The Headless Ghost of St. Paul’s Chapel
Born in 1756 London, George Frederick Cooke by some accounts, was considered one of the best tragedian actors of the late 18th and early 19th century. His portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III in Covent Garden Theater in 1800 was hailed as a triumph. Despite his talent, Cooke struggled with alcoholism, and while on a tour in New York City he died of cirrhosis in September 1812.
After his death Cooke’s life got even more dramatic.When he lost all of his money, he sold his head for research in order to pay his medical bills and was decapitated post-mortem.
He was autopsied by Dr. David Hosack, a former physician to Alexander Hamilton, and his young associate, Dr. John W. Francis. Somewhere along the line, either Hosack or Francis separated the head from the body, and Francis ended up with the skull. What became of his cranium is subject to rumor, but the best one is that Cooke’s skull had its own career on the stage, having been used as Yorick in productions of Hamlet at the Park Theater in New York. The skull is now in Philadelphia, but whether the legend was entirely true is up to debate.
The rest of Cooke is buried at St. Paul’s Chapel in what was known as the “stranger’s vault” (which is what the church uses as a generic term for an unmarked grave. He was later moved at the request of Francis and actor Edmund Kean in 1821 to a fine new grave, with a flame pointing towards the Park Theatre, where he performed. It was proper in that it would have been visible from the gravesite when it was standing.
A headless ghost has been seen wandering the graveyard and a nearby alley where a theater used to be. If you have a trip to NYC planned, or happen to be walking by St. Paul’s Chapel, maybe you will catch a glimpse of Headless Cooke yourself?