I didn’t believe in ghosts until I spent a night alone at the notoriously haunted Shanley Hotel

The 'spirits are inn' at one of New York state's most haunted hotels—including a former mafia hitman, a bordello bodyguard, and a ghost cat named Sweet Thing

Photo: Alexandra Charitan

As I’m driving the winding road to the Shanley Hotel, which sits in the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York, I pass several abandoned motels, two active correctional facilities, and the Witch’s Hole State Forest. The view from Ulster County’s U.S. Route 209, also known as the Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates Memorial Highway, is beautiful all year round, but especially in the fall. It’s late in October and the leaves have just begun to change.

If I didn’t already have a reservation, I might have been concerned when I pull up to the hotel at dusk. At first glance, the three-story white clapboard structure—and most of Main Street in the tiny hamlet of Napanoch—looks abandoned. I’m checking in to the allegedly-haunted hotel in search of ghosts, and I don’t have to wait long to find one. A freshly-painted sign on the porch that reads “Welcome to the Shanley Hotel” prominently features a ghost; his arms are crossed, but he’s smiling. 

Welcome to the (haunted) Shanley Hotel.
Welcome to the (haunted) Shanley Hotel. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

In contrast to the dilapidated exterior, the inside of the hotel is bustling. Two couples check in ahead of me and when I step up to the counter, manager Kim Vitale asks how many people are in my party. “Just me,” I say. A woman behind me gasps. “You’re brave!” she says, shaking her head. 

I don’t think that checking into a haunted hotel by myself is particularly brave, but that might be because I don’t actually believe in ghosts, at least not fully. I’m skeptical, but I try to keep an open mind. I don’t go looking often, but I would love to discover concrete evidence of the spirit world—and it seems as if I’ve come to the right place. 

The spirits are inn

The Shanley Hotel has more than embraced its spooky reputation. Now officially called “The Haunted Shanley Hotel,” they offer private investigations, provide a list of the most-haunted rooms, and share evidence in the form of videos and electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) recordings. A stained glass window above the entrance declares, “The Spirits are Inn.” 

In addition to a continental breakfast, my overnight stay includes a five-hour, staff-led paranormal investigation from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m., followed by free time to investigate at my leisure. They provide equipment—flashlights, K-II EMF meters, vibration balls, temperature sensors, frequency scanners—and encourage guests to bring their own. 

Camera malfunction or ghost?
Camera malfunction or ghost? | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
The bordello area.
The bordello area. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

“Nothing is faked or staged here,” Vitale says. “There’s no need to fake anything. If the ghosts and spirits want to come out and speak, we’re happy—we’ll get just as excited as you do. But we don’t rig anything.”

There are a few ground rules, but they’re simple: No weapons or alcohol are allowed on the premises. Guests should talk in a normal voice—whispering may be mistaken for an EVP—take photos with flash and in threes, and record everything. 

“It’s ok to be a skeptic and a non-believer, but I just ask that you keep an open mind,” Vitale says. 

The hotel is fully booked for the night—and for the rest of October—so we split into groups of three. I’ve booked Maddie’s Room, located in the former bordello area on the second floor, and I’m the only guest flying solo. My room is part of the active investigation area, meaning that the door must remain open until 1 a.m. 

The rooms are cozy and eclectic—in fact, the scariest thing at the Shanley Hotel might just be the overload of contrasting patterns. My room alone has three different wallpapers; plaids and florals cover nearly every surface and each room’s floor is hand painted with a different, stenciled design. 

Vitale and the hotel’s new owner, Kelly Hammerling, conducted ghost investigations on the property for years before it became their full-time jobs. When people suggest that the pair is being paid to perpetuate the hotel’s “haunted” reputation, Vitale tells them, “I was here eight years and I didn’t get a dime. [Kelly and I] did it every weekend because we loved it and had the passion for it—for the history and the spirits and what goes on behind these doors.”

Tragedy strikes

In 1845, Thomas Ritch erected his eponymous Ritch Hotel on Napanoch’s Main Street. The hotel changed owners several times through the years and in 1895, a fire destroyed the entire original structure. The hotel was quickly rebuilt and reopened to guests just a few months later. 

James Shanley, an Irish immigrant, purchased the hotel in 1906 and added the barn-like addition onto the back; it initially housed a barbershop and later functioned as the gentlemen’s quarters for the second-floor bordello. James married Beatrice Rowley at the hotel in 1910 and the Shanleys, who had ties to the Irish mafia, were well-known and respected in New York City, just two hours south of Napanoch. 

The exterior of the hotel has seen better days.
The exterior of the hotel has seen better days. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Hammerling says that when Shanley descendents visited the hotel recently, they told her Times Square was almost named “Shanley Square,” and claimed that The Gangs of New York is loosely based on their family. Beatrice was good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and Thomas Edison stayed at the hotel (photographs of both are displayed in the great room). When the Shanleys got into trouble serving alcohol during Prohibition, the Roosevelts helped clear their name. Today, the hotel has a “Roosevelt Room” in their honor.  

The Shanleys were known for their elaborate parties, but there was tragedy too. The couple had three children, but none of them survived longer than a few months. Rosie, the 3-year-old daughter of The Shanley Hotel’s resident barber, fell down a nearby well and died. In 1915, Dr. Walter Nelson Thayer, Jr. was backing his car out of the alley between his home and the hotel and ran over his 5-year-old son. The boy didn’t die from his injuries, but he’s said to haunt the hotel to this day.

