The spookiest part of Madame Morbid’s Trolley Tour is that the founders used to date. Allison Chase, who guides passengers as “Lavinia,” named for the first female serial killer, and her ex-boyfriend Matt Zaller, the COO, researcher, and trolley driver, bring guests across Brooklyn for a 75 minute romp through the past.
Guests leave grateful for modern medicine and fire safety regulations and disappointed in gentrification (it’s not great to find out the burial ground of 400 Revolutionary War Soldiers is now a Staples).
The duo started Madame Morbid last October, with the first tour on Friday the 13th. They run tours year round and see a spike during October. Guests are a mixture of tourist and locals (Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live went in August) and the minutes fly by. Traffic around the Navy Yard is a chance for a trivia game, with spooky prizes.
Videos from famous New Yorkers of the past introduce each neighborhood with tongue and cheek nods to Brooklyn’s recent changes. Quick, could you name the four types of ghosts? Do you know why Boerum Hill is considered haunted? What kind of decorations are outside Paul Manafort’s former home? Where does the phrase “graveyard shift” come from? How many people do you need to kill to be considered a serial killer?
In planning the tour, one issue was distance—Brooklyn is so big and there’s so much history. Zaller spoke of wanting to dedicate an entire tour to Coney island and there are so many neighborhoods full of stories. He lives across from the Grand Army Plaza Brooklyn Public library where he conducted most of the research for the tour, eventually, the library set up a drawer of ghost stories just for him. The tour has a mix of the historical and the supernatural, with tales of fires, murders, medical mysteries, and wars. Much of Brooklyn used to serve as cemeteries so there are plenty of bodies underfoot at all times.
The Trolley Tour starts in Williamsburg and passes through the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Dumbo, Cobble and Boerum Hill, Park Slope, and Gowanus before looping back through Williamsburg.
Bushwick, though not on the route, has plenty of dark history. Zaller mentioned the Bonnano crime family based in Bushwick. In June 1979 the Bonnano crime boss Carmine Galante was killed at mob hang out Joe and Mary’s Italian restaurant, at 205 Knickerbocker Avenue. The space became a Chinese restaurant and is now a vacant storefront. And as Zaller has learned in his research, “where there was one murder, there were probably more.”
Both Zeller and Chase love Halloween and take the chance to up the kitsch factor. There’s a special seance story this time of year and guests get Halloween candy and listen to Monster Mash. The ex-lovers make a scrappy small business team with a passion for Brooklyn’s checkered past, and you’ll be glad to be along for the ride.
To learn more about Brooklyn history, we recommend Manhattan Beach, a well-researched novel set at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II and the Bowery Boys podcast, particularly the episode about the Williamsburg Bridge.
If you go:
Madame Morbid’s Tours run daily at 7 and 9 pm. Pickup and drop off is on Driggs between 8th and 9th. There are no bathroom breaks and Friday tours end at Brooklyn Brewery for a free tasting. Bushwick Daily readers can get 15 percent off using code RIDEORDIE15 at checkout.
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Photos courtesy of Abigail Koffler