In March of 2020, I was approached by an old friend, Jo Ann Slocum Mazzucca, regarding my article “Shipwreck! The death of the New Era” published by Jersey Shore Scene, asking if I would do a presentation for the Shrewsbury Towne-Monmouth Chapter, NSDAR (Daughters of the American Revolution -The D.A.R.) Of course, I said yes. We decided that, given the fact that we were in the midst of a global pandemic, the presentation would be on video, with a Zoom Q&A coming after.
I am not a stranger to video production, so with HD camera in hand, I set off to film the presentation. I filmed at Sandy Hook, I filmed at 7th Ave in Asbury Park, I filmed at the site of the New Era’s anchor in Allenhurst. Everything went well.
And then I filmed at the old First United Methodist Church Cemetery in West Long Branch, New Jersey. It was here that things did not go so well. For example, my camera batteries kept dying, at one point while filming in front of the new era monument, my camera tripod, which has retractable stakes attached to its legs and punched into the ground to prevent it from toppling over… tipped over and nearly smashed the camera. There was no wind that day. I went back to the truck and loaded the gear. I hopped into the driver’s seat and tried to start the truck. My brand-new battery (and brand-new alternator) were, according to the AAA service tech…fried. Then the tow truck’s battery died.
I honestly never thought any of this to be strange. I’ve never been a believer in the paranormal. I just thought that I was having a particularly crummy day. I did the presentation in March and was asked at the end of the show if anything spooky had happened in this cemetery. I started out saying that nothing weird happened, but it had been a crummy shoot. They asked why and I explained about the electrical problems and falling cameras, foggy video that needed to be edited out, etc. One of the members said that she thought that I was the witness to textbook paranormal events. My opinion was unchanged by her, obviously, heartfelt observation.
Several months passed by, and then I received a text once again from Jo Ann Slocum Mazzucca. It seems she had been in a different cemetery, placing flags for Memorial Day on the graves of her family members, when she ran into a paranormal investigative team shooting for a new TV show. She told the show’s host, Mike Mazza, about my experience in the old First United Methodist Church Cemetery back in March.
Shortly after that “Tracking the Paranormal” (the name of the new show, to be aired on Mobfi-TV) decided to do a show about the cemetery, along with the New Era shipwreck victims’ mass grave and other prominent figures buried there. They wanted me to be on the show. I explained that I was a skeptic. But that didn’t matter to them. I was an expert on the subject matter, namely the New Era.
It was a very hot Sunday afternoon in May 2021. As I drove into the Old First United Methodist Church Cemetery driveway, the truck’s “check engine light” came on. “Hey, Jack! Welcome back!” I mumbled under my breath. I was introduced to Mike Mazza and the team from Tracking the Paranormal. I was taken aback by the volume of equipment that they brought with them. I have been on television shows before, even hosting an early car show called “Driving the Web.” (If you never heard of it, no worries. I wish I never heard of “Driving the Web” either.) But I could not even recognize some of the items they were unloading. They even had drones. On Mike’s phone was an app that was called a spirit box. It still has me scratching my head. The Spirit Box is a piece of communication equipment used in paranormal investigations. It creates white noise by constantly cycling through various radio frequencies, which allows the “Ghost” to communicate with investigators.
Our first stop was the grave of Dan Rice. According to Wikipedia: “Dan Rice (January 23, 1823 – February 22, 1900) was an American entertainer of many talents, most famously as a clown, who was pre-eminent before the American Civil War. During the height of his career, Rice was a household name. Dan Rice was also an innovator, as he coined the terms “One Horse Show” and “Greatest Show” whilst becoming the pacesetter for the popularization of the barrel-style “French” cuff. He was a leading personality in the new American “pop culture”, brought on by the technological changes of the Industrial Revolution and resultant mass culture.
Rice became so popular he ran for President of the United States in 1868. With changes in circus venues and popular culture after the Civil War, his legendary talents under the big top have gradually slipped into almost total historical obscurity such that in 2001, biographer David Carlyon called him “the most famous man you’ve never heard of.” It is said that he was the model used for the caricature of “Uncle Sam.”
As we stood near the grave of America’s most famous clown/entrepreneur, Mike began his investigation by asking a series of questions. A gadget called a “Flux” with a green light for “YES” and a red light for “NO” began to register responses to Mikes questions.
