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A Fiery Tragedy and the Ghost with the Jingling Keys

There seem to be certain haunting cases in which a person has been locked to a certain place, perhaps in a sense imprisoned there or tethered there by some calling. Born in upstate Syracuse on Sept. 18, 1833, Samuel Abbott became a decorated Civil War hero fighting for Union forces working his way up from volunteer ensign to first lieutenant before his duties there were done, serving in Company E of the 12th New York State Volunteer Infantry. He would go on to spend 50 years as a state civil servant, and even in his 70s he was working a job as a night watchman at the Capitol Building at Albany, New York, joining up at the age of 77. His shift usually began at 9 pm and lasted to 6 am, during which he would patrol 3 floors of the extensive State Library and Assembly Library kept there, encompassing 500,000 books and 300,000 manuscripts of great importance, often locking himself in so that he could better protect these treasures. The night of March 28, 1911 would start much like any other, but there were dark clouds ahead for Abbott, and this would be a night that would bring tragedy and begin one of the most legendary and persistent hauntings in New York.

Sometime during the night, a fire broke out on the third floor of the Assembly Library, thought to have likely been caused by faulty wiring, although the cause has never been ascertained. The blaze spread quickly, soon jumping up to the fourth and fifth floors and spreading to the State Library, State Museum, and the Education Department section of the building. It was by all accounts an absolute inferno, soon engulfing most of the building and laying waste to large amounts of priceless books, manuscripts, and other documents, as well as thousands of archaeological and ethnographic objects kept at the museum. Witnesses would later recount that Abbott made no attempt to escape, instead rushing about to desperately try to save as many of these priceless objects and papers as he could, opening windows and tossing them outside to save them from the hungry flames. In the aftermath of the fire, hundreds of thousands of objects and books had been destroyed, many of them one-of-a-kind and completely irreplaceable, but they were not the only casualty of the fire.

It would take two days to fully vanquish the fire and safely enter the burned out premises, where firefighters were able to find the charred remains of Abbott on the fourth floor of the library. Although he had his keys on him, he had remained locked in the library intentionally in a bid to keep the fire from spreading, forgoing escape and dying to protect his charges to do his job. Luckily he was the only person to die in the fire, but it was still a tragic sacrifice that the city deeply mourned. Abbott was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, joining his wife, Jane, who had died the year before, and at the time it was big news. Yet in some ways it seems as if he has never really gone at all.

Ever since the Capitol was rebuilt after the disaster, there have been many reports of Abbott’s ghost still doing the rounds of the building, often recognized first by disembodied footsteps, the jingling of his keys and the smell of smoke in the air. There will also be the jangling of doorknobs, the opening and closing of doors, a man’s voice whistling or calling out, and occasionally the full apparition of Abbott, complete with watch man’s uniform, all of it seeming to be as if he is still carrying out his patrols of the building. Other reports over the decades talk of objects floating through the air, telephone switchboard lights flashing and beeping even when calls aren’t coming in, or doors locking on their own. All manner of people have seen Abbott around, including not only watchmen, but legislative staff and even policemen. Communications director Jacqueline Fiore has seen him, and has said of the phenomena:

I’ve had a few run-ins with Abbott. Doors shutting, leaving the office and coming back to find the door locked. And no one else was there. State troopers have even said they’ve seen it. Staff people have sincerely claimed that they have heard keys jingling and have seen lights flickering while working late at night and on the weekends. But this man’s valiant actions and bravery closing doors and keeping the fire from spreading shouldn’t be reduced to a simple ghost story.

Another mystery is how the fire started to begin with. One dark rumor is that it started due to a curse placed on it by a disgruntled mason, who secretly carved a demonic face into the walls near the Million Dollar Staircase. Another is that it was caused by Abbott, as he was known to smoke cigars, which could explain perhaps why he has felt compelled to stay here, out of guilt. In 2017, legislation was finally passed to remember his brave sacrifice, in the form of a commemorative plaque. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said of this:

Samuel J. Abbott served his nation and died in the service of this state, and this plaque will be a fitting honor of his life and the tragic events that claimed it. This fire was a significant part of the history of the Capitol and this measure will help ensure this story continues to be told and Samuel Abbott continues to be remembered.

The ghost of Abbot has been seen by so many people, many of them very high profile, that he has become legendary in the area, with the Capitol setting up special ghost walks just to snoop around for him. Is there anything to this, and if so why does he remain here? It is a sense of a duty incomplete? Does he perhaps feel he has failed and has to redeem himself by keeping constant vigil so that such a fate never comes for the library again? For now we don’t know, and people keep hearing those jingling keys, old Samuel Abbot out on his beat as always, perhaps forevermore.