Central Park is probably the most famous park in the world. The park spans an impressive 843 acres (3.41 km2) on a comparatively small Manhattan Island. It is the most visited urban park in the United States, with around 40 million people every year coming to visit the Central Park Zoo, sit by the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, and to take a romantic ride on a carriage horse. The Park has been a setting in countless film and television scenes and is renowned the world over. And you can usually tell when a friend of yours is visiting New York by the copious amount of photos of Central Park that pop up on their Instagram page.
But Central Park is not all romance and beauty, sadly. There is a darker side to the park. The lush foliage offers cover for those who wish to perform nefarious actions. Indeed, for some of the darker periods in New York City’s history, the refrain, “Don’t go into the Park after dark”, was commonly heard. And even now while New York enjoys one of the most peaceful periods in its history, every report of crime in the Park sparks fear of a return to the bad old days. Vandalism, drug deals, attacks, and even murders have all sullied the Park’s beauty. And there have been many more off-putting stories from the park, from runaway children hiding in caves, to some species of animals being found there that you would not expect. So read on learn about the darker side of Manhattan’s most beautiful park.
15. The Bigfoot of Central Park
This list will look at events that are entirely factual, some that are not entirely understood, and some that are downright dubious. This one falls into the latter category. Though, when you take into account the truly massive size of Central Park, along with all the densely wooded areas and nooks and crannies, perhaps it is conceivable that something lurks within the Park that we are not entirely aware of. Nick Redfern, a Ufologist and cryptozoologist, related a story he learned from interviewing a witness who claims to have seen a strange, bipedal, 3-foot tall, hairy, humanoid creature roaming the Park… yeah. For what it’s worth, Redfern felt that the witness was genuine in his belief that he had seen a hairy, pygmy-like creature and had locked eyes with it (him? her?) and then it (he? she?) ran under a bridge. If you go looking for the creature yourself, you’re unlikely to find it; least of all because Barry spotted the diminutive man-beast in 1997 and there have been no sightings since. Perhaps, like many New Yorkers, “Littlefoot” was driven out of Manhattan by high rents. Maybe try Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
14. The Grim State of Belvedere Castle
Belvedere Castle is one of the top attractions in Central Park today. It is a beautiful structure with an observation deck overlooking the lower reservoir and exhibit rooms. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux who designed the whole park in 1857 (more on them later). It has also, since 1919, been the location of the Central Park weather station. Except for a period in the 1970s, that is. The Castle is a great spot to measure weather because it offers the highest point in the park (save for climbing up a tree). However, conditions were not so ideal in 1977. Vandals, drug dealers and vagrants had, at this time, made themselves quite at home in Belvedere Castle. And they were not above stealing and smashing the equipment of the National Weather Service. Forecasters who relied on their machinery there to give New Yorkers accurate weather information were unable to do their jobs and began to genuinely fear for their safety.
13. Reptiles In The Park
While the story of Central Park’s Bigfoot seems unlikely to be true, there have been documented cases of bizarre creatures in the Park. There is of course, the famous story of the alligator in Central Park from 2001. Well, that story too, I’m afraid, is a myth. There was no alligator in Central Park… it was a caiman. For those of you who are unaware, a caiman is about a two-foot long member of the crocodilian family. New Yorkers were mesmerized by the foreign creature swimming around Harlem Meer for about a week before a special alligator wrangler was called in from Florida. The caiman was not the only reptilian found in the park, though. There are turtles. And no, I don’t mean Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But there are many turtles including snapping turtles who occasionally give visitors a start.
12. Muggings And A Racist Backlash
In New York City, as in much of the country, the Great Depression saw a rise in crime, principally, theft. This increase in crime didn’t magically disappear as the state of the economy improved, either. All throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, New York was plagued by a high rate of muggings. 1941 was no different. What was different, however, was who was doing the mugging. Black youths looking to make some money started to spread out from their homes in Harlem and began mugging people in Central Park; including white people. This sparked a pretty strong racist backlash against black communities in New York that set back race relations another few years. Crime in Central Park began getting more coverage in the media, a trend that would continue.