Someone or something was with us. Mike switched to his spirit box and began asking questions:
Mike Mazza: “Dan Rice are you with us?”
Ghost of Dan Rice: “Yes.”
Mike Mazza: “Were you the model for Uncle Sam?”
Ghost of Dan Rice: “Why?”
Mike Mazza: “Are you at peace?”
Ghost of Dan Rice: “Why?”
Mike Mazza: “Are we annoying you with our questions? Do you want us to leave?”
Ghost of Dan Rice: (loudly) “YES!”
Jack Grodeska: “OK, Gotta go.” (and walks off)
We visited several other gravesites. The mass grave of the unidentified victims of the New Era who answered my question as to whether or not Captain Thomas purposely sank the ship in the affirmative, and rather emphatically. Art Green (Jo Ann’s cousin and a local historian) took us to the grave of a young couple. In 1870, these poor souls, Peter, and Mary drowned:
“Peter Washington Howland was born in Eatontown, Monmouth County New Jersey in 1847. He was the son of Stewart Howland, 1811-1855, of New York City and Hannah Slocum of Long Branch, New Jersey, 1818-1866.
At the time of his death, he was a 23-year-old carpenter and lived in Branchport, (Long Branch) New Jersey and was a Sunday School Teacher at the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church in Branchport along with his fiancé. Miss. Libbie E. Styles was also a Sunday School Teacher at the Church.
A week before their planned wedding on a Sunday morning 8 September 1870, over 500 men, women and children from the Centenary Church left by train at 6:30 a.m. for a clam bake at Tom’s River, Ocean County, New Jersey. On their arrival at the depot, they began to saunter leisurely across the bridge in groups. Only a few made it over with another 60 on the bridge when it collapsed and over half of these terrified mostly children were thrown into the water. As is usual in such cases, there were striking instances of heroism. Peter Howland who had been on the bridge and was also thrown into the water, saw his 11-year-old nephew struggling to stay alive. Peter swam to him and upon reaching shore with him, turned and saw his Libbie struggling.
At once blind to all other sights, heedless of the almost certain death from desperate clutching hands that awaited him if he plunged amid the mass of tragic humanity, he dashed into the water. The sight of her there, gasping for breath, was unendurable, for she was his heart’s delight, and she wore his ring upon her hand, they had only yesterday been looking at wedding garments in which she was so soon to stand up proudly by his side. They were beautiful in their lives, and in death not divided, for he had seized and was bearing her safely to shore when Mrs. Sidney Throckmorton, in her despairing agony seized him by the arm and so hampered him that all three drowned together, although Peter had been an excellent swimmer.
As was very unusual for the time, both Peter and Libbie were interned together wearing the wedding clothes that they would have worn the following week. On 12 September the entire population of the village attended the funeral. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows attended in full regalia in honor of Peter as well as the Grand Templars that of which he was a member.
There was a lot of chatter through Mike’s spirit box. The couple responded to the question of whether they were at peace with: “Not Yet.” Later, they asked us to leave. But as we were going, another voice asked us to stay, and we chatted with a young man in an adjacent grave who identified himself as “Tommy” (Thomas Howland).
I have discovered that Peter, and Tommy, as well as occupants of graves near the New Era Monument are all likely related to my friend, and the person responsible for both my presentation to the D.A.R and participation in Tracking the Paranormal, Jo Ann Slocum Mazzucca.
To say that this investigation into the paranormal impacted my worldview, would be an understatement. I was uncomfortable. I had crazy nightmares wherein I was the ghost with whom Mike was trying to communicate but he could not hear me. As a new recruit to paranormal investigations, I decided that I needed to find out more. So, I arranged an interview with Mike Mazza, Joey Sousa, and Scotty the Medium.
Who are those guys?
Six years ago, Mike Mazza met Marcus Reyes while filming a pro-wrestling documentary. Reyes approached Mike and asked him to remain after the filming. He had heard that Mike was an actor. Marcus Reyes kept in touch. Then, about a year and a half ago, he reached out to Mike. He had started a new TV platform, similar to Netflix and Hulu but geared to small independents, “the little guys” that Hollywood often overlooks. The platform is a different business model than that of its rivals. To launch content on Netflix is very expensive. On Mobfi-TV, the providers send in their content, and It is set up on the platform. Mobfi-TV pays the content provider 70% of revenue generated by the providers show. The categories are broad. Mobfi-TV streams everything from movies and TV, Documentaries, Music, Podcasts, Video Podcasts, there is something for everyone.
