Hermitage Myths and Legends
From Dr. Elijah Rosegrant forward, the members of the Rosencrantz family were well aware of the historical significance of their home. Family stories were passed down orally through the generations. During the 1890s, Will Rosencrantz developed a particularly strong interest in the history of both the Rosencrantz family and the Revolutionary War-era Hermitage. This interest resulted in exchanges of correspondence with a distant relative, Allen Rosenkrans of Newton, New Jersey, the author of The Rosenkrans Family in Europe and America (1900), as well as an attempt to inventory of all of the antiques inside The Hermitage in 1910.
Some of the families’ stories, however, found their way into local legends that persist to this day. Two in particular can be traced at least partly to Bess Rosencrantz’s storytelling to generate interest in, and entertain guests at, the Hermitage Tea Room in the 1920s. The first is the legend of the Revolutionary War Hessian soldier said to have died in the house; the second is the myth about tunnels on the property being used as part of the Underground Railroad.
The Hessian Soldier in the Secret Room
In 1923, Mary Elizabeth wrote in a manuscript that “a Hessian Soldier was murdered [in the Hermitage] during the War which may account for the strange noises heard at various times. There is a secret room in the house which was used as a hiding place during the Revolution and the War of 1812.” This fanciful story, which Mary Elizabeth herself likely heard from other family members, made its way into print, with liberal embroidering, when the Tea Room opened:
The Rosencrantz homestead at Hohokus N.J. which has an authenticated history and ghost was opened yesterday as a tea house.
Miss Elizabeth Rosencrantz, the last of the family which have owned the house since 1807, is the proprietor.
The ghost that of a Hessian officer was who was found murdered, the story goes, in an upper chamber of the house, presumably for a store of gold which he is said to have possessed.
—“Hohokus’ Ghost House Becomes Tea Resort,” May 28, 1917
FACTS: The Hermitage does contain a “secret room”: It is a crawl space above the dairy room, off the kitchen. However, this room did not exist during the Revolutionary War. It is part of a wing that was added when Elijah II and William Ranlett renovated the house in 1847–48. Also, although the oldest section of the Hermitage did exist during the Revolutionary War as the home of Theodosia Prevost’s mother, Ann De Visme, there is no archeological, physical, or documentary evidence of Hessian soldiers in the area, let alone inside The Hermitage.
The “Underground Railroad” Tunnels
It is not entirely clear how the legend of the Underground Railroad tunnels originated. It has been recounted in many oral histories taken by museum volunteers, and it is frequently mentioned by visitors to the museum. Many local residents claim to have explored the tunnels, which run from The Hermitage to the railroad tracks and Ho-Ho-Kus Brook, in their youth.
FACTS: A tunnel did connect Ho-Ho-Kus Brook to The Hermitage. It was part of the original plumbing system installed by William Ranlett when the house was renovated in 1847–48 and was used to carry water from the brook to the interior of the house. The tunnel was never used to carry people. Also, no evidence has come to light suggesting that the Rosencrantzes favored the cause of Abolitionism, and given their pro-Southern and antiwar sympathies during the Civil War, it is unlikely that they would have actively participated in helping slaves flee to freedom. Finally, no evidence has yet been found indicating that Ho-Ho-Kus—or any part of central Bergen County—was part of the Underground Railroad route.
For more information about the Underground Railroad in New Jersey, see the New Jersey Historical Commission's study "'Steal Away, Steal Away...': A Guide to the Underground Railway in New Jersey."