A local preacher’s daughter, Helen, was only 9 years old when she was lured with the promise of a lollipop to a nearby swamp and murdered by Alfred Volkman, the son of a butcher. Volkman spent some time in Hudson Valley’s notorious Sing Sing prison before he was executed, but both spirits are reportedly still frequent guests at the Shanley. When Helen asked for a pink dress, Hammerling obliged. It currently hangs in the room in which Beatrice’s sister, Esther, died.

Over the years, Hammerling says she has made contact with more than 30 different spirits. “They come and go,” she says “We may hear from some for four or five days straight and then not hear from them for weeks. We don’t know why, we don’t know where they go. If we knew that we’d be dead.”

Dolls in the great room.
Dolls in the great room. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
Toys in Rosie's room.
Toys in Rosie’s room. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Vitale says that they know most of the spirits by name, including Frank, who worked as a bodyguard at the bordello, and Joe, a hitman for the mafia. There’s a man who whistles, several children, and even a ghost cat named Sweet Thing. Recently, a guest asked Frank how he died and according to Vitale, he replied, “A gunshot in the pub.” Hammerling says that Frank has strangled her twice and when she told a group, he replied (via EVP), “You liked it.” 

“That’s the kind of sense of humor Frank has,” Hammerling says.

Vitale and Hammerling clearly appreciate all of their guests—both physical and metaphysical—and are humble about the chain of command. “This is an actual haunted hotel and we respect our spirits,” Vitale says. “This isn’t our home, this is their home.” 

EVPs and REM Pods

The hotel’s spirits are known for producing some very clear EVPs, even if it’s not always obvious during the nightly ghost hunts. Searching for spirits can be hit or miss and there is no money-back guarantee. “They could be here talking to us right now and we wouldn’t know until we play back the recording,” Hammerling says. “We don’t know why some nights we have a tremendous amount of activity and some nights it’s quiet.”

Over the five hours, our group has little success—flashlights flicker and a few unintelligible words emerge through the white noise—and I begin to think it’s my fault. Apparently, when it comes to ghost hunting, skeptics are bad for business. 

After a particularly quiet stretch, Vitale asks if there is a skeptic in our group. I stay silent, but later I ask her why the presence of a skeptic may negatively affect a hunt’s outcome. “The spirits just won’t bother,” she says. “But don’t they want to prove they exist?” I ask. “It takes a lot of energy to contact us,” Vitale says. “They don’t want to waste their time. Ghosts have nothing to prove.” 

Hammerling encourages us to engage with, but not provoke, the spirits. “You want them to think, ‘Wow, these people are great, let’s take our time and energy to actually talk to these people,’” she says.

Hammerling and Vitale use several pieces of equipment in hopes of capturing viable evidence. Each has her own REM Pod, which uses a mini telescopic antenna to radiate its own independent magnetic field around an object, in this case a stuffed dog (Hammerling’s looks like a beagle and Vitale’s like a chihuahua, but we have little success with either). 

We seem to have the most luck with a tablet running the Phasmabox app, which scans through several pre-recorded radio stations in search of voices. Although Hammerling cautions that “not everything you hear [through the Phasmabox] is paranormal,” she urges us to listen for intelligent responses to specific questions (what can be considered “intelligent,” like most things during the night, is up for interpretation). 

Although ghost-hunting is usually done at night, “the spirits are here in the daytime,” Hammerling says. “It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, but the dark let’s you focus. Your senses are heightened in the dark. There is less contamination from the outside world.”

We’re sitting in a circle and someone across from me gets full-body chills twice. But other groups report even more activity, including hearing Sweet Thing—who died of natural causes in Claire’s Room—meow several times. We ask Joe questions about his history with the mafia: “How many people have you killed?” “What’s your weapon of choice?” and finally, “Why don’t you like women, Joe?” with no response. At one point Hammerling thinks she hears someone say “Hi Karen,” but there is no Karen in our group. 

Sleep tight

Shortly after Hammerling and her husband purchased the hotel, he was cutting wood in broad daylight when he yelled for his wife. “He wouldn’t say why he called my name—I thought he cut himself,” Hammerling says. But three weeks (and three drinks) later, he admitted that he had been spooked by the sight of a mysterious woman who appeared next to him. “And he’s a skeptic—or was a skeptic, I should say,” Hammerling says. 

In the hotel’s great room, stacks of composition notebooks contain notes from previous guests. “Had a lovely New Year’s Eve in Ana’s room,” Anna and Tim write. “Awakened at dawn by a scratching at the window. A friendly squirrel or … ?” Another page contains a sketch of one of the hotel’s beds. An arrow points to a figure looming nearby and the guest writes, “She is always watching.” 

Whether someone is watching or not, when 1 a.m. rolls around I am ready for bed. I slide under the covers, close my eyes, and fall asleep quickly. Around 2:30 a.m., however, I jolt awake. My heart is racing and my body is racked with chills. I switch on the light and pile on more blankets, but my teeth keep chattering uncontrollably. I take deep breaths and eventually fall back into a fitful sleep, but the light stays on until morning. 

I’m not entirely sure how to explain what happened to me in Maddie’s Room, so when Hammerling and Vitale inquire about how I slept, I once again stay quiet. I may not be ready to admit that what I experienced was paranormal—but I also no longer feel confident enough to declare myself a true skeptic. 

If you go

Public ghost hunts at the Shanley Hotel are included in your room price and the hotel is open on select days, every month of the year.