Watching Stonemere go up in flames, I thought of Manderley.
Yet it was a bright April afternoon when dozens of old ladies were carried by firemen and police from the hulking stone-and-shingle house. The women, on a greening lawn where they looked as helpless as newborn fawns, were wrapped in thin cotton blankets as the sky grew orange toward evening. I was twelve.
In the forty-four years since, what I’ve learned of Stonemere—in Somerset Hills, New Jersey, far from England—makes me think Manderley wasn’t entirely off the mark. The place housed secrets.
Stonemere was built around 1905, a big, dour pile of rough stone and dark shingles, with a turret, and dense ivy covering stone pillars of a porch deep enough to keep sunlight at bay. Only seven years later, the owner sold it to Samuel S. Childs (of Childs Restaurants fame) who sold it six years after that. The next owners left after three.
The family who owned Stonemere longest—fifteen years—would have left sooner but its sale was delayed while the courts decided whether Joseph Sigretto or his former wife, Alberta Sigretto Germond, owned it. Germond, after learning that her husband of almost twenty years was already married, had sued him for divorce despite Sigretto’s assurance that his earlier marriage was “long ago, and not valid.” A millionaire by the 1920s, Sigretto said he “would see her in the street begging for bread” if she pursued her suit.
She did, and Sigretto—who had been believed dead by the first wife and their daughter—faced further suits, one from his first father-in-law who sought to recover money spent caring for his granddaughter while she was a child. A newspaper account of the day states “He claims . . . he purchased 300 quarts of goat’s milk and medicine besides paying for [the girl’s] board and lodging.”
Goat’s milk—even three hundred quarts—really?
In 1928, the sale of the home and its 112-acre site was completed at last. The new owner was the Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star (O.E.S.) of New Jersey, an organization for wives, widows, daughters, or sisters of Master Masons. They outfitted the place as a convalescent home for their members. In March of 1931, however, a resident named Anna Christopher, went missing. Local and state police, “completely baffled” by her disappearance, learned that Mrs. Christopher had vanished six months back from another home, in New York City. That time, it had taken three weeks to locate her.
This time she wasn’t found until 1947, years after the O.E.S. had sold it and Stonemere was once again a private home. “Mechanics who were repairing plaster on the ceiling,” the local paper reported, found her skeleton “between the floor boards and a false ceiling at the far end of a low cubbyhole in the attic above a room said to have been used as a dispensary by the O.E.S.” It went on to say that 78-year-old Christopher was believed to have crawled into “the space between floor and ceiling where she might have become wedged, was unable to extricate herself and then died from exposure or starvation.”
Died from exposure or starvation inside a building between its floor joists while the place was an active convalescent home? Didn’t anyone hear her struggle up there or cry for help?
The paper explained: “It is also believed that the dispensary was little used and that any cries by the woman probably went unheard.”
What about the smell of her decomposing body?
“Odors probably were minimized, police feel, by disinfectants and medicines common in dispensaries.”
Stonemere sold several more times until, in 1955, it was returned to use as a nursing home. It remained such until the 1969 fire that destroyed it. The fire started, according to a caretaker, “on the roof of the building about 1:30 p.m.”
On the roof, on a clear spring afternoon?
No cause for the fire was ever reported, the building was never rebuilt, and the estate was broken up into parcels.
Several portions of the largest remaining tract of Stonemere acreage are once again up for sale: Three to six million dollars for five to six acres, including five or six bedrooms in a five- to six-thousand-square-foot home.
That should allow plenty of room for secrets.
Kate Lincoln writes crime fiction informed by her years in clinical medicine and as a homeopath and EMT, most of which is set in New Jersey horse country called the Somerset Hills.
See all of Kate Lincoln’s posts for Criminal Element.