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Holland Gin

The Story of a Mysterious Mound under the Van Eps Barn

Rotterdam, Schenectady County, NY

An Excerpt from "Tales of Old Dorp" by W. Earl Weller, Published by Robson & Adee, Schenectady, NY, 1907.


On a day, late in October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and thirty two, some laborers were engaged in preparing a foundation for a new farm building on the lands of John J. Van Eps. The place where the men were working was situated at the foot of the hills that skirt the flats in the Town of Rotterdam, and had long been a playground for the few children of the neighborhood. Two things united to attract the youngsters to this certain spot; first, the hills, with their pine covered slopes and second, a most peculiar looking mound of earth. The mound was about eight feet in height and exceptionally well shaped for that most diverting sport known as "rolling", consequently one could see almost any day a motley array of young Schermerhorns, Veeders and Van Epses, with an occasional Bradt thrown in, go rolling head over heels down the grass covered slope. The clamor of the aforementioned members of the rising generation grated on the sensitive auditory nerves of Van Eps the elder, and when he found his barns no longer capable of holding the bountiful crops, he decided to kill two birds with one stone by building a new barn on the ground occupied by the mound.

The mound, let us explain, in passing, was something of a mystery. Van Otto, the first settler in the Bouwlandt, had noticed and remarked it early in 1680. He was not of an inquiring nature, however, and made no effort to solve the mystery. Some of the other settlers were a little more curious and they questioned the Indians living in the neighborhood concerning the mound. None of them appeared to have any knowledge of the history or origin of the mound, or, if they did, fear, or something akin thereto, held them silent. Late in the seventeen seventies, a local antiquarian, whose name is forgotten, tried to brush away the film of the supernatural that had gathered over the silent mound. To clear away the mound and thus tear its secret from it was a work beyond him--antiquarians not being particularly adapted to manual labor or any other form of useful work--so he proposed to get at its history by a diligent inquiry among the few Mohawks still living. Several of these expressed an utter lack of knowledge concerning the miniature hill although some advanced the theory that the evil one had a finger in its making. Se-che-ho-wan, a Mohawk chieftain, then more than a hundred years old, said that the origin of the mound had been forgotten before he was born. This left our antiquarian stranded and he gave over the quest. The heap of earth was left alone to serve as a playground for the children, and to gather all sorts of ghost stories to itself. Now to return to our story.

Three workmen----their superstitious fears having been dispelled by Mr. Van Eps, aided and abetted by some rare old Holland Gin---were hard at work on the previously mentioned October day, reducing the mound to the level of the surrounding country. Occasionally the spades would strike a stone, causing cold chills to chase one another industriously up and down the spines of the workmen. This always meant a hurried consultation with the gin bottle, the brief communion being productive of new courage. With many such interruptions, the work proceeded, the mound gradually melting away, much to the disgust of the children who had gathered to watch the work of destruction.

Suddenly the spade of one of the workmen went almost out of sight in the soft earth. The man was not prepared for this lack of resistance and he pitched headlong against the bank, causing a miniature landslide that partially buried him. As the earth was closing on him he was conscious of a howl of dismay from his comrades and a chorus of squeals and squeaks from the juvenile audience. For a moment or two he did not move expecting his comrades to come to his assistance. The helping hand not being forthcoming, our hero began to believe that he was buried clean out of sight. The thought was not consoling and he began to kick and wiggle. A few kicks and a coupe of hitches and he arose gradually to his feet, searching his mind and his vocabulary for some tender sentiments by which he could suitably express to his fellow workmen the love he bore them for not helping him in his hour of need. As he arose, his back was toward the mound, his eyes were full of dirt and his mouth was full of the finest collection of genuine Dutch cusswords imaginable. After getting to his feet, his first care was to remove enough of the debris from his eyes to enable him to see more clearly the effects of the language he had been storing up. When he had partially recovered the use of his optics, he glanced around for his two companions, and was surprised to see them rapidly vanishing in the distance. This rather disturbed him, as he could see no cause for their hurried departure. Think that his mental operations would be accelerated by a sip or two, he turned to reach for the bottle, only to see a skeleton grinning fiendishly at him from the depths of a partially filled cave. Pausing just long enough to grab the bottle, he made a rapid exit in the general direction in which he had seen this terror stricken fellows disappear.

Being somewhat of a sprinter, he soon overhauled his fleeing brothers, and a council of war, in which the bottle figured conspicuously was held. As they talked, Dutch courage---or mayhap it was Dutch gin---began to assert itself, and it was unanimously voted to return to the scene of the recent catastrophe and dare the "dark one" to do his worst. And so back they went, these brave Dutch forebears of ours, to see just what sort of a trap the Prince of Darkness had prepared for them. Arriving at the mound they saw their spectre---the skeleton of some man mighty of limb, who had lived and died long years---perhaps, even centuries---before a white man ever set eyes on the Mohawk. The skeleton was in a sitting position, with its face toward the east to greet the rising sun. The fleshless arms were folded across a fleshless chest and the skull, with its horrid resemblance to a living face, leaned back against the earthly wall, grinning as though in mockery of death.

For a moment a feeling of awe held our heroes spellbound. But it was only for a moment. Soon the fumes of the beverage they had been consuming so freely began to make themselves felt. Awe gave place to avarice, and they began to toss aside the earth in the mad endeavor to locate the treasure that they supposed the dead man to be guarding. As spadeful after spadeful was removed the skeleton gradually fell apart until a pile of bones was the result. The frenzied effort to locate a supposed treasure disclosed a vase of curious workmanship. A blow from a spade shattered the vessel, but no stream of gold or silver flowed from the pieces. Merely a little cloud of white dust arose, to be wafted away the next moment by a breath of wind. Afterwards, in telling the story, the workmen made this dust assume wonderful shapes until finally it came to be believed that the soul of the dead man had been imprisoned in the vase by some enemy, and that the ruthless blow, shattering the vase, had also shattered the fetters that bound the shade and started it on its delayed trip to the "Happy Hunting Grounds". The bones were then carelessly tumbled into a hole and the work of reducing the mound was continued.

