Native American people such as the Wappinger, an Algonquin speaking group, lived free on the lands, have many burial sites in Carmel such as what is now Horse Pound Road and Nichols Road. Folklore has it that building houses, and stores and roads on top of Native American burial grounds can cause spirit activity to flourish. For believers, Carmel and the surrounding areas, because of the plethora of burial grounds for both Native Americans and settlers, make the place prime for paranormal activity.
The area of Carmel New York was part of Sybil Ludington’s famous 1777 ride to warn the area that Danbury had been sacked and the British were on their way. The bravery of this young girl, just 16 years old, is commemorated by a statue that graces the shores of Carmel’s Lake Gleneida. There were many deaths during the Revolutionary War, so the soil sings out with their tragedy as well.
The Putnam County Courthouse, located in the center of town, is the second oldest active courthouse in New York State. In 1844, a trial was held there for an 18-year-old man, George Denny, who was accused of murdering an 80-year-old man, Abraham Wanzer, the year prior. The trial was covered by The Courier. The local newspaper was a popular county paper based in Carmel which is still in publication today. In those days, after being found guilty of murder and condemned to die, inmates did not languish on death row for twenty years. Mr. Denny was taken out of his jail cell and executed in the county’s first and only public hanging. There are many folktales surrounding this event, including one report that Denny sat on his own wooden coffin while a funeral was held for him before he was hanged.
Less than a decade after this famous trial, in 1852, a watering hole opened in Carmel, right across from the infamous courthouse. James J. Smalley opened a tavern called “Smalley’s Inn”. James J. Smalley, born in 1812 to a prominent landowner family, is today considered Carmel’s magnificent statesman or quite a colorful local historical character, depending on how you look at him.
Mr. Smalley didn’t care if folks gossiped about his ubiquitous community involvement and odd ways, as he had enough money and influence to do whatever he pleased. He loved racing and with most of the town at his disposal, he naturally cleared a path on Fair Street that interacts with Main for horse and buggy drag racing. This was a big hit with the young people of the town who led a life of hard work and few amusements. However, some did not think it dignified and resented having to deal with dirt, dust, and noise as horse-drawn carts and rogue riders came barreling up toward the main pedestrian area at top speed.
Author’s Note: Fair Street in Carmel, New York is the site of Carmel High School, my alma mater. The school was built in 1929 with various additions added over the years. One curious thing that impressed me when I attended in the mid-seventies was the stone etchings above two side entrances: One clearly marked “Girls” and the other “Boys”. Although the school, small at the time and serving much of the county was co-ed, there was strict propriety as to fraternization at the entrances. Such a difference a half-century made where it was common in my day for boys and girls to hang together at each entrance!
The Smalley Legacy Grows
In addition to being a proprietor, Mr. Smalley also served as Sheriff and County Coroner, over the years. Smalley was married twice, to a pair of sisters. When his first wife Harriet Phillips passed away, Smalley courted and wed Emily Philips soon after. Although some tongues clucked at this, marrying your deceased spouses’ sibling was not strictly taboo during that time, and even encouraged in some cases, to keep financial holdings stable and of course, provide a necessary missing parent for the children. Between his two wives, James Smalley sired ten children. Early childhood mortality from various causes was also not unusual. The community was saddened to learn of the death of little Elizabeth Smalley at two years old. Although the early New Yorkers were a sturdy breed with a dedicated work ethic, the lack of modern prenatal care, the inability to diagnose congenital health challenges, less than stellar hygiene practices, and few cures for common childhood diseases during that time made death a visitor in many homes with children.
Families with money who owned vast tracts of property were not safe from losing one of their own. Recent discoveries of remains attributed to a small child buried under the basement floor led to a rumor that the child was little Elizabeth Smalley, the owner’s youngest child. The mystery is why a man would secretly inter his child under the floorboards of his tavern instead of burying her right in the town cemetery, a short walk away from the pub. Particularly if he was the coroner!
When James Smalley himself died in the summer of 1867, the sweltering streets were closed for the grandest funeral the town could imagine. The Masonic Lodges went full out with pomp and ceremony. The local churches of all denominations joined together to celebrate his illustrious life. The end of James Smalley though was just the beginning of a legend surrounding his Inn that would last for time immemorial.
Before reality TV took on ghost busting and before paranormal researcher became a common job title, we the people of Carmel knew something ghostly was up at Smalley’s. There were reports of ghostly sounds and shadows reported from the wait staff, particularly those who had to go to the basement to bring up a keg or the bar staff caught alone after closing. More than that, however, is the feeling you get when you step through the door of Smalley’s Inn. Many say little Elizabeth is still up for a game, and if she thinks you are a friendly person, she may try to engage you with giggles and tugs on your clothing. The ladies room is a popular place to feel like you are not quite alone, though the door is secured, and you only see your own reflection in the mirror.
Now, of course, Smalley”s has been made famous in several magazine articles and features on programs such as “The Dead Files.” Mediums have channeled a few distinct personalities, including Mr. Smalley and his daughter and EVP meters go wild, particularly around Halloween.
Still, before all that publicity, heading to Smalley’s for that pitcher of beer with friends was a unique experience. I personally have felt someone behind me, and thinking it was some weird guy, rushed around to see no one standing behind my bar stool. Oh yes, and the bar itself is quite unusual. It’s a wrap-around bar of pennies, tons of pennies, encased in the clear coating as a bar top.
The bar has a wooden heavy decor with, of course, a portrait of James Smalley looking down at his patrons. Since the 1960’s, Smalley’s has been owned by the Porto Family. Tony Porto and family have given interviews about the ghost happenings that make it the place to stop if you are traveling through the Hamlet of Carmel. The place is currently a burgeoning town with new buildings and residential development happening so fast that the town looks so different every visit. Smalley’s however, is the town touchstone, the feature that has withstood the test of time despite a famous fire in 1974 that wiped out many of the Main Street businesses.
If you go to have a drink or some Italian food that Smalley’s is famous for, be prepared for an otherworldly experience. Those who are sensitive to spirit vibrations may feel off-center at times as if someone is trying to speak with them. It may be as small as a tug on the sleeve or a whisper distinctly heard despite the din of the crowd. So, Smalley’s continues as a Carmel Tradition for reunions, a lunch stops for locals, and the place is jumping most nights with revelers. If you listen to the stories, you might well be convinced that the Smalley Family, the hanged man George Denny, and other Carmelites have made Smalley’s Inn their permanent haunt.