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Are You Afraid of the Park? Ghosts, Conspiracies and Other Weird Happenings in Central Park

For a while, Central Park, the 770-acre green oasis in the middle of Manhattan, wasn’t considered a place you really wanted to go. In the early 1980s, there were 1,000+ crimes of various types committed in the park every year, but muggers and vandals aren’t the only creeps that have run rampant there. From its opening in 1857 through today, the park has played host to all sorts of scary things going bump in the night.

A Secret and a Mysterious Death
The weirdness starts at the very beginning with Calvert Vaux, co-designer of the park.

If a letter apparently written by Vaux in 1895 is to be believed, he possessed knowledge of a secret of historical importance hidden in the park, as well as a set of papers that could aid in discovering that secret when deciphered. Vaux said in the letter that there were those who wished for the secret to remain hidden and that he feared for his life. He was found drowned in Brooklyn’s Gravesend Bay two months later. Vaux wanted other people to be aware of the secret in the park and the distribution of the “Central Park Papers” is currently administered by David Wise, who sells copies of them through his website.

Are the letter and the secret real, or this is an elaborate game? No one knows, as those who have purchased the papers and discovered the secret are bound by a contract that requires them to fulfill Vaux’s wish to keep their discovery confidential. If you’re in New York, you’ll just have to figure out the truth for yourself.

The Monsters take Manhattan
Over an entrance to Belvedere Castle is a cockatrice, a legendary creature resembling an oversized rooster with a reptilian tail, designed by sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould. While these legendary beasts haven’t been found in the castle, New York City or anywhere else in the world, the park does have it’s share of monsters.

Nick Redfern, author of several books on the paranormal, tells a story about a strange, bipedal humanoid creature spotted at the edge of the park. The thing was covered with rust-colored hair and stood no more than three feet tall. One eyewitness claims the creature charged at him, stopped, stared right into his eyes for several seconds and then disappeared under a bridge.

Not all the park’s monsters are mythical, though. There have been several alligator sightings in and around the park dating back to at least the 1930s, when the New York Times reported that police were searching for a “swarm” of gators seen by two children. In 2007, as part of a restoration project, the park’s lake was dredged and a three-foot-long koi carp and a few 50lb snapping turtles were discovered.

If there's something strange in your neighborhood...
The Dakota building, located at Central Park West at 72nd St., was named such because when it was first built in the 1880s, the Upper West Side was still “rural” and referred to as “The Dakota Territory.” The Dakota is where Rosemary gave birth to the Antichrist and has been called home by horror master Boris Karloff and at least three ghosts. The first is that of a little boy, first seen by construction workers during a renovation in the early 60s. A few years later, the second ghost, girl dressed in early 20th clothing, was reportedly seen by painters a few years later. Both of these apparitions have made several appearances since then, but no clues as to their identities or reasons for haunting the building are available. The final ghost spotted around the Dakota is that of John Lennon, who lived there for a time and was murdered outside building in 1980. Several people have claimed to see his figure near one of the gated entrances to the park.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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