Mazza grew up watching movies like Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice. He credits the film for sparking his interest in the paranormal. He was always interested in the “other side” and enjoyed the horror genre. So, it was no surprise that Mike went to school to become an FX Makeup artist. During his career as a pro wrestler, he contacted the owner of an occult bookstore to learn more about the paranormal. Before long, he was invited to join her paranormal investigative team. While working with the team, Mike learned how to operate equipment, like the spirit box and the flux, and he became more fascinated with investigations. He was hooked and never looked back.
Scotty the NJ Medium, is a psychic medium who has been investigating the paranormal for a number of years. He collaborates with a paranormal team called P.A.R.S. (Paranormal Activity Research Society). Scott has an almost humble personality. His goal is to help people. As he puts it, he goes into people’s homes who claim to have paranormal activities and validates or debunks the paranormal activities. He explained that if the events are not paranormal, he works hard to explain this to people that called him in to help in as polite a manner as possible. Regardless of whether the problems are paranormal or not, Scott works to give the clients a sense of resolution and tries to provide them with tools that will help them.
The third member of the team is Joey Sousa. I met Joey at the cemetery during the filming of my segment, along with Mike. He is the “get it done guy”. During filming at the First Old United Methodist Church Cemetery, Joey always seemed steps ahead, ready to wear many hats and make a scene work. He works closely with Mike Mazza and Mobfi-TV as an actor, writer, producer, cinematographer, and director. Joey says that he enjoys entertaining people, he likes creating content and has discovered that the paranormal intrigues him, though he is admittedly skeptical.
Paranormal investigative TV, literally, clogs the airwaves. There are Ghost Hunters, Ghost Brothers, Ghost Adventures, Kindred Spirits, and many others. They all appear very similar. Scotty the NJ Medium agrees. He explained that most of these shows are Travel Channel productions. They are chained to ratings and selling advertising and as such are formulaic. Tracking the paranormal is different. The show, cast and crew do not answer to a network. There is not a producer that tells them that they need to do a better job at acting frightened. No one tells them that they need to embellish to make the scene scarier. Tracking the Paranormal will give the audience a more realistic look at what the paranormal looks like. They started, where every ghost hunting show begins, in a cemetery. But they will be going into people’s homes, and the viewers will see the investigation from start to finish. It will not be like a Hollywood production but more like seeing them helping the homeowners out of a jam. Viewers will see everything that happens, from the boring to the scary.
A confession of sorts: Some parents send their children to learn piano or guitar, some send them to gymnastics or dance. When I was a child, my folks sent me to magic classes. There was a magic store on White Street in Red Bank, NJ called “Doug Keller’s House of Magic”. Doug got some of the most incredible magicians of the era to teach at his school. Jim Randi (The Amazing Randi) taught us his mentalist act, his psychic act. If I sat with any of you for ten minutes, I could convince you that I was psychic/clairvoyant and unless I told you that I was working you, you would never know. Magicians are professional “foolers.” So, I tend to look at the paranormal through a magician’s eye. If the guys from “Tracking the Paranormal” are playing a part, I could not see how it was done. So, I asked them what was the wildest investigation that they experienced to date.
Mike says that he never had a “scary” investigation. But told me that he went back to the Old First United Methodist Church twice after the segment we filmed. At the gravesite of the tragic couple, he was blown away by some of the things they heard from the spirit box. At one point, Joey Sousa, on headphones, heard a voice identify itself as “Demon.” Later, in production, they heard it plain as day. Scotty the NJ Medium, also went to the cemetery on another occasion, with Joey and Mike. He knew nothing of the couple that drowned in 1870, just where they were going. The night before the investigation, he had a dream in which he was drowning. When they arrived at the cemetery, Mike and Joey brought him to the headstones of Peter Howland and Mary Elizabeth Stiles. Scotty didn’t feel that that was the right spot and kept getting called to another part of the cemetery. Scott was drawn, without prior knowledge, to the mass grave of the unidentified victims of the New Era shipwreck.
Tracking the Paranormal is still in production, but you can watch mini-episodes of Tracking the Paranormal Here.