11. The 2016 Assault Of A Jogger On East Drive
It has become a cliché to see police procedural television shows such as Law & Order begin with a (white) woman going for a jog in a park. It never ends well for her. While we can poke fun at the fate of a fictional character, it is never funny when a real life person is assaulted, and that cliché exists because it is based on a number of true accounts. A quick Google search of “Central Park jogger attack”, will reveal no shortage of incidents. But most of those are in the past, which is why New Yorkers became very unsettled when a woman was attacked by an assailant while jogging on East Drive in the Park in 2016. The case of assault and attempted r*pe unnerved locals with its echoes of a darker past. Luckily, in this case, the woman bravely fought off her attacker and survived. Others were not so lucky.
10. The Van Der Voort Sisters
One of the best things to do in Central Park in winter is to go for a skate on Wollman Rink. Everybody loves it. Young people, old people, even dead people, apparently. Janet and Rosetta Van der Voort were 19th century residents of Central Park South. They were the daughters of a wealthy, overprotective father who was one of the innovators of the helicopter. So overprotective was he that he basically banned his daughters from ever seeing any suitors. As a result, the sisters grew very close to each other and never married, dying as old ladies mere months apart from each other in 1880. One of the few places their father would let them go unattended, was the pond in the southeast corner of the park, where they would skate on the frozen rink in winter. They loved it so much, they can’t stay away, having been spotted skating on the pond well past their deaths. The sisters were first spotted in the 1910s, skating about in their red and purple Victorian dresses. The best part about after-death skating? You can do it whenever you want! Even in summer, apparently.
9. John Royster’s Crime Spree
In 1996, John Royster began what would become a brutal crime spree by beating up a 32-year-old female piano teacher in Central Park. Kyle Kevorkian McCann was leaving the park after a meditation session when Royster set upon her near a popular playground, beat her, and attempted to r*pe her, leaving her in a coma for a few days. Rosyter’s spree of violence lasted eight days and included savagely beating another woman in Manhattan, r*ping a woman in nearby Yonkers, and murdering 65-year-old Evelyn Alvarez by beating her to death on the Upper East Side. Royster was a drifter and showed no remorse when interrogated by police. He described the events taking place while he was having an “out of body experience”, watching himself viciously attack these women. In 1998, Royster was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
8. The Initial Evictions Of Central Park
What many don’t realize is that Central Park is not a natural formation. It was carefully designed (by Olmsted and Vaux), landscaped, and built to look as it does today. Between 1821 and 1855, New York City’s population nearly quadrupled, and citizens kept pushing further north along Manhattan to find some open, quieter spaces to live. In a decision of foresight, New York City politicians decided the city needed a great park, the equal of those in renowned European Cities, to give residents of their growing town a respite from the noise and chaos of city life. They chose the relatively undeveloped land that is now Central Park. The only thing was, that land was already inhabited. About 1600 people, mostly free blacks and poor Irish immigrants –the two most persecuted peoples in New York at that time– had established villages there, which the government saw as no more than “shanty towns”. They were all evicted in 1857 by rule of eminent domain. Many lives were disrupted and livelihoods shattered in this process. So next time you’re in Central Park and admiring its serene beauty, spare a thought for all those people who involuntarily sacrificed so much for your enjoyment.
7. The “Preppy” Murder Case
The “Preppy Murder Case” of 1986 is one of the most infamous homicides in New York City history. The victim was 18-year-old Jennifer Levin. She was strangled to death and her body was found by a cyclist with multiple cuts and bruises and her clothes torn; her underpants were found 50 yards from her body. While police examined the scene, hiding and watching them was Robert Chambers, the man who would later be charged and tried for Levin’s murder. Several media outlets portrayed Chambers in an oddly positive light, making him out to be some kind of preppy altar boy with a bright future. Chambers’ defense in court was that he and Levin were friends and he accidentally killed her during a session of rough sex. Chambers’ lawyer portrayed Levin as promiscuous and risky, a tactic that enraged many followers of the case. After nine days of deliberation, the jury was still deadlocked and Chambers pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of manslaughter. He was released from prison in 2003, but is back in prison now on unrelated drug charges.
