“THE HAUNTED PIANO”

Did you know that, in the last decade of the 19th century, the Madison Square Garden concert hall remained closed for almost a year for reasons still unexplained? Well, that’s right. But those reasons stopped being unexplained not long ago, when the archives of the American Society for Psychical Research were made available to the public. The story is one of the most surprising that is documented on those files, and was as follows.

It all started on May 7, 1891, just one year after the original Madison Square Garden was demolished and a new one erected in its place. That evening, Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concert No. 1 was being performed by the Russian pianist Igor Ostrgovinski accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Suddenly, the pianist is mistaken in a note: a major Re instead of an E-flat. It is an insignificant mistake, nobody notices it except Ostrgovinski himself. Two minutes later, a Do sounds instead of a Fa. This time not only Ostrgovinski notices it but also the cleaning lady who is sweeping the dressing rooms. A third error in less than five minutes causes a heart attack in one of the ushers. From this instant, the errors happen without interruption, in such a way that Chopin’s Concert No. 1 ends up turning into a cheerful polka. All theater maintenance personnel attend the transmutation in horror. The public, on the other hand, doesn’t notice anything strange. Only when Ostrgovinski stands up suddenly pulling his hair out in despair and uttering serious insults against the piano, the audience begins to stir in their seats. The public splits into two opposing opinions: those who consider the reaction of the pianist a bad sign, and those who believe that it is part of the score.

The next day, the New York press get wind of the news: “The Haunted Piano”, they title. What they don’t know is that, immediately after Ostrgovinski ended the concert abruptly, a member of the American Society for Psychical Research was already investigating the strange phenomenon. Indeed, its vice-president, Stanley Hall, was among the audience that night and, when he saw that the Russian pianist lashed out against the grand piano, suspected that something was wrong. When the concert ended abruptly, Mr. Hall took the stage and checked what he already feared: the piano had a life of its own. If not a life, at least its own musical tastes. In any case, something inappropriate on a piano. He immediately identified himself as a member of the ASPR and received carte blanche to investigate the mystery.

He began by questioning the pianist, who was having a nervous breakdown but agreed to momentarily interrupt his destroying the dressing room to explain to Mr. Hall what happened during his performance. It is summarized in that the piano refused to play the notes that the pianist wanted to play and played some other notes he didn’t want. It was a whimsical instrument, intolerable thing in a well-educated musical instrument. Next, Mr. Hall took it up with the board of directors: they said there were no precedents of a similar behavior on the part of the piano. But when the piano tuner told him that the day before, while tuning the piano, he left a jug of beer on it, and when he went to drink it, the jug was empty, Hall’s worst fears were confirmed.

The next day, the ASPR members in full, led by its president William James, are surrounding the piano which at the moment shows no sign of activity. They finally dare to lift the lid, and everyone leaps back in unison when seeing and hearing how the keys are pressed by invisible fingers. They rush to lower the lid and the piano fall silent. But they find it funny and repeat the operation several times, until William James imposes his authority and tells them to stop playing because the thing is serious. At that precise moment, things get even more serious when the piano begin to move around the stage faster and faster in pursuit of the members of the ASPR, who run to save their lives. Hall, Baldwin and Jastrow are hit by the rebellious instrument, which run over them. Meanwhile, James and others jump from the stage to the stalls breaking some bones… That was the first major battle that the ASPR fought against the Paranormal. The score: Paranormal 1; ASPR, 0.


This is a non-profit blog whose purpose is to raise funds for children in need. So if you want to make a donation in exchange for this story, click on this link to UNICEF. I really appreciate it!

Madison Square Garden in 1891
by James Smillie

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