Historic properties are scattered across the United States, and for many people, visiting these locations is the highlight of their trip. Historic properties come with their own rich history dating back to colonial times.
If the walls of these properties could speak, just imagine the rich stories they could tell. One such historic house can be found in New York state: known as the John Lawson House, it has a haunting tale to tell.
New Hamburg and the John Lawson House
The village of New Hamburg, New York, is the epitome of a quaint historic area. Located about 80 miles (130 km) to the north of New York City, New Hamburg is nothing like the bustling streets and modern buildings one can find in any NYC borough.
One of the oldest homes in New Hamburg is over 150 years old and was built by the Lawson family on 9A Main Street in 1845. The original owner, John Lawson, is believed to be the descendant of one of the first “white colonist families” in the area. According to property records, John Lawson passed the house down to a relative named Cornelius Lawson in the early 1850s.
Not long after construction of the John Lawson house started, the New Hamburg railroad station opened near the home. While railroads allowed people and businesses to travel and expand, early railroads were notorious for horrifying disasters such as crashes, derailments, and explosions.
In the 1870s, two terrible tragedies occurred near the John Lawson House. The first tragedy took place on February 6, 1871. A passenger train had departed from New York City and headed north towards Albany.
At the same time, a 25-car freight train loaded with oil left the Albany area heading south towards New Hamburg along the Hudson River Railroad. As the large freight train passed below a tunnel near the village of New Hamburg, a train operator noticed a broken axle sparking underneath one of the oil cars in the middle of the train.
The broken axle came apart and caused the car to derail and flip onto the northbound track as that passenger train was fast approaching. The freight train’s engineer was able to stop the train and, with another employee, ran to the northbound track holding red lights up to warn the passenger train to stop.
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Tragically, it was too late to stop. The engineer of the passenger train knew he couldn’t come to a complete stop, so in an attempt to avoid an accident put his train in reverse, but the train was unable to slow down fast enough.
The passenger train slammed into the oil tank car, which caused a massive fiery explosion that was just 200 feet (60 m) away from the John Lawson house. Twenty-two people died in the crash, but several survivors were able to be dragged from the wreck and flames and survived.
Six years after the 1871 train accident, a large fire started in the village around 9:00 PM on May 3, 1877, that destroyed seven buildings/structures surrounding the John Lawson House. The fire began in an alley between a hotel and a store, and the fire spread to the store, which caused the room full of kerosene to explode.
From there the fire spread out of control. In only 45 minutes, all seven of the structures located around the John Lawson House were beyond saving, and it was a miracle the fire did not touch the Lawson House. Some started to wonder at how this house alone was untouched by the flames.
The Occupied Front Porch
As a historic property, the John Lawson House was preserved and owned by several families in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, for over ten years, the front porch of the John Lawson House was occupied by three strange guests.
These guests were three life-size female mannequins, similar to those found in a department store, that suddenly appeared sitting on the porch one day. The mannequins were seen with different vintage outfits and a variety of wigs as well as accessories. Some of the accessories included long white gloves, an empty birdcage, books, toolboxes, and a plastic milk jug filled with potpourri.
The mannequins would change positions, and nobody knew why these life-size female mannequins suddenly appeared at the John Lawson House and what they could possibly represent. When the weather was bad, the mannequins would vanish, only to reappear on the porch once again when the weather cleared.
Nobody ever saw anyone moving or setting up the mannequins, and then one day as suddenly as they appeared in 2016, the mannequins at the John Lawson House disappeared and have not been seen since.
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Many people strongly believe that the trio of mannequins who sat on the porch of the John Lawson House were haunted or possessed by the spirits of the 1871 train accident. Passersby would remark how the mannequins would often be facing the direction of the only other historical house on the block, and the mannequins would also be positioned facing the direction of the train crash at the New Hamburg Railway station.
Since there had never been a sighting of a human moving the mannequins, dressing them up, or setting scenes for them, the dolls’ movements were creepy and gave off a haunted energy. But the unsettling feeling these mannequins caused might not have anything to do with the spirits of the dead.
The Uncanny Valley
The aesthetic concept of the uncanny valley can explain human fears or unsettling emotions towards things like dolls and mannequins. The uncanny valley is the relation between an object and its resemblance to a human being which stimulates an emotional response in humans to the object.
Humanoid things that resemble humans are often imperfect, and these imperfections make humans feel uneasiness, repulsion, fear, and a sensation of strange familiarity. The uncanny valley concept is often tied to things like 3D animations, robotics, and lifelike dolls/mannequins.
The uncanny valley hypothesis surmises that any object or entity that appears almost human will naturally cause feelings of eerie, unsettling, and discomfort to those viewing the object or entity. The mysterious mannequins at the John Lawson House perfectly exemplify the uncanny valley theory.
Based on property records of the John Lawson House, the house was sold in December 2002. The next time the house appeared on real estate databases like Zillow and Redfin was in October 2015.
With these dates in mind, the individuals who purchased the home in the early 2000s were likely the ones responsible for the sudden appearance of the mannequins and their movements. The mannequins at the John Lawson House vanished in 2016 following the 2015 sale of the house to new owners.
The reason why the mannequins were placed on the porch and their significance could be a strange temporary art exhibit or just some fun decorations that the homeowners loved to move around to scare people. Either way, the moving mannequins have become tied to the long history of the John Lawson House.
Top Image: Nobody ever saw who arranged the mannequins of John Lawson House, but many believe they are haunted. Source: Tetiana / Adobe Stock.