"She hides handsome and richly dressed aft the blinds of the window..."

Today being Hallowe'en, I wanted to post something mysterious, murderous, or macabre about my family history. Alas, we seem always to have been a pretty clean-cut, upstanding group. Where are my highwaymen, defrocked clergy, or sheep-stealers hung by the neck until dead? But I was able to find two apposite legends; so legendary, in fact, that they only concern possible family members.

The first story concerns at least one of the legitimate (by which I mean factual, not bastardy) children of Ira Baker Brown (28 Jun 1829 - 15 May 1899), a maternal second great-grand-uncle, oldest brother to Silas W Brown, about whom I have written before. Among many other occupations, including cooper, painter, soda maker (?), and photographer (he owned a panorama camera), Ira Baker Brown was also a sextant at the Edgewood Cemetery in Chillicothe, Missouri. Oooooohhhh! Not terribly spooky in itself, I know, although I did try to add a little atmosphere to the photo below.

Edgewood Cemetery, original photo by "mordecarr" at findagrave.com.

No, the grim component to this story is that his children, twins (a classic horror trope!) Orlando and Malvina (5 Oct 1859 - 15 Jul 1863) were apparently both struck by lightning while at school, and killed instantly. Let us pause to shudder while considering that idea.

Not our twins, but a suitably macabre illustration,
 from Edward Gorey's The Epiplectic Bicycle.

It is an awfully good story, and comes to us from no less an authority than Timothy Hopkins' John Hopkins of Cambridge, 1634, and Some of His Descendants (1932, Stanford University Press), the former Martha Abigail Hopkins (27 Jul 1834 - 1 Apr 1924) being Mrs Brown, and consequently the children's mother. The only problem is that the story is merely that. There are no records of daughter Malvina Brown, despite her "twin" Orlando appearing on the 1860 U S Federal Census. And it is doubtful Orlando, even allowing for the lightning strike, would have been in school, as he was just three years old at the time of his death. Like many family stories (and I am sure you can think of examples in your own lineage), there may be some truth in this tale, but not as it has come down to us.

The second legend involves an actual person, unlike the mythic Malvina Brown, and it involves everything from piracy to a haunted house. The stretch here is that I have not been able to prove our heroine is related to me (although it is likely); she certainly would have been known by some of my ancestors. I am referring to Mary Wilson (Jul 1720 - 13 [alas, not a Friday] Feb 1814). Who? She is better known to New Englanders and beloved by ghost-story fans as Ocean Born Mary.

The legend has inspired everything from a children's book to an indie album to a puppet show.

The story, aptly enough, does begin with her birth at sea, on board the sinisterly-named Wolf, coming from Ireland to the New World. The ship was overtaken by pirates, whose captain was named Don Pedro. Upon seeing the newborn girl in her mother's arms, the oddly sentimental Captain, struck by the beauty of the red-haired child, said he would spare the lives of all aboard, and return the plunder his men had taken--if the child would be named "Maria," after his own mother. Needless to say, Mother Wilson agreed, so the pirates departed, but not before Don Pedro returned to the cabin to present her with a length of sumptuous green brocade, for baby Mary to wear on her wedding day.

Upon reaching land, the Wilson family settled in Nutfield, New Hampshire (present-day Londonderry), where Ocean Born Mary grew up. Her father James Wilson, died soon after their arrival, and her mother, Elizabeth (nee Fulton), married James Clarke, also of Nutfield. Mary Wilson was known to be tall, with fiery red hair and aquamarine eyes. On 18 December 1742, she married James Wallace (1712 - 30 Oct 1781), wearing, as promised, a dress made of the ill-gotten seafoam brocade. The Wallaces stayed in Londonderry, and had five children, living a normal life until James died. Then Mary's tale takes another bizarre turn...

And it is here that I must interrupt (this is called building suspense) to explain how Ocean Born Mary Wilson Wallace may be related to me. As I have written before, my seventh great-grandparents, Thomas Steele (1683- 22 Feb 1748) and Martha Morrison (1686 - 22 Oct 1759) were among the founding families of Nutfield/Londonderry and were well-acquainted with the Clarkes and Pattersons (into which family Mary's only daughter married), so certainly would have known Ocean Born Mary. And the Steele's daughter, Janet (1703 - aft 1754), married John Wallace (abt 1700 - 1785) in 1720; they are my sixth great-grandparents. John Wallace is almost certainly related to Ocean Born Mary's husband James Wallace, but I have not finished researching that line. But today's theme is meant to be more chilling than genealogical, so to continue....

After her husband's death, Mary moved away from Nutfield to nearby Henniker, New Hampshire, perhaps to be near her now-grown sons. Don Pedro--remember him?--had since retired from piracy, but never forgot Ocean Born Mary. He sought her out using his stolen fortune, and upon discovering she lived in New Hampshire, bought land there and built a magnificent mansion on a hill, in which he intended to install Mary as, if not a bride, at least a companion. She accepted, and they lived a life of leisure and luxury, including a black carriage drawn by four white horses. They were a striking couple: the elegant Irish widow and the fine "Spanish" gentleman.

The only thing that marred their gentility was the occasional reappearance of someone from Don Pedro's piratical past. Mary once thought she saw figures, including her husband, digging a hole behind their home, in which to place an enormous trunk. When she asked Don Pedro about it, he denied everything, but less than a year later, she discovered him in that same spot, dead, with a cutlass stuck through his back! Rather than risk digging on their land, Mary instructed the servants to bury Don Pedro under the hearth. Although occasionally rumors surfaced about Don Pedro's background, and wild stories abounded about treasure buried there, Mary continued to live in the house until her death.

The home stayed in the family for nearly a hundred years, often occupied by tenants, who never seemed to stay long. The house fell into disrepair. Soon, ghost stories began to spread, tales of ectoplasmic buccaneers, or a tall ethereal woman descending the stairs; sometimes they told of phantom carriages driven by a flame-haired woman.

About 1918, a new family, the Roys, bought the home, and began to notice many peculiar things, from objects behaving oddly to apparitional appearances. Learning of the folklore surrounding their home, they decided to share the "haunted house" with neighbors, then tourists. Word got out to reporters and psychic investigators, and soon Ocean Born Mary's story was out. Her fame went as far as National Geographic magazine, which featured her in an article about prominent American ghosts in 1939. Through the 1960s, members of the Roy family continue to charge for tours, and even rented shovels to those brave--or greedy--enough to want to dig for treasure.

Times change, and we learn more. Whether that is good or bad is hard to say. The family that bought the house from the Roys say the Roys admitted the entire ghost story was fabricated, as a way to make money. Historians have provided documents proving that Mary would have been over sixty (and Don Pedro older still) when they moved into the house. Researchers dug deeper and learned that the supposedly haunted house was not even Mary's, but her son Robert's. Although she did live nearby, she so disliked him it is doubtful she ever visited the house.

Ghost-y, and less-so. Left, the infamous "Ocean Born Mary House" touted by the Roys;
 Right, Mary's actual home.

Yet to this day, there are many that go to Ocean Born Mary's House--particularly on Hallowe'en--to try to catch a glimpse of the black carriage coming up the hill, or the fiery-haired woman of New England folklore. Will she be seen tonight? How much is true? Is she related to me? I suppose it depends on what you want to believe....

An evocative recent image by Victor Ambrus.

Here are links to two terrific--if not terrifying--websites with more information about the legend of Ocean Born Mary:


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