6. Mobster Murders
The Park Central Hotel is a grand building built in the Renaissance revival style which opened in 1927. It is right by Central Park, hence its name. It is best known for two infamous murders. The first victim was Arnold Rothstein, an incredibly wealthy racketeer, gambler, and kingpin of the New York City Jewish mafia. Rothstein is believed to be the brains behind the Chicago Black Sox conspiracy. He was shot and mortally wounded during a business meeting at the hotel on November 4, 1928. Rothstein’s murderer has never been found, partly due to Rothstein’s refusal to identify his killer on his deathbed. On October 25, 1957, Albert Anastasia, a ruthless hitman and leader of what would become the Gambino Crime Family, was murdered in the barbershop of the hotel. Given the hotel’s location, one wonders if the ghosts of mobsters like long walks through the Park at night.
5. Angel Angelof
July 3, 1968, was one of the more terrifying days in the long history of Central Park. It was on this day that Angel Angelof, a Bulgarian immigrant decided to visit the park. However, Angelof wasn’t going there for a picnic. Angelof was a 42-year-old stock clerk, Neo-Nazi, and an altogether unpleasant person. On this summer’s day, he hid inside a women’s washroom. When 24-year-old Lilah Kistler, a dog-walker who was unknown to Angelof, entered, he murdered her. He then climbed to the roof of a lavatory within the Park. From this elevated position, he began to fire shots at innocent people in the Park. He killed another person, an 80-year-old man, before he was eventually gunned down by New York City police officers.
4. The Murder of Marina Alves
Maria Isabel Monteiro Alves was a 44-year old Brazilian immigrant to New York. She was an avid runner; she ran every day before work. In 1995, she was training for the New York City Marathon, so despite the heavy rain, she still left her apartment at 6:00 in the morning on September 17th, to go for her run. She never returned home. Her body was found a few hours later. Detectives believe she was attacked on East Drive near the Lasker Rink and was dragged down a 20-foot embankment and left under a stone bridge. She was bludgeoned to death and there was evidence of r*pe, as well. To make things even more tragic, the heavy rain seemed to have washed away any useful forensic evidence. Because of this, Alves’ killer has never been found.
3. The Creepy History Of The Dakota
The Dakota Apartments is a beautiful building which boasts beautiful views of the Park. Built in 1884, right across the street from Central Park on West 72nd Street, the Dakota has opulent rooms and many wealthy and famous residents, including three reported ghosts who like the lavish building so much they’ve decided to stay. Forever. What’s more is that Frankenstein’s Monster himself, Boris Karloff, lived there. The Dakota also played a prominent role in one of the creepiest movies of all time, Rosemary’s Baby, and was the sight where Rosemary birthed the Anti-Christ. The Dakota’s most famous resident, though, was John Lennon, who lived there for the last seven years of his life. He was assassinated at the front door in 1980. His is one of the ghosts said to haunt the building.
2. The Central Park Jogger And The Central Park Five
The Central Park Jogger Case is the most famous crime in Central Park history. On April 19, 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, went for a jog in the Park. She would be beaten and r*ped so badly that she was in a coma for 12 days following the attack. Five male juveniles who were suspected to have taken part in “wilding” –assaulting people and causing mischief– earlier in the evening, were arrested. The subsequent trial and sentencing of the five youths caused a media circus. The case led to discussions about the problem of false confessions, New York’s then high crime rate, media sensationalization of crime, and racial issues; of the five convicted, four were black and the other Hispanic while Meili is white. The Central Park Five, as they became to be known, were eventually discovered to have been innocent of the crime. In 2002, a serial r*pist and murderer Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime and DNA evidence confirms his confession. The convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated in 2002 and they settled a lawsuit with the City of New York in 2014 for $41 million.
1. Calvert Vaux
Why have there been so many chilling, creepy and mysterious incidents in Central Park? Well, maybe the reason is that Central Park is inherently mysterious. Calvert Vaux was a British-American architect and landscape designer whose plan, devised with Frederick Olmsted, won the contest to find the best blueprint for what would be come Central Park. He died in 1895 at the age of 70 when he accidentally drowned in Gravesend Bay while visiting his son in Brooklyn. Where’s the mystery, you ask? Well, there is a letter dated to 1895 believed by some to have been written by Vaux. In the letter, Vaux alludes to a secret of historical importance hidden in the Park and that he had a set of papers relating to this secret. The letter also claims that powerful people did not want this secret to get out and that Vaux feared for his life. Two months later, he wound up dead. A project known as “The Central Park Papers” is dedicated to Vaux’s secret and they’ll let you in on it… if you pay for it.