The Ghost of Old Mom

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Any suburban teenager can tell you that rumors live and die in the over-lit hallways of malls. How many times was I dumped outside a Wet Seal? None, because I was not popular enough to have boyfriends in high school. But plenty of other people were! Anyway, you know what I mean. Malls are the birthplace of rumors.

But when I was growing up, the Palisades Center Mall was home to a different kind of rumors.  

The mall is like so many others, just bigger (it’s the 10th largest shopping center in the entire country according to city-data.com). It’s four floors, each anchored by a handful of stores like Macy’s, JCPenney, Home Depot and Old Navy. There was once a Rainforest Cafe (closed in 2002, which worthy of a New York Times blurb apparently) and there is now a Cheesecake Factory. The mall includes an ice rink, a rope course and two movie theaters.

But the reason I know about the mall is because it might be cursed. Growing up just across the border in New Jersey, I was told the mall was slowly sinking, that it was haunted, that there had been a string of gruesome murders there just before it had opened, and that if you dug in the dirt around the mall you’d find human bones.

It wasn’t until recently that I decided to look into it. And it turns out, some of it was true. Sort of.

The Palisades mall was proposed before I was even born. Thomas Valenti, the mall’s main sponsor, started officially began his mall-building campaign in 1985. And when he started his campaign, the mall was modest — just 875,000 square feet. But by 1996, the development company behind the project Pyramid Companies of Syracuse, had requested several expansions. And by the time it opened, the mall had swelled to over 1.8 million square feet, the size of 32 football fields, which infuriated local residents. In a story in the New York Times from 1996, a woman named Shirley Lasker went so far as to say “I feel like they’re coming in and raping the community.”

But despite all this the mall marched on, in March of 1998 it opened, and it was instantly devoured by rumors.

There was the rumor of a serial rapist was attacking shoppers (a literal one, not the figurative one of Lasker’s ill-considered quote). There was a rumor that people were constantly being taken out of the mall in body bags. There was a rumor about a man carrying around a briefcase full of ropes and handcuffs. Police never found evidence of any of those things.

Then people were convinced the mall was sinking, due to poor engineering. The manager of an Ulta Beauty Salon on the fourth floor went on the Rosie O’Donnell show to confirm the rumor. She told Rosie that she saw cracks and felt the building move. Many patrons of the mall agreed. In fact, according to a the New York Times, customers have returned gift certificates, thinking the mall will likely collapse before they have a chance to redeem them. Growing up, I had always been told the mall was sinking, and on my few visits I remember looking for signs of the slump.

Then there was the rumor that the mall was haunted. Which at least has some grounding in reality, or at least in locale. There’s a cemetery in the mall’s back yard. You can see the cemetery from a handful of places within the mall, so when you’re considering death while trying to pick as seen on TV thing you want to buy at Bed Bath and Beyond, you can look out upon actual graves. The Mount Moor Cemetery was founded in 1849 as a place for the bodies of African American and Native American veterans. If you park in the right place at the Palisades Center, you’ll get out of your car to see a sign that reads:

This burying ground for Colored people, was deeded on July 7, 1849 by James Benson. and Jane Benson. his wife to William H. Moore, Stephen Samuels and Isaac Williams. trustees. The cemetery has provided burial space for colored people, including veterans of the American Civil War, the Spanish American War, World Wars l and ll and the Korean War. The grounds have been maintained since 1940 by the Mount Moor Cemetery Association, Inc.

And if you look just past that sign, you’ll see a Target.

Senator William Knowland riding an elephant. (Not Old Mom, but I imagine this is what she would have looked like.)

But what I really want to tell you about, is where the most likely ghost comes from. Beneath the mall, there is a different set of bones. The bones of a circus elephant named “Old Mom.” Old Mom was shipped to the United States from Germany at some point in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. According to this 1987 piece her new American handlers had to find a German translator to help her transition to her new role. “As a leader Old Mom was strict, but fair. She tenderly guarded the young punks (baby elephants) who came to the training lot for the first time. But she had no patience with lazy young bulls (male elephants).” An elephant after my own heart! 

In 1997, the Journal News from White Plains, New York published a piece about Old Mom’s final resting place. “Her name was Mom, and when she died, they hauled her up to the Nyack dump and put her 9,100 pounds to rest in swamp land now part of what is the Palisades Center mall. She was 93, which was a ripe old age for an elephant,” Randi Weiner wrote. The piece goes on to say that “Mom was often seen in local parades, carrying Republicans.” Old Mom was so well known that she eventually became a piece of inspiration for the author of Water for Elephants

But in November of 1993 Old Mom fell ill and died within 10 days. Her body was apparently taken to the Nyak dump, upon which the Palisades Center was built. And according to Wikipedia (although I couldn’t find a single source to confirm this) construction of the mall was halted when they turned up one of Old Mom’s bones, which they mistakenly thought might be a mastodon fossil. 

So maybe the mall is haunted. Maybe Old Mom is roaming the grounds, hanging out with the ghosts of veterans, maybe carrying them around on her back pretending they’re all still in a parade together. I like to think so. That’s certainly more appealing to me than the teens who haunt the mall during the day.

 

Top image by Luigi Novi, Mount Moor image by Magicpiano, elephant image by Los Angeles Times photographic archive

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3 thoughts on “The Ghost of Old Mom

  1. When ever I hear of stories of death, burials and haunting, I’m reminded of that brilliant and maybe over the top scene from the end of Poltergeist movie, “you didn’t move the graves”

  2. Loved the piece Rose, just a couple of clarifications on some of the source material you used – which evidently wasn’t totally vetted by the original newspaper reporter – but which may lead you to an even better story.

    I’m somewhat of an amateur elephant historian, and in reality Old Mom was one of four elephants owned by Dr Pierre Bernard of Nyack (and that’s the NEXT story you should look into. He was somewhat of a charlatan of sorts known as “The Omnipopent Oom”. He was a “yogi” who promoted sex magic at his 72 acres estate and 32-room Nyack mansion that was donated to him in the late 1920s. There he would bring women under his spell and they…well..would fall in love with him.

    Back to Old Mom, in reality she died in 1934, four years after arriving in the US.

    The article also talks about the elephant being 93 years old – which if true would be quite a record…and those of us who follow such things would have surely known of her and her amazing longevity! The average lifespan of an Asian elephant is 50-70 years although there is currently an elephant in India (Dakshayani), who is believed to be 86.

    Incidentally, two other elephants (Babe and Buddha) owned by Dr. Bernard also died while he owned them. Dr Bernard sold his final elephant, Juno, in 1944…

    Check out Dr. Pierre Bernard – it is a story waiting to be told!

  3. Chris! I don’t normally read the comments, but any comment that includes the phrase “I’m somewhat of an amateur elephant historian,” is a comment I will read and enjoy. Thanks for this info! Bernard seems like a fascinating guy, and I will definitely look into him!

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