomplice, is speaking through Zaparatus really loud, and there are echoes. And he says, you guys were not worthy. Some of you have told my secrets to others, and for this you have angered me again. Things are blown up again. And it's just like these people are like, do not move out of the circle. And this ghost is saying, you can't move out of the circle. You'll be damned forever.
[00:37:47.780] - Peter
So everyone's shaking, and they see Ransford over there by the tree talking to this ghost. And Ransford comes back and says, guys, we messed up. Some of you must not have been faithful and must have mentioned something. And therefore, unfortunately, at this point, the spirits are not going to give us the treasure, but they're going to spare your life for now, your lives and up for these guys. And these guys are like, okay, all right, can we leave the circle? And he kind of just like, all right, you are done for now. And then it's grand finale. I mean, if this was a play, this was the encore, and it's over. Basically at that point it ends and he's kind of like, happy, buddy, I got enough money. I could live off of this. This is cool. And that also got me, too, is that these people went home and for months no one talked about it because they knew that they would be ridiculed. So they're like, oh, man, I guess we got conned. That didn't work out.
[00:38:41.320] - Ben
Well. I mean, one thing is true is that they are being ridiculed by you and by me. They got their wish on that front not to be uncouth, but I'm afraid they did make their bed and lay in it. So the second con the second con is different, interesting, different people and transferred. He's not stupid, right? I mean, like, he might be a conniving sneak thief, but he's not stupid. He actually changes the terms of the engagement to where he too is a participant, right? Like, he sort of makes himself to be paying in just like everybody else. He's no longer the sort of arch priest of the ritual in that sense. He's sort of like, no, I'm just one of you guys. And yet he cooked the whole thing up himself. I mean, what difference did that make in the execution of con number two?
[00:39:39.890] - Peter
Yeah, I think it actually helped him get away with it in a sense. It's almost like you don't come back to the scene of the crime, right? So he actually started the entire second con by targeting a different group of people. And as opposed to with the first group of people, he looked at the angry former patriots that had money, but we just greedy and wanted more of the money. And now he winds up going after a group of really religious churchgoing people. And he kind of plays it off like it's not just about the treasure. The treasure is going to be your reward for giving peace to these spirits that could go to heaven. And because you guys are good Christians, we're together, all of us, we're going to release these poor spirits that were buried with this treasure, and they will go to heaven while we will get the treasure for the fact that we were such good Christians. So different group of people right off the start, right?
[00:40:35.130] - Ben
Totally how it works, by the way. That's just totally how it works.
[00:40:39.110] - Peter
But that's what he's going for. It's like, we're going to be good people on this. And again, he starts getting these church going people. He gets these very religious guys on board. He brings them initially. Again, he kind of starts off with, I have this ability to speak to these spirits, but we need to help them, and it's our mission. But as you mentioned very quickly, what he does is he selects. He kind of like watches while he has these group meetings, very similar meetings. And he kind of watches who's like the leader in the group. And he starts picking people that he thinks what everybody else would follow. And then he starts visiting them separately while he has a sheet on, which is another thing, right? He taps on their window at night and then with this voice that privacy, like, I am the spirit of the schooly mountain. Come out. And then they start to come out. They're like, but stay by your window. You can't go any further. And he stays further out by the fence, and he tries talking to them, and he's like, you will now be the chosen one who I will speak to.
[00:41:43.790] - Peter
And you will go. Exactly. And you will go at the meeting, and you're going to tell Ransford and everybody else that you would now be the chosen one. So next day, Ransford meets with his people at night in the middle of the field. Something happened in the darkness. And then you guys come out. He's like, well, actually, the spirit saw me, so I will now be the leader. And Ransford's like, oh, of course, whatever the spirit wants.
