The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Vanderbilt Mansion 4

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

The upper crust in New York City, like rich people everywhere, have always held a certain fascination with the esoteric arts. Modernity registers adherents to a bastardized form of the Hebrew Kabbalah, the dietary rituals of Sufism have been commoditized into “cleansing diets”, and the Yoga favored by the ladies of the Upper East Side was popularized in the United States by Aleister Crowley. The Vanderbilts, all the way back to the Commodore, are no strangers to the occult.


Like millions of Americans of his time, the Commodore was a believer in occult practices and enlisted the help of mediums to contact departed family members. Following his wife Sophia’s death in 1868, according to Stasz, Cornelius became involved with the Chaflin sisters, two mediums who claimed to be able to materialize ectoplasm. Victoria was said to have been clairvoyant from the age of three; Tennessee, the younger, had once been billed as “the Wonder Child” in a traveling medicine show.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Fortune tellers, spiritualists, theosophists- all eked out an existence at the edges of high society. The parlor culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries encouraged a diverse range of visitors to find themselves presenting philosophical or religious theories to the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. Occultists of all stripes were favored guests, who would thrill the children and delight the ladies. Often, social issues such as abolition of slavery or the adoption of the so called “english week” for laborers would be discussed. Such presentations, when delivered by reputable speakers, would often result in philanthropic gestures toward this university or that orphanage. The spiritualists, however, had to become theatrical.

Parlor tricks, as they became known, were designed to excite the fancy of an audience. Psychics, wizards, and healers minister to and suck upon the teat of wealth- the best the poor can hope for is a prophet.


Dowling College originated in 1955 when Adelphi College offered extension classes in Port Jefferson, Riverhead, and Sayville. In 1959, at the urging of community leaders, Adelphi Suffolk College became the first four year, degree granting liberal arts institution in Suffolk County, housed in an old public school building in Sayville. In January 1963, Adelphi Suffolk College purchased the former W.K. Vanderbilt estate in Oakdale and began developing as an important educational force on Long Island.

The Vanderbilt Era. In 1876, William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad magnate, purchased 900 acres, from Montauk Highway to the Great South Bay, on the east bank of the Connetquot River, on which to build his summer and holiday residence. The original mansion burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1901 with the 110 room, graystone and red brick structure, designed by Richard Howland Hunt. In 1920, after the death of W.K. Vanderbilt, the estate was put up for sale by his son Harold K. Vanderbilt. After seven years, the mansion and its surrounding lands were sold to developers. The farm area became an artists’ colony while the large parcel of wooded land with its extensive canals became the residential community known as Idle Hour.

Pre-College Years. The mansion remained relatively untouched through a succession of owners. These included flamboyant characters of the Prohibition Era and a short term stay of a spiritual cult, the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians. In 1947, when the National Dairy Research Council purchased the mansion and the remaining 23 acres of the original tract, extensive changes were made to accommodate laboratories in the Carriage House (now Curtin Student Center) and indoor tennis courts (now part of the Kramer Science Center).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

William K. Vanderbilt II was born in 1878- 13 years after the civil war, and died in 1944- one year and eight months before Hiroshima. The first half of his lifetime took place during a time known as the Gilded Age (which his family personally gilded, mind you) but more importantly- it was also the time of the Third Great Awakening and the Second Industrial Revolution. An era of wild experimentation with religious and spiritual stylings, the period between the Civil War and the Atomic Bomb spawned radical political movements as well. Suffragettes (one of whom was Willie K.’s own mother- Alva Vanderbilt), socialists, theosophists– all were extant. “The pendulum swings both ways” as I always say, and our modern world’s fascination with religious and political fundamentalism is the inverse of this deeply emotional era with its wide open horizons.

I would point out incidentally, that when visiting the wikipedia page for “The Gilded Age”, the house shown is the Vanderbilt’s own “Breakers” in Newport, Rhode Island.


All of those things are almost as impressive as the events that seem to have taken place there. Rumors of haunting’s and paranormal activities have occurred on the grounds ever since its owner, George Washington Vanderbilt passed on to the other side in 1914 due to complications from surgery.

It’s been recorded that his widow, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser Vanderbilt, carried many conversations with her deceased husband over the years. Edith passed away in 1958. It is said that’s when a lot of the strange events began to happen. Employees began to hear laughing, talking, footsteps, and would see George Vanderbilt in the library, as well as Edith.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The neat cases of taxidermy lining the walls here at the Hall of Fishes hold rare and esoteric specimens of the deep, collected and categorized by WKV2 (William K. Vanderbilt II from this point on) and returned to Long Island’s North Port where this estate- his Eagle’s Nest- is found. Curators gently asked me not to focus in too deeply on the specimens, and implied that a criminal trade exists for biological artifacts such as these as an explanation for a ban on photography normally enforced within the building. Irony, for the Vanderbilts were seldom camera shy, when presenting themselves in public that is.


Cornelius and seven other Vanderbilts are buried at Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island, New York. It is the largest cemetery in Staten Island. In the 19th century, the Vanderbilts gifted this famous cemetery over twelve acres of land. Today, Moravian Cemetery has 113 acres of land.

The Vanderbilts are buried in the Vanderbilt tomb in Moravian Cemetery. It is the largest private tomb in the United States. As you approach the back of the cemetery, you will come across the Vanderbilt tomb gate, which had to of been locked and stood-upright due to the death of a woman. The gate had fallen on her, causing her death. The path to the tomb is a 1/5-mile drive after passing the gate.

