Rabbi Shraga Sherman is apparently not afraid of ghosts.
A few weeks ago, Sherman stood in a history-rich building in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion to inaugurate a new Chabad-Lubavitch center. The building, known as the General Wayne Inn, is no run-of-the-mill guesthouse, however. It is, rather, a 300-year-old landmark that, according to local lore, houses the ghost of a Revolutionary War mercenary.
Legend has it that in 1777, a Hessian soldier known simply as Wilhelm was shot dead by a group of colonists. Since the ground was frozen, they couldn’t bury him. Fearing retribution from the Redcoats, they hid the corpse in the building’s cellar and fled. Wilhelm’s ghost is said to inhabit the inn to this day.
“He’s a friendly ghost,” Jerry Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, told the Forward. “From time to time he might blow on the necks of young women. He might rearrange the coins in the cash register or fill the drawer of the register with water. He means no harm.”
The stone and timber General Wayne Inn, which has been designated part of a historic district, has changed little since it was built in 1704 to serve those traveling between Philadelphia and the town of Radner, Pa. Because a number of battles were fought in the region during the Revolutionary War, the inn hosted both American patriots like General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as loyalist and Hessian soldiers.
In the 1880s the inn became a popular vacation spot for Philadelphians. Edgar Allen Poe was a frequent guest, and until the 1930s one could still discern the initials E.A.P. that he had etched into one of the inn’s windowpanes. The building also has served as a post office, general store and a meeting place for Welsh immigrants.
In 1996, the inn took on even more notoriety when relations between its two owners at the time grew strained over a financial dispute, and then soured further when one of the two began an illicit affair with the inn’s chef. On the day after Christmas, the owner who was having the affair was found murdered and his partner was convicted of the crime. The chef later killed herself.
Sherman had known about the inn for years, but it had never dawned on him to build a synagogue there until he drove by a year and a half ago and saw a “for sale” sign. Three years earlier, the rabbi had opened a storefront educational resource center in nearby Bala Cynwyd called The Mitzvah Factory, which attracted a growing number of nonobservant families, and led to the founding of a minyan. When the landlord refused to renew their lease, and an alternative space proved untenable, the community decided to buy the property and build an all-inclusive Jewish center, calling it the Chabad Center for Jewish Life.
Sherman is unfazed by the inn’s reputation. “The location is phenomenal,” he told the Forward. “It’s right on the main thoroughfare, Montgomery Avenue. Twenty-five thousand cars pass by every day and it’s a location everyone knows. Plus, it has a built-in notoriety — you can’t buy that!”
“It’s interesting that in America,” he noted, “300 years old is considered ancient, but from the Jewish perspective, with our 3,300-year-old tradition, it’s more like: Why, it’s only 300 years old! Three hundred years ago the Ba’al Shem Tov [the father of Hasidism] was 6 years old!”
As for the house being haunted, Sherman remarked: “The Hasidic response to negative energy, to darkness, is to marginalize it with positive energy and light. Believe me, once we hammer those mezuzahs on the doorposts, those spirits will be begging us to let them out.”