[00:42:07.460] - Ben
[00:42:10.470] - Peter
He kind of went along with this in a sense. It's funny, because when he started noticing that some people did not believe him, that they were getting skeptical, he would visit them right away too, in the same premise. He would tap on the window, and he was like, oh, I'm the spirit, and I also chose to speak to you. So now the guy that was potentially on the fence, he's like, oh, no, guys, seriously. Spirit came over last night. Like, this was real. This happened. And he kind of, like you said, makes himself be part of the con. And again, this is the crazy part. I really found it so difficult to how did he introduce this idea of, like, we're good Christians, but we need to pay the spirit anyway. We should be paying the spirit to.
[00:42:52.580] - Ben
Show we're going to leave this money under this tree exactly like, I'm going to separate you from your hard earned wages. The level of ridiculousness was at 60. We're now at 75, and we're climbing towards 90. I mean, it's just not and these.
[00:43:11.980] - Peter
People don't have money. They weren't as wealthy as the first group, so they literally, like, sold stuff to get it. They didn't have the money to give. And so Ranford is like, wow, lend you some money if you want. You just have to pay me back later. Ultimately, it's still going to him anyway, right? So he's like, well, if you can't give ten, if you can't give 10oz, just give seven. I'll talk to the ghost. He'll going to be okay with it. And I mean, that's literally what he says to them, some of them. And they're like, all right, let's give you everything I have. And this is where you have the wives of these men are starting to get wise. They're like, Where do you keep on going at night? Like, are you cheating on me? Where's all the money going? Meanwhile, it's worse than that. The global aspect of this is nuts.
[00:43:54.030] - Ben
So con number two ends in a similarish fashion to con number one. And the Ransford sort of sees people getting suspicious, and he begins to call it off, and people start asking too many questions, and he realizes that things are getting a little delicate here, but it's con number three where things actually fall apart. That is his downfall. You write that there was actually one specific moment which jeopardized the entire operation, which is that one of his marks, one of his gullible pharma types accidentally left I'm just going to come right out and say it. Pouch of the secret magic powder, which they had been given, right, as sort of emblem of their participation and part of the Incantatory ritual, et cetera.
[00:44:51.180] - Peter
Okay, this guy thank you. Powder, crushed bones.
[00:44:55.560] - Ben
The magic powder. Yes, the sachet of the magic powder. This guy just manages to do the unthinkable, which is leave it out in the open and his wife finds it. And that is, in fact, the straw that broke the camel's back, wasn't it?
[00:45:12.080] - Peter
Yes, 100%. Which the irony of this is surreal to me because I even mentioned in the story the idea of how women were viewed as second class citizens in 1700 and how women were not educated past a certain level of, well, you know what? If you're good enough to be able to measure for baking purposes, you're done. These men considered themselves to be like, the pinnacles of that society, the pantheons of Morris county. And yet the woman is the one that they say, behind every great man is a greater woman until he works here. He comes home, and first of all, his wife finds it. And she's like, what is this? This is shady. And she does what every good Christian woman at that time would do. I mean, she goes right to the local priest in a church that actually still stands there in Morristown. And she's like, what is this? What is this witchcraft? And he's like, your husband's in something deep. This is way too deep. This is bad. You need to turn him away from this or your whole family. Again, superstition, but from the Christian aspect, right? Like, the god is not going to be okay with this.
[00:46:17.300] - Peter
Something is fishy. And then she basically waits for her husband to come home. And she's just like, dude, what is this? And he just cracks. And he's like, this ghost, and this is what's happening. And she's like, well, she said, well, I need to see this ghost. And lucky for them, rents for Rogers suspecting things that something's not right. This guy's not being as intuitive as he's supposed to. This is another mistake of rents for Rogers. He gets drunk. He winds up getting drunk in a local tavern. And he's like, oh, man, I still got to go see that guy as the spirit. I have to be the spirit tonight. So he goes over to this man's house as a spirit, mind you. And same premise, stay by the window or stay over there by the house. I'm going to be here. You came in. And he gives this whole spiel. But this time the wife is listening. The wife is watching, listening. She's figuring this out. And as soon as ransford leaves, she waits till it gets a little lighter out. She goes outside. And I mean, obviously it was raining the night before.