The Vanderbilt tomb’s gate is said to be haunted. Besides the death of the woman, whenever someone takes a picture in front of it, it is said that people in the picture disappear or unknown people appear. There have been a number of freak accident deaths that have occurred at the Vanderbilt tomb. It has also been said that if you bring flowers to the tomb, you will be chased and even grabbed at by a ghost in a gray suit.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A horrible cacophony of those things which the sea hides were arranged and posed as if they were participating in some hideous bacchanal. Something about their arrangement awakened in me some forgotten ideation about some relict town in New England, and a sea captain… who came to Calvary Cemetery from Massachusetts to collect the corpse of a the enigmatic “turn of the last century merchant trader” named Gilman. (for more on “searching for Gilman” click here)

Their odd aspect and staring eyes drove me into one of “my states”, and the room began to swirl around your humble narrator. The benthic composition suggested to my fevered thoughts.. how can I explain the seeming eidelon of “a very bad idea” which hatched in my rapidly numbing mind?

I nearly collapsed to the marbled floor, but luckily- Our Lady of the Pentacle anticipated me and moved her frail husband subtly toward the door.

from wikipedia

In those days, there were many weddings of European aristocrats with American heiresses. For the nobles of the Old World, such unions were shameful, but useful in financial terms; the nobility looked upon the Americans who married into their caste as intruders, unworthy of their new position.

In her biography, Consuelo Vanderbilt later described how she was required to wear a steel rod, which ran down her spine and fastened around her waist and over her shoulders, to improve her posture. She was educated entirely at home by governesses and tutors and learned foreign languages at an early age. Her mother was a strict disciplinarian and whipped her with a riding crop for minor infractions. When, as a teenager, Consuelo objected to the clothing her mother had selected for her, Alva Vanderbilt told her that “I do the thinking, you do as you are told.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Half leaning on her alabaster form, half walking, I stole one last shot from inside this place… this Dutchman’s idea of a scientific paradise.

from wikipedia

Alva and William K. Vanderbilt would have three children. Consuelo was born on 2 March 1877, followed by William Kissam II on 2 March 1878, and Harold Stirling on 6 July 1884. Alva would maneuver Consuelo into marrying Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough on 6 November 1895. The marriage would be annulled much later, at the duke’s request and Consuelo’s assent, on 19 August 1926. The annulment was fully supported by Alva, who testified that she had forced Consuelo into the marriage.[7] By this time Consuelo and her mother enjoyed a closer, easier relationship. Consuelo went on to marry Jacques Balsan, a French aeronautics pioneer. William Kissam II would become president of the New York Central Railroad Company on his father’s death in 1920. Harold Stirling graduated from Harvard Law School in 1910, then joined his father at the New York Central Railroad Company. He remained the only active representative of the Vanderbilt family in the New York Central Railroad after his brother’s death, serving as a director and member of the executive committee until 1954.

– photo by Our Lady of the Pentacle

While I recovered from my near faint, Our Lady of the Pentacle went to work, citing some Britishism about grumbling. Heroically, she snatched the trusty G10 camera from my pack and procured the shots above and below, detailing the fantastic patinas of the stout iron wrought door that seals the museum off from the outside world. I wondered aloud… why would such a barrier be required in a gated estate surrounded by high masonry walls with a manned guardhouse at the front gate?

from wikipedia

In 1936 and 1937 George Vanderbilt sponsored a renewal of auto races for the Vanderbilt Cup but most important to him was a scholarly interest in the study of marine life. He owned several yachts and used them to conduct scientific expeditions all over the globe. His voyages conducted important research in expeditions to Africa in 1934 and aboard the schooner Cressida, he made an ocean journey in 1937 to the South Pacific notably in Sumatra that carried out a systematic study of more than 10,000 fish specimens (434 species in 210 genera).

His fifth major expedition was on the schooner Pioneer in 1941 to the Bahamas, Caribbean Sea, Panama, Galapagos Archipelago and Mexican Pacific Islands.

He established the George Vanderbilt Foundation for scientific research but outside academic circles, his important work has mostly been overshadowed by the lavish lifestyles and the Vanderbilt mansions of some of the other members of the Vanderbilt family.

– photo by Our Lady of the Pentacle

Outside, beneath the burning thermonuclear eye of god itself, I began to feel more like myself. Our Lady adjured me to rest while she grabbed her shots.


Swift changes of temperature and a wide variation in scenery are all part of the day’s run if one happens to motor in portions of North Africa as did William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., in some journeyings which he describes in The Journal of the Automobile Club of America.

– photo by Our Lady of the Pentacle

The forbidding door, we were told by museum staff, once had needle like spikes protruding from it. The door faces the seaward side of the hill, where the Alva once docked in Northport, and delivered those things it had dredged up out of the dark and cold sea to the clean sands of the Long Island. Who can guess what sort of creatures Vanderbilt and his crew made congress with as they travelled around the globe?


William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., was arrested in Long Island City on a charge of speeding his automobile through the streets of that city last evening. He was only overtaken and arrested after a lively chase, which extended from Jackson Avenue and Beach Street to the viaduct of the Newtown Creek Bridge which crosses Jackson and Borden Avenues, where he was compelled to slow up in order to pass under the viaduct.

– photo by Our Lady of the Pentacle

Recovering, I managed to resume my activities, and Our Lady of the Pentacle insisted I step away from the Hall of the Fishes and walk with her in light- for a time.

check out this pdf of the “Bulletin of Vanderbilt Marine Museum, Volume 3, Scientific Results of the Cruises of the Yacths “Eagle” and “Ara”, 1921-1928, William K. Vanderbilt, commanding” at

Final Vanderbilt Museum post tomorrow…

Written by Mitch Waxman

April 14, 2010 at 2:24 am

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