An evening chill whips through the trees on Caldwell Avenue. But upstairs in the white house with the black shutters, the air is warm and still. Children's baptismal gowns hang near the wall. Infant cribs sit low to the ground. Both recall the story of Hannah Caldwell. It is nearly the anniversary of her death.
It happened downstairs, in early June. Suddenly, and without a shred of warning.
Caldwell, a mother of nine, handed her baby daughter off to a nurse, and went to coax her toddler son away from the window. British and Hessian soldiers lingered in the area from the Battle of Connecticut Farms, one of the last of the Revolutionary War. Her husband, the patriot Rev. James Caldwell, was not home.
At that moment, Hannah was shot, straight through the window, or perhaps a wall. By whom — a British solider, a Hessian? — and why, no one is certain. But her story, the tale of a mother shot coldly in her own home, was used to inspire support for the patriot cause. Today, an elementary school is named in her honor, and the Caldwells are her husband's namesake.
More than 230 years later, three men visit the parsonage in Union Township, which was reconstructed after it was torched by the British following Hannah's death. Instead of muskets and redcoats, they arrive at the house — now a museum — with cameras, recorders and equipment that measure electromagnetic activity.
Barry Ruggiero addresses the room with purpose, gazing into the not-too-far-away distance.
"Hannah, if you're here, can you please make your presence known to us?" He speaks loudly and clearly, as if his audience were in another room. He waits.
A few beats, then a clang.
"Did you hear that?" Ruggiero asks.
"Oh, it's my butt banging into the crib," answers his brother, John.
So it goes on many a night for the brothers Ruggiero: a lot of standing in dark rooms, talking to nobody. Because ghost hunting isn't hardly the stuff of tensely choreographed reality shows, but rather of measured observation.
"It's like fishing," says John Ruggiero. Except fishing for ghosts means recording, rewinding, asking and listening. Hours — sometimes years — of work.
Along with an associate, John DeMattico, the Ruggieros are New Jersey Paranormal. Their trade: ghost hunting — though it's more like a hobby taken to the extreme. As John Ruggiero puts it: "We're in cemeteries more than grave diggers."
By day, Barry Ruggiero, 53, of Brick, works in sales for a construction company. John, 45, lives in Rahway and spends his days working for a pharmaceutical company. He moonlights as a novelist — when he's not moonlighting as a ghost hunter.
DeMattico, 42, of Matawan, works for Con Edison and started looking for things that go bump in the night in — where else — a cemetery. His wife, accompanying him on an early trip, couldn't figure out how to work a new camera. A voice whispered in his ear, he says: "Show her."
Before they embark on their ghost hunting journey at the Caldwell Parsonage, the crew spends the last hours of daylight stringing wire through the 18th-century structure, up and down a staircase. The wires link a series of cameras, one in each room. Downstairs, they position a screen showing video feeds from each space. The heavy surveillance conjures the look of demon-possession movie franchise "Paranormal Activity."
Neighbors have reported hearing banging on the wall at about 3 a.m. Yet the hope is for even a small indication of what could be an otherworldly presence. That can mean the muffled sound of a voice or a short burst of light on an electromagnetic field meter.
When the men mention Hannah and James Caldwell, the equipment lights up a few times. And something triggers the unsettling blare of a REM Pod — a device that radiates an electromagnetic field that can purportedly be "touched" by a spirit.
Another noise at the parsonage this evening — a short snarl — is no demon or spirit, but an especially vocal digestive system. Proof positive that ghost hunting is about looking for the unseen, but also about knowing when glowing "orbs" are just moving piles of dust, a dot of light is a flashlight flare, a cold spot is a draft and a creaking floor is just a creaking floor. The very meters the ghost hunters use to measure "activity" can be triggered by a cellphone, light or passing car.
Yet some details can seem hard to discount.
On a previous visit, David Arminio, president of the Union Township Historical Society, which is based at the parsonage, held a K2 meter and asked the Rev. Caldwell if he was present. Without hesitation, the device lit all the way up, and more than once, investigators recall.
Since 2009 New Jersey Paranormal has explored allegedly haunted spaces across the state — they say the Barron Arts Center and Woodbridge Board of Education building have proven especially responsive during investigations. On Saturday, the group will host the New Jersey Paraunity Expo, a kind of paranormal shindig, offering the public a glimpse into what they do as well as a chance for ghost hunters and paranormal professionals to exchange best practices and engage in a bit of ghostly shoptalk.
Ghost hunters, psychics and other paranormal professionals will gather in the cavernous rooms of Paterson's Art Factory, site of one of the city's many former textile mills, today rented out for weddings and art displays. New Jersey Paranormal was first called to the space by an employee, who thought it might warrant an investigation.
Owner David Garsia says one particular room, cluttered with junk and old equipment, gives him the chills. So he said yes to the expo, and gave his blessing for investigations of a tunnel in the factory.
While ghost hunting may not pan out to be as glamorous as "Ghostbusters" or night-vision scenes of reality series, there will be a representative from the paranormal genre of reality TV on hand.