So far, this year’s Hallowe’en story (link and link) has focused on an eighteenth century New England woman, Elizabeth Blachford, whose neighbors caricatured her as the witchy Liza Tower Hill, a fictional character which survives to this day. Elizabeth’s case raises a follow-up question: Is that rare? Have long-lived supernatural tales constellated around other ordinary people?
Meet Rosa (Kelly) Palmer, 1718-1790, Elizabeth Blachford’s contemporary. Rosa lived in Jamaica. Her alter ego is named Annie Palmer. Annie was a wicked slave mistress, a sadistic sexual glutton who murdered two or three of her husbands. Her fourth fled for his life. Annie was herself murdered, strangled by her righteously vengeful slaves. And then the story got better! Annie ruled her plantation by witchcraft until she was defeated by a local adept in Obeah (Jamaica’s African-derived folk magic, comparable with Haitian Voodoo), but not before Annie had killed his granddaughter with the help of a blood-sucking demon. Now Annie’s ghost haunts a Jamaican tourist destination, soon to be the setting for a major motion picture (maybe, the project’s been in development for years).
Spoiler alert: Rosa’s real life story can’t compete with Annie’s legend.
The Rosa phase of Annie lore
The real Rosa Palmer did have four husbands, Her last was John Palmer, a sugar cane plantation owner, local official and slave master. Their marriage lasted 23 years. After Rosa died at age 72, John commissioned sculptor John Bacon the Elder to make an expensive funerary monument for her, still on display in a local church. Its inscription says:
Near this place are deposited the remains of Mrs. Rosa Palmer, who died on the first day of May, 1790.
Her manners were open, chearful (sic) and agreeable; and being blessed with a plentiful fortune, hospitality dwelt with her, as long as health permitted her to enjoy society. Educated by the anxious care of a Reverend Divine, her father, her charities were not ostentatious, but of a nobler kind. She was warm in her attachment to her friends, and gave the most signal proof of it in the last moments of her life.
This tribute of affection and respect is erected by her husband, the Honorable John Palmer, as a monument of her worth, and of his gratitude.
Rosa rests in the churchyard outside.
In 1868, Jamaican newspaper editor John Castello, 1802-1877, published a pamphlet, Legend of Rose Hall Estate (link). His story opens with a description of a funeral monument dedicated to an Ann Palmer, with an inscription similar to Rosa’s. Castello’s fictional monument is “purest white, without a speck or blemish.”
Then, after an imaginary tour through the abandoned and decrepit Rose Hall great house, Castello’s short story paints an ironic contrast between the monument’s immaculate purity and wholesome epitaph versus the bloody horror story of Ann’s life in the great house during its prime. After being abandoned by husband number four, Ann tortures and kills by day those slaves who’d been her lovers the night before. She abuses her only child. Finally, her slaves rise up, strangle Ann and bury her on the estate.
In Glory Robertson’s survey of the first hundred years of Annie Palmer literature (Jamaica Journal, December 1968, pp. 6-12, link) we read that by the end of the nineteenth century, Castello’s pamphlet had inspired a number of newspaper letters reminiscing about the “real” Mrs. Palmer. Taken together, the correspondence provides evidence that there was some oral tradition of a harsh, if not outrageously wicked Mrs. Palmer before Castello wrote his short fiction. These are not witch stories, not yet, just bad behavior of the natural sort.
After Rosa, Rebecca Ann, briefly
The supernatural appears after Rosa’s death. The marble on her monument discolored in a way that suggested bloodstains, unlike Castello’s pure white object. By 1891, according to Robertson, tourist guide books had begun to remark on these “bloodstains.” Writing in 1896, F.M. Alleyne (Longman’s Magazine (London), v.32, pp. 460-466, link) concluded that the discolorations were the main factor explaining how cruel-slave-mistress and female Bluebeard tropes became attached to ordinary Rosa.
Alleyne also emphasized how poorly the real-life Rosa fit Ann’s legend. Yes, they both had four husbands, and Rosa had been mistress of the plantation in her own right before marrying John Palmer. However, John was a prominent local figure, Rosa’s companion for more than two decades, and not anybody who’d left her to mismanage things on her own. Rosa’s not buried on the plantation, either. There’s no evidence to support her murdering anybody or anybody murdering her.
Alleyne also remarks that some of his contemporaries, noticing the discrepancies between Ann’s story and Rosa’s life, favored a different Mrs. Palmer upon whom to hang the lurid tales.
About two years after Rosa died, widower John Palmer married a twenty year-old woman of good family named Rebecca Ann James, her first marriage. They lived together for five years until John died. If Rosa was a poor fit for atrocious Annie, Rebecca Ann was even worse. Within months of being widowed, Rebecca wound up her affairs in Jamaica and moved to England, where she died in the mid-1840’s. Slavery had ended in Jamaica years before, in 1838, and wasn’t practiced in England. Rebecca wasn’t killed by slaves.