When the day's work was over, the workmen were invited to sit down to the table of their employer, Mr. Van Eps, to a substantial Dutch meal. Good trenchermen and better drinkers were these old Schenectadians, and the October sun was miles below the horizon before they arose, on none to steady legs, and started on their two mile tramp back to town. As they neared the scene of the day's labors, many an uneasy glance was cast towards the spot. Suddenly a cry of terror pierced the air and two of the men started off on a mad race for the town "to procure assistance" as they afterwards said. They were traveling on an express schedule and did not have time to notice, until they were safely bestowed in their favorite tavern, that their comrade was not with them. Then they told their story---a story in which ghost, hob-goblins and other uncanny things were conspicuous. Their listeners were conscious of curious, tingling sensations in their spinal columns at times, and many an apprehensive look was cast toward the door, as though the advent of one of these supernatural beings was momentarily expected. All sorts of conjectures were made and scores of explanations were advanced to solve the mystery, but no one suggested such a thing as a relief expedition to locate the missing man.

In the morning, with a good sized mob at their heels, our two laborers started toward the scene of their adventures of the previous day. Not a sign of their missing comrade did they see until they arrived nearly opposite the now dreaded mound. Then one of them spied a body huddled in a pitiful heap, in the bottom of a dry ditch to the right of the road. All felt a curious lump rise in their throats, conversation ceased, and slowly the men walked toward the body. As they came nearer they could see bloody marks on the face, and dark spots, presumably of the same material, on the shirt of the victim, as well as scattered on the stones that line the ditch. Reverently, two of the crowd bent over to lift the corpse from the ditch when "the corpse" with a sleepy movement, gave vent to an eighteen horse-power snore. The hands that had been stretched out in reverence to lift the remains now roughly grasped and shook the sleeper, until at last, with a vexed look, the man sat up and blinked at his audience. Then came the prize ghost story of the week, running something after this fashion:--Hans, lets us call him since his real name is unknown, was troubled by a badly behaved boot and had stopped to argue awhile with the offender, expecting to overtake his companions. While engaged in softly cussing the refractory boot, her was terror-stricken to see a skeleton of a man, at least ten feet tall, approaching him. In its bony hand it held a club, heavy enough to brain an ox, while its bones had a most disconcerting way of rattling at every step. Hans could feel his blood fairly turn to ice in his veins. He tried to cry out, but he had for the moment lost the use of his vocal organs. Rapidly the skeleton approached until it stood towering over the luckless Hans. The massive war club was raised, and frantically the Dutchman began to drag a forgotten prayer from some unused corner of his memory. Then the club started on its downward journey towards Hans' head. He remembered the sudden return of his vocal powers, attested by a scream, and then everything was a blank. This was Hans' story.

Thence forward Hans was a hero indeed. Children would run before him with gaping mouths. The "fraus" and "burgers" pointed him out to each other and to visitors as one of the sights of the old Dutch town. Again and again the story was told, each telling added a little to the stature of the ghost and to the reputation of our hero as well. We are told that Hans lived to a ripe old age, and that on his deathbed he solemnly assured the folks who had gathered round, that the skeleton was fully twenty feet tall.

Scoffers will say that Hans took too much gin to know whether he really saw the skeleton or not, and will throw out vile insinuations about the creditability of our hero. For people of this ilk we have nothing but scorn, and so will not give them satisfaction of an argument. We will say, however, that Ian Van Huysen, a farm hand, employed on the next farm beyond Mr. Van Eps' place, had put himself on record as seeing a skull grinning at him from among the pines just back of the place where the mysterious mound had stood. Ian had come to town on a couple of errands and had fallen in with a couple of cronies from Albany. The three had then adjourned to a tavern on Frog Alley, and it was late before they had finished telling their troubles to each other. They may have staggered a little as they parted, Ian may have been slightly intoxicated, but that does not prove anything, as we all know how much better we can see some things after a session at the altar of Bacchus. And what is more, no self-respecting, God-fearing Dutchman would think of seeing a ghost, unless he---meaning the Dutchman, of course---had a fair sized cargo aboard.

Nor is Ian the only one to corroborate Hans' story. Many a stout Rotterdam farmer, returning from a protracted "errand" in town, has seen suspicious things in the vicinity of neighbor Van Eps' new barn, and with bated breath has told the story to a waiting wife. The story may have acted to prevent severe tongue lashing, but no one would think of accusing these pious deacons of manufacturing these stories just to amuse their wives, and to stave off a flood of flood of feminine eloquence.---Oh my! No.

To those who still doubt, even in the face of this mass of proof, we suggest the following "personal" treatment:----Get a bottle of Holland gin---this can be procured at several places in Schenectady---and, well it's none of our business what you do with it, but just as a sort of suggestion we might say that gin was never meant for external use. Then just at nightfall take the road that leads along the north side of the canal, towards the pumping station. After the last electric light has been passed, you will notice on your left a range of low hills. Then watch closely, for just before you arrive at the old Schermerhorn farm you are passing over the Van Eps place and are close to location of the mound. Take a firm grip on your courage and turning to the left, slowly approach the hills. The wind will be whispering in the pines, and the moonlight will be weaving most fantastic pictures on the needle-carpeted ground and then, if you do not see the skeleton, there was something the matter with your gin.


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