The story of the Lady in the Lake

There are plenty of ghost stories in the Lake Placid area, but probably the most unique and mysterious is the story of the Lady in the Lake.

If you want to learn about it, Lake Placid Boat Tours guides tell the story as they pass by Pulpit Rock, where the ghost of Mabel Smith Douglass is said to be seen. I took the tour on a beautiful fall day in late September, and I thoroughly enjoyed it despite the dark subject matter I was researching.


Tom guides the tour.

 

A body found in the lake

On Sept. 21, 1933, Mabel disappeared while rowing on Lake Placid. She was a successful educator, creating and serving as the first dean to the New Jersey College for Women at Rutgers, which was later renamed Douglass College in her honor. Her family was about to close up Camp Onondaga for the season and head back to New Jersey the next day when Douglass went out for a paddle. She wasn’t seen again for just a week short of 30 years.

Mabel Smith Douglass

Scuba divers found Mabel’s body on Sept. 15, 1963, in the depths of Lake Placid near Pulpit Rock (named because it looks like a clergyman could preach from the top of it).

The first two divers followed Pulpit Rock as it plunges straight down through the depths of the water, finding an old guide boat on a rock shelf then continuing down. As they approached the bottom, 105 feet below the surface, they saw what they thought was a mannequin, put there as a practical joke. It wasn’t until one of them grabbed its arm and it detached from the rest of the body that they realized it was human, perfectly preserved due to the depths and cold of the water.

The chemical makeup of the water and the conditions were just so that the outer layers of tissue of Mabel’s body slowly started to turn into soap, giving her skin a hard, waxy, white look that gave the divers the initial impression that she was made of plastic. She lay on her right side with her legs together in a crouching position, and she looked like she had just died five minutes ago. The divers noticed a rope tied around her neck, which was attached to an anchor.

One of the divers, Air Force Staff Sergeant Richard Niffenegger, motioned for the other, 18-year-old Jimmy Rogers, to stay with the body as he returned to the surface, where he intended to get rope to mark the spot where the body lay so police could investigate it. As Jimmy waited with the body in the deep, dark water, though, he grew disconcerted by the way Mabel looked like she could wake up at any second. He decided to bring her body to the surface himself.

As he rose through the water with her, Mabel’s face disintegrated before the eyes of the divers who were coming down to help Jimmy. Her arm, her other hand, and her head all fell off in the process of getting her body out of the water, and all that was left by the time it was brought to the funeral home was a body that “resembled little more than a sculptor’s rough clay form of an unfinished human statue,” according to the book “A Lady in the Lake,” which was written about the incident.  

 

Identifying the body

It didn’t take long for investigators to find out that Mabel was the only person to have disappeared on Lake Placid and never have been found. They also learned that Mabel’s husband had died and her son had killed himself, and she had run into professional issues the year before she died. Combined, those circumstances caused her to have a nervous breakdown, and she spent about a year at a mental health facility before her daughter brought her to their Lake Placid camp for the summer. Years after Mabel’s death, her daughter Edith also committed suicide following her own husband’s untimely death.

With that background and the story that her neck was tied to an anchor, many have drawn the conclusion that she killed herself. Perhaps the idea of heading back to New Jersey and figuring out how to dive back into the real world was just too much for her. Yet the coroner declared the official cause of death to be accidental drowning. The type of boat Mabel was in is notoriously unstable and dangerous for beginners, so there’s always the slight possibility that she slipped and fell, and somehow she became entangled in the anchor’s rope as she fell.

Tom, my tour guide when I took the boat tour of Lake Placid, is skeptical of that possibility.

 

Inspiration

Whatever the true story is, the mental image of Mabel’s perfectly preserved body, frozen in time for 30 years, has ignited the imaginations of many over the 51 years since it was found. Bernard F. Conners, a retired FBI agent who lived in Lake Placid at the time she was found, wrote a fictionalized account of the story called “Dancehall,” which was published in 1983. Conners changed the 56-year-old woman to a younger one, and he made the cause of death a violent murder. But he kept the elements of the woman’s body being preserved in the water, only to be found decades later. A movie version of “Dancehall” is said to be slowly making its way through the production process.

In 1985, George Christian Ortloff, another prominent local, published “A Lady in the Lake,” an attempt at telling the true story of Mabel Smith Douglass. In the end, he notes several conflicting facts in the story that could lead people to draw varying conclusions about how Mabel ended up at the bottom of the lake, but he tends to lean toward the suicide explanation. Read the book and decide for yourself.

A Lady in the Lake is available at the Lake Placid Library!

 

The tour

I learned plenty of other great stories on the boat tour as well, like how the Lake Placid Lodge started as a hunting camp then grew into a successful hotel until it burned down about a decade ago, which allowed it to be completely re-made with classic design but modern elements.


Lake Placid Lodge

I also learned some interesting facts about Lake Placid: It’s 5.5 miles long, and 2.5 miles wide at its widest point. Only about 30 or so of the houses around the lake belong to year-round residents; the rest are only occupied in the summer. There are three major islands in the middle of the lake, and all the camps on the islands are seasonally occupied.

Tom said the boat tour is the best way to see Lake Placid, since there’s very little public access to the lake - there are only two or three state campsites on the lake, and there are one or two public boat launches. I can attest to that: I’ve lived in the Tri-Lakes for most of the 32 years I’ve been alive, and this was my very first time spending time on Lake Placid. It was a great experience, though, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy a nice day, see some beautiful scenery and learn more about the area!   


A couple enjoys the boat tour.

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