[00:47:26.020] - Peter
So here you have this guy's footsteps. You literally see his footprint everywhere. And she's like, well, this is where the ghost was, right? And this is where he walked. And she basically like, I could imagine looks at her husband like, you dumb, but here you go. Yes. Like, you idiot, here's your ghost.
[00:47:46.710] - Ben
This is like the moment. This is the ripped from the headlines of Scooby Doo moment where you have this drunk con man wearing the sheet standing outside yelling gibberish into the night air. And the lady of the house, she can see his freaking boots, right? I mean, it's like the sheet doesn't even go all the way down to the ground. And you're just like, what on earth is happening? Owe to be a fly on the wall of that bar.
[00:48:18.370] - Peter
I mean, sloppy from Ransford because he had them. I mean, he had them all. By this time, these people are giving him money when I even write in the book. He just got greedy. If he packed it up after the second if he packed up after the second con, he would have been good if he just left. But he got greedy. And essentially they find him. They figured him out.
[00:48:42.640] - Ben
Yeah, they track him down. They sort of like some footsteps here. Where could they go?
[00:48:48.490] - Peter
They follow the footsteps. They figure out where their horses are. They follow that track. They literally follow it to his house. It doesn't get any more like, here you go. The guy is arrested. I mean, he is thrown in jail, which is an interesting part of the story. He's thrown in jail, which is on the Morristown Green today. It's like a nice park area, but the courthouse is no longer actually there. But there's a plaque that says, here's where the courthouse stood in, and he's about to be trialed. And the crazy thing is, not a lot of people are at least the first group is not really coming out saying, yeah, that was us. Yes. He conducts first. They're just like, we don't know this guy. We don't know anything about you heard of him.
[00:49:32.260] - Ben
[00:49:32.760] - Peter
Let the church people deal with this. Let the church people deal with this. And while he's awaiting really formal trial, you have one of his followers who really I don't understand. I don't get it. They clearly bought into the story. But regardless of the fact that now we know they found the sheet, the dirty sheet, they're like, Here you go, here is your go. But someone actually helped him escape from prison. One of his followers actually helped him escape from prison. The story of Rans for Rogers kind of ends, and Morris Town people could not be more excited to forget about it. But meanwhile, he goes on. Interesting enough, as I was looking through these old files and newspapers from 1100 and hard to read, but I'm doing the research and finding this all out. I mean, he went on and did the very similar con again, he does this again in New England.
[00:50:28.530] - Ben
Yeah, it's extraordinary.
[00:50:30.850] - Peter
It's like he's again tweaked a little bit here and there, but ultimately, same thing. And again, he's about to be caught, and then he escapes. And now we never history loses sight of Rans for Rogers. But yet the reason we have this book, the reason we know about this is because, again, perhaps him, someone writes and publishes a short pamphlet just a couple of years after this event, basically. Not just explaining what happened, but in, like, a funny way, ridiculing the people that were in it, that took part of it. And as opposed to today, when you could just get a book and you can continue printing on demand back then in order for you to publish a pamphlet, you needed to pay someone to set up the printing press, to set all the tablets. It's an expensive ordeal.
[00:51:17.590] - Ben
Very expensive. It was absolutely very expensive.
[00:51:19.590] - Peter
And there's only a certain limited amount number of these pamphlets that printed the story out. And the original pamphlet basically called everyone out. It had everyone's name in it, which is why some historians now believe that maybe it was Ranford Rogers. That was just like, you know what, guys? And here's to you. This is what you did to me. So here you go. I'm going to expose you all. He was an educated guy, so at the time, it's possible that he wrote this. But again, probably not. Again, we don't know. But the original pamphlet is quickly bought out by every like it's buried. It actually doesn't exist. Right? All those members get this pamphlet, they take it away. They don't want their name. Sean, this is gone from history until someone comes about 20 or so, 2030 years later and basically says, I found one of these pamphlets, they exist, but out of respect for these families, I'm going to erase their names. And they republish this pamphlet, but this time missing the original names. So for me, it was kind of like I really was playing like ScoobyDoo. It was kind of a little bit detective thing as a historian, going, who are these people?
[00:52:31.170] - Peter
How do I find them? And I'm looking through birth records, I'm looking through land deeds, I'm looking through trying to figure out, OK, if this guy lived somewhere here based on this, and if he's H A are his initials, who was ho here? Who on this land? For me, it was sitting there trying to like, who are these people? And again, it's insignificant today. I think it's been hundreds of years. But you'd be surprised, some of these people that I was able to figure out who they were. I mean, there are streets named after them and it's in the city of Morrison. So these really were known members of society?
[00:53:09.370] - Ben
No. As I was sort of working through the sections of your book, I was thinking it must have been so very satisfying to actually connect some of those dots and to be able to say, conclusively, it is not possible to mistake these set of initials for somebody else. We do know who this person was. You didn't get everybody, but you got a good number of them. How did that feel?
[00:53:38.990] - Peter
It was awesome because first of all, when I wrote this book, I wrote it during COVID, like the Hardcore Covet Lockdowns. So here I am. Home. We can't go anywhere. No one can go anywhere. And I'm like, really entrenching this story. And I have to give a shout out to historical society, local historical societies, as well as local libraries, because everything I needed, they got for me. Morris County Historical Society. Okay, I kind of want to see what files I want to see is old newspapers. I want to see what you have. And again, everything's locked in this point. So they're like, all right, we're going to unlock the door for you. You're going to walk into this room on the right. There's going to be a desk. We'll leave the files on it for you. Because of social distancing, I'm walking into these old historical societies and they gave me these files. And I'm sitting there and I'm looking through it, and I'm taking pictures of what I need too. Things are scanned and sent over to me. Libraries. I would pull up to the library and they would be like, open your trunk.
[00:54:36.110] - Peter
And it would bring me the books I needed from New Jersey collections that normally would not be allowed to be taken out because some of these books are from 10 00 17 00. But they're like, you could have them, just don't break them. I'm like, I won't break them. I promise. So just going through all these documents for me, it was just so much fun. Finally hitting the nail on the head. I'm like, this is the guy. This is definitely the guy. This is so cool. And then I would Google the guy and be like, ha, there's a street named after this guy, or there's a park named after this guy. And I'm like, this is definitely the guy. And it was a lot of fun from that perspective. Actually, interesting enough, the state of New Jersey, the General Assembly of State of New Jersey sent me a certificate that I was commended for discovering new history of Morris County. So that came in the mail unexpectedly. That was kind of cool for originating.
[00:55:28.880] - Ben
[00:55:31.670] - Peter
It was fine.
[00:55:32.320] - Ben
You don't see that every day. Peter, you do say from the outset that there is, in fact no ghost committing the ghost hoax in your book. But as I read, I became increasingly convinced that there is one ghost in your story, which is this pamphlet. Right, the original pamphlet, which seems to sort of flicker in and out of history depending on the circumstances. And I was wondering this original account, this first hand account, which you say is reprinted years later, and only secondary versions were examined by later scholars and so forth, some of which were credible scholars. And we take that on board. But do you think that there is any chance that this original pamphlet does survive somewhere in an attic, in a cedar chest, in a wardrobe somewhere? Have you been able to, I don't know, reach out to the citizens of Morris County and sort of put this back on their radar and say, if you have any old volumes that your grandparents or great great grandparents left, you take a look and see. Do you think there's any chance?
[00:56:55.190] - Peter
I'm actually vice president of my local historical society in Morris County. It's town of Denver, and people bring us some things that we feel have been lost for 100 years. It's like I found in the attic. So I definitely think that this is a question of possibility versus probability. Possibly everything's possible, right? Sure. Probably you start thinking like but I honestly do think that it's very possible that someone might have this pamphlet. The also good thing is that the Historical Society in Morris County has the first reprints of the pamphlet for making hundreds of people have donated over the years. I was able to hold one. I took a picture, put in a book. Like, here I am like, look, I got this pamphlet, right? They have a lot of stuff that they have collected over the years that people have over again. It's been hundreds of years that have just given to them. So it makes me think that if it does exist, I think that in today's world, two things might have happened. One, someone said, what is this? And they threw it out. Or if you see value in it, they would have already given it to the Historical society.
[00:58:08.530] - Peter
I mean, for example, we have this is a couple of years ago, like maybe four years ago at the historical site where I volunteer, we received a package from California. A young couple bought a house in California, and in their attic, while they were just moving things around, they found a box. And in a box they found a meticulously written, kept journal that was kept by a young school teacher from my town of Denver in New Jersey. She decides, she goes, she starts first page, world War One starts. The great war starts today. And she's like, I'm going to chronicle this war. And she basically gives an account of World War I. There's letters in there from her boyfriend that goes to fight and letters from France that are redacted. There is code that she comes up with. It was remarkable. There's a code in it that she comes up with, with her boyfriend that if I say this, I mean this in case letters are read, I mean everything her whole war and these people found it and it's on the front. It's a Denver. It's a Denver throughout the whole thing. And they basically put it they found us online historical society and they mailed it to us.
[00:59:19.940] - Peter
I mean, something like that. If it was lost, we would never know. That history, such an intimate history of a township, of a small town, of a county and what it meant to go through the first I mean, she talks in that book about the first ever standard, what do you call time difference, moving the clocks back. And she talks about prohibition. Before it was prohibition and temperance movement, it was women voting because it was around that time again. So if someone finds it, you would hope that they would do that right thing and send it to the right people. Because I. Guess people do that.
[00:59:58.610] - Ben
Fingers crossed and hope springs eternal. The last question that I have for you, Peter, is you write near the end of your book that this is actually a cautionary tale. And now my favorite scene in the entire narrative is the moment when, after con number three, they have tracked Ransom brothers back to his abode and then find him passed out, still drunk in a barn with the sheet and the tin can next to him, drunk as a skunk. Right. And it's just like you can only imagine what that must have been like in that moment for the folks who have just like it is the Scooby Doo moment that we have all been waiting for. Now, you're right that this is a cautionary tale. I'm going to wager that the caution is not how to avoid ending up in that kind of situation yourself. Yeah, absolutely. What is the caution here for modern readers? What do you want readers of your book to kind of take home from this incredible story based on a con, based on a legend, based on a false belief?
[01:01:28.830] - Peter
I guess the idea that I say this to my students all the time as an educator, there is no easy way out. There's no, like, one way where you could cut corners and you're going to get there. What gets me today is that people want to believe. Let's go with this idea. When people call you at 08:00 at night and tell you that your car insurance, you need new car insurance, or I'm calling from the IRS, we need your credit card number. And the fact that these calls and these calls happen all the time, what makes me think is if these people continue calling and saying they're from the IRS and they want my credit card information or that my warranty is expiring and they need my credit card information, if they continue doing it, that makes me think that people are falling for this. Someone out there is actually falling for this because I think they would stop the con if it wasn't working. It makes me think of almost this idea of like, well, we need to stay educated. We need to kind of see through things in the sense that if it's too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true.
[01:02:35.260] - Peter
And if it seems like this is not right, just I have that gut feeling. Maybe sometimes you should go with your gut feeling and be like, this is not right. And the chances of us winning the lottery are not really that large. It doesn't mean you can't play, but be cognizant. It's so funny I said this to my children. Common sense, right? I mean, that would be the cautionary tale. Common sense. It's surreal to me that this happened in 1700s, but again, the fact that people still fall for these calls and the people give away their credit card information makes you think that still happens today? I just don't understand. I find it surreal.
[01:03:17.050] - Ben
Well, there is a suckerborn every minute, I suppose. And I have been that sucker at times in my life, so we all have. Let me not cast the first stone. If a career in the arts and in history doesn't work out, the takeaway I took home was there's another line of work out there for us. I appreciate the encouragement, Peter. This has just been a total joy. Such a pleasure. I still can't believe that this happened. Cannot believe that your book exists because of how truly marvelous and wonderful it is. So thank you.
[01:04:01.710] - Peter
Thank you so much for having me on it. I really appreciate it. Thank you. Bye.