One notable advance in the story during Rebecca’s brief time as a prime suspect was that she supposedly used Obeah-related poisons, not to kill her (non-existent) former husbands, but to get rid of Rosa. Castello’s Ann was fond of poison, too, but Castello didn’t link her to Obeah. Ann as Rebecca Ann, then, was edging toward witchcraft, but still misbehaving in an entirely naturalistic way. The supernatural remained confined to those evocative discolorations on Rosa’s memorial.
Finally, an Anne to believe in (not)
Alleyne made no mention in 1896 of a third candidate and now the current favorite for Annie’s real-life counterpart, Anne Mary (Paterson) Palmer, 1802-1846. Robertson says that Joseph Shore nominated Anne Mary for that dishonor in his 1911 book, In Old St. James.
Her death date shows that Anne Mary could no more have been killed by slaves than Rebecca Ann could. Regardless, a well-received 1929 novel, The White Witch of Rosehall by Herbert G. de Lisser (link), is set much closer to Anne Mary’s time than that of the other two Mrs. Palmers. The historical “Christmas slave revolt” of 1831 shapes the novel’s plot.
But 1831 wasn’t Anne Mary’s time as a Palmer plantation mistress, either. Her husband John Rose Palmer died in 1827, and the widow left the Palmer estates soon afterward. She sold her foreclosed inherited interest in the properties for a modest sum in 1830. The Rose Hall great house, scene of Annie’s exploits and death in the novel, wasn’t in use as a residence in 1831, and hadn’t been for years.
As his novel’s title suggests, de Lisser is responsible for introducing witchcraft to the Annie Palmer myth. “White witch” refers to Annie’s race, not her magic’s benevolence. She is a wholly wicked witch, an Obeahwoman, tutored in Haiti by a Voodoo priestess with a color-blind eye for talent. Annie’s ability to conjure hallucinations (or are they really demons?) allows her to terrorize those around her and get her way. She psychically attacks a powerful Obeahman’s beloved granddaughter, her rival for an English gentleman’s heart. She disrupts an exotic animal sacrifice performed by the Obeahman hoping to save his grandchild. Annie’s poor victim dies soon after.
The Obeahman eschews magic when seeking his revenge. He leads a posse of Annie’s slaves through a secret passageway from her mansion’s cellar up to her bedroom. With the witch surrounded, he uses good old-fashioned elbow grease to end her reign of terror by manual asphyxiation.
There’s still no afterlife for Annie. De Lisser’s story ends crisply after her death and burial on the estate. For the ghost stories, apart from spontaneous folk tales linked to the long-ruined mansion, we can thank a real estate developer, American John Rollins and his associates (link).
Beginning in the 1960’s as part of a massive project featuring up-market hotels, golf courses and private residences, Rollins’ group completely refurbished and refurnished the Rose Hall great house. Regular tours now operate there, with both “house and garden” and “haunted house” themes. Annie’s Pub is the grog shop in the cellar; their signature cocktail is called “Witches Brew.” The great house is also a popular site for weddings. Wait… weddings in a serial spouse killer’s house?
Comparing the two legends
Liza Tower Hill refers to a real person, Elizabeth Blachford. Annie Palmer refers more to real objects, the suggestively discolored marble on a memorial sculpture and the decaying hulk of a long abandoned mansion. Annie’s tales “explain” the “posthumous bloodstain” phenomenon and “populate” the building, by arbitrarily making things up. Once in play and unconstrained by real history, both women’s stories grew and grew until Mrs. Tower Hill and Mrs. Palmer reached the same level of fantastical being, ghost witches, and nasty, sexy ones at that.
Liza stories are grounded in Elizabeth, but Annie stories flit about from one woman to another. The persistent pre-occupation with finding some “real” wicked Mrs. Palmer when there simply wasn’t one is remarkable in itself. What are people thinking?
It is easy to imagine that if somebody else’s marble monument had discolored instead of Rosa Palmer’s, then we’d have Annie or Andy stories about them instead of her. We saw a more down-to-earth example of such posthumous confabulation a few Hallowe’ens ago (link). The unusual placement of one man’s grave in another family’s cemetery plot seems to have inspired later townspeople to invent the man’s never-recorded wedding to a nameless daughter of the other family, a woman who left town soon after the man died, headed for parts conveniently unknown. What are people thinking?
Annie’s graduation into the ranks of witches parallels Liza’s debut as a ghost. Professional writers intentionally added new wrinkles to the folk legends they received. The current fame of Annie’s ghost is the product of something Liza has yet to enjoy: an institutional sponsor with a material interest in making Annie be all that she can be, to increase the tourism value of the place where her ghost haunts. We don’t have to ask what people are thinking in that case.
Rose Hall in ruins, from a mid-twentieth century Jamaican postcard.
Rosa Palmer memorial, by John Bacon the Elder, photo by Tim Willasey-Wilsey from The Victorian Web. This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose.