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Marion Duckworth Smith lives in the
oldest private dwelling in New York City.
Duckworth Smith made it her life’s work
to restore what was once East Elmhurst’s
abandoned “haunted” house into a wellpreserved
trove of history on 19th Road.
The Dutch Colonial home, built in about
1654, is in the only surviving farmhouse from
the 12-house Riker estate, which once also
encompassed Rikers Island and the land
where LaGuardia airport now stands. Smith
said the cemetery in the backyard, where
132 Riker descendents are buried, probably
saved the house from being torn down after
all these years.
Duckworth Smith said that everyone
asks her if the house is haunted. While
she doesn’t believe that there are any
ghosts in her home, she joked that perhaps
she is being haunted by the history
of her property.
“I’m the one who should be haunted,”
she said. “I live with the graves of 132 of
the Riker descendants in my backyard!”
The house, which Duckworth Smith’s late
husband Michael bought in 1973 from the
Riker-Riker Homestead Estate, isn’t haunted
per se, but she continues to be haunted by
the past. She has gotten to know the Riker
family through their neat ledger books
she found in the attic, and by meeting descendants
from across the country and
Canada on tours, at their historical society
and through letters. One day, the missing
“K” from the word “Riker” on the cemetery
gate came in the mail in a brown envelope,
dirt and all, from a Riker who had visited the
cemetery when it was abandoned.
The graveyard in the back of the house,
facing the entrance to Riker’s Island, has
rows of stone and clay tombs. Some of
the oldest are hand-etched, and others
have faded inscriptions. The oldest tomb
marks a Riker descendent who died in the
Revolutionary War at Valley Forge.
Smith can recite her favorite inscription
on the grave of Deborah Riker, who died
in 1818: “Weep not my friends all dear, I
am not dead but sleeping here; The debt
is paid, the grave you see, Prepare for
death and follow me.”
One spooky spot in the house is the library,
which Duckworth Smith said is colder
than all the other rooms. She suspects
something “unpleasant” happened there.
The tavern has a charred door and ceiling
from when a tenant in the ‘50s, Mrs.
Forcey, set the house on fire so no one
else could have it.
Duckworth Smith said the home, as all
Dutch Colonial homes, had secret tunnels
to hide from Native American attacks.
One day a man who grew up in the
area came back, claiming that Mrs. Forcey
showed him a tunnel in the basement, but
by then it had been cemented over by a
previous owner and he couldn’t find it.
Duckworth Smith has also put her own
touch on the house, which is now filled
with antiques and collectibles from Coney
Island, Broadway theaters, World War
I, the nearby Steinway Mansion and more.
She even brought her own family into
the cemetery. There, she showed me a
neat circle of stones with the plots of her
late brother, mother and husband. There
is an empty spot for her.
“I’ll be right there so I can haunt anyone
who tries to destroy my work,” Duckworth
Smith said. “I never intend to leave. Dead
or alive, I’m here to stay.”
Duckworth Smith offers group and
private tours of the home. For more, visit
Photos by Mary Bloom